Ecology and Poverty II

Posted September 17th, 2010 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on Ecology and Poverty II

Fostering Ecological Hope
Today from Margaret Swedish:

Some interesting stats:  as of June 30, total U.S. consumer debt stood at $11.7 trillion. Some 11.4% of that debt is delinquent, totaling $1.3 trillion.

Meanwhile, as we all learned this week, the number of people living in poverty in the U.S. rose last year and will likely rise again this year, amounting to 1 out of every 7 of our fellow citizens now living in poverty, or 44 million of our people.

More than a fifth of children.
About a quarter of African-Americans.

I am mystified by the  official poverty line: $10,830 for a single adult, $22,050 for a family of four. Do you know anyone who can live on, oh say, $15,000 for a single adult and $25,000 for a family of four and not live in poverty? These thresholds do not in fact tell the whole story. In any case, that 44 million people are at or below these thresholds is alarming, to say the least.

After tax income 1979-2006 - Source: CBO

There is nothing, nothing, in the dynamism of this economy that shows that anything in this trajectory will change any time soon. But what will change is the end of some of the flimsiest of temporary safety nets that have kept things from being much worse – like extended unemployment benefits and the woefully insufficient stimulus package. Without these two things, the numbers would be dramatically worse.

Fiscal conservatives are telling us that allowing the Bush tax cuts for the rich to sunset at the end of this year will cost us jobs. In fact, after a decade of those tax cuts, one thing we know is that the rich do not use the money freed up by lower taxes to invest in job generation.

The rich are still getting richer – by a lot. That’s because the economy right now favors those with money to invest. If what you have is your labor, your hard work ethic, your skills for the manufacturing era now in decline, your advanced computer education for the high-tech bubble economy, also in decline, you are most likely not doing very well. How about the thousands and thousands of law degrees and MBAs, more and more graduates of these programs going back home to live because they cannot find a job?

If you bought a home thinking it would provide you equity for your kids’ college educations or a family vacation, probably that equity has evaporated with the decline in the housing market. If you trusted your credit and continued to borrow for the future, you are probably seeing your future clouded with fear, uncertainty, and unsustainable debt.

This society was hoodwinked into a debtors’ economy – buy now on credit, have now what you want, buy the stuff, get your teaser loan, the housing market will always go up, life will be good – all based on mounting rates of debt and interest. It has all come crashing down around us, and along with that our resilience, our ability to absorb shocks and to be creative in the midst of great adversity.

This is our world now, not the one we baby-boomers had (literally) banked on.

inflation adjusted percentage increase in mean after tax household income between 1979 and 2005

And here we are living within a planet also in decline. Habitats unraveling, the sixth great extinction well underway, greenhouse gas emissions still pouring into our atmosphere altering our climates, impacting oceans and wildlife, agriculture and forests, aquifers depleting from over-development and the pressures of industrial agriculture, toxic contamination of our water sources by various forms of industrialization with lax oversight and regulation – and we could go on.

We do not have the resources, the resilience, the national commitment to address these challenges – not  even a meaningful discourse on how this wreckage of our environment dims the chances for building a new more resilient, inclusive, equitable, sustainable, and just economy.

But one needs to say this, friends – we cannot get out of this economic crisis if we continue to think the rich have rights to always be richer with little or no sense of social responsibility, and we cannot get out of this economic crisis if we continue to spoil the very planet with which we need to cooperate if we are to have a future at all!

The rich take enormous resources from this earth. The way of life of the wealthy – think about it – is an enormous burden on the planet. From multiple homes to global travel to the energy it takes to support their lifestyles, their toll is a heavy one. Yet right now, there is enormous resistance to raising taxes on this wealth, even if some of those taxes could be used to pay for some of the environmental programs that have become urgent – like moving off fossil fuels and creating a new energy regimen in balance with the ecosystems of the planet.

This is not a particularly good time to be losing our sense of the ‘common good,’ or the notion of social responsibility and equity. The ethic of individualism is not serving us well right now. I don’t believe it ever did. But at this moment, we need to revive a deep sense of all of us being in this together as we face the challenges of our time.

Why I do this work

Tens of millions of my people are really suffering right now. My eco-community is also under severe stress, lessening the chances that we can address that suffering now or in the longer term. Until we get the connections – that depletion of the human and depletion of our living communities are intimately related – that restoring dignity and well-being to the human and our living communities are part of one process – I don’t see how we save the humans or the living systems in which we all dwell.

Now I know that many of us know this. But we need right now a powerful, passionate, sustained commitment to communicating this throughout the culture, in every neighborhood, church, local newspaper, family, community group, and educational center throughout this country. We need to instill hope into these woeful times – not the fake hope of reviving an economy that led us to this crisis in the first place, but a real hope based in our faith in the resilience, basic decency, and creativity of the human community – in concert with the earth community without which we do not exist.


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