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Time Essay: The (Possible) Blessings of Doing Without

7 minute read
Stefan Kanfer

A penny saved is two pence clear A pin a day is a groat a year —Benjamin Franklin

There was a time when Poor Richard’s Almanac was strictly for children. No longer. The apostle of thrift now seems the right philosopher for modern America. One can almost see Ben peering over his bifocals and croaking, “I told you so.”

So he did. But few listened. In his own day he was drowned out by the view of America as extended Genesis, a promised country where Colonists obeyed the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth. In the following century came the boisterous faith in expansion—the push westward, the promise of the industrial revolution and, always, the unrestricted faith in the marketplace. The creative intellect became intoxicated with progress. Henry Adams squinted and foresaw a new American, “the child of incalculable coal power, chemical power, electrical power and radiating energy … a sort of God compared with any former creature of nature.”

But by the close of the century, Economist Thorstein Veblen could already indict those gods for both “conspicuous consumption of valuable goods” and, more significantly, “conspicuous wastefulness.” In the Twentieth Century, consumption and waste seemed wedded, the nuptials attended by such as Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, whose profligate inventions spurred cheap consumption. Even the Great Depression could not shake the habits of acquisition. F.D.R.’s reference to “the more abundant life” was too enticing to examine. So were the now forgotten promises of the Fair Deal, the New Frontier and the Great Society.

For the U.S., unbounded growth came to be an ethic. The doctrine of bigness was understandable, given the size and vigor of the country. No administration could believe that America the Bountiful had any economic confines. No administration was ever able to forestall the time when energies would be insufficient to support the burgeoning nation. Governments have not only missed the handwriting on the wall; they have scarcely been able to detect the wall. Former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall recently put the dilemma in concrete terms: “Treasury Secretary George Shultz asserted that we would have to crank up a ‘crash plan’ to develop our own resources to ‘cool the swagger of the Arab nations.’ Yet it is we who are the swaggerers—and the energy pigs as well. We are consuming nearly one-third of the world’s petroleum even though we have only a dwindling 9% of the world’s oil reserves. This is the situation that sets the stage for a painful, overdue comeuppance.”

The comeuppance is now at hand. Oil and gasoline rationing in some form are virtually certain. For the first time since World War II, the U.S. has begun to experience major shortages. Dwindling supplies have been reported nationwide—not only of fuel, but also of such disparate items as paints and clothing, canned food and plywood, newsprint and plastics. This ebb of goods is a peculiar, almost foreign phenomenon; Americans are unused to doing without. To be sure, there have been curtailments before—but they have always been short-lived. The energy crisis is an open-ended difficulty. It may have been artificially imposed, but its implications stretch far beyond petropolitics. Even Middle East oil wells are not bottomless. What is threatened by men in this generation may be guaranteed by nature in the next; the earth itself has limitations.

Those limitations have yet to be confronted. Power, in the American mind, remains a mysterious and endless phenomenon.

Modern society’s terrible dependence on electricity, for example, has never been seriously regarded. The Northeastern-seaboard blackout of 1965 might have served as an ominous signal of malaise; instead it was clucked over, discussed, then dismissed. The U.S. energy economy plunged on heedlessly until today it has be come, as Udall observes, “bloated and profligate. At least one-third of the energy we use now is wasted.”

And energy is not the only commodity that is wasted. Mer chandise is deliberately given a short life; the whole range of goods and services, from automobiles to zinc, is considered disposable.

The ancient adage “use it up, make it do, wear it out” has long been replaced by the modern American credo: “There’s plenty more where that came from.”

And now, abruptly, the plenty has stopped. The prospect of deprivation is jolting, and the consequences are still incalculable. It would take Dr. Pangloss himself to be cheerful in this hour. Yet even a professional ironist can find some illumination in the eco nomic and political brownout. The crisis has forced consumers to do something unprecedented — to consider tomorrow. It is a feat that past generations found impossible. To see the future and see it whole demands the confrontation of unpalatable facts. Among them: America is not omnipotent; no country is pow erful enough to claim total independence; U.S. society has been living in a fiction of prosperity without responsibility. Once these are acknowledged, other truths become manifest.

Public utilities, for example, can no longer be called upon to produce ever larger supplies of power on demand. The appetite for electricity for extra heat and light and air conditioning has to be scaled down to reality. Automobiles with insatiable engines can no longer continue to be built. The whole chain of commodities, products and energies cannot continue to be treated as happily disposable. Waste, profligacy, squandering of everything has to be stopped. That stoppage promises to give the economy new buffets. It means more than a new way of consumption; it requires a new mode of thinking.

Does it also mean an end to what the world acknowledges as the good life? Does it imply the blankness and aridity of a new spartan state? Hardly. Even the alarmists have not called for a return to Puritan self-denial. America, even under the most severe pressure, remains a singularly capacious land. Its ability to provide its population with necessities — and even luxuries — is unique. But it cannot retain that capacity without a more realistic society of consumers — a society that accepts its new responsibility to curb its habits; recognizing that the good life is not based on quantity.

Doubtless, the American faith in technology is valid. Alternate sources of energy will be found. But science cannot do the job by technology alone; it needs all the help from the people it can get.

Until now, “Power to the People” was only a slogan. Today the American future is literally in its citizens’ hands — hands that rest upon ignition keys, electric switches, purses and wallets. How will America’s citizens react? They could continue to do what they have always done: spend and damn the consequences. Or they could acknowledge that the forgotten virtue of thrift, as Ben Franklin preached, is not against the American grain but deep within it.

The choice is clear; there seems to be sufficient time for American society to make its choice. True, rationing, cutbacks, allocations are unpleasant to contemplate. But so is the image of a new America Deserta burned dry by its own voracity. Whatever the decision is, it cannot be wholly judged at this time. It remains for posterity to record whether the epoch of the energy crisis was a time of catastrophic status quo or a period of grace.

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