The following is an excerpt from Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website. This excerpt comes from chapter 7 – “Inequality is Regression.”
President Jimmy Carter’s infamous “malaise” speech of July 1979 called Americans to self-discipline, sacrifice, and conservation. OPEC was driving up the price of oil, the Iranian Revolution was cresting, Russia would soon invade Afghanistan, and American confidence was waning. Carter never used the word malaise in the speech, but the description stuck, and critics claimed that Democratic defeatism was televised, watched by more than one hundred million Americans. This was a watershed moment for American politics of the last four decades. Ronald Reagan—treating conservation and material sacrifice like the plague—defeated Carter handily in the following year’s election. Since that time, Reagan’s summons has obliterated Carter’s: not one leading national politician has been brave enough (or foolish enough, politically) to question the ongoing sustainability of our lifestyle and to ask for limits on consumption.
After more than thirty years of growing social and economic inequality, Carter’s speech, revisited, reveals certain insights more apropos of a social critic or philosopher than a president. “Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.” Meaning, Carter intimated, isn’t sold at the mall.
Carter’s speech was initially well received; Americans flooded the White House with approving phone calls and letters. But the tide turned quickly, and the newly elected Reagan contrasted his bold optimism with the supposed somber pessimism of his predecessor. Carter, however, was not announcing or advocating American demise. The speech has turned out to be a prophetic decree of daring that called the nation to self-examination. Its message harkened to the egalitarian spirit that helped forge American society. But the proclamation has been widely ignored. More than thirty years of unexamined commitment to unlimitedness, as if it’s the only way forward, begs critique. British epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett call for America and other wealthy nations to move away from the idea “in which people regard maximizing personal gains as a laudable aim in life.”*
Slightly more than one hundred years have passed since sales of gasoline became dominant among crude oil’s many derivatives. Gasoline, along with diesel and jet fuels, make up more than 75 percent of the typical refinery yield for a barrel of oil in today’s world. A by-product of twenty million years of marine biomass chemical transformation caused by underground heat and pressure, petroleum is a flammable substance that is essentially converted solar energy. All fossil fuels are stored solar energy. Plants use sunlight to grow and thrive, animals eat plants, and their fortuitous decay brought about the coal, natural gas, and petroleum that have fueled our modern industrial life for two hundred years . It won’t last forever. Joseph Tainter and Tad Patzek (authors of Drilling Down) say we’re living off “the geological equivalent of an endowment from a long-dead ancestor . . . a subsidy that allows us to support levels of complexity that otherwise we could not afford.”** In a sense, the way we live now (the wealthiest 20 percent of the world’s population consumes the majority of the world’s energy) is a heightened aberration of history, a radical departure from what has been the norm for nearly all of human history. We can’t and won’t go back to what used to be, but we can teach our children a truth that is widely overlooked in our modern world: high-gain energy (relatively easily attained and highly productive) is precious and rare, and it behooves our respect and right use for the common good. It is highly unlikely that this aberration will be ongoing. Just like a lucky run at the poker table, all good things do come to an end.
The first chapter of this book covered Rockefeller’s permission, which allowed for disparities of wealth previously unknown in the history of the world. We can now say that these disparities were made possible because of oil and other fossil fuels—their discovery and commercialization. The potential energy formed over millions of years in and by the earth has been unleashed over the past two centuries: it fueled the first and second industrial eras, forged the advances of Darby, supplied Edison and Ford with the power to innovate, made Carnegie the king of steel, produced Rockefeller’s titanic wealth, and provided the foundation for the incredible advances of the middle and latter parts of the twentieth century. On the other side of the ledger, however, the energy unleashed has also fueled economic inequality, which has increased significantly in the last one hundred years, bringing along its accompanying social ills. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said it so well: progress in better and in worse.
*Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, Bloomsbury Press (2009), 253.
**Joseph Tainter and Tadeusz Patzek, Drilling Down: The Gulf Oil Debacle and Our Energy Dilemma, Springer (2012), 188-89.
From Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, Blue Ocotillo Publishing (2014), pages 160-61, 162. All rights reserved.