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Way leads on to way

“Kids of today should defend themselves against the 70s”

-Mike Watt

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference.

--Robert Frost

Lately I have been reading archived issues of Time and Newsweek from the 70s in order to get a better sense of what people knew and thought about energy and the environment. I am tempted to look upon the public discourse of the time as advanced, but this is probably more indicative of the current state of the coverage and discussion occurring today, of how we has a society have not yet returned from what Greer calls our “thirty year vacation from reality.”

In these articles from the 70’s one can find references to M. K. Hubbert or to the Club of Rome’s “Limits to Growth.” In my energy talks, I try to get everyone to repeat and memorize the barrels of oil a day and per year that both the world and the U.S. consumes. In these articles, those numbers were referred to frequently, suggesting that knowledge of their 16 million b/d national consumption and 6 million b/d of imported oil were a part of the informed person’s knowledge base, or at least would be if they paid attention to popular news sources.

While the term “peak oil” was not widely, if at all, used in those articles, in the 70s there was far more discussion about the fact that the world was running out of oil than there is today, despite the fact that that day’s arrival has not receded despite our quickening advance. There was at the time significant hope that alternative sources could be found within the next 30 years, and that increased domestic drilling might help get us off imported oil—the principle concern at the time, more pressing than the overall world supply picture. But the discussions of conservation were far more prevalent than they are today in the same sorts of public discourse, along with constant chatter about “the wasteful American.” We have not yet cleared from our heads the intellectual fog of the Reagan years in which we consented to a new marketing campaign devoted to conspicuous consumption and belligerent waste.

I had been aware of Jimmy Carter’s entreaty that we all lower the thermostat and put on a sweater. What surprised me was the prevalence of all this namby-pamby liberal talk of conservation coming out of the Nixon White House. During the Nixon administration, there was in fact a legitimate intellectual and political struggle about balancing the needs or wants of business and the market, and the necessity of the sort of long-term regulation that is far more significant than anything we could see today even from a Democratic led government. Although there were concerns about a reluctant congress, the Nixon administration believed that the need for strict government regulations about energy conservation, and not just some alleged market magic, was obvious and unavoidable. In the meetings leading up to the creation of the IEA, according to a Time Magazine article from October 14, 1974, “the U.S. proposed that major industrial nations reduce oil imports by enforcing strict energy conservation measures.”

That conservation would not mean a real disruption in the fundamental contours of middle-class lifestyles and habits was tacitly assumed. But there was also a conflicting, maybe contradictory, sense that the sacrifices would be real. Another article in the same issue of Time, “The Economy: Some Ways to Cut the Waste,” we witness the uncontroversial assumption that “sooner rather than later, however, Americans will have to learn to live with less.” But, the article continues, “The Federal Energy Administration reckons that the total [oil consumption] could be reduced by a number of measures that would conserve oil without basically changing American life.” At what point “living with less” turns into a “change in American life” is elided. But at the very least, this tension was a likely place in which real reflection and discussion might occur as the nation moved towards a sustainable, low-energy future.

All this gives credence to the popular story among many sustainability activists that in the 70s we were heading down the right path, a path that may not have been diverging far enough from the main-stream consciousness in its first steps, but that was nevertheless a good start, a missed opportunity nonetheless. According to this view, we were at a sort of fork in the road, and that a good part of the nation, if given the proper leadership or if bolstered by enough committed activism, could have put us on a sustainable path.

This of course changed with the Reagan administration, as well as some significant developments in world oil markets. But in the 70’s this level of publically irresponsibility was mocked by Time. In an unwittingly prescient February 25th article in Time, the perils of a Reagan type presidency are anticipated: “The failure of the nation’s leaders to demonstrate that they are in control of the various crises caused some political scientists to draw an analogy with the early 1930s. ‘We’ve got a deep sense of inadequate leadership,’ says Harvard Political Sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, ‘so once again it is a ripe time for a charismatic leader.’ But the article dismisses the likelihood of this sort of development, unable to see the California Governor’s national ambitions: “It seems doubtful, however, that America will turn to a demagogue for salvation. Men on horseback have never done well in the U.S., and there is nobody tall in the saddle in sight.” Battered by inflation, energy insecurity, and Vietnamese and Iranian wounds to national price, however, Americans seemed to have turned away from a path towards sustainability when just such a horseback riding demagogue cantered into sight.

Despite the apparent transition from Nixon-Carter path towards conservation to a Reagan, Bush, and Clinton path towards market fundamentalism, a narrative of a path not taken or a missed opportunity suffers from too many other flaws. One could, for instance, simply ask what this narrative structure accomplishes. As with all political and historical narratives, we should wonder who its hero is or what position it might advance. Does it provide guidance or models for moving forward? By regaining political and social attitudes more common then could we still backtrack and regain the path we ended up not taking? Are there elements of the cultural and political discourse of the 70s that could be recycled or repurposed today?

Perhaps. I am sincerely interested in considering further how the sustainability discourse of the pre-Reagan era might be integrated into a postcarbon future, an ecotechnic society, or a civilization free from oil’s addictive powers. In modernity with its linear-recursive sense of time, at any rate, the past has always provided a necessary, if precarious, model for human culture. This can be seen, for instance, in my own favored movement, Transition, which, in its Hopkins/Totnes manifestation, relies perhaps too much on a nostalgia for mid-20th century British market towns.

But I am actually less concerned with the hazards of nostalgia than I am with the very notion of a “path.” With the help of Robert Frost and his poem, “The Road Not Taken,” which may be the most widely mis-interpreted poem in American literature, we can perhaps broaden our grammar of political motives and complicate any story about paths taken and not.

A nation as large, diverse, and open as the U.S. is not, I would argue, capable of “taking a path.” The metaphor of a singular, even somewhat focused track is misleading. Instead, we trample, bulldoze, and swarm. We move like an army through a jungle, armed with napalm rather than machetes. While individuals, amidst this cultural chaos, can be observed criss-crossing, setting up obstacles, running ahead, collapsing in exhaustion, spinning their wheel, walking backwards, and mainly, perhaps, stumbling around in circles, the whole nation may, from a distance, I’ll admit, appear to be veering left or listing to the right. If we insist on a spatial metaphor to track our movement through time (difficult, this last sentence suggests, to find alternatives), a nation or civilization may be said to have a direction. But a path, let alone a fork in the road, provides a very nice, neat narrative, but misleadingly simplifies the way cultures work and the way history unfolds. It allows political or social history to appear unified, the product of choices and decisions, sometimes made in moments of poignant drama, in which we choose or ignore our better angels and adopt or relinquish our childish things. While the narrative of a path is too simple, the narrative of a fork in the road superimposes a retrospective, often self-congratulatory, overly simple motive force to history.

Frost was well aware of this. His poem was not, in fact, about the courageous choice to take roads less travelled. He is not writing a manifesto for unconventional independence or a steadfast pursuit of authenticity. What he is writing, here, is in fact a critique of a distinct human tendency visible in its stories about “how we got here.”

Here’s the poem in full:

The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference

...Robert Frost

The standout phrase of this poem is of course its last 3 lines, buttressed by the poem’s title, which suggests the pursuit of an authenticity notable for its resistance to the easy, well-worn, path. It is unclear to me whether the cultural construction of authenticity as an act of following the difficult path preceded Frost’s poem or if, sadly, was created by a century of its unreflective repetition. For the notion of a path less traveled is an illusion.

The narrator does initially takes ‘the other” “Because it was grassy and wanted wear.”
However, he narrator quickly backtracks and notes: “though as for that the passing there/ had worn them really about the same.” This reflection is furthered in the next stanza: And both that morning equally lay/In leaves no step had trodden black.” Frost has thus set up a sort of mystery. Did the paths really “equally lay”? If so, what is all this stuff in the final two lines of the poem—the ode to following the less traveled path, the plea, perhaps, to use Greer’s recent words, that “people do things that others are not prepared to do.”

The most crucial line of the poem, and the one most often ignored, starts the last stanza: “I shall be telling this with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence.” This poem is not about taking the path less travelled; it is instead the reflections of an astute narrator who, when confronted with life’s apparent choices, realizes that some day, “ages and ages hence,” he will have forgotten that the two paths “equally lay,” and will likely tell a somewhat trite, somewhat pompous story (“I, I took the one. . . ) about taking a road less travelled and how “that has made all the difference.” In short, the actual similarity of the two paths is transformed into a difference only through retrospective narrative simplification, through the misremembering of a moment of choice between two paths—the sort of story that one begins with a sigh.

What does this have to tell us about the road not taken during the 70s? I think we as a nation made a horrible choice at the end of the 70s. Not only did we elect Reagan, but liberals, as Greer points out, followed the orgy of consumption with only minor reluctance. My parents, good McGovern liberals who were worried about fuel consumption even when they bought their (pre U.S. oil peak) new 1968 Chevy II Station Wagon with a downgraded 6 cylinder engine and “three on the tree” transmission (and no radio of course) provide an interesting case-study. Through the 80s, I slowly (and at the time gladly) saw them capitulate to a growing consumer ethos: first a radio in the Toyota Tercell, then at some point a color TV, air-conditioning in the house, an electric garage door opener, a snow-blower god forgive them, and, finally, the ultimate surrender—automatic transmission (“worse fuel consumption and more wear on the brakes”). Proudly, however, we were always the last people we knew who adopted any of these “necessities” of middle-class life. Looking back now, I can reconsider the humiliation my sister felt at having home-sewn clothes in middle school as the acceptable collateral damage of a principled way of life I wish my parents had maintained (she doesn’t!).

But at the time, even if there was a clear fork in the road, neither path had yet been taken--neither one that might wind its way down from an elevated American consumerism or one that bid so many upwards, one that packaged it in the liberal and conservation-friendly garb Subaru, L.L. Bean and The Preppy Handbook, or edifying yet affordable airplane flights to Europe, the subtle linking of comfort, convenience, and automation with civil rights and women’s lib. But more significantly, I would argue that there was no fork in the road or some dramatic moment of choice. History is far less episodic. There was, instead, an erosion, a slow escalation, self-reinforced trending. Or as Frost described it, “way leads on to way.” And that is how differences are made.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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