The Wisdom of Walter Prescott Webb

In the 1950s, Walter Prescott Webb foresaw that western civilization was coming to the end of a 450 year economic boom.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
September/October 1980
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Walter Prescott Webb foresaw this in the 1950s.
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We find it valuable—every so often, in these pages—to restate, almost word for word, some thoughts that first appeared in this magazine five and a half years ago.

Now we do this for two very good reasons: [1] the particular ideas and concepts in question can, we feel, do more to give you a handle on the trying times ahead—as if the ones already here weren't bad enough!—than anything else we know, and [2] MOTHER EARTH NEWS' circulation and readership keep mushrooming so rapidly that—as "old hat" as the following ideas may now be to some of this periodical's "family"—we know the thoughts in this column will still be brand new and useful to hundreds of thousands of others.

We're talking about the penetrating overview of history first published by Walter Prescott Webb back in 1952 (The Great Frontier). Webb was an amazing man. He had the answers then—as early as 1950—that most of us are just beginning to grope for now. If the world's politicians, economists, and captains of industry had only listened to him then, we most certainly 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 almost no 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, monarchs, 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 before.

Thanks to the plundering of these new—to them—lands, the amount of gold and silver handled by the inhabitants of Europe was multiplied 15 times over. 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 time and energy they invest in claiming previously unclaimed land, furs, food, and seemingly limitless quantities of other real wealth.

Spread more land than can possibly 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"—nearly discover themselves.

Ah! If only it could have gone on forever ... instead of just long enough (450 years) to make us think that such a onetime 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 us 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 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 years ago.

"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 rests."

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 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 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 upheaval."

And at worst?

Walter Prescott Webb was too gentle a man to go into the gory details of the bleak future that his predictions imply ... but he did sketch out a loose forecast of what a boomless tomorrow might hold in store. Society—Webb said—will go through a process of "devolution and retrogression rather than evolution and progress". Rural life will become more important and 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, and—finally—the Americas.

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 with us.

Eventually, if we're lucky enough to reach a standoff 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 men 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 little boys and girls if only that Magic Spigot in the Sky is turned on once again.

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 seems 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 start 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'etat ... 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 man-originated catastrophes.

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 knifings. 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 a little 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.

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 not. 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 on which you can grow your food, 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.


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