Last week driving back from one of my morning walks in northern Westchester I ended up listening to a radio program discussing the potential long-term changes that the current unwravelling economy is likely to bring about. I wasn’t terribly impressed at first, because the program’s main guest (A University of Toronto economist whose name escapes me) seemed to be rather too ready to exercise magic thinking and assume away some of the darker long-term scenarios.
Still, despite the relentless (and in my view unwarranted) optimism of the guest, one of his points did make sense: describing this mess as a (potential) ‘depression’, while historically accurate, is unhelpfully reductive. Major changes, even the bad sort, can lay the groundwork for a new order. Or put more simply, when things can’t go on, they don’t, and something else replaces them.
The major thrust of the program was the affect of this economic ‘reconfiguration’ on population. The speaker pointed at length to the devastation wrought first by the subprime collapse then by the severe disruption of the service economy on boomtowns and exurbs of the sort that comprise much of the sunbelt. His essential claim was that the suburbanization of American society which has been going on since the 1940s has reached its peak. Resource constraints (energy, water, etc.) and financial realities make sprawl not merely unsustainable, but increasingly unaffordable and impractical.
To me, this would be welcome news indeed. Suburbia is perhaps the most pernicious example of the current consumption-oriented American dream. From citizens, we became consumers. Now suddenly, economic realities may render defunct the dream of the 5 bedroom 4 bath McMansion with the 2 SUVs in the driveway, or at least force its reevaluation.
And indeed ‘reevaluation’ is the appropriate sentiment. The old modus operandi has led Americans down a blind alley. Economists now tell us that not only did the economic ‘gains’ of the last decade accrue almost exclusively to a privileged few, but that most of those ‘gains’ were only on paper anyway. Now that the debts are being settled, folk find that they are neither as secure nor as prosperous as they had believed. What next?
Being in the position of having no real bearings so far as my next step is concerned, I’m not so much reevaluating as simply trying to articulate some vision for a desirable future. And perhaps it’s simply my natural laziness kicking in, but the model of slaving away to get ahead is really unappealing. Ahead doesn’t interest me. If there’s a choice (and I guess usually there isn’t), why not cover the basics and leave it at that? Enough sounds drastically more pleasant than more, and there are more interesting things in life than progress.
On a macro level, the current mess does suggest to me that maybe, just maybe, there will be some larger societal adjustment to the fact the producing and consuming ourselves into oblivion is not merely stupid and inefficient, but undesirable as well. Or maybe not. Human capacity for stupidity and self-destruction is notoriously unlimited. Time will tell. Still, as long as the opportunity remains, I plan to do as much non-consumption and non-progressing as I can reasonably manage.