sustainability and debt

What does ‘sustainable’ mean? It means something you can keep going indefinitely. Money or resources in, equals money or resources out. People who didn’t manage this traditionally ended up in the Debtor’s Prison, or the pages of Dickens or both. The penalties for outliving your means were harsh and immediate, and people were, mostly, very scared of doing so.

So, sustainable lifestyles were what everybody practised until about fifty years ago. My granddad, on the only occasion he ever – by a shaming and unforeseen accident – got into debt, ran, at full speed, the length of his village from the post office home, to fetch the 3d he’d had to borrow for an urgent stamp. He was in debt for five minutes, to the tune of one new penny, and it horrified him. So okay, it was a Yorkshire, Quaker village, but it wasn’t Yorkshire tightness, it was his conscience cracking the whip.

Sounds bonkers now, doesn’t it? Until you realise that he was also a free man, in a way that almost none of us is now free. Even if we have no personal debt, no mortgage and no credit card bills, our government, on our behalf, has gone into debt by £618 billion pounds ten thousand pounds for each and every one of us including infants at the breast.

However, this is nothing compared to the $9 trillion the US government has somehow frittered away  (watch it grow)  . The Americans have also accumulated 1.46 billion credit cards – five each Surely no coincidence there.

How did we get to this place? The British can add to their many past clgreis the invention of ‘hire purchase’, which became legal in 1938. Up until then you couldn’t get something unless you gave something in exchange. The pawnshop wanted something as security. The Christmas Club made you save for months before you could spend.

But after World War Two, in the shadow of the bomb, knowing how quickly everything could end, nobody felt like waiting around to save up any more. Which suited the British and American governments, keen to kickstart their economies. Have fun now, worry about paying for it later. The generation that came of age in 1960 had far more spending power  than those in the 1950s.

Everything changed then. Once you unhook what you make from what you spend, there’s no limit to how far it can go. As lots of us have spent the last few decades discovering. This year, we’ve had a bit of a shock. The sub-prime thing, the Northern Rock thing, people losing their credit cards. Welcome back, the pawnshop 

The innocent observer might think that, in this situation, a little depression might be just what we need – less disposable income, less debt, a bit of general sobering up and belt tightening. But no! Governments are so locked into the idea of constant growth, that even a teeny slowdown becomes a disaster. The whole world is one giant bubble. Until we kill all economists, change all the rules, and start to cost things properly (all prices are totally artbitrary, remember).

None of which is going to happen. We shall all die before capitalism does. Which is a bit depressing, really. Given that it means sustainability is literally unachievable.

As usual, all we can do is manage our own affairs. Chop up your credit cards, join a local currency or local trading scheme pay off your mortgage if you possibly can, and do a lot of dancing: free, warming and better for the spirits than any amount of time in Brent Cross.