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A hard question. At this point Americans frankly prefer wealth/poverty. Long ago we were sold on the idea that if everyone was getting more goodies (or enough people, or the right people) then ever-increasing disparities didn't matter. But this is not true, and is the greatest underlying cause of the destruction of American democracy now.
And the pallative of goodies has run to its end. Our civilization simply cannot keep producing more goodies. We have hit the end of the road, and people have gone into the bland--and blind--denial that precedes panic. Our near future includes a period of chaos and what might be described as collapse. The only analogy I can find is the Great Depression, but this will surely be worse, as the Great Depression was a breakdown of the banking system solely. There were no real shortages, only obstacles to distribution. This time shortages will be real. People will feel poorer, worse, there will be real distress as panic leads to hording and all manner of unhelpful behaviors. What lies beyond is fairly opaque, except for some obvious constraints: It will have to be sustainable.
Sustainability has already been consistently rejected by Americans in favor of accelerated consumption. Right now there are still plenty of SUVs on the road, and even humvees. From one perspective, it does not matter much--making cars more efficient (for example, switching to hybrids) will not bring us to a sustainable economy. But on the other hand, it is a clear expression of mood: Many Americans don't want a balanced way of life and are willing to go the route of self-destruction. Americans are like addicts. This is the basic problem.
Twelve-step programs often work for addicts who want to recover. The idea of an entire nation undertaking such a spiritual recovery is daunting.
It is seeming to me that the powers that be--a tiny wealthy subclass of Americans that actually runs this country--is either monumentally stupid or is looking forward to a scenerio that involves massive population die-off. The looting of the public infrastructure (de-funding of schools, public health, &c) is a clear sign that the nation is to be destroyed, and more recently the responses to hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the (grossly useless) preparations for the looming bird flu, dispel any doubt--Americans can expect constructive actions from neither national government nor the corporate world. The model that I hold with right now is that the powers-that-be are looking forward to a depopulated, feudalized North America with themselves in control and enjoying such material amenities as still exist.
Watching the Democratic Party this summer has led me to the conclusion that there are no political means for altering America's course. Their is no organized political opposition to the course of destruction. There are rearguard battles to be fought, but they are that--rear guard. The environment will deteriorate, the economy will decline until some point is reached when the whole charade can not be maintained. After that, the future is just opaque.
Eventually, Americans will come around to a sustainable way of life. That entails accepting a new, sustainable way of thinking. Capitalist economics is not such a way, and it will go before recovery can begin. The big open question is how long it will take to come around to a new state of mind, and how many people will die, and how much suffering there will have to be before Americans are willing to change. I suspect a lot.
Will all this lead to the choice of prosperity? I hope so, but I can think of no solid theoretical reason why it has to. It is possible that the population of North America will fall to within the continent's carrying capacity without any change in the desire to create wealth/poverty. This is one of the worse scenerios.
Still, prosperity might be chosen. What would help bring it about? Some local regions seem suited right now to beginning the change to sustainability, through the activities of community non-government/ non-business groups. The building of local infra-structure around energy, food, and water seems to be the key. We are going to need solidly practical efforts. Right now we are working on the dissemination of concepts that will make this possible later.
Learning how to be a community is a necessity, and an obstacle. Consumerism is a mental disease that isolates people and degrades constructive thought. So many people I know, including friends, are simply asleep. They do what the television tells them, if that. They make very poor survival prospects.
The archaeology of past civilizations tells me not to be optimistic. By the mid 1970's Americans knew it was time to change the materialism of their way of life, to think about how to be more efficient and less wasteful. They refused. Reagan's "morning in America" campaign was the embracing of fantasy and the embodiment of refusal. That likely was the point at which a "soft-landing" for our civilization was precluded. If there was room for doubt then, by 2000 the matter was settled. We are going down hard. I doubt prosperity can occur in my lifetime, though in a sense, there is nothing else to do but try for it. And anyway, concrete attempts that succeed will be the basis for survival in the near and mid-range future.
This post is much too long. One basic change that is easy to state: Capitalism quite literally concerns itself with the needs of money, not of the people who inhabit the economy. A humane economy for a nation must value all of its members and explicitly seek ways for them to get what they need.
The Fates are kind.
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