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America Without a Middle Class — It’s Not Far Away As You Might Think

Elizabeth Warren, alternet
Can you imagine an America without a strong middle class? If you can, would it still be America as we know it?

Today, one in five Americans is unemployed, underemployed or just plain out of work. One in nine families can’t make the minimum payment on their credit cards. One in eight mortgages is in default or foreclosure. One in eight Americans is on food stamps. More than 120,000 families are filing for bankruptcy every month. The economic crisis has wiped more than $5 trillion from pensions and savings, has left family balance sheets upside down, and threatens to put ten million homeowners out on the street.

Families have survived the ups and downs of economic booms and busts for a long time, but the fall-behind during the busts has gotten worse while the surge-ahead during the booms has stalled out. In the boom of the 1960s, for example, median family income jumped by 33% (adjusted for inflation). But the boom of the 2000s resulted in an almost-imperceptible 1.6% increase for the typical family. While Wall Street executives and others who owned lots of stock celebrated how good the recovery was for them, middle class families were left empty-handed…
(5 Dec 2009)

Living without money

Stefanie Marsh, Times Online
Twenty-two years ago Heidemarie Schwermer, a middle-aged secondary school teacher just emerging from a difficult marriage, moved with her two children from the village of Lueneburg to the city of Dortmund, in the Ruhr area of Germany, whose homeless population, she immediately noticed, was above average and striking in its intransigent hopelessness.

Her immediate reaction was shock. ôThis isnÆt right, this canÆt go on,ö she said to herself. After careful reflection she set up what in Germany is called a Tauschring ù a sort of swap shop ù a place where people can exchange their skills or possessions for other skills and possessions, a money-free zone where a haircut could be rendered in return for car maintenance; a still-functioning but never-used toaster be exchanged for a couple of second-hand cardigans. She called it Gib und Nimm, Give and Take.

It was always SchwermerÆs belief that the homeless didnÆt need money to re-enter society: instead they should be able to empower themselves by making themselves useful, despite debts, destitution or joblessness. ôIÆve always believed that even if you have nothing, you are worth a lot. Everyone has a place in this world.ö

But the homeless of Dortmund seemed not to take to SchwermerÆs plan, few ever turned up to the Tauschring. Some, they told her angrily to her face, felt that a middle-class woman with some education would never be able to relate to the circumstances of the dispossessed. Instead it was mainly the unemployed and the retired who began, in snowballing numbers, to flock to the Tauschring, their arms full of things that had been lying around their homes unused for years, or skills that they possessed but no longer exercised: retired hairdressers volunteered to cut the hair of out-of-work electricians, who would wire their kitchens in return; retired English teachers gave language lessons in return for the services of a dog-walker. The point was, not a single pfennig changed hands.

…The more ascetically she lived, the happier she became. By 1995 she was deeply involved in the Tauschring, house-sitting for short periods in exchange for cleaning or light maintenance work. She was buying virtually nothing: ôWhen I needed something, I found that it would just come into my life. My glasses, for example. There was an optician who was a member of the Tauschring and he gave them to me in return for some therapy sessions.ö

It was in 1996 she realised that ôI had to go fartherö and took what would be the most radical decision of her life: to live without money. She gave up her apartment and teaching job and resolved to live nomadically, an ôextreme lifestyleö, she admits, moving from house to house, in return for menial work. Her new way of life was intended as a short-lived thing: she had given herself 12 months. But she found herself enjoying it so much that it never really ended…
(24 Nov 2009)

The Deep Surface: A Note on Edward Abbey and Wendell Berry

Jason Peters, Front Porch Republic
In the introduction to Desert Solitaire Edward Abbey denied any interest in “true underlying reality, having never met any.” “I am pleased enough with surfaces,” he said; “in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance.”

The catalog of surfaces Abbey gave by way of example couldn’t have been Abbeyer: “the grasp of a child’s hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of a friend or lover, the silk of a girl’s thigh, the sunlight on rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear water into a pool, the face of the wind—what else is there? What else to we need?”

Later in the book Abbey would say there is a way of being wrong that is also a way of being right, which is to say he provided the necessary hermeneutic for understanding all that deliberate hogwash about surfaces. Abbey was plenty interested in “underlying reality”; it’s just that he knew full well that you don’t get any underlying reality without first acquainting yourself intimately with the surface. The silk of a girl’s thigh is the beginning of knowledge, not its end.

…My purpose, however, is not to get into Berry’s admiration for Abbey. My purpose is to get into Berry’s admiration for surfaces, which, like Abbey’s, is ultimately an admiration for depth, for that “underlying reality” Abbey affected indifference to.

I might turn anywhere to illustrate the point, because Berry’s sense of “Heaven’s earthly life or of the earth as “heaven’s gate” is ubiquitous. But what has me thinking again about surface and depth is a new poem recently published in the New Yorker. You might say that Berry’s “A Speech to the Garden Club of America” is a cry de profundis.

…It is standard romantic doctrine that we learn from Nature, our tutor, and Berry apparently sees no reason at this point to quibble. Why, he asks, should we dig deeper than the roots? Why should we wish to soar higher than the fruits? To do so is to participate in an “anti-life of radiance and fume / That burns as power and remains as doom.”

Like Abbey, Berry is “pleased enough with surfaces.” Let the garden, this creature of the surface, suggest to us our range.

But, like Abbey, Berry is plenty interested in the paradox of surfaces, in “true underlying reality” as well. There’s a depth to this garden, this creature of the surface, and we’d better plumb it…
(25 Sept 2009)
The poem in question can be read online here.