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Tue

30

Dec

2008

Through a Glass, Darkly
Tuesday, 30 December 2008 17:52
by Stephen P. Pizzo

The end isn't near — the end is here. No, not the end of the world, though for Americans and Europeans it may begin to feel that way.

I'm talking about the end of the age of superabundance. Those of us of a certain age – we Baby Boomers and our spawn – have known nothing else. It has been our singular reality from birth.

I was born on August 14, 1945, V.J. Day – the very day the Second World War ended and the age of super-abundance began. My father, a WW II Navy veteran, began his own home building company, selling new homes to returning San Francisco Bay Area GIs, who could afford them thanks to the GI Bill.

We moved to the suburbs in 1955, when suburbia was little more than miles of new streets and street lights outlining tens of thousands of empty 50' x 100' checkerboard lots. Within five years those lots were ranch-style homes as far as the eye could see, each with two-car garages in which there were almost always two cars.

Color TV arrived in the late 50's to join the automatic washers and dryers, living room sectionals and dishwashers in kitchens. Neighborhood food markets gave way to new super markets, stocked to the gills with such abundance that the very concept of hunger or “going without” became the most abstract of abstractions.

I can honestly say that in my 64 years I never wanted for a single of life's necessities. Nor did my two sons. I, and then they, enjoyed only an abundance of life's necessities that, as time passed, morphed into an abundance of life's frivolities.

Forty years down that stuff-cluttered road we had created an economy almost entirely dependent on consumers consuming ever more. As the quality of hard goods improved they lasted too long. So functional obsolescence was replaced by feature obsolescence. Consumers were conditioned to throw away stuff that still worked perfectly for incremental, and more often than not — unnecessary, improvements. This was even given a name – “upgrading.”

We were now no longer simply hunters and gatherers, filling genuine daily needs. Now we were draft horses, pulling merchandizers wagons. We had become professional consumers, and our job, even our patriotic duty, was to consume. (Or as George W. Bush so eloquently put it, “Go shopping, or the terrorists win.”)


Should we be surprised then these Pavloviaized consumers grew up to believe they “deserved” to own a home, even if they couldn't afford one, or that they treated credit cards as a form of post-parental largess? (Or as one analyst put it, "Food stamps for Yuppies.)

And so it came to pass that consuming stuff at an increasingly frenetic pace, became our “new normal.” It was half a century of superabundance coupled with super-consumption. We had stuff to waste, and waste it we did, without guilt, without any sense of cost and without regret – until now.

In 2008, we hit the mother of all reality speed bumps. We now find ourselves at the doorstep of an entirely new era, an age that will govern the rest of our lives as harshly as the age of superabundance treated us well.

We are stepping upon a new path, down which our appetite for abundance and consumption will collide head on with the irresistable force of physics. It will be an era of ever creeping scarcity and grudging frugality. This time no amount of Enterprise Institute “magic of the markets” hot air will lift us back to where we've been. Likewise, no amount of government stimulus can change the hard facts. Not just the hard facts ON the ground, but the hard facts IN the ground; the minerals, oil, gas and industrial metals.

We've gotten away with super-consumption up til now, only because a billion or so souls living in industrialized nations were consuming all that stuff. Today 6.7 billion people want their share of that stuff, and are already consuming them at ever increasing rates. And, as the old real estate saying goes, “they ain't making the stuff any more.” That era of limits is here.

We already reached, or soon will, not just peak oil, but peak everything we yank out of the earth. There's simply not enough left to go around to satisfy the needs of all 6.7 billion (soon to be 9 billion.) You can argue with that, but arguing with the math and physics is a losers game.

“If all of the world’s 6.7 billion people consumed as much as an average American, it would take the resources of over five Earths to sustainably support all of them. On average, each American uses over 23 acres of biologically productive land and water (biocapacity) per year. Earth’s 27.7 billion acres of biologically productive land and water can sustainably support only about 1.2 billion people at an 'American standard of living and consumption.

During the past decade several researchers around the world have independently concluded that one to two billion is the sustainable number of people at a European standard of living.”
(Worldpopulationbalance.org)
alt
Those are the hard numbers, and the hard truth. The hardest among those truths is not just the unsustainable nature of human consumption, but the unsustainable size and growth of the herd itself. Paleontologists spend their professional lives chronicling the rise, reign and extinction of entire species. The record is unabiguous on what happens when a species fails to adapt quickly enough to new realities on the ground. The bottom line: No species has ever survived beyond the earth's ability to support its most basic needs.

And so here we are. I was born at the dawn of the age of superabundance and will spend my final years experiencing the new age of scarcity. I'll make it through okay, but I worry deeply about my kids and grandkids. At the very least they will have less, a lot less.

As for the human species itself, well, the only unknown there is whether or not we will adapt and downsize fast enough, before all the environmental messes we created supporting the age of superabundance render that issue — our issue — moot.
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Bill in Tennessee said:

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Beautifully said. Thank you. How does one talk to one's children and grandchildren about the prospects for their futures? Stephen, I'm your age and I feel all of what you've expressed. On this last day of 2008, I have hope, but not many realistic expectations. I fear, as they say in the South, we have "done got beyond our raisin'".
 
December 31, 2008
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