Friday, April 30, 2010

Two Views

Robert Irwin, the west coast artist most famous for his designs for the Central Garden at the Getty, said in an interview (Robert Irwin, "The State of the Real, Part 1," conversation with Jan Butterfield, Arts 46, no. 10 (June 1972), p. 48.) that he felt as if he was straddling a mountain; one leg placed him in "now time", the other in "real time." An example of what that meant to Irwin was the controversy that exploded when he "finished" the build out of the garden in 1997 and it was opened to the public. The public howled at what appeared to be the absence of plants, the lack of green, the barrenness of the landscape in "now time". Irwin had allowed for the garden to grow, to fill in, in the fullness of "real time", and now of course it is appreciated as one of the great gardens of the world.

We are burdened by two great calamities occurring in tandem. The links between the environmental and economic crisis are obvious when we have a "now time" event like the gulf oil spill threatening the shore line, and what are surely going to be the economic consequences of slowing down off-shore drilling.

What hinders resolution of either of the "real time" crisis, the profound problems of the environment or the world's economy, is the fact that the problems are even harder to imagine then Irwin's garden. It is hard for the average citizen to imagine the consequences of his/her acts. Even harder is imagining how invisible co2 emissions are warming the planet. The images that reinforce an "Inconvenient Truth" are either too removed; impacts are 50-100 years off, too remote; Greenland, or too special; polar bears, to have any profound impact on the way we live.

There is the attendant problem of denial when the implications are that one must change his or her behavior, exacerbated by "deniers" who supply an alternative reality. I learned not to jump to any quick conclusions about who those deniers might be. When I moved to Maine on a grant to work within the University of Southern Maine, I was asked from time to time to speak to groups of students. In every case I was forewarned NOT to be the bearer of bad news. Their faculty felt that the students couldn't take a nightmare scenario of environmental change.

We are learning that the effects of the economic crisis are more immediate. As troubling as the nightly "now time" news is, limited though it may be, a daily dose of evidence of job losses, foreclosures, and the failure of sovereign states, doesn't seem to have the impact on personal behavior that one might imagine. I believe that the same conspiracy of silence prevails among the chattering classes who fear that if the citizenry were aware of the depth of the "real time" problem, they would amplify the problem by say, saving, or scaling back their consumption. Their protest and rejection of the current regimes that brought them the end, if indeed it is the end, would be louder and uncontrollable. An example of a news organization at least trying to inform its public is evidenced by the BBC airing a story that all three of the parties running in the current election are underestimating how they would achieve fiscal responsibility by a factor of at least three. That is too say that each party's proposals to cut expenses and tax to raise revenues misses the mark by two thirds. Their burden of debt is not being addressed. The British will not have to face their real problems, yet.

If you are willing to dig a little deeper on matters of debt, toxic assets, and exposure you will find The International Monetary Fund is forecasting that global bank losses from the financial crisis will total $2.28 trillion, in 2010, a drop of $533 billion from an estimate made last October.

As this plays out on the world stage the NYT blog Economix asks if Europe can save itself? (answer no). By now you can see the similarities to those eco-issues that seem of another place, another time. They do not effect us.

And if we can't absorb the scale and meaning of the current crisis what of the potential of the next real crisis. This is even harder to imagine as the masters of the universe let us know in their congressional testimony. Included in that mind numbing exercise was a statement by one master that only the hedge fund guys know how it works, the "buy what the rating agencies endorse players" won't know. FYI that includes pension funds, trusts, endowments, states, the institutions we depend on to secure our lives.

An even larger example of what we can't get our heads around is the following: The WorldBank calculates that the world's GNP is roughly 60+ trillion dollars.

Now consider that the Bank for International Settlement, that keeps track of these things, calculates that the OTC Derivatives Market "Notional amounts of all types of OTC contracts rebounded somewhat to stand at $605 trillion at the end of June 2009, "

The value of these derivatives are ten times the world economy on any given day and they are not regulated. The potential for the next blow up is enormous. But I can't see it, I can't touch it, I still have a job, my house is still here, the cars run, the planes fly. Why worry? The nightly news reports the markets are up, consumer confidence is raising, home prices are stabilizing.

Sen. Alan Simpson got to the issue last night as he spoke about the new commission he co-chairs to deal with our national debt crisis:
"If we don't solve this problem, its not like we won't be here. We'll still be here. Its just that everything we know and love won't."

1 comment:

  1. Good article, Will. Your analysis gets to the heart of it. Nancy & I were talking about this earlier today: how we could change the way we live and muster the will to do it.