Congratulations, everyone, we have a new president: a fresh new face, a capable, optimistic, inspiring figure, ushering in a new era of responsibility, ready to confront the many serious challenges that face the nation; in short, we have us a Gorbachev. I don’t know about you, but I find the parallel rather obvious.
Obama wishes to save the economy, and to inspire us with words such as “We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.” [Inauguration speech] At the same time, he cautions us that “We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense” — an echo of Dick Cheney’s “The American way of life is non-negotiable.” And so we descend from the nonexistent but wonderfully evocative “clean coal” to the more pedestrian “Put a little dirt in your gas tank!”
But these are all euphemisms: the reality is that it is either fossil fuels, which are running out while simultaneously destabilizing the planet’s climate and poisoning the biosphere, or the end of industrial civilization, or (most likely) both, happening in that order. According to the latest International Energy Agency projections, the half-life of industrial civilization can be capped at about 17 years: it’s all downhill from here. All industrial countries will be forced to rapidly deindustrialize on this time scale, but the one that has spent the last century building an infrastructure that has no future — based on little houses interconnected by cars, with all of the accompanying moribund, unmaintainable infrastructure — is virtually guaranteed to fall the hardest. An American’s two greatest enemies are his house and his car. But try telling that to most Americans, and you will get ridicule, consternation, and disbelief. Thus, the problem has no political solution. Tragically, Obama happens to be a politician.
“Whenever we confront a problem for which no political solution exists, the inevitable result is an uncomfortable impasse filled with awkward, self-censored chatter. During the Soviet establishment’s fast slide toward dissolution, Gorbachev’s glasnost campaign unleashed a torrent of words. In a sort of nation-wide talking cure, many previously taboo subjects could be broached in public, and many important problems could suddenly be discussed. An important caveat still applied: the problems always had to be cast as “specific difficulties,” or “singular problems” and never as a small piece within the larger mosaic of obvious system-wide failure. The spell was really only broken by Yeltsin, when, in the aftermath of the failed putsch, he forcefully affixed the prefix “former” to the term “Soviet Union.” At that point, old, pro-Soviet, now irrelevant standards of patriotic thought and behavior suddenly became ridiculous — the domain of half-crazed, destitute pensioners, parading with portraits of Lenin and Stalin. By then, fear of political reprisals had already faded into history, but old habits die hard, and it took years for people’s thinking to catch up with the new, post-imperial reality. It was not an easy transition, and many remained embittered for life.
“In today’s America, it is also quite possible to talk about separate difficulties and singular problems, provided they are kept separate and singular and served up under a patriotic sauce with a dash of optimism on top. It is quite possible to refer to depressed areas, to the growing underclass and even to human rights abuses. It is, however, not allowable to refer to America as a chronically depressed country, an increasingly lower-class and impoverished country or a country that fails to take care of its citizens and often abuses them. Yes, there are prisons where heroin addicts are strapped to a chair while they go through withdrawal, a treatment so effective that some of them have to be carried out in body bags later, but that, you see, is a specific difficulty, a singular problem, if you will. But, no no no, we are a decent, freedom-loving country in spite of such little problems. We just have a slight problem with the way we all treat each other… and others. We did recently invade a country that had posed no threat to us and caused about a half a million civilian deaths there, but no no no, we are a freedom-loving country! That is just a specific difficulty with our foreign policy, not a true reflection of our national character (which is to squirm when presented with unpleasant facts and to roll our eyes when someone draws general conclusions from them based on a preponderance of evidence).
“When it comes to collapse mitigation, there is no one who will undertake an organized effort to make the collapse survivable, to save what can be saved and to avert the catastrophes that can still be averted. We will all do our best to delay or avert the collapse, possibly bringing it on sooner and making it worse. Constitutionally incapable of conceiving of a future that does not include the system that sustains our public personae, we will prattle on about a bright future for the country for as long as there is enough electricity to power the video camera that is pointed at us. Gorbachev’s perestroika is an example of just such an effort at self-delusion: he gave speeches that ran to several hours, devoted to mystical entities such as the “socialist marketplace.” He only paused to drink water — copious amounts of it, it seemed — causing people to wonder whether there was a chamber pot inside his podium.
“There are few grounds for optimism when it comes to organizing a timely and successful effort at collapse mitigation. Nevertheless, miracles do happen. For instance, in spite of inadequate preparation, in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, none of the high-grade nuclear fissile material has ended up in the hands of terrorists, and although there were a few reports of radiation leaks, nothing happened that approached the scale of the Chernobyl catastrophe. In other ways, the miserable experience had by all was mitigated by the very nature of the Soviet system, as I described in Chapter 3. No such automatic windfalls are due the United States; here, collapse preparation, if any, is likely to be the result of an overdue, haphazardly organized and hasty effort.” [Reinventing Collapse, pp. 108-110]
I sincerely hope that Obama manages to do better for himself than Gorbachev. History can be mean to do-gooders. On that fateful day when Gorbachev lost his job, his wife suffered a stroke, and he, since that day, hasn’t been able to wipe that deer-in-the-headlights look off his face. Trying to solve problems that have no solution is a fine thing to try to do. Even if it is utterly futile, it makes for great drama. But I hope, for his sake, that Obama doesn’t give up any of his hobbies. should he still have any.