Most people have not yet fully processed the magnitude of the economic crisis that will continue to deepen in the next years. Our lives may depend upon working through the causes and logical consequences of this disaster, which can be blamed on the greed and ineptitude of our ruling elite. The short-term prognosis is devastating. The hundreds of billions — potentially trillions — of dollars created by the U.S. government and Federal Reserve for bailouts should lead to hyperinflation and a sharp rise in the price of basic goods. At the same time, some analysts are predicting the U.S. government will be insolvent by next summer and forced to declare bankruptcy.

One consequence of the credit freeze has been that many farmers around the world, who often live on narrow margins and depend upon loans to see them through the annual harvest, have not been able to get credit. This could lead to diminished production of food at a time when climate change is reducing the amount of arable land. Last year, there were already hunger riots in a number of countries, and by next summer we may see famine on a larger scale.

Hunger may also become a problem in the U.S. While layoffs and mass foreclosures continue and our economy contracts, a large segment of our populace (who have no savings and much debt) could become a new pauper class. We have already seen over a million homes turned over to banks. One can only wonder where those people — and the millions more soon to join them — are going to end up.

Meanwhile, the turmoil in the markets will continue, potentially getting much worse. Apparently, hundreds of trillions of virtual dollars spin in the roulette machine of the derivatives market, which is beginning to disintegrate. The collapse of the housing market may be followed by mass waves of credit card defaults. Our economy was a house of cards, based on the extraordinary premise that ever-expanding debt was a desirable product, and it is now falling down upon us.

We are facing a time of great change and spiritual challenge. Those of us who have undergone a process of awakening and initiation during the last decades will be called upon to act as truth-tellers, leaders and compassionate caretakers for the multitudes that have been duped and deluded by the system. We may have to abandon our comfort zones and personal ambitions to be of service to the situation as it unfolds.

In the time available to us before the situation becomes critical, priorities include strengthening local communities and disseminating techniques of self-sufficiency, such as getting many more people to grow their own food. It is tragic that our mass media continues to act as a mechanism of distraction. The media could be used to explain to people how our world is changing, to teach them the basic life skills that we forfeited a few generations ago, and to imprint new behavior patterns based on sustainable life-ways. Perhaps public broadcasting, at least, can be repurposed for this necessary effort.

The partial nationalization of financial institutions around the world reveals the failure of capitalism — the end of capitalism in its old form. In the future, it should be obvious that capitalism was a transitional system for our global community. Capitalism meshed the world together through networks of trade and communication, while maintaining monstrous inequities and irrational misuse of resources.

The question that faces us now is: what comes after capitalism, and how do we get there? In the short term, we may see dangerous efforts at authoritarian control. The longer-term answer may be a collapse of centralized structures of authority and the blossoming of a new form of global direct democracy — what the anthropologist Pierre Clastres called "society without a state." By necessity, our future system will be collaborative rather than competitive.

If the crisis now confronting the human community is mishandled, vast populations will experience untold suffering and starvation in the next few years. If "we the people" can rise to the occasion, we may be able to radically change the direction of human society, along with the basic paradigms and underlying operating systems of our culture, in a rapid timeframe. This appears to be the message of many prophetic traditions — as the Hopi say, "We are the ones we have been waiting for" — which have anticipated this climactic passage in human affairs.

As we approach the holiday season and the Gregorian New Year, we can give thanks for having been born into this extraordinary, precious time. Our actions over the next few years could have tremendous consequences for humanity's future on this planet. At such a juncture, the best present we can give to the people around us is our authentic presence — our willingness to listen, learn and remain open to transformation, as the pace of change quickens around us.

This article originally appeared in Conscious Choice.

Image by Tjflex2, courtesy of Creative Commons license.