No. 148 - July 2004
by Richard Heinberg
Boomers' Last Chance?
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In his best-selling 1998 book The Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw extolled the virtues of the American women and men, now deep into their retirement years, who grew up during the Great Depression and fought in World War II. Brokaw's book drew an implied contrast between "the greatest generation any society ever produced" and those that preceded and followed it. The cohort born during World War I and up to 1930 faced immense adversity and made sacrifices that ensured the survival of freedom and democracy; as a result, their children have enjoyed the most extended and exuberant period of affluence in the history of any nation.
Brokaw and I are children of that generation; ours is the so-called Baby Boom generation, about which an oil tanker's worth of ink has been spilled in self-adulation, self-criticism, self-analysis, and general self-obsession. I hesitate to join in the orgy of demographic mirror gazing, but lately I've begun to reflect on a simple fact: during my lifetime - and that of my cohort - about half of the non-renewable resources of the planet will have been used. Gone, forever.
This is a generation that has practised diachronic competition (that is, competition with future generations) more ruthlessly than has any other since the dawn of our species. The implications are devastating.
I might dispute Brokaw's assertion that the World War II generation was the best in history (in fact I will do so below); nevertheless, a good case could be made that my generation, because it so threatens the perpetuation of its kind and the survival of countless other species, is the worst ever.
Of course, in a way the very idea of a "generation" is arbitrary. The notion implies uniformity where there is endless diversity, discreteness where there is continuity. Worse still, discussion of "better" or "worse" generations entails a moral judgment, as though all of the members of a demographic cohort somehow deserve equal praise or blame, when in fact this is never the case. Who is the exemplary Boomer - Karl Rove or Ron Kovics? Laura Bush or Amy Goodman? It may make sense to speak of the moral triumphs or failures of individuals, but the application of such judgments to whole generations is problematic.
However there is one respect in which the discussion has merit: Much of Brokaw's argument (if it can be called that) revolves around the truism that a demographic cohort is shaped by historical circumstances. Individuals within that cohort inevitably respond to events differently and help shape subsequent history in divergent ways, yet members of each generation undeniably share a certain commonality of experience - notably so during periods of large-scale, dramatic change.
Brokaw's "greatest generation" was tempered by adversity. In contrast, the Boomers have been spoiled by abundance. One generation presided over America's ascendancy while the other is overseeing its peak in power and wealth and its inevitable decline.
That's the conventional-wisdom summary of the situation, but it is in many ways a misleading one: a closer look might reveal that the World War II generation was not so praiseworthy after all, nor are the Boomers uniformly culpable. All of us are mostly responding to circumstances beyond our control.
In this essay I hope to explore some of the circumstances that have made us Boomers what and who we are, and to argue that, having failed to live up to some of our expressed ideals and now finding ourselves in power just as the industrial world is beginning its inevitable decline, Boomers may have one last opportunity to redeem themselves.
What Made the "Greatest Generation" Great
Brokaw's book was in some respects a peace offering - an attempt to close the generation gap that opened up in the 1960s as young people wrangled with their parents over drugs, sex, music, hairstyles, and the Vietnam War. Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan was perhaps another bouquet thrown from the younger (now aging) generation to its elders. The message implicit in both: We, the Boomers, appreciate and respect our parents' sacrifices and hard work, which made it possible for us to enjoy the peace, freedom, and affluence that we have mostly taken for granted throughout our lives.
The bouquet is perhaps deserved - no doubt so in many individual instances. The Greatest Generation is filled with stories of undeniable heroism (for more politically informed anecdotal reports of the experiences and contributions of the elder cohort see Studs Terkel's Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, published by Norton in 2000, and The Good War: An Oral History of World War II, released by New Press in 1997).
However, the freedom and affluence of modern Americans are due not just to courage and endurance but also sheer luck. Let us not forget that the people who inhabited the United States in the early 20th century happened to be sitting on one fabulous pile of natural resources - everything from forests, fresh water, fertile soils, and fish to minerals (gold, nickel, iron, aluminum, copper) to energy resources (oil, natural gas, coal, and uranium). Moreover, the US has enjoyed a geographic isolation from Eurasian intrigues, which enabled it to thrive during occasions when Europeans were tearing each other to bits.
Thus the payoff that came at the end of World War II carried an historic inevitability: with its resource base, factories, and highly motivated work force, the US had won the war without damage to its internal infrastructure. In contrast, Britain and the USSR had also emerged winners, but only after having seen their cities, railroads, and factories bombed. While the rest of the industrial world lay in ruins, America stood unscathed.
Because of the American economy's stability, the US dollar was adopted as a reserve currency by other nations. American oil wells were then supplying over half the total amount of petroleum being extracted globally. Sixty percent of all export goods delivered throughout the world carried a "Made in USA" tag. General Motors was the world's biggest corporation and Hollywood films were on screens everywhere.
US factories made so many manufactured goods that Americans had to be cajoled into a permanent buying frenzy by the greatest propaganda system the world has ever seen - the American advertising industry - which made brilliant use of history's greatest propaganda medium - television. In fact, the consumerist project had gotten under way in the 1920s as fuel-fed American capitalism searched for solutions to the problem of over-production (a problem that was in fact one of the Depression's causes). But World War II's insatiable need for materiel and the post-war expansion of advertising and credit made the Depression vanish like a bad dream and sent the economy into warp drive. Indeed, in the 1950s human beings habitually came to be referred to not as "people" or "citizens," but as "consumers."
Having lived through a decade when starving would-be employees competed for the few jobs available, people worked hard when finally given the chance. They saved. They believed in the American Dream and in the essential goodness of America's international leadership. They bought homes and raised families.
And that's where the Boomers come in.
The "Me" Generation
When people feel optimistic about the future they tend to have more children. And so, after the War's end, as soldiers came home and went to work building the suburban utopia, they sired the most numerous generational cohort America had ever seen. Demographers define baby-boomers as those born between 1946 and 1964 (as of 2004, members of the Boomer cohort are between 40 and 58 years of age). There are about 76 million US Boomers, representing over a quarter of the population. And their tastes, lifestyles, and ambitions have transformed the nation - and to a large extent the world beyond - in a myriad of ways.
The "Father Knows Best" years in which the Boomers grew up were ones of unprecedented abundance and safety. Yes, there was a Cold War, there were a couple of recessions, and the last few of the Boomer cohort's formative years (from 1968 on) were tumultuous. But compare this quarter-century to any previous one in history: in Europe - one of the wealthiest regions of the planet - hardly a decade went by for centuries without a significant famine affecting an entire region. For Boomers the word famine held about as much personal relevance as Bible verses about leprosy or marauding Philistines. No one in America actually starved to death - at least not in modern times, and certainly no one we knew. Far from it: Boomers knew only supermarkets filled with cheap, packaged, refrigerated foods in a numbing variety, all conveniently accessed by way of automobiles (every family now had one) rolling serenely over smoothly paved streets and highways.
One measure of this new abundance was power available per-capita. In the 19th century, most of the work being done in America was accomplished by means of animal or human muscle-power. In 1850, fuel-fed machines supplied only about 18 percent of the total horsepower in the economy; the rest came from horses, oxen, and human labor. Domestic servants were common. However, by 1960 machines were supplying virtually all of the power in the economy. People were still working, of course, and there were lots more of them (though by now there were far fewer working horses, and far fewer domestic servants), but their contribution had become inconsequential in terms of applied energy. Machines - and the fossil fuels that made them go - were supplying power for greatly expanded manufacturing, transportation, information storage and transmission, and so on. And so by the 1960s the typical American - even if his or her near ancestors had been slaves or servants - had access to power equivalent to that exerted by scores of laborers: it was as though each citizen could command a small army of "energy slaves."
In short, Americans had every reason to believe that they were living in the best of all possible worlds, in the greatest of nations, in the best of times.
Why, then, the generation gap? Was there trouble in paradise?
Again: people are to some extent the product of the circumstances and events of their historical era. The younger generation, growing up in affluence, was freed to take survival - even abundance - for granted. And we are discussing a level of abundance significantly greater, in some respects, even than exists today: at that time, the US was still solvent, still a net exporter of credit. In the 1960s an entire family could live on a single average income. Rents were cheap, land was cheap, and college was cheap.
Therefore rebellion was cheap, too. The young people knew they were different from their parents (though they usually couldn't articulate how or why). They could afford to question their parents' seeming obsession with discipline and hard work, their conformity and unflinching patriotism.
Meanwhile America was visibly and quickly changing: graceful old downtown buildings were collapsing under the wrecking ball while monotonous suburban housing developments and strip malls were sprouting where farmland used to be. America's wealth was being spent in a tasteless nouveau-riche spectacle designed by bored and overpaid Madison Avenue huckster-bureaucrats in gray suits. The older generation was mostly proud of this transformation, but many youth couldn't help but notice the vapidity and emptiness of the corporate-sponsored theme-park way of life and had the free time to indulge in irony and sarcasm.
As young people went to college (a greater percentage of them did so than in any previous generation) they started asking questions, and the answers they found were troubling. They learned that the shining image of America the Free and Brave hid a history of slavery and genocide. Moreover, in their extracurricular reading they discovered that an increasing share of US wealth was emanating from an international imperial system enforced by the American military and the CIA.
This latter fact was driven home by the greatest single perception-shaping circumstance of the Boomers' young-adult lives - the Vietnam War. Pampered American teenagers were being called up, trained, and airlifted around the world to fight and die in a conflict they didn't understand. And an alarming number of them were coming home in pine boxes. Was this a heroic campaign against a malevolent foreign enemy bent on our destruction? Or was it an imperialist war of aggression on a Third-World nation led by a man widely regarded as his country's equivalent of George Washington? Disputes over the War divided families across America - my own included - and ran deep: for people on both sides of the debate what was at stake was nothing less than the essential character and future of the nation.
The Boomers' Defining Moments
Many of the happily memorable moments of the Boomer generation's early years are etched into the national psyche and have been recalled endlessly: teenage girls' shrieking response to the Beatles' first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show; the Summer of Love in San Francisco in 1967; Grateful Dead concerts jammed with tripping, giddy hipsters; communes and head shops; Woodstock. But other images are more sobering: the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King; the police riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention; the shootings at Kent State; the stirring to life of the Black Power movement, the American Indian Movement, the women's movement, and the Chicano/farm workers' movement; and the massive antiwar demonstrations that closed many colleges and universities in 1971.
However, the two events of that era that had the potential to most profoundly shape the remainder of the Boomers' lives, and that of their children, are less often dwelt upon. Both occurred in 1970: the peak in US oil production and the first Earth Day.
At the time it happened, the US oil production peak went unnoticed; it was observed in hindsight a couple of years later, though even today it is scarcely mentioned in the press. One of the few who really understood its significance was the scientist who had anticipated it - geologist M. King Hubbert. Its consequences for the US economy and for global geopolitics would only gradually reveal themselves, with the first strong hint appearing in 1973's Arab oil embargo. Those consequences will eventually include the undermining of the entire American consumerist-imperialist project.
Of course oil was and is central to the automobile and airline industries, which have been major drivers of the US economy. Less obvious is oil's role in modern industrial agriculture. However, if one looks more deeply, the very fabric of 20th century America is petroleum-soaked. In 1900 the world's wealthiest and oiliest man was John D. Rockefeller, whose company, Standard Oil, had cornered the national market. Rockefeller himself was an abstemious churchgoer who believed that wealth was a sign of God's favor; what does such a person do with so much money? All sorts of things! Why not go into banking in order to make even more money? The Rockefeller family did so with a vengeance and was instrumental in creating the Federal Reserve System - the banking cartel that quietly controls the US currency and economy. If one is exceptionally wealthy it is also handy to have some influence over public opinion - and so Rockefeller wealth found its way into controlling positions in media organizations. Even scientific research can have its uses: when I was researching the history of genetic engineering for my 1999 book Cloning the Buddha, my most troubling discovery was that the inception of molecular biology (the basis for all subsequent developments in genetic science) came in the 1920s as a result of strategic grants from the Rockefeller Foundation in its quest for a means of eugenic "social control." Politics, geopolitics, war, weapons manufacturing, education - all were deeply impacted by the Rockefeller oil fortune. Oil wasn't just a subsidy to American wealth; it had come to be the very substance of American wealth.
Therefore the fact that by 1971 US oil production had peaked and was in terminal decline was momentous (if unheralded) news. America could no longer be a source of wealth in the same way it had been; if it were to maintain its privileged position globally it would have to become the world's moneychanger, banker, landlord, stockbroker . . . and enforcer. American military force would have to be used increasingly to safeguard and protect US access to the resource wealth of other countries, while international trade agreements would have to be written and enforced to the advantage of American corporations. And those corporations would be ever less involved directly in manufacturing, but more in trading, branding, and licensing.
The other signal event of 1970 - the first Earth Day - was well noted at the time. The brainchild of Senator Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day was reported prominently in the New York Times, Time Magazine, and most other significant media outlets. Legislation followed: the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act, the Water Pollution and Control Act Amendments, the Resource Recovery Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.
Perhaps even more important than this legislation was the symbolic value of the occasion in giving voice and identity to a growing minority who viewed the fossil-fueled industrial project as having dire consequences for humanity and nature, and who advocated a dramatic change of direction for society as a whole away from consumerism and toward conservation, away from militarism and toward nurturance of life. The Earth Day message - which would be given renewed force two years later with the publication of the Club of Rome report, The Limits to Growth, and then again with the Arab oil embargo of 1973 - appealed to many young people's intuitive longing for a return to a simpler, more localized and agrarian version of America, an America that didn't meddle in other nations' affairs.
The Earth Day message might have been still more compelling had Americans been aware of the fact and significance of their nation's oil peak. However, though the message evoked legislative and cultural responses, it sank in only so deep. It was, after all, difficult for many Americans to accept the notion that they should voluntarily give up their material privileges, their control of global resource streams, their entitlement to a glittering technotopian future of effortless abundance, and accept instead a self-disciplined and self-limiting future of hard work and dwindling material aspirations. The difficulty was compounded by the existence of an international rival - the USSR - that would presumably fill the void if America were to shrink from its imperial duties. The Soviet Union was also a competitor in the oil business and had actually out-produced the US in recent years. Wouldn't stepping off the consumerist treadmill mean giving in to the Commies?
It was a contest of visions and values, and that contest was to be decided in the election of 1980.
The Path Taken
Jimmy Carter was far from being a perfect president (his national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was positively Machiavellian); nevertheless he somewhat understood the Earth Day message. I was living in Canada during the mid-1970s and almost never watched television, but I somehow found myself viewing a Carter speech in which he told Americans that they would have to change their material way of life in order to keep their freedoms. I was so amazed to hear an American president saying such things that I moved back to the US. But the Carter years were destined to be few.
For over three decades the American Right had been searching for ways to overturn the New Deal. Corporate leaders backing the Republicans had managed to make common cause with the burgeoning Christian fundamentalist movement and the anti-Communist fringe; Nixon had perfected the Southern strategy; and the party had found its perfect pitchman - a former film star and ex-shill for General Electric. Ronald Reagan and the Republican PR machine pushed all of the right buttons, even resorting to an "October surprise" to manipulate the Iranian hostage crisis to their benefit.
Reagan and G. H. W. Bush (who, during the mid-1980s, may have been the de facto president) were the last US leaders of the World War II generation, their cohort's final gift to the nation. It was morning in America, but let the Earth be damned: the Republicans had found an electoral strategy so successful that Democrats began trying to copy it, so that since 1980 the entire US political system has lurched ever further toward increased economic inequality, globalization, imperialism, and militarism.
So what did the Boomers do after 1980?
Having already taken a detour into the bleary world of recreational drugs, many of the more spirited Boomers now turned to gurus, meditation, and cults: politics was a bummer; if we really wanted to change the world we should change our heads first.
Other Boomers steered toward the stock market and scrambled up the corporate ladder. They got jobs, made money, and discovered that "greed is good." By the end of the decade it was apparent the Boomers were divided, with some upholding the Earth Day vision, others honing their skills as right-wing radio talk show hosts, and the rest just trying to get by.
Another Fork in the Road
Bill Clinton, the first Boomer president (born in 1946), elicited high hopes among his generational peers feeling battered by a dozen years of Reagan/Bush. But as governor of Arkansas Clinton had already learned the necessity of obeying entrenched power-holders in order to get along in politics. Moreover, by now the American governmental-corporate system was far too large and complex, and had far too much momentum behind it, to permit a fundamental change in direction.
In the late 1960s and early '70s many of us had believed that when our generation eventually took over the reins of power we would change the world. Well, here we were with one of our cohort as president and the country was more deeply mired than ever in the banality of consumerism. The WWII generation was increasingly filling obituary pages and populating nursing homes; now we had no one to blame but ourselves. The generation of peace and love had become the generation of SUVs and fast food.
It was clear that we had deluded ourselves by thinking of our cohort as united in its values, or by imagining that those values were somehow immutable. Just as Brokaw's "greatest generation" had started out in the 1930s battling the evils of unrestrained capitalism and went on in the 1940s to fight the menace of fascism only to end by electing Nixon, Reagan, and Bush and supporting the Vietnam war, we were now doing something similar.
This is not to say that all of our number had sold out: we could count as generational heroes and heroines thousands of scientists, activists, artists, musicians, and writers who kept alive the Earth Day ideal of a society that lives in harmony with nature rather than parasitically destroying it. However, with each passing year that ideal seemed ever more elusive - especially so following the 2000 election.
We watched as that election was stolen, and our outrage only grew as we saw prominent Democrats quietly acquiescing to the evisceration of what was left of American democracy. The events of 9/11 jolted even the drowsiest awake, and some of us began paying attention as never before when we realized that mainstream news organizations were failing to ask the most obvious questions about the events - about the mysterious collapse of the towers, the failure of officials to dispatch jet fighters, the immediate confiscation and destruction of evidence, the suspicious airline stock trades, the thwarted warnings, and much more. With the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the detentions in Guantanamo, and the passage of the USA Patriot Act, it became clear that the US had entered an entirely new historical period. The current pseudo-president was another Boomer, but his shortcomings didn't end with corruption and simple-mindedness: he was, in the words of George Washington University psychiatrist Dr. Justin Frank, "an untreated alcoholic with paranoid and megalomaniac tendencies," and his cronies were evidently dedicated neo-fascists with every intention of turning America into a Disneyland Reich. That they were ridiculously inept made them all the more dangerous.
In response, in recent months, some Boomers have honed their political consciousness. Michael Moore has most publicly led the way in this regard, but Cynthia McKinney, Michael Ruppert, and Catherine Austin Fitts are perhaps more emblematic of the leading edge of this reinvigorated political awareness and commitment.
With the 2004 election season the two poles of the Boomer generation are facing off over America's future, and that of the world. But this is to be no ordinary election. There is little chance today of any broad public discussion of the real issue that will impact our lives in the next few years - that the generation that grew up expecting always more will soon be faced with less. The nation, now hallucinating uncontrollably from toxic exposure to Fox News, is in debt to the point that no conceivable decision made today will prevent a devastating implosion of the US economy. Global oil production is going to peak before 2010. And the election itself may already be rigged, with remotely programmable electronic voting machines in place in the few strategic counties that can deliver the needed Electoral College tally.
It may seem cynical to some if I say that it is too late to salvage America's political system, its economy, its suburban way of life; that it is even too late to contemplate an easy and peaceful transition to a different socio-ecological reality - that possibility probably died in 1980. But as far as I can tell, these are the facts. As they say these days, get over it.
This doesn't mean that life will end tomorrow. The American dream is going down, yet we still have some control over how it goes down. And it is in this remaining arena of choice that we Boomers might partially redeem ourselves.
While our current struggle is not entirely defined by the project of trying to elect John Kerry (whose policies are "Bush Lite" in many respects), the expulsion of Bush and the neocons from power is a necessary immediate goal.
But there is a far more momentous long-term test ahead. During the next two decades we Boomers will assume the role of elders. We will have amassed considerable financial capital, as well as human capital in the forms of competence, credibility, and connections. How will we use this capital?
If we use it for any purpose other than to help awaken all and sundry to our collective plight, and to lead a change of course toward a peaceful, local, slow, and self-limiting post-fossil-fuel way of life, it will all have been wasted.
In the decades ahead we will be going through hell. That is an awful thing to contemplate, but the only alternative to accepting the fact is to live in denial until the reality is inescapable and our room for maneuvering is even more restricted than it has already become. What we must do now is to lay the groundwork for collective survival. We must build lifeboats, or support the younger lifeboat-builders among us.
This is not the grandiose project we imagined for ourselves back in the 1960s and '70s. Maybe people who are around decades from now will again be able to contemplate the creation of ecotopia - let us hope so. We Boomers have stolen much from those future generations; the main question remaining is, can we now give back at least the possibility that those generations will be permitted to exist?
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