One and Half Cheers for Bernie: Decision 2016 and the (Deep) Sustainability Agenda

September 18, 2015

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Recently a friend asked me what I thought about Bernie Sanders, especially with issues of sustainability in mind.  This is my answer.

The 20%

I want to start with Bernie Sanders’ opposite–opposite in policy, temperament, intellect, and integrity: Donald Trump.  Trump is a menace, no doubt; but his sudden rise in popularity deserves our attention.  Trump talks about American decline front and center, and with a bluntness not seen in other campaigns.  “We don’t have any wins these days,” Trump has whined.  We are in decline.  The Chinese are beating us up.  “Things are really, really bad out there,” he acknowledges. “You, the silent majority,” he tells the bristling crowds, “you know what I’m talking about,” and they do.  But with Trump promising to put back an ass-kicking swagger back into the White House, the silent majority may feel a little less silenced.  That, I think, is Trump’s appeal—giving recognition and voice to a large group of Americans whose reality is lost from sight in mainstream political circles, including progressive ones.

What makes the Clown Prince so dangerous, then, is that he is substantially correct:  for swelling numbers of Americans, the promise of a better tomorrow seems deceitful and the indistinguishable campaign promises of heard year after year ring false.  The American Dream appears dead, and can only be revived by someone who is prepared to shake things up.  Despite inflated statistics about an economy in recovery and a low unemployment rate, Trump seems to realize, increasing numbers of Americans have been dumped from the middle class or cling to its ragged edge.  The promise that each generation should have greater opportunity, security, and a wider range of experiences is true only for a shrinking elite of teachers, professionals, investors, executives, and of course the much mythologized high-tech creative class. 

For those living outside this steadily shrinking middle-class bubble enjoyed by the upper 20% or so, Trump’s message has a realism not seen in the glee-club atmosphere of all the other Presidential candidacies, where we are assured that America remains the greatest nation in the history of the world and would be only a policy change away from regaining its previous course towards unlimited greatness by choosing another Bush over another Clinton, or vice versa.  No one, I think, really believes this.  The choice for most people clinging to the political center comes down to which near-clone will protect their immediate interests, or will reflect their sense of self, a little better.  Until other political leaders begin to discuss the real and, for many, scarcely deniable death of the American Dream, Trump will maintain his monopoly on the issue, and on the explanation for it. 

And that’s where the problem lies.  Trump’s exposition, of course, does not foster a reflective and thoughtful citizenry, ready to take careful account of its way of life and adapt with tolerant resilience.  As I suggest in my title, a sub-theme of this essay has to do with my sustainability wish-list for the coming election.  I wish for this, and only this: for at least a small voice of the sort of reflection I just described, for someone to consider the role that the American Dream plays in ecological destruction and show some legitimate understanding of the reasons why the American Dream, as generally understood, has been lost to so many.  The American Dream, it turns out, is unsustainable.  Unsustainable, of course, means cannot be sustained, which also means that it will at some point stop working.   It has.  We need to talk about this.

Until the conversation changes, or until someone other than Trump addresses the sense of decline so palpably real for a silent majority, our choice will involve some combination of the insistence that everything is really okay, on the one hand, or that our decline can be blamed on the Chinese, on OPEC, and especially on immigrants who are stealing our jobs and destroying our hard working culture (apparently with their willingness to work even harder).  If Trump has his way, we will rise up and start kicking these people’s asses.   If someone from the center has his or her way, we will merely postpone the rise of another, probably even more belligerent, more clownish, and more popular Trump for a few years. 

 Even the most casual student of history should realize that harnessing the frustration and anger of dashed expectations has, in modern industrial democracies, often been a prelude to hate-driven social unrest and the consolidation of political power in the hands of very cruel and frightening people who can easily find throngs of thugs to do their dirty work.  The United States has flirted with this kind of populist scapegoating—a consistent, if relatively low-level, feature of the Republican Party ever since Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” But for reasons generally misunderstood, our moderate and tolerant sides have more or less managed to hold out in the face of hate-based extremism. 

The best example of the triumph of big-hearted liberalism in the face of national despair, of course, is illustrated by the way Franklin Delano Roosevelt skillfully guided a bewildered America through a Great Depression and a World War, setting the stage, we are told, for a  half-century of breathtaking American ascendancy.   When I consider this history, I imagine in the corner of my mind’s eye members of the recently enlivened progressive movement jumping up and down trying to catch everyone’s attention with their “Elect Bernie” signs.  They are of course ready to remind everyone that we haven’t had truly progressive national leadership for at least thirty-five years and, if given the chance, that Sanders might respond to our current malaise with policies decent and thoughtful enough to steer us towards a new era of progressive moral, economic, even ecologically sustainable achievement.  Progressives have not dreamt of the American Dream with this much enthusiasm since Howard Dean’s howl, or, perhaps, since “The West Wing” was cancelled from NBC’s line up.

Can someone like Sanders renew the American Dream?  Are we not just a few–okay, a bunch of– policy and investment initiatives away from the rebirth of a just and prosperous America built on science, compassion, and non-ideological common sense?  Reinstall the Glass-Steagall Act and tame Wall Street and its 1% and we are half-way there, right?  Kill the Keystone XL and we’ve taken another step.  For reasons I will discuss soon enough, I don’t think so, and therefore, Sanders only gets one and half cheers from me until he starts actually talking about the end of the American Dream.  True, Sanders is far more ready to acknowledge the inequality of American today than other candidates are, and true, his remedies are far more drastic and fundamental.  But the story he tells, as I hear it, still does not reach to the true depths of life in America today and maintains too much well-healed optimism.  As he explicitly says in his speeches, the American Dream is, at least in spirit, alive and well, ready to be unleashed once more. 

Discussions about the end of the American Dream rarely happen, and when they do it is most likely to occur between cynical conservatives, imagining some way to convince common people that they should be happy with whatever happens to trickle-down from the latest version of unfettered economic freedom they have on the drawing-table.  Progressives, as their name suggests, are hard-wired to believe in progress—and without as much reflection about what constitutes real progress as I would hope to see.  That explains part of the reason why progressives aren’t rushing to discuss the end of the American Dream.  But for many of the college-educated liberal professionals, academics or decently cushioned baby-boomers who lead the progressive ranks, the revival of the American Dream seems plausible enough from the social position they tend to occupy, that of the upper 20%.   “The 20%” need to enter our political lexicon, but is not likely to: that would involve too much self-reflection.

To put this another way, the plausibility of the American Dream may have more to do with “our” own unrecognized privilege than we are prepared to admit.  While we may hear about the war on the middle class, those of us who maintain middle-class status have, in many ways, not experienced the demise of the American Dream the way a good 80% of Americans have, many of whom are at least open to Trump’s message.  Most people, I should note, greatly underestimate their relative wealth.  If you pull in $42,000/year before taxes, you may be surprised to find yourself in the top 20% of Americans (you have to make less than $20,000 to fall into the lower half of American wage-earners, and even then you still hover at the fiftieth percentile).  There are a lot more really poor people than most members of the upper 20%  (“liberal elite”?) realize.  The lives Barbara Ehrenreich so richly and tenderly describes in Nickel and Dimed: On (not) Getting By in America, are far more typical of America today, and to a greater extent tomorrow, than the upper middle-class people who presidential candidates normally fawn over.  For those of us in the top 20%, or so, our own struggles with the American Dream may give us fitful nights, but we wake to relative ease and security as we head off in our private automobile to our one  job every morning, juggling a $3.00 coffee in one  hand, and a $300 smart phone in the other.  True, we may be battered by recessions, living less securely with less in savings than our parents, but the trimmings and trappings of the American Dream still appear relatively secure.  We are not, in Iris Murdoch’s phrase, living under the net—as least not yet.  

In Wisconsin, for instance, the fate of the University does seem to hang in the balance and the writing is on the wall, as tenured Professors remotely contemplate life within a gutted university and the potential loss of certain middle-class comforts and privileges.  But the majority position is that if we get rid of Walker (and not by sending him upstream) and see a leftward turn in state politics, there is no reason why we can’t party again like it’s 1964.  Tenure, sabbatical, a 2/2 teaching load, grants, and paid travel are seen as issues of policy and societal values, not a matter of economics or unsustainable privilege.  No one really believes that the state budget can’t afford what it always could.   Certainly we could maintain the university budget by making the 1% pay their fair share, right?  The same belief—that cuts and decline are a matter of policy and priority–goes for all sorts of other key entitlements born in a century of unprecedented growth that have, unfortunately, become markers of a just and humane society. 

I think that progressive optimism, however guarded, is based on a misreading of history and of our current situation.  But let me be clear.  I think the division of wealth in our society is inexcusable and I wonder at the moral compass of the truly wealthy—but I also wonder at the way the moral compass of the 20% is also obscured by the political, often progressive, stories we tell.  With progressives,  I believe that we need a drastic redistribution of wealth; but unlike most of the progressive class, I understand that this will in fact mean less for me and my comparatively modest life.  What we really need, is an honest accounting of how much there is, and will be, to go around—an accounting, in other words, that is not driven by what we want and have been taught to believe we deserve.  And as for Trump, though he’s got it all wrong on cause and effect, and dangerously wrong, he is reading the tea leaves far more accurately than all the rest.  The American Dream is over and almost no one is talking about it.  Unless they do, they will appear increasingly disconnected from reality, leaving the topic there only for the hateful.

The Road to Enduring Consumption

What does the end of the American Dream have to do with a “sustainability agenda”?  I need to explain this at length, for the answer will surprise most people who consider themselves progressives, and involves both concepts and fact that are generally kept safely from view.  This will involve a considerable detour from a discussion of contemporary politics.  In the standard op-ed, candidates are judged according to generally accepted historical narratives and systems of belief that, in itself, needs very little explanation; I am suggesting that we need an altogether new story and a new way of seeing reality.

Progressive tend to assume that tackling our environmental and resource problems can be accomplished by pursuing a progressive agenda.  The assumption is that we need “environmental progress” much in the way we previously needed social progress on issues like labor, safety regulations, or race and gender–all of which led to a more just, equitable, and ever expanding American Dream.  Fitting within this pattern, Sanders is by far the most outspoken “environmentalist” in the Presidential field, proposing real and substantial changes to our current energy and environmental policies that will also, he promises, create thousands of well-paying jobs.    True, a Sander’s presidency would (at least in terms of election-cycle promises, plans, and aspirations) advance action on climate change and renewable energy far ahead of anyone else.   Shouldn’t a Sanders Presidency be at the top of the sustainability wish list?  Bill McKibben, who has suggested he may be the “greenest” presidential candidate ever, seems to think so.  Shouldn’t I just accept Sanders as he is and keep my criticism to myself for now?

Yes, I would agree–but only if a one or two percent reduction in carbon emissions is all we might hope for.  Yes, if we are willing to allow “sustainability” to continue meaning “a little less unsustainable.”  Yes, if we merely want to feel slightly less guilty as we make the world uninhabitable for life as we know it.

 If, on the other hand, we believe that “sustainability” should be more than a marketing slogan, then no.  No, if we hope to pass on to future generations a planet and a ways of living on it that are life-sustaining.  If we are actually prepared to do what it takes to provide for our children a place where they might create hopes and dreams of their own, and have a chance at a life lived with some level of security, then we need to change the conversation.  The current conversation will get us nowhere other than the precipice towards which we are currently hurtling.  Why?  The problem that no one on the left as figured out yet, or is brave enough to admit publicly, Sanders included, is this: an energy and environmental policy that is sustainable in any meaningful sense of the term is, in fact, incompatible with the American Dream.  The American Dream is a dream, in short, about what life might be like were there not distinct ecological and resource limits.  But there are, and we are approaching them quickly.

This is heresy, of course–abandoning the American Dream.  It will be perceived as turning our backs on the most basic principles of human dignity, of telling people that they cannot have a life worth living.  These common progressive assumptions, I would counter, are indicative of a limited imagination over the many paths to a good life that actually exist–as if only greater prosperity, separation from nature, and freedom from manual labor as more and more machines do our difficult work for us, are the only possible goals that might guide humanity.  But for the past three or four hundred years, now, we have been increasingly taught to limit our imagination in the name of the progress that we now accept as normal and as an exclusive domain of human good.  All of this needs to be questioned.  Before continuing with this difficult questioning, let me admit that I am asking a lot during this sacred time (Presidential elections) when we turn reverently to our slogans and images and bask in their repetitious meaninglessness.  This is our time of absolute thoughtlessness, our time of disgust and blame, searching for scandal, exposing half-understood idiocies maintained by the other side.  And I am asking this—not only that we think but that we step outside our deepest assumptions and imagine something truly different, something we have been told is impossible, ridiculous, or that represents the depths of defeat.  But, as we will see, I am asking for this, because in needs to be done.

But let us return to my suggestion that sustainability and the American Dream in any of its currently conceivable versions are incompatible.  If one gets beyond initial moral shock, and looks at the requirements of sustainability and compares them to the requirements of the American Dream, my position speaks pretty well for itself, though I will review some evidence shortly.  But it does fly in the face of the elegant ways in which modernity, liberalism, and the American way of life have, throughout its early history, presented us with very few difficult decisions where we are forced to choose between two or more incompatible goods.   Not “this or that,” we have come to believe, but “this and that.”  As Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously declared, as his progressive programs were gaining slow traction against the weight of the Great Depression, “we have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics.”  And that’s the secret beauty of Liberalism—the promise that one needn’t ever choose between what works and what is good, between prosperity and morality.  The proper sort of enlightened thinking, Roosevelt insisted, would “wipe out that line that divides the practical from the ideal”: as it is in the minds of today’s progressive, Roosevelt held that “science and democracy together offer an ever-richer life and ever-larger satisfaction to the individual.”  As Roosevelt summed it, “we have set our feet upon the road of enduring progress.”

It is this same sort of faith, and with the same sort of elegant symmetry, that progressives assume that a progressive environmental/energy policy will of course be good for the economy as well.  Solar panels and wind turbines can (our progressive faith assures us) certainly replace fossil fuels; this innovation, investment, and the manufacturing of solar panels and wind turbines will certainly create hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs; these new jobs will certainly put the economy back on track.  As Paul Krugman has exclaimed at the prospect of repeating the post-war economic miracle, “If they could do it then, we should be able to repeat their achievement.”[i]

The logic is graceful but fallacious.  None of this is necessarily true.  At best, its falsehoods were held at bay for a couple of hundred years by vast ecological margins.  As I will later suggest, these liberal and progressive fixtures of faith are true only when society is in a growth or expansion phase, when energy and resources are so abundant as to appear limitless.  It only seems like it must be true if you don’t look at the way energy, and a certain kind of energy, powers all economic activity.  As critics of today’s economic models are beginning to realize, an entire wing of contemporary economics has devoted itself to the silly view that at some level economic growth doesn’t really depend on energy, never mind the fact that it takes the equivalent of over 200 million barrels of oil each and every day to keep the global economy running (compare this to the measly 5 million barrels spilled into the gulf of Mexico in the 2010 BP spill).[ii]  There is, moreover, no reason why a prosperous economy will automatically be a moral one, nor that it will be a sustainable one.  The fact that prosperity, as currently understood, has always been fueled by fossil fuels (and before that by slaves working on stolen land) and therefore never was sustainable long into the future, suggests just the opposite.   Prior to 1820, when the coal-powered industrial revolution began to hit its stride, economies did not grow in any meaningful sense.  Without the sudden unleashing of half a billion years of fossilized sunlight, technology, much of which had been available for hundreds of years, alone doesn’t get one very far.

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In addition to their overwhelming inconvenience, one of the main reasons why these basic facts of energy literacy are lost from view has to do with the way we talk about the economy.   We talk about the economy, moreover, almost exactly the way we talk about the American Dream–as if it is a matter only of our ideals and principles, ones that can perhaps be aided by the right policy or public investment, as well as a national culture with the right values and priorities.   Interestingly, we talk about energy in the same way, assuming with little evidence that innovation can overcome the thermodynamic limits of renewable energy that very few bother even to consider.  Being a good progressive involves having faith and optimism that the future is ours to fashion according to our highest principles.  With Roosevelt, the progressive assumes at some level that “all we have to fear is fear itself.”  As another one of our most popular Presidents once declared, “there are no limits to growth and human progress when men and women are free to follow their dreams.”  Or as Sanders put it in his announcement speech, “when people stand together, when people are prepared to fight back, there is nothing that cannot be accomplished.”  I, however, am here to remind us that this is not true, and that a responsible politics keeps carefully in mind all the things that cannot be accomplished by will and spirit alone.  Adaptation to reality, and the humility it requires, have been lost from the American way of life and even from the most thoughtful American politics.

In its idealized form, at any rate, we tend to consider the American Dream or the prospect of social and economic progress as if it were an unlimited water supply gathered behind a dam.  The wrong policy or set of misplaced ideals may fail to open the spillway, holding back too much of our potential or quashing our dreams.  Of course the wealthy, greedy, and misinformed are always working to divert the water towards their own selfish ends, says one side, while the lazy poor don’t want to work for their water, says the other side.  But in American political discourse, the existence of that potential is never actually in doubt.  No one, to continue the analogy, has bothered to stick their head around to the other side of the dam and examine the extreme and long-term conditions of drought that have reduced the American Dream from a gusher to a trickle.  Some people still get all the water they need, but the downstream ranks of the thirsty grow every year.  Why this inattention to fundamental supplies of energy and material resources?  Because like our dreams, it is assumed that our economy is run on human willpower, initiative, ingeniousness, all of which are infinite and permanently renewable resources.  According to this view, it is innovation, diversity, hard work, and a political and economic system organized to maximize them, that has propelled the American Dream.  Our greatness is a reflection of our ideals, of some mysterious “spirit” that our leaders promise to conjure up and mesmerize into action.  In this vein, we like to talk about “unleashing our potential” as if only the wrong sort of attitude, policy, or temporary fall from grace is has put fetters on it.[iii]

To promise, as does every main stream politician, that we can increase the flow by turning the proper set of valves, is to misunderstand the true foundations of the American Way of life.  This view does not understand another equally, if not more, important condition that is necessary for the operation of the American Dream: natural resources, trees, rocks, metal, soil, fuel—and lots and lots of it.   As Juliet Schor reports, each American requires “132,000 pounds of oil, sand, grain, iron ore, coal and wood” to maintain our current lifestyle each year.  That adds up to “an eye-popping 362 pounds a day.”[iv]

At 6% of the global population, Americans consume 25% of the world’s energy and industrial products, and are responsible for 25% of current carbon emissions.  That level of consumptions is the true stuff of the American Dream, even for those who like to focus on the more ethereal values that buying and selling all this stuff helps us secure.  Interestingly, we also consume 25% of the world’s recreational drugs.  Progressive Americans who are concerned about the environment (but in most cases also have lots of stuff and enjoy lots of nice consumer experiences) prefer to think about our consumption in terms of unnecessary waste, and like to pin it on conservatives, noting that group’s denial of climate change and love for fossil fuels.  This is a much easier position to maintain if you don’t think about how much we actually consume, and how much more this is than other people around the globe, who on average live on one quarter of what we do.

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Always forward-looking and optimistic, the progressive story of sustainability usually has to do with somehow “getting off of oil” by investing in allegedly job-creating and economy-growing “green-tech.”  The progressive future will repeat the economic feats of the past, but somehow without all the now-depleted natural resources.  Buy a little local produce, get an electric car if you’re really committed, and march in the right rallies, and we’ll be soon heading in the right direction.  Because it reminds us of the innovative spirit that animates the myths of our past greatness, no one really bothers to question this fairy tale, or, importantly, do the math: far easier to assume it will magically work out the way we want it to; far better not to be a faithless pessimist, immune to the sweeping grandeur of our stories of us.  Like our tendency to underestimate our wealth, but to an even greater degree, we underestimate the amount of energy and resources required to power the American way of life, imagining that there has to be some sort of high-tech, ultra-efficient, low-energy version of the American Dream.

As comforting as the story may be, it does not explain American consumption, and the form this consumption takes.   It does not explain where all this energy and resources goes, the way in which our ideals and principles float effortlessly on a seemingly limited ocean of cheap energy.  And it certainly does not explain the way the economy works.  Without 25% of the world’s resources and energy, the American Dream is not the American Dream.  Reduce this consumption, and the dream withers, no matter how high-minded an American Dream one might imagine.  It requires all this energy and resources, and produces all these carbon emissions, not only because of how much stuff we have.  Also powered by all this energy is how much we do, keep in store, use to create buffers and barriers, embed into security and comforts or luxuries that most of us think of as needs.  It is used to fuel our cars and the miles we drive them with little concern, whether for our jobs or our edifying vacations.  Our houses are larger, we have more electronic goods, sporting equipment, second homes, and miles logged on airplanes; our consumption is explained by the 87% of us who use air-conditioning in our homes as well as the extreme medical procedures used to extend lives by a few years.  Is there a lot of waste here?  Yes, but not in the way that is usually meant.   It is not the sort of waste caused by easily-addressed inefficiencies; rather it is a matter of the way our dreams have turned luxuries into absolute requirements for a “good life.”[v]

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We can cut out this waste, and we must.  But living at a sustainable level will involve sacrificing the American Dream.   As an illustration, consider the energy used in our housing and buildings, which amounts to 40% of our energy diet and produces about 40% of our emissions.   The progressive imagination is often filled with fantasies of green housing, housing which consists of high-tech foam insulation, solar panels, and all sorts of ultra-efficient gimmickry.   Sanders, for his part, promises to help “weatherize millions of homes.”   All this is good stuff, and worth pursuing.  But the attraction, here, has more to do with the initiatives and innovations will allow us to maintain the dreams of middle-class comfort, rather than with finding the best way to reduce energy used on housing.

For there is a simple way everyone could cut their housing energy use instantly in half.  But it violates the American Dream.  This simple technique involves doubling up in our current space.  It saves money and energy, but it is the opposite of what we expect, which is to have more personal space than previous generations.   In 1950, after all, Americans had an average of less than 300 square feet of living space, each.  By 2000, that was increased threefold to almost 900 square feet per person.  Why?  So everyone can watch a different TV show?  So the grandchildren can visit and no one has to put a sleeping bag on the floor?  So that everyone can play celebrity chef in a custom kitchen?  So that the loud children can be packed away into the basement?   None of this is essential to a good life and some of it is counterproductive.  But spreading-out remains a feature of the American Dream.

Skeptical that this devotion to space is an essential part of human dignity as currently conceived?   Consider this often-mentioned illustration of our economic troubles over the past years—troubles that we demand be fixed:  namely, the number of adult children who are forced to live at home while starting their careers or while looking for jobs.  This could be seen as a real and substantial move towards sustainability, far more effective than the “green house of the future” that very few will actually afford.  But it is also a clear violation of our collective hopes and expectations.  New housing starts, not sleeping in your old room, permit the expansion of the American Dream.  They are required by our current economic system, and demanded by we the consumer.

The same thing goes for all the other changes Americans must make in order to live so that we are not leading the world towards ecological havoc and destruction.  This is borne out in all the data linking prosperity and growth to energy use.  As a rule with very few minor exceptions wealthy people and nations use far more energy than poor ones.   There is no such thing as low-energy or low-emission prosperity.  Likewise, economic growth has never occurred over the past two hundred years without an accompanying increase in the burning of fossil fuels.  By the same token there has never in the past two hundred years been a decrease in the flow of energy (the oil embargoes, for instance) without a resulting economic slowdown.  In order to maintain the American Dream, a President needs to be concerned above all with increasing the flow of energy of the sort available only from fossil fuels.  If we want to maintain the American Dream, then we do indeed need to elect an ass-whooper like Donald Trump who will use every means available to swindle, abuse, and batter the rest of the world back into submission so that we may have more than we deserve for just a little while longer.  Bernie Sanders might help foster a more just and peaceful America.  But his policies would actually hurt the American Dream in any of its recognizable versions.

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It’s About the Energy, Stupid

I have been discussing the end of the American Dream largely in a sort of moral idiom—as something we must do in order to protect the planet’s ecology.   I have alluded to another side of this story, though–one having to do with forces beyond our control that have already shaped our history over the past thirty-five years, and beyond that for the past century and half.  This is the story of energy accessibility and cost.  It tells of the way the American Dream was first made possible by energy super-abundance and then became increasingly impossible as this super-abundance went into decline.  This abundance, its peaking, and subsequent decline have occurred far outside, and mainly regardless of, any policies or national spirit.  And yet we still squabble over who has squandered the American Dream

Prior to around 1970, energy, for Americans, was accessible with an ease, and thus at a low cost, which were unprecedented in the history of all humanity.  We were awash in energy and all work it can do like no other people at no other time.  The most important source of this energy was oil, though coal and natural gas played their part as well.  The caricature presented in the opening sequence of TVs “The Beverly Hillbillies” was not too far from reality:  it was, at one point in American history, possible to find oil simply by jamming a stick in the ground—and voila, you have immense amounts of power and wealth available to you.   A single gallon of gasoline or diesel can perform the same amount of work as 80 days of hard human labor, and this ready-to-burn power bubbled out of the earth, eventually at the rate of millions of barrels a day.   As oil historian Daniel Yergin has described it, during the postwar period, Americans “continued to take his petroleum for granted.  It defined and motivated his life, but because it was so pervasive, and so readily available, he hardly thought about it.  After all, the oil was there, it was endlessly abundant, and it was cheap.  It flowed like water.  The surplus had lasted for almost twenty years, and the general view was that it would continue indefinitely. . . . If consumers gave the matter any consideration at all, they too would have expected cheap oil to continue as virtually a birthright, rather than the product of certain circumstances that could change.”[vi]

While oil demand increased almost six times-over between World War II and 1972, “supplies,” Yergin documents, “grew even more swiftly,” keeping prices low.  The constant threat to the oil industry, during these days of fantastic growth, was overproduction, which always threatened to destroy prices and industry profits.  Regulation, in the United States, was geared towards limiting, rather than increasing, production, so that the market could remain stable and intact into the future.  This combination of low prices and near-limitless availability was more responsible than any other single factor for the economic explosion of the 1950s and 60s, and thus the rise of the American Dream as a main fixture of American society and its politics.  As Yergin described it, “by the end of the 1960s, the populations of all industrial nations were enjoying a standard of living that would have seemed far beyond their reach just twenty years before.  People had money to spend, and they spent it buying houses, as well as the electrical appliances to go inside those houses and the central heating systems to warm them and the air conditioning to cool them.  Families bought one car, and then a second. . . To produce the cars and appliances and packaged goods, to satisfy directly or indirectly the needs and wants of consumers, factories had to turn out ever-increasing supplies, and those factories were increasingly fueled by oil.  The new petrochemical industry transformed oil and natural gas into plastics and a host of chemicals, and in every kind of application, plastics began to replace traditional materials.”[vii]

To put this another way, this was a time of unprecedented surplus.  There was more than enough energy to fuel not only existing needs, but any wants that could be imagined.  As oil increased the productivity of farming and industrial manufacturing, more and more people could enter the white-collar professions or enjoy lives (even industries) built around leisure and personal growth.  Because of this energy surplus and the other types of surplus it created, factory workers could expect middle-class wages and comfortable pensions, while a college education all but guaranteed a life free from manual labor.  Simply put, there was more and more to go around.  Oil and other fossil fuels produced a sort of hyper-productivity, so that little time and money was needed to meet our basic needs, with lots of time, money, and energy left over to create all the new ones that John Kenneth Galbraith discusses so brilliantly in The Affluent Society.  It was upon this level of surplus, and the unquestioned promise that surpluses would increase into perpetuity, that the American Dream took shape.  Only under these conditions—in which more oil was being made available each and every year—was a fractional reserve banking system possible, and likewise the promise that every generation might have richer material lives with a greater range of opportunities than the previous one.  The ingeniousness we like to credit ourselves with did, alone, not create this energy and economic boom; if anything, this boom gave more and more people the time and energy required to develop their minds and creativity. 

Around 1970, however, the fantastic availability of oil began to change.  True, there had been earlier signs that the demand was catching up to supply, and Americans were increasingly dependent on foreign exports; but around that time something happened on the supply end in America as well.  In previous years, it had been easy to increase supply as demand grew; regulators, as I mentioned, had to limit production.  Now, however, American producers had to pump every available source at full bore just to keep up with its previous levels of production.  In 1972, for the first time in its history, this full-bore pumping could not increase the daily, weekly, or yearly output of oil.  American oil production had peaked.  While there were new sources that could be tapped—Alaska and offshore—this new oil was much harder to extract, and ultimately couldn’t keep up with the rate at which old fields were losing their previously higher levels of productivity.  Global oil production continued to rise, but with a new kind of cost—expensive and violent foreign entanglements, and massive, debt-powered, trade deficits.  To put it another way, all the low-hanging fruit had been picked.   Ripe energy would no longer fall easily into our lap, a fact confirmed by the effort and energy required for fracking, deep-sea drilling, and tar-sands extraction, the sources of our alleged new domestic oil boom.

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The most significant feature of the end of “easy oil”—described by the much maligned, but historically substantiated, theory of “peak oil”– is rarely understood.  We are not about to run out of oil.  There is still more than enough accessible oil to turn the planet into an uninhabitable wasteland.  Rather, the fantastic surpluses of energy are in decline.  The same goes for the previous ease with which energy supplies could be increased to fuel a growing economy.  We spend more money on our energy, and even more energy on our energy, than ever before, and despite high prices world oil production has been flat for the past decade.  While at the height of our post-war economic boom it took a negligible amount of our oil to find, drill, and process more oil, now we spend upwards of 10% of our energy on energy, leaving less useful, wealth-creating, energy available for society.  With tar sands or fracking, as much as 1/3 of the produced energy has to go back into the energy finding and producing system.   Renewable energy similarly involves much greater inputs than the “easy oil” that established our way of life and our prevailing expectations.  When you consider how much damage to our growth-based economy a slow-down of a mere 1% in total output causes—the unemployment, foreclosures, and bankruptcies—(or for that matter the 5% decrease in supply experienced during the Arab oil embargoes of the 70s) it should be obvious that a constantly expanding standard of living is impossible when we are kicking 10% and more of our surplus back into just maintaining the system itself.  Even if our gross energy levels still appear high, our net energy levels are in decline.  Combine this with the fact, first, that our imported energy creates huge trade deficits, and, now, that world oil production has plateaued and is heading into decline, and we see the way the American Dream is in conflict with the laws of physics and geology.

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Catabolic Collapse

We are not the first civilization to experience a peak and decline of available energy and other resources.  Historian and cultural theorist John Michael Greer has described the way civilizations respond to a loss in net energy (a number far more important than gross energy) as “Catabolic Collapse,” a theory of growth and contraction that deserves far more attention that it has garnered.  I will cite Greer at length.   As he explains, complex societies go through two main phases, an anabolic phase in which the capture and harnessing of ever greater amounts of energy leads to growth and power, and a catabolic phase, in which the growth and complexity created in the anabolic phase costs too much to maintain.  The American Dream, as we know it, is a product of the several-hundred year mother of all anabolic phases that we have come to confuse with reality itself.  This anabolic growth phase has created complexity, highly networked infrastructure, and expectations for leisure, consumption, and comfort that we can no longer afford.  Here’s how Greer explains it:

The central idea of catabolic collapse is that human societies pretty consistently tend to produce more stuff than they can afford to maintain. What we are pleased to call “primitive societies” – that is, societies that are well enough adapted to their environments that they get by comfortably without huge masses of cumbersome and expensive infrastructure – usually do so in a fairly small way, and very often evolve traditional ways of getting rid of excess goods at regular intervals so that the cost of maintaining it doesn’t become a burden. As societies expand and start to depend on complex infrastructure to support the daily activities of their inhabitants, though, it becomes harder and less popular to do this, and so the maintenance needs of the infrastructure and the rest of the society’s stuff gradually build up until they reach a level that can’t be covered by the resources on hand.

It’s what happens next that’s crucial to the theory. The only reliable way to solve a crisis that’s caused by rising maintenance costs is to cut those costs, and the most effective way of cutting maintenance needs is to tip some fraction of the stuff that would otherwise have to be maintained into the nearest available dumpster.  That’s rarely popular, and many complex societies resist it as long as they possibly can, but once it happens the usual result is at least a temporary resolution of the crisis. Now of course the normal human response to the end of a crisis is the resumption of business as usual, which in the case of a complex society generally amounts to amassing more stuff. Thus the normal rhythm of history in complex societies cycles back and forth between building up, or anabolism, and breaking down, or catabolism. Societies that have been around a while – China comes to mind – have cycled up and down through this process dozens of times, with periods of prosperity and major infrastructure projects alternating with periods of impoverishment and infrastructure breakdown.[viii]

This process can be seen throughout history.  But our present situation, especially in America, provides an exaggerated version of this—not only because of the amount of stuff we’ve amassed, but our  political culture fixated on the unpopularity of cutting costs.  Meanwhile, the distance between what we believe is normal or what we insist we deserve, and what is actually sustainable, grows larger and larger while we dream about the return of the American Dream.  Or as Greer puts it,

A more dramatic version of the same process happens when a society is meeting its maintenance costs with nonrenewable resources. If the resource is abundant enough – for example, the income from a global empire, or half a billion years of ancient sunlight stored underground in the form of fossil fuels – and the rate at which it’s extracted can be increased over time, at least for a while, a society can heap up unimaginable amounts of stuff without worrying about the maintenance costs.  The problem, of course, is that neither imperial expansion nor fossil fuel drawdown can keep on going indefinitely on a finite planet. Sooner or later you run into the limits of growth; at that point the costs of keeping wealth flowing in from your empire or your oil fields begin a ragged but unstoppable decrease, while the return on that investment begins an equally ragged and equally unstoppable decline; the gap between your maintenance needs and available resources spins out of control, until your society no longer has enough resources on hand even to provide for its own survival, and it goes under.

One of the most important features about catabolic collapse, Greer often reminds his reader, is that it is a slow and unsteady process that involve centuries of oscillation.  As he puts it,

That’s catabolic collapse. It’s not quite as straightforward as it sounds, because each burst of catabolism on the way down does lower maintenance costs significantly, and can also free up resources for other uses.  The usual result is the stairstep sequence of decline that’s traced by the history of so many declining civilizations—half a century of crisis and disintegration, say, followed by several decades of relative stability and partial recovery, and then a return to crisis; rinse and repeat, and you’ve got the process that turned the Forum of imperial Rome into an early medieval sheep pasture.

Greer proposes that the United States began its catabolic collapse in the 1970s at the time its oil peaked even as demand for middle-class prosperity was growing.  Greer gives a more precise date of 1974:

That was the year when, in the industrial heartland of the United States, a band of factories that reached from Pennsylvania and upstate New York straight across to Indiana and Michigan, began its abrupt transformation into the Rust Belt. Hundreds of thousands of factory jobs, the bread and butter of America’s then-prosperous working class, went away forever, and state and local governments went into a fiscal tailspin that saw many basic services cut to the bone and beyond. Meanwhile, wild swings in markets for agricultural commodities and fossil fuels, worsened by government policy, pushed most of rural America into a depression from which it has never recovered. In the terms I’ve suggested in this post, the US catabolized most of its heavy industry, most of its family farms, and a good half or so of its working class, among other things. It also set in motion the process of catabolizing one of the most important resources it had left at that time, the oil reserves of the Alaska North Slope. That oil could have been eked out over decades to cushion the transition to a low-energy future; instead, it was pumped and burnt at a breakneck pace in order to deal with the immediate crisis.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

There are a number of significant conclusions to be drawn from Greer’s historical model.  One of the reasons I cite him at length in this context is the way his description of catabolic collapse captures the underlying force behind contemporary American politics.  Not that anyone in public office, or running for it, understands the movement of history in this complex and serious a way—just the opposite, in fact.  Whether you are Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, or anywhere in between, your campaign will tell some version of this story: “we are suffering a temporary set-back because________ (fill in the blank) has stolen our bounty from us.”   This is also the story-line of a good number of the books in the “Current Events” section of the local bookstore, with dozens of predictable options from the left and the right.  Trump, we have seen, likes to blame the weakest and most vulnerable among us, a trend common in some form or another throughout conservative politics; liberals, like Sanders, tend to blame the wealthy and powerful.  As Sanders puts it, “Wall Street’s greed, recklessness, and illegal behavior drove this country into the worst recession since the Great Depression. For too long, this billionaire class has corrupted our political system. We must act decisively to make our economy fair again.”  He continues, “The reality is that for the past 40 years, Wall Street and the billionaire class have rigged the rules to redistribute wealth and income to the wealthiest and most powerful people in this country. As a result, Wall Street exists as an island unto itself, benefiting only the extremely wealthy while using our money to get rich.”[ix]

While I do think there is a very important and almost categorical difference between blaming the poor or immigrants versus blaming the Wall Street plutocrats, this difference is not enough for Sanders, or any other so-called progressive to win three cheers from me.  For it still does not recognize that our decline is no one in particular’s fault, and that finding a villain is nothing more than political drama, complete with simple movers of the plot like “rigging the rules.”  That Trump’s dramatic model is reminiscent of professional wrestling, while Sanders might be more likely to keep company with Upton Sinclair may be of comfort to well-read voters misses a deeper point, as well as the main forces of change to which our politics need to respond—not the theft of the American Dream by these billionaires or these immigrants, not because of too little public investment in new technology or too much regulation of oil drilling; rather, the fast approaching environmental and resource limits of a finite planet, and the increased cost and lower productivity that occurs when we need to pursue energy to the utmost ends of the earth.

To put this another way, symptom is confused with the underlying sickness.  I think this is especially the case with income and wealth inequality, which is better explained by catabolic collapse than any of the other popular explanations out there.  The progressive or liberal versions of these, we have seen, hold that the super wealthy have stolen the national treasure, a story affirmed by progressive economist like Paul Krugman and Richard Reich.   In addition to making those of us sitting outside the 1% feel better, this is an easy drama to understand and relate to.  This story also contains within it a pretty clear, but false, path to a happy ending: we elect the right leaders, take our money back, and all live happily ever after.

Among the several problems with this story, however, is the way it has a difficult time explaining why, around 1970, we saw a sudden change in income equality?  If it is true that the super wealthy stole our money, why at that moment in history?  Did they suddenly become more greedy?  Or, if they were always this greedy, why were the forces of greed so suddenly unleashed?  If we want to blame Reagan, how do we explain the sudden (and mass) loss of good sense that led to his election?  Why did Americans agree to these policies after rejecting them for a half-century of economic growth and the flourishing of the American Dream?  

Any sort of broad social and economic change needs to be attributed to multiple causes, so these questions should not be given a simple answer.  There was of course the frustration of the post-Vietnam era, the change in technology and job distribution, the fact that the super wealthy had “suffered” under the post-Roosevelt American welfare state; there were race riots; the children of the middle class began to “drop out,” and so on and so on.  On the economic side, it was more difficult for the investor class to make money investing in industry, so they became an eager market for the financial gimmickry that accounts for much of their alleged wealth (since much of this wealth is paper wealth, unredeemable in aggregate for real goods and services, we should be aware that the super-rich are not, on the whole, quite as wealthy as everyone likes to think, though they still maintain great self-protective leverage as long as we let them).  But I would suggest that the frustrations and the eagerness of the American middle and working class–as well as the ultra-wealthy whose interests were actually served–for the Reagan message had a lot to do with the rather abrupt peaking of American surplus, and the end of widespread yearly increases in prosperity and opportunity.  The tide turned against progressives, in short, because progress as we had understood it was no longer possible.

In this vein, I would describe the Reagan “revolution” and politics ever since as a thirty-five year embrace of images, slogans, and unrealizable symbols of wealth and power (“Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” meet Rambo).   The GOP has morphed into an exaggerated version of Reagan’s original and unique combination of homespun simplicity, ruthless politics, and ignorant bravado.  Reagan played midwife, in this way to “G.W.” and Trump.  What rough beast waits to be born is open to anyone’s imagination.   Meanwhile, largely lacking in conviction, Democrats have either half-capitulated or have fought unsuccessful rear-guard actions that have been unable to come to grips with the actual depth of the changes in American reality.  The American Dream, at any rate, transitioned from a set of motivating goals to a fantasy-life lived at the level of fear, vague hope, resentment, and belligerence.

This may explain why Americans took an accepting attitude towards growing inequality.  As American life literally became more influenced by a lottery mentality, the very existence of the super-rich provided a sense of possibility, regardless of the odds that any one person might actually achieve this.   This theory is, I think made stronger if one looks not only at the top 1%, as progressives like to do, but at the top 20% as well—a class, as I have noted, that includes a good percentage of progressives and nearly all their pundits, spokespeople, and knowledge-makers.

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While the top 1% has truly benefitted in a way that has no moral justification, scarcely justifiable is the fact that the upper 20% has still maintained something resembling the American Dream, while the lower 80% (those who Trump refers to as the “Silent Majority”) has struggled, even while being bombarded with constant images of the life that is supposed to be possible for anyone who, as Obama liked to say, “plays by the rules.”   In part because our politicians and journalists constantly tell us this, we in the top 20% believe we are living the life the way all Americans should, with yearly gains in possessions, experiences, and opportunities; we see our lives as entirely normal.  It rarely occurs to the self-described (but statically not) “average” people in the 20% that we, too, may have “stolen” more than our share of the national wealth from the lower 80%.  And that’s why the 20% will cling to stories of the American Dream and the way its theft by others, rather than broader conditions of necessity, has made it impossible for the rest of the nation to enjoy an upper-middle class level of privilege.  “We” need a story that makes our levels of consumption seem justifiable.

To put this in the terms offered by Greer, in addition to catabolizing heavy industry, the working class, and the family farm, American society has catabolized much of the white-collar middle class, pushing it into the nearest “dumpster” of work as telemarketers, in the service industry, second jobs, and unpayable debts.  What should be most notable about the middle class today—a class which used to span across a broad array of occupations and income percentiles—is that it is getting smaller.  With declining overall surplus, only a smaller class of people can maintain traditional levels of comfort, security, and leisure.  The ideal of the American Dream has been maintained by making sure that some people, no matter how few, are able to still live it and hold out an example of its possibility to everyone else.  That the middle regions of 20% contains not only contains doctors, lawyers, and business people, but university professors, some teachers, and the sort of people who may run non-profit organizations or work as higher-level social servants, only cements its credibility as the source of modest American values and the product of good old-fashioned hard work.   But these (we) are also the people who not only live far better than most Americans, but who are also disproportionately responsible for the fact that Americans consume 25% of the world’s natural resources and  are responsible for 25% of current emissions. 

While global temperature rise, and extreme weather events increase every year, global oil production has been at a 10 year plateau.  It will soon start heading into slow, but terminal decline at the very same time we encounter increasing numbers of environmental emergencies and dislocations.  Alternative energy, despite the promises, will not create the same levels of surplus that fueled the American Dream during its explosive era.  If, as Greer and many other researchers have argued, the flow of energy required to fuel the American way of life is both lethal and increasingly constrained by geological limits, this blame-game can only get worse.   If, then, we continue on our current trajectory, we can expect the middle class to continue to shrink as more of “us” are catabolized and sent packing into the ranks of the voiceless poor.  The GOP will continue to roll out an ever more grotesque circus and sideshow to keep Americans distracted, while focusing their rage and resentment on the most weak and powerless amongst us.  This is not the future I will allow my children to inherit without a fight that musters every last ounce of my energy.

I’m not going to hold my breath, but it is for this reason that my one and only sustainability wish for “Decision 2016” is that those of us who can do so demand an end to the American Dream.  The American Dream was never sustainable, and the brute and violent consequences of its unsustainability are fast approaching—not  only in the form of extreme weather events and rising oceans, but in the social disruption and economic dislocation that will be its most overwhelming, if often invisible, form.  Though largely unintended, today the American Dream provides cover for those whose lives are truly privileged, but who nevertheless insist they are living a normal American lifestyle that everyone might also enjoy.  The planetary environmental destruction that would be caused by all of Americans living like the top 20%, not to mention the rest of the world, are scarcely fathomable.  We need to hope for a future far different than the one that even our most “progressive” leaders promise.

Okay, Two Cheers for Bernie

As I’ve been writing this essay, I’ve revisited many of Bernie Sanders’ speeches, op-eds, and policy papers.  I’ve got to admit, I really like the guy.  I also think a good number of his policies could be useful in an America suffering catabolic collapse.  In order for us to create a just, fair, and peaceful society, we will need to share equally in our material decline.  This doesn’t mean that we all can’t eat, find shelter, and enjoy basic health-care.  It does, however, mean that we need to have a broad social orientation as we determine how much each of us might get.  Previously, America has operated under the view that demand creates supply so the demand for (and receipt of) limitless benefits might help us all.  This Earth-killing fantasy is a dead-end that will lead to civic violence.  I understand why Sanders is not emphasizing his previous self-description as a socialist, but it is still visible in many of his policies, as well as his political temper.   On a finite planet, we need to focus on the fact that we are all in this together, and Sanders has the potential to move us in this direction.  I’ll certainly vote for him, and I may plant a “Bernie” sign in our yard, amongst the unkempt weeds and rubble that symbolize my own catabolic slide out of the middle class.

While Sanders does, as I have mentioned, still talk about the American Dream, he doesn’t emphasize economic growth.  The demand for growth is the greatest threat to our environment, so I support this subtle change in emphasis.  But, I would note, the fact that he does not separate his policies from economic growth could lead to frustration and confusion—because the American Dream had never thrived without economic growth.  But, I would also note, the lack of emphasis on growth does indeed give him space to emphasize other economic values, such as fairness and the necessity of sufficiency rather than constant increases.  Most impressive to me, on the level of policy proposals, is the idea of guaranteed employment, where the federal government is the “employer (rather than lender) of last resort.”  Everyone, in other words, would be put to work doing something useful and productive.   I love this focus on people, rather than the loan requirements of a fractional-reserve growth-based economy.  Detractors are correct, I think, that this sort of orientation will not actually help the economy as currently designed, which above all requires a yearly increase of the supply of money, people be damned.  Because we have harnessed so much of our daily needs to this economic system, it can’t however, simply be ignored without a great deal of planning and  preparation.

Therefore, if Sanders were actually elected and if, miracle of miracles, Congress actually passed his bills into law, I think he would have a riot on his hand.  That is another reason why the American Dream must undergo a public execution.  We need a crash-course in expectation management.  It is largely for this reason, then, that I reserve the third cheer for someone who will talk openly about the end of the American Dream without blame, but with a call for middle (and upper) class accountability and responsibility. 

The other reason has to do with how we define progress and with what sorts of hopes inhabit our dreams.  I have been talking about the “decline” of America without questioning what I mean by “decline.”  While the many good possible futures I can envision are not “successful” in the way nearly everyone defines success, one can imagine a peaceful, prosperous, and dignified way down.  My third cheer is most of all reserved for a leader who will help us redefine success and failure, progress and decline.  The big challenge will be managing the violence and unrest of a major American change in course.   But beyond that, our current way of life with its individualistic and competitive spirit has created stress, while the constant desire for more and more stuff with the daily prospect of overwhelming choices has perhaps led to our crisis of depression and our dependence on 25% of the world’s mind-altering drug supply.  As followers of Transition and Permaculture already understand, as (I think) do those who follow strict spiritual discipline, there is a far better life awaiting us after our ceremony of progressive innocence is drowned, one that is devoted to care for the Earth and care for each other.  I hope, perhaps in vein, for a leader who can shout this from the mountain-top and be heard.

[i] Krugman, Paul.  The Conscience of a Liberal.  New York: W.W. Norton, 2009, p. 39.

[iii] This is precisely the metaphor that William Bernstein uses in his defense of permanent economic growth, The Birth of Plenty.  “I believe that by 1800, the Western economy resembled a dam, behind which an increasingly swollen reservoir of potential was accumulating . . . . The invention of the steam engine and the telegraph breached, if you will, the dam, loosing a torent of water economic growth the likes of which hat note been seen.  That dam can never be rebuilt, and the torrent of Western growth will not soon be stilled.”  Might we run out of the metaphorical water that powers it?  Bernstein believes that supply, which he declares is “driven by  man’s innate curiosity and industry, could not be the source of stagnation.”  As long as there is demand, supply will be forthcoming.   New York: McGraw Hill, 2004, pp. 188, 374.

[iv] Shor, Juliet.  Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth.  New York: Penguin, 2010, p. 44.

[vi] Yergin, Daniel.  The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power.  New York: The Free Press, 1991, p. 540.

[vii] Ibid, 481, 524



Teaser photo credit: "The American Dream 1991" by Marcel Douwe Dekker (Mdd) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Erik Lindberg

Erik Lindberg received his Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature in 1998, with a focus on cultural theory. After completing his degree, Lindberg began his career as a carpenter, and now owns a small, award-winning company that specializes in historical restoration. In 2008 he started Milwaukee’s first rooftop farm, and was a co-founder of the Victory Garden Initiative, as well as a member of Transition Milwaukee’s inaugural steering committee. He lives in Milwaukee with his wife and young twin boys.

Tags: american dream, catabolic collapse, limits to growth