Blabbings about family, community, sustainability and life from Frederick, MD.

The Book of Our Future April 20, 2007

Deep Economy, Bill McKibben’s new book, does the best job of laying out the social and environmental ills of our day and the path to fixing them. Put another way, it is hard to think of a more important book.

“Social and environmental ills” is a poor phrase. The word “Environment” is often thrown around in the context of political issues, like “Transportation” or “Education.” We’ve become so abstracted from our natural existence that “the Environment” seems to sit appropriately lined up side by side those other “issues.”

However we distance ourselves from it, the reality remains that we are creatures living on a planet, depending upon that planet and one another for our existence. And in that context, the environment and our society is EVERYTHING: it is our lives themselves and the existence of our species and fellow living creatures. And it is at that profound level that McKibben looks at our ills.

McKibben begins by explaining how for all of human existence, MORE has always meant BETTER. More warmth, more shelter, more nourishment, more resources always rightly meant a better life. Humans used their minds to generate MORE, and certain principles of economy, efficiency and capitalism became the best ways to organize and operate to produce MORE.

The invention of the steam engine in 1712, the first industrial use of fossil fuels, marked a profound change in humanity’s ability to produce MORE. The solar energy of eons, stored in fossil fuels, was unlocked for human use.

After three centuries of fossil fuel use, however, things have changed–at least for the industrialized world. For the first time MORE does not necessarily mean BETTER. In fact, no only do we have more than ENOUGH, but MORE is more and more yielding WORSE. Specifically MORE is:

  1. generating more social inequity
  2. destroying our planet and our existence upon it. Global warming is the attention-grabber here, but it goes beyond that. Modernity’s use of fossil fuels and other natural resources is simply unsustainable.
  3. breaking the bonds between one another, hollowing our communities and our humanity. Interdependence is a good thing, and we’ve lost it.

The problem is that the correlation of MORE to BETTER is so deeply ingrained in our collective psyche is it unfathomable to break the connection. So we go on, building houses that are TOO big and TOO far apart, driving our cars TOO much, working TOO much, eating TOO much food that is TOO processed, living in TOO mobile, TOO global of a economy and society. I’ve read many books on the destruction of the environment or on the dearth of community in our day, but I’ve never before read a book that ties the two together so eloquently, tracing it all to the excesses of fossil fuels and the pursuit of MORE.

McKibben of course recognizes that capitalism and democracy are the best ways to organize society. In fact, many detractors, hoping to see McKibben as some freakish communist, would be surprised to know McKibben to be a Sunday school teacher (liberalism and Christianity can co-exist; they can even thrive–consider the radical Christ was in his day). The solution that he proposes is “localism” — living in smaller communities, within regional economies, in a life that is somehow a little less competitive and a lot less fossil fuel dependent.

While some Vermont antecdotes paint a nice picture of what localism might look like, how this occurs exactly is a question he does not fully answer–he never gets much beyond the construct of a farmer’s market. It makes me think of latter 20th century Latin American economies that tried to become “localized,” to stay capitalist but be entirely self-sufficient with huge tariffs. That was a huge flop. To turn your back to global competition seems like a bad idea.

So figuring out this balancing act–reducing the scope of our economy, the scope of our lives to something more human in scale, while recognizing that competition and openness are the best drivers of beneficial cooperation in our society–is a question left unanswered. It will continue to be pondered here.

An easy answer is peak oil. The global economy can only function because of cheap, abundant energy. If the supply of fossil fuels tightens and the the prices rises dramatically, getting our TV’s from China (that contains parts shipped in from Holland, Brazil and Indonesia; built by workers fed on food from the U.S., Canada and Russia) no longer works that well. Localism would be forced upon us.

But such a calamity is not to be wished upon the world. Instead of a shock, let’s hope such a transition happens gradually over a long period of time. But while the delay would prevent economic disaster, our souls and environment will continue to rot. Somehow we all need to see the benefits of a more localized society and voluntarily move toward it.

Reading Deep Economy would be a good start. I hope you do it.


Things Fall Apart April 11, 2007

Filed under: Economy,globalization — tobymurdock @ 1:00 pm

Harold Meyerson presents an interesting story today in the Washington Post about one of our country’s big box retailers:

On March 28, Circuit City announced that it was laying off 3,400 of its salesclerks. Not because they had poor performance records, mind you: Their performance was utterly beside the point. They were shown the door, said the chain, simply because they were the highest-salaried salesclerks that Circuit City employed.

Their positions were not eliminated. Rather, the store announced that it would hire their replacements at the normal starting salary.

One can only imagine the effect of Circuit City’s announcement on the morale of the workers who didn’t get fired. The remaining salesclerks can only conclude: Do a good job, get promoted, and you’re outta here.

It was, in short, just a normal day in contemporary American capitalism.

This just is not going to work. It is an unsustainable condition in our society. Economists, business leaders, whomever, have to come down from the theory and view the reality of our humanity.

Capitalism as we know it has served humanity well for centuries. But I think that is has passed some threshold in the U.S. Its efficiency has become excessive. It no longer is serving the interests of society as a whole. And what the upper strata of America does not realize, I think, is that we are a democracy. Our capitalism works well because the consensus of our country allows it to do so. Cultural intertia–a well-bred American devotion to capitalism–is buying time to allow our systems to go on unchecked. But eventually the popular will is going to mandate changes to how things function.

What should that change be? Meyerson goes on to suggest typical liberal tweaks. I don’t know if they are the answer. And of course the inverse of capitalism–socialism–has been proven by the 20th century to be a grand failure.

I think it is yet something different. To me it is also tied to the environment, as fossil fuels behind the scenes have really been what has enabled our social and economic perversion. Maybe Bill McKibben has some thoughts . . .


It Takes Respect March 14, 2007

Filed under: globalization,obama,politics — tobymurdock @ 11:33 pm

Mayan leaders in Guatemala are going to cleanse the spirit of one of their temples following Presdient Bush’s recent visit there. Great. Yet another example of great feeling toward the U.S.

Is this deserved? Is this a fair gesture toward not just the President but our country? It doesn’t really matter. The fact is, it is the attitude of more and more people around the world.

There’s resentment towards our political and economic preeminence in the world. And there is legitimate resentment towards our heavy-handed, arrogant approach to world affairs.

So what’s the solution? The right set of policies? Certain alliances? Proper diplomatic strategy?

David Ignatius writes in the Washington Post today about “Second Chance,” a book by Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser under Carter. In it, he says that it really isn’t about policies or strategies. Rather so much can be done just through the behavior of our presidency and how we present ourselves to the rest of the world.

More than anything, he argues, the rest of the world is striving for dignity, for respect. If our materially-crazed nation continues to run around the globe running over economies and the environment, invading sovereign nations with no respect for other countries, we will continue to be more and more despised. But if we can more display our own humanity, our humility, our own similarity to all the other people’s of the world, we can earn their respect and their friendship. And the chief exporter of this image of who we are sits with the presidency.

It is all about how the presidency provides an opportunity for much more than just politics and policy, but a platform for moral leadership. And Ignatius concludes that of course my man, Barack Obama, is the person best suited to take up Brzezinski’s call and restore our standing in the world. Let’s hope it happens!


Barack & Buffet January 28, 2007

Filed under: Economy,education,globalization,leaders,politics,taxes — tobymurdock @ 8:15 pm

A few weeks ago I finished Barack Obama’s Audactiy of Hope. It was great.

A particularly interesting point was his describing his time spent with Warren Buffet. Buffet, the second richest man in the U.S., spoke about how he thinks that he and the richest 1% of Americans should pay greater taxes. He says:

 [Those wealthy against higher taxes] have this idea that it’s ‘their money’ and they deserve to keep every penny of it. What they don’t factor in is all the public investment that lets us live the way we do. Take me as an example. I happen to have a talent for allocating capital. But my ability to use that talent is completely dependent on the society that I was born into. If I’d been born into a tribe of hunters, this talent of mine would be pretty worthless. I can’t run very fast. I’m not particularly strong. I’d probably end up as some wild animal’s dinner.

But I was lucky enough to be born in a time and place where society views values my talent, and gave me a good education to develop that talent, and set up the laws and the financial system to let me do what I love doing–and make a lot of money doing it. The least I can do is help pay for all that.

The free market’s the best mechanism ever devised to put resources to their most efficient and productive use. The government isnt’ particularly good at that. But the market isn’t so good at making sure that the wealth that’s produced is being distributed fairly or wisely. Some of that wealth has to be plowed back into education, so that the next generation has a fair chance, and to maintain our infrastructure, and provide some sort of safety net for those who lose out in a market economy. And it just makes sense that those of use who’ve benefited from the market should pay a bigger share.

It is a very interesting perspective from the most successful financier ever. As our country succumbs more and more to the pressures of globalization and the need for citizens to attain “creative class” status for their prosperity, something has to give. The only solution in my mind is an unheard of investment in education–a dedication to it like no country has ever provided. And that will cost money. Mr. Buffett suggests an interesting logic and justification for where that money might come from. It will in fact be the right thing for all Americans.


King & The World House

Filed under: globalization,leaders,modernity,Religion — tobymurdock @ 7:56 pm

At Church today, Toni, our pastor, read Martin Luther King’s essay, The World House. It was fascinating, as applicable today as it was when written 40 years ago. MLK was a tremendous mind, heart and was a great communicator.

Here was an excerpt that I found particularly interesting:

We must work passionately and indefatigably to bridge the gulf between our scientific progress and our moral progress. One of the great problems of mankind is that we suffer from a poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually.

Every man lives in two realms, the internal and the external. The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals and religion. The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms and instrumentalities by means of which we live. Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external. We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live. So much of modern life can be summarized in that suggestive phrase of Thoreau: “Improved means to an unimproved end.” This is the serious predicament, the deep and haunting problem, confronting modern man. Enlarged material powers spell enlarged peril if there is not proportionate growth of the soul. When the external of man’s nature subjugates the internal, dark storm clouds begin to form.

Western civilization is particularly vulnerable at this moment, for our material abundance has brought us neither peace of mind nor serenity of spirit. An Asian writer has portrayed our dilemma in candid terms:

You call your thousand material devices “labor-saving machinery,” yet you are forever “busy.” With the multiplying of your machinery you grow increasingly fatigued, anxious, nervous, dissatisfied. Whatever you have, you want more; and wherever you are you want to go somewhere else…your devices are neither time-saving nor soul-saving machinery. They are so many sharp spurs which urge you on to invent more machinery and to do more business.1

This tells us something about our civilization that cannot be cast aside as a prejudiced charge by an Eastern thinker who is jealous of Western prosperity. We cannot escape the indictment.

This does not mean that we must turn back the clock of scientific progress. No one can overlook the wonders that science has wrought for our lives. The automobile will not abdicate in favor of the horse and buggy, or the train in favor of the stagecoach, or the tractor in favor of the hand plow, or the scientific method in favor of ignorance and superstition. But our moral and spiritual “lag” must be redeemed. When scientific power outruns moral power, we end up with guided missiles and misguided men. When we foolishly minimize the internal of our lives and maximize the external, we sign the warrant for our own day of doom.

Our hope for creative living in this world house that we have inherited lies in our ability to re-establish the moral ends of our lives in personal character and social justice. Without this spiritual and moral reawakening we shall destroy ourselves in the misuse of our own instruments.


McPassport September 25, 2006

Filed under: Community,Economy,europe,globalization — tobymurdock @ 2:37 pm

Business Week had a short blurb about McDonald’s McPassport program. The program helps workers get a passport so that they can go work at a McDonalds in another country. McDonalds needs this because in some markets it is short workers.

What’s interesting to me here is how tied Europeans are to where they live. Despite all of Europe’s unemployment problems and the easy mobility the EU provides, only 1.5% of europeans live and work outside their own countries. Compare that to the US, which, though about the same size as the EU, has citizens zooming all over the country for the sake of their careers.

In Europe, it seems, particularly where towns provide much more sense of place than the soulless sprawl which makes up so much of the US, citizens are much less willing to give up their connection to where they live for the sake of their career.


If more and more of us are nursing each other, isn’t the whole country ill? September 24, 2006

Filed under: Economy,energy,globalization — tobymurdock @ 9:31 pm

Today I read the above cover story in Business Week, “What’s really proping up the economy?”. It’s major point was that since 2001 1.7M jobs have been added in health care, and that the rest of the economy has collectively added zero.

Crazy, but it makes sense. The core of our economy has been carved out . . . jobs in manufacturing, call centers, software development, even agriculture to an extent have all been replaced by lower cost methods, whether automation or offshoring. What’s left is a creative class of upper level managers, designers, producers, etc. and everyone else. And there is less and less left for everyone else: basically that which can’t be offshored or automated. Health care is tough to automate or offshore and, as the population ages, there is more and more demand for it. So it becomes one of the last job producers left.

streets of Johnstown, PA

The article then cites Johnstown, PA as a big example of this phenomena. I know Johnstown well as it is my mother’s home town and I have lots of relatives there. It is a former steel town which has been wiped out by offshoring of steel production. Most of the downtown is a ghost town (see photo). I’ve remarked myself when I’m downtown that the only part with any vibrancy is the hospitals. With the exception of a handful of small businesses, Medicare and Medicaid seem to be the only cash inflows into the region.

I am certainly a capitalist and a believer in free market economies. But this article gave me a real hesitation regarding globalization. What could be a more clear indication that our economy is sick if health care is our major job producer? That just does not seem sustainable. It seems intuitively wrong.

The envisioned position of the US worker in the global economy is to continue to climb the value chain, and continue to add value up the ladder from their lower wage offshore counterparts. Education is held as the vehicle to accomplish this, and certainly through educaiton we can help on this issue.

But is it really possible? It is really conceivable for all US workers to serve as the creative class for the whole world? US workers design the products and global workers to manufacture them? US workers to provide the banking services for global companies? US workers to design the video games and global workers to manufacture and purchase them?  This vision does not seem possible, and it leaves a bleak outlook for those Americans not in the creative class–left to lower wage service jobs, a distinct underclass. And that assumes that there is even enough of such jobs for everyone.

So it seems that American globalization will at some point hit a wall where the economy topples from the erosion of its middle class base.

What could serve as a detour for such a scenario? Oil is what greases the wheels of the global economy. We can continue to get our apples from Chile and our Barbies from China so long as the cost of flinging these products around the Earth remains incredibly low. An increase in the price of energy, which may happen dramatically and soon, could put all of our globalization concerns to rest, and awaken many others.