Strategies for Survival
Notes on the Coming Transformation of American Life
I get e-mail from people who object to what they construe to be an excessively pessimistic view of our national scene. Well, what if you suggested to the people of Germany in 1936 that Dresden would be turned into an ashtray within a decade and that Berliners would cut down all the trees in the Tiergarten to heat their homes?
What I’ve been suggesting about the direction of our country is hardly that drastic.
I personally believe that there is much we can do as a nation, and as a collection of communities, to mitigate the problems I have been describing, even to create conditions in which American civilization can advance beyond the hardships of the early 21st century.
The overriding imperative task for us in the face of the problems ahead will be the downscaling of virtually all activities in America. This should not be misunderstood. I do not mean that we ought to become any less of a nation, or less of a democracy, only that the scale at which we conduct the work of American life will have to be adjusted to fit the requirements of a post-globalist, post-cheap-oil age. The future is already telling us very clearly what must be done. If we fail to pay attention, we risk very costly distraction in political turmoil, military mischief, civil disturbance, and permanent economic loss.
I will focus here on examples of three national “systems,” so to speak, that will have to be downscaled sooner rather than later: retail trade, agriculture, and schooling.
America made the unfortunate choice (by inattention, really) of allowing nearly all of its retail trade to be consolidated by a very few huge national operations, the Wal-Marts and other gigantic discounters. Many Americans viewed this as a bonanza of bargain shopping without noticing the significant losses and costs entailed to their communities, and to the long-term health of their nation’s economy. I have described the extreme vulnerability of the giant national retail operations to the vicissitudes ahead: disrupted oil markets, far-flung supply chains, and so forth. When these behemoths go down – and they will go down hard and fast – everyday retail trade will have to be reorganized in America. This is a tremendous task.
It will have to be reorganized at the local and regional scale. It will have to be based on moving merchandise shorter distances at multiple increments and probably by multiple modes of transport. It is almost certain to result in higher costs for the things we buy – which is another way of stating we face a period of austerity – but it is apt to bring back many lost civic benefits in return. The national chains eliminated practically all the “middlemen,” who were disparaged as parasites adding needless costs to everyday products. The fact is that these middlemen, the wholesalers, jobbers, warehousers, distributors, played necessary roles in a complex system that operated very differently than the current model. They were members of local communities; they were economic participants in their communities; they made decisions that had to take the needs of their communities into account; they were caretakers of civic institutions, and they were employers. We will need this category of business person again, as we will need the local retailer, the persons and families who run local businesses trading with the public at large. We will need a multi-layered system for the distribution of regular goods, even if it costs more to operate.
Some of the infrastructure needed to re-localize American commerce is there, though it is not in very good shape – the urban downtowns, small town main streets and business districts. Some of the big boxes might be integrated with it – dead Kmarts may be the local warehouses of the future, and some shopping centers and malls may be retrofitted into neighborhood centers – but much of this newer car-oriented fabric will more likely end up as salvage. The railroad system the US needs to replace the long-haul trucking system that we have relied on for decades is also in poor shape, but railroad track is much easier to repair and restore per mile than comparable amounts of interstate highway. Perhaps our biggest problem is that so many products we’re accustomed to are no longer manufactured in the United States. The factories themselves have physically disappeared. Hence, another feature of the years ahead: for a period of time, Americans may have to make do with a lot less and with smaller selections of fewer products. This is another reason to regard the coming era as one of austerity.
It would be a mistake to take this view of the coming decades as nostalgic. The future will simply demand it. I happen to believe that there is much to gain in amenity from the downscaling of American life. We will benefit from knowing the people we do business with. There is a good chance that many people currently underemployed will find a gainful niche to occupy in the reorganization of American trade, and communities will benefit from their being gainfully occupied. But at the same time, we will be saying goodbye to a way of life which, however unsustainable and even crazy it might have been, was a set of arrangements we had grown accustomed to, and it is never easy for a culture to change the way it does things as fundamental as everyday commerce.
Agriculture faces a similar predicament. Today, we grow a few monocultures of grain or milk or beef or pork in vast quantities on gigantic factory farms, process most of the outputs at a similar enormous scale, and truck it great distances to gigantic super-stores. The end of cheap oil means this will no longer be possible. We are going to have to grow at least some of our food closer to home. We will have to do it with fewer petroleum inputs, the fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides. Our methods will have to be along lines that are today labeled as “organic.” Farming will have to be done at a smaller scale, and it will probably entail more intensive human labor. A class of people will re-emerge on the scene: American agricultural laborers. Their lives will probably be far from idyllic. Don’t count on this kind of work being done by foreign migrants when we are engaged in border disputes and demographic / territorial contests with Mexico. When the US economy shudders and stumbles, life will become worse by orders of magnitude in Mexico, which is already struggling.
The re-localization of farming in America is going to be very difficult. Our relationship with land the past half century has been one almost exclusively of brutal commodity exploitation. A lot of farmland in California is close to being ruined from over-irrigation; you can see the salt precipitates in the fields off Interstate Five in the Central Valley today. Some of the best eastern farmland has been paved over. The years ahead will require us to rediscover a relationship of caring for land and doing so by hand, tenderly. In an age when the farmland around our towns and cities seemed to have value only as potential development – for monocultures of suburban houses and discount shopping – stewardship was regarded as merely prissy. In the future, our lives will depend on how we take care of the land.
The re-localization of agriculture presumes that many so-called value-added activities will take place on a more local and regional basis, too: the conversion of milk into dairy products, the production of meats, hams, sausages, wine, preserved foods, and so on. Europeans never stopped doing this. Their models and methods exist to be emulated, and we will have to do it as the end of globalism becomes a more emphatic condition of life. Today, there are probably fewer than fifty immense factories producing most of the cheese in America, all absolutely dependent on long-haul trucking based on cheap diesel fuel. Twenty years in the future, there may be thousands of smaller dairies operating across the US. They will probably put out better products. They will employ people in complex vocations. They will have regional differences.
The downscaling of agriculture presents some obvious problems. Farms take years to establish. The knowledge for running diverse, small-scale farms becomes a little more lost every day as elderly farmers die and the culture of farming dies with them. Theend of the cheap oil economy may bring dysfunction so swiftly to our current arrangements that we will not have time to make an orderly transition. This could result in a specific food emergency in the US that might go on for years. As the Chinese proverb goes: a well-fed person may have many problems but a starving person only has one problem – another reason to be prepared for political strife here in the US. In the meantime, we may see swiss chard and potatoes sprout where formerly the monocultures of Kentucky bluegrass, stoked by oil-based turf-builders, grew so luxuriantly on the lawns of suburbia.
School, is another major system facing drastic reorganization. The failure of schooling in America is already manifest. Our inner-city schools are in nearly complete state of entropy due to the effects of our overall disinvestment in cities – the school buildings themselves are crumbling while books and supplies are beyond the point of critical shortage – and to an array of social conditions ranging from the disintegration of families to the absence of standards of normative behavior. Whether these might all be lumped together as the consequences of poverty is debatable, in my opinion, but the effects are not debatable. These schools are not producing literate citizens with adequate social skills.
Gigantic alienating schools are producing so much anxiety and depression that multiple slayings have occurred at regular intervals in recent years.
Our schools are too big. The centralized suburban schools with their fleets of buses will become rapidly obsolete when the first oil market disruptions occur. The inner city schools will be too broken to fix. The suburban schools will be too large to heat economically (especially since the overwhelming majority of them all over the nation, regardless of climate, are sprawling one-story modernist boxes). School will have to be reorganized on a local basis, at a much smaller scale, in smaller buildings that do not look like medium security prisons. School will be required for fewer years, and with more deliberate sorting of children into academic and vocational tracks. Children will have to live closer to the schools they attend – the yellow bus fleets will be history. Children and teachers will benefit from being in physically smaller institutions where all will at least have the chance to know one another. In a post-cheap-oil world, teens might be needed to work part of the day or part of the year.
Leon Botstein, President of Bard College and one of the leading reformers of education in America, has argued that people need to finish regular school by age 16 and assume a new set of responsibilities to increase their sense of adulthood.13 He advocates abolishing high school as it is now known altogether. Years from now fewer will go on to college. Colleges, too, are likely to go through severe downsizing, especially the enormous state universities, as college ceases to be a mass consumer activity. Real life may not be so easily postponable. Vocational trades requiring real skills may gain in status and some professions such as law may lose status (and earning power). Some occupations – public relations, travel agentry, authoring books – may shrink or disappear altogether. Work for many may become a matter of making oneself useful to others with the added benefit of earning a living.
One hazard to the enterprise of reforming education will be the psychology of previous investment. We have poured our accumulated national wealth into building gigantic central schools and galactic-scale university campuses, with their semi-professional sports facilities and vast parking lots, and there will be a tendency to try to make them work no matter what conditions prevail in the real world. But circumstances will demand nonetheless that we change.
What is liable to happen to these three major activities, retail, agriculture, and school is also true of virtually all other things we do in the US. Everything you can imagine from banking to real estate development to church-going to professional sports will have to reduce its scale and scope of operation or fail. The problems ahead will compel us to move from being a culture of quantity to a culture of quality. We will have to make do with fewer and less, and we can compensate by demanding that it be finer. We will have to live locally and we can benefit from the restoration of robust civic relations.
Many of the beliefs and accepted dogmas of the late 20th century will fall away as a new and very different reality asserts itself. Cultural relativism will be discredited in an era when it becomes necessary, even for intellectuals, to make distinctions between good and bad, between excellence and worthlessness – because our lives may depend on the ability to make these distinctions. Hierarchies of value will become normative. Elitism will no longer be a pejorative but rather a recognition that some things really are better than other things.