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Unsustainability Now!

This is the second installment of Erik's "book-length manuscript" tentatively entitled Liberal Expections. We reposted the first part here.

Concerns over sustainability are usually directed towards the future--a pattern I have often been guilty of participating in. We talk about the environmental costs to our children and the world we will leave to them, the future consequences of our current action and inaction. Peak oil activists were likewise still using phrases like “after peak oil” well beyond its 2005 peak, as if it would be some great cataclysmic moment in the future. Maintaining this future-oriented perspective for a moment longer, let us ask the question: what will an unsustainable system or way of life look like when it does in fact first begin to stop working? What will be the early signs of distress? What will happen when an unsustainable system attempts to keep running as if the resources necessary for its continuation still existed?

As our unsustainable civilization starts unraveling, if we don’t alter our course, the surpluses which we have come to accept as normal—those that allowed us to send a man to the moon or invest in a Great Society--are likely to dry up. If our society remains in denial about our decreasing returns on investments-past and attempts to maintain or increase a level of opulence it can no longer afford, I imagine we will see a shift of cultural resources away from basic infrastructure and away from public investments in the future, and towards consumer goods and experiences that offer instant gratification and provide an outward sense of luxury and wealth. Consumers will allow their local economies to be ravaged by mega-stores that offer cheap prices and even cheaper quality. Gimmickry will be in ascension, especially in the financial sector, as increased attention is paid to the ebb and flow various indices. News outlets like NPR might take to reporting on the Dow four or five times each day! Investors will also cease to hold themselves responsible to any sort of public service of supplying capital so that people with good ideas can build useful things, but will build casinos where value is pegged to abstract and immaterial fantasies that will come crashing down the moment enough people start noticing a sour taste in their mouths. At the same time it might adopt a serious sounding euphemism like (and I’m just throwing this out there off the top of my head) “the financial services industry,” which will be of as much service to people as a crime syndicate and will lack all traditional sense of industriousness.

I imagine that elites will become increasingly indifferent to the plight of the masses as they begin to sense threats to their privilege. Walled enclaves with security guards, private education, transportation, and medical care will be the refuge of the rich, as our society can no longer support a widespread degree of safety and security. These same elites might direct increasing amounts of their wealth into the political system, so that they may receive an additional layer of benefit from favorable policies. Although our constitutions has remained relatively strong in the face of previous crises, we may witness reinterpretations of it that bring us closer and closer to the prospect of elections bought and sold. Either way, campaigns that destroy unions and workers’ rights while deregulating industry and providing tax relief for an ownership class will emerge out of this infusion of money from the ultra-rich, in this imagined future.

I also could envision a more general sense of frustration and confusion as old policies and tactics no longer work and conventional explanations don’t appear to explain much anymore. Politics will become increasingly polarized. One or both of our major political parties might be hijacked by extremists whose hate and paranoia is inversely proportional to their understanding of our political and economic systems; the House of Representatives might be populated with demagogues who are unmoved by the results of basic science or sound evidence. Commentators will increasingly wonder why the nation that put a man on the moon now has so much difficulty mustering the public will to pass simple legislation to keep its roads free of large potholes or its decaying sewers from swallowing SUVs. As old and tired bridges collapse, we will wonder what has happened and will lash out at those we think are responsible. Congress will become highly unpopular. Unless they are able to free themselves of a paradigm of analysis created in a former time of greater surplus and abundance, our journalists and public intellectuals will search in vain for causes of decline having to do with misplaced priorities, lack of courage or imagination, a crisis of confidence, or other flaws to the national character—wondering, in short, why an unsustainable way of life isn’t working any more.

In the meantime, both governments and individuals will take on increasing amounts of debt to maintain the illusion of its past wealth and status. On an international level, tensions will increase as nations position themselves around remaining supplies of natural resources. Drilling and mining, in this time of crisis, will occur without regard to the natural environment, as the quest for energy becomes more competitive and more desperate. It is possible to imagine that we in the future might sacrifice clean drinking water to our energy addiction, see small human-caused earth-quakes as a small price to pay for another few years’ supply of natural gas, or will drill for oil in precarious places whose destruction might threaten a delicate ecological balance upon which we depend. Because of the growing sense that climate change will force us to alter our way of life, increasing numbers of people will deny the most obvious and carefully assembled evidence about it, preferring a few more undisturbed moments with their head buried deep in the sand.

This of course is not really a description of the future, but of the present. Some might even suggest that it describes the mainly unwritten history of the United States since the mid 1970s. My description of the desperate propping up of the unsustainable is, perhaps, a description of Reaganomics and the Tea Party; Walmart; the Koch Brothers and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker; sub-prime mortgages, debt-ceiling debacles, and the 2008 Wall Street meltdown; Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy; Detroit; Cambden New Jersey; The Deepwater Horizon and fracking.

While liberals today spend considerable time wringing their hands over the increasingly delusional and paranoid right wing response to the challenges of the past forty years, the liberal response has become equally adept at ignoring evidence that doubling-down on the values and practices associated with past successes is no longer working. Consider as one brief example, the 2008 Wall Street financial collapse and the subsequent attempt to kick-start the economy through massive purchases of treasury bonds by the Federal Reserve (euphemistically known as quantitative easing). Many explanations have been offered by political liberal and conservatives for the 2008 crisis. On the face of it, they may appear to be the opposite of each other: liberals focus on a climate of greed, irresponsibility, and deregulation; conservatives focus on excessive government spending, the alleged social engineering of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, or, even more delusionally, on a culture of over-regulation.

But liberals and conservatives are united by the shared factors that aren’t included in their analysis, ones whose absence becomes embarrassingly obvious with only a little research. The financial collapse reached its terminal velocity as a number of financial institutions became insolvent and required bailouts to stop the chain reaction in its place. This of course received most of the headlines. Receiving less attention was the systematic failure that occurred upstream from these visible implosions—not only the sort of loans that were being used to fuel the financial services industry, but the role that these loans had played in what is, I think, falsely thought of as a relatively stable time preceding the crash. In a way rarely accounted for, the manner in which the American economy had since at least the mid-90s been living mainly on borrowed and in many ways non-existent wealth had become an accepted practice; it accompanied the general disregard of other economic changes that had undercut the surpluses upon which “the American way of life” had previously depended.

Consider for now one other factor that is almost never given any weight in the explanation of our current economic “stagnation.” Prior to 2008, oil prices had gone from about $30/barrel to over $100/barrel creating a pressure on the American economy that is rarely addressed amidst all the partisan finger pointing about a culture of greed or of excessive government spending. Even more remote from the public consciousness or the faculty lounges of our most illustrious economic and business schools alike, is the fact that a peaking of conventional crude is largely responsible for this price increase. This—the 2008 crash--in short, is what it looks like when a system predicated on cheap and expanding supplies of fuel are confronted by the shortages and rising prices. Setting aside all sorts of other considerations, the mere additional cost of gasoline and industrial fuel to American consumers and their employers can go a long way in explaining why the chain reaction of mortgage defaults began. Indeed only a little research reveals that the last 6 U.S. recessions were preceded or accompanied by oil price spikes.

Closer to home, in our pocketbooks in fact--the pocketbooks and bank accounts that need to be flush in order for us to make house payments and buy all the consumer goods necessary to “keep the economy going--wage increases in the U.S. have historically come only when oil prices were low, with high prices almost always signifying a drop in wages.

One of my main arguments, then, is that we are already straining under the effort to sustain an unsustainable way of life, one that is no longer working as it did when there were vast margins and buffers still in place. Unfortunately both sides of the political divided are acting as if the unsustainable might continue if only the other side were to get out of the way. Thus do mainstream political parties blindly re-embrace the unsustainable practices that were invented long ago in order to manage a much different world, as if renewed enthusiasm might make the difference; this approach will of course only hasten an undoing that has already begun. We have, in short, begun our slow-motion crash into our planet’s ecological, environmental, and resource limits.

Similar to our gridlocked political system, popular or mainstream analysis of our current struggles is offering us nothing better. While liberals and conservatives are doubling-down on past strategies, journalists and pundits are employing worn out concepts and outmoded roadmaps, viewing something like the current leveling of wages or increased poverty rates as a temporary and fully fixable anomaly in our otherwise continued upward trajectory. While some may recognize that we will someday have to pay higher environmental or energy costs (unless we come up with an alternative whose existence is never doubted) it is almost unheard-of to see current economic problems even partially attributed to the lack of low-hanging fruit that was used to establish our long term expectations of ever-increasing abundance. Until political, economic, and social analysis comes to grips with the fact that our unsustainable way of life is coming unraveled because, simply, it is unsustainable—and not because the wrong party is in power or that we need to tweak our public policies—this analysis will consistently miss the mark; it will likely cover its continued failings with increased partisan cheerleading.

Consider in this vein the “what is wrong with America?” genre, whose best examples one might read in some of our more highbrow journals and periodicals. While candidates and politicians have as their defense that they are trying to motivate and inspire a dispirited public, we should expect far more from journalists. But then again, like politicians, they must to some extent give the people what they want, demand, and expect, even as they build and reinforce those very expectations.

As an especially interesting example, consider James Fallows 2010 “Atlantic Monthly” article entitled “How Can America Rise Again.” Writing with reference to the 2008 financial crisis and a growing sense of America’s decline Fallows asks, “should we be worried?” Is, in other words, America past its peak? Should we expect permanent decline, an end to our era of growth and progress? A number of factors make Fallows’ analysis especially revealing. Despite his historical and international perspective, and his ability to reflect self-consciously on the genre in which he participates, Fallows nevertheless backs away from the steep cliff of insight and reaffirms the tired clichés about the near-inevitability of a future cast out of a mold of our dreams and expectations. It should be of no surprise that Fallows does not address in any significant detail any environmental or energy issues, nor, of course, does he note that the future he imagines would be dependent upon a fuel source that had just reached its all-time peak and that was unlikely to experience substantial increases in the future. He seems oblivious to any such matters.

Rather Fallows argues that there are no reasons such as the ones that I have been discussing that would keep America from rising again nor from creating another “American Century” typified by rising material expectations, political freedoms, and international hegemony. At the same time, Fallows is duly aware of a number of immediate and pressing challenges that must, he argues, be confronted and overcome should America repeat its history of previous successes. If the United States is to continue leading the world, Fallows believes, we will need to address: Jobs, debt, military strength, and overall independence. His summary of them is worth quoting at length, as they are indicative of a significant aspect of liberal America’s sense of itself:

"Jobs: Will the rise of other economies mean the decline of opportunities within America, especially for the middle-class jobs that have been the country’s social glue? Debt: Will reliance on borrowed money from abroad further limit the country’s future prosperity, and its freedom of action too? The military: As wealth flows, so inevitably will armed strength. Would an ultimately weaker United States therefore risk a military showdown or intimidation from a rearmed China? And Independence in the broadest sense: Would the world respect a threadbare America? Will repressive values rise with an ascendant China—and liberal values sink with a foundering United States? How much will American leaders have to kowtow?"

While these are significant problems, Fallows feels certain that they all have ready solutions, and solutions of the kind we have been especially adept and devising throughout our illustrious history of overcoming challenges, a history that should bolster our confidence and faith in ourselves. In fact, the level of distress and hopelessness that some Americans sometimes experience in face of government debt, for instance, or a shifting employment picture, Fallows argues, represent an American tendency to overreact in the face of historical changes. America, in other words, is not enjoying the last days of its formidable empire; the fear that it is all downhill from here, he explains, is in fact a fear that has plagued us throughout our entire history, preceding many of our greatest triumphs of economic growth and military might.

Fallows thus knocks most of the worry up to a unique national habit of worrying about impending decline and the resulting “jeremiads” this anxiety has often produced. As he summarizes it, “the bracing ‘jeremiad’ tradition of harsh warnings that reveal a faith that America can be better than it is,” is the very tradition that has led to a “400 years of overstated warnings.” When placed within this tradition, current hand-wringing becomes just another example of the tendency of Americans to overstate the perils of some current concern. Fallows quotes historian Cullen Murphy, who has compared the U.S. favorably to the Roman Empire in a book on the subject: “’Fifty years from now, Americans will be as worried as they are today,’ Murphy said, ‘And meanwhile the basic social dynamism of the country will continue to wash us forward in the messy, roiling way it always has.” These “overstated warnings,” Fallows makes clear, are part of “a tradition that has been inseparable part of American strength”: “If we’re worried, perhaps that’s a good sign, since through American history worry has always preceded reform. . . America has always in decline, and is always about to bounce back.” We should be worried, Fallows implies, only because by worrying we take the action necessary to confront some substantial problems facing our nation. What is wrong with the nation? Nothing we can’t and won’t fix.

Just because we have overstated a concern 20 times in the past, does not, of course, mean that all concerns are overstated nor that this time things might be different. Even as he realizes this, it remains impossible for him to imagine any real obstacles to a repetition of the past four hundred years, outside of a few structural political issues having to do with our system of proportional political representation. But the other problems he mentions Fallows expects will be addressed in due course. Like nearly everyone within mainstream American political and economic thought, then, Fallows believes these problems simply demand that we revive the values that, recalling Diamond, were previously the source of our greatest triumphs over adversity. As Fallows explains, “the United States itself has the power to correct what is wrong in each case”: “yes, the problems are intellectually and politically complicated: energy use, medical costs, the right educational mix to rebuild a robust middle class. But they are no worse than others the nation has faced in more than 200 years.” Should we be worried? Should we revise our expectations? No, Fallows concludes, we should not. Rather, we should take action just the way we have throughout our history and let our “basic social dynamism” work its magic.

Never mind that the fuel used to power this trajectory is more than half gone and that the carbon emissions of this illustrious past threaten human civilization itself: the question remains how America can rise again; the question whether it can is carefully placed on a list of “overstated worries.” Because the present is seen only as a transitory moment between a past and a future that are united by a single trajectory of growth and expansion, one whose conditions of possibility are never really considered, Fallows is unable to realistically imagine the limitations of the future, nor understand the predicaments of his present. The threadbare America of today that Fallows does recognize is not in his mind symptomatic of anything more than a few minor setbacks; that it might be a turning point, let alone a more vivid moment in a forty, even sixty- year old systematic decline is dismissed: not because of the evidence, not because he has any opinion of how we might fuel another American century or where we might put its waste, but because of his sense, a faith perhaps, that we have been here before and will be here again.

In America, we assess the present mainly in terms of whether our expectations are being met. And American expectations are never too far from the American Dream. In a 2012 Time Magazine article, entitled “Keeping the Dream Alive,” John Meacham repeats the sort of analysis we see in Fallows with more direct reference to the current status of the American dream. There is no question, here, of actually considering the sustainability of these expectations nor to wonder if the degree to which they are being frustrated for many Americans should be seen as a symptom of a more fundamental crisis, even as his article reviews the history and prospects of an American Dream clearly under threat today. Diagnosing this current threat, Meacham writes: “The perennial conviction that those who work hard and play by the rules will be rewarded with a more comfortable present and a stronger future for their children faces assault from just about every direction” (Time, July 2, 2012, p. 28).

Chief among these threats is growing economic inequality and the slow erosion of the middle-class. Meacham cites the report of a task force led by Joe Biden that defined “middle-class” as follows: “middle-class families aspire to homeownership, a car, college education for their children, health and retirement security and occasional family vacations” (29). This, I think is too modest a description, for it fails to mention the vast array of electronic gadgetry, large screen TVs, freedom from manual labor, the luxury vacations, the motor boats, snowmobiles, or ATVs that so many dream of, and of course general comfort, security, and luxury that Americans are repeatedly told they are entitled to. But either way, the data clearly reveals that this dream is slipping away. Again citing the Biden report, Meacham writes: “‘It is more difficult now than in the past for many people to achieve middle-class status because prices for certain key goods—health care, college and housing—have gone up faster than income.’ Median household income has also remained stagnant for more than a decade; when the figures are adjusted for inflation, Americans are making less now than they were when Bill Clinton was in the White House” (31).

This thirty or forty-year trend makes complete sense and is easily explained by the peaking first of American oil and then world oil, by increasing environmental costs, and the misunderstood conditions that made our initial expectations for constant expansion seem plausible. I will review all this in depth in later chapters. In the meantime, we can see the way writers like Fallows and Meacham flounder despite their proximity to these explanations, which are nevertheless kept from view by their inability to see the American past, present, or future, in anything other than terms of the American spirit or of political policy. Like the two major political parties, which fight mainly over how what Obama calls “the promise of America” might be kept, our best and brightest commentators do little to question these terms, even as everyone senses the increasing uphill battle we must fight as we pursue a dream that is inexplicably (to them) drifting away.

True, it would be instant political suicide, in this country, to identify as a possible problem the weight of accumulated expectations that may not be sustainable and without which we could greatly lighten our loads. Expectations, in America, have become sacred. Rather, our politics is almost uniformly devoted to figuring out which side can “renew the American dream,” to which side can “grow the economy,” insure greater freedom, security, and prosperity. The continuation of these expectations requires, among many other things, the reassurance of a Fallows from time to time, or the ritualistic promise-making self-flattery fandangle of our election cycles; for regardless of the difficulty ascribed to the problem, a solution is never really doubted to exist and be within our grasp, even if our analysts and prognosticators must ultimately lapse into meaningless and sentimental tripe in order to make their case in the face of a mountain of evidence they can neither see nor understand: or as Meacham concludes his article, “We are stronger the wider we open our arms. Our dreams are more powerful when they are shared by others in our time. And we are the only ones who can create a climate for the American Dream to survive another generation, then another and another” (39).

In keeping with the American tendency to emphasize our national spirit and beliefs as the ultimate mover of mountains, Meacham, as I have noted, is concerned only with our political and cultural “climate.” The advantage of exclusive concern with this climate is its limitless flexibility, its susceptibility to the visions of our collective wants and desires. As long as the American dream and the mechanisms by which we pursue it remain ephemeral, one can ascribe true power to the openness of our arms or the richness of our dreams. For a variety of historic reasons, which will be the subject of chapter 2, in the Americas we have been able to ignore with relatively little consequence up until now another sort of climate—one that is governed not the hopes of an animated national imagination but the much more uncompromising laws of physics, one that is finite and has strict limits. Should the American Dream as it is now understood survive another generation, and then another and another, to put it bluntly, we will have true climate problems which will mock our open our arms and our pathetic and self-congratulatory shared dreams.

For an expansion of the American Dream, as Meacham himself admits, boils down to how we “can fuel economic growth.” This puts Meacham even closer to the sort of truth that his belief system cannot endure—that economic growth has always meant more coal and oil, and more carbon emissions, and probably always will. Before around 1800, the size of the world economy was relatively stable, growing only a couple of percentage points per century. Since the Industrial Revolution, however, the economy has grown exponentially, but never without at the same time burning more fossil fuels. Progress, as we have come to know it, expect it, and demand it, results in more atmospheric carbon. For reasons of which I’ve made first mention, and which will be considerably expanded in later chapters, there is good reason to believe that economic growth may not be possible without increased fossil fuel use and increased environmental destruction. The goal of economic growth through clean, green renewable energy may sound nice, but there is no evidence besides our faith, hopes—our open arms, powerful dreams, and false expectations--that it is possible. Since oil and coal are not only finite, but if we don’t leave most of it in the ground our goose will be more than cooked, an American Dream as currently defined has few good prospects.

But as a society we clearly have not accepted this fact. Thus we keep safely from view the fact that American supremacy requires one quarter of the world’s energy for its maintenance when we ask “how can America rise again” or how can we renew the American Dream for another century. That neither Meacham nor Fallows frame the story of America’s ascendency or of The American Dream with any real reference to our energy diet means that neither will be required to talk about how we might continue this upward material trajectory without all the cheap energy that fueled it in the past, and, in fact, more of it than we currently use. It also means that our “leaders” will not feel any pressure to include a real discussion of energy and the environment as they set the course for our collective future. Indeed not only in these two articles, but in nearly every one of it is genre, the issue of energy is almost entirely excluded, or is listed alongside other problems like declining education, or a dispirited public.

But as even casual reflection on the history of America with reference to energy will show, energy problems are categorically different. So it is only by remaining ignorant and delusional about energy and the environment that we can blithely assume that there are no challenge too big for the American spirit when we come together, open our arms, share our dreams, and unleash the ingenuity of the hardest working and most virtuous people on the planet. These same politicians, regardless of political affiliation, rely on a similar refrain: just as we have overcome challenges assumed to be more difficult in the past, so also can we overcome any problems with energy and the environment. As Jimmy Carter famously said, “All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our Nation and ourselves.” These refrains remains credible only as long as we don’t actually examine the role played by a seemingly inexhaustible energy supply, and an environment that we could treat with far-reaching neglect, in solving our previous problems. Thus does Fallows make passing reference to “dealing with environmental challenges” assuming along with George H.W. Bush’s long disproved but still accepted doctrine of environmentalism-through-growth that these will be addressed only with our continued ascendancy and thus, by all accounts, our continued economic expansion. That our environmental problems may actually have been caused by the scope and direction of our previous 250 years does not receive even the most rudimentary consideration by those recommending that we increase that scope while maintaining our previous course.

In all fairness, the question that needs to be asked is an extremely difficult one to bear. For in addition to misunderstanding our present and future, admitting that our expectations may not be appropriate to a hot, crowded, and depleted earth also requires that we reassess our past. As I suggested in the previous section, in the United States we have made a fetish out of our national values and their power over adversity. We ascribe to them a power over nature, history, and circumstances that will, someday, appear to be as magical in nature as past beliefs in animal sacrifice or barbaric rituals. This tendency can be seen in a consistent constellation of metaphors having to do with national spirit, confidence in ourselves, the limitless capacity of imagination, hard work, faith, and the our love of freedom. While political liberals and conservatives will add their own unique flavors to this basic recipe, it cuts across ideological lines. It can be heard in every presidential speech at least since Roosevelt told us that “all we have to fear is fear itself”; it is the basis of most marketing campaigns which tell us to “rethink possible” or that we can have it all; it has animated the union of Christianity and the free enterprise system, in which prosperity becomes a test of faith, self-confidence, and the power of positive thinking. Prominent and popular historical accounts, alike, are drawn into this orbit as well, arguing that we need to identify and return to our most essential values in order to continue upon our current trajectory. The story of our past is fundamental to who we think we are—and of course to what we think we should expect and what we deserve.

The “greatness” that we attribute to our way of life was clearly accompanied by the consumption of ungodly amounts of a fuel whose flow is or soon will be on the wane. About that there can be little debate. What if it if it turns out that the ability to face challenges (as well as lay tracks in the midst of the civil war, build a middle class after a great war and depression, and of course put a man on the moon) were in fact only possible for a nation sitting on the world’s largest and easiest to access supply of coal, oil, and natural gas? What if our ability to overcome any obstacle put in front of us was dependent on our oil, coal, and natural gas and the surpluses they helped us produce? Indeed, the moment the story of American ascendency is told with reference to energy and the environment, the outlook changes radically. The various systems—the economic one especially—that we have mythologized begin to look less like the source of our abundance, but systems invented in order to manage and distribute the unprecedented abundance that confronted Europeans as they conquered and then settled the Americas. If so, these systems will not have the results that our policy-makers and pundits demand of them. If these systems—if our way of life--cannot alone create enough energy, raw materials, and room for disposal to renew an American Dream dependent on consistent economic growth, then we will have to alter our prospects for the future. Now is the time to negotiate the American way of life, to come to grips with which core values might be salvaged, and which habits and practices might need to be jettisoned.

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