America the Exhausted

One of the key beliefs we have in this society is that we must always be growing. This is an economic belief, of course, but I often notice it reaching into other areas of our lives—into the personal, the professional, even the daily. We believe in growth, and we believe in progress, and we believe always in the beneficence of more. It is through having more and more and constantly doing new things that we find meaning in our life.

This strikes me as an odd way to live. That isn’t to say I don’t do it myself; I have a very bad tendency to commit myself to too much and to think too ambitiously, imagining I can do a hundred things when, in reality, I can do about twenty—and even then not well. (Perhaps I can do ten well.) And yet, time and again I try to do a hundred, with predictably poor results. It is a very American way to live, and it’s a kind of living that’s driving this country into the ground.

We are trying to do far too much here in America. Unfortunately, we’ve structured our ways of living and our beliefs about what we can do around a reality that has not been in place for at least forty years, and probably closer to a hundred. We’ve convinced ourselves that we should be living as though we have access to abundant sources of cheap fossil fuels, easily tapped reserves of high-quality physical resources, and a well-functioning imperial stranglehold on the world at large. As it happens, all three of those realities have been true at one point or another, and there’s even a stretch of history in which they overlapped quite well. That time has passed, though, and pretending that it hasn’t is choking the life out of this country’s well-being while promising us a much more diminished future than we might otherwise have.

Under those three circumstances it might make a certain amount of sense to extend our political, economic, and military reach around the world; fling open our borders in an effort to drive a good chunk of the globe’s wealth and resources into our own hands; spend and consume as though the world was happy to provide us an infinite source of treasure; dump our wastes and effluents as though it was also happy to provide us a bottomless landfill; turn our backs on an honest living and its deep rewards in favor of a shallow and softening life of unfettered wealth; and distract ourselves throughout the entire adventure with an ever-more-complex series of gadgets and gizmos in an effort not to think about the effects of these decisions on our own lives and the world around us. Granted, I might argue against doing all those things on a variety of practical, ethical, and moral grounds even if we did have access to endless, cheap, and abundant energy and resources, as well as an unshakable empire. Yet we don’t have those three things—not anymore—and carrying out the above actions in their absence is a form of national suicide.

When I look around me, I see a country that is exhausted. It seems as though, with every passing year, we scramble more frantically to attempt to not only maintain what we already have, but to also claw yet more away from the rest of the world for ourselves. And year after year, some of us are successful at doing this while a good chunk more of us are thrown under the bus as a result. We’ve long since passed the point that we can maintain our overuse and abuse of the world at the individual level without someone else having to give up their own; the rising tide is long gone and we’re left instead with a choppy and ragged outflow that keeps taking a few more people out to sea with every passing day. By frantically clinging to our own rather than willingly taking a step back from our outsized lives, we condemn yet more people to misery—as well as our future selves and descendants.

Think for a moment about how we conduct ourselves as a nation. We’ve spread ourselves across the world, consuming as many other nations as we can in an effort to divert energy and resources to our own use and to impose our will upon the world’s order. We’ve shed our national industries one after the other while assuring ourselves it was for the overall betterment of America. We’ve replaced human workers with fossil fuel and machinery in the apparent belief that the use and diminishment of nonrenewable resources is a higher goal than our friends and neighbors having good work. We’ve concentrated much of the world’s wealth into the hands of a small minority of our population, and we impoverish and destroy the lives of more people every year in an effort to maintain that concentration. We have looked outward at every turn while our economic and political lives right here at home have been torn apart. We’ve comforted ourselves with cultural and digital distractions, as well as with the myth that if we continue on this destructive path, it will somehow make us happy in the end, even as the evidence continues to pile up that it is primarily doing the opposite.

When your life is falling apart, the rational response is to turn inward, stop the continued damage, and begin to put yourself back together. We reached that needful point long ago. And yet we continue to look outward. We do it as a nation, ignoring many of the problems we have here at home while we continue to dive into misadventures internationally, meddle in other countries’ business, and seek to impose our will upon a world that is fast turning its back on our failing empire. We do it individually, too, focusing on the lives of others—celebrities, fictional TV characters, politicians—while ignoring the troubles and mistakes of our own. And it is exhausting us at all levels. By distracting ourselves constantly, we have no time to deal with our own lives—whether at the national or individual level, or somewhere in between—and we compensate by ignoring the many brewing trouble points and letting them compound themselves into unwieldy predicaments we have no hope of handling.

We are failing because we can’t be honest about the reality of the world around us. We are no longer an untouchable imperial power; our global influence is waning as our empire continues to fail us. We are no longer rich in cheap energy and resources; the simple realities of energy and resource depletion have left us with fewer resources that are more expensive and of poorer quality. We are no longer reaping the benefits that come with strong ecosystems able to absorb our wastes and externalized costs; we’ve stripped our ecosystems of their resiliency under the weight of our collective abuses, and we now, on top of that, are paying the price of externalized costs coming back due to us via a destabilized climate and various forms of ecological blowback. As the consequences of our actions continue to hit us, we weaken and tire as a nation and as individuals, overwhelmed by these setbacks. Attempting to live our lives the exact same way under these new realities is sheer lunacy. It’s an exhausting fool’s game we cannot win.

Here’s the thing, though: it wasn’t always a fool’s game. If you set aside ethical and moral considerations, the practical aspect of our past actions are very clear. We exploited energy and resource reserves here and abroad; thoughtlessly externalized our costs by dumping the resultant pollution and wastes into our air, water, and soil; and pursued a worldwide empire because, on the whole, it greatly benefited us for a time. Does that mean it was the best course of action? Definitely not when considering the long term and probably not even when only considering the short time. But it worked regardless. It improved the lives and certain standards of living of millions of people in this country. It in no way did it evenly, and our national course of action devastated, destroyed, and ended the lives of a number of our citizens and a larger number of the world’s citizens, but it still benefited the U.S. Ultimately, that’s one of the most important reasons we’ve behaved the way we have as a nation, and the vast majority of us in this country are complicit to some degree or another.

But—again setting aside the ethical and moral consideration, as important as those are—the practical implications of our national behaviors have changed significantly. Simply put, we are no longer benefiting on the whole from empire, exploitation, and externalized costs. We’re losing. Our income from these misadventures has steadily ratcheted down over the preceding decades while the costs have soared. We kicked so many cans so far down the road that we have now stumbled upon a pile we may not even be able to get around. The consequences of our behavior have come due in a very big way and our frenzied attempts to deny those consequences while continuing on our merry way are not only ignoring an important reality, but making that reality far worse.

This is how a country injures itself, exhausts itself, and fails. We have reached that crossroad. There’s a reason it can feel so tiring, emptying, and dehumanizing living in this country. There’s a reason that few of us trust our political system, that we accept corruption as a matter of course, and that we often refuse to accept the proclamations of authority figures even when they aren’t blatantly lying to us and may actually be uttering a rare truth. There’s a reason that “elite” has become a dirty word. There’s a reason so many of us trash our homes, trash ourselves, trash our cities, trash our public spaces, trash our government, trash everything. It’s because America—through a long series of broken policies, actions, maneuvers, beliefs, and certainties—has bankrupted itself at nearly every level. It’s because we are tired and broken, overburdened, exhausted from overconsumption and lack of meaningful living—or alternately exhausted from hunger and being overworked—clawing at the edges of financial stability in a desperate attempt to hang on, or wasting away beneath too much money and its softening, corrupting effects. Meanwhile, we look around us at an array of authority figures, the vast majority of whom tell us that are problems aren’t real and that, if perhaps they are, we can fix them by continuing to do what’s causing them in the first place.

We are insane. And we are exhausted. And almost no one in power is willing to say it. In fact, even many of those who aren’t in power aren’t willing to say it. So the question now is how we’re going to react. Because, here’s the other thing: we don’t have to keep pursuing failed policies. We don’t have to keep digging the hole. We simply have to imagine all the smarter ways of living that are out there, but that we aren’t allowed to talk about.

As I hope is clear, I’m not talking about pursuing the standard set of policies espoused by the right, left, or the supposed middle. While there may still be a few useful things hidden in that grab bag of failure, they mostly consist of a frantic evasion of reality. I’m talking about pursing policies and principles that are for the most part unspoken and unspeakable in our current political system.

It’s time for us to reorient ourselves. We need to do this at the individual level by changing the ways we live, and we need to build on that into action at the local and national levels to change the way we conduct ourselves as a society and nation. We need to understand that the principles of exploitation, externalized costs, and empire are no longer enriching us but are instead now impoverishing us. And we need to change the ways in which we understand and interact with the world—ecologically, economically, politically, and otherwise.

If we don’t, we will continue down a path of impoverishment, exhaustion, and self-destruction. It’s that straightforward. We either start changing the way we live, or we continue to let it kill us.

I vote for the former. You?

12 Comments

  1. I don’t have much to add to the conversation but to say that, in your first few posts I could hear JMG’s voice coming through in your words (you know that is a compliment). As of this post, I’m getting excited to see your posts pop up in my email, and I think you’re getting into a rhythm and your words starting to sound distinctly your own (also a compliment).

    • Thank you, Brian! I sometimes hear his voice too while I’m writing, and I hope I’m not mimicking him too much. I do have a habit of picking up mannerisms from people I am around a lot and, while I’m not physically around him, I sure do read a heck of a lot of words from him!

      It means a lot to me that you’re excited to see new posts from me—that’s quite the compliment. Hopefully I’ll continue to carve out my own particular voice, especially as I start moving into more of the posts proposing some specific responses to our predicaments.

  2. Hi Joel,

    This is a superb essay…balanced, honest and infused with an equanimity that’s inspiring and quite rare. I plan to forward the link to my email list of folks who may be willing to read it and consider its many undeniable (ha!) truths. Sometimes my local paper (The Daily Hampshire Gazette in the ultra ‘liberal/progressive’ Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts) publishes guest-authored opinion/editorial pieces of this ilk — I’d love to submit this (with your permission of course) for their consideration. This piece deserves a wider audience.

    I’ve been reading your new blog since its inception (having learned about it at TADR) and have been very impressed with the clarity of your writing. Of course I’m a long standing choir member but preaching to the choir has its place — keep on testifying! Thanks for your efforts.

    Jim
    P.S. one minor proofreader’s note: in the eleventh paragraph in the third sentence it reads ‘and that we often to refuse the proclamations’. Refuse to accept the proclamations?

    • Hi Jim,

      Thank you! I’m happy to hear this essay came across that way for you. I hoped it didn’t feel too much like a rehash of the past few posts. By all means, please do forward around to others, and you’re quite welcome to send it on to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, as well, so long as I’m properly credited and, preferably, they include a link back to the blog at figurationpress.com/litterfall.

      I’ll certainly keep testifying, but hope also to bring in some fresher thoughts over the next couple months, as well. Perhaps nothing 100% new, but some ideas even less commonly uttered than what I’ve written so far.

      As for the typo, thanks for the heads up and got it fixed.

  3. Hello Joel,
    I found this blog through the ADR. I’ve read a few of your posts, and like them very much. They don’t exactly echo JMG, but they are in a rhythm with his philosophy, which is nice. The bit about being exhausted is so true….I feel it myself sometimes, especially after too much contact with the internet, and I see it in people around me. Interestingly, I think this exhaustion has manifested publicly in the political world with Hillary Clinton’s by now infamous collapse. How could she not be exhausted? And most other politicians/celebrities, what have you. And our fuel sources are near exhaustion, and much of our environment. It’s interesting to meditate on how we could all get a good rest…..

    • Hi Lydia,

      I do this this sense of exhaustion and tiredness is key. We continue to try to do too much when what really is being called for right now, to my mind, is the simplification of our lives.

      I think there’s another key to this, too, in that the constant stimulation and distraction offered by our society, coupled with the lack of seasonal rhythms for the vast majority of people, significantly limits our ability for thought and reflection. By never cutting off the distraction, we never stop to think about what we’re doing, what the results are, and if we might consider changing some of our behaviors.

      Time to think and the ability to do it is crucial for us to respond to our predicaments and lead better lives. I really do think the lack of those is a key part of our problems.

  4. Really nice post!! I totally agree – we’re so overtired that we’re staggering (and having the emotional breakdowns that come from exhaustion)… and as you mentioned, we’re leaving more and more people out as the dance becomes faster and the stakes higher. I’ve long felt that a large portion of the “mental illness” these days is simply not being able to keep up with the stress and pace of modern life – like an insane game of “Simon Says”, more people are dropping out, shamed and unable to find a place for themselves in society. I really hope that we don’t have to collapse in order to stop… but it’s really hard. Those people who could afford a retreat or time off to think are often totally caught in the prestige issue of being unstoppable, while another large group couldn’t afford to stop bailing out their lives without capsizing. Reminds me of a time I was teaching canoeing to a bunch of young girl scouts (having only just learned it myself ;-)) and one was paddling furious straight for the rocks! I ran alongside, hollering, “Stop! Stop!” and she kept paddling and hollered back, “I don’t know how to stop!” I remind myself of that when I can’t seem to slow down – just STOP, sit on my hands, do nothing but breathe… that’s stopping.

    I’ve done a lot of slowing in the past few years and I know it’s healthy… and even so I often feel somewhat embarrassed to tell family and friends that I don’t have much news; that it’s “same old same old” around here, when they’ve had trips and outings and buying new cars, etc. It’s like retiring – for some, losing their work identity is a small death. I think slowing can feel like that too… so we need more public support. So keep up the good work!!

    • Hi Cathy,

      Love that story of the girl scout. God, that pretty much sums up our culture right now, doesn’t it?

      Slowing certainly can be a challenge. I’m still working on that here in the city—it’s a bit different than when I was out in a rural area. But I think I’m calming and settling a bit, and hopefully the slowing will keep coming. Though it might help if I tried to do a little less, I suppose!

      Thank you—I do plan to keep this up, for whatever it’s worth. It’s been nice getting back into the rhythm of regular writing, and I think it’s helping me to work on a story, as well. It’s start and stop, but slowly coming together. Hopefully everyone will see it in an upcoming issue of Into the Ruins, but we’ll see.

  5. Hi Joel,

    Your quote: “When I look around me, I see a country that is exhausted. It seems as though, with every passing year, we scramble more frantically to attempt to not only maintain what we already have, but to also claw yet more away from the rest of the world for ourselves. ”

    As an outsider to the US it doesn’t look that way to me. And please forgive me if I may be so bold as to suggest that: to me it looks as though you are a failing business that has neither the desire or means to increase its income, but at the same time it does not want to face the hardships involved in reducing its expenditure. That analysis from my perspective is not a good business. And to make matters worse you are currently living in the in-between time where not only are you’re avoiding the above decisions, but you are also running down your infrastructure (social and physical) but also going into debt in a big way. The stress you feel is a result of that inaction and those policies. They all have a finite shelf life, and then a new equilibrium will assert itself. It may be better, who knows?

    Don’t take it too hard, we’re doing the exact same thing down here.

    Cheers

    Chris

    • Hi Chris,

      Also quite a reasonable reading of the situation! I would agree completely, and I have to say that it feels as though a new equilibrium is drawing near. Very possibly I’m wrong—I’ve called it too early before—but it feels as though a few things are going to break after this election cycle, however it goes. I hope it ends up for the better, but I’m not going to count on that.

  6. Like all readers of Joel and LMG’s blog, I’m using a computer to read and respond to it. And like the readers of these blogs, I recognize that our “modern”, globalized, industrial world is coming to an end. How abrupt an end, how many contractions before an ultimate collapse, and how far “down” that collapse will be – we just don’t know and cannot know.

    So in the meantime, what can we do? Especially if we’re still at least partially plugged in to the mainstream economy/society, with its cheap energy, modern medical and dental care, anesthetics, antibiotics, refrigerators, Internet, etc.

    I’d like to make a few very modest suggestions mostly based on age. This is for those of us who feel we cannot fully disconnect from “modern” life with all its comforts and anxieties.

    Age 0 – 18: Parents should try to make sure that their kids learn something about growing and preserving fruits and vegetables using organic techniques. Raising some animals may be an option – for wool, milk/cheese, eggs, and modest amounts of meat if that complies with their philosophy. Also learn where possible: basic first aid, making/repairing clothes, building and maintaining shelter (using local supplies and minimal amounts of gasoline and cheap electricity), basic self defense… And some mainstream academics: history, art, music, literature, political theory, experimental science.

    Ages 19 – mid-30s. Unless you’re prepared to do a full Helen and Scott Nearing (e.g., Five Acres and Independence), you’ll need to be at least partially plugged in to the mainstream economy. Have a Plan B, something closer to food, clothing, shelter, medical care, basic defense…. so if you’re forced out of the mainstream economy (as everyone will be, sooner or later), you have a bridge a survivable future.

    Age mid-30 – mid-60s: Get out of debt as best you can. If you live in the suburbs, any food you can grow or energy you can generate will be an effort well spent. If you have “extra money”, look into buying some land and/or a small home in a small to medium sized community with decent access to clean water, farmland and natural heating/cooking fuel. If you a committed urban dweller: Can you grow any food? Can you make your dwelling more dependent on sustainable energy sources? Can you store concentrated energy? And obviously: Can you walk more, drive less and take public transit?

    Age mid-60s and up: Live as lightly as you can. No one is going to expect you to “build a log cabin, hunt and forage for your dinner and find your own cooking/heating fuels”. But neither do you have to be a high consumption global traveler, going from airport to airport, continent to continent…. [and if you do absolutely need to fly, look for carbon offset programs… Yea, I know, maybe all they do is assuage some high consumption guilt, but better than nothing, right?]

    Not all of us are in a position to follow JMG’s advice of “Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush”. So if you can’t, as I cannot, then at least look for opportunities to minimize use of cheap concentrated energy, but local/regional foods, have a plan B if/when the economy forces you/us out.

    • Hi Ric,

      Excellent advice all around! And, to be honest, I think a number of items on that list most fall within the “Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush” ethos—and I suspect JMG would agree (though I certainly don’t speak for him). I will say that my current life is more aligned to your final paragraph. I am definitely tied into our industrial economy at the moment. That said, I live light compared to a lot of people, I am debt-free, I have multiple years of farming experience and know how to grow food, I have a basic understanding of whole systems and am constantly aware of energy and resource usage, I walk a lot and avoid driving most days, I generate a very small amount of trash, I eat local and organic and know many of the farmers who provide me food, and I’m used to living with a lot less money than I currently make.

      Granted, if I were to lose my job, it would cause some definite life disruptions. But I also don’t feel like I’d be at a complete loss and I would have some immediate ideas and plans for possible ways to reorient my life. While I don’t think I’m in the perfect place by any means, all of that is enough for me to feel much more at peace with whatever the future brings than I would otherwise.

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