Americans: hapless fools or budding heroes?

sign "make things better"

Is America a nation of selfish jerks or generous sharers? Photo: opensourceway via Flickr.

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. 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 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

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

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  1. Auntiegrav says

    The useful people are too engaged in making stuff that nobody needs, and the rest are engaged in selling that stuff.
    We are in the midst of a war. The war is between the automobile and the planet. If the automobile wins, everything loses. If the planet wins, only the automobile loses.
    Everything else about our culture is simply a subset of the automobile culture (having a machine do something we could do ourselves).
    Raj Patel gets it right in The Value of Nothing: the opposite of consumption is not frugality, it is generosity. Unfortunately, too many think that consuming in order to create money to give is the same as giving of themselves and their time.
    The loss which America has suffered lies in the usefulness of her individuals. Everything that could have been done by those individuals is now done by oil or wage slaves in another country. The uselessness of Americans is obvious to the most casual observer: if they care to look.
    In addition to this, our diet makes our children stupid and lazy, so how will they ever find out?

    • says

      Raj Patel makes a great point. I see a movement of people who are sick of the false god of consumerism and are ready for something more meaningful. Generosity could make a big difference in our future.

  2. Diane Blust says

    Re “Made in USA” – Just looking at my Christmas tree with all its wonderful German ornaments – many still proudly sporting the Made in Germany logo. But, most ornaments I’ve received from folks in the US proudly wear the “Made in Chine” sticker. It may seem like a tiny think – locally made ornaments – but I think it says quite a bit about our national outsourcing problem…

    • says

      We’ve got some beautiful ornaments hand crafted by artisans in Europe too. Nothing wrong with getting a certain amount of high quality goods from places that specialize in them — champagne from France or tea from China. There’s always been trade. But today it’s gone too far, getting so many things we used to make in America from countries whose main selling point is not quality, but low cost. The Chinese economy has a lot of protectionism. I wonder if we might consider returning to some of our old protections for domestic industry too?

  3. Oz says

    “…that gives me great cause for hope that our nation can play our rightful role as leaders in moving the world beyond fossil fuels.”

    ‘Rightful role” Really? American exceptionalism is what got us into this mess, and continued appeals in that direction seem, let’s just say, questionable. WW2 was an utter disaster for this nation (and the world as a whole) on any number of levels, if you look at the reality, and not the mythology, of it, so citing that as a model is, I suppose, both apt and ironic.

    Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for generosity, for example – but until we move wholesale to build a culture which is predicated upon it as a core and widely held value – centered on something like the potlatch ceremony – it’s effectively meaningless. And this comes from a regular of ‘Really, Really Free Friday’ in San Fran. Big fan of it – but it’s clear that it won’t be taking over Main St, let alone Wall St, in the next few years. Anyone who truly believes that taking and consuming is in imminent danger of being replaced as the central faux-spiritual act of mainstream America is engaged in the most fanciful of daydreams. Would that it were. Let’s grow up and accept facts instead of settling, childlike, for wishful thinking. Grown ups are in short supply these days, and desperately needed.

    I’ll be blunt: if we had a few dozen generations for generosity to somehow become instilled into our cultural DNA, it would be wonderful, but we don’t, and so the vaunted tentative moves toward generosity of a tiny percentage of the current population means nothing in the big picture. It’s good karma, for sure, for those who participate, and a wonderful compassion practice, but that’s about it.

    All the evidence indicates that ‘ramping up on’ radical conservation and clean energy won’t make a bit of difference – it is to misunderstand the sheer scale of what is approaching. Further, the political reality is that even basically worthless, bandaid measures like this won’t fly, let alone the only solution with a chance to make a real difference: terminating industrial civilization immediately. Facing facts entails accepting that these moves by the powers that be will simply not happen. I think this is the first, mature, step which is required if one wishes to move therefrom to sensible action. I also view articles which encourage people NOT to face facts, as I believe this one does, as a disservice, because it encourages us to remain the children most Americans are, hoping that Mommy and Daddy will solve the problem. Time to grow up, says I.

    As David McKay, Physics Prof at Cambridge, makes clear in his free book, “Sustainable Energy – without the hot air” (available for free here:, the ‘every little bit helps’ mantra is terribly misguided, and translates into ‘if everyone only does a little, we’ll only achieve a little.’ The fact is that every little bit DOESN’T help. We need big bits, huge bits, gargantuan bits, at this stage. It’s far too late for little bits.

    It seems clear to me that the primary challenge posed by peak oil, climate disruption and other environmental predicaments into which we as a civilization have gotten ourselves, is to see things clearly – and that means finding the courage to see through the illusions and myths that have brought us to this point in history.

    It’s well past time to accept that we won’t in fact, as a species, make any serious preparations for these incoming processes in time to make a difference at the macro scale. Transition towns are a most sensible approach, though not the only one by any means, precisely because they focus on the local level and on individuals and communities acting. Any approach worth a damn will assuredly NOT include national or supranational entities – especially inasmuch as they are the mechanisms by which BAU has been and continues to be the law of the land, and were in fact *designed* to serve in this capacity.

    I firmly believe that calls to national consciousness, or clarity, or action, or what have you, are in fact counter productive. Jacques Ellul wrote a brilliant but little known book called ‘The Political Illusion’ in which he demonstrated that “all facets of political activity as we know it today are a kaleidoscope of interlocking illusions, the most basic of which are the illusions of popular participation, popular control, and popular problem-solving in the realm of politics.” The problem is one of politicization – where all problems are inappropriately dragged into the political arena, as though this were the proper place for them. Only, it’s not, despite the mythos which surrounds governmental action. It’s why political solutions to complex predicaments – poverty, crime, drugs, etc – fail. We’ve allowed civil society (consisting of empowered individuals and communities) – the entity most capable of addressing such challenges (read Rebecca Solnit’s ‘A Paradise Built in Hell’ for examples) – to wither like a paraplegic’s legs, by means of this process of forever looking to the national political level – much as this author has done in this article – for “solutions” – which by its very nature the federal government is incapable of delivering. Calls for such “solutions” distract from the real work that can be effectively done at the local level. The best we can hope for, as Dmitry Orlov suggests, is to ignore the politicians at the national level, and hope like hell that they fade away without doing too much more harm.

    • says

      Thanks for your thoughts. The world has had nation states for a couple centuries or more, and given our national militaries, I don’t see the nation just fading away peacefully anytime soon. Somebody is going to run the countries of the world for a good long time to come. If not people of good will who have their eyes open about peak oil, then maybe it will be demagogues who want to drill baby drill and build more nukes. Or something much worse. We can’t afford to cede the political sphere to others and then hide out in our bunkers with our canned goods and 12-gauge shot guns and hope that they don’t find us with their tanks and helicopters.

      As to altruism, Gandhi said that you don’t hear much about nonviolence in history because it wasn’t news — it was in fact, the norm. Same with generosity. It’s not news, because everybody’s doing it.

      Then, we just need to make it news now. And we need to step up as good citizens, and not hide away as survivalists.

  4. Glenn S says

    “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.”

    Sounds great. So how do you do that? I was wondering where some of these success stories are of people being won over by reason. Erik. I love your writing, but do you have any personal anecdotes to share in your immediate vicinity?

    I’d really like to know if anything is taking off outside of demographically favorable enclaves.

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