Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Is the party over?

In this space over the past few weeks, I've examined several interconnected trends that, in combination, will dramatically change our lives, and those of future generations.

Each one of these represents a huge challenge for mankind. Taken together, they may portend a new dark age as the social progress of the past century stalls, or goes into reverse.

My five wake-up calls are:
The End of the Oil Age

The Shortage of Fresh Water

The Growing Wealth Gap

The Huge Debts owed by Nations, Provinces/States, and Cities

The Inevitability of Climate Change
Of course, no one knows how all this will play out. Within a few days of my last post in the series, U.S. debt was downgraded and markets went into a tailspin, while rioting, looting and arson broke out in several English cities.

Meanwhile, some inventors announced a new kind of highway, made from garbage, with embedded solar panels that can power towns and cities.

Crazy, eh?

Human beings are resourceful and creative, not passive players in the drama. We will adapt, whining and complaining all the while, as change unfolds. We will innovate, invent, and discover solutions for problems.

But, inevitably, many things we have come to see as entitlements and normal behaviour are going to be much diminished, more expensive, or gone.

It will happen incrementally, changing our lifestyles a bit at a time, moderated by new concepts and technologies that spring from fertile minds.

In fact it is already happening.

Municipal governments are scrambling to reduce services ranging from public libraries to snow clearing and garbage pick-up.

The defined benefit pension, a standard employee benefit that ensured predictable retirement income for workers in the second half of the 20th century, is a relic of the past.

So-called social enterprises (for-profit businesses operated by charities) are emerging as the hot new thing as government support of charitable organizations wanes.

Wages have stagnated for 30 years, when adjusted for inflation.

Many retirees are experiencing financial pressure, and are working past 65 to supplement pension income.

New multi-lane highways are more likely to be toll roads than freeways.

Air travellers now pay for headsets, blankets, and food, all previously free.

Every automobile manufacturer is now focused on smaller, more efficient engines, electric or hybrid propulsion, or alternative energy systems (e.g. hydrogen), as well as light weight materials.

We are avoiding the sun, slathering on the sunscreen, and wearing broad-brimmed hats.

Extended watering restrictions are a regular summer feature.

Free parking has disappeared, even at hospitals.

These are just some minor adjustments compared to what's coming.

So, how must each of us change, personally, to blunt the edge of this new age?
• Become a more involved citizen. Take care of things ourselves. Before the coming of the nanny state, this is what people did. If something needed to be built or fixed in their community, they came together and did it. After they had done it, they would all sit down to a grand meal, and catch up on the latest gossip.

[Note: I found it interesting that, in the recent London riots that outstripped the abilities of the police, citizens in some neighbourhoods banded together to run off the thugs, and then turned out with brooms and pails to clean up the debris.]

We need to get back to that. If your local park is overgrown, get your neighbours together and spend a Saturday now and then getting it back in shape. Same thing for creating a skating rink, and keeping it cleared of snow. Send your teenagers out to shovel snow from the sidewalks, as well as the driveways and walks of elderly neighbours.

If there are shut-ins nearby, get a few neighbours together to share drives to the grocery store and the doctor's office.

Donate money and/or time to the causes you think are worthwhile, that you don't want to see disappear as government funding dries up. You'll receive a good return on that investment in your community, as it continues to be a good place to live.

• Become a smarter consumer. Avoid debt unless absolutely necessary, and never borrow to buy something that will likely lose value. Buy with long term value in mind, ignoring fads and resisting the desire for instant gratification. Well-made, classic, designs never go out of style, and give pleasure every time you use them.

• Become more self-sufficient. A vegetable garden and a few chickens will produce tastier meals at much lower cost than mass-produced, packaged supermarket food.

• Become kinder to the earth. Reuse and recycle. Select products that have minimal or recyclable packaging. When you have a choice, pick the one that wastes less water, generates fewer greenhouse gases, consumes less energy.
We'll all come up with plenty more ideas, and even though a new way of living may be forced upon us, it just might turn out to have some unexpected rewards.

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