You see signs of the coming economic collapse everywhere. Turmoil in the Middle East. Predictions (threats?) of
dollar-a-gallon gasoline. Falling economic indicators
coupled with mushrooming inflation. Spot shortages of this
and that. Burgeoning surpluses of something else.
Oppressive levels of unemployment (among blacks in this
country, throughout Mexico, and other "underdeveloped"
nations) alongside crying demands (in all parts of the
world) for trained workers.
Electrical brownouts and blackouts. Cutbacks in social and
other services. The bankruptcies of whole cities and
countries. Taxpayer revolts. "Voluntary" wage and price
"guidelines" that aren't so voluntary anymore. Mass
suicides and other outrages committed in the name of
religion. A paralyzing avalanche of government dictates,
mandates, rules, regulations, and other red tape. Calls for
a constitutional convention. Separatist movements and
terrorist acts and "wars of liberation" all over the globe.
Nuclear proliferation. A steadily increasing stream of more
and more deadly chemicals and wastes injected into the
planet's land, water, and air. Legionnaire's Disease in the
United States, "baby's disease" in Italy, and other new
regional epidemics that "don't respond to conventional
An explosion in the incidence of cancer. A bewildering
quicksand of shifting political, economic, and ideological
alliances among nations. Earthquakes. Droughts. Record
winter blizzards. Floods. Confusion. Hysteria, in some
quarters. "Solutions" which only make the problems worse.
Why? Why, in this "enlightened" age, does nothing seem to
work as well "as it used to?" Why, despite our best
efforts, does the prosperity that we were so certain of 20
years ago daily slip through our fingers? Why do our
political, social, and economic institutions suddenly seem
dated, out of touch with reality, and ineffective? What is
happening to us, our country, and the planet? How much
worse will conditions have to get before they start to
improve? For that matter, can today's downward trends be
reversed? And it they can, do we as a nation, as a
culture, as the dominant species on earth, have enough
intelligence, wisdom, resolve, resources, and time at our
command to pull it off?
Well, the "leaders" (elected, self-proclaimed, or
otherwise) of our culture may not yet have gotten the word.
But, as reported five years ago in this magazine a wise old man by the name of
Walter Prescott Webb had the answer to all those
questions—and many others—at least three
As a matter of fact, one particular book that Webb
published in 1952 (The Great Frontier) still stands as what has to be the single
most concise and penetrating review of Western history,
survey of current conditions, and forecast of the future
that any individual has ever set down on paper. Or, to put
it another way, Webb was at
least 30 years ahead of his time. He had the answers in
1950 that most of us are just starting to grope for now. If
the world's politicians, economists, and captains of
industry had only listened to him then we
wouldn't be facing the mess we're all in today.
Webb's thesis, vastly compressed, is that Western Europe
was—from about 1300 to 1500—virtually static.
It had an area of approximately 3,750,000 square miles and
an estimated population of 100,000,000 people. And that was
it. Period. Decade after decade. The carrying capacity of
the day-to-day world known by the average inhabitant of
Western Europe had been reached.
"Progress" and "growth"—the concepts that modern
society values so highly—would have baffled medieval
Europe's typical citizen. There were very few entrepreneurs
back then because there was very little wealth to
manipulate. Opportunities for the accumulation of excess
capital, the investment of such funds, or the drawing of
interest on them were so sparse that public banking was
completely unknown and private banks were few, far between,
and used only by a handful of popes, monarch, and emperors.
For that matter, just staying alive was a major
accomplishment in Europe during the Middle Ages. The
continent's population was static because it had reached a
semi-starvation, subsistence balance on the land it
inhabited. There wasn't really enough food to go around.
Europe had reached its "limits of growth" and its citizens
lived in a mean, brutish, closed little world.
Death—with Its possibility of Heaven—offered most
inhabitants of the continent their only hope of escape.
And then—suddenly and within the merest eyeblink of
time as the planet measures its age—Europe was buried
in an absolute avalanche of riches. In a twinkling, the
land available to its people was increased five
times over by the "discovery" of and claims made
upon North America, South America, South Africa, Australia,
New Zealand, and hundreds of islands in oceans hardly known
Thanks to the plundering of these new—to
them—lands, the amount of gold and silver handled by
the inhabitants of Europe was multiplied by a factor of 15
or more. The grains, fibers, timber, furs, base metals, and
many other material goods already known to Europeans poured
down upon them in a stream hundreds of times larger than
they had ever dared hope for. And exotic new foods and
trade goods—such as chocolate, rubber, corn, pumpkins,
quinine, tobacco, potatoes, buffalo robes, and kangaroo
pelts—further surprised, delighted, and enriched them.
The boom was on! And it lasted—in round
numbers—from approximately 1500 to 1950. Four hundred
and fifty years. Four and a half centuries in which all the
inhabitants of the Western world—and especially those of us
lucky enough to live in one part or another of the Great
Frontier itself—were caught up in this overpowering
flash flood of new wealth and swept into a hitherto unknown
appreciation of the individual, self-motivation,
capitalism, and democracy.
It's rather difficult, you know, to develop a work ethic
when there's not enough work—or wages or even
food—to go around. It's extremely easy, on the other
hand, to "discover" the virtues of hard labor when—on
every side—you see people getting rich exactly in
proportion to the amount of work they invest in claiming
previously unclaimed land furs food, and seemingly
limitless quantities of other wealth.
Spread more land than can possiblly be farmed, more gold
than can be counted, more "work"—in the form of
grabbing a share of an apparently endless
bounty—before a group of people (any people,
even the wretched serfs and debtors who were—in large
measure—our ancestors) and you'll find that all our
most cherished concepts—"freedom," "independence,"
"individualism," "self-reliance," "courage," "initiative,"
"invention," and "industry"—practically discover
Ah! If it only could have gone on forever ... instead of
just long enough (450 years) to make us think that
such a one-time explosion of windfall wealth is the natural
way of the world. Which, of course, it is not. As Webb's
book points out, the flood of "found" riches has now
crested. The tidal wave which picked to up and washed us to
our high-water mark—our elevated, in every sense of the
word, "standard of living"—is receding,
There's no more free land for tens of millions of pioneers
to homestead, no more buffalo herds to slaughter, no more
50-pound nuggets of copper lying on the ground in Michigan,
no more unclaimed wealth in North America, South America,
Australia, New Zealand, or South Africa. The Great
Frontier, for all practical purposes, has been completely
mapped and tapped.
It is also to Webb's everlasting credit that he could see
through the "answer" to this dilemma—the myth that
"technology will create a new frontier"—a full 30
"Only newly found land and riches," said Webb, "can add to
the sum total of things in the absolute. Technology can do
nothing but change the form of what is already there.
Certainly the skill with which science has performed this
function has misled us into the assumption that science can
contribute to mankind unlimited benefits without regard for
substance. But this is a false assumption and appears as
such when we look at the whole picture."
Or, to put it another way: Long before the failure of the
highly touted "Green Revolution;" long before massive
oil spills, leaking vats of nuclear waste, and the pop-top
beer can; long before smog, pesticides, industrial
contamination and other pollutants began killing tens of
thousands of people annually; Walter Prescott Webb
realized that science actually creates nothing. It only
accelerates the destruction of what is already there.
"Which would you rather have," Webb asked, "the earth as it
was in 1500—before the Age of Science—with its
natural forests, clear streams, virgin soils, and precious
metals intact? Or the earth as it is now, covered with
stumps, foul streams, eroded soils, and left with a
depleted store of precious metals? Technology has given us
the luxuries and comforts in a riotous holiday in which we
can eat and breed, but all the time it is sawing off the
limb on which it complacently sits, on which civilization
Nor was Webb misled by the "there's always more where that
came from" philosophy which dominated the world's energy
industries throughout the late 1940's and early 1950's. The
Great Frontier pointedly quoted M. King Hubbert—then
Associate Director of the Shell Oil Company who was, by the
end of the '40's, already predicting that U.S. petroleum
production would peak (exactly as it did!) in the late
1960's. The book also quoted Hubbert's appeal for the
stabilization of population and a switch to solar, wind,
and water power. "Otherwise," said Hubbert, "we'll suffer a
debacle" ... which is precisely what today's "energy
crunch" now threatens to turn into.
Unfortunately, noted Webb (and, again, remember, this
was 30 years ago), that "debacle" may well be only the
beginning of the end for what we've come to consider as our
natural way of life. "The years ahead," he said, "will be
far different from anything we've known. Even if
science makes some sort of dramatic
breakthrough"—which Webb strongly doubted was
possible—"the boom which will result will
not be the kind of boom we've had for 450 years.
At best, a great number of our most cherished institutions,
myths, and ways of doing business will have to be
discarded. At best, we must prepare for cataclysmic changes
in the way we live. At best, our future will be one of
And at worst?
Walter Prescott Webb was too gentle a man to go into all
the gory details of the wars and famines and disease that
his predictions imply, but he did sketch out a loose
forecast of what a boomless future might hold in store.
Society—he said—will go through a process of
"devolution and retrogression rather than evolution and
progress." Rural life will become more important and the
cities will become less pleasant places in which to live.
Population will stabilize—too late, of course, and
for the wrong reasons—and society will take on some
of the steady-state characteristics of the medieval age.
The democracy of the frontier will give way to socialism
and fascism. Governments will become stronger and
individuals less important. Capitalism will decline and
prosperity will slip from the grasp of England, Europe,
As population expands toward its final balance with the
land, food and clothing and other basics of life will
become relatively more and more costly. As a result, we'll
soon give up our efforts—in name, as well as
fact—to feed the planet's hungry, defend the "free"
world, and prop up the economy of every nation that sides
Eventually, if we're lucky enough to reach a stand-off
which offers enough stability for reflection, Webb feels
that the historians and philosophers of the future will
"view the Age of the Frontier as an aberration, a temporary
departure from the normal, a strange historical detour in
which men developed all sorts of quaint ideas about
property for all, freedom for all, and continuous
progress." The institutions that we now take for granted,
Webb thinks, will appear "to have been so highly
specialized that they could not survive the return of
society to a normal state where there was a balance between
land and the man who lived on it.
It is, indeed, unfortunate for us all that few—if
any!—of the politicians and economists now "leading"
the Western world have read Walter Prescott Webb's book,
The Great Frontier. If they had read the book, of
course, they would understand that the 450-year-long
prosperity which our society has enjoyed and which began to
draw to a close around 1950 was entirely due to the
windfall riches of North America, South America, etc. that
we've been plundering for the past four and a half
centuries. They would also know—as they now do
not—that the same prosperity has in no way been
created by the manipulation of interest rates, the
establishment of social security systems and welfare
programs, or any other shuffling of economic theories,
political platforms, or social schemes.
Or, to state the case somewhat differently: As we all know,
there are—on a few remote islands in the South
Pacific—some isolated tribes that were completely
overwhelmed by the sheer wealth our armed forces dumped on
their shores during World War II. They had no idea where
that wealth came from or how it was collected, processed,
and transported. They only knew that—suddenly, one
day—tons of C-rations and jeeps and Quonset huts and
gasoline and chocolate bars came in across the ocean and
down out of the skies and landed on their islands.
Well, those folks liked that wealth and they never quite
figured out why—once the war was over—it
stopped being delivered to their doorsteps. And now, every
once in a while, members of those tribes build elaborate
replicas of the landing craft and the cargo planes that
once brought all those riches to them. And they hold
ceremonies, and they promise their gods that they'll be
good if only that Magic Spigot in The Sky is turned on once
And that's exactly the way most of the so-called
leaders of the "civilized" nations are operating today. We
were all poor once but—suddenly, one day—we got
rich. And we stayed rich for 450 years. And then we all
started to get poor again. And none of our politicians or
economists seem quite able to figure out why the Magic
Spigot is running dry.
And so, just like those "simple" natives out there in the
South Pacific, our politicians and economists are now
resorting to ceremonies, incantations, and other forms of
magic. Maybe—they hope—if they put just the
right name on a new financial theory and fiddle with the
discount rate or insure bank deposits or create investment
tax credits just so, well maybe, just maybe, the Good
Times will roll once again.
Lots of luck. Until and unless another unmapped and
untapped planet swings so closely into orbit with the earth
that we can build a bridge across and strat plundering
virgin territory once more, those Good Times are gone for
good. And all our quaint social, economic, and political
theories with them.
Which leaves us with more of the long, slow slide that
all of our institutions have been struggling with since at
least 1966 (the year in which, in real terms, the U.S.
stock market peaked).
From now on—for as long as you, your children, and
your children's children live—we can expect the
overall quality of life as we've come to know it to do
nothing but decline. There will, of course, be ups and
downs along the way, but in general each and every year
from now on will be a little worse than the one before.
There will be less and less food to go around. Fewer
clothes and material goods of every kind. We'll all be
increasingly crowded. Less important as individuals.
Average life spans will decrease. Every kind of crime and
every form of insanity will increase. There will be more
government by decree, by default, by coup
d'état, and less by democratic action.
Terrorist activities will become far more desperate, far
more violent, much wider spread, much more random, and
increasingly directed against totally innocent bystanders.
It's only a matter of time until we have genuine worldwide
famines and pestilence, both by accident and as the
result of calculated political action. Both runaway
"peaceful" nuclear devices and intentionally detonated
atomic weapons will kill millions of people and contaminate
hundreds of thousands of square miles. Interestingly
enough—perhaps by coincidence, perhaps because of
larger reasons we don't fully comprehend—the
incidence of "natural" disasters such as tornadoes,
hurricanes, earthquakes, and hordes of insect pests will
probably increase right along with the increase in
Economically, there will be more—and more
violent—swings in the price of commodities. The stock
markets of the world will increasingly be run up and down
by rumors, privileged information, and pure caprice.
Inflation of every possible intensity will sweep the world,
as will large and small recessions and depressions, and
purely chance mixtures and combinations of simultaneous
inflation and depression.
Expect more wars, both great and small. More nationalist
movements. More attempts to secede from old political and
geographical organizations. More demands for "action". More
protests. More neighborhood squabbles. More Saturday night
knifing. More child abuse.
Nothing will run as well as it "used to." There will be
more power brownouts and blackouts. Telephone service will
deteriorate. Roads fall apart. Institutions crumble and
lose meaning. Many of the physical, social, and economic
interconnections that hold industrial society together will
be severed. Lawlessness will prevail and some people will
"fight back" by joining gangs that use any means necessary
to guarantee their members some security and the
necessities of life. Others will try to exist on what's
left over. Still others will simply give up and withdraw
into catatonic stupors.
That, of course, is just the general trend: a long, slow,
downhill slide. The good news is that there will be a few
temporary "reprieves" and momentary "gains" along the way.
The bad news is that at any given time there will always
exist an increasingly great chance for an unexpected savage
catastrophe of truly terrifying size, shape, and hue.
If this all sounds familiar, that's only because
the paragraphs you've just read were excerpted—almost
thought for thought—from a 1974 issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, now more than five years old. We're
no happier than you are that—day by day over the past
half decade—all the distasteful predictions laid down
in that issue of this publication have done nothing but
Yes, as Lewis Mumford stated in the summer of 1974, "The
new Dark Age is already here. We just don't know it."
Conditions really are that bad, and from muggings
in school hallways to corruption in high places to nations
snarling over dwindling world resources, getting worse
on a daily basis.
But be of good cheer. Unlike our "leaders," you—as a
reader of this magazine—at least have a broad view of
what is going on. And remember Western society has already
successfully survived another great Dark Age. How? By
amassing its useful arts and crafts and skills and books
and knowledge in small, decentralized, self-contained,
defendable, agrarian communities (they were called
"monasteries" and "walled cities," as you'll recall).
Perhaps we'll all be forced to take such drastic steps
again. Perhaps no. Whether we do or not, however, it's a
safe bet that you and your family can face the trials ahead
much more comfortably if you start—right
now!—stocking up on real wealth: A little
piece of land that you can grow your food on, a passively
solar-heated earth-sheltered home, how-to books and
do-it-yourself skills, barterable goods, and all the other
things that this column regularly recommends. It's always
better to be ten years too early in a case like this
than one day too late.