I remember when I was in high school in the mid-1970s, there was a vote one day on whether physical education classes should continue to be required courses. This wasn’t about whether or not they would continue to be offered but whether or not they would be required. Anyone interested in freedom should have naturally voted to allow students to make their own choices.
That wasn’t how it came out. My classmates were adamant that everyone must take P.E.
It was at that point that I realized that my class was a part of a backlash to the 1960s (which really ended in the early 1970s). That backlash got worse and worse and worse as the years progressed. Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson point to the Carter presidency (from 1977 to 1981) as the beginning of regressive policies that favored the extremely wealthy. His successors haven’t been any better as the gulf between rich and poor has widened and the middle class has been squeezed. The materialism of popular culture intensified, which Adam Curtis attributes to the success of marketers in exploiting an individualist focus that arose in the Human Potential movement and ironically was originally intended to free people’s minds from the corporatist authoritarian state. And it wasn’t until I went to work at Linuxcare, in late 1999 through early 2001, that I began to meet progressive young people.
Returning to school in 2003, I encountered many more progressives, and twenty-somethings in particular have been my hope for the future. It’s been easy to forget my high school classmates.
But as I was driving into San Francisco today, it might have been the sight of my old high school on a hill that jarred my memory. It struck me that what we are seeing in U.S. politics today is exactly what we would expect to see if my high school classmates had come to power. Barack Obama is a couple years younger than me.
I suppose there’s a case to be made that in any large enough group of people, you’ll find some who lean left, some who lean right, some who lean in an authoritarian direction, and some who lean in a more libertarian direction. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suspect that proportions and intensities of such leanings vary from group to group and from year to year.
If my hypothesis is correct, at the very time when climate change may very well demand urgent action, we’re only at the beginning of about twenty-five to thirty years of increasingly regressive people coming into power. I am truly afraid of these people; I believe they will make the rabid right of today seem mainstream.
But conservativism is not monolithic. There are the evangelical Protestants whose influence already seems to be diminishing and admittedly, at a San Francisco public high school, one would not expect to find a high proportion of such people. There are pro-business conservatives, whose faith—to the extent they concern themselves with the poor at all—in trickle-down economics cannot be shaken with any amount of empirical evidence. And there are defense hawks and neoconservatives who see war as a means of preserving the status quo, and while I wouldn’t say there were many of these among my classmates, I can certainly see how they might accept war and the status quo as good for business and essential for preserving a materialist lifestyle.
It’s possible to argue that such people are always dangerous for humanity. But in this era, we seem to have been reduced to two archetypes of society. The first is indigenous; it has endured for half a million years with low populations, low population densities, and low environmental impacts. The second is commercial; it features high populations, high population densities (cities), and it treats exploitative values as universally superior, even as it can only be sustained through an expansion that necessitates the worst human rights abuses—including genocide and slavery. If our species is to ensure its survival, we must find some way to sustain high populations and—I think inevitably—high population densities with low environmental impact. That’s going to require some different thinking about how humans live and how they relate to each other, to other species, and to their environment. Assuming a pattern in which people reach the zenith of their influence in the fifty- to sixty-year age bracket, I’m not seeing how such thinking can take hold for twenty-five more years.
And I don’t think we can afford to wait that long.
- Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010).↩
- Adam Curtis, The Century of the Self [DVD], BigD Productions.↩
- Fred Pearce, With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change (Boston: Beacon, 2007).↩
- John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress, 5th ed. (Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2008).↩