Thursday, February 4, 2010

Slack in the system

There's a lot of nasty stuff coming down the pike. The financial system is looking pretty ragged on the edges. Lots of foreclosures had yet to work their way through the system. The dollar is in danger of collapse. Peak oil is real. We are on the downslope of Hubbard's Peak. Our food systems are heavily dependent on petroleum derived pesticides and fertilizers.

Yes, I'm worried, but not in a panic. There's still slack in the system. We aren't up against the wall yet. Our problems are real, but we have options.

Places like Haiti have no slack in their systems. Everything is already at its limit. There's no room to absorb any additional problems. When the earthquake hit, everything broke. Government failed. Food system failed. Water systems failed. Medical systems failed. Almost everything.

Haiti was like a person who's living paycheck to paycheck, deeply in debt, and not keeping up with the payments. Suddenly, that person is laid off and the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.

America isn't there yet. We are more like the upper middle class family with two good incomes. However, the family is deeply in debt, driving a couple big SUV's, takes big vacations, and eats out all the time. Suddenly one person in the household loses their job. It's bad, but not the end of the world. They get rid of one SUV. The vacation to Europe gets replaced with domestic car travel. They eat at home more. Day care is canceled and the laid off spouse does child care. It's an adjustment, but no one's missing any meals here.

As a country, we can get by for a while. Most people can still make their house payments, even if they don't have equity any more. Some who lose their homes really are in desperate straights, but many just move in to an apartment or relatives. The dollar is still limping along as it's still the main currency oil purchases are made in. We can get by with less oil. Houses can be colder in the winter and warmer in the summer. People are switching to more fuel efficient cars and driving less. There's room to car pool more. Urban and rural gardens can help with food production. There's still slack in the system. We've got options.

Here's the thing, as a nation, we haven't been acknowledging the problems. We are pretending that things will go back the way they were. It won't happen. We've got to get ahead of our problems and acknowledge things have changed. The slack in the system won't last forever. We have an opportunity to make other arrangements.

Imagine that upper middle class family again. Instead of adapting to the change in income, they pull out the credit cards and live the way they've always lived. It works for a while. If they are lucky, the laid off person gets a new and even better job. Nice idea, but can you count on it? Can the US count on getting a big energy payday from somewhere? Will another bonus like the Alaska oil fields suddenly come on line. Maybe, but unlikely.

If the country doesn't acknowledge its problems the slack in the system will be slowly eaten away. We become like Haiti, unable to absorb a sudden shock.

You know what still works in Haiti? Families. Now we only limited influence on the way the country goes, but we have at lot that can be done on the family level. US families still have some slack in their systems. It's time to use that slack to prepare.


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