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?