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 competitive world. Here are some examples of current concern:

The Open Road

Our wish to express our independence and individuality with personal transportation.

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.
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.

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 locations unaffordable?

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 established.

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.

Moral: "We have met the enemy and he is us" -- Pogo

Read Part 1 - Outsourcing
Read Part 3 - Materialism

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If you have any comments you would like to add email me at robert.feinman@gmail.com
Copyright © 2005 Robert D Feinman
Feel free to use the ideas, but the words are mine.