Sunday, December 12, 2010

Hartmann should know better

Thom Hartmann’s stated aim in Rebooting the American Dream is to, “bring back a strong middle class and restore America to stability and prosperity without endangering future generations.” He ought to know better, and I’m certain he does.

Though he never defines the term, Hartmann’s idea of the American Dream seems to be straight out of the post World War II era, a period of unprecedented production, expansion and consumerism. Almost anyone with any gumption whatsoever qualified for a job with benefits and a pension; a house in the suburbs; two cars; a color TV, and nearly every imaginable gimcrack and geegaw his or her little heart was persuaded to desire.

That era effectively died about 1973, when America’s oil production hit its peak. Though the fiesta of consumerism has gone on for another 40 years, it has been financed by financial shenanigans; booms and busts; outright looting; non-stop wars; and various other diversions such as Monica Lewinsky, 9/11, and Nascar.

There will be no resurrection.

Peak Oil, to put it bluntly, puts the kibosh on the whole concept of economic growth as we’ve known it for about 300 years. Hartmann knows this. He wrote The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, way back in 1998, so he is hardly unaware of the phenomenon of Peak Oil, the maximum worldwide production of petroleum. It occurred in America about 1973 and worldwide in 2006, according to the International Energy Agency, so from now on until forever, we’ll be chasing diminishing supplies of oil with our insatiable demand; and we’ll have to do it in places that are massively hostile to us. At an oil price of about $80 a barrel, economic growth ceases, and we’re there now.

Ronald Reagan, or at least his advisors, knew of Peak Oil and its ultimate implications for a society based on neverending growth, fueled by abundant, cheap oil. So did Presidents Bush, Bush, Clinton and Cheney. Carter certainly knew it, hence his doctrine declaring the Middle East a theater of strategic importance to America. For all we know, Nixon understood Peak Oil, too.

The corporate oligarchy and uberwealthy kleptocrats behind both political parties and the presidency have engaged in an orgy of self-aggrandizement, knowing that the petro-industrial train was heading for a brick wall. America’s transition from self-sufficiency to import dependency in oil is the most significant reason behind the economic “devastation of 30 years of Reaganomics.” It isn’t a big secret, except to our willfully ignorant fellow citizens.

Yet Hartmann seems maddeningly oblivious to even the more obvious implications of Peak Oil. There’s not even an index entry for it. Even if it were desirable, which it’s not, we’re not going to “recover the industrial base we’ve lost.” An American Dream of outrageous energy consumption per person is no longer possible under any circumstances, Hartmann’s 11 Steps (12 being taken) notwithstanding.

If there were a shred of honesty in the political arena, which there isn’t, we’d be told to dig in, plant Victory Gardens, relocalize as many facets of production (craft, cottage and manufacturing) as possible, and virtualize everything else. Hartmann doesn’t deliver this message, either.

But it’s not that his ideas are, per se, bad. Hartmann is a serial entrepreneur and progressive author and talk radio host. He’s built businesses, put people to work, created value where there was none. He’d like to see an America like the post-WWII one he grew up in – made in America by Americans for Americans. He wants to reverse “the ‘free trade/flat earth’ idiocy” of the past 40 years. What Hartmann doesn’t say is that globalization is already a dinosaur. The 7,000-mile WalMart pipeline and the 3,000-mile salad are both artifacts of an era that’s rapidly passing.

The steps Hartmann suggests are worthwhile to take. But even if they are implemented, there’s not a snowball’s chance in Hades of their success in restoring the American Dream. I suspect Hartmann agrees.

The nation needs to be saved from the corporate oligarchs … absolutely. We need to educate ourselves and reward initiative and get basic medical care for everybody and abolish corporate personhood (see Hartmann’s excellent book, Unequal Protection). But we can’t count on the federal government for any of it. For better or worse, that bloated, all-intrusive Washington welfare state bureaucracy is another artifact of the upside of Hubbert’s Peak, where we could always do more of everything because we had the energetic capacity to do it.

No more. We have to do it ourselves.

You want to bring jobs home? Stop buying anything made outside the United States. Period. Buy local; make it yourself, or do without. If you must have an item that’s only made overseas, buy a used one so the money stays here. Stop exporting your dollars.

You want a healthier society? Stop eating crap and do some physical work. The overwhelming majority of medical problems are diet- and lifestyle-related, and the same companies that make you sick are profiting from treating the sickness.

You want to level the playing field with the corporations? Work to amend the Constitution, as Hartmann suggests, and nullify at the state level all unconstitutional acts of the federal government … now there’s a fertile field.

Fortunately, we still do have the US Constitution, written during and for a time of small, self-reliant communities and individuals, deeply mistrustful of self-serving power, whether in the form of the state or the corporation. The Constitution empowers us to take back control of our lives, and still remain a nation, strong where it counts.

Hartmann wants to do good things, but they won’t get us anywhere close to where he thinks they will; and he wants to do them on a scale that’s more a part of the problem than it is part of the solution; and I don’t think he trusts the language and vision of the Constitution, or the power of an aroused citizenry, to see us through the dark forest we’re heading into. Too bad.

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