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This Is The Way The World Ends
October 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 6
It was hard enough for men to endure poverty when they had no choice; it is infinitely harder to become poor by an act of will, knowing what one has abandoned, and its luxurious lure, but choosing to set it aside.
Some seem to believe that men and women will cut down their standard of living freely, keeping it down not merely for an emergency, but permanently. As proof, they often point to groups of the young who have proclaimed their adherence to a simpler life style, believing themselves liberated from the “thing” thralldom of their parents. I may be blinded by generational suspicions, but I have been unable to shed the notion that the freedom from “things” means for most of the young rather freedom from the effort of producing them. They expect that others will provide the guitars while they will make the music.
Equally suspect is the moral refusal of some of the young to impose behavioral standards on others. Thus it has been reported to me as a profound ethical truth that in the good life every man should be allowed not merely to say and think whatever he wishes but to do as he wishes. Interference with man’s total license is life-destroying; its absence, lifecreating. My problem with this is that it constitutes an odd foundation on which to base, the reversal of environmental spoliation, for it was precisely in this spirit that the land was opened up to the rapaciousness of its ruggedly individualistic pioneers. I suspect that growing interest in ecological matters among the young will eventually overcome their lust for license. Ultimately, the voluntarists will emerge on the familiar plateau of authoritative restraint, having discovered that war on spoliation will ultimately involve the same tactics of discipline that economists and public officials developed during the military wars of the twentieth century: rationing.
The suggestion that man’s survival depends on his willingness to accept a lower standard of living, licensed and rationed, runs directly against the grain of Western history since the Renaissance. The spiral of rising expectations has been accompanied—and sustained—by rising productivity. One reason that men have been generally satisfied with theoretical equality in the face of gross actual inequality is because of their faith that generally rising standards of living will tend to mitigate the inequalities. What will happen when this possibility is foreclosed by the downward drift of production in an effort to save the environment? Must society then rest on a foundation of authoritarianism? Survivors in a lifeboat can, without relinquishing their egalitarian beliefs, cut down their equally shared water consumption from a pint to a half pint per day to preserve themselves in the hope of eventual salvation; but can any consensual method permanently halve the water ration on Life Raft Earth when the common danger is not commonly recognized and when this may leave some men with more than they can drink while others thirst?
Ultimately it seems that a serious program for saving the environment can depend on nothing other than authoritarianism, if only because the threat to the environment itself is announced to us not directly yet but largely through authority. The problems of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, radiation, eutrophication of water, scarcely affect our senses. We must be told of the dangers by authorities, and the predictions of future trends depend entirely on the soundness of the forecasts of those people who may know more than the common run of men, but who have in the past often been wrong.
Will young people continue to treasure a program for conserving the environment when they find that it pinches their equally treasured right to do exactly as they please? And that it derives from the very authority that, above all other sources of knowledge, they distrust? Will it not seem more reasonable to them to expect that if authority knows so well what will happen, authority will also devise ways—painless, of course—to avoid fate? That it will extract nourishment, fuel, water, and air from the environment by ways not yet envisioned? Will it not be easier to believe that the present population forecasts will be no. more reliable than tonight’s forecasts of tomorrow’s weather?
Rather than accept life on terms totally inconsistent with the values we have inherited from generations past, will we not prefer to dance to the old music right out to the edge of the world, and then over it?