sábado, 30 de mayo de 2009

What is Coming ~ The ‘Brave New World’ of the 21st Century

So we are going into hard times. All signs point to that eventuality. Every news program warns of the impending crash of all we have come to depend on. We are going to face the toughest times imaginable, tougher than our parents and their parents suffered during the Great Depression. All the experts say so.

All right, so be it. Americans are tough and resilient, and they always have been. People who pick up stakes and travel halfway around the world in search of better conditions are a special breed, and for several centuries America has been the landing-place of that kind of person from every corner of the earth. We are all pioneers, or the descendants of pioneers; we are ‘can do’ people, and we know how to ‘make do’ – and that’s just what we will do.

‘Hard times’ is not an absolute; it is a construct of many smaller situations that will be defined differently by various people. And everyone has a different notion of what ‘hard times’ really means. But the interesting thing is that, like generals fighting the last war, those notions comprise details and situations of times past – which means that, operating in changing circumstances, most people will be trying to use old tools to do new jobs. But if we can realistically picture what is coming, we may be able to construct new intellectual tools to deal with the massive changes.

Infrastructure Changes

The most visible change seen during these hard times will be the decay of basic civic infrastructure. Cities and towns – once dependent on state or federal funding for basic services – will collapse, as they lose the struggle to keep vital services afloat. We will see a decline in those services: police and fire departments, hospitals, schools, garbage removal, utilities, and roadways. Libraries will be the first to go, though in the ‘enlightened’ areas (generally the more upscale towns) the libraries will quickly become volunteer-run, merely to keep their doors open as many hours per week as possible.

However, layoffs in police forces will create vacuums into which criminals will flow, and the process of re-stabilisation will be difficult. Fire departments will move – by fits and starts – to volunteer systems, managed by a few union employees at the top. Many hospitals will close, meaning that people will have to travel farther for medical treatment, something much harder to do without fuel-efficient cars. In some areas, this will mean travel of up to 100 miles for emergency treatment, and MediVac services will have all but disappeared in most areas.

Basic prices for utilities will go up, and people will have to learn very quickly how to get along while using less. Water will be come much more expensive, and coastal communities may well try to pump in seawater for most household uses. As we have seen in the past, lawns will disappear in most neighborhoods, replaced perhaps by cement painted green. ‘Rolling brownouts’ can be expected as a matter of course – no electricity for several hours during the day. (The irony here is that fighting a useless war in Iraq will turn America into a version of that country just after the invasion.)

Other services will suffer, as parks become deserts of unwatered grass and roadways become riddled with potholes. Public buildings will go uncleaned and unmaintained, and people will become accustomed to seeing all around themselves the unlovely process of decay.

Airports – very costly to maintain – will close in many areas, as more airlines trim their schedules and shrink fleets. Air travel will recede to the province of the rich, and even the ‘lucky’ rich will have to accept the inconvenience of only a single flight per day to many of their destinations.

Trains won’t be able to pick up the slack, since our legislators have allowed the once-flourishing rail system to fall into extreme disrepair. It will take years – and great expenditure – to build that vital infrastructure back up, and, as people learn more about the situation, the careers of many politicians will suffer. The crowd is likely to be very angry when it learns that the cheapest mode of transporting goods – trains – will not be ready to handle the increased needs in shipping when trucks become much less viable due to lack of fuel. And unfortunately, passenger train travel (which is now almost as expensive as air flights) will soon cost more than flying currently does – though the comforts of this kind of travel will disappear completely when upsurges in usage take their toll on facilities.

Even bus travel will become as expensive as air fares are currently, and the ride will be interminable, unpleasant, and occasionally dangerous. The current state of bus terminals is inadequate to handle the sheer number of bus travelers who will need the service when airports close and the trains fill up.

The toughest situation – the most profound change that will affect the future of America for much longer than any other – will be the lack of funding for schools. We can expect schools at all levels to cut back – far fewer teachers for fewer hours, and at a time when more students are entering the system. The resulting loss of basic education will produce a much less intelligent populace – a populace that will be easily manipulated by politicians, opinion-makers, and advertisers. We may see several generational waves of supposedly educated people who will actually rely much more on opinion and superstition than we have ever witnessed previously.

This lack of knowledge and reasoning in the American people will drive surges in jingoism and bigotry, and the result will not be pretty. America will become much more isolated on the world stage – as most countries will be – but America will be hit very hard by trade imbalances and foreign ownership of property within its borders, and America’s woeful educational state will create poor reactions to the global situation (about which more later).

Social Changes

The largest change will be a widening of the distance between haves and have-nots. As the middle class disappears, the upper class will shrink while the lower class grows. Previously, a large lower class was not the problem that it will become in the 21st Century – poor neighborhoods were traditionally safer than they have become toward the end of the last century. The widespread influx of drugs into poor neighborhoods in the last fifty years has turned many poor neighborhoods into dangerous and crime-ridden battlegrounds. And, because the population has been raised on the idea of entitlement, people will expect to continue a certain unrealistic standard of living. The combination of these two factors will mean more crime in the poor neighborhoods than was present even during the Great Depression, which did not have nearly the amount of interpersonal crime that is coming our way.

Joblessness will become more common, and more of a burden on an already-burdened economy. The election’s good news was offset by the news that unemployment in the Denver area of Colorado reached 25%, while the US Post Office announced layoffs of up to 40,000 jobs nationwide – the first layoff of postal employees in history. In the same month, Mexicans and Central Americans began heading back to their home countries, since work for them in the US was already drying up. While the tiny silver lining will reveal some of those jobs for Americans, the jobs will be very few and they won’t pay enough to keep the average American above the poverty level. (The only reason that most immigrants could afford to take those jobs was that many of them lived in commune-like situations, often with a dozen people in one apartment, sleeping in the beds in shifts. It is anyone’s guess how long – if ever – it would be before Americans would accept such sacrifices.)

The ‘super rich’ will still be protected by the remainder of their money, since a billionaire who loses 90% of his fortune still has $100 million, becoming part of the ‘very rich.’ The very rich will become the new merely rich – a person worth $100 million losing 90% of his fortune would still have $10,000,000. And in the ‘new economy,’ these folks will be the ones buying up the foreclosed properties of the disenfranchised middle class, thus laying the groundwork for their children to become wealthy when property values stabilise in one or two generations.

Many of these new merely rich people will flee the cities, moving onto large tracts of land in rural areas and setting themselves up (mostly) ‘off the grid.’ They will become the benefactors of numerous previously-failing small towns, and will start a new feudal system, keeping a small area thriving because that area supports them and their lifestyle.

The merely rich will become the new upper-middle class – a millionaire losing 90% of his fortune would still have $100,000. These people too might sell out and head for the country, becoming the new merchant class or service class, in an economy that will have no (or very few) imports.

The upper-middle class of the today (which is small compared to the current middle class) will painfully become the new middle class, and the working force of America that once was the middle class will descend into poverty. This process will be relatively swift, though it will seem longer because it will be trumpeted in all media – creating a kind of horror-show that will further debilitate those still hanging on to their jobs or homes.

The merely poor will become the homeless poor, as people who have lost their jobs are forced out of apartments and houses they can no longer afford. That homelessness will lead, in small part, to a rise in enlistments in the military and in religious missions, and to people ‘going on the road’ and living in their vehicles. There will be vast camps of these unfortunates outside every large town and city, just as there were in the Great Depression. This transformation will not be covered quite as much on the news, but will be the ‘open secret’ of every city and large town, as the camps become havens for criminals.

In other areas of life, garage sales will become much more prevalent to bring in money to stretch the budget, and these sales will move away from ‘weekend only’ events to ‘every day’ events. We will also see the return of itinerant salesmen – only this time, they will be selling off things that they or others once owned – going from door to door or from business to business with a suitcase or backpack filled with what they can carry in hopes of raising enough money to pay the landlord or the grocer.

There will certainly be a rise in alcoholism and drug abuse, with all the attendant problems of those diseases. Alcoholism will speed the process of unemployment and homelessness for many people, taking them out of the normal strata of society. Further, treatment facilities will have closed or cut back to the point where the ‘normal infrastructure’ for handling these problems will not be able to handle one-tenth of the cases needing treatment.

We can expect a rise in suicides, in paternal abandonment of families, and in sickness due to a number of factors related to less spending power – from heart attacks and stroke brought on by worry and panic, to an increase in pneumonia as the result of lack of healthy diet and proper care. And as health-care costs skyrocket and hospital staffs and services are reduced, we’ll see a rise in physical traumas, both large and small, when the Internet interacts with natural nitwittery to persuade people to try solving their own medical problems at home and without proper equipment or expertise.

As food becomes more expensive, more people turn small patches of land to subsistence farming, which will have both positive and negative effects. While becoming more self-sufficient is a good thing, home-farming may also lead to health issues caused by chemical contamination of land (especially in urban areas, where toxins have leaked into the ground from gas stations, auto repair shops, and factories). Other people will simply eat less, or eat ‘cheaper’ – switching to cheap processed foods – resulting in more widespread health declines.

Rising food prices could also affect the growing of feed crops, since fewer people will be able to afford beef. This would reduce the feeding of corn cattle – 17 pounds of corn to get one pound of beef – and the land used to grow the corn could be turned to other crops, crops needed to feed the hungry here at home. It is an irony that we import produce from other countries, while we could be growing enough food to actually feed some of those countries.

There would still be the question of the vast amount of fertile farmland adjacent to cities that was turned into suburbs in the past century – probably America’s most profound mistake of the 1900s. This insane idea of ‘progress’ left urban areas to blight and decay, while destroying valuable farmland and placing an even greater burden on farmlands in which minerals were diminishing – causing even greater amounts of additives to be used. No one knows at this point how those lands can be reclaimed for more sensible use – nor whether the land can even be reclaimed safely and how expensive such an operation might be. But many will decry the short-sightedness of developers and urban planners in the years to come.

And many still point out that Americans have been using up the earth’s resources at an alarming rate – author Fred Pearce (Confessions of an Eco-Sinner) reports that, to maintain the lifestyle of an average American (considering all the electronic and labor-saving devices, etc), a citizen in the Roman Empire would have required about 6,000 slaves. In his excellent documentary, Consume This Movie, Gene Brockoff quotes environmentalist and simplicity expert Dwayne Elgin: "If the whole world consumed in the way that Americans do, it would take five planets to sustain our lifestyle."

Perhaps the current situation will convince us to put our priorities elsewhere, to consume less and waste less, to allow the planet to heal a bit, while we try to align science and industry to actually save the resources we have been squandering so wildly in our rush to satisfy the dogs of rampant capitalism and avoid recession.

Dangerous Changes

As things get tougher for the folks at the bottom of the economic scale, the coming hard times will bring a rise in crime – violent crime, robbery, and property crimes. One of the axioms of economics is that crime increases during two periods of a society’s arc – first, when the economy is just getting itself into gear and the middle class begins to rise, and second, when the inevitable economic declines come.

And as people are put out of work, even those who have always been law-abiding will turn to some kind of crime – though usually this will be non-violent and more ‘white collar’ (fraud, passing bad checks, shoplifting). Homelessness – the lack of an address itself – will lead to a certain amount of petty crime.

The new ‘cottage economy’ will lead to a rise in smaller crimes, as local yard-sales and itinerant salespeople are struck by strong-arm robbers, shoplifters, or ‘snatch-&-grab thieves.’

We can expect a huge increase in committed felonies, leading to a surge felony convictions that will put pressure on our clogged court systems and our already-overcrowded prisons. As ‘basic services’ decline, we will see other related problems. Car hijackings will become common, until the time that gas prices will be driven up so much that cars are no longer used as much. Burglaries will be common, as will the crimes of shoplifting, purse-snatching, and mugging.

International Changes

Internationally, we can expect the news to be dire. Climate change and economic crises will throw many developing countries back into physical states that existed a century or more ago. Americans will be empathetic to the plight of those people, but they won’t have much to give and little inclination to give it.

Travel outside US borders will diminish greatly, due to greatly increased travel costs and threats to safety and security on the ground overseas. Americans living abroad will be affected, as the local situations in foreign countries become more and more dangerous. Robberies and kidnappings will increase, and foreigners perceived by locals as wealthy (including Americans) will often find themselves targets.

Within our own borders, the amount of real estate and other holdings now in the hands of foreign entities will cause much resentment among Americans (who have never been very tolerant of foreigners). Because of the sheer amount of land and business properties owned by Asians (predominantly Chinese, Japanese, and Korean), a new kind of economically-generated racism will arise in the US – especially toward Asians, regardless of nationality. One particularly unfortunate aspect of this racism will be that it is very likely to be manifested against Asians who live nearby and who have grown up in the area, not against the actual owners of the properties (who are likely to live in wealthy US enclaves, if not in Asia).

A parallel racism can be expected against Latinos, totally undifferentiated by country of origin. As jobs become more scarce, white Americans (who wouldn’t have taken certain low-paying jobs before) will want jobs held by workers from Mexico or elsewhere in Central and South America. While we may not see the kind of rioting and killing that marked racist mob activity in the early part of the 20th Century, we are certain to see ‘retributive’ violence against those that typically jingoistic Americans perceive as one of the root causes of our economic woes.

Possible Good Changes

So the future doesn’t appear to be very bright, but even in harsh times there are opportunities for those with foresight and the energy to persevere. The human species is adaptable and resilient, and we may expect that human intelligence will provide us many different means with which a sizable fraction of the population will be able to rise to the occasion and prevail. A rise in faith healing and churchgoing in general may be expected as well, as people gather together to try to solve the problems that they all face equally.

One bright spot may come with garbage removal – though the cost of removal may only go up a small amount, the companies will remove far less garbage. But there won’t be quite so much garbage, since people will embrace recycling on a much broader scale, as they realise how much money they are discarding every week in the form of recyclable containers and paper. People will want the few dollars obtainable from cans and bottles, and most forms of plastic will rise in value. In fact, on a day in the not-too-distant future, enterprising businessmen will open up landfills to reclaim recyclables. As prices for materials rise, entrepreneurs will strip-mine the landfills for precious glass, plastics, and metals.

Also on the brighter side, people will interact more within their own communities, getting to know their neighbors. Community-building will evolve as it once did in tribal situations, with exchanges of labor and the lending of tools and equipment that cannot be purchased. There will be a resurgence of the commune movement in numerous areas of the country, as those with means get out of the deteriorating cities and back to rural living.

As loss of jobs make rents unaffordable – and as people need to increase passive incomes – we will see more people looking for roommates and others taking in boarders. This situation too till add to the general community-building that will help to see us through the coming hard times. We will become a nation of boarding houses, as in the time of the Great Depression, when the ‘woman of the house’ served meals to the boarders who had purchased the ‘board’ with the room.

Perhaps the most hopeful news is that, as food prices rise, all the valuable US farmland that has been turned over to the imbecility of ethanol production from corn will be returned to food crops, easing food shortages and encouraging local and sustainable farming. This is a crucial item in our collective future, since there is already enough corn going to feed cattle, and the shortages of all kinds of vegetables can be made up if corn farmers would quit trying to grow expensive forms of gasoline.

Turning Changes into Transformation

In 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, news commentators became quite fond of the phrase ‘the failure of the Communist experiment’ – as if the USSR were running the only economic experiment in town. No one even considered that there might at some time be a ‘failure of the capitalist experiment,’ but now it seems we are witnessing it. Only the drastic measures of FDR’s administration saved America (with a bit of help from World War II), and only exactly the same kind of drastic measures will save the United States in the Brave New World of the 21st Century.

Saving any semblance of the America we all have come to love and rely on will be a tough job, and only hard work and sacrifice will get the job done. We are not certain that several generations of a populace accustomed to ‘entitlements’ (compounded by widespread inadequate education) will be able to meet the challenge. The last generation that had to show that kind of grit and moxie is dying off, and our leaders have pandered to the people instead of leading.

An end to partisan politics would help enormously, as wwould the media addressing the problem from a new standpoint (education and encouragement instead of fear and gossip-mongering). We all have lessons to learn, and it’s very hard to learn while complaining about ‘the way things are’ and wishing for ‘the way things used to be.’

And if the new administration cannot convince Congress to use the federal government to implement a new New Deal – one that involves new versions of the FDR’s WPA and the CCC (the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps) – we will be facing the worst of the progressive and cumulative effects of the economic meltdown. A careful reading of Frances Perkins would help – she was a co-author of the original New Deal.

There is some hope in recent news reports that more than 200,000 people have applied for jobs to Obama Administration – though because under normal circumstances a new president only is responsible for hiring about 15,000 people, the ratio of applicants to available jobs stands at about 13:1.

Still, the fact that so many want to become part of a history-making epoch is a hopeful sign. The government can put people to work, rebuilding and maintaining the infrastructure that America now desperately needs. The unions may complain, but unions are run by negotiators and agreements can be forged to put union workers into every project to train the unskilled into workers who will join those very unions.

And if Congress does not become the obstructionist Typhon that it can be, this Administration has a chance of pulling the country through. And, though the pain will be felt by all who work for a living, the rebirth of America may be the beginning of a better future.

I am not pleased to make these predictions. In fact, I will be the first to be pleased at being proven wrong in any or all of them. But in the interest of acknowledging that ‘a thing is what it is and no other’ and ‘calling a thing by its correct name,’ I must name the storms coming, so that we may prepare for them. And if we can get together, help each other, and make those preparations - we may all come out of this tunnel as better, stronger persons.

One can hope. One can hope…

David Hakim is an assistant director, producer, and publicity expert who developed campaigns for every major Hollywood studio and handled publicity for the Motion Picture Academy. Find him in the Reel Directory online: www.reeldirectory.com.

All material copyright 2008 David Hakim and may not be duplicated - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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