The party’s over

We have reached a watershed moment in history, and things will never be the same

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With the unemployment rate edging toward 11 percent in California and 9 percent nationally, and the media full of reports of corporate bankruptcies and failed banks, it can be difficult to see the silver lining behind all the dark economic clouds. But it’s there, if we have eyes to see.

For one thing, as Newsweek’s Sharon Begley has reported, the recession has succeeded where environmentalists’ efforts long have failed: in shutting down thousands of high-polluting factories in places like China, Russia, Mexico and India. She cites, as a particularly relevant example, the Baikal Pulp and Paper Mill, on the shores of Siberia’s Lake Baikal, the largest and deepest freshwater lake in the world. The mill closed recently after decades of pouring chlorides, phenols and other toxic chemicals into the lake and nasty-smelling sulphates into the air.

In Brazil, falling beef prices and the shortage of farm credit have put a natural brake on rainforest destruction, which is down 70 percent in just a year, Begley reports. And the developed countries are changing, too: Because of decreased economic activity, carbon-dioxide emissions in Europe and the United States are expected to be cut by 100 million tons in 2009.

There are many more such topical outgrowths of the recession. For example, to save money more and more people are going to the library for entertainment—and therefore reading more. Also, because of the poor job market, more college students are going on to graduate and professional schools. And Americans have reversed their negative savings rate and are squirreling away more money than they have in years. They’re also expressing a willingness to take pay cuts to save fellow employees’ jobs—a rare level of selflessness.

As welcome as these changes are, they could be transitory. Fortunately, changes are taking place that are fundamental to our view of what is sustainable both economically and in terms of the ultimate source of capital, Earth’s natural resources. We have reached a watershed moment in history, and things will never be the same.

If there is a single message to be learned from this recession, it’s that the era of unfettered capitalism has ended. The bubbles have burst; the party’s over. We’ve been living high on the hog of speculation and credit and the delusion that Earth’s resources are infinitely available—“magical thinking,” as Kurt Andersen calls it in a recent Time magazine essay.

As painful as it is, the recession will have been worth it if it enables us to see more clearly just how out of balance we’ve become. As New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has written, the crisis of 2008 is telling us that “the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall—when Mother Nature and the market both said: ‘No more.’ ”

As Andersen puts it, “We are like substance abusers coming off a long bender, hitting bottom (we can only hope) and taking the messes we’ve made as a sobering wake-up call.”

The party’s over, and the world’s political and corporate leaders know it’s over. Across the planet, Friedman notes, economies are being retooled and reoriented to make new investments in green power and green products. The G-20 summit in London last week produced an unprecedented agreement on new regulation of international finances, and new accords on carbon emissions will soon be forthcoming.

But, ultimately, transformation begins with each of us. Perhaps the crisis will lead Americans to grow up finally and learn to live in the world as it is: rich enough in resources to support us in sustainable comfort, but not rich enough for us to take more than our fair share. Certainly it is showing us, as President Obama never ceases to point out, just how interconnected and interdependent Earth’s people—and, indeed, all of its creatures—really are.

When all is said and done, perhaps the real value of this crisis has to do with the way it reminds us of what is most important: our families, our friends, our communities. If it makes us less selfish and more giving, less interested in financial wealth and more interested in living lives rich in love and kindness, we may one day look back and say it was a turning point for the better.