Five years ago, with only $1,500 in operating capital and a kitchen table to work on, John and Jane Shuttleworth founded The MOTHER EARTH NEWS. The publication has since grown into a circulation of 250,000 and has “spunoff” a mail-order general store, a syndicated newspaper column, a syndicated. radio program, and several environmentally oriented research projects.
But why? Why did the Shuttleworth’s found MOTHER EARTH NEWS in the first place? And why has the magazine grown so lustily during a period that has seen many other environmental and alternatives publications come and go? And where is MOTHER EARTH NEWS headed now? And why?
John Shuttleworth answered some of those questions in the first half of our two-part interview. Now, in the closing portion of that interview, he gives away more of the secrets of MOTHER EARTH NEWS success.
Shuttleworth next explains how anyone he says can predict the future with accuracy and names some of the people whom he feels have done so in the past. He then closes by listing some of his own rather black forecasts … and the steps he feels we must take immediately if we expect to save ourselves, humanity, and the planet during the cataclysmic times he sees lying just ahead.
John, you’ve evaded the question long enough. Just what is “positioning”? And how have you used it to make MOTHER EARTH NEWS grow so rapidly during the past five years years that have seen a great number of other — and often far better financed — environmental and alternatives publications come and go?
All right. Here’s where we strike a small blow against what the American system has become and for what it’s supposed to be. Because the way I used positioning was by not using it at all. I used “identity” instead.
Please explain the difference.
I can best do that by using another magazine as an example. A magazine which unlike MOTHER EARTH NEWS does play The Great American Marketing Game. A magazine which, therefore, has both. an identity and positioning. A magazine by the name of Sports Illustrated.
Now it should be obvious to anyone who hears that title and to anyone who actually reads the periodical that Sports Illustrated is a sports magazine. Right? Wrong!
Wrong, that is, according to the hucksters responsible for creating a Sports Illustrated image in the public mind. Because when you say “sports magazine,” the public thinks blue collar images. Beer and sweat socks and boxing pugs and things like that. Which doesn’t sell many copies of your publication to the upwardly mobile strivers the big spenders that advertisers love so well. Which, in turn, means that if you’re in the business for the money — which Time-Life was when it launched Sports Illustrated — you fold the periodical and try something else. Right? Wrong!
No. What you do if you’re Time-Life is you hire a sharp ad agency to conduct some surveys and run some tests and find out that you should represent your magazine to the public not as a sports magazine but as “the third news weekly.” This, as I understand it, somehow magically elevated Sports Illustrated right out of the Sporting News class. It also — in theory, at least — blew away U.S. News and World Report, Business Week, and a dozen other periodicals that carry hard news every seven days … and “positioned” Sports Illustrated right in there behind Time and Newsweek.
In other words, just to increase the sales of this publication, Time-Life has resorted to a polite fiction. The company calls Sports Illustrated something it isn’t — a news magazine — and thereby, to a certain extent obscures what it really is … which is basically a periodical that covers sports.
Right. In the eyes of Time-Life, that’s exactly what the firm has done. It has resorted to a polite fiction to increase its cash flow. But, damn it, Time-Life has done more than that. It has debased the English language by just as much — if not more — than it has increased its cash flow and it has subtly warped reality in the minds of all the deluded people who now sit down with Sports Illustrated every week, read about golf and tennis, and then somehow think they’ve caught up on what’s really happening in the world.
And you object to this?
You’re dang right I object! And I’m not just picking on Time-Life when I make my objection. I’m picking on anyone, anywhere, who knowingly corrupts values just to make a fast, easy buck. As a matter of fact, I’ve used Sports Illustrated as an example not because it’s one of the most blatant cases of misrepresenting reality for personal or corporate gain, but because it’s one of the most subtle. And because Advertising Age and other trade papers continually hold the Sports Illustrated “success” story up to hundreds of thousands of other corporations, ad agencies, and individuals as a shining example of what the calculated manipulation of words and symbols can do. I may be old fashioned and/or naive but I don’t like that way of doing business. Not even when it’s offered to me.
Has anyone made you such an offer?
Oh sure. Someone’s always trying to cash in on the MOTHER EARTH NEWS name. Or show us the “right” way to market the magazine. It started with the very first issue.
When Jane and I founded MOTHER EARTH NEWS you know, we didn’t have any money, any contacts in the field, any pre-sold advertising contracts, any big name authors signed up … we hadn’t taken care of a single one of the half dozen or so items that are supposed to be absolutely critical to the success or failure of a new periodical.
All we had was a dream. Within the limits of the painfully short resources we had on hand, we wanted to publish — even if we never got past the first one — a magazine that would interest us. Not advertisers, not distributors, not the “average” reader, not the pseudo-intellectuals. Us. And we wanted a periodical that would  help other little people just like us live richer, fuller, freer, more self-directed lives and  ease us all into more actively putting the interests of the planet over and above any personal interests.
That sounds easy when you say it now. But five years ago, when you took your stand, you were really dreaming an impossible dream. You didn’t have the resources to pull off that sort of thing! What was it you and Jane began with … $1,500?
Fifteen hundred dollars and a kitchen table to work on … when we weren’t using it to eat off of!
Yes, I know. It was impossible. At least that’s what the big distributors told us when we took that first, rather pathetic, issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS to New York and showed it to them.
“Kids,” they said, “you’ve got a great idea. But you should cut the price. Fill the book with any ads you can get. Forget about printing what you want. Get some more sensational articles. And run off 200,000 to 300,000 copies of an issue instead of the 10,000 you’re running now. Sure, you’ll have a lot of returns … but that’s the way the magazine business operates.”
Those guys were telling you to do exactly the things that killed Look and Life and a bunch of other mass-market periodicals!
That’s right. And they thought we were crazy when we said that printing and distributing more copies of an issue than we could sell would waste too many trees. Or that we didn’t care to sell any magazines at all if we had to do it with nudes and four-letter words. Or that we thought it was more honest to live mainly off subscription and single copy — rather than ad — revenue. And so on.
To put it another way, then, you refused to have MOTHER EARTH NEWS positioned. If the magazine wouldn’t sell when its honest identity was honestly presented, you didn’t want to sell it.
That’s about it. That was our marketing philosophy five years ago when we started and it’s still our marketing philosophy now.
And that’s all there is to it?
Oh, of course not! That’s just the basic, bedrock rule that we try never, knowingly, to violate. There’s a great deal more to the way we market MOTHER EARTH NEWS than that.
From the very beginning, for instance, we felt that we were in a race with time. That the planet was being raped and plundered so rapidly that we couldn’t afford to take the easy way out and offer MOTHER EARTH NEWS only to the relatively few concerned people who — at any one time — are ready for her “save the earth by changing the way you live” message.
For that reason, we’ve always worked hard at finding ways to reach what I call “The Great Sleeping Middle Class” … the people who are still being manipulated into being a market for all the plastic and the electric toothbrushes and the snowmobiles and the chemicals in the food and all the other schlock that’s killing the planet and them.
Take just one of those people out of the big car and off the freeways. Show him how to quit the corporate job he hates and set up a little business of his own down in the basement. Let him discover that he can grow his own vegetables, fruit, sprouts, eggs, milk, and meat in the backyard. Maybe find a way for him to heat the house with the sun and use the wind to run his lights.
Now what have you done?  You’ve given that guy’s life back to him and  you’ve lessened the impact on the planet as much as if you had cut the population of India by 50. You have, in short, accomplished exactly what MOTHER EARTH NEWS was created to do. If you can pry that guy’s nose out of the TV and get his attention in the first place. And that’s what we’ve tried to do over the years. With a syndicated radio program. And direct mail. And by allowing MOTHER EARTH NEWS to be included in Publisher’s Clearing House mailings. And so on.
As long as your magazine is represented honestly, in other words, you don’t mind getting out and competing for circulation.
We not only don’t mind, we feel it’s our duty! Listen, our whole system is geared to reward the hard sell. The guy who pushes the most gets the business. Schlock — if it’s wrapped in a pretty enough package — will outsell value in a plain, brown wrapper every time. I don’t like it. I think it’s stupid. I have hopes of changing the situation someday. But that’s the way it is now and we might as well make the best of it. The trick is to wrap value in the prettiest package in town and make no apologies for it.
I think you’ve just explained another very important reason for the success of MOTHER EARTH NEWS.
Maybe so. If I’ve got any complaint to make about some of the good people who’ve tried to publish an environmental magazine and failed, it’s that they were just too darned good for their own good. They were either too gentle to get out in the arena and fight for their ideals, or they somehow thought that such behavior would — in some way — compromise the purity of their cause. Bullcrap!
If your cause is worth organizing, it’s worth fighting for. And business — as it’s conducted in our so called “free enterprise” system — is nothing but a stylized and thinly disguised battle for the dollar or franc or mark or whatever.
Accept that fact and accept that — right or wrong — this is the only game in town at the present time. And even if you want to change the world over to a completely different game, you’re going to have to play this one until the change is at least halfway completed. So you’re well-advised to master every honest, legitimate, and effective strategy that works in the game at hand. You’re also well-advised to make double damn sure you know what you’re talking about before you start screaming “foul” about any of those strategies.
Elaborate on that point, please.
I’ll be glad to. Take direct mail. Direct mail is a marvelous invention from both a business and an environmental standpoint. One ecology group can rent a mailing list from another conservation organization and then zero in its appeal for funds or its offer for a wildlife calendar or whatever directly on an audience that, in theory at least, is guaranteed to be most receptive and responsive to that message.
This is great. Simply great. The minimum number of trees get cut, the minimum amount of ink gets used, the minimum number of trucks haul the message to the minimum number of people for the maximum result. Direct mail is many times more effective from the standpoint of resources used to accomplish a given end than magazines, newspapers, radio, TV, or anything.
Yet, thanks to a snide article that appeared in the Reader’s Digest years ago, we now suffer from a mindless mob psychology in this country. Certain morons among us consider it clever and the mark of an intellectual to thoughtlessly parrot the catch phrase “junk mail” whenever they really mean direct mail. They find it somehow chic to devise elaborate plots to sabotage such correspondence. And they feel that passing legislation against direct mail is at least as important as witnessing the Second Coming.
Now these actions are bad enough when engaged in by well-meaning but fuzzy-minded nerds who’ve never learned to think for themselves. But when they’re advocated by people in the name of the environment! It’s easy to see how Hitler and his sleazy crew were able to direct the German populace in the burning of all those books.
So no matter how an idea is positioned when it’s presented to you, check out the facts and learn its true identity for yourself before you make your own individual decision about the idea’s merits or lack thereof. In all the world, there’s nothing more dangerous than a mob of addlebrained ninnies who’ve embarked upon a grand and holy quest … on somebody else’s say so.
John, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that you’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about what an environmental publication must do to succeed. It therefore follows that you must have some definite ideas about why so many ecology magazines, newsletters, and papers have folded during the same period that has seen MOTHER EARTH NEWS grow from a subscription list of 147 to a pre-sold bi-monthly press run of 250,000.
Now I know you have a firm rule against criticizing any other periodical in the field in the pages of MOTHER EARTH NEWS … but I don’t think you’d be breaking that rule if you were to tell us why you think some of those defunct periodicals went down the tubes. As a matter of fact, since you’ve only agreed to this interview because you want to encourage others to carry on the environmental fight, I think you owe it to anyone inspired by this conversation to point out the pitfalls that he or she should avoid.
You’re very persuasive.
All right. A great number of conservation, ecology, and environmental publications that have failed were doomed from the start because their editors and publishers were what I call “aginners”. They were only against things: strip mining, clear cutting, automobiles, freeways, oil spills, nuclear reactors, non returnable containers, TV dinners the list goes on and on.
Now I’m against all those things too … but it doesn’t do a damn bit of good to just wring your hands in print from the first page to the last of issue after issue after issue of a publication. Give your readers at least the benefit of the doubt. Chances are, if they weren’t intelligent enough and concerned enough to have already figured out for themselves that things ain’t exactly right in the world … well, they wouldn’t be reading an environmental publication in the first place.
What these folks want — and what I’ve always been convinced they’re entitled to get when they plunk down their money for your rag — is some positive answers. Tell ’em how to be for something.
Of course you’ve got to be a little careful here too, as far as I’m concerned. Because about 90% of the editors, publishers, and writers who get this far are so damn impressed with themselves that all they want to do is print long, learned, rambling discourses about problematical utopian social orders and population trends in the year 2020 and the production of edible protein from shellac beetles.
God, I despise those dry, arms-length discussions! All you have to do to lose my interest — immediately! — is to start dropping words like “proletariat” into your magazine. And I don’t think I’m exactly alone in that regard. The only people in the world who talk that way on purpose are college sophomores and they only impress each other.
Conversely, it seems to me that a fairly large handful of environmentally oriented publications — especially some that shaded over quite heavily into the alternative lifestyle end of the spectrum — were just flat out swamped when the people responsible tried to sail too far out on The Whole Earth Catalog lake. Stewart Brand, you know, was so damned successful with The Whole Earth Catalog that a lot of people including some who should have known better — tried too hard to copy him too closely.
They copied Brand’s succinct style of writing … only, in their hands, it became just clipped or — worse yet — coy. They aped the rather haphazard Whole Earth Catalog layouts with seemingly no inkling of the underlying mixture of genius, timing, and national mood that made it work so well one time and one time only for Stewart. And horror of horrors, they slavishly insisted on publishing Whole Earth Catalog sized books when any paper salesman, printer, magazine distributor, news dealer, or postmaster — not to mention any reader who’s ever wrestled with a Whole Earth Catalog in a bus seat — could have told them the disadvantages of that format. Even Brand has come down to something nearer news magazine size for Co-Evolution Quarterly, his latest publication.
You’ve just given me several don’ts. Turn that all around now, if you will, and give me the do’s of making an environmental publication successful. You can use MOTHER EARTH NEWS as an example, if you like.
Well, as I’ve said, mapping out the identity of MOTHER EARTH NEWS was easy. When Jane and I started working on the first issue, I’d already spent large parts of 26 years researching decentralist lifestyles and environmental subjects. I had long since come to the conclusion that the highly interrelated, energy intensive, planned obsolescence of industrialized, urban life was a dead end for both people and the planet. It seemed only logical, then, that our magazine should promote family farms and small villages at the expense of large towns and big cities.
And of course, hating theory the way I do, I thought we should plunge right in with firsthand reports from people who had already carved out some part of the decentralist life for themselves. People who owned nearly self-sufficient homesteads. Folks who’d come up with small businesses that really worked. Individuals that had bought a farm for back taxes or built a house themselves for only a few hundred dollars.
By focusing in close on very personal stories that way, we got the lively quality and the immediacy I wanted. Which — for a lot of our readers — has been a revelation. We get thousands of letters every month that are a variation on the same theme: “I used to read about ecology and saving the environment but it didn’t mean much to me. I didn’t know where to start. Now, thanks to MOTHER EARTH NEWS, I’ve not only begun … I’m having the time of my life!”
In other words, I guess our greatest gift to the environmental movement is the humanizing quality of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. We refuse to be stuffy about the whole thing. We don’t think that preserving the planet has to be a dose of bad medicine. And, as much as it still jolts some of the real purists in the ecology field, we like to show people that they can actually profit — often in dollars — by doing the earth a good turn.
Would you now care to sum up everything you’ve just said about setting editorial policy for an environmental publication?
Forget the problems. Concentrate on solutions. And present those solutions in down-to-earth, easily understood, easily duplicated, relevant terms.
Is there any other advice you’d like to give a would-be editor or publisher of an ecology magazine?
Yes. Be warned in advance that whatever glamor you think is attached to such a publication probably isn’t there at all. What is there is simply staggering quantities of the hardest work you’ve ever done. Brutal, grinding, exhausting, devastating work. If you have no money to pay for help — as Jane and I had no money that first year — you’d better hope that you’re as lucky as we were.
We offered room and board in exchange for teaching whoever responded what we knew about putting out a magazine. That brought in Kriss Kessler and Laurie Ezzell — two teenagers who worked shoulder to shoulder with Jane and me. I can remember Kriss and Laurie putting in one of those day-night-day-night-half-the-third-day work sessions with me to get an issue out. Fifty-plus straight hours on their feet and they never complained. And I couldn’t have done it without them.
Then there were local high school and college aged people like Larry Holler, Cheryl Malec, Keith Shoemaker, and Phyllis MacGillivray. The first week of part-time work Cheryl put in, I remember, totaled 87 hours. You can imagine the time the rest of us were racking up.
The point is that there was no way in hell for Jane and I to make MOTHER EARTH NEWS succeed the way we started the magazine. And even with the volunteer and incredibly underpaid help that folks like Kriss, Laurie, Larry, Cheryl, Keith, and Phyllis gave so willingly … there was still absolutely no chance that we’d ever make it. But we did. There’s a lot more people than John and Jane Shuttleworth who went above and beyond the call of duty that first year to make MOTHER EARTH NEWS a success.
And there’s a lot more now. Kenny Hodges, for instance, has been with us for three and a half years … and there’s been several times during that period when I would have quit if I hadn’t had Ken to lean on. I wouldn’t have made it other times if Julie Needham hadn’t been cranking out a certain amount of the copy for the magazine or Bob Crudele hadn’t kept that copy going through layout. Bob’s moved on now but Craig Sponseller, in many ways, does an even better job of keeping layout in line. And so it goes right on through every part of our operation today. Right through Frank Gragg, who keeps the building clean. Did you ever try to put out a magazine when every typewriter, every lightboard, everything you touched was filthy? Frank’s a valuable man.
People, in short, are what breathe life into a magazine. You can have the greatest idea in the world … but unless you assemble the right crew of people to help you put that idea across, you’re dead in the water. We’ve had our share of yo-yos over the years — mostly because I’m a real softie when it comes to hiring — but we’ve also been blessed with some of the best damn help anyone could ever wish for. I’d advise all those would-be publishers and editors to be as lucky as we’ve been.
All right, John, now that you’ve brought us up to date on what I’ll call the “nuts and bolts” aspects of publishing MOTHER EARTH NEWS, I’d like to ask you how in the heck you always seem to keep at least one jump ahead of everyone else.
In 1969, before you’d even published the first issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS, and well before any other environmental publication called for the development of the so-called “alternative” sources of energy, you were placing advertisements for MOTHER EARTH NEWS that seriously presented solar, wind, and water power as energy sources. Then, a little later, it was MOTHER EARTH NEWS‘ emphasis on such subjects that encouraged Don Marier to put ads in your magazine for — and publish the first issues of Alternative Sources of Energy… which, in turn, has led to all kinds of experiments with more natural forms of power.
Jumping to another area, I find that you were advocating a return to the family farm five years ago when all the other farming periodicals — the “establishment” publications — were almost gleefully celebrating the death of the same family farm. And now that those agricultural papers and magazines and a few of their “freak” counterparts have jumped on the family farm bandwagon I see that you’ve already moved on to emphasize the necessity for planning whole agrarian communities.
What’s going on here anyway? Have you got a crystal ball or something that tells you where we’re all going to be a year or two from now?
Yes, that’s exactly what I’ve got. And I not only know where we’re all probably going to be two years from now … I have a very educated idea of where we’re going to be 10 years from now … and 20 years from now … and so on for as long as I want to look into the future.
What! Do you know what you’re saying?
Yes, I know precisely what I’m saying. I’m saying that I can do what we all think we’d like to be able to do. I can — with clarity — see into the future. I’ve been doing it for at least 20 years — I started buying silver in anticipation of the recent rising silver market, for instance, in 1957 — I’m doing it now, and I expect to keep on doing it for as long as I live.
But … that’s incredible!
Oh balderdash. There’s nothing incredible about it at all. I can name other people who predict the future with far greater precision than I ever will. At best, I’m merely a one-eyed man in the land of the blind.
What does that mean?
It means that, as far as I’m concerned, most of the inhabitants of the so called “advanced” countries in this second half of the 20th century … should be awarded some sort of collective prize for the sheer tonnage of wool they’ve pulled over each other’s eyes. Despite — or more probably, becauseof — the modern world’s surfeit of computers and “experts,” humankind now seems to have reached an absolute and all-time low in the areas of wisdom and common sense.
Those are strong words.
Not strong enough. Let me say it another way: I believe, after due and careful consideration, that at least 90% of the population of the so called “developed” and “developing” nations is stark raving bananas. Deluded. Crazy. Insane.
And I’ll explain that by asking you to define “insanity”.
Well, uh …
Samuel Johnson said that, “All power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity.” And I’ve run across one old legal definition which states that insanity is “a mental condition, either from existence of delusions or from incapacity to distinguish between right and wrong, with regard to any matter under action … that does away with individual responsibility.”
Will you accept either or both of those definitions?
Mmm … I think so. Yes.
All right. Keep them in mind, then, while I add my own special definition of self-induced insanity: Self-induced insanity very frequently results from allowing the mind to become fixated — at the expense of reason, health, and/or function — on a single thought or idea.
The paranoid, for example, who becomes obsessed with the idea that someone is trying to “get” him can eventually “see” such overwhelming danger in every situation that he loses his ability to function in a meaningful way. His obsession makes him interpret reality in such narrow and such distorted terms that he eventually runs from or fights back against imaginary devils so hard… that he can become a menace to himself and to his surroundings.
I’ll accept that … but how does it apply to the societies of the modern world in general?
Maybe it doesn’t. But, for at least 20 or 25 years now, I’ve been getting an increasingly uncomfortable suspicion that all the major nations of the world — capitalist and communist — suffer from the narrow delusion that only people, and people alone, have any rights on this planet. Further … that human wants, needs, and desires — seemingly the more capricious, the better — should be instantly gratified. And further still … that this can always be done in a strictly economic frame of reference.
In short, I think that we live in an unbelievably marvelous Garden of Eden. Surrounded by miraculous life-forms almost without number: Kept alive by a mysteriously interwoven, self replenishing support system that — with all our scientific “breakthroughs” — we still do not understand.
And yet, as favored as we are by all this real wealth, we somehow perversely prefer to spend almost all our waking hours interpreting the sum total of this reality — every bite we eat, every stitch we wear, even the air we breathe and the view we either enjoy or ignore from our front porch — in terms of the narrow and distorted, strictly human centered concept of money.
We have collectively become fixated on a single thought a single idea. So fixated and so obsessed that we most certainly have become a menace to ourselves and to our surroundings. “I wanna get rich … so I’m gonna trap every beaver in this valley.” “Our economic system will bury your economic system … and if it doesn’t, we’ve got enough bombs to blow you off the face of the earth.” “What do you mean, nuclear power is unsafe. We need energy, don’t we? The oil is drying up, isn’t it? We’ve got to build reactors. They’re a good investment.”
“Civilization,” my dear Plowboy, is just another word for “lunatic asylum.”
I never thought of it that way. Hell, I don’t think anybody thinks of it that way.
Oh yes. There’s a few of us who take this broader view of Spaceship Earth. Not every one who does actually comes right out and says that most of contemporary humankind is crackers, of course … not in so many words, anyway. But the thought is quite apparent as it bubbles there, just under the surface of the arguments and pleas of a rapidly increasing number of environmentalists, conservationists, and ecologists.
Listen. You’ve got to be collectively crazy when you belong to a species that can casually assemble enough nuclear weapons to totally destroy all the life on Earth a hundred times over. Or breed and stockpile more than enough special strains of anthrax and God knows what other super-diseases to do the same thing. Or completely — and, again, casually — exterminate other whole species for the manufacture of lipsticks and rectal suppositories. Or ransom the lives of the next 20,000 human generations with atomic waste just so this generation can continue doubling its consumption of electricity every 10 years. As God is my witness, that has to be insanity.
Well, I may concede the point. But only if you tell me what it has to do with being able to forecast the future.
It has everything to do with predicting the future. See, as long as you allow your attention to be so completely dominated by a single idea — in this case, economic theory … money! — as most of us in the so-called “civilized” world are … nothing makes a great deal of sense.
What is inflation, really? Where do depressions come from? Why did the stock market go up — or down — today? Will increased trade with Russia this year make the world more or less secure in 2075?
See what I mean? As long as you operate on the premise that everything can be answered strictly in economic terms, you can’t even give an authoritative answer to purely economic questions.
That’s why politicians and economists can get away with acting as if inflation or depressions just somehow fall out of the sky and bite everybody on the ass. That’s why they can get away with “fighting” economic slumps with printing press money or “combating” inflation by raising welfare and social security payments.
The inmates, you see, have taken over the asylum. And as long as you allow your mind to be whittled down to a fine point and dominated by purely human and imaginary concepts such as “nation”, “money”, and “economic growth” you’re going to remain one of the inmates. Securely locked up, confused, and terrified again and again by at best dimly understood “crises” that seemingly swoop down out of the blue, at random, and knock you on your keister.
But once you take a giant step back, shake off all your cultural myths, and look at the Earth wholistically from the vantage point of space … My God! You can see all kinds of trends washing over the face of the planet for all sorts of reasons.
Look at it! It’s beautiful! And it has a life of its own. With or without man, the earth … is born … it lives … and it dies. Once it cools as it spins there in space and once the spark of life flickers into being on its surface, hundreds of thousands of species rise and fall on its face. Continents appear and disappear. Volcanoes erupt. Forests creep across the land. The sun pours energy on this lovely blue and green pearl floating in the incredible black void of nothing. Cool rains sweep over its oceans and islands. The Earth is gently wrapped with a constantly renewed cloak of plants and animals and its fragile beauty is showcased by an ever-changing, swirling veil of opaque, transparent, and translucent atmosphere. Could any planet be more delightful?.
And now, amidst the incredibly complex but self-regulating operation of this perfect gem, we see man arising. Alone of all the plants and all the animals on the earth’s surface, he can collectively look at himself. And he does … and in that first instant of self examination, his brain — of which he is so proud — deceives him.
“I am something special,” man tells himself. “I will prove it by conquering nature.” But as one of his number is later to observe, “Nature is always passive. It, therefore, can never be defeated. It can only be destroyed.”
And as the destruction goes on, man’s brain deceives him again and again. With imaginary lines that divide the planet’s lands and waters into territories, nations, and states. With concepts of “right,” “wrong,” “wealth,” “yours,” “mine,” “money.” Always, above all else, “money.”
And it is easy to see, as we compress time from our vantage point in space, that the earth is born … it lives … and it dies. It’s easy to see, as someone has said, that “in the long run, we’re all dead.” Viewed from that privileged perspective, then, it’s impossible not to predict the planet’s — and all its passengers’ — ultimate fate.
Well OK. Anyone can make a prediction like that.
Of course. That’s the point. Most of us start at the wrong end of the funnel. We try to forecast the results of the fifth race at Belmont. Or pinpoint in advance the upturn of the economy. Or project the coming year’s demand for wheat.
We look around our one little, isolated, padded cell down on the funny farm and — on the basis of fragmented and myth-ridden experience — try to predict the toss of coins.
Now that’s the wrong way of going about the problem. You can’t, with any certainty, start from the very specific and interpolate the general. You can only work the other way around. Examine the big picture first. Discover the important forces in action and trace their movements through time and space. Follow them until they intercept each other and watch what happens. And all the while, refine your vision so you’ll be able to see the effects that these major forces have on the second level of reality … and what the ripples there do to the next layer of existence … and so on right on down to finally, and last of all that fifth race at Belmont
Your theory is beautiful … but can you prove that it works?
I don’t have to. You already did that when you ticked off a couple of the reasons why you think I, in your words, “always seem to keep one jump ahead of everyone else.”
However — since I’ve told you that I’m only “a one-eyed man in the land of the blind” when it comes to peering into the future — I welcome the chance to verify my theory. Because I can best do so by introducing you to the work of a most remarkable man. A man who had 20/20 foresight in both eyes. A prophet who looked ahead back in 1950 by first taking a sweeping view of what had gone before and then, believe it or not, gently but quite accurately predicted today’s energy shortages, social unrest, political trends … everything! And who projected — I believe with a fair degree of certainty — what life will be like in the year 2000 … and 2025 … and 2050.
That man was Walter Prescott Webb, who was — from 1933 until his accidental death in 1963 — professor of history at the University of Texas. Unlike most historians, however, Walter Prescott Webb didn’t waste the world’s time by concentrating on the study of some specialized, nationalistic fragment of the past. Instead, he took that giant step out into space that I recommended a little while ago and then, from his vantage point, he watched a very important chunk of history unfold over the whole surface of the planet.
No other historian had ever done this at the time, of course, and — as far as I know — none have done so since. Which means that Webb discovered far more important forces in action — and then traced their movements through time and space — than anyone else in his field. Luckily for all of us, he then refined his vision so well that he was able to observe the ripple effects of those forces right down to the equivalent of that fifth race at Belmont. He was also intelligent enough to realize that the course of major vectors set into motion hundreds of years ago could be predicted with accuracy far into the future and he learned to anticipate the probable results of those trajectories so precisely that, for all practical purposes, he could dang near call that Belmont race for you 50 years before it was run.
You exaggerate, I’m sure.
I do exaggerate. But only a little. Walter Prescott Webb was an amazing and an awe-inspiring man. And as far as I’m concerned, the book in which he presented his encompassing view of history and in which he predicted so much that has al ready happened and so much that will — I’m sure — take place, is absolutely “must” reading.
Tell me about that book.
It’s called The Great Frontier, it was originally copyrighted in 1951 and 1952, and I think it still stands — now, 25 years after it was written — as the operating manual for Spaceship Earth that, collectively, we’re just beginning to realize we need.
Listen! I can’t recommend The Great Frontier highly enough. Webb was ahead of his time. He had the answers in 1950 that most of us are just beginning to grope for in 1975. If the. world’s presidents and premiers and statesmen and politicians and captains of industry had listened to him then we wouldn’t be facing the mess we’re all in today.
That’s a strong recommendation. What, for gosh sakes, does this book say?
The Great Frontier takes a sweeping view of history from 1200 through 1950 — which was the present for Webb — and on into the future … which has already included the past 25 years for us. It lays a firm hand on where we’re all coming from, where we are now, and where we’re collectively going and puts everything into perspective in a way that I find simply incredible. Webb was a genius and his 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 today 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 absolutely baffled medieval Europe’s typical citizen. There were, relatively speaking, no entrepreneurs back then because there was 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.
As a matter of fact, 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 enough food to go around. The “limits to growth” that Dennis Meadows and The Club of Rome now speculate about were very real to the people we’re discussing. They lived in a mean, brutish, closed little world from which death — and, possibly, Heaven — offered the only escape.
And then — miracle of miracles! — suddenly and within the merest eyeblink of time as the planet measures its age, Europe was utterly buried in an 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 by a factor of 15 or more. The grains, fibres, timber, furs, base metals, and many other material goods already known to Europeans poured down upon them in a stream hundreds of times larger and more drenching than they had ever dared hope. 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!
The boom, indeed, was on and it lasted in Webb’s view for approximately 450 years. In round numbers, from about 1500 to 1950 four and a half centuries which, in Webb’s sure hands, take on a logical and coherent dimension that they never had in history class.
The trouble with most studies of history, you know, is that they try to explain piecemeal with stories of individual leaders, battles, and countries what were really much larger movements across time and space. Webb, on the other hand, turns that approach right around. He concentrates first on outlining the major actors on the world’s stage during those 45 decades and those actors were not people, wars, or countries. They were all the nations of Europe, which Webb calls the Metropolis, and all the newly found lands and riches, which he calls the Frontier.
The interplay of the Metropolis upon the Frontier and vice versa is absolutely spellbinding in Webb’s book. His history has hair on its chest. It’s inhabited by real people … Drake, Michelangelo, Luther, Samuel Colt, the Texas Rangers, and millions of others who — caught up in this overpowering flash flood of newwealth — were swept into a hitherto unknown appreciation of the individual, self-motivation, capitalism, and democracy. Which, by the way, is a tremendously important point that all the vested interests of Western culture — especially the powers that be here in the United States — do their best to ignore and hide.
What? That our most cherished institutions were, in reality, forced upon us?
Right. We unnecessarily flatter ourselves when we perpetuate the myth that — somehow, because we’re very clever — we’ve “invented” democracy and capitalism and dynamic growth and fantastic machines and all the other concepts and developments we hold dear.
The truth of the matter is that it was the tremendous windfalls of land, gold, food, fibre, fuel, base metals, etc., which were suddenly dumped into Western man’s collective lap that opened our eyes to — or rubbed our noses in — an appreciation of all these things.
It’s difficult to develop a work ethic, you know, 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 work when — on every side — you see people getting rich exactly in proportion to the amount of labor 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 and discoveries practically invent themselves.
It was that liberating windfall of riches rather than any particularly noble characteristics of our own that straightened our backs and sprinkled our language with words like “freedom,” “independence,” “individualism,” “self-reliance,” “courage,” “initiative,” “invention,” and “industry.”
So we got wealthy and developed some rather inspiring institutions in spite of ourselves. That’s not so bad, is it?
If I interpret Webb correctly, he passed no judgment on the matter. But he did point out that the flood tide 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. The kind of crest topped by crest topped by crest life that Western man has lived for 450 years is possible only as long as it’s kept afloat by fresh floods of new and basic wealth. Frontier wealth.
And the Frontier is now gone.
It has been, for all practical purposes, completely mapped and tapped. 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 is closed.
But what about science? We may not have new acres to homestead, but we can still develop ways to grow more on the acres we already farm.
Ah, yes. The “Green Revolution” argument. The last ditch “technology will provide the answers” line of thought that the power companies, industrialists, and politicians now spout with monotonous regularity. \
It is to Webb’s everlasting credit, I believe, that he completely, utterly, and totally devastated that absolutely futile “solution” a quarter century ago … long before the warts began popping out all over nuclear energy’s face, long before smog and industrially contaminated drinking water began killing thousands of people annually, long before Dr. Norman Borlaug — the “father” of the Green Revolution — began explaining away its failure by saying that he had never expected energy- and fertilizer-dependent increases in hybrid crop yields to do anything but “buy time until we could face up to the world’s many headed population monster.”
Webb was a genius. A levelheaded, analytical genius. For, despite the deafening chorus of hosannas to science and technology which filled the air in the late 40’s and early 50’s and we all, environmentalists included, thought we could invent our way to Heaven back then he could already clearly see the handwriting on the wall.
Only the Frontier, Webb pointed out, adds to the sum total of things in the absolute. Technology can do nothing but change the form of what is already there. “The skill with which science has performed this function,” he says in his book, “has misled us into the assumption that science can contribute to mankind unlimited benefits without regard for substance. This is a false assumption and appears as such when we look at the whole picture.”
Again and again in The Great Frontier’s section on science, Webb sifts through hard facts and figures and arrives at one conclusion: Science creates nothing. It only accelerates the destruction of what is there. “Which would you rather have,” he asks, “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?” And that was written before massive oil spills, leaking storage vaults of nuclear wastes, and the pop top beer can!
I think that one direct quote from The Great Frontier pretty well sums up what Webb thought about science’s chances of “saving” mankind: “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.”
Did Webb have anything to say about energy?
He covered the subject better 25 years ago in a concise six and a half pages than all of the last two years’ longwinded books, magazine articles, and TV specials on the subject put together. His main reference was M. King Hubbert, who was then Associate Director of the Shell Oil Co. Hubbert, by the way, is another man who’s never received the national and international recognition he so justly deserves. In the late 1940’s he began predicting that U.S. production of petroleum would peak out by the end of the 60’s … and he began calling for the stabilization of population and a switch to solar, wind, and water power.
By the time Webb wrote The Great Frontier, Hubbert had already forecast that if we didn’t both limit our numbers and make a change to renewable sources of energy … that if we “deny the physical facts before us” and “allow ourselves to be caught in a cultural lag”, we’ll suffer a “debacle.” To put it another way, M. King Hubbert accurately foresaw the world’s wrenching energy bind of the 70’s and 80’s … 25 to 30 years before it took place. He sounded the warning in plenty of time for us to head off — or at least soften — the chaos and suffering that lies just ahead of us now.
Webb, of course, picked up Hubbert’s thoughts and worked them into his larger theory about the fate that awaited the Metropolis once it no longer had the Frontier to exploit.
Can you tell me more about that fate? What did Webb see in our future?
First of all, that the years ahead will be 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, then, 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. Upheaval, one might say, is the best possible case that Webb could forecast for the future.
And what did he think the worst case might be?
Walter Prescott Webb was too gentle a man to line out the distasteful details of the worst possible case. He just said that, if no substitute boom maker was found to replace the Frontier, we would be faced with “radical changes indeed.”
And that’s all? That’s all he said?
No. There’s more. Although he refused to go into the gory details of the wars and famines and disease that his predictions imply, Webb sketched out a loose scenario for a boomless future.
Society 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 through the fingers of England, Europe, and — finally — the Americas.
As population expands toward its final balance with the land, food and clothing — the very 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.”
That part about the cities, the cost of food and clothing, and England is already coming true! Are you sure Webb made these predictions 25 years ago?
He most certainly did. His book was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1952 and I picked up my copy in an Oklahoma City secondhand bookstore in about 1961 … when I was helping Milton Kirkpatrick set up an aircraft electronics shop at Downtown Airpark. The Great Frontier had quite an impact on me back when I first read it because ten years or so after he had developed his theory it was already quite apparent that Webb’s predictions were coming true. Now, of course, it would take an absolute fool which is to say most of the economists, politicians, and captains of industry now in control of the world’s destiny to deny that Webb was 100% right.
This is dynamite! Why haven’t I heard of The Great Frontier or Webb before?
I don’t know. It was only by the merest chance that I stumbled across the book in that secondhand store. I’m guessing that Webb’s ideas went so much against the grain of accepted thought at the time he formulated them … that most of the movers and shakers of our society just ignored him. Now that his predictions are all coming true, however, I see that the University of Texas Press has decided to keep The Great Frontier in perpetual print.
I’ve got to give you one word of warning about that University of Texas Press edition, however. It contains an introduction by Arnold J. Toynbee that is an almost total piece of crap. Toynbee takes it upon himself to speculate that if Webb were to write another book, he’d tell us all that technology — “conventional” technology at that! — is going to save the world after all. I find nothing in The Great Frontier and nothing that has happened since Webb wrote it to lead me to believe anything of the sort. Toynbee should be thoroughly ashamed of himself and, although I don’t like the idea of defacing books, I heartily advise you to rip his introduction out of The Great Frontier if you’re unlucky enough to buy the edition printed by the University of Texas Press.
John, I’m beginning to believe you when you say you can name people who predict the future with accuracy. But Walter Prescott Webb has been dead since 1963. Is there anyone writing today who, in your opinion, does as good a job as Webb in forecasting what lies ahead?
Dave Brower, the founder of Friends of the Earth, is awfully good. So is William Ophuls. Howard T. Odum has a genius for developing penetrating insights into the coming years, based mainly on the planet’s supply and man’s use of energy. Oceanographer Jacques Cousteau seems to be making an increasing number of forecasts that I think are worth listening to. Then there’s William and Paul Paddock who, back in 1967, wrote a book titled Famine 1975!… how’s that for hitting the nail squarely on the head? Let’s see … Dennis Meadows … The Club of Rome, especially before it began to back down … dang it, there are lots of people around today who in my opinion have a pretty good handle on the future.
Probably the best of all, though, for downright readability and an up to the minute comprehensive world overview coupled with rational suggestions for personal action is Stanford biologist Paul R. Ehrlich and his wife, Anne H. Ehrlich. They’re also the least expensive. Their latest book, The End of Affluence, is available as a Ballantine paperback for only $1.95. It’s so damn good I can’t believe it.
Wait a minute. All these people you’ve named take a pessimistic view of the future. They’re doomsayers. They predict virtually nothing but trouble.
You’re damned right. And that’s not because they’re pessimistic … it’s because they’re realists. Just as realistic as Walter Prescott Webb was. As Lewis Mumford said last. summer, “The new Dark Age is already here. We just don’t know it.”
The thing that impresses me about the kind of people I’ve just named is that they’re thoughtful, they’ve done their homework, they don’t particularly like their own predictions and they haven’t been wrong yet. Every single one of the economists and the politicians and the other Pollyannas who’ve been frantically forecasting a new plateau of Good Times for the past 10 years haven’t been right once. Not once. And the scientists and the ecologists and the environmentalists who’ve been warning us that the whole planet is rapidly slipping right down the tubes haven’t yet been wrong. So which group are you gonna believe?
By the way, as long as we’re talking about predictions, I think we could do worse than listen to some of those made by a few of the older cultures on this planet. The interview MOTHER carried with traditional Hopi spokesman Tom Bauyacya makes that point quite clearly.
Tom, as you may remember, said that tribal elders long ago forecast that “if we ever bring something down from the moon it will disturb Nature very strongly and many things will happen from there.” Well, we did start bringing rocks back from the moon five or six yeats ago and many strange things economically, socially, politically — have begun to happen. Politicians and economists all over the world, in fact, now suddenly complain that “the old rules just don’t seem to apply anymore.” This may be nothing but coincidence … but, then again, it may not.
Several times during this interview you’ve hinted that you don’t put a great deal of faith in the actions of politicians and economists. Would you like to elaborate on your feelings for such people?
Well I’d love to think good thoughts about those guys, but they make that awfully damn difficult. So I’ve finally and reluctantly come to the conclusion that today’s politicians and economists are exact parallels of the Dark Ages’ monarchs and alchemists … the addled simpletons who used to try to transform base metals into gold. If anything, though, the modern gang of scoundrels are even worse. They think they can transform paper into gold.
You don’t seem to have much faith in modern economics.
Nobody will in a few more years. It’s nothing but a gigantic con game taken to the most dangerous of all possible extremes: The con artists now believe their own scam. They actually believe they can create “prosperity” and “full employment” and “controlled inflation” by manipulating ideas and creating theories and putting symbols on pieces of paper. Or at least they did believe they had that power until the last couple of years when, in their words, “The old rules just don’t seem to apply anymore.”
Look, sometimes I think of it this way: On a few remote islands in the South Pacific, as we all know, certain isolated tribes 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. Now those simple natives liked that wealth and they never quite figured out why once the war was over it stopped being delivered to their doorstep. So now, every so often; 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 a ceremony and they promise their gods that they’ll be good little boys and girls if that Magic Spigot In The Sky is only turned on once again.
Now you know and I know that it was a nasty war and the industrial capacity of the United States — which for a short time — put all those goodies on those South Pacific islands. Magic had no part of it and magic has very little more than a zero chance of ever doing it again. Still, magic is all the leaders of the “cargo cults” have to work with so that’s what they use.
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 all got rich. And we stayed rich for 450 years. And then we all started to get poor again. And, since practically no politician or economist seems to have read Walter Prescott Webb, our “leaders” can’t figure out why all the goodies have quit pouring in.
So they’ve resorted to magic. The same guys who laugh at the cargo cults of those “simple natives” out there in the South Pacific are seriously operating a cargo cult of their own that’s 10 billion times bigger. They think that if they mutter the right incantations and fiddle with the discount rate or insure bank deposits or create investment tax credits justso… that, somehow, the Good Times will roll once more.
Well I got news for those guys. Magic — even in a business suit — ain’t gonna do it. What we need is another Great Frontier. Another unmapped and untapped planet to swing right into orbit with the Earth so we can build a bridge across and start plundering all that wealth. And until that happens, it will do us absolutely no good to look back at the late 40’s, the 50’s, and the early 60’s and think that our magic will ever recreate the binge we were on then. It’ll never happen.
What will happen?
I think the human population of the world now faces a long, slow slide down. A slide that has already begun.
From now on — for as long as you, your children, and your children’s children live — we can expect the quality of life, as we’ve come to know it, to do nothing but decline. There will be ups and downs along the way, of course, 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-dominated catastrophes.
Economically, there will be wore 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.
Naturally, the instability of the larger forces shaking the Earth will be reflected and reverberated on lesser levels. Hostilities brought on by what Dickson Carr called “the cussedness of things in general” will be directed against any convenient real or imagined scapegoat. 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 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.
In short, I believe we’ve already started on a long downhill run. There will be a few temporary bright spots along the way but the general trend will definitely be down. And, at any time, there will always exist an increasingly great chance for savage catastrophes of every size, shape, and hue. Get a copy of Roberto Vacca’s book, The Coming Dark Age, if you want a more detailed projection of society’s breakdown.
That doesn’t sound good. Not good at all.
Well that’s what I expect to happen — in some variation — if we continue our present policy of “muddling through” while we attempt to recreate the windfalls of the Great Frontier by magic. On the other hand, it doesn’t have to be that way at all. Not if we listen to men like M. King Hubbert who, as you’ll recall, warned us more than 25 years ago that we’d eventually suffer a “debacle” if we didn’t stabilize our population and learn to operate society on renewable resources.
Do you think we’ll do that’?
I hope we will but , no, 1 don’t think we will.
And so the slide you envision is inevitable.
I believe it is. But that may not be quite as bad as it sounds. Most of the known world at the time went through roughly the same kind of experience once before, you know. It was called the Dark Ages … and a fair number of people managed to stay alive back then. A few even prospered on a minor scale and some — although certainly not all — of the arts and crafts and skills and books and knowledge amassed by man before the Dark Ages were preserved during that troubled period and passed on down through the centuries that followed.
So we might do well to examine that last Dark Age in an effort to learn how we can survive the coming Dark Age with some comfort and grace. And, if we do, it seems to me we find that our best bet is the immediate construction of small, decentralized, self contained, agrarian communities that can — if need be — be defended. Such communities, after all, were the most important “secret weapons” — they were called “monasteries” and “walled towns” — used by the survivors of that earlier Dark Age.
Only this time, we should go those previous survivors one better. We should begin building our communities right now and we should make them completely operational on nothing but renewable resources … solar energy, wind power, locally grown trees, recycled metal, etc. And maybe, just maybe, if we build enough of these self contained agarian towns fast enough … and if we immediately put some rational population control into effect … and if we make up our minds that that’s the way the world has to be run from now on … then maybe we can head off the next Dark Age before it has a chance to head us off.
That’s a lot of “maybes” and “ifs.”
Yes, it is. And I don’t like it any better than you do. I often tell people that I feel as if I’m constantly being forced to come up with answers to questions that should never have been asked in the first place. Or, to quote that fine ole gospel song, “I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.”
I’m still trying to do the same things that Jane and I set out to do five years ago when we founded the MOTHER EARTH NEWS:  help little people take back control of their own lives and  ease us all into placing the interests of the planet over and above the personal greed that contemporary society rewards so lavishly.
Perhaps we started trying to accomplish these goals too late, perhaps we haven’t worked at it hard enough, or perhaps they were impossible dreams in the first place. Whatever … it’s now more than a little discouraging to find myself putting so much effort into what I consider a rather last-ditch attempt to help preserve both human life and this magnificent planet. Especially when there are so many “maybes” and “ifs” involved.