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Facing the new reality

The Community Action Partnership, which is the umbrella organization of Community Action Agencies--which in turn administer the lion's share of anti-poverty programs in the US--has just come out with a report, Facing the New Reality: Preparing Poor America for Harder Times Ahead. Input for the report came from (among others) Nate Hagens, Dmitry Orlov, Sharon Astyk, Dave Room, John Michael Greer, Megan Bachman, and Richard Heinberg.

From the report:

Letter of Introduction

Dear Friends and Colleagues:
 
The Community Action Partnership presents here an unprecedented and extraordinary report: "Facing the New Reality: Preparing Poor America for Harder Times Ahead." This report is based on the equally extraordinary premise that much of what passes for reality in "the popular narrative" is not based on reality but instead on a collective denial of a genuine reality too difficult for most Americans to fully comprehend or accept.
 
There are many versions of the popular narrative but it tends to include the following beliefs: the United States will fully recover from a strong but temporary recession; we have access to enough energy from coal, natural gas and nuclear power to meet our needs for decades; our economy will return to growth and keep growing for the foreseeable future; technology will solve our energy and climate problems; conventional agriculture will continue to feed our nation and much of the rest of the world; and American prosperity will solve our collective debt crisis and bring a higher standard of living to all in a promising future.
 
This report suggests that these beliefs are fictions that serve many special interests while deterring us from facing the real and pressing need to prepare society now for unprecedented hardship, economic turmoil, resource scarcity and greatly increasing ranks of Americans living in poverty.
 
It may be helpful to know how this report came to be written. In 2004-2005, I began studying the compelling case for "peak oil" (the point when the world's petroleum production peaks then goes into permanent decline) and catastrophic climate change. I concluded that these phenomena and their economic effects will have massive impacts on Community Action and our mission. I presented this information to the Partnership Board in 2006 and have provided updates since.
 
In 2008, Board Chair John Edwards asked me to serve as chair of the Strategic Initiatives Task Force, and the Board subsequently funded a project to bring together leading experts and writers on New Reality topics along with Edwards, Partnership CEO Don Mathis, myself and a few others, in order to focus on how these issues will impact low-income Americans. This group was convened at the Wye River Conference Center in Maryland in August 2010 and this report is an outgrowth of that meeting.
 
What is the "New Reality"?
 
The phrase the "New Reality" is used in this report as shorthand for the near future, a period that we have already entered, projected out over several decades. The report factors in three global mega-trends that the report's authors believe will be the dominant drivers shaping this period. These are: resource depletion, climate change and economic turmoil. While not yet fully developed, these mega-trends will interact in ways that will profoundly affect daily life.
 
Resource Depletion: The world's rapidly growing and modernizing population is consuming the earth's limited natural resources at an ever-increasing and unsustainable rate. Here are some major concerns:
 
• PEAK OIL—Energy is the resource that powers all human and economic activity and oil is the energy source we depend upon most. Global production of conventional crude oil peaked in 2005 and unconventional oil from oil shale and tar sands is barely making up the shortfall while creating new problems for water, land, wildlife and the atmosphere.
 
• PEAK COAL AND NATURAL GAS—Coal and natural gas reserves are extensive, but as more accessible, higher quality sources are depleted, growing practices like mountaintop removal for "dirtier" coal and hydraulic rock fracturing ("fracking") for shale oil and natural gas carry high capital and environmental costs which limit their future viability.
 
•PEAK EVERYTHING ELSE—Population pressure and modernization is rapidly depleting many, if not most, of the resources we use to sustain civilization. Fresh water, arable land, phosphorus for fertilizer, seafood stocks, lithium, gold, rare earth metals, rainforest products and other resources are close to, or already past, peak production. When the easiest and cheapest resource stocks are gone, the rest become more expensive and generally come at a higher environmental cost.
 
Climate Change: Increasing levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have trapped more of the sun's energy over the past century and have warmed the earth's oceans, land masses and atmosphere. The warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture and has more energy to drive mass air movements and power huge storm systems. The results are featured on the nightly news week after week — more frequent and violent tornados, hurricanes, floods, droughts, snowstorms, heat waves, dangerous hail and lightning storms, and record rainfalls. We can expect:
  • Increasing crop failures like those recently in Russia, due to extreme heat and drought; in Pakistan, due to extreme flooding; and in Australia, due to extreme heat, drought and extreme flooding.
  • Increasing death, destruction and economic devastation as ever more powerful tornados, floods and hurricanes afflict larger areas across the United States.
  • More forest fires and hurricanes afflict larger areas across the United States.
  • Greater damage from pathogens and insects as naturally balanced ecoystems begin to break down.
 
Economic Turmoil: While most agree that the global economy nearly collapsed in the fall of 2008, few acknowledge that nothing has fundamentally changed to prevent this from happening again. Recent bailouts of fragile European economies like Greece, Iceland and Portugal (like the bailouts of American financial institutions) increased the debt that first caused the defaults and likely set the stage for more ecnoomic chaos not far down the road.
 
Also, the bewildering array of derivatives— exotic financial instruments that create money but not real wealth, out of thin air—are now monetarily valued to far exceed the value of real goods and services on the planet. As the hard physical limits to growth begin to appear in the forms noted above, the entire growth-dependent financial system may be headed for a very hard landing. We can expect:
  • High inflation or deflation, either one further contracting the economy.
  • Scarce capital or credit for job-creating development or badly needed infrastructyre projects.
  • Dramatic cuts in government services as debt liabilities grow and tax revenues shrink.
  • Growing ranks of the unemployed and families descending into poverty.
  • Possible, some experts say, inevitable, global economic collapse.
This report follows the structure of the Wye retreat, where participants framed the topics for discussion including: the economy, employment, food and food systems, health care, housing, security, education, transportation, and community cohesion, communication, and culture. The authors of this report were asked not only to recount the retreat discussion but to update their topics with new information as these topics develop in ways that increasingly reinforce the premise, noted above, that the popular narrative is not supported by the facts.
 
For most of you, the future this report depicts is in marked contrast to the future you expect. The authors know this and understand that many of you may be very skeptical of the information and points of view expressed here. Some of you, like most Americans, may consider this report "doomer" nonsense. But it isn't, and we simply can't wait for the "popular narrative" to finally catch up with the facts.
 
As the New Reality advances, we have the opportunity to help recreate something wonderful that diminished during the age of abundance but will be essential during the age of scarcity: authentic community.

Peter H. Kilde
Third Vice President and Strategic Initiatives Task Force Chair
The Community Action Partnership Board of Directors

Read the full report (PDF)

 

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