In Praise of Economic Pain

The threat of recession could lead to an environmental boon

Recession

image by Jude Buffum

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This article is part of a package brushing off the gloom and doom with good green news. Also included are:
Tomorrowland : An eco-smart urban design competition turns “what ifs” into “what is”
Hiring Mother Earth To Do Her Thing : Are capitalists the new conservationists?
Green All the Lawyers : Legal expert Mary Wood on how Lady Justice could tip the scales
Environmental Innovations to Give You Hope
Special Online Project: Mother Earth’s Big Comeback

Not long ago, Hummers hulked down city streets, angling for social status and house-sized parking spaces. The grasslands once considered “the country” morphed into exurbs where families longing for a McMansion of their own could choose between blue and beige. Ever-expanding malls restocked their Made in China lines quicker than any middle American Paris Hilton wannabe could say “Charge it.”

A well-heeled class of liberal Cassandras perched atop recycled soapboxes warned us against such folly. But their appeals landed mostly on deaf ears, plugged up with Bluetooth headsets, corporate jingles, and MP3 downloads.

Fast-forward to the present day. SUVs sit alone on America’s sales lots, looking like wide-eyed dinosaurs witnessing their own extinction. The New York Times recently reported that the decades-long migration from cities to suburbia is ebbing toward reversal. Despite the Bush administration’s tax-break bribe, the consumption slump slouches toward thrift, sending shivers down Wall Street’s spine.

In less than a year, record oil prices have accomplished what only tireless environmental activists once dared to dream. Detroit is finally coming to its senses and gunning for fuel efficiency. Not only are consumers abandoning unsustainably gigantic exurban homes that rack up astronomical heating and commuting bills, Governing reports (May 2008) that cities and counties are buying up developers’ land to use for conservation and parks. Even blue-collar supermarkets like Safeway and Supervalu are, according to Sustainable Industries (May 2008), bolstering their organic offerings to capture penny-pinched high-enders eschewing pricey natural food stores.

No one likes a recession. The truth is, though, that most of us need to be jolted out of a fossil-fueled consumerist binge that’s gobbling up the planet. While the latest downturn hurts, America has much to gain from it, not the least of which is sanity—a break from the soul-numbing, environmentally devastating addiction to ever more stuff.

Citizens can leverage today’s experience into meaningful policy changes. Take, for instance, much-needed investment in public transportation infrastructure. According to the American Public Transportation Association, Americans registered nearly 85 million more public transit trips in the first quarter of 2008 than in the same period last year. Bike shops are doing record business as well, Foreign Policy online reports (June 2008). Each of these new converts can help push for better public transportation networks and bike-sensible urban planning. The poor may finally gain some allies, too. Perhaps, opines Salon (April 18, 2008), “skyrocketing costs of food and gas will make us stop for two seconds to consider how impossible it is to feed a family these days on our laughable minimum wage.”

The country has seen a national character correction before. During World War II, folks turned sacrifice at home into car sharing, growing 30 to 40 percent of the country’s vegetables in their yards, and recycling every scrap of metal, rubber, nylon, and wool they could lay their hands on, down to sheared skirt hems and pant cuffs. Today’s war has the majority sacrificing little more than its faith in the current president. Our self-propelled salvation won’t be for the love of country, it seems, but for the love of coin.

It’s not a noble cause, but it’ll do.