Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Drought, The Poors and Economic Confusion

There is talk that New Mexico's economy is "turning around," this despite the continuing federal budget cutbacks due to the sequester and the various local and state government financial difficulties due to the Permanent Recession, the housing market collapse, and other more subtle -- and frankly more New Mexican -- factors; for example, The Drought.

But SpaceX signed a deal at the Spaceport the other day, so things are looking up. And Richard Branson isn't bugging out on the Spaceport like he seemed to be doing, so what's the problem?

Supposedly, private sector hiring and employment are up  for the first time in a long time, and government employment is stable -- so long as you don't count the sequester. In our own neighborhood, two of the long time empty places seem to be occupied again, or they soon will be, and another one is possibly going on the market shortly. So may be...

Things are looking up.

I've been reading a novel called "Not As It Seems," by a local writer, Ed Chavez. In it, he describes a drought in this area that began in 1941 and didn't break for 16 years. Locals feel we're in that kind of drought again, perhaps one that will last longer -- who knows, what with Climate Change and all -- and just like before, there will be massive social changes because of it. Part of the likely change is impoverishment.

Things may be looking up in certain sectors and for certain people, but out here in the country, we see clear skies, or clouds that try but don't drop any rain, and we see parched and seer landscape all around and dust and grit filling the air, blowing off the plowed but still barren farm fields. The signs are there, and those who remember the 1950's drought are feeling the weight of history. They know what could happen.

The Rio Grande is already dry below Elephant Butte, and water tables are dropping along the valley limiting irrigation water. Much of Southern New Mexico's commercial farming will be impossible this year -- and for how many more years to come? Nobody knows.

Many people have long pointed out how unsustainable Albuquerque is even in good times, but the city keeps trying to grow. It must do so under the current economic and political regime, a regime that doesn't accept "sustainability" as a fundamental principle -- as opposed to a temporary fashion. "Growth" is the only principle recognized. And perpetual growth is unsustainable.

Albuquerque is actually a relatively modest example of civic unsustainability. Phoenix, Las Vegas (NV), even Los Angeles itself strike me as more fraughtful examples, but we may see a prelude in Albuquerque to what could be in store for many cities in the Southwest and elsewhere as a new weather regime settles in for the long haul.

But things are looking up!

Albuquerque has the advantage of being divided into sectors and ancient barrios and villages. What is now a bloated cityscape grew from tiny beginnings more than three hundred years ago, beginnings that were scattered along the Rio Grande in the shadow of a dozen abandoned Indian pueblos and bordering the two remaining pubeblos, Isleta and Sandia -- the presence of which strictly limits the growth of Albuquerque to the south and north. Those beginnings are still there, whether it's Barelas or Los Ranchos, or any number of others that may have been absorbed by the Albuquerque metroplex, but which still retain their independent character.

In other words, it seems at least psychologically possible to "go back" to the cores of the city's parts. It's not that long ago, after all, when there were still fields beside Old Town, and Rio Rancho, among other suburbs, didn't exist.

On the other hand, when the previous droughts have come, people have abandoned the country-side for the relative comfort and prosperity of the City. At least in the City, they believed, they had a chance, whereas out in the country, they didn't. Without water, without rain, there was no future to be found in the fields, and depending on motor traffic for sustenance, as was the case, for example, along Route 66, is risky at best. When the Drought settles in, that's it. Despite the of best intentions, one can't really ride it out. By the time the Drought breaks, you've long been dead.

What to do, then?

The Drought forces those who depend on the land for a living to consider -- and accept -- some alternative, because the land simply can't provide for them. If they recognize that the City alternative may actually be closed off to them (it's already apparent that Santa Fe, for example, has rolled up the welcome mat -- for some -- for the duration),  then thoughts of escape out of the region altogether may be necessary. That's one reason why the Spaceport looms large in the imagination. What better escape than to space?

Well, except for the fact that you have to come back...

One of our neighbors actually works in California. It's a long haul back and forth, but he claims it's necessary, because of the lack of employment opportunity around here... he gets paid a lot more in California, too. They just don't want to live in California. They have an Airstream, the husband works for several months at a time, lives in the trailer, comes back for a few weeks, then he is off to California again. It's an... alternative lifestyle. And at least to my way of looking at it, it's an adaptation to reality. (Well, I should know. Like a lot of people, we've never worked in New Mexico. Almost all our current income is derived from California employment.)

As long as the roads remain open... this kind of alternative is open.

Because of the Interstate, there actually are some employment opportunities where we live now -- and more are coming due to the construction of another truck stop. But the local workers I've talked to are not that enthusiastic about their prospects. Pay is low. Poverty level low. And when you're working in a low-end store or shop where you can't afford to buy anything, it can be severely depressing. One of the workers I talked to the other day says she's going to school full time so she can have a career in the medical field, and she works two low-wage retail jobs so she can afford school and childcare. Thank god, she says, she'll graduate next spring.

Even if there were enough work for everyone who wants a job, this wouldn't be an uncommon situation.

She's poor and she knows it, but she believes her schooling and training should boost her at least one rung up the economic ladder -- so she can "breathe" she says.

I hope so for the sake of her sanity, her health and her kids....

But for so many others, there are neither opportunities nor a future. I've written many times that the Future -- as an image, an idea, a goal -- has been stolen from us by those who deem themselves Our Betters, and they have no intention of giving it back, under any circumstance. The Future -- as it used to be -- is now their sole possession, and their goal now is gaining immortality, so they can hold onto it forever.

The common people have no Future. And the young feel the loss more than any.

For many of the young, there is not only no Future, there is  no chance for one.

What will they do?

We see signs of an explosion of anger and despair, even revolutionary murmurings, but not -- yet -- overthrow of the prevailing system of financializing, looting, extraction and rent-seeking by the Highest of the Mighty.

Can't "overthrow" the system without something to replace it with, né?

Well, yes, actually, "overthrow" doesn't require a pre-existing substitute, but will "overthrow" ever happen?

We don't know; no one can foresee well enough to predict the (non-existent?) Future. But we have seen preludes to Revolution, and if we use our peripheral vision, we might see the prefiguring of a Future, not only after the Revolution comes, but what happens then.

In part, the past of New Mexico may be a guidepost to the Future -- if we squint just a little and use our imaginations to visualize what once was and what could be again.

Drought is the ever-present reality we face right now, a drought that may linger for many more years to come. We don't know. Life seems to go on as it always has, the rhythms of the seasons haven't changed, the wind still blows, and we pray for rain as the ancestors have long done. The ancient social and cultural roots in New Mexico have weathered many, many persistent droughts -- and much worse -- and somehow the rootstock has survived. Even flourished.

In other words, there is a cultural/social pattern here that ensures the society as a whole gets through pretty much anything that comes along -- even when people have to move from rougher areas to more benign ones, and various parts of the whole are abandoned temporarily or permanently.

I've mentioned the prevalence of ruins in New Mexico, for example -- abandoned sites falling back into the earth from whence they came litter the place, yet many get reclaimed in the by and bye as other people come along to make do in what was once abandoned. It's a cycle, as natural as the wind.

In the meantime, many, many alternative living sites and intentional communities are inaugurated.  Some of them persist. They all have their own quirks and individual characters, and yet they all partake of the spirit of place, so in some sense they're all united. If they depend on farming for survival, they may be facing existential difficulty due to the drought, but many don't rely on their farm fields and livestock to sustain them.

What I see happening, though I can't be certain about it, is that more and more New Mexicans are recognizing the unreliability of the various lifestyle props we take for granted and are shifting into another frame of mind about it.

One factor is the shift of economic expectations. This is as acute here as anywhere else. It's basically a matter of recognizing and accepting the fact that we don't really need all the devices and props we've become accustomed to in order to live well. Living well often doesn't require either material or financial abundance. A sufficiency will do quite nicely, thank you.

It can be confusing to shift expectations from over-abundance to sufficiency, however. That confusion leads to many missteps and misperceptions. So many of us are conditioned to expect more, more, more, more devices, more cars, insurance, cable, new houses, clothes, appliances, and so on. Few of us seem to know how to get by without them, or with fewer of them. So many of us assume that the lack of material and financial lifestyle underpinnings is the definition of poverty, and many assume that no one can live well without lots of money and lots of stuff -- new stuff at that.

The quest for lots of money and lots of stuff is what kept the overall economy going for generations. But now, apparently, that era is over. We might never go back to it, might never have the opportunity to go back to it.

There are now at least two distinctly different -- and quite separate -- economies, one that serves the rich with extraordinary, indeed obscene, abundance, generally through a combination of automatic payments (often called rent-seeking) from the masses, and what amounts to rounds and rounds of thefts from one another. It is medieval on an unprecedented global scale.

The rest of us, quite literally, have a completely separate economy that primarily operates to ensure the perpetual financial indebtedness of the masses to their Betters -- Betters who are becoming their Masters. More medievalism on an unprecedented global scale.

Then there are those who insist on separating themselves from all of it.

The fact that you can still do that is something of a wonder. As things solidify into neo-feudalism (but without the necessity of old-fashioned mutual responsibilities)  I doubt that the opportunities for alternatives and intentional communities and so on will be widespread or endure. The point of neo-feudalism is to become universal, with no alternatives available or permitted. This is certainly how conquest was conducted by essentially feudal Europeans in the New World. The Natives could submit, or the Natives could die. Often, the consequence of submission was death in any case. There was no way out.

Right now, we still have alternatives if we choose to take them up, but how much longer that will be the case, I don't know.

 There is likely to come a time when only a very special handful of people and communities will be able to withstand the pressure of becoming part of whatever social, economic and political future is being cobbled together for us.

But then, even at the worst of the previous feudal past, there was always resistance.

Things are looking up!

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