What happens when the reality of ‘No’ becomes clear to middle class America?

July 1, 2008

I find the word ‘No,’ fascinating. It is in many ways one of the most expressive words in the English language and has a multitude of meanings including, among others, denial, disbelief, emphasis or disagreement. In families, parents tend to use the word a lot. No, you can’t have that candy before supper. No, you have to get your homework done before you can go out and play. Even though it seems to have fallen out of favor in the last few years, the economic problems that peak oil will leave in its wake, makes me wonder what might happen when you take a society that is used to yes and tell it, no. Much of that is already happening but like any social or financial crisis it’s always the poor that suffer first and as we all know, it’s the poor that have heard the word most often.

Particularly in the US, the word ‘no’ is making itself felt amongst the formerly middle class. Through a combination of the housing bubble burst and rising oil prices these are the folks where the word ‘no’ was a minor inconvenience, which rarely popped up. Yes, you can have a mortgage with no money down. Yes, you can afford that new truck. Have that trip to the Bahamas because guess what…you’re worth it! Yes…yes, you can. Everything is growing. Everything is good…You can’t lose! Well, it would seem like we can, and as $150 a barrel oil looms in the short term, the ‘no’ word is on its way back. How will the public take it? What will they do?

When children are told ‘no’ it often improves things. Generally it’s because they’re looking for boundaries and once you apply them, their behavior becomes significantly better. By implementing boundaries you are also showing leadership and your children settle down because they know they are safe.

For the most part we adults hate boundaries. Unlike a child, we understand enough about the world to find them confining. Of course boundaries surround us constantly. If we drive too fast, we get a ticket. If we don’t buy or rent a house by the rules, we cannot have our own space. We cannot opt to fish in the local river for our dinner either because we need a license or because it has been polluted. Deep down, we understand the societal limits under which we live but are distracted by the concept of being free to choose in other areas. That freedom by its nature, is very limited and the less wealthy you are, the less choice you have. Therefore much of what constitutes daily life for the average person is about the illusion of choice.

However, if everyone had true free choice you could argue there would be anarchy. After all, isn’t there a point at which one person’s right to choose impinges on that of another? Perhaps, but what I want to concentrate on today is that as the economic problems get up steam, the illusion of choice will start to be stripped away. Even in its most limited sense, choice is rapidly disappearing for a large segment of the population. When you can’t choose which car to drive from your suburban home because you have no car, what will happen then?

Any family who watches their ‘choices’ slip away must be under relentless stress. What happens when the families undergoing these problems turn from the tens of thousands to the millions? What will happen when their collective conscience realizes they have been duped and that the things that have maintained the human spirit for centuries — love, kindness, community and citizenry — have insidiously been replaced with possessions that once they ‘chose’ and now they either have to sell or cannot afford to power.

And just at the moment that people wake up to see that their freedom of choice is really illusory, they must watch all the things that they have believed in get whittled away. Who told them they were worth it? Who sold them that mortgage? Who encouraged them to refinance their home for that RV? Who created this misery?

One can argue how large a part personal responsibility plays but if history is any judge, people will want someone to blame. It’s human nature. The disparity in income has reached record levels. The rich get richer by the minute. In Calgary, where I live, the most well paid CEO earns in 10 minutes what it takes their workers a whole year to earn. Yet at the same time, the food banks are doing record business. The only thing that has kept the masses quiet up to now is the illusion of wealth and self- determination that supposedly created it. What will happen now as prices rise and the rose-colored glasses lose their warming tint and the options available to people become stark?

I can only look to history for a hint of what might be on the road ahead. Economic downturns have given their marching orders to a number of insidious regimes, Nazism being one of them. High inflation created by the Weimar Republic in Germany during the 1920’s, followed by the economic misery sparked by the 1929 stock market crash, set the stage for Hitler’s ascendancy. Thus, we must be very careful. People in economic trouble are easy prey and want to believe in something that will make it all better. Peak oil will at its best, bring a transition that will make the world a better place and allow us to continue to exist on this planet in a pleasant and more sustainable way. At its worst, it will usher in a time of unprecedented hardship and political uncertainty. We are on a train ride to an unknown station and as I watch the hoards of parents south of me, using the word ‘no’ on both themselves and their children, I realize it’s not even the ‘no’ I had naively hoped for: the self-imposed limits created by responsible citizens who care for the world around them. It’s a very different ‘no’, a ‘no’ of absolutes, a ‘no’ born of massive disparity.

Who knows where this ‘no’ will take us? I don’t know but I think that we may soon find out.

Annie Lussenburg (also known as Annie the Nanny) is a parenting educator and writer based in Calgary, Alberta.

Tags: Building Community