Turning On A Dime: A New Outlook On The Recession

So guys. Recession: 2008-present. We still in it, and it don’t look like it goin’ nowhere. It stickin’ around for a wee little while longah. And how many of us have wished, at least once, perhaps occasionally, perhaps on a semi-daily basis, that it were over with? That we could return to the days when we could freely shop at the mall, and could go out to dinner several times a week? That we had steady, guaranteed jobs and could easily provide for both ourselves and our families?

I know I have. I graduated from college in 2010, and since then have worked for over six different companies, including restaurants, wineries, and my mom’s small publishing start-up company, doing whatever I could to keep my head above water. My work life has been anything but consistent; my salary anything but guaranteed; my income anything but reliable. I have wished, hoped, and prayed, at least once a week for the last two years, that the recession would be over soon, so that I could take my dream job with a successful, nurturing winery in a beautiful location in rural America. And yet, here I am, on April 26, 2012, and the Great Recession persists. We can argue about its causes, its cures, shift the blame around between parties and politicians, corporations and individuals, but, at least for the short-term foreseeable future, we are stuck with it.

And so, I think it’s time for a paradigm (para-DIME, get it? Ha ha!) shift in terms of our approach to the Recession. We could continue to think of it as a bad thing, as an impediment to commercial and economic progress, as a limit to personal success and happiness. We can endlessly argue about the best ways to claw our way out of it and in the meantime do our best to insult everyone on the opposite side of the line as us. OR, we could change our minds and flip the dime on it’s head. We could use this opportunity to change the way we think about economic and personal success.

In OTHER less noticed but equally (and perhaps more) all-encompassing news, has anyone noticed that we have a CRISIS of CONSUMPTION on our hands? (For more on this, check out the works of Chris Jordan, particularly his “Running the Numbers” series, at http://www.chrisjordan.com/gallery/rtn2/#gyre.) WOW! Can you guys believe how much shit we buy on a daily basis? How much trash we throw into landfills – and into the oceans? How many pounds of crap we have to throw out every year at “spring cleaning” time? How much oil we use (48,000 gallons per second globally) to create plastic bags, gasoline, and broken toys that ultimately just end up destroying our environment? WHOA. What the shit, you guys?

So. 1) We use coal, natural gas, nuclear power, and various renewable sources to create electricity and energy. 2) Using electricity and energy, along with mined metals, manufactured plastics, and human labor, we create factories.3)  These factories process more raw materials, including fabrics, chemicals, agricultural products and by-products, et cetera, to either perpetuate the industrial cycle (and contribute to the first two stages of the process) or to create consumer products. 4) These factory products, whether industrial or consumer, are transported via train, truck, ship, or airplane, to their intended destinations, thus consuming more oil/electricity in transport costs. 5) Industrial goods are factored back into the cycle (though, ironically, very rarely RE-cycled to avoid overuse of raw materials); Consumer goods go to large department stores, malls, grocery stores, dollar stores, etc., each of which require their own manufactured industrial parts to provide heating, air conditioning, lighting, and warehousing services to the consumers and support staff. 6) We buy the shit, and then, once it’s all been equalized, throw away about 4.6 pounds of that shit per person per day. (Just in America, mind you!)

Now, how does this have to do with the Recession? you might ask. Well, let’s say that, in 2007, I made 40,000 dollars per year. I would have most likely figured out ways to spend at least 90% of that cash on things that I wanted – i.e. consumer products. Food, house decorations, computer games, electronics, you name it – all things that would eventually, slowly but surely, be thrown away. Now, in 2011, my income was only 25,000 per year! Wow. I lost a lot of money. But you know what else I lost? The power to consume, and the power to throw away.

It’s quote time! This one is about how to control consumption from an economist’s point of view:

There is a simple economic law that might be called the growth imperative. Technical progress consistently makes it possible to produce more product per hour of labor expended. For example, hourly labor productivity in rich countries has more than doubled since 1970. The point is simple: to keep everyone employed at the current number of hours while productivity increases, it is necessary to simply produce and consume more. It is unlikely that scientific progress and increases in labor productivity are going to stop. Therefore in order to limit consumption to current levels (or lower), it will be necessary either to lay off a portion of the workforce or to reduce everyone’s working hours.

John de Graff, “Reducing Work Time As A Path To Sustainability”, State Of The World, 2009, 174 blogs.worldwatch.org/transformingcultures

Wow! So you mean that, if everyone worked a little bit less per week, and made a little bit less money, we would, like, not buy as much stuff? You betcha! Look at the difference between American and European work vs. consumption habits:

By contrast, most other industrial countries, especially in Europe, have used shorter workweeks, longer vacations, and other strategies to reduce working hours—sometimes significantly. Today, the average American puts in 200–300 more hours at work each year than the average European does. […] A study conducted by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a prominent Washington think tank, concluded that if Americans were to reduce their working hours to European levels, they would almost automatically reduce their energy/carbon impacts by 20–30 percent.

Ibid, 174, 175

Double whoa! So, does that mean that if we like, LEARNED from the Recession, then we could work less (read: be happier) AND cut our environmental impact by almost a third? It sure does. And what do people typically do with extra time to themselves?

Shorter working hours allow more time for connection with friends and family, exercise and healthy eating, citizen and community engagement, attention to hobbies and educational advancement, appreciation of the natural world, personal emotional and spiritual growth, conscientious consumer habits, and proper environmental stewardship.

Ibid, 174.

That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Gosh, it almost makes me want the recession to continue! … Well, not quite.

What we CAN hope for, however, is that resulting downward changes in consumption habits become conscious, voluntary, and willing, rather than imposed by income drops and job losses. And, still better yet, we can hope that the recession may truly result in a paradigm shift, wherein people realize that their money – and time – may be better spent in ways other than the endless hoarding of money and junk.

If more of us valued cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.

J.R.R. Tolkien