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The power of small things

2008 could become an annus mirabilis.

It is now 15 years since the Queen famously coined the expression annus horribilis to describe a dreadful year. She was referring not only to the personal lives of the younger royals but to her deep sadness at losing part of Windsor Castle to fire. She appeared rather to have overlooked that 1992 was when, as the British economy contracted, thousands of homeowners lost their homes entirely.

The coming year could just as easily turn into an annus horribilis for over-extended homeowners in many parts of the world - and New Zealand, for all its much-vaunted economic stability, may get a bad dose of the horribles too.

Right now, fixed interest rates for home loans are at a 10-year high, with no sign of relief till 2009 at the earliest. Something has to give. It has already started to in the United States, where the credit crunch triggered by the subprime market collapse is drying up the flow of mortgage money. And it's started in Britain, where for the first time in 15 years, the country faces the prospect of a serious economic slowdown. British household mortgage debt stands at an alarming 125 percent of disposable income (it's 104 percent in the US). If that isn't enough to put the frighteners on you, consider this: the New Zealand equivalent figure, according to the Reserve Bank earlier this year, is 155 percent.

Such a level of debt is clearly unsustainable. In the worst case scenario, as people lose the ability to service such loans, banks foreclose, credit dries up, consumer spending drops, jobs are lost, prices rise. It becomes a case of the unmortgageable in full pursuit of the unaffordable.

Little wonder, then, that there is around the planet such a profound change in the zeitgeist. We are seeing a recalibration of what is important, a new focus on the power of small things. The idea that our main goal, as individuals and nations, should be the accumulation of wealth at all costs is now open to question. Indeed, if happiness is our goal, then the economic dogma of "maximum utility" is not working. Mass affluence in the postwar years may have seen the GNP curve in western nations steadily climb but the life satisfaction index has stayed exactly the same.

So, how to make things better? In his new book Deep Economy, the American environmentalist Bill McKibben writes: "For most of human history, the two birds More and Better roosted on the same branch." But now, he says, we have to choose between them, and having Better means rejecting More.

"Growth is bumping up against physical limits so profound - like climate change and peak oil," writes McKibben, "that trying to keep expanding the economy may be not just impossible but also dangerous."

Not only is the age of rampant consumerism over but the very paradigm by which modern economies function no longer does the business - literally. Environmentalism, for so long a fringe cause, has come in from the cold to the very heart of how we live, fusing with economics to create a new paradigm. Its banner - one under which people of any political stripe can congregate, for the moment anyway - is Sustainability.

The views of Prince Charles, once considered a crank for promoting organic farming and sustainable living, are now so orthodox as to be considered mainstream. His first year as King, when he eventually makes it, could well be an annus vegetabilis.

We can't keep spending like there's no tomorrow, because in the profoundest sense there will be no tomorrow if we don't get the balance right. As was pointed out at Bali, we have about 100 months left. If global greenhouse gas emissions have not begun to decline by the end of 2015, then the Earth and all who live on it are in trouble.

The universality of climate change is making us all neighbours on this planet; our economic destinies are inextricably interlinked. And today's neighbourhood heroes are less and less likely to be those with bigger cars, plasma TV screens and flashier appliances. The big-spending boomers once so scornful of "middle-class values" are now putting in vege?table patches, switching to renewable energy sources, downsizing the car (or doing without it altogether) and even - steady on - reverting to such declassé habits as darning.

The new creed is "not having what you want, it's wanting what you have". So, let's welcome and celebrate sustainable living and, following the Economist's business mantra for the coming year, "Do well by doing good." That would make 2008 a true annus mirabilis.