In March when I returned from Thailand, the situation with the subprime mortgages unnerved me. I had heard too many stories from Thai farmers about the impact of personal debt on their lives. How they had to dig themselves out and rebuild a new life while still paying back thousands to the old one at the rate of five dollars a week. This during a currency devaluation that halved the value of everyone's bank account and an economic slow down that halted construction jobs mid-project. Stop down was more like it.
Workers went home to their family farms. What they did next made me realize that these farmers were rich, much richer than I felt living here in the US. They had land, enough rice stored to feed everyone for some time and skills to rebuild along with a renewed sense of self-reliance. They were also committed to being sustainable in a way that actually seemed possible. The lessons of the boom and bust had taught them to rethink their wants and their dreams of wealth while their immediate needs were taken care of.
The culture shock I felt upon my return was so severe I was in a stupor for a month not knowing how to direct my life. I did not feel safe sitting in a house with a mortgage. I did not feel safe in America itself. I saw a nation of people carrying massive amounts of credit card debt and few practical skills. They had less of a safety net than a Thai farmer. How would they fare in a future that seemed to offer nothing, but apocalyptic scenarios? Peak oil, peak natural gas, peak metals, peak food, peak everything. And climate change already upon us, too. This forward tilted perspective made me feel I was slowly going mad while all around me people continued as if life was normal. Catherine wanted to remodel the bathroom.
"Do you like this tile?" she asked me showing me photographs of expensive natural stone from Italy. I suppressed a snickering chortle. What's natural about it I wanted to know, having spent ten days touring houses made from earthen bricks dug from the soil underfoot. I couldn't take a first world remodel seriously. I felt anachronistic. I used to be a designer interested in how things looked together, but now I was useless.
When world grain prices shot up Catherine let me buy two 25 pound bags of rice. I stored them under the guest room bed, then started a collection of dried beans. I sold stuff—including my father's Leica camera, a family heirloom I had used in college.
This severed me from the past and funded my survival kit—a solar panel to recharge flashlight batteries and electronics, an expedition size camp stove and a field grade water filter I had seen at the Doctors Without Borders refugee camp exhibit. The stove would come in handy during our kitchen remodel next year, I justified. (The water filter, however, was seriously over the top.) And because I had always wanted one I picked up a treadle sewing machine on Craig's List and a recumbent bicycle. Oh and a slide rule.
Catherine hired an interior designer and gave me a stern talking to about how estranged I had become. I told her of my fears. Fears of "what if things don't work out the way they are supposed to." I sounded unduly paranoid, but she was sympathetic.
"Well, at least we did the best we could," she said, sitting as she was, on 17 years of equity in the house and having scored the best interest rate possible on the most recent refi. Really what was there to worry about? Oh just a complete economic collapse.
I willed myself to be supportive of a bathroom remodel. I could see how happy it would make her not to have to look at the moldy grout and the badly set tile. It was not a well designed bathroom in the first place. I gave my opinion. Yes, on grey tile and dark wood cabinets. Yes on a glass shower and a skylight. And no on recessed ceiling lights that act as chimneys robbing the house of heat.
To please me, Catherine agreed to have the house envelope sealed and the insulation in the attic doubled. The day it was done the house was so airtight and snug it made us feel different in it. There were no more drafts. The heater only had to be turned on for ten minutes in the morning to chase the chill away. I felt better. Now I wanted a wood stove. One can always find stuff to burn, I thought, picturing the scene from Dr. Zhivago when they burned chairs in the fireplace to keep warm during the Russian revolution.
Then the stock market did its heart stopping dive. When I stopped wanting to scream, I felt downright cheerful, my fears were confirmed. My how quickly the world financial system was unraveling. It gave new, capitalist, meaning to the term Domino Theory.
The Ecology of Money
Just as the tide going out reveals an awesome array of flora and fauna living in hidden tide pools, so too did the economic crisis reveal an amazing array of creatures I had no idea existed. As writers poured explanations into articles that would have been too dry to read a few months ago, I stumbled upon a body of knowledge that constituted a major Missing Link in my quest to understand how the world works.
As the tide of bailout money flowed out of the US treasury, pulled like gravity by the weighty mass of companies too big to fail, questions tugged at me. Money doesn't grow on trees we all know, but now apparently it does. Possibly more trees than can grow on the earth. Trillions and trillions. Was money now infinite? Surely there were consequences. An online comment sent me to a site that gave me answers. Surprisingly simple answers, but so unbelievable my mind repelled the information. Money doesn't grow on trees, it grows on loans. You could say it is wished into existence.
"If wishes were horses, beggars would ride," said my English grandmother in response to my eight-year-old wishes. I was entranced by this curious answer. I had seen plenty of beggars on the streets of my home in Bangkok, but I had only seen horses at the racetrack. Why would beggars want horses unless you had to have one in order not to be a beggar? Oh, I realized, it's a word puzzle from history! About people, like me, who don't have money for things that they want. My grandmother had as good as told me that money must be earned before wishing can begin or I would be no better than a beggar.
But as it turns out, upwardly mobile beggars wishing for horses could take out loans. In the US banking system loans are a signal for money to be printed. By a privatized arm of the system—the Federal Reserve. Thus, if certain beggars make wishes, money appears and both can ride. The beggar on his horse and the money on the interest paid back. Meanwhile the loan is paid back with money exchanged for actual things produced in the physical world (or services utilizing same).
The implications of this suddenly hit me. We are under contract to fleece the planet! The fractional reserve banking system is designed so that it must keep on giving out loans just to stay solvent, but there aren't enough resources in the world to be sold for all the money that needs to be paid back.
I once had a long-winded snail mail correspondence, back in the '80s, with John Mackay, the founder of Whole Foods. He put out a newsletter then. In one he insisted that wealth was infinite. I was prompted to challenge him. Technology, he insisted, would find ways to split our resources into ever more useful bits that could only improve our productivity and efficiency. And that is probably as good an example as any of why concepts like ecological limits had little impact on my generation.
Our money system had limits once, when it was a representation of something finite and physical—gold. People borrowed money to create things that allowed them to use resources more effectively just as John Mackay was trying to tell me, but gold had limits just as the earth had limits. Wars upset the balance, for wars required unreasonable amounts of money to make things, which were then blown up, destroying more things in the process. Wars did not make society more productive. (One could say the same for disposable convenience items, MacMansions, assorted consumer addictions and planned obsolescence.) Nixon took us off the gold standard in order to pay back the foreign loans that financed the Vietnam War. Our money supply could now inflate beyond all physical limits; too much money, and not enough things available to buy, equals inflation. Fortunately for the planet, eventually the currency will destroy itself by collapsing under its own weight.
And that's what it's scheduled to do. The chart on inflation, at the Chris Martenson site, showed the now familiar hockey stick configuration that Al Gore introduced regarding emissions that lead to global warming. Here was another impossible to sustain growth factor leading to collapse. This time in the form of hyperinflation. Insert here, picture of wheelbarrow loaded up with money to buy a loaf of bread. (You'd get more caloric value from it if you burned it in my new wood burning, low emission, fireplace insert.)
Journey's End, Journey's Beginning?
How to prepare for such a kaleidoscope of possible collapsing futures? There are too many variables. We know the why, but not the when and the how or even the where or which one first. Even the next six months seem iffy. If inflation rules the day everything will become extremely expensive so you should buy what you need now. If it's deflation, because no one has any credit to buy what's out there, then stores will lower prices as we go along and big ticket items will fall in price too in which case you should sell all your assets, including your house, and buy them back later at the lower prices. Whoa doggies. I came on this journey to understand How Things Work not to have to figure out What Will Happen Next. It's against my religion. I am not Cassandra. I just read her notes.
So was this the end of my journey? Could I do nothing more than wait to see what happens?
At the Bioneers Conference in October, I was at a lost as to which workshops to attend. Should I seek inspiration in native foods, bio-mimicry, the wisdom of indigenous tribes or the social networking tools of the Internet. I kept going to one and wishing I had gone to another. Finally at the last session of the last day, I went to the one where I heard the most laughter and which had the most comfortable seats.
Inside, the theater auditorium a man named Michael Meade was telling stories and playing a drum—no PowerPoint presentation, no hockey stick charts, no data, nothing. Just this comfortingly wise, happy voice telling a story about the ancient cave of knowledge where the Old Woman of the World was weaving a most beautiful garment only to have it pulled apart by a black dog just as she was putting on the final touches. She then surveyed the destruction, picked up the threads and began intently to weave it whole again with a different, more fitting design.
Ah, I thought relieved, so the world is supposed to fall apart. This end of the world feeling was an archetypal story! I wasn't crazy after all. But maybe going a little mad was an appropriate response.
Michael continued. When the end seems near it's because the mythic sense and creative imagination are missing and we have lost track of life's meaning. To have real vision, he said, you have to have a period of despair.
"We must suffer in a way that generates meaning," he said, "Myths make meaning. The world can't end unless it runs out of stories."
Really? So stories do have a purpose. I grabbed onto this lifeline. The world would certainly not end on account of my not telling stories. Perhaps what I feared was that the story I was following was too big to fit into the humble parameters I had set for myself. (Of course, trying to explain How The World Works was not exactly a small-minded task, but I was only doing it for myself before.) My stories are already long enough as it is. But better metaphors make them digestible. And what were myths, but more efficient metaphors.
We need stories, Michael was telling us. And inside the story of the world is the story of the individual. We need mythic stories to connect our imagination to the eternal. A mythic imagination can hold the ends and beginnings together. This connection will show the path to renewal.
It sounded like a New Deal for artists. What did we have to lose? We sure needed something that would pull us together. Leaving the theater I walked through the campus to find Catherine. She was already at our meeting place smiling and eager to report where she'd been.
"I just heard the most amazing talk. I hadn't even planned on going to it... He was this guy telling stories with a drum…"
Michael Meade is the author of The World Behind the World: Living at the Ends of Time. Also CD of his workshop The Great Dance: Finding One's Way In Troubled Times.
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