Wednesday, May 9, 2012

New Millennial Economics, Part Two

Ross Jackson, Occupy World Street: A Global Roadmap for Radical Economic and Political Reform

Last year’s Occupy Wall Street movement was branded aimless by its critics because many participants brought a range of topics to the table. But it was linked by shared opposition to the softening of ethics and restraint in the financial services sector. As more and more activists have yoked their cart to that movement, we have seen a surge in the opinion that a tiny minority of our population regards the mass of humanity as a resource to consume.

Ross Jackson asserts that Western society—and, in a globalized culture, all other societies with it—has already begun to collapse. Just because we can’t see it, just because it isn’t a rapid catastrophe, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. If we consider human society worth saving, we must bolster it right now, before the problem gets any worse. Unfortunately, we cannot repair society by doing more of what originally got us into this fix.

The economic crisis that originally motivated the Occupy Wall Street movement is, to Jackson, a symptom of a larger, more pervasive problem. Industrial society is founded on a large number of false premises: infinite growth on a finite planet, personal ambition as an economic motivator, limitless energy in the form of hydrocarbons, and technology to plug the hole when hydrocarbons run out. All these false promises show off the rot at the heart of our culture.

Jackson carefully dismantles the false suppositions at the core of today’s commercial empire, the disastrous consequences the status quo has created, and the techniques they have used to numb us to the situation. His highly technical discursion may intimidate some readers, yet he paces it so well that it unfolds like a thriller novel. Stick with him; the payoff more than justifies the setup.

Where it would be easy to accuse and cast aspersions, Jackson goes further: he proposes solutions. He warns us that our problems may well get worse before they get better, and that we will have to sacrifice our post-Enlightenment notions of freedom, which are arrogant and, he notes thoroughly, fairly recent. But the self-seeking, international anarchy, and complexity we live with today can—must, Jackson says—give over to commonsense remedies.

Although he deals with political concerns, Danish-Canadian Jackson does not weigh in on American partisan concerns. Rather, he concerns himself with a much older sense of the word “politics,” meaning the way ordinary people relate to institutions of power. And those institutions, in his telling, have become extremely powerful. Only by exercising massive authority can they convince us to accept systems that leave us so thoroughly disfranchised.

We see this when we examine how the economy really works. When we measure the economy according to how well people are doing as individuals, we see that we have remained largely stagnant since 1970, and have even gone backward. Conventional economists measure the activity of an economy, but this overlooks that the marginal expense of maintaining the status quo has become crushingly expensive.

But if we push the premises of the current economy to its logical conclusions, such expenses seem inevitable. The rapid wealth increase since the early Industrial Revolution has relied on cheap, bountiful hydrocarbons—which, even by the most optimistic estimates, are more than half exhausted. Our manufactures, our domestic comforts, even our agricultural bounty depend on a resource that is now officially running out.

Jackson counters these realities with a hard proposal for a managed transition to what comes next. We cannot, he says, fall into the next stage of human civilization accidentally. That attitude first got us into this mess. Instead, we need to take a proactive approach, and Jackson lays one out before the extreme catastrophe.

My one concern is that Jackson takes on what appear to be a large number of issues. Though he creates a solid case that the many risks he warns about represent a single umbrella problem, I fear that less dedicated readers may lapse into compassion fatigue. If environment, injustice, poverty, exploitation, and war are all symptoms of one disease, Jackson could spend more time on fewer concerns, without risking burning out casual readers.

But for those dedicated to combating today’s problems, Jackson’s vision offers hope that our situation has not become impassable. Humans created this crisis, and though some scars may never completely heal, humans can repair what we have broken. We know, regardless our our political persuasion, that the signs show our status quo cannnot remain. Jackson gives us tools to hopefully set the world right.

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