Saturday, September 17, 2005

An honest assessment

The level of arrogance exhibited by most Americans continually amazes me. In all honesty, I am part of that culture of arrogance and privilege that is uniquely American. Growing up during an era of limitless cheap oil and an economy that allowed a high school graduate to support a family on living wages from the local mill, it was natural to assume that America’s limitless growth would continue.

Interestingly, over the 25 years that have elapsed since I graduated from high school, I’ve come to understand a few things that go against my capitalist socialization from the 1960’s and 1970’s. During the end of my high school years in the late 1970’s, I witnessed gas lines that resulted from the oil embargo of that period. For the first time, a red flag was raised concerning the myth of a limitless supply of cheap petroleum. Even our president at the time, Jimmy Carter, spoke of the need to alter our way of life—i.e., we could no longer consume energy (namely in the form of oil and gas) at the rates that we were currently gorging ourselves with. As Carter quickly learned, you can’t tell arrogant Americans that they can’t have what they think they are entitled to—gasoline and cheap oil were non-negotiable pillars of our American way of life. Hence, Carter lost to Reagan and of course, it was a “new day in America.”

We recently witnessed gas prices spike steadily skyward, with prices in this area nearing the $3.50 mark in some places. While the price has fallen back below $3.00/gallon , the specter of a difficult winter for many in the northeast and other colder climates of the U.S looms before us.

Yet, in spite of these clear signposts indicating serious concerns about maintaining perpetual growth and consumption of finite natural resourses, there seems to be little if any conservation being done, let alone talked about. If we had begun building rail and public transportation options into the U.S. infrastructure back in the 1970’s, as well as mandating enactment of conservation programs and had aggressively developed alternatives to cheap oil, then we might be in a different and far more secure place today. Many experts think it’s too late, as we near the peak of global oil production and begin heading down the slope of diminished supplies.

Two articles came across my desk that make me think back to those optimistic days of my youth, when I thought that I’d get a college degree and be set for life. How na├»ve (and yes, arrogant) I was. Do people in Europe have a sense that things will get progressively better? Certainly, if I was born in parts of the third world, my life would have been dramatically different.

Economically, the opportunities that were available to many in the 1960’s and even the 1970’s have disappeared. Globalization (and the off shoring of good-paying American jobs) has seen to it that earning a living has gotten more and more difficult with each passing year. Many don’t understand why that is. I say a lot of it has to do with the tax shift that began around 1970, when the burden was moved from those in the wealthiest brackets, over to the middle class and many working poor.

In addition to taxes shifting from the wealthy, to the less wealthy Americans (namely the working classes and poor), we’ve also seen how we’ve embraced technology and cheap oil as the panacea to all of our problems. Wendell Berry’s latest article in Orion, has some interesting things to say about this.

While I’m not purposefully trying to be dour, I’m one that prefers to deal in reality and not fantasy. Leadership in our nation calls for some tough and honest discussions about these types of issues.

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