Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Tripping the Prognosis Fantastic

The other day I had lunch with a friend who works in urban planning, and he made some pessimistic remarks that have set me thinking.

He said he, and some others who work in his field, are quite concerned about the United States and its shaky financial system, our burgeoning national debt, the prospects for future oil prices, and the growing polarization and disarray in matters cultural and political. He said he suspects "interesting times" are ahead, as in the old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times."

Interesting times as in: energy and transport costs rising and mushrooming; disruption of the food distribution network (as in, how food gets to your supermarket); real personal hardship including shortages of such basic needs as food and home heating; civil unrest; and perhaps even political instability.

He said people think the comfortable and abundant life we've enjoyed in this country now for several generations can't come to an end; but people will have to readjust and learn to live with a different set of resources and expectations than they've come to take for granted. He thinks those who will do best are those who are competent, self-reliant, able to obtain many of their needs locally, with a good solid network of friends and neighbors to rely on, in a setting where the local culture is solid and stable; oh, and living away from any large urban areas, too.

He said he suspects we could find ourselves in this situation maybe 10 or 15 years down the road.

I don't know, I'm no economist and I'm no urban planner. There was a time when most people would've dismissed my friend's observations as twaddle from the fringe. But my friend is no fringe figure, and no extremist. And these past couple of years I've read too many mainstream economists who sound a similar note. I really can't dismiss my friend out of hand.

In fact I'll be honest, when I moved from the city to deep rural America back in the late 90s, thoughts of this sort were one factor cycling around in the back of my mind. The way of life we've come to take for granted in middle class America is unsustainable. It can't last forever. In fact it may not even last as long as it otherwise might, due to political timidity and shortsightedness, and the erosion of the self-sufficiency and self-reliance which were once widespread in America.

I don't spend my days dwelling on it. But if "interesting times" do come, I'll be a lot better off, living here on a gravel road in a remote rural region far off the beaten path, and surrounded by friends and neighbors who could feed themselves, heat their homes, keep their vehicles and machinery running, and in general supply most of their own needs, even if they were thrown back largely on their own resources.

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