When you worry about peak oil and climate chaos, it’s easy to get frustrated at the slow pace of change in the world’s biggest economy and most powerful nation, the United States. For my part, I’d like to see my country start preparing for both of these civilization-shaking challenges yesterday rather than tomorrow. Though I’ll gladly settle for tomorrow if the other choice is “never,” as it often seems to be these days.
But sooner rather than later, we should enact a national energy policy to start radical conservation and ramp up clean energy. We should stop subsidizing roads and air travel, not to mention coal, oil and nukes. We should discourage American companies from offshoring jobs and encourage more Made in the USA. And on and on.
And sometimes when I see very little progress on these issues, or even see the country moving backward, I get frustrated with my fellow citizens.
The American public has had plenty of chances to get global warming since it hit the news in the late 1980s. They’ve had less chance to accept or even hear about peak oil. But the concept of resource depletion is so obvious, you have to wonder if people even really need to be told at all that the oil will run low sometime. You don’t have to be smarter than a fifth grader to get that. Right?
Fat, ignorant and addicted to Xbox
In this kind of mood, it’s easy to agree with pundits who see the American people as one big lumpen proletariat, as James Howard Kunstler does in his forecast for the year ahead:
We’re already looking like a nation of ax murderers and cannibals with our tattoo fetish, strange costumes (baby clothes for young men; hooker get-ups for the ladies, which should tell you that adulthood is the new final frontier of the American Dream), and our retarded patois of like-like-like and go-go-go speech – all set in a porn-saturated total immersion huckster hologram (thanks Joe Bageant) of visually incoherent, civically-impoverished, and economically spavined suburbia. I’m sorry, but we just look like a nation of goners. Surely the levels of clinical depression are high out there, and a lot of our fellow citizens are suffering profoundly inside – but is acting like killer-clowns the only option?
For Kunstler and the rest of us who claim to know better, with apologies to HL Mencken, when it comes to climate change and peak oil, nobody ever went broke underestimating the judgment, intelligence or willingness of the American people to make the necessary preparations to save their own bacon.
The most generous generation?
But there’s another strand of thought these days in the media that sees a positive change in the national zeitgeist.
Trendwatching.com is calling it “Generation G,” with “G” standing for “generosity” and not for “greed.”
Today, all kinds of people are disgusted with the greed of big business and the orgy of consumption that has perverted family life. They want our society to do better and they are willing to help. Generation G includes both twentysomething Twitterers who post helpful links online as well as rich oldsters like Warren Buffett who have pledged to give away much or all of their wealth.
As Trendwatching.com puts it, for many Americans today, “sharing a passion and receiving recognition have replaced ‘taking’ as the new status symbol.”
While many pundits have noticed the same trend, it’s fair to ask if anything like a New Altruism is reallly just the latest hype in brand marketing.
Aside from the millions of blogs and content sites (like this one!) that give away content for free every day, consider the evidence that we’re becoming a generous generation, doing real work, much of it enabled by the Internet, for free:
- Flickr, the photo sharing site, now boasts more than 33 million users, more than 3 billion images, and handles 3,087 new uploads per minute, with 18-34 year olds leading the pack. And many Flickr photographers make their work available for sites like ours to use free of charge.
- Wikipedia has nearly nine million registered users, 144,788 of whom have been actively involved in the last 30 days.
- A whole new infrastructure has developed to give stuff away free (check out the listings at the Really Really Free Market and the FreeCycle Network) or to let ordinary people become venture philanthropists (eg, microloans to support Third World entrepreneurs at Kiva.com).
The snake flag or the Stars and Stripes forever
Sure, many Americans have taken their justifiable disgust at Wall Street ripoffs and invested it in the fool’s gold of the Tea Party with its no-nothing scapegoating of Muslims and the poor, unrealistic demands for both lower taxes and more government services and its anger at the wrong class of “elites” for screwing over the regular guy.
Yet, it’s obvious that many other Americans have taken the same disgust at big corporations behaving badly and tried to first liberate themselves from consumerism and then to create something of value outside the market economy. And that gives me great cause for hope that our nation can play our rightful role as leaders in moving the world beyond fossil fuels.
Are many of us still too fat, lazy and complacent to exercise our responsibilities as citizens? No doubt.
But does America also have the right stuff to get off our ass and save the world, just as we did in World War II? You bet. Just look at how your neighbors are already sharing and helping in hundreds of ways big and small — and all without pay.
Now we have to bring all that generosity together into a movement for a Second American Revolution. And for peak oil and climate activists, that means your time is now.
To work with our neighbors we must first appreciate them as citizens. That means it’s time to put aside the puerile cynicism about the average American too often fashionable on the Left. It’s time to stop complaining about Joe Sixpack and instead help him to discover his inner hero. It’s time to step up as climate patriots, energy patriots and patriots for all that’s best about the American experiment.
As Alexis de Tocqueville said, “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
– Erik Curren