Barak Obama’s mailbox is overflowing with suggestions of books to read and policy initiatives to implement. He’ll thank everyone for communicating with him, but I think his plans are already made, especially for energy and the economy. And that’s why I’m not sending him this letter:
Dear President-elect Obama:
Congratulations on your historic election. I hope your family chooses to adopt a shelter dog; it’s doubly gratifying to do so.
Briefly, I think that the subprime financial crisis was triggered by the rise in oil prices in 2005, which then helped to burst the phantom bubble of wealth and expose massive debt underlying financial systems. Moreover, as oil climbed to $147 a barrel the result has been a deepening recession with approximately a million jobs lost in 2008. In addition, with Americans losing retirement and investment savings, and many also worried about their homes and jobs, they are –sensibly- consuming less. With the price of oil receding some buyers will reenter the market and this will raise prices and repeat the cycle. Price volatility and a slowing or halting of economic growth are primary indicators of the peaking of world crude oil production.
Over-consumption of the earth’s resources is at the heart of our nation’s woes, especially in healthcare, my area of work, which I only mention here. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, please stop trying to return our economy to perpetual growth; as peak oil portends, the earth can no longer sustain it; and the fossil fuels we’ve already burned –plus overpopulation and the overexploitation of other resources like fresh water- pose added grave threats.
This is a paradox because many Americans are not ostentatious consumers; they are struggling to make ends meet or are mired in or sliding into poverty. They could understand massive conservation and even economic cutbacks if they knew they were safe from destitution.
The longer we try to return to continuous economic growth the harder we make it to create a new economy based on living in unison with the earth.
Please feel free to contact me with any questions, especially about dogs.
To elaborate, it is vastly better to have a man of Obama’s ability, intelligence, temperament and political outlook in office than W. Bush or McCain. However, we must not forget that he is a politician and a lawyer, not a scientist, much less an ecologist. He is already running for reelection. He’s not sure if he has a consensus to act other than to throw borrowed money at Wall Street and the economy and hope for the magic of a return to growth. If this fails –which I believe it will- he’s covered politically for a time but will then find himself unable to govern from the center, the right or the left, as we typically understand these terms. His best option is a new orientation rooted in ecological economics; but there is no reason to see this happening soon at the level of presidential politics, even at this difficult time.
As a person who believes in the American Dream (and in some respects he has lived it), Obama is not about to be the president who tells his fellow citizens that the dream ultimately was based on over-exploiting natural resources (Tom Friedman would have a conniption). Therefore, to realize that the American way of life is out of sync with the earth’s ecology also will undermine Obama’s identity. We’re dealing with, I think, not mere policy options but with the emotional and conceptual ruts of what social scientist Michel Foucault terms the dominant episteme: “something like a world-view, a slice of history common to all branches of knowledge, which impose on each one the same norms and postulates, a general stage of reason, a certain structure thought …” It is this episteme of perpetual technological progress and economic expansion that is now being undermined by what E.O. Wilson terms The Bottleneck of ecological limitations.
The pervasive dominance of this episteme misconstrues the ecological problems we face as malfunctions –to be fixed with growth- in the current economy. So I think Obama’s initial challenge is to recognize, as Marvin Gaye put it, “what’s going on;” and that realization –if it comes- will arrive through experiential knowledge, what many of our parents called “the college of hard knocks.”