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Obama and the Return of the Real | The Nation

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Obama and the Return of the Real

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The Gordian Knot

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Jonathan Schell
Jonathan Schell is the Lannan Fellow at The Nation Institute and teaches a course on the nuclear dilemma at...

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After 9/11, the US invented a new kind of borderless, pre-emptive warfare, plunging the world into an endless cycle of violence.

The United States is no Soviet Union—and yet it has set up machinery that satisfies certain tendencies that are in the genetic code of totalitarianism.

The contemporary crises are interwoven, forming a kind of Gordian knot. The world does not have the luxury of dealing with them seriatim. Consider the relationship of the collapsing economy to the collapsing environment. Joseph Stiglitz has noted that economists are wondering if the graph of the economic crisis will eventually prove to be V-shaped or U-shaped; but he argues that it will prove to be L-shaped. Indeed, there can be neither a V, a U or any other upward-turning graph if the remedy does not include a green revolution and a sustainable-energy program. A dirty recovery, even if possible, would be worse than no recovery. It would be the quickest path to a bigger bust. The upturn cannot in truth be "re-" anything--short of revolution--for the just-crashed "successful" economy, excellent as it was in producing cheap goods, was also producing environmental catastrophe. (Paradoxically, the recession, by cutting back on fossil-fuel use, may have done more to ease global warming than electric cars or solar panels could have done in a comparable period.) Environmentalists have long observed that if China tries to reach Western standards of living along the automotive, carbon-gushing Western path, the planet will be cooked to a cinder in short order. Now we are all in a sense in the Chinese boat. China can't have the economy we so recently had, and we can't have it again either. We'll all have to have something quite different.

The same is true of US military power, discredited by the Iraq and Afghanistan quagmires. Additional follies of this sort also have become unaffordable. To the extent that America is to be powerful in the twenty-first century, it will have to be so by cultivating a quite different sort of power.

At a glance, this tangle of crises might seem merely to be the result of a colossal accident--a world-historic pileup on the global thruway. Yet in addition to being interconnected, the crises have striking features in common, suggesting shared roots. To begin with, all are self-created. They arise from pathologies of our own activity, or perhaps hyperactivity. The Greek tragedians understood well those disasters whose seeds lie above all in one's own actions. No storm or asteroid or external enemy is the cause. Today, the economic crash is the result of investment run amok: the "masters of the universe" are the authors of their own (and everyone's) downfall. The nuclear weapons that threaten to return in wrath to American cities were born in New Mexico. The oil is running short because we are driving too many cars to too many shopping malls. The global ecosphere is heading toward collapse because of the success, not the failure (until recently), of the modern economy. The invasion of Iraq was the American empire's self-inflicted wound--a disaster of choice, so to speak. All we had to do to escape it was not to do it. Here and elsewhere, the work of our own hands rises up to strike us.

All the crises are also the result of excess, not scarcity. Too much credit was packaged in too many ways by people who were too smart, too busy, too greedy. Our energy use was too great for the available reserves. The nuclear weapon overfulfilled the plans for great-power war, making it--and potentially ourselves--obsolete through oversuccess. The economic activity of humanity--the "throughput" of productivity, to use James Gustave Speth's term for the sheer quantity of natural stuff processed by the economy and dumped back into the ecosphere--was too voluminous to be sustained by fragile natural systems. The environmentalists' word "sustainability" applies more broadly. The collateralized debt obligations, the oil use, the spread of WMDs, the military pretensions of empire: all are "unsustainable" and crashing at once. Taken together, the crises add up to a new era of limits, which now are pressing in on all sides to correct overreaching.

All the crises (but especially those that are endangering the ecosphere) involve theft by the living from their posterity. It's often said that revolutions, like the god Saturn, devour their children. We are committing a slow-motion, cross-generational equivalent of this offense. My generation, the baby boomers--ominously nicknamed "the boomers"--has been cannibalizing the future to provision the present. Though we are not killing our children directly, we are spending their money, eating their food, cutting down their cherry orchards. Intergenerational justice has been a subject more fit for academic seminars than for newspaper headlines. The question has been, What harm are we doing to generations yet unborn? But the time frame has been shortened and the malign transactions are now occurring between generations still alive. The dollars we have spent are coming directly out of our children's paychecks. The oil we burn is being drawn down from their reserves. The nuclear weapons we cling to for a dubious "security" will burn down their cities. The atmosphere we are heating up will scorch their fields and drown their shorelines. A "new era of responsibility" must above all mean responsibility to them. If it is true that all the crises are part of this larger crisis, then the economic crisis may simply be the means by which the larger adjustment is being set in motion, in effect dictating a forced march into the sustainable world.

All the crises are characterized by double standards, which everywhere block the way to solutions. One group of nations, led by the United States, lays claim to the lion's share of the world's wealth, to an exclusive right to possess nuclear weapons, to a disproportionate right to pollute the environment and even to a dominant position in world councils, while everyone else is expected to accept second-class status. But since solutions to all the crises must be global to succeed, and global agreement can only be based on equity, the path to success is cut off.

Finally, all the crises display one more common feature: all have been based on the wholesale manufacture of delusions. The operative word here is "bubble." A bubble, in the stock market or anywhere, is a real-world construct based on fantasies. When the fantasy collapses, the construct collapses, and people are hurt. Disillusion and tangible harm go together: as imaginary wealth and power evaporate, so does real wealth and power. The equity exposed as worthless was always phony, but real people really lose their jobs. The weapons of mass destruction in the invaded country were fictitious, but the war and the dying are actual. The "safety" provided by nuclear arms is waning, if it ever existed, but the holocaust, when it comes, though fantastical, will be no fantasy. The "limits on growth" were denied, but the oil reserves didn't get the message. The "uncertainty" about global warming--cooked up by political hacks and backed by self-interested energy companies--is fake, but the Arctic ice is melting anyway.

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