All the signs were there

When you consider the current economic and environmental crises, have you asked yourself, and others: “What the heck is happening?” If so, you’re not alone.

When we consider the current, global economic meltdown, when we consider the environmental mess, a complete answer is likely missing.

But, do you ask yourself, and others, “Who could have seen this coming?”

If you do, and there is no answer, you are keeping ignorant company.

Ignorant, because clear signs we were skidding toward problems have been visible for a long time. This holds true on an individual as well as a collective basis.

You say you didn’t see it coming?

Did you drive around this community the last decade and notice the amount of construction taking place? Did you ever ask, “Who is going to buy these homes and townhomes, and who is financing this?”

Did you tune to national news and hear about a housing boom, when as many as half of all Americans probably shouldn’t own a home? Did you hear about the ease in obtaining mortgages? Did you observe people — friends and, perhaps, yourself — who suddenly occupied homes too expensive for their incomes to, ordinarily, support? Did you see people buying new cars and trucks? Recreational vehicles? People who, ordinarily, would not have been able to make those purchases? Did you whip out your credit cards without thinking about debt? How many times? How much money went to savings?

Did you monitor the increase in food prices, gas prices?

You didn’t see it coming? You didn’t understand that too many people were living beyond their means, driven by greed and a need for instant gratification? And were being abetted by lenders?

Sub-prime mortgages? Interest-only mortgages? ARMs? Going to just about anyone who applied? You didn’t see it coming?

Didn’t you notice a proliferation of new, arcane financial instruments? It was on the news. A new generation of instruments were imported in raw form from elsewhere, refined in the U.S. then sent back to a greedy world like a potent virus.

Did you notice that, in 2005, 300,000 top U.S. income earners made nearly as much as the 150 million earners at the bottom. And most of those top earners did nothing productive — if you don’t count lining their own pockets as productive. You didn’t notice when CEOs of failed companies received huge compensation?

Have you noticed the problem is far from hitting bottom? The market is in a tailspin; money is tight; bailouts are in the works, one for a dinosaur auto industry that has failed for more than 40 years to respond to an inevitable future. We have an energy industry mired in quicksand — the trap of a limited resource, produced by people who could as easily be an enemy as a friend, depending on price. Have you noticed how we have failed to develop any solidly productive alternative energy systems, despite knowing about the need for 50 years? Have you noticed how addiction to foreign oil coupled with a common aversion to exploration and drilling for natural gas helps prevent us from freeing ourselves of a lethal energy habit?

Well, the problems are here, whether we noticed or not. Heaven help us if we buy into a respite — low gas prices, a resurgent market — and respond with business as usual.

Our greed and shortsightedness have put us behind the Big Eight Ball, no matter what the short-term changes. Now, we must live within our means, as individuals, communities, nations. We must cast a glance to a distant horizon and make some changes.

Or we will be wondering in a decade or so why we didn’t see an even greater disaster in the making.