The tragedy of New Orleans provides Americans with an ominous metaphor for understanding our future. We did not fix the levees, though we were warned. That is a simple way of expressing the national predicament in this new century. As a society, we are engulfed by similar vulnerabilities–forms of ecological and economic deterioration that are profoundly more threatening than an occasional hurricane. And we have been told. Yet we are not “fixing the levees.” Preoccupied with current desires and discontents, this very wealthy nation has lost sight of its future.
The levee metaphor, vividly dramatized by the Gulf Coast disaster, has the potential to move the country in a new direction–to inspire a generational shift in thinking that could launch a new era of fundamental reforms. But the imperative to act requires nothing less than a reordering of American life–a result that seems most unlikely. Given the corrupted condition of representative democracy, politicians are seldom punished for keeping the hard truth from voters. The mass culture marinates American citizens in false triumphalism.
Events, nevertheless, have delivered a teachable moment–an opportunity to reframe and reargue many long-neglected matters. The wheels are coming off the right-wing bus. The President of Oil and War is no longer much believed. The vast suffering and physical destruction in New Orleans have made all too visible what ecologists and social critics have been trying to explain for years. Their warnings once seemed too abstract or remote to require public action. New Orleans announced, for those who will listen, that the future is now.
Oceans are warming, the Arctic ice cap is shrinking. The deep topsoil of Iowa is draining into the Mississippi River, leaving behind chemical swamps. Good drinking water, once freely available to all, has become a scarce commodity for commercial exploitation. Much of the population, dispersed farther and farther from urban centers, is pole-axed by soaring gasoline prices. Meanwhile, the gorgeous abundance of consumer goods continues to poison earth, air and water. This year, Americans will throw away something like 100 million cell phones, pagers, pocket PCs and portable music players, interring their toxic contents in the “dump” called nature.
Should we blame the farmers? The oil and chemical companies? The teenagers who love their gadgets? The politics of blame-and-shame was brilliantly perfected thirty years ago by the environmental movement but gradually lost its effectiveness, partly because it framed the contest as a righteous struggle between good guys and bad guys–virtuous citizens versus dirty industrial polluters (and often their workers). It felt good to identify the culprits, but moral indignation eventually loses its power to enforce. Plus, the enormity of what we face is too all-encompassing. Not many of us can truly claim innocence.
The predicament is fundamental and universal: It is the collision between industrial society and nature. Politicians and environmental activists can be forgiven for not wishing to take on the “American way of life,” but essentially that is what’s required. Eliminating this collision, before it destroys the very basis of modern prosperity and life itself, calls for nothing less than the transformation of the American industrial system and mass-consumption economy. Among other things, it means reinventing the processes of production and redesigning virtually every product. It means taking responsibility for what we make and consume–recovering what is now discarded in landfills, dumped in rivers or vaporized in air and atmosphere. It means remanufacturing components and materials into new products.