The end is not near

Despite what you’ve heard, we’ve got along way to go before we hit bottom

On the occasion of the Sacramento News & Review’s 20th anniversary, this space has been tasked with predicting what the paper’s next 20 years might look like. In doing so, I am of course presuming the paper will survive the cascading economic and environmental catastrophes of the coming two decades. That presumption seems foolhardy at best. None of us may get out of this thing alive.

Let’s start with the global economic meltdown. We’re coming up on President Barack Obama’s first 100 days in office, and no matter how many times the president trots out Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to tell us things are kinda sorta starting to turn around, no one believes it. By almost every account, the downturn is going to be long and severe. If Obama continues to pursue economic remedies that are more friendly to Wall Street than Main Street, he runs the very real risk of becoming the next Herbert Hoover.

It may take five years or longer for the economy to recover, and the Sacramento area will be profoundly transformed as a result. That’s going to be especially true as the economic effects of peak oil continue to sink in, driving up the relative cost of fuel and pulling the rug out from under the suburban lifestyle. California remains dangerously dependent on natural gas for producing electricity, and as gas becomes more scarce, economic survival for individuals might mean going without heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer.

We’ll be shopping local out of necessity, not to prove a point. We’ll be growing local because shipping vegetables 1,500 miles via planes, trains and trucks will become prohibitively expensive. In short, we’ll become more sustainable because we’ll have no other choice.

This won’t be the happy, shiny sustainability currently being embraced by every major corporation on the planet. An increasing number of Americans are going to experience scarcity and hunger, many of them for the first time.

Some observers have predicted civil unrest in the American streets as early as this summer, and it’s not difficult to imagine the carnage that could result if the downturn drags on for years.

Eventually, say in 10 years or so, the economy will recover, albeit at a lower, more sustainable rate of growth. However, we still won’t be out of the woods, because by that time we’ll be starting to feel the effects of global warming. The sea level will rise, topping the levees in the Sacramento Delta and salting up the water supply for 75 percent of the state’s population.

Those who haven’t already starved to death will almost certainly die from thirst. Disposing of the bodies won’t be a problem, because when the natives grow restless, they often turn to cannibalism.

I realize this assessment is rather bleak. But barring some miracle breakthrough in technology that will somehow enable us to enjoy the unsustainable standard of living we’ve all become accustomed to, it seems inevitable, at least to me. Not that I don’t see a few silver linings. Obesity will become a problem of the past. Traffic jams will be unknown. There will be no shortage of bad news, so you know we’ll still be around, in one form or another.

Nevertheless, we stand at the precipice. Twenty years from now, if we take bold action today, we just might be able to hand over a better world to our grandchildren. On our present course, we will simply be telling them it never got any better than this.