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Alternatives to nihilism, part 1: a dog named Boo

"Where do you get your ideas?" is a question that most writers fairly often field, and generally dread. Science fiction writer Harlan Ellison is just about the only person in print with a ready answer; he used to state crisply – for all I know, he still does – that a little old lady in Poughkeepsie, New York sends him a weekly manila envelope full of story ideas. The rest of us are left to fumble with the difficult task of explaining the tangled roots of creativity.

Still, there are times when it’s an easy question to answer, and for me, at least, this week is one of those. The idea behind this Archdruid Report post came from a comment on last week’s post, made on Energy Bulletin’s repost by a commenter who used the name "pulltheweeds." My post was a comparison of today’s vacuous political rhetoric on energy with the more pragmatic and effective responses that were pioneered during the energy crisis of the Seventies. The comment in its entirety – I’ve taken the liberty of adding such old-fashioned conveniences as capitals and punctuation – was this: "The days of ‘Me and You and a Dog Named Boo’ are over."

To some extent, that was simply another example of the sort of internet witticism that’s designed to score points instead of addressing an argument. Equally, it’s a fine example of unintentional irony, since the Seventies hit it referenced was an open-road song that celebrated the freedom that cheap abundant petroleum briefly gave to footloose young Americans. In that sense, the comment is quite correct; the days of "another tank of gas and then back on the road again," to quote the song, are over for good.

Still, that wasn’t what "pulltheweeds" was saying, of course. What he or she was suggesting was that the conservation and alternative-energy technologies I discussed in last week’s post were the products of an aspect of American popular culture that flourished in the Seventies, and died a wretched death in the decades that followed. The homebuilt solar panels, hand-typed guides to insulation and weatherstripping, basement-workshop inventions, lively little nonprofits running on raw enthusiasm and shoestring budgets, and the rest of the landscape of the Seventies appropriate-tech scene drew on the same cultural current that made "Me and You and a Dog Named Boo" a hit, and also, however briefly, had quite a few Americans thinking about living with a lot less energy and a lot fewer resources as an adventure rather than a fate worse than death.

It’s easy to make fun of the excesses and eccentricities of the era: the air of well-scrubbed, fresh-faced innocence, say, that was so assiduously cultivated by the exact equivalents of those who now cultivate an equally artificial aura of sullen despair. Still, the 15% drop in America’s petroleum consumption that took place between 1975 and 1985, coupled with equally sharp declines in other forms of energy use, might suggest that the John Denver fans of that time, with their granny glasses and dogs sporting brightly colored bandannas in place of collars, had something going for them that today’s supposedly more sophisticated culture has not been able to match so far. The shift from the one to the other set of cultural themes may have more to do with that difference in outcomes than is often recognized, and that possibility is one that needs to be explored.

That is to say, we need to talk about the roots of the contemporary American cult of nihilism.

I don’t think that last phrase is too extreme a description. For the last few decades, it’s been hugely fashionable in America to believe, or at least affect to believe, the cynical notions that all ideals are frauds or delusions, that those who try to live up to them are either posturing liars or simple-minded fools, and that we might as well enjoy ugliness because all beauty is by definition fake. Watching this week’s idols dragged down to the lowest common denominator by yet another wretched scandal has become America’s most popular spectator sport. Meanwhile, and crucially, the notion that the American people might face a challenge, any challenge, by rising to the occasion, much less might reasonably be encouraged to do so, gets dismissed out of hand by pundits, politicians, and ordinary people alike when it’s mentioned at all. This wasn’t always the case, and as this nation and the industrial world as a whole lurches blindly toward a set of challenges right up there with anything in the last five thousand years or so of recorded history, it bears asking why a rallying of the nation’s will and potential that would have been an obvious part of a response to crisis fifty years ago is so unthinkable now.

It’s useful, in making sense of this cultural shift, to remember that there are at least two kinds of cynicism. There’s the kind – variously weary, amused, hurt, or icily dangerous – that comes naturally to those who have too often seen others betray their ideals. Then there’s the other kind – sullen, jeering, brittle, and defensive – that comes just as naturally to those who betray their own ideals, and makes them lash out angrily whenever anything too reminiscent of that betrayal flicks them on the raw. It’s the latter kind, I’m convinced, that shapes the mood of America today; the disquieting sounds that murmur through the crawlspaces of our collective imagination, waking us abruptly at night, are the echoes of a profoundly troubled national conscience.

For another measure of the same troubled conscience, think of the extraordinary reach of conspiracy theories of all kinds through American culture. These days, if you hear people talking about any of the problems or predicaments that beset our society, it’s normally a safe bet that the conversation will end up fixating on some group of people whose monstrous wickedness is allegedly the cause of it all. Democrats talk that way about Republicans, and Republicans about Democrats, while those who have abandoned the grinning corpse of America’s once-vital political culture have their own colorfully stocked rogues’ galleries of alleged villains to offer.

Any of my readers who would like to see how much of this fixation on hunting for scapegoats unfolds from an uneasy conscience need only suggest in public that ordinary Americans might bear some modest degree of responsibility for the unwelcome trends of the last few decades. The shrillness with which most Americans will insist that all the blame lies elsewhere makes it tolerably clear just how sensitive a nerve has been touched. What Carl Jung called "projecting the shadow" has become a potent political reality in America, but you don’t need a degree in Jungian psychoanalysis to realize that people who spend their lives pointing fingers at other people are trying to paste a villain’s mask on the rest of the world in order to avoid seeing it when they look in the mirror.

A third measure? Consider the contemporary American obsession with apocalyptic fantasies. Back of all the gaudy claims of history’s end currently on display – the Rapture, the Singularity, the supposed end of the Mayan calendar in 2012, and all the rest of it – is a frantic insistence that we don’t have to live with the consequences of our collective actions. That’s the common thread that connects the seeming optimism of the claim that Jesus or the Space Brothers or superintelligent computers will fix things, on the one hand, with the seeming pessimism of the claims that we’re all about to be wiped out by solar flares or asteroid bombardment or the evil plans of the Illuminati. Either way, the world that our choices have made is not the world we have to inhabit; either way, it’s not our responsibility to fix what we’ve broken, either because someone else is going to fix it or because it’s all going to be blown to smithereens shortly by something that, please note, is never our fault.

All three of these factors have deep roots in American history, but it’s not too hard to identify the point in time when they moved in from the fringes to dominate the collective imagination – and that lands us once again in the wake of the Seventies, the years when a society that previously idolized John-Boy Walton and John Denver suddenly started idolizing Gordon Gekko and self-proclaimed "material girl" Madonna instead.

Putting that shift into context requires a glance back over the history of the second half of the twentieth century. The aftermath of the Second World War left the United States abrubtly filling the position of global hegemon previously held by Great Britain. In the aftermath of Hitler’s defeat, Americans believed they had a permanent lease on the moral high ground as they expanded around the globe and confronted the Soviet Union. Mixed motives and the pressures of expediency had their usual effect, though, and as the cognitive dissonance built up, it became increasingly hard for Americans to pretend that all the atrocities and abuses of the Cold War era belonged to the other side.

Those pressures reached critical mass in the early 1970s. The Pentagon’s epic incompetence in the Vietnam war and the blatant illegality and corruption of the Nixon administration sparked a backlash that, for once, reached right up into the corridors of power. In the wake of the resulting explosions, American troops came home from Southeast Asia, Nixon was forced out of office, and a quarter century of dubious and often illegal policies unexpectedly saw the light of day. All this took place during the runup to the US bicentennial, and the contrast between admittedly idealized notions of the 1770s and the awkward realities of the 1970s forced many Americans to notice the gap between what they had become and what they claimed to be.

These cultural shifts also happened, of course, as America’s own oilfields reached their all-time peak production, and the coming of America’s own encounter with peak oil threw a generation of easy assumptions of perpetual national prosperity into question. There were still plenty of people alive who vividly recalled the Great Depression and the austerity of the war years, and thus could get their minds around the concept that the postwar boom might be a temporary and self-canceling event, or even a corner into which the United States had backed itself. Many Americans, across a wide range of social and political positions, embraced the possibility that a prudent regard for the limits of nonrenewable resources might be a valid approach to economic and political questions, and that resource conservation and a shift toward less extravagant ways of living might be the best available options over the long term. An even broader spectrum of Americans came to believe, at least for a time, that something crucial to their nation’s meaning and value had gotten lost in the rush to global empire, but might still be recovered in time to matter.

It’s popular nowadays to forget that this happened, or to insist with varying degrees of cynicism that the moment of awareness couldn’t have lasted. Maybe that’s so, but I wonder how much of that comes from the same uneasy conscience that drives so much of today’s fashionable nihilism. Americans came together during the long ordeal that began with the stock market crash of 1929 and wound its way through the shadows of depression and war until 1945, and a similar effort over a similar time scale would have been more than adequate to the task of launching America into the transition to an ecotechnic future. Back then, the US still had abundant coal, oil, and natural gas reserves, not to mention a great many other resources; annual consumption of energy and resources was far below what it later became, and though a great many factories were shuttered in the sharp recessions of the 1970s, there were still millions of capable laborers who could have been put to work retooling the economy for a new and frugal age.

The steps necessary to make that transition were discussed during that time in any number of periodicals, some of them surprisingly mainstream. The United States would have had to step back from its self-appointed role as global policeman; it would have had to pass on a fair share of the cost of deterring the Soviet Union to its comparatively more prosperous allies in western Europe and the west Pacific, and accept a less expansive notion of its own national interests. Government subsidies for nuclear power and other nonrenewable energy sources would have been phased out, and the money – along with savings from a less gargantuan military – shifted into grants for conservation, renewable energy retrofits, and research programs aimed at repositioning American industry to lead the world in green energy technologies.

Changes in tax policy, zoning regulations and building codes would reshape the built environment to decrease energy use, while funds formerly wasted on highways would go instead to build high-speed rail between urban cores and rapid transit systems that would make commuting by car all but obsolete. All this would have cost plenty, and would have required Americans to tighten their belts and accept a diminished standard of living and some formal or informal rationing for a time. Down the road a quarter century or so, though, a prosperous nation getting by comfortably on a fraction of its previous energy needs, and thus able to ignore the Middle East as an irrelevance, would have the lion’s share of global trade in new energy technologies, high-speed rail, and a dozen other fields, while other nations burdened with high energy costs were left scrambling to catch up.

That was the vision. Again, it’s comforting to the collective conscience of today’s America to insist that it couldn’t have happened, but "comforting" is rarely a synonyn for "true." Myself, I think that it could have been done, or that there was at least a very real chance of doing it. The uncomfortable silence that falls whenever anyone brings up the subject of conservation in most circles in America today is one of the reasons I’ve come to that belief. When people set aside an obvious impossibility, they don’t remain brittle and angry about it for decades afterwards. It’s only when the road not taken was a real option, and the goal at the end of it noticeably better than the endpoint looming up ahead, that those who chose otherwise get shrill in defense of their decision.

That shrill tone is hard to miss these days, and it’s grown in volume and intensity over the course of the thirty-year vacation from reality America took in the aftermath of the Seventies. We’ll talk more about that in next week’s post.

Editorial Notes: Part One of a three-part essay.

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