Boom and Bust

The snowshoe hare, a long-eared cutie at the bottom of the Arctic food chain, roams the 6 million acres of Alaska’s Denali National Park, eating the bark off of spruce saplings with the voracity of locusts. When the rabbits (and the squirrels, and the picas, and all the other little critters that provide sustenance for larger carnivores) have a good year, eating well and reproducing plentifully, nearly every creature in the wilderness flourishes — except the spruces. Every few years, though, the hare population “crashes.” It outgrows the vegetative food supply. The rodent populations fall dramatically– as much as 80% in bad years — and many hawks and owls, bears and wolves, go hungry. Eventually, though, the hare community recovers and the denizens of Denali enjoy another couple of years of fatted comfort. 

Economies work the same way. So do many markets. Prosperity and despair occur in cycles, constantly seeking a workable equilibrium between boom and bust. When the stock exchange becomes intoxicated with “irrational exuberance,” an inevitable “correction” follows, although, unlike in the wild, no one can say exactly when. When a society like America’s eats up all its resources, burning fossil fuels and the national treasury with the rapaciousness of a snowshoe hare let loose on a fledgling forest, there must be consequences.

Since our species is putatively smarter than the rabbits, our crash probably won’t involve a quartering of our population. It will, however, involve loss. Of businesses, of property, of aspirations. It will also rob us of the warming blubber that aids our wakeful hibernation, allowing us to sleepwalk through life, anesthetized by our popular culture and our peculiar obsession with acquiring more than we need. Unlike caribou or seals or penguins, whose summertime gluttony allows them to survive a foodless winter, our closets full of tailored suits and garages full of motorized toys won’t help us make it through the night. When our crash comes, we’ll look at all that we’ve amassed and wonder why it failed to make us happy, let alone secure.

The good news, one suspects, is that, like the resilient hares of Alaska, we’ll bounce back. Another boom cycle will commence, perhaps lead by the search for alternative energies, alternative food sources, and an alternative consciousness.

And if we don’t recover that will be OK, too. When the bottom falls out of the food chain, everyone suffers. When the predator at the top disappears, someone else eventually takes his place.

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