Fireworks and Civilizations

I love fireworks.  From the ground-level explosion that launches the rocket, it climbs quickly to its apogee, then blossoms into a spectacular explosion.  The show is short-lived, fading quickly, falling back towards the earth, with occasional splashes of color, reminding the spectator of its past glory.  And then, it’s over, and we watch for the next one.

Most of the great nations, civilizations, and empires of history have had trajectories like a fireworks rocket.  They burst upon the scene…the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, the Mayans and Aztecs, all had their moment of glory, but all of them faded, some more quickly than others.  The Spanish and British empires dominated more recent centuries.  In the Twentieth Century, two great superpowers emerged…the Soviets and of course we, the Americans.

The Soviets’ trajectory was short-lived, dying in a great collapse in the 1990’s, leaving us, the United States, as the dominant superpower, an example for other nations to emulate to achieve economic prosperity and peace.

But somewhere back in the Seventies, maybe, it all started to come apart.  Jimmy Carter saw it coming…the reliance on imported oil to feed our gargantuan hunger for the “good life.”  And then the disappearance of the great American Middle Class…those blue-collar workers who made our nation the great manufacturing dynamo that helped rescue the world from the catastrophic events of World War II.

There is no doubt in my mind that the glory days of the United States are in our past.  The great blossoming of the fireworks at the top of the trajectory is well behind us.  There may be an occasional glimmer of our past glory, but from here and now, it is all downhill.

I consider myself to be extraordinarily fortunate to have lived during this period of American hegemony.  I was born in 1936.  America was already a world power then, but we ascended to superpower status during World War II.  Without us, the outcome would almost certainly have been quite different, and Hitler and the Third Reich might well have dominated for the thousand years that they foretold.  But we were the great Arsenal of Democracy, an unstoppable, unconquerable force.  Then, after the war, George Marshall, one of the greatest statesmen and visionaries our nation has produced, conceived of a plan to help Europe recover and rebuild as free democratic societies.  Who knows what tyrannies might have risen without his vision?

That was our apogee.  We were the beacon of economic prosperity, and democratic ideals.  The world owes us much for our efforts then.  The Soviet Union emerged from the war as a powerful adversary, and the Cold War dominated world politics for the next 40 years.  And then the great union of the USSR fragmented, leaving us unchallenged as the dominant military, economic, social and cultural force on the earth.

But even before the Soviet disintegration, cracks were showing in the Great American Dream.  We were already importing huge quantities of oil to feed our insatiable thirst, and wasting it in gas-guzzler cars and in innumerable other ways.  We were running huge budget and trade deficits.  Carter saw this and tried to change our path, to conserve and develop alternate energy sources.  But he was stymied by the very forces that brought us to greatness…implacable, unstoppable capitalism.

I have mixed feelings about all of this…gratitude, regret, anger, guilt…and sadness.

Gratitude:  First, and most important, I feel incredibly fortunate to have been born in 1936, near the apogee of the American Trajectory.  I have witnessed the triumph of our WWII victory, although I was only nine in 1945, too young to appreciate the magnitude of the events of “VJ Day” and “VE Day.”

The years that followed were memorable, with the resurgence of the American economy, and the advance in living standards of all Americans.  We drove huge cars, built big houses, lived high, wide and handsome lives.  Even though my parents were poor farmers, life was good in the forties and fifties when I was growing up.

 The oil embargo in the seventies, was a wakeup call.  Gas lines, astronomical inflation and interest rates…the stock market meltdown that lasted for many years.  Stagflation.  Some people started talking about the “era of limits.”  Maybe we couldn’t go on consuming and borrowing forever.  We elected a president named Jimmy Carter.  He saw the problem, and said that this was the greatest threat the nation had faced since WWII.  We needed to break our oil habit.  He started a number of alternate energy programs, and the CAFÉ…Corporate Average Fuel Economy…was born.  Maybe it was too much, too fast.  Detroit built abominable cars…gutless, gasping atrocities that could barely get down the road.  It was as if the auto manufacturers were saying, “Okay, you want economy, we’ll give you economy,” and then they built the worst cars they could conceive of.

Carter only lasted one term, and his successor, Ronald Reagan, quickly torpedoed all those alternate energy programs and got us back to total oil dependence and huge trade and budget deficits.

Regret:  If we had followed Carter’s plan and broken our “oil habit” way back then in the seventies, where would we be today?  We would probably not have engaged in three wars in the Middle East, and would not have troop presence there now.  And maybe Al Qaeda would never have been born, and Muslim fanatics would be terrorizing their own people, not us.  Maybe we wouldn’t have the horrendous national debt that we have accumulated over the past thirty years, paying for wars, oil imports and all sorts of other activities like the Patriot Act, which we might not have needed at all.

But there’s no use crying over what might have been.  Those decisions were made a long time ago, and none of us stood up in protest and told Reagan to get stuffed, that Carter was right and we needed to change our wasteful ways and live within our means.

Anger:  Our leaders should have seen this coming.  Carter saw it.  But Reagan, Nixon, Clinton…nobody did anything about the runaway train that was about to become a train wreck that was going to bring down our nation.  I blame all those leaders, and I blame “We the People” for not making enough noise.  We all knew.  Carter waved it in our face.  We have no excuse.

Capitalism is a wonderful tool for exploiting resources and creating wealth.  But no tool is perfect, and the strength of capitalism is also its weakness.  In the unending quest for more and bigger profits, capitalism is myopic.  It doesn’t look down the road very far.  What are the earnings for the next quarter?  That’s the big question.  Running out of oil in twenty years?  That’s somebody else’s problem.  I gotta worry about the next quarterly earnings report.

I read Jared Diamond’s book, “Collapse” recently.  He tells about Japan in the 1700’s, when the forests of that country were disappearing rapidly.  Erosion and degradation of the land were rampant.  The Shogun issued an edict.  No more cutting of trees.  Period.  Today, 70% of Japan is covered by forests!  The land is rich and productive, erosion is under control, soils are healthy.  That would never happen here.  Didn’t happen here.  We had infinitely more forests than Japan, and they are mostly gone.  What remains is under severe attack at the moment by lumber, mining and oil drilling interests that have immense influence with the current administration.  Why do they have influence?  They give huge sums to them for “campaign contributions.”  But it’s really just legalized bribery.  I have a lot of anger about that.

Guilt:  Yes, I feel some guilt.  I have been the beneficiary of all that “cheap” energy.  I have owned my share of gas-guzzlers, traveled all over the world in energy-intensive jet planes, and hedonistic, wasteful cruise ships.  Even people like me, of modest means, have been able to do that.  Fifty years from now, jet travel and cruise ships will be the exclusive domain of the very rich if they exist at all.  Maybe only twenty years from now, jet flight will be horrendously expensive.  Commercial airline travel will be a distant memory for most people.  Business travel will be mostly “virtual,” via the Internet and teleconferencing.  Tourism, the biggest business on the planet will be extinct.  I was one of the “big spenders” that made this happen.

Sadness:  When I let myself think about it, I am profoundly depressed.  Fifty years ago, we were the greatest and most powerful nation on earth.  In fifty short years, we managed to blow it.  Compared to the great empires of the Egyptians or the Romans, the American Empire was over in the blink of an eye, a single great colorful explosion.  It will not be long before the reality of our decline becomes obvious.  I may not live long enough to see the decline of the United States to second-rate status, but it’s coming, as surely as the next earthquake or hurricane.  It’s only a matter of when, not if.  But it’s excruciating to realize that there were decisions we could have made that would have postponed our fall for a long time, maybe indefinitely.  That is very sad, indeed.
 
Afterthought:  I wrote this a few years ago, during the Bush Administration when things were at their darkest.  Since then, with the election of Obama, there are a few glimmerings of hope.  There are some stirrings of a populist/environmentalist movement in this country and elsewhere in the world.  People are starting to get engaged in the problems of global warming, resource depletion and living within our means. The entrenched opposition is powerful and determined.  It will be a long struggle, but I think there is hope that our nation can survive and that the world of the future will be a better place for people.

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