Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Stuck on Wide Open

Who do we blame for the mess we've made of the world?

A discussion hosted by another blogger a couple of weeks back pointed the finger at the 50's generation of Baby Boomers with their selfish, mass consumption as the culprits. I think that's wrong.

For all their excesses and self-indulgence, the Baby Boomers were merely fulfilling an economic imperative cast for them long before they arrived on spaceship earth that had its roots in the industrial revolution, the Great Depression and the World Wars of the 20th century.

Our parents, the incredible generation that threaded its way through the depression and WWII, set about to make up for lost time - hence the Baby Boom. Something like 70% of the world's remaining industrial capacity was in North America - new factories, new machinery and a skilled labour force. America's pre-war industrial rival, Europe, was a bombed-out hulk. The disparity between North America and the rest of the world was greater than it has been at any time since the end of the 19th Century. If you were in Africa and you needed a truck, you probably bought one made in Detroit because that's where trucks came from back then. There were a lot of middle class, single-income families doing just fine, thank you very much, in Ozzie and Harrietland.

My parents started off with an 800-sq. ft. house before moving into what had to be a 1,200-sq. ft. house that a handful of years later was replaced by a 1,600-sq. ft. house that led to them building their 2,500 sq. ft. waterfront "dream house" where they lived for 30-years, the last 15 of them as empty-nesters. The last time I saw their house it looked small. It was a big house when it was surrounded by groves of trees and farmland. Today the trees and farmland are history, taken over by a suburban madness of 4,000 sq. ft. McMansions on 6,000 sq. ft. lots. There's one waterfront monster that comes in at 18,000-sq. ft., has a double yacht boat well and a lovely pair of davits for launching the jet skis.

This monster house madness is surely the culmination of an economic model that we inflicted on ourselves. Society's wellness was slaved to growth which meant unrestrained consumption was the order of the day. The model was to produce as much as could be sold at the best economic price and to purchase as much as could be had with one's income. You either bought goods and services, the whole gamut of needs and wants, or you bought an interest in the means of production itself, investments in what you had to hope would be particularly profitable businesses selling goods and services to other buyers.

Our cars got bigger and faster and more luxurious; our homes grew to proportions at least one class higher than we had in the previous generation; holidays abroad went from being the preserve of the best off to an aimless diversion for college kids on spring break. Kids, whose parents watched black and white TV and played with clumsy Dinky Toys and rode ordinary, direct drive bikes, grew up with cell phones, colour TVs, game consoles and 21-gear mountain bikes with full suspension and disc brakes.

So yes, we've had it good. Probably far too good. But it hasn't been something that can be laid at the feet of the 50's generation. The blame rests with pretty much everybody of voting age today. It's not a decadal issue. It spans an era, the post-WWII era.

I think I've figured out what happened, where we went wrong. We behaved as we were conditioned to behave, as we were expected to behave, as society required us to behave but that's hardly an excuse. The path was fixed while we had no concept of the consequences of our way of life but ignorance isn't an excuse either.

It all fell apart when my parents' generation and my generation and every generation since abandoned posterity. Many years ago Bill Moyers did an excellent documentary series on posterity. He interviewed some of the greatest thinkers in America on the role posterity had played in shaping that country, how it came to vanish and how and when it might return.

Posterity doesn't fit into our economic model of production and consumption because it creates a fetter on both. We have lost our understanding of the importance of posterity to our society, to our country. We no longer plan today for generations to come far in the future. We no longer look much beyond the next electoral cycle.

Protecting posterity is an act of collective consciousness and will. It is acknowledging that we're entitled to our fair share and no more. We can't have it all without depriving future generations of their fair share. To try to understand the idea of "fair share" imagine if our great, great, great grandparents had followed our path.

Imagine if our ancestors had two things - the ability to consume everything they could get their hands on and a blind indifference to the day when it was our turn to populate this country. Imagine if two or three generations had gone on a rapacious binge gobbling up the world's resources; going into serious deficit on renewables (emptying the oceans, logging off the forests, transforming farmland into desert) and fouling the environment. Then consider how their depredations might impact on your life today. I think that's beyond the imagination of all but the best science fiction writers but that's of no real matter. It's enough in any event to make the case for posterity and the concept of "fair share."

We are not of a generation but of an era that has brought mankind to the wall where the race to consume ends, and ends badly. Yet we have leaders of such astonishing stupidity as to herald Canada as a fossil-fuel superpower for the 21st Century and to proclaim bitumen as a key to national unity and who continue to worship idols at the altar of eternal, damning growth. Where do we find these morons and why do we continue to praise them? These cheap hucksters and fixers have no answers for us, no good place to lead us to and they're utterly bereft of any vision of the future of our country and the legacy we bequeath to those generations of Canadians yet to be born.

If you doubt what I've said, ask Michael Ignatieff or Stephen Harper what they think Canada will be in a hundred years, what sort of future will it hold for our great, great, great grandchildren? If they hold themselves out as fit to lead, they ought to have some fairly specific answers to that and, if they don't, they should be run out on a rail. Because the future of our great, great, great grandchildren is being written today and it's being written indelibly.

Ask them how they will seek to redress our excessive consumption and pointless indulgence. Ask them if they will embrace the "fair share" concept and just what they will do to restore the role of posterity in government policy making. You had better ask them because you're not going to hear a word of it coming out of their mouths otherwise.


Anonymous said...

MOS: Not all people our age were taught that bigger was better. I remember very well my English mother talking about quality over quantity. None of my siblings have gone for huge homes either. We know the value of water and turning the lights off when not being used. I can remember when I was younger and raising my two children, friends would ask why I lived in a small house which was more than adequate. My reply was always, "I don't want to take care of a huge house where some rooms are only used occasionally". I met a lady in Victoria last year who had a huge house. She only used several rooms. When I mentioned that her living room had a wonderful view...she said she didn't see it anymore. A. Moris

The Mound of Sound said...

I think your personal example is an exception to the rule. We all will have to find a new appreciation for frugality if only because the "more is better" mantra is no longer sustainable and has failed us and our society.

Comrade One said...

I come to this aggregate often, scanning for thoughts and topics of interest and value. Your thoughts and insight stand out in my way of thinking, as the unquestionable leader of the pack.

Not only do you understand far more than most, it seems to me you have extraordinary depth. Additionally, you do not convey the all too typical self interest that is common in modern venues. A rare find in our times.

A Spade is a Spade, but few have the the sense of purpose to call it such.

I almost forgot, exceptional post.

The Mound of Sound said...

Wow, thanks for that Comrade. You sure I'm not just really, really weird?

Anonymous said...

Comrade One, I second your comments! If you are weird MofS, then I am also, for I also agree that we are headed down a dangerous path of overconsumption that will destroy the earth for future generations. However, I don't think our ancestors were any different than we are, they just lacked the technology to do real damage. Humans unfortunately believe they have "dominion" over the earth and all its creatures and resources. Most cultures set out to conquer nature, and very few have managed to live in balance with nature which we must do to survive. Regarding leaders, all I can say is I sure do miss Dion.

Larry Gambone said...

Fine article. Only one thing "we" did little of this. It was done to us by the auto, petroleum, construction and real estate industries. It was pimped day and night by the mass media and the politicians and bureaucrats were only to happy to oblige the people who funded them. Alternative paths of development based on a high quality of life could have been proposed or projected as an alternative but they were not. Only US-style hideousness - malls, sprawl, big box stores, McMansions were allowed and have destroyed every town in North America.

Larry Gambone said...

PS My house was built in 1912 and is 1100 square feet and it is a 15 minute walk from down town. Houses like these don't last very long on the market - or didn't before the Ponzi scheme collapsed. The 3 car vinyl chipboard 4000 sq. ft future slum shacks 5 miles from the nearest shop are a lot longer on the market. (ie, not everyone is a sucker, not everyone has bad taste.)

The Mound of Sound said...

Larry, I'm not saying we weren't conditioned to achieve the mess we've created today but I think "we" are a lot more responsible for it than you do. We are also responsible for demanding that as much of this carnage as possible be reversed.

I think I'm right that this is going to require a consensus of conscience and a collective will. Achieving that won't be easy but I have to believe it's possible.

Comrade One said...

No, I don't think you are weird. You seem to be focused and analytical. A couple of traits that help along the journey of trading one's youthful vigor for wisdom. Not everyone realizes that reward in their lifetime. Or perhaps more directly stated, when I was approaching a given threshold of age, I began to ponder the thought that some people grow old and wise, while many others merely grow old.

The Mound of Sound said...

I understand your point. It seems to have something to do with the sense of curiosity. In some there never was much and what little existed seems to die out, often at remarkably young ages. I've known people with good jobs and high standards of living who've gone intellectually brain dead in their 40's. Yet there's no shortage of those with less formal education and mundane jobs who retain their curiosity about life and the world around them. Regardless of education or station, it does seem to dwindle in many but others sometimes take the opportunity of their leisure to explore things they might not have time to delve into in their "productive years." That's when connections really begin to appear as parts of the puzzle, albeit a few, fall into place.

Quixotique said...

I have to agree with most other comments about the thoughtfulness and wisdom contained in this post.

In expressing the requirement for "a consensus of conscience and a collective will", you are expressing truly liberal values that many of us need to be reminded of much more.