I’ve been writing the year-end other-news summary for TomDispatch since 2004; somewhere around 2017, however, the formula of digging up overlooked stories and grounds for hope grew weary. So for this year, we’ve decided instead to look back on the last twenty-five years of the twenty-first century–but it was creatures from 60 million years ago who reminded me how to do it.
The other day, I borrowed some kids to go gawk with me at the one thing that we can always count on in an ever-more unstable world: age-of-dinosaur dioramas in science museums. This one had the usual dramatic clash between a tyrannosaurus and a triceratops; pterodactyls soaring through the air, one with a small reptile in its toothy maw; and some oblivious grazing by what, when I was young in another millennium, we would have called a brontosaurus. Easy to overlook in all that drama was the shrewlike mammal perched on a reed or thick blade of grass, too small to serve even as an enticing pterodactyl snack. The next thing coming down the line always looks like that mammal at the beginning–that’s what I told the kids–inconsequential, beside the point; the official point usually being the clash of the titans.
That’s exactly why mainstream journalists spent the first decade of this century debating the meaning of the obvious binaries–the Democrats versus the Republicans, McWorld versus global jihad–much as political debate of the early 1770s might have focused on whether the French or English monarch would have supremacy in North America, not long before the former was to be beheaded and the latter evicted. The monarchs in all their splashy scale were the dinosaurs of their day, and the eighteenth-century mammal no one noticed at first was named “revolution”; the early twenty-first-century version might have been called “localism” or maybe “anarchism,” or even “civil society regnant.” In some strange way, it turned out that windmill-builders were more important than the US Senate. They were certainly better at preparing for the future, anyway.
That mammal clinging to the stalk had crawled up from the grassroots, where the choices were so much more basic and significant than, for instance, the one between fundamentalism and consumerism that was on everyone’s lips in the years of the Younger George Bush. If the twentieth century was the age of dinosaurs–of General Motors and the Soviet Union, of McDonald’s, globalized entertainment networks and information superhighways–the twenty-first has increasingly turned out to be the age of the small.
You can see it in the countless local-economy projects–wind-power stations, farmers’ markets, local enviro organizations, food co-ops–that were already proliferating, hardly noticed, by the time the Saudi Oil Wars swept the whole Middle East, damaging major oilfields and bringing on the Great Gasoline Crisis of 2009. That was the one that didn’t just send prices skyrocketing but actually becalmed the globe-roaming container ships with their great steel-box-loads of bottled water, sweatshop garments and other gratuitous commodities.
The resulting food crisis of the early years of the second decade of the century, which laid big-petroleum-style farming low, suddenly elevated the status of peasant immigrants from what was then called “the undeveloped world,” particularly Mexico and Southeast Asia. They taught the less agriculturally skilled, in suddenly greening North American cities, to cultivate the victory gardens that mitigated the widespread famines then beginning to sweep the planet. (It also turned out that the unwieldy and decadent SUVs of the millennium made great ecological sense, but only if you parked them facing south, put in sunroofs and used the high-windowed structures as seed-starter greenhouses.) The crisis spelled an end to the epidemic of American obesity, both by cutting calories and obliging so many Americans to actually move around on foot and bike and work with their hands.