Never ending economic growth and a mass consumer culture is not the solution
By Mark Cromer and Warren Johnson
As the subprime mortgage-fueled crisis drove the country into the Great Recession more than a decade ago, I collaborated with Warren Johnson on this column that posited Americans could either decisively turn away from a culture of mass consumerism—or be consumed by it. A Professor Emeritus of Geography at San Diego State University and a Fulbright research scholar, Johnson authored the groundbreaking work Muddling Toward Frugality in 1978 and followed it in 1985 with The Future Is Not What It Used To Be: Returning To Traditional Values In The Age Of Scarcity. Warren observed in 1978 that “There is still a long way to go before ultimate stability is achieved—the kind of stability that is based on long experience in using the land without undermining its productivity. This has been made impossible, at least for the time being, by a vast new kind of instability on a scale never before seen on the earth.”
Edward Abbey, the legendary author and seminal environmental activist, opined at the time that “Johnson shows in what I find a persuasive argument that if we have enough time, and if we begin to change our ways now, voluntarily, with patience, good humor and good will, we can not only avoid calamity but even regain a saner, easier more rewarding way of life.”
Amid the financial battering of the Great Recession, Johnson and I concurred that the era of peak oil’s collision with a relentless appetite for consumption and a dominant religious order heralding the glory of eternal growth had finally hit the tipping point and would soon prove to be humankind’s suicide note if not slowed, stopped and dialed back as quickly as possible.
So we decided to write something about it together.
Now, on the doorstep of another new decade and as an even more profound economic disaster rolls across the land, amplified by a dizzying array of factors ranging from population densities to plundered resources to violent social upheaval—I am struck by what Johnson and I got wrong, temporarily at any rate—and yet not surprised in the least that our fundamental assertions proved to be prescient. We were indeed mistaken that the surge of ‘peak oil’ would not abate but only grow more pronounced as crude exporting nations tapped out their dwindling stocks and the international brokerages leveraged in extremis the desperate thirst for petro in developed and developing nations, squeezing them as dry as the known oil fields were becoming. We foresaw an inevitable nexus of $300 or $400-a-barrel sweet crude and civilizations both established and emerging that had indulged a junkie’s addiction to unsustainable growth face a thundering collapse as the spigots finally dripped their last drop.
We did not foresee, even as so unlikely as to be surreal potentialities, a window in which circumstances would develop courtesy of a pandemic that would result in the complete collapse of the energy market that led petro producers to actually pay countries to take their inventory at hand. It was a through the looking glass moment—but only for a moment.
While the world market ostensibly faces a surplus of oil, for now anyway, the Cult of Consumption has only grown more deeply entrenched as a dominant religion, one celebrated with lavish spectacles and socially reinforced by marketing slogans-turned-mystical truisms like ‘Growth is Good’ and ‘What’s In Your Wallet?’ At the dawn of 2020, Holy Communion for most Americans was held in the checkout line and administered by the cashier. We may be momentarily swimming in oil, but we can’t drink it and the warming planet’s fresh water supplies—that most fundamental element to life on earth—are being sucked drier than the Sahara even as the last of the ancient rainforests are put to the torch and the staggering churn of human waste pours unabated into the oceans.
We correctly made the case for the United States to begin a sociocultural seashift toward smaller, balanced and sustainable communities that featured viable economies for residents of those communities, and to reestablish an equilibrium not only between people and the environment, but a much healthier life-to-work ratio—one that is removed from the chronic sense of incompleteness that mass consumerism demands.
And yet here we are more than a decade later, with at least 25 million more people in America in 2020 than there were in 2010 (effectively a net-gain of another New York or Florida) living in ever denser population centers and the livelihoods of even millions more Americans dependent on global tradewinds and government largess.
If the chaos surrounding this pandemic has demonstrated anything, it is that while the cure for the virus may be elsuive for now, the palliative for so much of what ails our nation has been within our grasp for decades—but one which we chose not to take.
In 2009, Warren and I agreed that the hour had grown quite late for modern humankind, but we felt another inky shout of warning from California was worth it. We penned this relatively quickly as a newspaper column opener of what we thought would be a much longer essay or perhaps something more. And it was a real treat to kick it all around over drinks with a serious writer I had read in college and deeply respected. But Warren was working on a new book and I was still in a senior writing fellowship at a Santa Barbara think tank and, as such things are in life, our obligations, time and focus was to slowly carry us down river. So it was a fine experience for me, but revisiting it now it reads less dated as much as too late and “the towering mountains of waste and an abyss of fiscal debt” is indeed what the beneficiaries of the 20th Century are set to inherit.
America will survive the financial crisis, but the real question as it emerges from it is whether it will stubbornly cling to an economy based on unsustainable mass consumption; or will it be daring enough to forge a new paradigm that secures both our future and our environment.
Amid all the fluctuations that are roiling the economy, one thing is certain: the end of cheap energy supplies indisputably confronts our nation, even as global and domestic demand continues apace.
One key piece of information in this regard is one our society has yet to consider: since 2005 world oil production has stabilized around 85 million barrels a day. (See www.eia.doe.gov: World Oil Balance.) Even when oil prices topped $140 a barrel there was no commensurate increase in production.
How we respond to these challenges will in fact determine not only what kind of way of life our children and grandchildren will inherit, but also what kind of country we will be living in just a decade from now.
Americans are clearly not comfortable spending trillions of dollars from an already hemorrhaging treasury trying to get the economy back on track. But they will be even more uncomfortable when they learn that success will drive oil prices back up and eventually derail the economy yet again.
The niche of urban industrial society is filling up as more countries join the global economy, adding their demands to the Earth’s resources and waste absorbing capacities. More disturbing yet is that we are consuming this niche as we use the fossil fuels that gave the urban industrial way of life its power from its beginning some two centuries ago.
Fortunately, another path remains open for us; that of the sustainable niche that supported the human experience prior to the industrial era, including the great traditional cultures around the world. Modern technology will make the most of the renewable energy available, which will become progressively less than fossil fuels provide now.
The best thing about moving in this direction again is that it can be done by offering assistance to those who would like to build a simpler way of life that is sustainable with renewable forms of energy. Our younger generation would be in the vanguard responding to this opportunity, but many others across all socio-cultural demographics no longer thrive on the consumption-driven way of life and are ready for a change as long as it is more viable than experimental. Many Americans would be attracted to the security that comes with creating family enterprises that will support their descendants, regardless of what happens to the global economy.
An orderly transition period would occur over years as more people move into smaller, more rural communities and create their own economies of scale. Urban cores and suburban areas that support residents with jobs and housing will also emerge as the corrosive practice of commuting as much as 150 miles a day between home and work for millions of Americans is brought to an end.
The transition to smaller, sustainable communities would take pressure off the ‘mainstream economy’ by making general unemployment less of an issue over time. As energy supplies dwindle, the parallel economy created by these communities would make the shock of the coming shortages much less chaotic and dangerous.
The relationship between the two economies would be symbiotic, with both benefiting from the transition. The creation of work in the sustainable economy would protect the mainstream from the grinding down feared now, while the mainstream economy would have access to the tools and materials needed to rebuild in sustainable ways.
At its essence this transition is really a matter of rediscovering our way of life when our society was largely sustainable and our population was more widely dispersed across the landscape to take advantage of local production with less transportation, and more dependent on a local economy than a global one. Americans would be resuming the pioneering process undertaken when this continent was first settled.
The result would be a Sustainable Revolution that is the counterpoint of the Industrial Revolution and could take about as long to accomplish. Such a fundamental shift may sound like too much to hope for, but it has better prospects for success than the current struggle that we ultimately cannot win—between a growing economy and vanishing resources.
The test will be if this nation can recover the pioneering spirit that sustained it in the beginning. The bleak alternative is to leave our descendents with little other than depleted oil fields, towering mountains of waste and an abyss of fiscal debt.
What would they think of us then?