- Historic Sites
“full Speed Ahead And Damn The Tomorrows”
Our Frontier Heritage of Waste
December 1977 | Volume 29, Issue 1
Historians of the future, looking back on the twilight years of the twentieth century, may designate the mid-1970’s as worthy of that supreme accolade accorded only the most significant dates in history: to serve as a dividing point between chapters in their textbooks. If they do, their judgment will be based not on the Watergate scandals (they would know that Grant and Harding had occupied the White House in the past and that human frailty could occasionally tarnish even a President), or even on the bitter conflict over the “Imperial Presidency” (they would be aware that Congress and the President traditionally had vied for power and that authority had fluctuated between the two in unpredictable cycles).
Instead, those historians might recognize the mid-1970’s as a turning point in national development because suddenly, almost without warning, the American people were advised by their leaders that they must abandon a way of life to which they had been accustomed for three centuries. They were told that they could no longer squander the natural resources with which their continent was so richly endowed. Those resources, seemingly inexhaustible, were in increasingly short supply; food, energy, and raw materials were diminishing at a rate that could mean disaster for today’s generation, let alone those of the future. The “land of plenty,” Americans were told, could within a few years become a “land of want” unless they changed their life patterns drastically.
This rude awakening began with the Arab oil boycott that followed the Yom Kippur War of 1973; the United States, its people learned, was dependent on foreign producers for an ingredient essential to the economy. This was bad enough, but worse were the continuing alarms that sounded over the next months-from the President, from the United Nations, from commissions, from experts, from anyone who could speak with real or pretended authority. Shortages of oil, gasoline, and natural gas would continue and worsen unless the nation practiced voluntary belt-tightening. The nation’s farms could no longer keep pace with the world’s needs; mass starvation was possible within a decade without population controls. Dozens of items essential to the economy were so scarce that the industrial machine might lumber to a halt at any moment; we were underproducing plastics, paper, steel, cotton, copper, propane, nylon, acetate yarns, penicillin, cement, aluminum, vinyl, paints, electrical items, and on and on and on.
The people of the United States were shocked by these unpleasant facts, but the experts who voiced the warnings were just as shocked by the popular reaction. For the great mass of the people simply refused to listen. Savants and politicians and newspaper editorialists might paint the future black, but most Americans refused to remove their rose-tinted glasses. The fifty-five-mile-an-hour speed limit might grace the statutes, but, within months of the fuel crisis, highway speeds were creeping back into the sixty-mile range; Los Angelenos bound for Las Vegas were so eager to lose their money that special police patrols were necessary on weekends to convoy reluctant motorists at legal limits. Administrative efforts to curb the use of gasoline by drastic price increases were rigidly resisted by congressmen more closely tuned to the public’s wishes than the President. President Carter used a week of press conferences and television appearances to try to convince the nation that some form of energy saving was “the moral equivalent of war” in meeting “the greatest challenge that our country will face during our lifetime,” fully anticipating that such a plea would reduce his popularity by fifteen per cent. Even then only forty-five per cent of the public tested in opinion polls thought the energy situation was worse than “fairly serious.” Americans were too accustomed to squandering their heritage to change their ways; full speed ahead and damn the tomorrows.
Why does this heedless attitude persist? Why do Americans blindly mortgage the future rather than curb their enjoyment of the present? That is a question of enormous complexity, answerable only by an analysis of the national character. My purpose is to isolate one strand of our history that seems to me particularly important in understanding our current dilemma. This is the fact that our culture originated and solidified during the three centuries that the nation was expanding westward.
Expansion began with the first settlements at Jamestown and Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay, at Philadelphia and Charleston. From these outposts the population spread slowly over the interior, reaching the crest of the Appalachians before the end of the eighteenth century, moving across the Mississippi Valley during the first half of the nineteenth, engulfing the Pacific Provinces and the Great Plains in the second half. From the beginning to the end of the nation’s formative period, expansion was a dominant force in the lives of its people. Not until 1890 could the director of the census announce that an unbroken frontier line could no longer be drawn across a map of the United States separating the settled and unsettled portions of the continent.
The frontier did not “close” in 1890, of course; population continued to shift westward during the twentieth century, and still shifts today. But the census announcement foretold the future; the era of the conquest of untapped virgin resources was drawing to a close. Today, with the cries of the conservationists ringing in our ears, we are experiencing the first shock waves of that closing, and more are inevitable.