Taking Responsibility (part 2)
When our elected governments and institutions do the things
we asked of them
We make implicit or explicit demands upon our institutions and we must follow
them to their origins. A society in denial can not properly function in a
Here are some examples of current concern:
The Open Road
Our wish to express our independence and individuality with personal
So, our desire for big cars, fast highways, and suburban living has led to
a loss of privacy, a drop in the rate of spending on social programs and
infrastructure development, and a shift in our priorities from developing
life enhancing products to weaponry and a professional military/police class.
Such a society eventually becomes inefficient and falls behind in the global
economy. Examples abound: Sparta, Rome, Turkey, Spain, England and Germany.
Quite a few modern commentators think we have already gone too far and that
we can no longer alter course. In all of the above examples some external
event was the final tipping point from which they never fully recovered.
Perhaps in our case it will be foreign competition, or perhaps the growing
scarcity of raw materials.
A suburban lifestyle is a "right".
When North America was first colonized the native population density
was low and people got accustomed to the option to "go west". The amount
of land seemed unlimited and the continent was settled in a mostly non-compact
fashion. This mind set has persisted until today. The dream is a two-car
garage with a nice house in the suburbs.
Suburban lifestyles requires a transportation infrastructure.
When the land was first settled travel between local communities was limited,
a small number of modest roads sufficed. As the population grew and the
farms moved further from the settlements the transportation system was expanded
to carry goods. First came the canals, followed by the railroads. With
the invention of the automobile this all changed. It was now possible to live
many miles from the employment and commerce centers. To satisfy the demands
for this lifestyle required the growth of the automotive age: roads, oil,
rubber, steel and highly mechanized factories.
Transportation infrastructure requires raw materials.
By the middle of the 20th Century the local economy could no longer
provide the needed raw materials at low enough prices. Thus began the era
of foreign oil exploration. Unfortunately most of the biggest sources of
oil are in areas of the world with poor internal development. The pressures
of the marketplace allowed the stronger partners in the foreign trade relations
to set most of the terms. Thus big cartels were formed that can influence not
only the trade terms, but also many of the internal arrangements of the
countries involved. Some local political factions are promoted above others
and governments compliant with our needs are supported. Local economic
development and human rights has suffered as a consequence.
Local economic distortion leads to local unrest.
- As the search for oil has expanded throughout the globe and as local
populations have become more aware of lifestyles in the developed world
discontent as grown stronger. The local governments have themselves had to
become harsher to maintain there relations with the developed countries.
The oil-rich parts of the Middle East are unstable as are parts of South
America and Africa. The US and its developed partners have had to devote
more resources to propping up these governments. In many cases this has been
by means of militarizing the situation. We have trained and supplied arms
to many of the governments much beyond what is required for local policing
and security. In addition we have created a world-wide network of military
installations (now over 750 foreign and more than 900 domestic)
to support our interests.
Foreign militarism leads to domestic changes.
- As more of our resources are devoted to foreign activities the domestic
economy becomes altered. The size of the permanent standing army has increased.
Thus, a larger portion of productive manpower is removed from the work force.
This manpower requires materiel support. This has lead to an expansion of
the military-industrial sector. Monies that would have been devoted to social
program and infrastructure development have been diverted. In addition, the
mind set of the larger portion of the country with a military background has
made it easier for military/policing activities to be accepted in regular
domestic life. We are getting used to seeing military and police personnel
on the streets of our cities as a matter of course, rather than in response
to an exceptional disaster. In addition the average person is being challenged
in the course of daily activities, such as visiting an office building, or
traveling, at an unprecedented level.
When oil continues it climb in price how will we cope? Suppose the
average worker now spends $15 per day on commuting. How will he deal with
$50 per day? During the oil shortage of the 1970's large automobiles became
almost worthless overnight. What will we do when 50% of our personal
transportation becomes too expensive to operate? Will suburban and ex-urban
housing drop in value as the burdens of commuting large distances make such
We need to plan for a more efficient society. Whether this means
tele-commuting, clustered housing, mixed use neighborhoods, more mass transit
or something else, it will not happen on its own. We cannot say that
"gas guzzlers" are bad and should be eliminated without proposing realistic
alternatives. A goal needs to be set and a series of transition plans
Current talk about alternative energy is useful, but limited
in scope. Land use and lifestyle issues must be part of the mix. Vested
interests in the oil, highway and automotive sectors need to be included
in the planning as well, otherwise they will continue to use their political
and economic power to prevent change. For example, the amount of money
being spent on controlled fusion research as a new source of electric power
is an international embarrassment. We spend billions on a fanciful trip to
Mars and a few millions on research that could potentially alter the
conditions of almost everyone on the planet. Why aren't the oil companies
being encouraged to invest in this research. They aren't going to see their
business undercut without a fight.