In economic/political terms, austerity is policy imposed upon nations facing bankruptcy as a result of indebtedness to other nations. It reduces the general population to stringent living conditions and limits their ability to recover from financial shock by prioritizing debt repayment above all other factors of economic and social activity.
In the larger view, austerity could become the policy of all nations facing bankruptcy and dissolution as a result of ever-expanding production, over-exploitation and waste of natural resources, climate-warming devastation, environmental pollution, the waste of wars, and resulting social unrest. This could be the basic scenario for the world in the coming centuries if these current and projected destructive trends are not adequately confronted.
The predominate humanly-devised operating systems of the present world are like an unquenched appetite; they are not in harmony with the Earth's natural systems of renewal. This has been the case for centuries or millennia, but the resulting damage in former times was relatively inconsequential to the capacities of the Earth.
Today, we identify the basic operating system as a capitalistic economy: an outgrowth primarily of the industrial revolution when productive capacity and consumer markets greatly expanded. A class of entrepreneurs, backed by collective investors, took private ownership of large-scale means of production of goods and services, creating a large class of workers who, commonly, are marginally compensated for their work. This system is advertised as the best possible because it is supposedly self-regulating by competition, fair trade, and the "invisible hand" of the markets - as if a god were in control.
But we have seen that the system is far from perfect. The natural tendencies of unsupervised greed and self-aggrandizement, coupled with compromised morality and social consciousness, find all sorts of ways to outwit the invisible hand and destabilize the natural and man-made systems.
The greatest obstacle to a "perfect" system in balance with nature may lie in the culture of the consumer. The level of materialistic expectations inherited by each generation has risen in accordance with the increasing diversity and profusion of products and other amenities available to us, except for those living outside the system in relative poverty. Will this or the next generations be capable of adjusting to a significantly lower level of affluence in an anticipated era of austerity? Such conditions existed in America during World War I and the people adapted cooperatively. There was great motivation at that time and many had suffered during the preceding stringent times of the "Great" Depression, making an easy transition to wartime conditions that actually lifted them out of depression.
Today, many of us live in an intoxicated state of commercially-stimulated pleasures, giving only token attention to or oblivious to the suffering surrounding us and beyond in the outside world. The many little wars and conspiracies our corporate-guided government is engaged in does not seem to faze our everyday pleasures of shopping, sports, movies, TV, music, games, exercising, eating out, etc., that occupy our leisure time. Some of these pleasures would have to be sacrificed under conditions of widespread austerity, but does that mean that life would offer fewer opportunities for happiness? There are alternative modes of life that, under conditions of austerity, can provide real pleasures and happiness beyond what our commercial culture can offer.
We will explore those alternative life styles that will allow us to thrive despite disappearing life-benefits normally available to us at this stage of civilization. But first, we must find ways to reverse the degenerative social forces that brought us to this dilemma. The problem is inherent in the very structure of human societies.
A very general theory of civilization will indicate that two primary instincts of mankind have shaped the course of social evolution: the competitive aggressive instinct for self-preservation and dominance, and the cooperative instinct for collaboration and social organization. As civilization has progressed from primitive conditions, the advantages of collaboration, in the form of individual contributions and social institutions, have dominated to produce the amenities of modern life. But now we are again in the throes of a regressive struggle between individual or elite interests and the general welfare that could undo centuries of human enlightenment. Is human progress a pendulum that must inevitably swing in the opposite direction?
The stakes in this cycle of human progress are higher than ever because this time we are in a war against nature. As the predicted physical and monetary costs of this war mount up, it will become clear that nothing except a concerted mass effort by all factions of society could deal with the situation. It could be like World War II on steroids.
The anticipated costs in the war against nature - the astronomical costs of repairing damage from extreme hurricanes, floods, tornados, droughts; the possible losses of agriculture and fishing industries, of coastal lands and cities from rising oceans; the disruption of industries, the accommodation of refugees and unemployment - could rise beyond the capacity of present governments and social institutions to deal with them. It may become self-evident that we have to re-make America and the world politically on an expedited basis.
No longer could we allow opportunistic people to run our governments. No longer would governments be able to arbitrarily tax their constituents to the advantage of one faction. No longer will prices be manipulated so they do not represent the true value of goods, but, instead, a corporate tax on its customers in the form of excessive profits to the benefit of a financial elite. No longer will the socially valuable capacities of the people be defined in terms of money, which limits their education, their health, their full participation in society. In other words, money can be arbitrarily created as necessary, to serve the best purposes of society (whereas now money is arbitrarily created to serve the best interests of a privileged class).
Such measures would create an enlightened economy that could better deal with emerging world challenges by assigning priority in all matters to the most essential and realistic demands. For the duration, we would have to sacrifice laissez-faire ("lousy-faire") economics. All of this could come about by consensus out of shear necessity rather than by belligerency, as natural mayhem escalates.
In a proposed follow-up article, we will discuss how life could be more beautiful for all by learning "The Art of Living in the Coming age of Austerity". These topics have already been introduced here in two previous articles:"The Case For Human Economics" and "Do We Really Need More Jobs".