“The American way of life,” George H.W. Bush infamously declared in 1992, “is not-negotiable.” This presents a problem if the American way of life is also unsustainable.
The context for these remarks was the first Earth Summit in Rio, which unsuccessfully set out to curb carbon emissions. Bush’s platform was based on his assertion that Americans would not be willing to change their consumption habits for the simple reason that they didn’t need to: “Twenty years ago,” Bush concluded, “some spoke of the limits to growth. Today we realize that growth is the engine of change and the friend of the environment.” Pushing hard on the notion that economic development would actually result in less pollution and fewer carbon emissions, Bush insisted that “to sustain development, we must protect the environment. And to protect the environment, we must sustain development.”
In 2008, sixteen years later and with an atmospheric carbon increase from 330 ppm to 380ppm, then Vice President Dick Cheney reiterated this general sentiment in a Fox TV interview, when he declared that “The American way of life is non-negotiable.” Not to be entirely left out of this obligatory political chest-thumping, Barack Obama echoed in his first State of the Union Address, “we will not apologize for our way of life.” True enough, Obama carefully cuts a finer rhetorical line, finding words that will appear sufficiently tough and unapologetic, on the one hand, yet that are not as belligerent as Bush’s and Cheney’s, on the other–though he has also sent enough Pakistani and Afghani civilians to their graves in the meantime to show that he really means what he says.
This would be all well and good if “the American way of life” referred to some deep principles of freedom, fairness, equality, and international justice. But after all the flag waving has stopped and the sound of the Air Force flyover has faded into the distance, it is apparent enough that the way of life that Republicans and Democrats alike are prepared to defend has little to do with the principles that our children are obediently forced to recite about our commitment to liberty and justice for all. For evidence (beyond the immediate context of the Bush, Cheney, and Obama declarations) one need only recall all the central democratic and Liberal principles that have, in fact, become entirely negotiable in times of war and crisis, and even at the slightest sign of resource scarcity–with an especially petulant flair during the Bush-Cheney administration, and with such a surprising lack of embarrassment or shame during the Obama years: on this list we will find domestic eavesdropping, suspension of Habeas Corpus, or a policy of preemptive strikes and assassination; but this is only a start. Meanwhile the burning of oil and the rejection of international climate agreements continues unabated.
The one part of the American way of life that has been non-negotiable is our consumption—our freedom to have as much as we want, to waste as we please, to eat whatever we want whenever we want it, to make the world our playground, to dispose of our waste and our emissions without thought or penalty, to squander and exploit and use in the name of satisfying our desires and of fulfilling our most whimsical wants. Life, we say to ourselves, can be difficult with the endless buffets of things and experiences that are put in front of us, cramming our days full to the last hour; we therefore have the right to buy and throw away anything that will make it all more convenient in the face of the trials of our double-stuffed days. This is the only thing that the people other nations might actually want us to apologize for. No one expects us to apologize for our Bill of Rights or for Miley Cyrus, at least as long as we keep the consequences of them to ourselves. But that we 6% of the world’s population use about one quarter of the entire globe’s natural resources and energy so that we might live in splendor, comfort, and convenience—that aspect of the American way of life may require some negotiation, especially now that primary fuel that almost all humans depend upon for their most essential needs is all more than half gone. And when the people of small Pacific Islands are forced to flee to higher ground in the face of rising sea-levels, thus abandoning what was otherwise a sustainable culture, we as the nation responsible for ¼ of current carbon emissions might owe them an apology (“sorry about your homeland, but I really did need some ‘driving excitement’”). Of course we evade this sort or responsibility and refuse any kind of negotiation through all sorts of self-deceptive visions of ourselves as a chosen people with a way of life that everyone might someday enjoy, audible in our self-congratulatory stories about the supremacy of our way of life. Even that supposed great apologizer for American consumption, Jimmy Carter, assured us that we were the most generous and most hard-working and ingenious people on the planet.
This sort of false moral high-ground will not be of much use against the rising waters of a melting planet, though one of the great tragedies of global warming is the accident of geography by which those who will be most immediately and gravely affected by early changes and rising seas will have themselves been responsible for the least amount of carbon emissions. But the moral high ground we try to establish may make us especially vulnerable to the sniper fire of an increasingly resentful and angry global population. We had better learn how to negotiate and apologize.
Indeed, the fact that the American way of life is unsustainable means that we will have to make compromises or face the many consequences. In his indispensable book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, anthropologist Jared Diamond investigates the way different civilizations throughout the history of mankind have responded to ecological crises, which, it turns out, are a contributing factor to the fall of nearly every empire and society that has not endured, whether it be the Mayans, Babylonians, Romans, or Norse Greenlanders. The ones that have prevailed in the face of this sort of challenge have always been able to question and reform themselves at crucial moments, sometimes discarding what had previously been held as “non-negotiable” core principles. Whether a society succeeds or fails, Diamond shows, depends on how it responds to a fundamental challenge: “the challenge of deciding which of society’s deeply held core values are compatible with the society’s survival, and which ones instead have to be given up” (Collapse 409-10). The lesson of history is negotiate or die.
A number of factors combine to make this an especially difficult lesson for Americans. While political liberals are, I think, more open to the possibility of such negotiation and apology, many liberals may begin to find a Cheney-like refusal to negotiate all the more attractive when actually asked to give up some of their opulence and privilege, or suffer the indignities of a contracting economy, 3G cell service, or a lower resolution TV screen. We will cling to the myth advanced by George Bush Sr. that growth is the key to sustainability because of the material benefits this clearly false belief affords us. But this belief is not without a certain sort of suggestive evidence: in its brief history, the United States has stood at the forefront of some remarkable changes and advances. Rhapsodized in our national myths and narratives is the belief that these changes and advances were a direct result of our freedoms and the way these freedoms unleashed a spirit of determination and ingenuity. As Carter put it, in a context directly relevant to our subject, “The history of our Nation is one of meeting challenges and overcoming them” (Address to the Nation on Energy, November 8, 1977). Carter, and with him every subsequent President, held that we would someday tick off energy and the environment as another challenge overcome through hard work, freedom, faith, inventiveness, and economic growth. Note how we convince ourselves that there is nothing we can’t accomplish by trumpeting past accomplishments like the Lunar landing or the defeat of the Nazis and the Soviet Union, or the invention of the internet and the human genome project. These, we imply, are the natural outgrowth of our political and economic practices and the unique spirit that animates it; and so do we cling to the perceived source or our previous accomplishments. “Our freedoms,” “our entrepreneurs,” “our independent spirit,” “our market system,” “our faith in technology and progress”—we hear the protests, “these are what make us great.” “Now, more than ever, can we ill-afford to abandon them.” And thus we dig in and become mired.
Our very short and seemingly unified period of tremendous success, in other words, makes a reassessment of our way of life especially difficult. In Diamond’s words, “the values to which people cling to most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs over adversity” (275). From a brief and, I will show, most anomalous historical period, the American myth of constant progress and challenge-overcoming has taken shape. Although there are certainly critics of any given historical trend from both the right and the left and some minor disagreement about some of the national ideals, there are also parts of the American myth which receive almost unanimous and unquestioned support from the highest academic, political, and commercial quarters, from the Green Party and the Tea Party alike: namely, that if we stay true to our most essential values (whatever those are) and maintain our way of life (whatever that is) in the truest sense, the next two hundred and fifty years will be just like the previous two hundred and fifty, only bigger and better—or perhaps cleaner and greener.
As one example consider Obama’s reassurances to the nation after the 2008 financial collapse: “the answers to our problems don’t lie beyond our reach,” he exclaimed. “They exist in our laboratories and universities; in our fields and factories; in the imaginations of our entrepreneurs and the pride of the hardest-working people on Earth.” The quintessential American belief, here, is that we do not need to questions our values or expectations—just the opposite indeed. In times of crisis, we need to double-down on our past accomplishments and imitate them more closely and accurately. Politics in America have in this way become a search for the most essential key to our previous success so that it may be restored once again. Or as Obama put it, “those qualities that have made America the greatest force of progress and prosperity in human history we still possess in ample measure.” Far from suggesting we might consider a change in course, Obama explains, "History tells a different story. History reminds us that every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas. In the midst of civil war we laid railroad tracks from one coast to another that spurred commerce and industry. From the turmoil of the Industrial Revolution came a system of public high schools that prepared our citizens for a new age. In the wake of war and depression, the GI Bill sent a generation to college and created the largest middle-class in history. And a twilight struggle for freedom led to a nation of highways, an American on the moon, and an explosion of technology that still shapes the world" (2009 State of the Union). There is nothing extraordinary in Obama’s believe that we do not need to rethink the “qualities that have made America the greatest force of progress and prosperity in human history” or re-asses their appropriateness–in this land of people transfixed by their own recent history. Rather, he sweeps us instead into the clichéd crescendo of self-congratulation: “what is required now is for this country to pull together, confront boldly the challenges we face, and take responsibility for our future once more.”
There is good reason why this story of “progress and prosperity” is told without any mention of energy and the environment, that our achievements are never put side by side with the left half of the peak oil curve. The history of the United States is rarely told with reference to the undisputed fact that it was founded on the cusp of the world’s greatest resource base—bountiful supplies of energy, which we have had at our easy disposal, and which we have devoured while leading the world to the brink of environmental collapse. The unconscious prohibition on putting this at the forefront of our official and revisionary histories alike exists within nearly every imaginable genre and media form. In only the rarest instances can one find a history that makes more than passing reference to our energy use as integral to the American way of life or the “American Dream,” whether the author is Howard Zinn, Fareed Zakaria, or George Will. Our political histories, whether told in scholarly books or presidential speeches, similarly see our “progress and prosperity” in terms of national spirit or institutional practices, all of which receive near-unanimous applause.
One the tasks of sustainability activism is to retell the American success story, and indeed of modern industrial civilizations, and review our deepest political convictions, with explicit reference to energy and the environment, noting the way our temporary abundance has shaped our sense of reality. For it is by examining the way the two hundred and fifty-year orgy of growth and consumption was possible only by using half of the world’s non-renewable resources that we can begin the difficult and painful task of sorting through our values, beliefs, practices, priorities, and of course our expectations. This is not a period of history that we can or should wish to repeat without substantial modification. As it turns out much of what we hold dear—as Liberals, as Americans, as middle-class people, as the beneficiaries of an industrialized food and medical system—will need to be put on the table. The network of interconnections between our way of life and the destruction it has caused reach further than we are apt to consider. Little will be sacred, except peace and hope, and the basic needs of our children and grandchildren and those of everyone else.