2009-06-05 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Are We There Yet?
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

As the recent collapse of General Motors demonstrates, the times are certainly a-changin'. After nearly three decades of faith in free markets and the prosperity they seemed to deliver, GM's swoon into the arms of the Obama administration via the long expected bankruptcy heralds a new era and we don't quite know where it's leading.

The administration has already made clear its intention of using its newfound control of the auto industry (via loans and subsidies to the new Fiat-Chrysler entity and outright ownership of GM) to push for greener cars (smaller and, of course, more expensive). There's plenty of reason to think this a good thing, given concerns about pollution, global warming and American oil dependence, of course. But this also represents a sea change in America.

Rightfully worried about ecological sustainability, our European cousins, more crowded in their densely populated lands than we, have embraced a view that one must subordinate oneself to the group, though this doesn't jibe with the historic American emphasis on individuality and personal freedom.

In fact, Europeans tend to look on such typically American attitudes as immoral self-absorption.

But, in the last presidential election, America voted for a party and president who endorse this European viewpoint, leaving the days of the Reagan Revolution, which re-energized our economy and society by restoring our faith in individual liberty and responsibility, behind us, only an image in the rearview mirror of the GM hybrid President Obama hopes to make the vehicle of our future.

The president didn't elect himself. It took millions of like-minded Americans who agree, or at least no longer strongly disagree, with the Democratic inclination to Europeanize us.

As author Jared Diamond writes in his recent book about the fragility of the planet and the risks it poses to human society (Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed) human beings have an unsettling history of irrevocably affecting the environments in which they settle. In the more extreme cases the impact of the human "footprint" is devastating to the natural world as it is to those leaving it in the earth as they pass through.

Surveying societies that historically collapsed and disappeared, from the Easter Islanders (who stripped and devoured their tiny Pacific island in the first half of the last millennium, and then could not leave it, having destroyed the trees needed to build their sea-going canoes), to the native American Anasazi, who destroyed the fragile environment in which they had built their pueblo communities, to the Central American Mayans and the Norse in Greenland who finally died out because their lifestyle no longer suited an increasingly cooling climate, Diamond repeatedly shows how the human propensity to devour the land we find ourselves on puts us at risk when that tendency runs up against the fragility of the environment itself. Looking at the denuded side of the modern Caribbean island of Santo Domingo, occupied by present day Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and the vast damage to the Chinese homeland wrought by untold billions of people over the centuries, Diamond rightly agonizes over the fragility of the planet as a whole.

The problem, of course, is that his prescription for solving this conundrum presents us with a conundrum of a different sort. Citing the successes of some societies, like Shogunate Japan from the 17th century to the 19th, which successfully reversed the deforestation of its home islands by dictatorial mandates, Diamond's own recommended solutions pivot on increased statism on a global scale a la today's Europe - the new ideal, too, of America's Democratic Party. If people like Diamond are right, then what's needed is more government and, of course, an ethos that relies on and approves that kind of interference in our lives. We've already seen it here in New York City where Mayor Mike Bloomberg, once elected as a Republican, demonstrated early on that he wanted to change our eating, drinking and smoking habits for our own good — whether we agree or not.

In the end, Diamond's argument is like that. It requires us to change our lifestyles and, thus, our values, a prescription diametrically opposed to the individual freedom that many of us believe has characterized America's greatest successes from its inception. If Diamond is right, then such values are anachronisms just as the competitiveness that drove Easter Island's ancient chieftains to plunder their tiny homeland in a vain competition to outshine one another was.

If he's right, then refusing to change values like those which revere the rights of the individual must inevitably do us in - as it did the Norse of Greenland who insisted on living as "Europeans" in an environment that offered survival only to those prepared to live more like the Inuit (Eskimos) were done in.

Of course, the Earth is substantially larger and more resilient than tiny Easter Island or the thinly habitable coasts of Greenland, but it's not infinite and a large enough human population will certainly exhaust it, too. Nor, as Diamond reminds us, will we necessarily know when we cross the point of no return - as the Easter Islanders did not know on their little homeland (which hasn't regenerated itself to present day). Diamond's point is that we can only avert such an outcome by altering what and who we are, by accepting the inevitability of central controls and plans, enforced by society as a whole on each of us.

More, he wants us to accept the need to reduce our desires for all the good stuff we've grown used to and those in less developed societies to reduce their hopes of finally living like us. How "green" must we be?

We can't be "green" enough and that's a problem because people don't change their values easily - nor does this work if such changes aren't accepted more or less universally. Unless the vast majority of mankind signs on, or a strong enough centralized state takes over and forces this on everyone, the way the Chinese government forced massive population control on its people, changes by only some will never be enough.

People in the third world have to voluntarily surrender their potential to live like today's first worlders and those of us in the so-called first world have to set the example by accepting lower living standards than we've become accustomed to. Ouch!

While everything comes to an end, Diamond argues that we can at least stave off the inevitable. Few of us really want to leave our children an Easter Island-like planet hurtling through cold and empty space but, aside from the challenge of achieving the prescribed changes (moving away from fossil fuels, controlling population and reducing land use), are we prepared for the cost to us of altering those age old values that made us what we are?

That's the challenge before us today, as the Democrats dig in and begin the process of enshrining the new paradigm.

Is it really the only way?

Is the case really as extreme as proponents, like Diamond and our president, make out? And, if so, is it a way we really want to go, given its radical departure from what we once believed about ourselves?

As passengers aboard President Obama's new hybrid ship of state, shouldn't we now be asking that age old question: Are we there yet? rockirreg@ aol.com.

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