Friday, May 15, 2009

Looking up in the downturn


Is there an upside to this "Great Recession?" It's not like anything got less expensive or the bills went away. Maybe the pluses are less tangible than earnings reports or other economic indicators.

I've always been told that free-market economies depend upon competition and unlimited economic growth. But the atmosphere is everybody's business and a slowing of industrial growth can have immediate effects on air quality.

According to The Associated Press, China spent billions cleaning up its air for the 2008 Summer Olympics, shutting down coal-fired power plants, suspending construction in Beijing and ordering people to drive only every other day from July to September.

The United Nations reported in February that carbon monoxide levels fell 47 percent and sulfur dioxide 38 percent during the two-week Olympics. Particulate matter was reduced by 20 percent. How much less greenhouse gases will hit the atmosphere during the recession due to a reduction in demand for coal-powered energy to provide consumer items to the West?

Nature may recover, but what about human nature? What does a consumerist society like ours do with itself when the drive to work and spend is thwarted by economic distress? What happens when work-a-holism is replaced by mandatory four-day work weeks?

Time magazine reported recently that a third of people polled say they are spending more time with family and friends, and nearly four times as many people say their relations with their kids have gotten better during this crisis than say they have gotten worse.

There may be fewer consumer items flying off the shelves at the shopping malls, but more and more people are showing up at public libraries across the nation, presumably to educate themselves, explore ideas, and perhaps start new careers.

This can't be all bad. Maybe we will all work toward creating an economy in which we are able to work less and still thrive. Hunter-gatherer societies figured this out thousands of years ago. They spend between 15-20 hours per week in the getting of food. The rest of their time is spent telling stories, socializing and playing games. During the Great Depression, the Kellogg Co. went to 30-hour work weeks. The program was so successful among employees that the company kept the shorter hours for another 50 years.

And by the way, an abundance of cash has not been proven to bring happiness. Studies have shown that after attaining the median household income ($50,000 per year), happiness is no longer equated with an increase in wealth. A 72-year-long study at Harvard University that is featured in this month's Atlantic Monthly magazine concludes that the nature of our social relationships plays the largest role in health and longevity.

A lack of financial security has resulted in some creative solutions locally. The South Valley Merchants Alliance has banded together to come up with creative marketing solutions, sending shoppers to one another, rather than fighting over them for business. The need to streamline may soon lead fire departments in the south valley to lay down personal differences and consolidate equipment and personnel. Some local carpenters, rather than face unemployment, have turned their creative skills to making fine wooden canoes, the kind of activity most people only get to during retirement.

But for most of us the economic downturn just hurts. Half of the households in the United States, those who earn less than $50,000 a year, 34 percent have not gone to the doctor because of the cost, 31 percent have been out of work at some point, and 13 percent have been hungry.

Gun sales nationally have been up 39 percent, which may indicate one response to the fear in the air, while local nonprofits such as the Hunger Coalition have seen an increase in volunteerism. Maybe people have more time on their hands, or maybe they just know something positive needs to happen.

When there is less money to throw around at society's problems, maybe the better parts of our humanity will rise to meet the challenge: cooperation rather than competition, generosity of spirit, and a bit of creative thinking.

Tony Evans:

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