The big picture

[This article was written in November, 2009. It turned out to be prophetic. What is happening in the economy now is easily understood by reading this article.]

Our country is a big believer in Progress. Technology will make our lives easier. The American consumer culture is the best way to live, and we need to spread it throughout the world. Cars are the best form of transportation because they make getting around easy. Products that are faster and cheaper, with nothing to clean, are best. Our lives are better because we can call anyone at anytime, find out anything we need on the internet, and know when our next appointment is because of an electronic planner. There is great pleasure in owning the luxuries of life. We live longer. We are healthier and happier than at any time in history.

There is just one problem with all this.

None of it is true.

 

To demonstrate how disconnected we are from reality, I will use one example.

We are taught that the United States government was established as a democratic institution, allowing its citizens "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The United States was actually established via genocide, the brutal conquest of Native Americans in their own land by gun, sword, starvation, and the careless spread of disease.

The European invasion led to the deaths of 40 million people on two continents, the theft of 16.4 million square miles of land, and it slips everyone's mind.

 

Our society is seriously overdue for a makeover.

Some might give up, wondering what one individual or one family can do, how they can possibly make a difference. The fact is that what individuals do is the only thing that makes a difference. No public policy, no do-good organization can accomplish anything if individuals live a destructive lifestyle. You can set aside public parkland, you can set pollution limits, but car- and fast food-loving hordes will overrun anything you set up.

But the out-of-date economic structure that controls this planet is very very weak, as demonstrated by the financial meltdown earlier this year [this article was written in November, 2009]. It is completely dependent on ordinary people buying from it, working for it, and investing in it.

You think you are powerless. You are enormously powerful.

Not through the voting booth. It's not a bad idea—go ahead and do your civic duty. But it won't change anything. That whole game is rigged to make people think they live in a democracy.

Think I am being cynical? Take an informal poll, asking people what their representatives and senators voted for or against in the last year. Then ask them if they know who their representatives and senators are.

You know full well what you will find out. This has nothing to do with the Complacency of the American Public. After all, a large percentage of that supposedly complacent public were out campaigning for Obama last election. It has to do with the whole self-government thing being an illusion.

So where's this power?

Open your wallet. Take out a dollar bill. There it is.

How you spend your money, where you work, and where you invest make enormous difference, especially when more and more people become aware of this power.

You choose between buying a coke and buying vegetables at a farmer's market. That decision has consequences. Every decision about how your money comes and goes has consequences. You need to think it through.

What if MANY people started thinking it through? Even ten percent of the population changing their habits would make a big difference.

Interest in green living has risen dramatically. What would our economy, and our society, look like if many many people thought it through? What would a green economy look like?

 

It would be dramatically smaller. In fact, this is already happening. Even if our economy "improves," this would be illusionary, since a similar financial crisis can happen again. The reason for this is that the math doesn't work. Most household budgets have no income that can be spent on anything beyond basic needs. To buy anything else requires going into debt. But lending institutions are now required to be picky about who they lend money to. Even more importantly, there is no room in this tight average budget to make payments on any debt beyond housing and maybe a car. If borrowing that cannot be paid back keeps going on, it can lead to a total and permanent breakdown of the world economy, far beyond what we have already experienced.

Let's look at the average family budget:.

 

Income $50,303
Taxes: federal income and payroll
7,281
Taxes: state and local income 4,879
Housing 17,109
Food 6,443
Healthcare 2,976
Transportation 8,604
Insurance, pensions 5,605
Total $52,897
Left after basic expenses -$2,594

 

The median income is according to the U.S. Census Bureau's Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2008.Expenses are from the U.S. Bureau of Labor's Consumer Expenditures—2008. The amount for federal and payroll taxes is from the IRS Employer's Supplemental Tax Guide, which provides withholding amounts for employers. The state and local tax estimate is based on the average of 9.7%, from retirementliving.com. Keep in mind that the healthcare average cost from the Bureau of Labor seems far too low (what were they smoking?), and it is not clear from the report whether health insurance is included under "healthcare" or "insurance/pensions." It appears that utility costs are included in "housing." Even if the numbers need a little adjusting, they would tell the same story.

The average family has no discretionary income per year, and is behind by $2,594 per year when only spending on basics. No wonder the economy melted down. The problem is not that suddenly Americans didn't have money to spend. They never had the money. Although the average income declined in 2008, from $52,163 in 2007, and offset a gain in income over the previous three years, there was no discretionary income in those years either. None of the vacations, electronic gadgets, restaurant meals, and such were paid for by money people had actually earned.

And the Obama administration's plan of tinkering with the tax code and making one-time stimulus payments will not alter the basic equation here.

So the green economy, or any economy that does not crash and burn on a regular basis, is focused on basics, with almost nothing on additional products and services.

This is sobering until you realize that such an economy would be far better for the environment without the destruction that excess consumer goods causes. It is also far better for people's lives. Is it really all that great to sit in a car several hours every day? To rush around, "multitasking"? Isn't the shopping mall a weird, impersonal place? Haven't you noticed that children will ignore a roomful of expensive toys and play with boxes or pots and pans?

Electronic gadgets aren't fun. They suddenly quit working and you go nuts trying to hunt down and read the manual to figure out what to do. Quickie food doesn't taste all that good compared to peaches right off the tree. When you go green you really aren't missing anything.

Right now several factors are radically changing our society. Most businesses are totally ignoring them, which is very foolish. The Obama administration is totally ignoring them, which is also very foolish, and doing this with our money.

 

 

The internet

People keep running businesses and government agencies as though the internet doesn't exist. It doesn't matter if you love how the internet has changed everything, or hate it. It's still there.

If your organization provides a green economy product or service, and does so in "virtual corp" mode, without cubicles, then your employer understands what is going on. If your company or agency does anything else, then it doesn't have a clue. If you work for a company that ignores the implications of the internet, that company will disappear the moment a competitor uses the green economy/virtual corp mode. How can an out-of-date company, with high office and employee expenses, compete against a nimble virtual corp run efficiently with no overhead? There is far more to using the internet than throwing a web page up with little shapes dancing around.

 

 

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Environmental awareness

I know that the parking lot is still packed in front of Popeye's Chicken. But, over the last few years, there has been a huge change in how people in this country think, especially after Al Gore's documentary. You hear people talk about recycling and lament the loss of the rain forest, right before they get into their SUV. However, the change in thinking had to come first. The action, well, that's what this web site is all about.

 

 

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A redefined Latin America

It's amusing how often people ignore this, but Latin America now stretches from Alaska down to the south of Chile. Like the internet, you may love it, you may hate it. But that's how it is. It is also interesting to note that a land once populated by Native Americans, then overrun by those of European descent, is once again being repopulated by those of Native American heritage. Also, in case you haven't noticed the last time you called a business, this is now an English/Spanish country. You can pretend this ain't so, but you'll need to move to the planet Pluto.

 

 

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New urbanism

Everyone wants a pedestrian-friendly town. Historic towns that are good at promoting themselves fill with visitors. Hundreds of new towns, villages, and neighborhoods are being built in the U.S. using the idea of "new urbanism." A site about Traditional Neighborhood Development provides a listing of some of these projects already built. Here in Northern Virginia, Fairfax Corner, Shirlington, and a redesigned north Arlington are bustling — all new urbanism projects. In many states, new urbanist principles are a large part of "smart growth" legislation. In the mid-1990s, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development adopted the principles of new urbanism in its multi-billion dollar rebuilding of public housing throughout the country. You can find new urbanism at infill locations, using land within a city instead of developing farmland or forest outside the city. What's the excitement? Not having to use a car to get around. You might still need a car to get there, but then you get out and use your feet. Better for the environment, better for your health, and a whole lot more fun than tripping around to big box retailers. Such projects can be incorporated into current neighborhoods, taking the place of shopping centers and malls. They sometimes lack the charm and interest of much older towns, since they typically are filled with franchised retailers, but such tenants probably made it easier to get financing, and can change in the future.

 

 

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The role for women changing yet again

In the 1970s, when women went from working for their husbands to working for corporations, they just traded one master for another. Eleven-hour days in computer sweatshops for low pay was not an improvement, and did not go over big. Neither did the pronouncement from the boss: "Congratulations on your new baby. Now throw that child over to a babysitter and get back to work." In response, women have been quietly starting their own businesses. Such businesses now generate about $3 trillion in annual revenue in the U.S., according to a study released by the Center for Women's Business Research. Women-owned companies employ 23 million people, nearly double the number employed by the 50 largest companies in the U.S., the ones you hear about all the time. Women are the driving force behind Green Living, initiating telecommuting and home-based businesses, according to Working Mother magazine. They are more likely to grow food. Fifty-four percent of food gardeners are women, according to the National Gardening Association. And who is building the community, working as volunteers? According to a study by the Corporation for National and Community Service, "32.4 percent of women volunteer, compared with 25 percent of men." Sixty-three percent of those female volunteers are employed outside the home.

 

So what does it add up to?

Neighborhoods.

If people are not driving around spending money, if they are not working too long for too little, if they are running home-based businesses, telecommuting, and growing food, then they are in their neighborhoods. Suburban neighborhoods, unlike suburban retail, are often very pleasant places to be, and are already adapting. Walk around any neighborhood and talk to people. You will find vegetable gardens and basement businesses on every block. Originally suburban neighborhood houses looked too conformist, with houses way too similar to each other, but that changes as neighborhoods get older and people alter their houses and yards.

New urbanism can transform the shopping center or nearby shopping mall, especially if the "town center" has a weekly market. You might think the market has disappeared in the United States. You would be wrong. Every Saturday morning big cities and small towns erupt into farmer's markets, flea markets, church sales, craft fairs, and yard sales. They draw thousands, as would a weekly town center market. Markets are multinational affairs, with Spanish and other languages heard as much as English, and, with little overhead, can provide basic goods at low prices.

Everything else—fast food, tall office buildings, strip shopping centers—would gradually disappear, carefully dismantled and reused when possible. Whether all this actually happens depends on what people do now with that ballot in their billfold.

If you don't want sprawl, don't support it. It's that simple.

What businesses and jobs does such an economy have? Keep in mind that families using Green Living require fewer jobs.

 

 

The basic stuff

Food

Once a bland part of the economy dominated by a handful of mainstream grocery stores, the food industry is now highly competitive, with companies like Trader Joes and Wegmans offering customers more in quality, organic produce, and sometimes price. Small grocery stores selling food from Latin America, the Middle East, and India flourish in parts of the country. Crowds flood farmers' markets. Nonperishable food is sold in bulk via the internet. With the public awakened to differences in how food tastes and how healthy it is, this lively competition will only increase. Rezoning a neighborhood can allow organic farmers to grow food next to their customers with no transportation costs.

 

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Home maintenance and renovation

Although jobs connected to new home construction are, of course, a bit scarce, the need for plumbers, electricians, and those maintaining heating/AC systems never ends. When a homeowner decides to do renovation work—tile installation, replacing drywall, etc.—the good people at reasonable prices are always hard to find.

 

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Construction

Although greatly diminished since the building boom, construction work continues with the hundreds of new urbanism projects in the country that are planned or under way. Building and refurbishing apartment buildings is also wide open, since the country has long suffered from a shortage of "affordable housing." Sooner or later developers will figure out that it is better to have rented $600/month apartments than empty $700,000 condos.

 

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Small household goods

Some items around the house are hard to get along without, like toasters, socks, and the like. Although considered an established market already dominated by Walmart and Target, the same competitive atmosphere that currently rules grocery stores can also happen here. Almost all customers have been frustrated by the poor quality, lack of follow-up service, and questionable safety of the famed "made in China" goods that are the only thing sold in these stores. The market is open to those who produce better goods, distributing them via the internet or neighborhood markets. Currently at such markets you will find items that are made with assembly-line methods (to keep prices down) but with careful quality control. Products that can be produced this way by family-owned businesses include bread, jelly, canned goods, clothing, cloth household items, toys, cooking utensils, and furniture.

 

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Insurance

The stodgy old companies that dominate this industry will probably not continue to do so. They are often run from high-overhead offices, and offer poor customer service that everyone now knows about via the internet. A well-organized virtual corp that is praised by its customers via the web could run circles around these dinosaurs, and undercut them easily.

 

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Medical care

Even if our society cuts down on preventable illness, people will always get sick. The nature of medical care itself, however, is changing, with much renewed interest in "alternative" medicine (actually much older than "traditional" medicine), body therapies, and preventive care.

 

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Telephone and internet

These services are far too much of a monopoly, and offer little but high cost and poor service to the customer, at least for now.

 

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Alternative energy

Aggressive incentives offered by the federal, state, and local governments have spurred interest in installing solar, and provide opportunity to those in manufacturing and installation.

 

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Banking

The big banks have floundered. The community banks, who didn't make bad loans to begin with, continue to do just fine.

 

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Local government services

We will always have a need for schools, libraries, parks, and emergency services.

 

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Mass transit

Mass transit is what everyone wants everyone else to use. That's because it is poorly designed, often using transit patterns decades out of date. A local transit system may manage its money poorly, causing unnecessarily high fares. But it doesn't have to be this way. Other countries handle mass transit just fine. And new urbanism, with concentrated populations, lends itself to buses and subways far better than sprawl does.

 

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Higher education / job training

The nature of postsecondary education and job training is changing rapidly. Colleges cannot stay as they are. According to Trends in College Spending, a 2009 report by the Delta Cost Project, our country's higher education "is showing serious fault lines that threaten capacity to meet future needs for an educated citizenry . . . chief among them is a system of finance that will be hard to sustain in the current economic environment." According to this report, "families are going to find it harder to find the resources to pay for the almost-automatic increases in student tuitions that have been the fuel for higher education in the past decade . . . most institutions will still face deficits that require deep spending cuts." Colleges charge far more in tuition than the cost of the instructor and the use of the room, with the rest of the money unexplained. And sitting in a classroom is not necessarily the most efficient way for someone to learn. Education is becoming more internet-based and more focused on specific in-demand job skills.

 

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Beyond the basics

Those using the principles of Green Living, because they require less money for basics, sometimes have discretionary income. But they use it carefully, on such things as:

Independent delis, coffee houses, and restaurants with real plates and silverware

Movies, music, books, other entertainment

Classes taken for fun

Green travel, via train, natural gas vans, bikes, and horses, using non-sprawl accommodations

Items to decorate homes, such as art and antiques

Remodeling for aesthetic instead of practical reasons

Clothing. Most people in this country already have more than enough clothing. Except for growing children, this category generally qualifies as Fun Stuff and can veer dangerously into Unnecessary Consumer Spending.

Supplies for learning the arts

Sporting equipment (but it has to be actually used)

 

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Support services and products for the above businesses

Computer hardware, software, and maintenance. This industry,
however, is bloated with companies that are poorly equipped to handle the computer needs of Green Living businesses, that is, simple, easy-to-use database and web-site tools for virtual corporations. These firms are far too disorganized themselves to help organize anyone else. They can't even seem to answer a tech support call.

Media production, especially web design

Shipping and shipping supplies (especially supplies that are more reusable and more "green" )

Materials for manufacturing basic household goods

Supplies for food production

Language services. This is probably the highest growth industry on this list. English is no longer enough to do anything. Using another language to rewrite materials and handle customers is vital, not in the future, but now. Teaching languages is also very important.

 

The simpler life can be a much better life. It is not just important for our future. Unfortunately, we have made our destructive, not-all-that-satisfying lifestyle look exciting to people in poor countries. If you think the budget above looks bad, why not plug in the average household yearly income for Ethiopia ($110), or rural El Salvador ($133)? If the SUV/fast food/electronic gadget life doesn't even work here, how can it possibly work anywhere else? The invasion of the "American way of life" only leads to people losing the green living lifestyle that worked for thousands of years and being forced to raise their families in horrible living conditions.

We Americans have been a very destructive force on this planet, using far more than our share of resources and ruining the land. Our dependence on petroleum, and our "superpower" mentality, have led to the deaths and poverty of millions. However, in the back of our minds, it is not who we are. We have always believed in self-sufficiency and minimal interference from government or large business. We might not live that way, but it is there. Obama has bailed out large companies, borrowed huge amounts of money in our name, and looks at expanding government further (possibly with reason). Protesters arise everywhere, far more than can be accounted for by a "right wing conspiracy." This shows how strong these beliefs are. We may have been fooled into buying things we didn't need and believing things that aren't true. But we aren't fooled anymore. Green Living is who we really are.

Go for it.