The Case for Un-Building America: Watch Where You Put Your Stimulus Package (2009)

by Jane Anne Morris

The Run-Up to Collapse

b19objects158 copyToday as many hundreds of billions of dollars are flying out of federal coffers to bail out and bulk up The Economy, it is instructive to review a few of the places we have not put enough money in the last decades. Universal single-payer health care; living wages for all; effective and affordable public transit systems; facilities and programs for all disabled persons; worker safety measures in all industries; community gardens; bike paths; and renewable energy-powered off-grid public buildings, to name but a few.

In addition to those community-oriented needs that we just could not fund, we also lacked resources, it seems, to protect and restore our environment. Cleanups of Superfund sites, and many other terribly fouled areas, are incomplete, stalled, or not even begun. We lacked funds for state-of-the-art pollution controls on all power plants, factories, and refineries; for cleaning up our lakes, rivers, and aquifers; and for healing the habitat destruction, degradation, and erosion wrought by corporate agriculture, mining, clearcutting, and the like.

Yet now, after repeatedly finding that it was always too expensive—for government, for corporations, for taxpayers—to take care of Community and Environment, suddenly the care and feeding of The Economy trumps all. What is this creature Economy that is more important by far than Community and Environment, and so must be “saved” at all costs?

The State of the Economy

A vast calamity has befallen our Economy: People are buying only what they need. They are wearing out old stuff before throwing it away and buying new stuff. They are driving only when necessary. They are spending more time with nearby family and friends. They are borrowing as little money as possible, and only when it is important. They are reusing things. I hear on the radio that such “cutting back” is devastating The Economy.

In what kind of world are such moderately prudent practices calamitous?

Advice comes at us from all sides: Don’t slow your spending, borrowing, or consuming, or things will get even worse. Instead, borrow money, take a trip to the democracy theme park, and buy some plastic flags shipped in from Asian factories. Shop early and often. Our Economy’s slogan might as well be: Don’t fix that flat–buy a new car!

Evidently, matching consumption to needs will wreck The Economy. This state of affairs is at once absurd, and true: it would wreck our Economy.

What Humans Made Can Be Re-Made

If an economy were a shoe, the little tag inside would say, “All man-made materials.” Our current Economy did not spring fully formed from the primeval slime: human beings concocted every last detail of it. In the US, we set up and maintain an economy that rewards sleazy con artists playing with sleight-of-hand “investments,” while dealing organic farmers near-starvation wages and nonexistent health care. Since we made our Economy, we could make it differently.

If Earth were a shoe, the tag would say something like “Follows Laws of Nature, see Deep Ecology.” While human beings can make drastic changes to Nature (such as mountaintop removal, or species eradication), we cannot change the fundamental principles that govern it. After we turn off the pumps and the fans, water will still run downhill. All the six-legged (and immune) survivors of a pesticide-spraying session will reproduce enthusiastically and in abundance. The laws of Nature, not economic beliefs or theories, determine what happens when we pump prodigious amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.

“Economy” is how one very powerful species refers to the way it makes a living on its home planet. That “home planet” is singular. Since there is no separate Weekend Getaway Planet or Toxic Waste Dump Planet, the idea of Economy ought to be inextricably bound with the idea of Ecology (as they are in origin from the Greek oikos, house).

I do not know which notion is more dangerous: that we cannot change the economic principles we live by, or that we can change the laws of Nature. Those twinned assumptions form the backdrop for the whacked-out social arrangements that brought us to the present circumstance. People handing out money under the “Yes We Can” banner would do well to keep in mind that only by assuming the reverse—that we can (and must) change The Economy, but we cannot change the laws of Nature–might we be able to turn this aircraft carrier of an economy around.

The first step is to recognize it for the Ponzi scheme that it is.

Ponzi Stories

Since our present Economy subsidizes consumption well beyond need, and encourages (if not demands) waste, any stimulus package dumped into this situation will encourage the exact practices that brought us to where we are now.

Our Economy is a Ponzi scheme, paying off a few current participants by racking up huge IOUs to be paid in the future. This principle underlies not only the recent Madoff scheme, but also mortgage-backed securities, interest on lent money, stock appreciation, and much other speculative economic “growth.” (This in contrast to real value added through labor, as when a craftsperson turns raw materials into an accordion).

Many IOUs are written in the currency of nonrenewable resources, and thus transcend the strictly economic. In a sense, our Ponzi scheme Economy is entangled with a Ponzi scheme Ecology. As with Economy, we are pushing off nonredeemable IOUs onto the future. We are using up resources, from oil to trees to topsoil. In the extraction, processing, and use of them, we pollute, leaving future generations a much-degraded “base.”

Victims of a classic (purely economic) Ponzi scheme need a “story” to explain how they can seemingly get something for nothing, so they are handed some financial mumbo-jumbo that purports to “explain” the promised profits. The catalyst that lubricates our parallel ecological Ponzi scheme society is cheap oil, or more accurately, the cheap fossil fuels that have so transformed our world over the last two centuries. The “story” that makes it plausible to some is an assurance of future “discoveries”: as we rip through resources, we will “discover” more of the same, or new sources, or some magic technological solution that will fix the consequences that we cause today.

Our societal Ponzi scheme is political as much as economic and ecological: “leaders” must offer convincing promises, rationalizations, and myths to keep people believing, especially during times of crisis. Recall the joke about a head of state and his successor, just as the former is stepping down. The outgoing leader hands over two envelopes, each to be opened only when things go seriously wrong. At his first crisis, the new leader opens envelope #1 and reads: “Blame the previous administration.” He does so, and things clear up for a while. But problems come again, and he opens the second envelope: “Prepare two envelopes.”1 Our political Ponzi scheme harmonizes with the economic and ecological versions, and gives us the moral fiber to continue to do the wrong thing. But, like any Ponzi scheme, it must end.

Transition to Sustainability

Since the US economy is obviously in transition, let’s consciously make it a transition to a sustainable economy.

The goal of any “stimulus” should be taking care of people’s needs, their communities, and the environment in a sustainable manner. The goal should not be using energy, using resources, producing things, selling things, bailing out speculators, or creating jobs. Frankly, if we take care of Community and Environment (something we have not done for some time), Economy and “jobs” will take care of themselves. No stimulus or bailout money should fund anything that is not sustainable.

Because the “sustainability” mantra has become part of innumerable “green marketing” schemes, it is essential to define it, and set up a practical measure for use in evaluating possible courses of action. We can think of this as a way to establish a “fair share” standard: a per-person sustainable level of energy and resource use.

Since we live on a finite planet, the main concern here is not efficiency, but AMOUNT. If we are cutting too many trees, it matters little that we are using efficient factories to turn them into toilet paper. At the base of any real notion of sustainability is the carrying capacity2 of our planet.

Far from being a new idea, much of this work has already been done,3 in fact, been done over and over again. Drawing on that work, and initiating a focused public debate on the matter, should be among the first things that “stimulus” money is used for.

The carrying capacity/sustainability literature suggests that at a modest living standard (well below the US average), Earth’s carrying capacity is about two billion persons. Current world population is about seven billion. Extrapolate. As a tentative target for the US, we should reduce our use of nearly everything by 90-95%. This is not about “other people.”>

In ecology, everything counts. The pound of coal burned for each Internet click. The humongous bank buildings downtown. The strip mall. Your Labrador retriever’s dinner, and chew toy. The take-out foam carton. Every electronic gadget you own. Any hopes of achieving a sustainable society rest on undertaking a vast program of un-building America.

There is much work to be done: taking out highway lanes and putting in public transit, taking out parking lots and putting in community gardens. McMansions that can be salvaged can become libraries, recreation centers, or apartments; those that cannot will provide building blocks for community garden tool sheds or greenhouses. Gymnasium equipment can be hooked up to generators to make fitness clubs net energy providers instead of energy sinks. There are people all over the world building houses that use almost no energy—isn’t that a much better task for our valuable workers than building SUV’s?

Here Comes the Dollar

Unfortunately, sustainability has no place in our current Economy, which has recently been placed in the hands of a “new” team whose mottos seem to be “Representation without Taxation” and “Full Speed Ahead.”

Though we figure carrying capacity in ecological terms (resources and energy), we pay for food and shelter with dollars, denominated in units pegged to The Economy. Far from reflecting the sustainability of this or that purchase or habit, the dollar scale does the opposite. Highly processed, energy-intensive food from afar is cheaper than locally produced stuff. Chintzy, short-term housing is cheaper to build and buy than lasting structures with low energy requirements. Repair of such things as shoes, CD players, and watches is expensive or near impossible, while buying new ones is cheap. The more you use of something, the less you pay for it.

Like ships passing in the night, Community and Environment’s sustainability criterion sends one signal, while Economy’s dollars broadcast the opposite. Now is the time to choose Community and Environment, and sustainability—not as an advertising slogan but as a way of life.

After the Second Envelope

Perching on the sloping shoulder of empire in decline has proved to be an excellent vantage point for eloquent musings on previous societies in the same position. If you change the names of the factions, Edward Gibbon’s descriptions of the decline of the Roman Empire could be about the USA today.4 Barbara Tuchman wasn’t holding up her distant mirror out of idle curiosity, either; her words could have described the recent coronation in our nation’s capital:

…in decadence chivalry threw its brightest light; never were its ceremonies more brilliant, its jousts and tournaments so brave, its apparel so splendid, its manners so gay and amorous, its entertainments so festive, its self-glorification more eloquent.5

Most empires fall for one or both of two reasons: they overreach and go bankrupt funding wars to control people and protect resources, or they go into ecological collapse after long denial of accumulating consequences. We are on track for both.

Our current (new) leaders opened up the first envelope even before taking office. In an attempt to avoid opening the second, they urge us to have “confidence” in an Economy based on waste, theft, pollution, denial, and hubris, while frantically printing and borrowing money to keep a Ponzi Economy going a little longer.

We have a peephole of opportunity that we can use to soften the slope of what John Michael Greer calls the long descent in his recent book of the same name. After the second envelope, it’s ecology all the way down.

(First published in Synthesis/Regeneration 49, spring 2009.)


  1. The envelope joke (of which there are many versions) is supposedly from the nineteen sixties, is often told of Kruschev and Stalin, and is reputed to be especially popular in Russia and the Ukraine. I have retained male gender because all the versions I have heard are about men.
  2. Carrying capacity is “the maximal population size of a given species that an area can support without reducing its ability to support the same species in the future.” Gretchen C. Daily and Paul R. Ehrlich, “Population, Sustainability, and Earth’s Carrying Capacity: A framework for estimating population sizes and lifestyles that could be sustained without undermining future generations” in November 1992 BioScience.
  3. See the 1992 Daily and Ehrlich piece cited above for an overview, although things are much worse now.
  4. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1788).
  5. Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror (1978).