More and more people are using the language of peak oil and becoming aware that the future we once took for granted is now being foreclosed (not incidentally, by the same folks who are foreclosing a lot of our homes). It is increasingly clear that we stand at a cross-roads, and that neither road leads anywhere similar to the global capitalist era we just passed through.
Here are some excerpts from a good article that acknowledges the reasons why the future will be nothing like the past, and lays out the 2 paths we can now head down. I wrote some thoughts at the end to inspire us to think realistically and demand the impossible. [alex]
by Sara Robinson
April 7, 2009
Originally published by Campaign for America’s Future
..[T]he two dominant scenarios about the American future that progressives seem to be wrestling with right now [might be described as]:
1) Permanent Decline — Due to Americans’ native hyperindividualism, political apathy, and overweening willingness to accept personal blame for their country’s failures, the corporatists finally succeed in turning the US into Indonesia. This time, we will not find the will to fight back (or, if we do, it will be too late). As a result, in a few years there will be no more middle class, no upward mobility, few remaining public institutions devoted to the common good, no health care, no education, and no hope of ever restoring American ideals or getting back to some semblance of the America we knew.
2) Reinvented Greatness — Americans get over their deeply individualistic nature, come together, challenge and restrain the global corporatist order, and finally establish the social democracy that the Powers That Be — corporate, military, media, conservative — have denied to us since the 1950s. This happens in synergy with a move to energy and food self-sufficiency, the growth of a sustainable economy, a revival of participatory democracy, and a general renewal of American values that pulses new life into our institutions and assures us a much more stable future.
Conservatives and the mainstream media, of course, are also offering a third scenario:
3) Happy Face — Prop up the banks, keep people in their houses, and by and by everything will get back to “normal” (defined as “how it all was a few years ago.”)
[Sara recognizes that this third “road” is an illusion, for the following underlying realities which cannot be ignored any longer. -alex]
1. Energy regime change
The first reason there’s no going back to the way it was is that there’s simply not enough oil left in the ground — or carbon sinks left in the world — to sustain America as we’ve known it. We may well be able to sustain some semblance of that way of life (or perhaps, find our way to one even more satisfying); but we won’t be running it on oil or coal.
And when the oil goes, so goes the empire. Empires rise and fall on their ability to dominate and capitalize on the world’s dominant energy supply (whatever that might be at the time). Thomas Homer-Dixon of the University of Toronto has argued persuasively that the Romans rose on their unsurpassed ability to organize and deploy the Mediterranean sunlight and turn it into wealth. The Dutch rose on their ability to develop technology to harness wind and turn it into wealth. The British invented a repertoire of machines that ran on coal, which they had an abundance of, and turned it into wealth. The American empire, of course, has been built on oil and the things that ran on it. (It’s probably true that all the wealth you personally own is somehow traceable back to that resource.) America’s power is rooted in the geopolitical fact that we’ve been able to control the most potent form of energy ever found, and turn it into more wealth than anyone’s ever seen.
In all cases, empires finally failed when the systems that enabled them to dominate that energy resource collapsed (Rome, and probably us); or the energy source itself was made obsolete when some newer, more concentrated form of energy came along (the Netherlands, England). And in no case did an empire built on one energy regime successfully position itself to dominate the next one as well: they were are almost always too deeply invested in the old ways to recognize or capitalize on the next thing when it came. Based on these precedents, America’s future imperial ambitions in an age of peak oil and global climate change look questionable at best.
America’s industrial powers spent the 20th century amassing vast stores of political and economic power based in an oil economy. They’re gearing up to fight the change away from that for all they’re worth, for as long as they can hold out. But the alternatives are actively emerging all around them now — and if history holds true, the odds are that their very resistance will cost them any chance they might have had to become the dominant players in that new regime.
The good news is that losing the basis of our empire will greatly increase the odds that we’ll be able to restore our democracy. Another lesson of history is that these are two incompatible ideals, and when a country truly chooses to be one, it necessarily gives up on on being the other.
2. Environmental collapse
It’s not just climate change. We’re losing topsoil, fresh water, fisheries, forests, and useful plant and animal species faster than our scientists can count the losses. The first three, in particular, are so urgent that it’s entirely possible that one of them may emerge as a serious threat to continued human life long before climate change does. (And climate change, of course, is happening faster than even last year’s pessimists dare to imagine.)
This change slams the door on any hope of ever going back to the world we knew. Capitalism as we’ve known it was based on the assumption of a world with infinitely exploitable resources. We’re bumping up hard against the limits now, and our economic system is either going to adapt to this new reality (and there are plenty of ways that it could do that, given a proper shove from suppliers, consumers and regulators), or give way to some other form of economic organization that incentivizes us to preserve and invest in the earth’s resources and processes rather than gain profit by permanently destroying them.
Progressives have been saying since the early 1970s that that the limitless-growth model isn’t sustainable over the long run. Forty years later, the long run is today: we ignore the accumulating list of undeniable environmental breakdowns at our own peril. As long as the powers that be keep placing their bets on the old assumptions and try to go back to business as usual, it’s a safe bet for us that they won’t survive as dominant players in the future. Unfortunately, humankind as a whole may not, either.
3. The dawning of the Information Age
We’re already seeing signs that getting the world on one big network … may be triggering the biggest ontological shift since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment deposed the Earth (and God) at the center of the universe.
[Very eloquently put. I agree with Sara that the sooner we all recognize these fundamental truths about the impossibility of continuing the capitalist charade, the more likely it is that a positive future will materialize through our hard work.
I do have quibbles with the article, particularly when we start looking for solutions. For example, the sentence: “[it is] quite possible that American-style democracy, which dominated the modern era and proceeded from its assumptions about the world, won’t be adequate to this age (at least, not in its current form).”
It’s quite level-headed to wonder whether the institutions of corporatist “democracy” will be suited to a future of economic decline and relocalization. But when was it ever “adequate” that the ruling 1% own 50% of the wealth? When was it ever “adequate” that more money be spent on lobbying the US Congress than the amount of money needed to feed, clothe and educate EVERY hungry child in the entire WORLD?
When was it “adequate” that female bodies be turned into commodities to be bought by men, and used to sell the very products that strip women of their self-esteem? When was it “adequate” that 2 million Americans sit in prison, and that 1/3 of African American youth be under some form of state supervision? What was “adequate” about the invasion of Iraq, twice, or of Afghanistan, or Vietnam for that matter?
If we look at the reality of the systems we live in and not just take them at face value for their ideals, we’ll see that the US political system is no “democracy”, nor has it ever been. As Sara rightly points out, it is an Empire, and in fact one serving global capital. This is nothing new, because as we know the United States was founded on the genocide of one race and the mass enslavement of another, and America’s imperial adventures began way back in 1846 with the unprovoked invasion of Mexico that stole half of that nation’s territory.
The positive aspects of America, like free speech, the 8-hour day, the weekend, the right of women to vote and own property, the end of slavery, gay rights, etc., have never been handed down from those on top, but have always been fought for and won by everyday people like you and me, who recognized that governmental and corporate institutions were not “adequate” to meet human needs. The political system has always and everywhere been an obstacle to them.
Now that global capitalism is quaking and threatens to crumble, our best chance for creating a future that is sustainable, just, free, and genuinely democratic requires creating systems of economic exchange rooted in meeting human needs at the local level. This is not a new revelation at all. Millions have been struggling to create this reality for as long as those in power have sought to deny it.
Those of us who are “progessives” need to move beyond the language of mere political change and involve ourselves in a movement for social change that is as old as time and broad as the entire planet. Our dreams have been delayed for too long, it is no time to start aiming lower. Let us be radical in our solutions and bold in our demands. We have nothing to lose, and a world to win. – alex]