The politics of pain that is the fashion these days offers an unprecedented opportunity to advance a power-down agenda that will become a necessity in the years ahead. The defining characteristics of the Great Recession, and the Great Depression of the 1930’s, are very high unemployment rates while interest rates remain very low. High unemployment means that demand is down for goods and services. With low demand, businesses are in no hurry to invest in more production – reinforcing low employment rates. We are awash in goods that have no buyers. Housing, Americans’ major fixed asset, remains in oversupply with prices continuing to fall.
Meanwhile, the big world trends in growth and depletion continue. China, already the growth giant of the planet, responded to the Great Recession with government stimulus that minimized the impact of the financial meltdown felt by the rest of the world and they are back to continued strong growth. With a slight pickup in the world-wide economic picture, the extraction rate for crude oil is higher than ever. Higher prices are an indication of the tight supplies. Biofuels continue to remove farmland from food production; world food prices are increasing as grain inventories drop. High food prices are part of the destabilizing forces that rack the Middle East and threaten to derail oil extraction. Now more than ever we are looking into the face of peak oil and its implications.
In times of economic stress we usually look to government to step in and provide the deep pockets it takes to keep people productive when the private sector lacks the motivation to do so. In the 1930’s the WPA and CCC programs provided work for thousands and built infrastructure in our park and forest lands that remain gems to this day. Today we could expect government to step up to the plate with increased efforts in its traditional role as funding source for innovative research – particularly in fields of sustainable energy production, and environmentally friendly agriculture. We could create “make work” programs employing people to grow food organically along our freeway right-of-ways if nothing else! But reactionary forces hold sway in Washington these days, so rather than any help from government we can expect less than we are getting now, and what little surplus the economy can generate will go to bankers and Wall Street. The likely result will be a return to economic recession with steady high unemployment for another few years. What to do?
This prolonged period of time with few jobs will force people into the “alternative economy”. It’s become the job of local entities to ensure that the chronically unemployed can maintain their dignity and productive capacity without slipping over to a criminal existence. The Courthouse Garden in Eugene is a perfect example of a program that should be replicated many times over. Built on the vacant lot next to the new federal court-house, the garden is a skill-building collaborative project involving University of Oregon students, staff and persons “in transition” in the criminal justice system.
Much can be done with volunteer programs. Our local food bank has a community garden where volunteers from the schools learn about organic gardening and growing food while supplying vegetables for the less fortunate. More could be done. Our community gardens have waiting lists and plot sizes are small. Expanding urban agriculture should be a top priority. At least 20% of the land in our city could be turned into vegetable garden. If farmed skillfully, the urban core could supply over a third of food we need. That’s no small potatoes when it comes to powering down from petroleum-based agriculture and supplying meaningful work for thousands of residents.
Urban farming is not the only way to generate jobs. Local governments have limited budgets, but there is often less resistance to imposing taxes when the money is going to be used locally. Even in hard times, progressive taxation can raise money that can be used to generate jobs and support the less fortunate. Replace machines with people. Put more policemen on foot or on bicycles. Local utility companies can use ratepayer dollars to invest in teams of energy auditors, waste sleuths, and insulation installers that provide real payback for the community.
Power down will happen as the cost of energy forces us to abandon our profligate ways. The present recession is an opportunity to create the institutions and practice the skills we will need for when the economic sun finally refuses to rise again.