Economic Outlook 1980: Living With Limited Resources

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In the view of some commentators in the 1970s, limited resources promised a dire future.

It was one of those typically outrageous (and, as he would say, ” ree -dickle”) situations that Walt Kelly used to whip up so effortlessly and so often back in his 1950’s and 60’s Pogo comic strip.

Albert the Alligator (as usual, all sly innocence and blustery awkwardness) had somehow let an old-fashioned push-type lawn mower get away from him, and the infernal machine was speeding–completely out of control, and chopping up everything in its path–down a steep hill with half the inhabitants of the swamp in panicky hot pursuit.

Meanwhile, a very dignified gentleman insect of some sort–splendidly turned out in his Sunday best–was quietly taking his young-bug son for an afternoon walk and nature study … and, naturally enough, that perambulation was taking place at the exact bottom of the very same slope that the rapidly accelerating lawn mower was rocketing down.

Eventually, of course, the strolling gentleman insect’s concentration upon the studied pearls of wisdom that he was passing on to his child was broken by the screams and hoots and hollers and stampeding footfalls and grinding clatter of the menagerie and runaway machine that were bearing down upon him.

It was a classic single take. The serenely unruffled gentleman bug casually glanced up … his eyes instantly bulged out in total disbelief… and then, before sprinting away with his hands over his ears, he blurted out what was quite obviously the first thought that popped into his head: “BEHOLD, CRANEPOOCH, MY SON!… A VERITABLE THUNDERING JUGGERNAUT!”

And that’s just about where our so-called government, business, and labor “leaders” are right now: They’re all serenely strolling along, hand in hand, unperturbably and unceasingly exchanging outdated pearls of wisdom from the 50’s and 60’s … just an instant before the runaway lawn mower of the 80’s and 90’s thunders over them.

Do you think our “leaders” were caught flatfooted in the 70’s by OPEC oil embargoes, chemical spills, one Middle East crisis after another, terrorists’ attacks, nuclear accidents, power brownouts and blackouts, exploding fossil fuel prices, skyrocketing inflation, wild swings in commodity prices, earthquakes and floods and hurricanes, land and water and air pollution, runs on the dollar, unemployment, a near-bankrupt social security system, airliners that fell out of the sky, auditoriums that collapsed, trains that derailed, and other unpleasantries arising from limited resources?

Well, hang on. Because you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

If the weather of the 1970’s was bad (remember the drought in the Sahel, the “missing” monsoons in India, the “unusually” cold winters in the midwestern and northeastern United States?) … the climate of the 80’s and 90’s will be far worse.

If we had nuclear “accidents” in the 70’s … we are destined to suffer some real atomic catastrophes during the coming two decades. If the Love Canal and Toronto and a hundred other chemical spills gave us uneasy dreams in the 1970’s … a thousand similar “unforeseen” incidents will plunge us into nightmares between now and the year 2000. If we were a little upset by the events which took place in Iran during the closing days of the 70’s … we are sure to be horrified by the explosions that will rock the Middle East in the years to come. If we pouted because the price of “our” fossil fuels quadrupled and quintupled and doubled again during the 1970’s … we will probably have massive strokes when we are asked to pay the real “cost of replacement” for those same fuels in the 1980’s and 1990’s. If we thought there were a lot of hurricanes, disease epidemics, earthquakes, and other natural disasters in the 70’s … the 80’s and 90’s are sure to make us think again. If power outages annoyed us during the past decade … the brownouts and blackouts and complete disconnections of electrical service to come are destined to cripple large segments of our society. If cancer became the leading cause of death during the 1970’s … it is sure to become a near-plague in the 1980’s and 1990’s. If our whole paper-and lOU-based “buy now, pay later” economy teetered on the edge of collapse a number of times in the 70’s … there will be absolutely no saving it from total ruin in the years ahead. If the once-strong United States lost friends, supporters, and allies in all parts of the world as the last ten years ground on … the nation stands an even better chance of becoming completely isolated long before the next two decades draw to a close. If we had rumors of war and limited wars all over the globe in the 1970’s … the 1980’s and 1990’s almost surely will give us The Real Thing on a massive scale.

Now I’m no happier with that forecast than I think you are. But it is a valid forecast. (The cyclical nature of sunspot activity–and the effects which that activity has on the earth’s weather, for instance–are well known and can be predicted with accuracy. Likewise, the cyclical nature of volcanic activity which also alters the planet’s weather by spewing huge amounts of sunlight-screening particulate matter into the atmosphere. Nor does it take any great genius to tally up the total number of toxic chemicals, and the tonnage of each, in use during the 70’s and plot those figures against the nation’s population density … then add up the projected much greater total number of toxic formulations, and astronomically increased quantities of each, that the chemical industry smugly predicts will be used during the 80’s and 90’s by a far denser– which means less room for error–population … and surmise that there are going to be a great many Love Canals in our future. And so on down the line.)

The point being–as this magazine has hammered home so many times in the past–that the 1950’s and 1960’s are gone.

They’re never coming back. Petroleum, copper, aluminum, iron … none of the raw materials that our society tends to consume in ever-increasing quantities will ever again be so plentiful or so inexpensive as they were then. We most certainly have not run out of those raw materials and we will not completely exhaust any of them any time in the near future. But we have consumed our most easily exploited energy and mineral stocks, and it will become steadily more expensive to mine and process what is left in the years ahead.

Have you tried to buy any really good 2 X 4’s or wood paneling ( not sleazy veneered sheets of plywood or Masonite) lately? Have you tried to ship any heavy tonnage of anything by rail? Do you know why newspaper and magazine publishers now sweat out paper supplies for almost every issue of the periodicals that they print, whereas–back a couple of decades–“there was always more where that came from?”

Once again, these–and a thousand related questions–can all be answered the same way: Our Great Consumer Society, quite simply, has done its job too well. Over the past two or three decades it has not only consumed the “interest” from the planet’s “capital base” … it has been consuming that base as well. The really good trees have all been cut, and their replacements have never been allowed to grow as big or cure as well when harvested. The railroads have also been “consumed” … we’ve taken more out of them than we’ve put back in the form of repairs, new rolling stock, and additional track. We’ve allowed our pulp mills to wear out and we haven’t replaced them.

Have you tried to hire anyone to do anything lately? Have you suddenly been disconnected in the middle of a telephone call? Have you had your credit rating ruined because a computer somewhere erroneously billed you for something you didn’t order in the first place?

These, too, are simply more examples of the way in which we’ve used up something good and replaced it with something of lesser quality. We once had schools that taught… we now have “learning institutions”–complete with flashy audiovisual machines and Olympic-sized pools–that crank out insolent illiterates incapable, in many cases, of following (apparently even understanding) the simplest instructions. We once had our telephone calls placed for us by real, live human beings … we now must fight through automated exchanges ourselves. We once were addressed by name when we did business, with a polite “Mr.” or “Mrs.” on the front … we’re now merely a number on a punchcard or reel of magnetic tape.

Yes, it is a different world now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. You know it and I know it. Even the stock market–which, in real terms, peaked in 1966–knows quite well that the old days of first-class products and first-class service and plenty of both are gone forever.

Or, to put it another way: Back in the mid-1960’s the technological monster that we’d built to serve ourselves vibrated loose from its moorings at the top of the hill we’d placed it on. It then spent the 70’s accelerating down the slope. And now, as we enter the 80’s and 90’s, you and I know full well that the juggernaut is thundering down upon us. (Every major poll taken during the past decade has shown that the “man and woman in the street” are aware of the changes that are taking place in the world. Even the most casual conversation with the folks you meet on your next bus ride, shopping trip, or visit to a roadside fruit stand will bear that out.)

So why do our politicians and our biggest business executives and our labor leaders continue to act as if it’s still 1958? Why do they keep on chomping on their large cigars and pretending that the pie is too big to ever be eaten? Why do they keep on voting to give away dollars that we no longer have? Why do they keep right on designing throwaway merchandise that the planet can no longer afford? Why do they keep right on demanding new contracts and pensions and wages that our society will never be able to pay for?

Why indeed? Because politicians and business executives and labor leaders–despite what they’d sometimes like to have us “ordinary” folks believe–are really, after all, only human. And although they actually had very little to do with the Good Times we all enjoyed in the 50’s and 60’s when there was still more than enough to go around (they were sort of like the flea riding on the elephant’s back and thinking, “My God! Look at all the dust I’m kicking up!”) … they’d like to think that their “leadership” (after all, they did organize the rape of the planet’s resources) somehow had something to do with the earth’s creation of that wealth in the first place.

Our politicians and biggest executives and labor leaders are not really bad guys, in other words. They’re more like old college football players who won the Big Game for us back in, say, 1954. Of course it was kinda dumb for them to suit up and get all bruised and sweaty and stomped on while clanging helmets with a rather contrived “enemy” (the bountiful treasures of this beautiful planet) in the first place. But that’s what we wanted, and we sent ’em in and they won the game. Only they won it so damn well that the earth will probably never recover, and there are now poisons in our drinking water and the air isn’t fit to breathe and all the roadsides in the nation are littered with broken bottles and beer cans. And–even worse–we trained those jocks so dad-blasted well that they aren’t fit to do anything else … and so, just as old jocks always do, they’re still hobbling around and punching each other in the paunch and trying to relive their glorious gridiron days of 1954 all over again.

In short: We are now being “led” by dinosaurs who have a real vested interest in pretending that the 1950’s never went away. And the longer we allow them to keep on running their tired old print of The Highlights of the Big Game of 1954 on the living room projector… the worse we’re all going to get hurt when the Thundering Juggernaut of the 80’s and 90’s smashes the house.

Or, to be very specific: It is time now to forget all those “use it up and throw it away” promises of “there’s always more where that came from” that we chose to believe for a couple of decades immediately following World War II. This is a small planet with finite resources, and man- and womankind have become cancers on the earth since the mid-40’s. There are now simply too many of us and simply not enough plunderable energy and minerals and other wealth at our command for those ideas to work any longer.

For that matter, this is a good time now to admit that we have, indeed, “gone forth and been fruitful” … and that this is a very good time to get extremely serious about limiting our own numbers. Life will be a great deal more pleasant in the future if we stabilize humankind’s population at somewhere between four and seven billion … rather than at 10 or 15 or 20 billion.

It’s time now to admit that our 1950’s dreams of unlimited nuclear energy have turned into a nightmare which can only get worse as time goes on. After all, as Dave Brower has pointed out in these pages, there is no direct correlation–or, at least, there need not be–between a society’s energy consumption and its standard of living. Both France and Sweden, for instance, enjoy a standard of living at least as high as that of the United States … while using only one-third to one-half the per-capita energy consumed by the U.S. The world can be a far nicer and far more satisfying place to live without nuclear energy than it will ever be with.

It is time now, in fact, to switch the whole planet to a 100% steady-state economy based on the only real ongoing energy source we have … the sun. Any other energy investment–whether in faster exploitation of existing fossil fuels, synthetic fuel production, nuclear power, or whatever–is, at best, only a short-term solution to a long-term problem. At worst, all such “solutions” raise massive pollution and disease problems that their promoters have yet to acknowledge. Solar energy is the only answer.

It is time now to quit trying to create economic growth by printing up ever-increasing quantities of paper lOU’s … and to put this nation’s currency back on a solid foundation of gold. That’s the way–and the only way–to make a dollar “as sound as a dollar” again … for year after decade alter century.

And most of all–since it’s doubtful that our dinosaur “leaders” will allow any of the above to take place while there’s still time–this is a very good time now for you to convert your family to a real wealth economy: Buy, rent, or somehow get permission to use a little chunk of land that you can grow meaningful amounts of your food on. Build yourself a passively solar-heated, earth-sheltered home that will shelter you–from now on!–for tens (instead of thousands) of dollars a year and which will protect you from fallout just in case you ever need such protection. Stock up on how-to books, do-it-yourself skills, and barterable goods.

Make yourself and your family, in other words, as self-reliant and as self-sufficient as you can. You’ll find that it’ll enrich your lives even if conditions never get any worse than they are now. And if (when?) the Thundering Juggernaut does knock us all flat… this preparation in advance may well be your salvation.