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Monday, October 13, 2008

Could a recession be a good thing?

How's this for a silver lining? The coming bad times could help a lot of us get over our addiction to "things" and at the same time move us toward solving the environmental crisis. That's basically what Lisa Wise, executive director of the Center for a New American Dream in Washington, told me as I researched an article last week about how hard times are hitting Atlanta.

It's provocative even to suggest that bad economic times could be good for your psyche and for nature. People think you're living in a dream world, or that you want to punish them.

But I think there's something to the idea that we don't all need to wear the latest fashions, drive late-model cars and live in 3,000-square-foot houses. (This coming from a guy who's trying to get going on big addition to my house.)

It gets back to the argument by some economists that a "happiness index" would be more useful than measuring the gross national product.

Here's a column Wise sent me. I'd love to get a conversation going on this in the comments section:

Weathering the Storm, then Changing Course

By Lisa Wise

An economic storm is descending, and for many, the storm will be bad. While the President and Congress wrestle with how to bail out Wall Street, and argue about how softly CEOs of failed financial institutions should be allowed to land, average citizens must leap into the new reality without benefit of 24-karat parachutes.

Certainly, there isn’t any gold or even silver lining to losing one’s job, savings, or home.

Protecting middle and low income households from economic catastrophe and pain should be the first and essential principle of any policy coming out of Washington. But

the meltdown and its aftermath also provide an opportunity for a fundamental re-thinking of our priorities, which could prove uplifting. Individuals fortunate enough to hold onto both nest and nest egg though the storm might emerge to clearer skies and a clear sense of what’s important.

The situation today takes me back to my own childhood in Idaho. In the classroom, I was kind of a late bloomer. When I heard my parents talk about making ends “meat,” I assumed that meant we weren’t getting the tastier end of the roast. It was years (maybe a decade) before someone clued me into my mix-up. Still—though I mangled the imagery, I got the gist.

Times were tight growing up. Mine was a family of four in a town with less than 2000 people. We made do with what might now be called a one bedroom with a bonus room. My brother roomed in the (illegal) basement, endlessly playing dungeons and dragons. I made do with nature as a playmate and thought gardening, fishing and even hunting were fine hobbies. It all seemed perfect at the time. But what did I know.

Turns out I knew more than I thought. When I fast forward almost thirty years I can easily look back on that simple time as one of the happiest in memory. I know my parents struggled and wanted more for us. But we really did have more of what matters. Something that now – in a renewed time of economic worry, I hope we can all treasure.

Our economy in recent decades has been propped up by an alarming degree by profligate consumer spending and wasting of resources. Even before the crisis, it was obvious that the traditional American Dream of comfort and security had been displaced by a “more is better” focus that promotes not quality of life, but rather the unbridled production and consumption of stuff. According to the Federal Reserve Board, consumer debt now exceeds 2.5 trillion dollars, having risen an incredible 22 percent in the past eight years alone. A 2004 nationwide poll from the Center for a New American Dream found that three quarters of Americans felt pressured to spend too much, while three in five felt pressured to work too much.

The work and spend treadmill is taking its toll not only on people, but on the planet. Recently, the Global Footprint Network issued a report stating that by September 23rd, humanity will have consumed all the new resources the planet will produce for the year. For the rest of 2008, we will be in the ecological equivalent of deficit spending, drawing down our resource stocks – in essence, borrowing from the future. Sound familiar? We can’t hope to keep to our economic budget if we can’t keep to our ecological budget.

The “more is better” dream is personally unsustainable, drawing American families into a work-and-spend treadmill that depletes savings and clutters lives. It is unsustainable environmentally, fueling a level of resource consumption that the planet cannot keep up with. And now we see it is unsustainable economically, as well.

Whatever economy emerges from this crisis will need to put less emphasis on “more” and put greater emphasis on more of what matters—like healthy communities, a healthy planet, a higher quality of life rather than greater quantity of stuff. In righting the economic ship, the end game shouldn’t be to plug up a broken vessel, but to move to something more seaworthy—one that sails within both personal and ecological limits.

I command you to leave your comments here.

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