As this blog begins, America faces a special moment in history.
Never before have so many possibilities, dangers, needs and desires, often conflicting, been set swirling in the air all at once.
At the beginning of 2009 the world faces a possible general economic collapse, as people around the world pull back on their purchases in fear of possible seriously worsening conditions. While it's wise to have more savings and to reduce debts, when everyone moves the same way at once, the boat does tip over.
Noticing that a lot of people are already in the water, pundits have a range of suggestions and prescriptions.
We've been told to all rush to the side of the boat (save more, spend less). Reasonably, we've been told we need more stimulus to support spending. While we throw lumber (unemployment benefits) from the boat down to those (jobless) in the water, many plans are made.
Some say we should haul swimmers from the water to work on building old fashioned boats (the technology of the past -- roads and bridges), and some say set more of the rescued to work to harness the wind and sun in case our fuel runs low, as we must keep the ship pushing into the wind. But in the meanwhile, the ship itself seems to be sinking lower in the water.
Is it the nature of a ship of this kind (an interconnected modern economy) to right itself? Will more rescued swimmers working more bilge pumps be enough? What of the weather and the sea?
But this single metaphor reaches its limits.
We do want to think in terms of natural systems, though. An economy is like a natural system. In fact, an economy is a complex system, just like global climate or a continental ecosystem. This has profound implications for economics and policy choices. I will be writing more on this soon.
In some ways, modern market economies (like that of America or most nations of the world) act like forests on the North American continent.
Growth is rapid when there is enough rain and not too many beetles. Yet the trees do not live forever, and weaker trees often die when normal drought arrives. Fires (recessions) then burn through. The overgrowth burns to leave a seemingly empty world of ash -- or ash and blackened trees, some still alive. Miraculously new life appears in the spring. Soon the cycle begins again. Yet there is no easy way to say if this is what we want.
Lodgepole pines 10 years after 1988 Yellowstone Park fires - north of Madison River; Jim Peaco; September 1998
One may wish to save certain large old trees (GM, Bank of America), even when many tree beetles linger.
In fact, sometimes saved trees flourish, and the old beauty is maintained.
If our metaphor serves, we might imagine a diverse ecosystem of many kinds of trees and plants, naturally resistant in part to any natural menace, insect, animal or climate. Variety insulates the ecosystem from catastrophe. If some kinds of plants die, others take their place.
Flowers amongst burned Douglas firs near Tower Junction; Jim Peaco; Late August 1989
And perhaps here our metaphor tells us something quite useful.
We should not seek to control every part of what grows and where and how and when, even as we seed some fields or scatter fertilizer in some places to speed things along. We might indeed wish to save some of the old trees, even while other spots are opened up for new growth of new kinds.
Uniformity is not the American way. Yet neither are we only plants and trees subject to the whim of nature.
We should take this lesson from Nature, and combine it with our free will.
We'd like to see both new meadows full of new life, and deep old groves of tall, tall trees, as we walk through our woods.