Sarah van Gelder: The new normal
Americans are facing a troubling reality. The economic recovery they were promised has not materialized. There’s growing talk about a “new normal”—a new way of life to take us through a long period of failed recoveries.
There are, indeed, good reasons to believe we won’t go back to the old ways. But this new normal doesn’t have to be a time of chaos and decline.
Instead, many Americans are building stronger families and communities, rejecting the waste and greed that made our economy implode, and turning instead to self-reliance and the sort of neighborliness that embraces diversities of all sorts.
Why not go back to the consumer ideal that was the foundation of the American Dream? Many who live paycheck to paycheck have lost jobs, homes and hopes for an education, retirement security and belief in a more prosperous future. CEO pay is on the uptick, as are corporate profits. But the anti-tax, anti-regulation fever that enriched some undermined the real wealth of our country—our education system, infrastructure, communities and natural resources. And much of our economy has been outsourced, making it difficult for stimulus spending to get growth going again.
But it’s not only a stalled economy that is threatening our future. Leading scientists now say that climate disruption is behind the massive flooding in Pakistan and the record-breaking fires in Russia. Shortages of food, water and energy—with attendant price spikes—along with displacement and migration, are likely, not just abroad, but here in the United States.
As if that wasn’t enough, the Gulf oil disaster is showing the limitations of another sort of security we once took for granted: cheap oil. As the easy-to-exploit oil is used up, oil companies are turning to increasingly difficult-to-reach sources of oil. This means we are likely to see still more expensive disasters associated with oil, whether caused by human error—as in the Gulf—or just part of the extraction process, as seen in the communities devastated by mountain-top removal or tar sands exploitation. Analyst and author Michael Klare says we have reached the “Age of Tough Oil,” and every barrel of oil we extract will be more difficult and expensive to get than the last one.
That brings us back to the prospects for an economic recovery. With cheap oil a thing of the past, an economic recovery that increases demand for energy will drive prices even higher. That energy price increase would stall any recovery.
So what are Americans doing about these very real threats to our security?
Some are exploiting citizens’ fears for their own political ends, blaming President Obama, immigrants or climate scientists for the bad news. These strategies not only distract us from the real threats, they divide our country while offering nothing that can help solve our challenges.
Others are choosing to ignore or deny the depth of these challenges.
But there are people across the political spectrum, in every part of the country, gathering with friends and neighbors to build sources of security close to home.
These folks are turning lawns into vegetable gardens and organizing their neighbors to start pea patches and farmers markets. They’re getting together with neighbors to swap preserves and skills, and to relearn the skills their grandparents had. They are protecting local resources—water, land, forests and fisheries—that can offer sustenance into the future, and they are starting up energy and weatherization cooperatives.
They’re paying off their debt, moving their money out of big corporate banks to local banks and credit unions, and supporting local businesses. As they do, they are freeing themselves from the global corporate economy that moved jobs overseas and fueled the speculation that undermined the real economy of jobs, goods and services. These folks have chosen instead to use their resources to strengthen local economies and the small and medium-sized businesses that are most likely to create the new jobs of the next economy.
These are the pioneers of the new normal, and you can find them building the foundations of a hopeful future in urban centers, small towns and suburbs. Maybe you’re one of them.
Sarah van Gelder is executive editor of YES! Magazine (www.yesmagazine.org), a national media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical action for a just and sustainable world. The Fall 2010 issue of YES! Magazine features stories of the New Pioneers and the resilient communities they are creating.