Ten, eleven years. A half-generation. We in our middling age recognize that our lives ten or eleven years ago are a lot like our lives today. In many ways, it’s very much the same. How ten years occurred to us in our youth, more than forty years ago, is very different.
Hence my morning musing on something about the ten or so years on either side of my birth.
The beginning is marked by 1945, a year characterized by a sense of shared elation and promise, but also of our first exposure to true, you-can’t-hide-from-it horror.
From 1945 to 1955, we acted out 1945’s promise and tried to forget anything truly horrid, allowing ourselves a let’s-play-pretend version of it regularly at The Bijou. The campier the better. It also made for a cool use of the Theremin. On the big screen, there were always the lucky few who could, until On the Beach, hide under the bed or spray the giant insects with acid and get away.
The Patio. By 1955 there were more brick backyard grill patios constructed than “ever before.” And now they were modern and hip, a cool place to have a cocktail and a Viceroy. I’m reminded of that scene, at the very end of Blast from the Past, where Christoper Walken begins to pace off the dimensions of the perfect backyard patio. For the third time. That we know of.
The Promise. By 1955, a half-generation (not my half-generation, mind you, but our grownups’ one. You know, The Greatest one; the one with the martinis and cigarettes and parties out on the patio while we watched through the big sliding glass doors in our jammies and thought that our parents were the coolest!) had plowed that field of elation and promise, with just a dash of ducking and covering and shameful enemy-inventing and scapegoating.
We churned that promise machine, harder, faster, better to make paper to make ads last longer for products that lasted less. We pumped more and more hydrocarbons into that system to make it work harder, faster, cheaper, glossier. Making consumable items with a short life span, then shipping them and selling them in containers that had longer life spans than the thing it contained.
Somewhere between 1955 and 1965, it became apparent that the promise wasn’t exactly coming at everyone in the same way. We, perhaps vaguely, remember – I can still see the images on the news – the barbed wire marking a line that must not be crossed, a line where you could be shot or injured in attempting to cross it. A line that notwithstanding the grave threat, I remember seeing a woman in a cotton dress, the kind with the self-belt at the waist, a smallish roundish woman, gathering the folds in her dress, so that they didn’t become entangled in that wire, running for it, risking injury and her life to cross it. A line where, because of the call to freedom that made humans willing to die to cross it, the Berlin Wall would be erected for what seemed to us to be forever, but not to the half-generation before or after us.
The Price. By 1965, uneven balance between the promise and the price was becoming stronger and more apparent. The promise had just about hit its peak relative to the price that the planet could pay.
That was the point when we should have realized that we were on a moving sidewalk to unsustainability. Before then, we and, I think, even many CEOs, didn’t realize that along with what we were manufacturing, we were busy building inequity with and into that promise-manufacturing system.
Investing in inequity. Building inequity and demanding oil. Not only oil, it also demanded way more human labor, way more blood, sweat and tears, for an increasingly less equitable portion of the proceeds.
And stuff. But in that trade, we got more stuff. Lots more cheap stuff. Stuff that we could hold, plug in, watch, clean, have repaired. And replaced. Stuff that we had to have. And still have to have. Stuff that must be bought by the cheapest labor that any human can endure and survive.
For some, who can get the stuff, it seems pretty great. But there are people on this planet who, not only don’t get the stuff, they have their local economies become addicted to a system that will extract all their local resources and leave them, first hungry, then ill and finally dead. Whether the resource is timber, food, coal, oil, soil/rock, natural gas, or the animals we can grow using those resources, the system is using it up, and belching out, well, to put it politely, poison and death.
(The second half of this oh-so-fascinating and uplifting article will be published as Part II.)