Monday, January 15, 2007

Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity

One time when I was in high school, I went out cruising one night with a group of lunatics. One of them had obtained a new, very old car that was still capable of impressive speeds. I know this because we obtained them late that evening on the relatively empty Interstate. I remember how the speed made everyone, including the driver, borderline crazy as we cranked the engine up to max and principles of aerodynamics seemed to start coming into play. I remember the giggling and shouts and curses of amazement as we flew along, and it was very clear to me that just one minor thing, a car changing lanes, misjudgment of others' speed, a blown tire, a twitch by the idiot driver, could make this insanity disastrous in a heartbeat.

I was in the backseat between two hyenas, aware that this might possibly be the most dangerous situation I would ever be in in my life (I was unfortunately proven wrong in that a few times too many). I also developed one of the most profound calms I've ever had in my life because I realized that there was nothing I could do, that whatever happened was going to happen and my fate was not in my hands. So I just sat there, not peeing my pants, watching the others and thinking that there are sometimes in individual and group histories when you just don't have control and shouldn't waste your energy and time denying it. Just be prepared to deal with the consequences, good or bad, and try never to let this crap happen again.

Well, obviously, sanity eventually prevailed, the cackling got too shrill, the driver's teen hormones quailed, whatever, and we survived, not necessarily wiser but certainly older. But I've never forgotten that first real foray into fatalism, and it's been popping into my head more and more in the last few years. Mainly because I've realized that this country is that car, the driver and the people around him are crazy and cackling, and I'm just along for a ride I can't do anything about.

The feeling can apply to so much, which probably adds to it--the dumbing and self-defeating narcissism of our citizenry, the refutation and betrayal of our First Amendment by the press, higher ed's selling out of what it was created for, science's demotion to our ayatollahs and their prehistoric followers, the inability of politics to address any important issue, what's on your list that I've left off? But the major thing that brings the calm back is what I emphasize here so much: Weather, Water, Energy. Why? Because on these overarchingly important needs, I've been in the back seat for 30 years now, thinking "this is crazy, can't anybody see what's happening?, we need to slow down and get things back under control." How do I know it's been 30 years?

Because of this book, written in 1977, William Ophuls' Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity. (Back when I taught American government, and God, am I glad I don't teach it now since everything in the books is now inoperable, I spent a full lecture on this book and on one test got a response about "the politics of Scare City." Actually pretty much fit, as you'll see.) There's nothing really new in 2007 in Ophuls' description of the ecological crisis that this nation and the world faced and what needed to be done to stop the clear disaster from happening, but it really was in 1977, which is my point. Nothing we're talking about now is new. The timing may be more or less off what he predicted, but he nailed just about everything. In 1977. And those of us in the back seat have just been watching the back of the driver's head ever since.

The "Scare City" part of Ophuls' work wasn't really even the ecological predictions. It was his clear delineation of the type of political philosophies and structures would have to be in play to deal with this world of scarcity. Needless to say, full and free deliberation of options and subsequent democratic decision making do not fare well in triage situations. He went back not to Locke and the liberals, writing in their periods of relative progress, but to Hobbes and his ilk, writing in their periods of disorder and, yes, scarcity. That's what we were looking at, he told us, if we didn't get our ecological acts together. Authoritarian governments accepted because people couldn't trust each other in the "dog eat dog," "nasty, brutish, and short" world that would come about.

Honestly, in the late 1970s/early 1980s, I was still naive enough to think that we were smart enough and not so self-absorbed to recognize the need for action. Jimmy Carter sat down with us, treated us like adults, and spelled out how great we would be if we stopped the disaster from happening. Pied Piper Reagan came forward singing "play, play, play." The rest is history. The car's just going faster and faster.

It's a good example of the kind of slo-mo calmness of this situation to note that in 1992, 15 years later, Ophuls and a co-writer, A. Stephen Boyan, Jr., republished a revised version, cleverly titled Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity Revised. How much things had changed in those 15 years is evident from the differences in the subtitles: the 1977 version, Prologue to a Political Theory of the Steady State v. the 1992 version, The Unraveling of the American Dream. Can you guess what they considered the prospects for our future to be?

Which is why I'm bringing Ophuls up right now. It's been another 15 years. Will we be seeing a revised revised version in a few months? Or will there be only silence? And what would that silence mean? Right now the most important sounds are still cackles and hoots, and even if we slow down, the costs are going to be high, even higher than 15, 30 years ago. And there's no guarantee the driver and the key cacklers will ever gain any sanity. The evidence is not in favor.

Me? I'm where I've been for 30 years. In the backseat. Calm and hoping I'll be able to help pick up the pieces.