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Soft Hope in Hard Times

Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. - Goethe

May 20, 2008
by Rob Lafferty

(This one's for you, Maury...)

If you've been reading this column lately, you'll have noticed that it usually has bad news to offer. That's pretty much the standard here at the National Affairs Desk, where we try to shine some light onto the dark side of current events whenever possible. The end result is rarely a pretty sight...

You won't read a lot of facts and statistics here, either, because they're boring to write and most folks have an amazingly short attention span. Not you, of course, O Gentle Reader – it's those others whose eyes start to glaze when the imagery of words turns into a black hole of facts and data. So this is written as a column, not a news article, because it's more fun to write and people might actually read it through to the end.

What you will read here is a blend of opinion and observation based on accurate information. You don't have to believe what you read; in fact, you shouldn't. You can easily check the accuracy of anything you find in this column. I highly recommend that you do, but don't expect a map to where those nuggets of truth can be found and confirmed.

Instead, dive into the world of information and find the answers you seek on your own. You'll have to sift through a ton of crap to find a half-pound of nuggets, just as I do, but you'll learn more than you intended during the process. You'll have fun, too.

Today, however, we offer you some good news in a strange kind of way.

Four really bad things are happening at once in our fair Republic – rising fuel prices that make it expensive for people and goods to move around the country; unreliable food, power and water supplies for major metropolitan centers; the cost of the American military Empire; the shrinking value of the dollar on world markets. These things are each a crisis of their own; each is amplified by the sad fact that most of us are indulgent and wasteful and we won't change our ways until we hit rock bottom.

The good news? That proverbial Rock Bottom is pretty close by. Circumstances are leading us directly into the Straits of Dire Necessity where we'll either adapt or die. We humans are capable of remarkable changes in behavior once our situation becomes dire enough; based on our history I'm betting that we'll adapt and survive. Or at least most of us will...

The consumer society that we've known all our lifetime won't survive much longer, and that's good news. Today, flowers grown in the Netherlands can be cut and kept fresh while being flown across the Atlantic, racing the sun and arriving in time to be sold in New York markets by mid-morning. Flower growers in Colombia want access to that market as well, and free trade proponents are working to help them gain that access. But just because a global economy based on fast air freight has been developed doesn't mean that it can be sustained.

Burning massive amounts of jet fuel in a quest to sell goods halfway around the world is an practice whose time has passed. Given our need for petroleum-based products in critical areas such as hospitals, any unnecessary flying or driving becomes almost an immoral act. We're already seeing a change in the market for the ultimate American icon – the automobile. As bicycle sales increase across the country, car sales continue to fall (down 14 percent overall in April) while sales of SUV's like the Ford Explorer have fallen as much as 43 percent.

Starting this month North America's first bicycle-sharing program will be tested in Washington, D.C. Named SmartBike DC, the pilot program allows users to pay a $40 annual fee for access to bikes stored in computerized racks at stations throughout the city. Users have an access card that allows them to use a bike up to three hours at a time before returning it to any station. Clear Channel Outdoor, the company behind the program, already runs bike-sharing programs in 13 European cities and hopes to expand soon into San Francisco and Arlington County, Va.

That's just one small piece of the good news behind high fuel costs that will help us move away from petroleum as a primary energy source. That shift will also create more jobs than the oil companies could ever hope to provide. Alternative energy sources will be difficult for large corporations to monopolize, so innovation won't be as restricted as it is now.

Bad news: we've maxed out all of our national credit cards, we've become a debtor nation and we now live on a fixed income. Other countries still loan us money but not as quickly as they did just a few years ago, because they prefer to invest in yen or euros these days instead of the dollar. The good news? A growing number of folks have come to understand that we can't engage in military misadventures overseas any longer because we simply can't afford to.

If we can elect a fiscally responsible group of representatives who aren't afraid of being labeled "unpatriotic" we could close all American military bases on foreign soil and spend that massive amount of cash on public health and safety within our own borders. We could start with the massive bases we've built in Iraq that our President calls "enduring camps" – you know, those bases with buildings that have faulty electrical wiring responsible for the electrocution of more than a dozen U.S. soldiers.

If we can do that, we use the money to pave the way for the re-emergence of individual states over the federal government as the agency of social justice. That's been one of the goals of the conservative Republican philosophy for more than a century now. In fact, it's become our destiny no matter which party "wins the White House" this fall, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. As a general rule, local governments are more effective than federal government and harder to steal money from.

Of course that's not the overriding philosophy of the Cheney/Bush administration and the Neoconservative fringe of the Republican party. Those folks are driven by dreams of extending the American Empire, simply because they think it can be done. They also believe in the Reaganomics of deficit spending as a way of financing their New World Order. They were wrong both ideas that from the start but have never surrendered their dream. It is, however, being taken from them by economic forces they cannot control. And that's probably the best news we could ask for after the seven years we've just been through.

The growing epidemic of home foreclosures is bad news on many levels. A lot of people are getting a hard and clear lesson about variable interest rates and the gamble of real estate investments. It comes at a huge cost in human anguish and dignity, but it may also become the cleansing fire that burns down a deceptive mortgage brokering system and causes Americans to reconsider the idea of home ownership. We might even start buying homes to live in instead of buying houses as investments.

There are encouraging signs of the desire for deep change everywhere you look. Even a rock-steady conservative group like the National Evangelical Association, which represents 37 million Christians, has issued an "Evangelical Manifesto" that states, "Christians from both sides of the political spectrum, left as well as right, have made the mistake of politicizing faith." A spokesperson for the umbrella group said that people who mix faith and politics risk becoming "useful idiots" for politicians who don't truly share their values.

There's also good news about the resilience of the Earth coming out of Borneo. 5,000 acres of clearcut tropical rainforest were replanted six years ago with seeds collected from more than 1,300 species of local trees. In that short period of time the once-ravaged landscape has grown from grasslands into a biodiverse forest with some trees as tall as 30 meters.

"If you walk there now, 116 bird species have found a place to live, there are more than 30 types of mammals, millions of insects are there," said Dr Willie Smits, the Indonesian forestry expert who led the replanting project. "Nine species of primate have also returned. The whole system is coming to life. I knew what I was trying to do, but the force of nature has totally surprised me. The place has become the scene of an ecological miracle, a fairytale come true."

And finally, commercial television is losing its dominant influence over daily life in American society, and that's some very good news. A shift towards new information and entertainment sources is bringing wholesale changes to the way that young people interact with each other and the world, and they're bringing those changes out into the larger society.

That should lead to a shift in the values of the country as a whole, which might sound like a bad thing until you consider that our current set of values is responsible for most the mess we're in. The Depression of the 1930's followed the greed and excess consumption of the 1920's and shifted the moral focus and values of the country. That shift lasted until the 1960's when consumerism got cranked up again and threw itself a party that lasted into the 21st century.

When the Towers of New York came crashing down, the long party was over. Everyone crawled under the covers and hid in the pillows, sleeping away the indulgence of past decades while the power to govern their own lives was stolen during the night. Now we're all awake on a cold, gray morning with a terrible hangover and no money...

So it's time to go to work again. It's opportunity time. That's the real good news; now is the perfect time to start making lifestyle changes and governmental changes as a Nation, as a People. The opportunity to reclaim the government and redirect its functions has seldom been greater in the history of this country. We've never been able to hold on to our own governing power for long before Big Money bribes its way back into control, but this is a different time, a turning point point in the direction of American society.

The most interesting news – more than 3.5 million new voters have registered (or renewed their voter registration) already. That number might reach 6 million for the election this fall which will set some kind of precedent no matter who wins. Come November, we will have chosen either our first black president, our first female president, or the oldest white guy ever elected.