How Will the U.S.A. be Remembered?

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

In a time of war, when the world is cracking into irreconcilable blocs, even as world scientists warn us that the window is rapidly closing to avoid catastrophic climate consequences, we have to ask how we arrived in this place. A world that urgently needs to come together is going in exactly the wrong direction. Those of us who have benefitted from living in the nation that has shaped the world more than any other, the United States, have a particular responsibility to find answers to this question. By way of contribution, I offer this piece of a longer essay pondering how the future will remember the U.S.

I am walking down the mall from the U.S. Capitol to the Washington Monument.  It is 1999, a long time since I have been in the nation’s capital.  I have been flown back from Seattle to work on a report detailing the impact of climate change on ocean life, and have just completed a meeting with some of the world’s top marine biologists.  Now I’m taking a little time to hoof around DC and see some sights.

As I approach the Smithsonian Castle, walking by the Air & Space Museum, a street saxophonist on the opposite side is playing “When the Saints Come Marching In.” I am in a mood to muse on this country in which I have lived my life, shaped by its stories and histories.  I ask myself, what will be the memory of the U.S. ?  How will people recall us, in hundreds or thousands of years, assuming there are people to recall us?

This is a nation that gave the world jazz and nuclear weapons.  Invented aviation, went to the moon and carpet bombed Vietnam. Birthed a society of common prosperity that inspired the world, along with a consumer culture of stupendous wastefulness and spiritual emptiness. Made the first modern republic, a nation without kings and nobility, that generated a narrow class of unprecedented wealth and a globe-spanning empire unlike anything seen in world history.  Surely the children of the future will recall us as a paradoxical place, much as Rome is remembered – aqueducts and legions, lawgivers and insane emperors.  We will not leave a simple memory behind, and in many ways might be disturbed at how we are recalled.  For our legacy has left heavy footprints on future generations.

With nothing is this more the case than the issue that brought me to DC that day, human disruption of the Earth’s climate system.  Literally the rearrangement of wind and ocean currents that have prevailed through the ten or so millennia since the last ice age finally ended, the time in which civilization arose.  Earth’s winds and currents are all about redistributing solar heat, and they are being supercharged and skewed, leading to intense droughts, downpours, and, yes, even city-stopping blizzards.

Our world is on track for heating so intense as to call into question the future of civilization.  Bleak vistas open before us, of drowned cities, of seared dustbowls where there were once breadbaskets, of the great reservoirs of biodiversity – rainforests and coral reefs – turning into deserts, biologically and literally.  Indeed, one of the questions that concerned the scientists that day in DC, the fate of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, was tragically answered by summer 2017.  A combination of heating and increasingly acidic ocean waters left the reef bleached and half dead, with poor prospects for recovery.

Leading the world into disruption

The United States of America is the nation that led the world into this profound disruption.  Certainly Great Britain commenced the process with its creation of coal-fired, steam-powered industry.  But the U.S. piled on with creation of the world’s first mass automobility, fueled by an oil industry also made in the USA, and development of the original electric power grids, powered substantially by coal.  A. U.S of American trinity – Henry Ford, with his cars for the masses; John D. Rockefeller, consolidating the petroleum business, and Thomas Edison, bringing widespread electric lighting and the power stations and wires needed to feed it – initiated changes that are literally changing the physical map of the world.   The very centers of global power, including the one through which I walked that day in 1999, will sink beneath rising seas if we continue on the current trajectory.  Indeed, we may be too late to save many of the world’s great cities.  The momentum of the forces we have unleashed may simply be too great.

World literature is full of cautionary fables about unlocking powers that we do not fully understand.  The Greek Pandora opens the box and releases evil into the world.  The Djinn of the Arabian Nights will give you your wishes, but there’s always a sneaky kicker.  Goethe’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice employs magic to relieve himself of the wearisome task of fetching water, only to find that the broom he has enchanted to do the job is flooding the place and he can’t stop it. Frankenstein seeks to transcend death and creates a monster. We commonly know this as the law of unintended consequences, and every exercise of power seems to carry its own set.

The U.S. is ultimately a land of power. We came upon a resource-rich continent at precisely the time when an explosion of scientific and technological powers made possible an unparalleled level of exploitation.  And we used those powers to forcibly move and eliminate the native population, while enslaving Africans to produce the commodity that drove the industrial revolution in Britain and the U.S., cotton.  We were advantaged to a degree that may have no historic equal.  Upon that advantage, the U.S. accumulated economic, political and military power beyond that of any nation in human experience.

But at this moment, our powers are coming back to bite us.  Economic power is increasingly skewed to the top elite, increasing social, cultural and political tensions to the breaking point.  Political and military power exerted on the global stage seems to yield nothing but increased conflict and blowback.  And, in the greatest of ironies, the stretch of Earth most wracked by the weather extremes of a disrupted climate is the U.S. heartland. Situated between the heat of subtropical seas and cold winds descending from the Arctic, the core of North America is one of the world’s great weather machines.  Meanwhile, the Southwest deepens into long-term drought that challenges the assumptions on which it was settled.  The U.S.  will not be spared its consequences of the world it made, as underscored by the map of an ice-free planet showing oceans poking tens and even hundreds of miles inland from current coastlines.  The metropolitan centers of the east and west coasts, the coastal plains of the south and Mississippi Delta, Florida, all gone blue.

In such a situation, it is fitting to ask what it means to be a U.S. of American in this time.  What is the meaning of our historical experience?  Leaving the legacies we are bequeathing on future worlds and generations, from nuclear weapons to climate disruption, might it be a time to consider how we will be remembered, and whether our national experience is in need of some form of redemption?  I surely believe it is, and that we must forthrightly face our collective existence with brutal honesty, in a spirit of confession and reconciliation.  I am also convinced that if we do not undertake these tasks, we will not be remembered well.  Even, recalled by storytellers around the tribal fires of the future as a cautionary tale of a people who gained extraordinary powers and left monumental wreckage in their wake.  A story about how people should not live.

Born at the Inflection Point

I came into the world during a fateful year, 1952.   My birth on October 19 took place 13 days before the explosion of Mike, the first hydrogen bomb, at Eniwetok Atoll in the South Pacific, a “Dark Sun” that would shadow my life throughout my days. My tenth birthday took place during another 13 days, those of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I also share my birth year with the first flight of the B-52, the iconic Dr. Strangelove bomber that has transited my life through nuclear war fears, Vietnam, and later bombings in the Middle East. It took off from Seattle around five months before my birth. Two weeks and two days after I was born, Harry Truman signed the order creating an agency whose existence would be denied long into my life, the National Security Agency, the “big ears” whose universal surveillance would be long suspected, and then in my later days confirmed by the revelations of Edward Snowden.

I was born was another inflection point, crucially related to empire, the creation of the mass consumer society.  Between the late 1940s and early 1950s, the U.S. that I was to inhabit was taking shape.  Suburbanization, near universal auto ownership, a boom in home appliances from washing machines to vacuum cleaners, the explosion of modern advertising techniques, and the ubiquitous spread of their prime enabler, television.  The latter entered my life six months after my birthday, making me one of the last generation of Americans not exposed to the tube from day one.

Sometime later, it seems around 1962, came an original rite of passage into consumer society, when dad drove the family to a new restaurant opening on a commercial strip near my house.  The first McDonald’s in Reading, Pennsylvania, golden arches and all. I recall my initiation into fast food nation, deeply imprinted with the memory of the delight I took in the fatty-sugary fare, that combination of burger, ketchup, pickles, fries and Coke.

The charts on resource use reveal that the inflection point of this change took place around my birth, most profoundly the graph of energy consumption. The bend in the knee comes as the 40s turn into the 50s.  A line gradually ascending from the 1860s suddenly bends sharply upwards and stays on that trajectory to the 21st century. It is the key indicator that the consumer society has arrived.  By far, most of the curve is filled with coal, oil and natural gas.

The leader into that high-energy consumption society was, of course, the U.S.  And that tracks back to those B-52s and the military empire they represent.  The connection came into sharp focus by my late 20s, around 1979 when Jimmy Carter declared the Carter Doctrine in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution.  The Middle East and its oil were officially enshrined as a vital national interest to be secured by military force if necessary.  By the close of my 30s, the 1991 Gulf War put blood, iron and fire behind that doctrine, continuing to the endless wars that continue into my 60s.  Of course, now we know from documentation that the plot behind Robert Redford’s early 1970s spy thriller, “Three Days of the Condor,” a plan to invade and hold Arab oil reserves in the wake of the 1974 oil embargo, was actually considered by Nixon and Kissinger.

Of all imperatives driving the U.S. empire, control of energy resources ranks as the prime directive.  And it is the consumer society into which I was born that propels the imperative.  Those bombers, that universal surveillance-security state, the nuclear cloud standing as the final threat, all track back to that inflection point around the time of my birth.  As do the burst of consumption and the rapid escalation of energy use to propel it.

Time to recognize our responsibility

As U.S. of Americans, we are far from innocent.  It is time to get real about that.  Our lives, and the assumptions upon which they are built, have driven our world to a desperate place, whether we recognize it or not.  It is a world enmeshed in three overarching and interconnected crises, each of which has become worse over the course of my life.

Despite specific improvements in environmental protection, overall the depletion of Earth’s resources and living species, and the disruption of its systems, has accelerated to become an existential threat to the future of our own species.

The weapons of war have increased in potency, while access has grown more widespread, even as a seeming lull in conflict after the end of the Cold War has been succeeded by rising great power competition and a spread of wars across the world.  The threat of nuclear warfare has returned to the foreground.

Propelling these great crises of environment and war, the chasm between wealthy elites and the rest has widened to an almost unbelievable extent.  When literally the one-billionth of one percent owns as much as the bottom half of the world, something has clearly gone awry.  Something that will drive conflict and depletion. The decline and fall of empires throughout history has been characterized by elites abandoning the common good to serve their own interests, shielded for a time from the consequences of their actions by their own power.

Thus, while none of us is innocent, some bear the greater responsibility.  This is not an excuse, but a call to take up our own responsibilities to the extent we can.  Ultimately, to the extent we do as people, we will determine the future, and whether these great crises can be resolved in a way that leaves a world with which our children and theirs can cope.  That, I believe, is our fundamental imperative as human beings, the mission and purpose to which we must devote ourselves. Those of us who have benefitted the most, who have lived in the nation that more than any other has made the world in which we live, bear a special responsibility. Our memory will be shaped by the degree to which we take it up.