“full Speed Ahead And Damn The Tomorrows”
Our Frontier Heritage of Waste
December 1977 | Volume 29, Issue 1
This habit of work has become, after three centuries of pioneering, a compulsion of the American people. We labor endlessly, not simply to achieve success, but because society decrees continuing hard labor even for the affluent. Social pressures no less than individual ambition drive Americans into ulcers, heart attacks, and premature death. There is no time in the United States for the noontime siesta that eases pressure in Latin lands, the leisurely tea hour that is one of Britain’s most sacred traditions, the lingering over a glass of wine at a sidewalk café that is a treasured practice in Paris or Rome. Instead, the typical American gulps his meal at his desk or at a quick-service restaurant, flirts with speeding tickets as he rushes to business appointments, and glories in boasting that he works harder than his neighbor. Even the cocktail hour, the one socially acceptable leisure period allowed by the nation’s mores, is devoted to the consumption of beverages of such lethal intensity that the maximum degree of rejuvenation is achieved in the minimum space of time.
Today, as I have suggested, the national mores are changing as the United States adjusts to the same closed-space world that has shaped European civilizations for generations. The gospel of hard work is losing its appeal as machines increasingly assume the burdens of production; the coffee break, the two-martini luncheon, the popularity of tennis and skiing and golf and other time-consuming sports, and the mounting demand for a shorter work week all testify to the fact that endless labor is no longer a social necessity. Mobility, both spatial and social, is gradually slowing in the United States, at the same time that it is increasing in the developed countries of the Old World where industrial opportunity assumes the role of frontier opportunity in America’s past. And certainly today, if we may believe our political leaders and headline writers, wastefulness is a luxury that vanished with the free lands of the West.
What does the future hold for a frontierless United States? Historians should stick to the past; those who do speculate about the future are notorious for their inaccuracies. But I am foolhardy enough to venture that during the mid-1970’s the nation experienced its first hint of basic changes that lie ahead. Unless I am mistaken, our children and grandchildren will be forced—by decree and public pressures—to substitute conservation for their traditional wasting of natural resources. They will be required to adjust to a society in which physical mobility is slowing as individual opportunity lessens with the expansion of the corporate business structure. They will rearrange their ambitions as they realize that the upward social mobility which has gone handin-hand with physical mobility is increasingly difficult in a society that is gradually stratifying. And they will witness a restriction on individual freedom as governmental controls are extended to assure an equitable allotment of the dwindling natural resources.The years that lie ahead, in other words, may produce what the great historian of the frontier, Frederick Jackson Turner, once called the “Europeanization” of the United States. If that transformation does take place, the mid-1970’s will have truly served as a watershed in our history.