Collapse? Maybe not.

January 17, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedIt’s all a matter of perspective.  

In a previous post I argued that economic contraction is necessary and in fact underway.  Is this "Collapse" — that scary term that so many authors love to throw around?
I find the C word to be counterproductive.  Depending on where you are standing as the grand cascade of change ripples through, the ruthless C word might be how it all feels to you in the moment.  But the big scary C word disclaims all the brilliant aspects of the new, emerging economy.  It denies that there is anything positive going on.
Take a step back for a moment.  Let’s take a look at the roots of what constitutes an economy.  At its precious essence, an economy is the sum total of transactions between people.

A classroom demo

Conventional ideas of "economic transactions" can be confusing and daunting (and usually involve lots of paperwork).  They’re Important, with a capital "i" — Things like banking transactions.  The stock market.  Corporate jobs.  Government contracts.  Even buy/sell consumer transactions.Image Removed
In a recent class I taught, I added visuals:  a brownpaper shopping bag from a major supermarket chain, with CONVENTIONAL ECONOMY written across it.  In turn, into the bag went bank statements, a W2 form, shiny gift bags from fashionable retail botiques.  The conventional Economy display looked quite substantial and formidable.
But transactions between people are far broader than that.  Transactions between people include a potluck supper.  Running an errand for a friend.  Exchanging homegrown vegetables.  Volunteering at a soup kitchen.  
These are all noncash, and well outside the conventional Economy, but nonetheless, they are all valid transactions.
For my class visuals, out came a delicate basket — quaint Goldilocks style, in flagrant opposition to the starch techno aesthetic of the art school where the class was taking place.  Into the basket went homesaved seeds for heirloom vegetables.  A handknit sweater.  A book on herbal medicine.  A wooden toy, lovingly crafted by a grandfather.  A few wildflowers, to hand to a sick friend.  (It’s tough to stick hugs into a basket.) …
Writers such as Edgar Cahn, Charles Eisenstein, and Janelle Orsi call our attention to the cashfree economy.  Our society is dependent upon these transactions.  
… Teaching your little brother to ride a bike.  Taking care of a hurt animal.  A mom diapering and feeding her baby.  My sister taking care of our 89 year old father. …  Without these vital exchanges, life grinds to a halt.
These are the backbone of our society, in fact the richness of our society.  Environmental economist Neva Goodwin has called noncash transactions the "core economy."  It’s an apt term, because many people would agree these type of transactions are the core of what it means to be human.
And cash free transactions are only one element in the panorama of the emerging new economy.

The Stomp Monster Cometh

Along comes the down economy.  Things get really rough.  
In my classroom performance I start stomping around the room.  The conventional Economy paperbag is conveniently in the middle of the floor.  Suddenly and noisily, it gets crushed and stomped over.  The conventional cconomy doesn’t look very strong anymore.  In fact it is now quite flattened.Image Removed
But the Goldilocks basket is still sitting pretty: flowers and bread and colorful fabric.  It endures the ravages of the Descent.  It holds within its gentle embrace food, clothing, health care, child/elder care, education, beauty.
Throughout history, people have always found a way to survive.  Study the most desperate times.  You’ll hear of violin concerts in the ghettos, voices raised in song in prisons, poetry from the darkest depths.  It’s popular right now to circulate home ag and home ec posters from the 1930s, but do we listen to the deep survival message behind those stylized images?  
Throughout tough times, people return to the basics.  In the tough times, it is the core economy that endures, and this is how people survive.

The sly trick of discounting Alternative

Right now cash-free economic transactions are scorned and discounted by the conventional Economy.  The conventional Economy uses a dismissive term — "alternative" — to label anything outside itself.  As in: there’s the real stuff, and then there are those alternatives.  But don’t place any trust in them because they are alternative, unsubstantial, not "the real deal."
In its massive scorekeeping system, the conventional Economy doesn’t include cash-free economic transactions.  The message is powerful:  They don’t count.  We start to believe it. 
A multitude of media soundbites convince us that to make things right, the conventional Economy has got to Grow.  Insidious media messages bore into our brain that we are nothing without the glossy trappings that are borne on conventional Economy bubbles.  A shiny car, the latest electronic device in our pocket, new carpets for a bigger house — these, it insists, are what is "real."
When you think about it, all that bluster starts to sound a whole lot like the line from Wizard of Oz:  Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!  I am the great and powerful Oz!

There’s no place like home

What is real?  Our senses have been warped by too many decades of artificial opulence.  
Real isn’t the stock market gains in the bubble times.  Real is the hug from your sticky-fingered two-year-old.  Real is that sun-warmed tomato, that you grew yourself, in your community garden plot.  Real is the joy you feel when you open the door to a circle of dear friends.  Real is when you turn that tomato into luscious sauce with your grandmother’s recipe, and share it with those friends.  
The big guys desperately don’t want you to know it, but Real can happen completely without any products from Monsanto, Apple, Hunts, or Ragu.  Real can happen quite nicely with next-to-no cash.  Real can happen even without W2 income.  (Read the tales of Foxfire, and see how it is done.)  Real is heartwarming, can be belly-filling, and can in fact lead us in the direction of what many people would call "the good life."  It promises to be a much more satisfying and connected life.
Our stomp Monster, the Economic Descent, is still blustering around the room.  If your life is all tied up in the conventional Economy, the stomp Monster is truly terrifying.  It is coming, and it will crush and wipe out all the glitter.  It will mow down all the hollow transactions that seemed so very important and solid at the time. 
But the stomp Monster is surprisingly impotent when it comes to Real.
For more info on what you can do to join the new emerging economy, see "10 Practical Tools for a Resilient Economy" and other writings by Joanne Poyourow.
Picnic basket image via shutterstock. Reproduced with permission at

Joanne Poyourow

Joanne Poyourow is the co-founder of the Environmental Change-Makers in Los Angeles.  In their 10 years of operations the Change-Makers have done many things including building two community gardens, and initiating Transition ideas in many areas of Southern California.

Tags: new economy