Wake-up call

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. 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.

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. 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 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, New York Times Columnist Thomas Friedman notes, economies are being retooled and reoriented to make new investments in green power and green products. The Group of 20 summit in London earlier this month produced an unprecedented agreement on new regulation of international finances, and it’s inevitable that 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 Barack Obama never ceases to point out, just how interconnected and interdependent Earth’s people are.