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The American Dream … Time for a Redefinition?

September 14th, 2009 · 1 Comment

What follows is a guest post (the quotation material), with some commentary, from Stranded Wind who has a major focus on finding routes for solutions and opportunities amid the perfect storm of economic problems, peak oil (and other resource constraints), and global warming.  One of the streams of discussion, with various degrees of urgency and certainty, among those considering our challenges is that today’s international system fundamentally is at odds with fostering an environment conducive for human existence and confronting our intertwined challenges requires significant rethinking and restructuring of how we live.  I have not, myself, reached the point of rejecting the potential that well-managed and structured (including regulation) captalism is, a priori, impossible to have and deal with our resource challenges.  On the other hand, I cannot build a conclusive case that rejects those who are calling for a fundamental rethinking and restructuring to help us ride through the perfect storm to find (create) a safer, stronger, and sustainable society.

The American Dream. This phrase calls up many things for many people, but it was defined post World War II and common imagery involves a house in the suburbs, a shiny, swoopy, chrome laden 1950s Detroit sedan, and maybe a picket fence.

An important point, to me:  that “The American Dream” is not a fixed item, immutable for eternity, but something that develops and modifies and shifts over time.  Today, few Americans (a pitiful few, if any) likely dream of being a plantation owner with hundreds of slaves while we might imagine that this would have been a “day dream” for a white boy two hundred years ago. Few Americans 50 years ago imagined anything like a large-screen TV in the home while that is a standard consumer item, consider a near necessity by many.  Etc … Society changes. Technology changes. Economics changes. Our “dreams” change.

We built and built that little subdivision over and over until it was forty five minutes out from anything that mattered, and then the residents ran smack into $4/gallon gas. Even the International Energy Agency now admits oil production will peak at some point, disputing the historic peak event of July 2008 but confirming the concept. Something must be done and the American Dream without limitless cheap oil will certainly become the American Nightmare.

The laws of unintended consequences.  Rosy dreams, embraced by nearly all, can have nightmarish consequences. The plummeting house values in areas remote from jobs and shopping amid that $4/gallon gas is just a taste of the potential “American Nightmare”.

There are many things that can be done, but helping visualizing the good life after they’re applied is something we don’t do enough of as a nation.

This is, to me, a powerful call — to highlight that the “positives” that can emerge from change.

We face three obvious, serious threats to our quality of life.

  1. The introduction touches on the peaking and decline of liquid fuels.
  2. Attendant with and in many ways interrelated is the current economic crisis.
  3. Hovering over all of this and completely unwilling to negotiate is Mother Nature, hot under the collar from two centuries of fossil fuel exhumation.

Any one of them left to run to its extreme can leave our culture in ruins and any attempt at addressing one seems to require ignoring the other two. That obviously won’t fly – we need an integrated approach.

Stovepiping our “solutions” could bankrupt us. Escalating tar sands production and using current technologies for coal-to-liquids could help solve the liquid fuel challenges while devastating any prospects for dealing with climate change. Seeking to “solve” economic challenges with increased consumption and reinvigorating the economic structure/priorities that help create the recent bubbles and crashes can devastate prospects for improving our liquid fuel situation and/or climate change. The good news: integrated, win-win-win solution paths and Silver BBs do exist that help address these challenges together.

And the ‘we’ in that previous sentence needs to expand dramatically from the current mix of catastrophists and serious policy wonks who’ve taken the time to come to grips with the complexities of the post peak oil world as we leave the Holocene and enter an era some are calling the Anthropocene. When presented with the stark realities of the dramatic reduction in consumption dictated by our newfound constraints many Americans simply rebel, refusing to consider what it means, or they reach for the worn out idea that some supernatural apocalypse approaches.

This is a very difficult challenge to overcome, whether due to the entire cultural regime that embraces consumption as a measure of one’s being, the challenges of every day life (when struggling to get the kids to school on time, who is really ready for an existential discussion that calls into question virtually everything one does with one’s family?), and the long-developed definitions of “human advancement” over centuries so associated with technological and material change.

If the restructuring society path is, truly, the only viable path for navigating the Perfect Storm(s), then the mind shift challenge quite likely is the hardest to surmount.

A vision of America after we’ve tended to these three interlocking issues ought not be left to the catastrophists, both technocratic and religious, who currently rule the creative visualization in this area.

What sort of a vision exists to be conveyed? It’s a very different dream, but it ought to correct many of the economic, health, and social/spiritual issues we face as a nation.

Our consumption will decline and no magic exists to restore it. This isn’t so grim as it sounds – the demon growth is a cancer that can and will kill us all, but a whopping dose of development, which looks superficially similar, will do us all some good. Build a house in a distant suburb, build two cars to transport the family that lives there, and you end up with lonely, unsupervised children at home and overweight, depressed, medicated adults burning up their exercise and parenting time in transit.

Consider how “progress” and material achievement might represent paths toward a life achievement counter to what would fulfill far more.

Relocate that family to a duplex two blocks from a busy rail stop that supports a local grocery and some other shops. Transit becomes a short walk coupled with a train ride suitable for reading the morning paper. Instead of children consuming a structured soccer program conceived due to our isolation and requiring a half hour commute to attend, play will once again be play, conceived and implemented by children with no adult interaction beyond the monitoring of established boundaries. Food, grown so near that one might know those involved in the production, will replace the plastic tasting plastic wrapped simulacrums of fruits and vegetables. Unspoken in the relocalization of food production will be a re-integration of the human race into the natural world; we’ll eat what’s in season.

This is a vision of “connection”: between each other (within families, across families, within communities) and between humanity and the planet (plucking a tomato to take to the kitchen table fosters a link with ‘nature’ far different than occurs via canned tomato sauce from the local supermarket).

The production of synthetic investment vehicles sucked all of the oxygen out of the room during the first decade of the 21st century. Outsized paper returns based on paper rearranging kept needed capital from all other endeavors. We foolishly exported every bit of manufacturing we possibly could, prey to the whims of the synthetic paper ‘markets’ and their need to report ever increasing returns on a quarterly basis. That’s going to hurt in ways we can’t even begin to imagine, but we need to begin addressing it.

Stranded Wind is one of those who ‘predicted’ the bank challenges and fiscal crises seen last year, with the economic turmoil globally. He is among those arguing that the current ‘rebound’ is a deck of cards, setting the stage for further (and likely worse) collapses into the future.

The four year college and a masters degree thereafter isn’t the pinnacle of success in a post peak oil world. We’re still going to need some college graduates but we should see a tremendous resurgence in skilled trades. A young man a decade ago might have headed for business administration classes at the state university. His daughter will certainly have a choice of that or a two year school focusing on a skilled trade. The tool and die maker is a vanishing breed today, but we’re going to have to restore this trade if we hope to retool our nation for changing times.

Today we have road rage. People make obscene gestures, they yell, they chase or cut each other off, and there is occasional violence. The same level of tension exists in our overcrowded, over-securitized airports, kept in check only by the potential for prompt removal. The train is a welcome relief from this; the woman going to slowly in front of you is the same age as your elderly mother – no obscene gesture needed, but it does help if carry her bag so she can navigate the aisle more freely. I drive. I fly. We ride. There’s an instant level of social interaction among train riders, particularly long distance travelers, that just isn’t seen in other modes of transport.

Repeat again these words: “I drive. I fly. We ride.” These six words provide a profound insight, as SW points out, the vastly different social implications of different transport options. (Though, to be honest, we can look at it otherwise. These are differentiating active vs passive, though the general social discussion does follow SW’s lay out of active/passive (though “I took the train …”, “I rode the bus” are active as well, which places the action with the individual).

Increased physical activity due to transit changes, increased social intimacy due to transit changes, and improved family intimacy due to less time in transit. Low or no chemical produce and antibiotic free meat and eggs from a local small holder for dinner. Psych medication prescriptions and insulin are just two of the many chemical crutches that will melt away under this regimen, leaving a healthier, happy, longer living nation.

Okay, in the world being layed out for us, how big a role is there for health clubs (and treadmills going nowhere?) or diet fads (see, one of those good items: so long to those Acai Berry spam emails)?

Notice what’s missing here? Corporations and our current media are the impediments to the required change. The experiment of the corporation as a virtual person, begun a century and a half ago, has run its course with disastrous results from the individual to the whole biosphere.

Sadly, it looks like the US Supreme Court is near to not just reaffirming but reinforcing Corporate “virtual person” power.

A significant part of our transition will be breaking our fetish of assessing our well being by the one dimensional, synthetic number that is the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Our media, or more correctly the atrophied, diseased organ that formerly reported the news, is obviously in need of some sort of attention, the inroads made by citizen journalists on the internet not withstanding. The work the current bubble’s deflation is doing is a start but Congress had ought to bring out the Sherman act and finish off media concentration before this mistake finishes off all of us.

We measure what matters; what we measure is what matters. Sadly, we are measuring, as society, and highlighting in very prominent ways far too many things (like stock market averages, growth rates) that seem to be, at fundamental levels, at odds with strengthening society and increasing the prospects for humanity (individuals, communities, nations, the species) into the future.

Americans today straddle a precipice – one foot on the couch while they watch various incarnations of Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous forever out of reach to them, and the other under a desk at a job that keeps them one step from replaying Grapes Of Wrath, at least for the moment. A long overdue honest accounting of the condition of our banking industry will break this pose and we had better, for the sake of our republic, have provided people with a vision of how to land at a lower energy level. Right now Mad Max and Left Behind rule that mindspace and we don’t want to go there.

This is, imo, a good appeal to foster different visions of tomorrow that lay outside “apocalypse” … there are those visions, they are discussed, but they aren’t the Hollywood blockbuster nor the best seller in the fundamentalist circles. As SW argues, a more positive envisioning of tomorrow might enable successful navigating through our Perfect Storm to a safe harbor of a sustainable human civilization for the millenia to come.

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Tags: analysis · catastrophic climate change · climate change · Energy · environmental · Global Warming

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 johngen // Sep 25, 2009 at 11:31 am

    Very thoughtfull post on creative visualization .It should be very much helpfull.

    Karim – Creating Power