[[ Check out my Wordpress blog Context/Earth for environmental and energy topics tied together in a semantic web framework ]]

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Way It Was

I extracted the following editorial from a fishing magazine published nearly 30 years ago. Mr. Pazik published Fishing Facts from a suburb of Milwaukee, gearing it to the hard-core freshwater fisherman (both young and old) amongst us. "The Way It Was" seemingly has frozen in time, with our political atmosphere staying in a holding pattern, waiting for the right conditions to make a landing. In hindsight, it looked like we had a soft landing in store for us. With more than 30 years of procrastination behind us, that has turned into a bumpy landing today.

The Way It Was - George Pazik, December 1976

We face an uncertain future. Our industrial society was built on cheap and plentiful petroleum (crude oil and natural gas), and petroleum is not likely to ever be cheap again and cannot be plentiful for long. The new administration in Washington must now chart an intelligent course for the future; we cannot afford to drift any longer. Basic to any plan for the future must be a plan for energy which recognizes what is now obvious.

However, it is almost impossible in a democracy to tackle a critical national problem if the President denies that it exists and Congress ducks its responsibility. Any energy policy for the future has to involve tough conservation measures. There are few votes in offering people a future of self-denial, but it has to be done.

Before we can plan the future, however, we need to know where we are today and understand how we got here. We need to know the way it was.

Unless you lived it, you can never know how it really was to grow up during the Great Depression of the thirties and the war years that followed. We who were the "depression kids" are today in our forties, fifties and sixties. Some of us are today's leaders of government and industry, but most of us play humbler roles. We built the America of today, we "depression kids", we built the "American way of life" that is the envy of countless millions in other countries I and other continents. We built America with our hard work, we built it on our hopes and our dreams of a better life for ourselves and our children.

It was not always a noble struggle. We also built on our greed, on blind ambition, on cruelty, and callous indifference to the needs of others. . . for we are also human, and let no one forget that! We patriotically stood up and recited the Pledge of Allegiance while we ignored the human rights of many in our population. The rights of minorities? They were to know "their place" and stay there. It was different in the North and the South, but only in degree. We always were more subtle in the North. The rights of women? They, too, were expected to know "their place". "Their place" was usually to work for a lot less money than a man doing the same work. The "rights" of Indians? They had none. The Quality of Life? We were concerned first with the quantity, struggling to keep things together in a society where everything seemed to be falling apart. You don't worry about the quality of life unless you have a full stomach.

Because we were a nation of immigrants, we had no roots in this country. In order to get a sense of "belonging", we organized many private clubs and societies, always pledging our Allegiance to the American flag at every meeting. Of course, in most of our clubs and societies we had membership requirements that succeeded in keeping out the Negroes, the Jews, the Italians, and the Catholics, in that order. The fact that these were not the things for which our Flag stood was never argued.

Our country was prosperous for most of the Twenties, the so-called "jazz age". Those who lived in the cities enjoyed prosperity, for the most part, while those who lived on the farms were in their own depression, but the rest of the country couldn't have cared less. Business prospered and so did some skilled laborers fortunate enough to belong to one of the craft unions. People who labored in the factories were often mistreated and exploited, but it was better to be exploited in good times than in bad.

The Stock Market Crash of 1929 bewildered most of us. We didn't know what it meant until 1931 and '32. We were in one of the most severe depressions in our history and it was worldwide. You cannot know the hopelessness of men looking for work when there is none, of proud families going "on relief" (the old word for Welfare) because there was no other way. The bread lines and soup kitchens; thousands of wandering, jobless men; only quaint photographs today in our rich and affluent country, but they were the grimmest kind of reality in those days.

The working man was especially hard hit. Those today who would rave on about the excesses and abuses of union labor (and there are some, of course), should get acquainted with what it was like to work in a factory in those days. Good lighting? It didn't exist. Good ventilation? What's wrong with eating asbestos dust and gas fumes for 10-12 hours a day? Guards on machines to prevent injuries? Are you kidding? If a man or woman lost a finger, a hand, an arm or leg in an accident, they were sent home and fired. Health insurance? Workman's Compensation? No such things! Decent employers existed then, of course, just as they exist today, but it took hard bargaining and costly strikes and hard won laws to make them all decent.

In Europe, the Germans found a leader by the name of Adolf Hitler. He promised them a return to their "former glory", gave them an enemy to hate at home, (the Jews) and an enemy to hate away from home, (England, France and America). In Italy, the people found a leader named Benito Mussolini. He promised them a return to the glories of the Roman Empire.

The American people found a leader in 1932, a man who promised us all something. . . a return to good times. His was the friendly voice on the radio, (yes, many homes then enjoyed that latest electronic marvel), the voice that told us in ringing tones that we had "nothing to fear but fear itself", and we believed him. We had to believe in somebody. Franklin D. Roosevelt got us believing in ourselves again and his "New Deal" gave us many new and innovative programs. Some of these programs failed, some succeeded. What mattered to us was that we were trying. His campaign theme song was "Happy Days Are Here Again". (I've never forgotten the words.)

It was during the Great Depression years that organized labor really started to come on with the organization of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1935. Now entire industries were organized, and the resistance was sometimes bitter and brutal. Some companies hired thugs (goon squads) to break workers' heads and beat their bodies. Some men paid with their lives in the struggle to win decent wages and working conditions for all laboring men and women. (Not all who labor have the good fortune to work for decent employers.)

We were not completely out of the Great Depression when the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor on December 7,1941, destroying our Pacific Fleet. The next day Hitler declared war on us, followed by Mussolini. This time the voice of Franklin D. Roosevelt rang with anger as he told Congress and the American people what had happened to us on that date which would live forever in infamy. World War II had started in Europe in September 1939. Japan had invaded China several years before. Now we were in it. We marched off to war. We were fighting for our country's life and we knew it.

We fought our way from unknown island to unknown island in the Pacific and from Africa to Italy to France and German In Europe. We who marched were away for years. At home we were missed sadly. Families were torn apart, husbands, brothers and sons killed and crippled. There were many things we did without - or with less - butter, coffee, sugar, tea, meat, canned goods, gasoline, rubber tires, automobiles, etc.

More than just a war ended in 1945 with V-J Day, it also ended a fifteen year period of "doing without". WE NEEDED EVERYTHING.

To make anything, you need energy, and we had it. Good, cheap, plentiful, never-could-run-out petroleum. The petroleum industry pumped it out as never before and from this gush of oil came the fastest, most accelerated, dizzying "progress" the world has ever seen. We are now the best fed, best clothed, best housed, best transported, best equipped, best entertained people in the world. (Most of us, that is).

Why shouldn't our cars get longer, lower, wider, heavier and more powerful? Why not more chrome, high fins, and more speed? Build more shopping centers, flee the older parts of the cities, get two cars or three cars for every family? Why not? What did it matter that other people in the world went hungry due to a lack of fertilizer for their food crops and we poured it by the millions of tons on our golf courses and lawns? We were to have more cars, more television sets, more refrigerators, washers and dryers, etc., than anyone on earth had ever had. We were to have electric gadgets to open tin cans, mash trash, brush our teeth, shine our shoes and mix our drinks. We were to shop in year-round heated and air conditioned malls.

We hardly know what it is to get food from the farmer's market anymore. It's fast frozen, processed, pre-mixed, pre-cooked, pre-seasoned and pre-everything else and comes to us in heat-'em-up-and-throw-away containers. The bulk of our beer and soft drinks come to us in containers we use once and throwaway. In the thirty years since World War II we have hardly built a home, commercial building or factory that was completely insulated. Why was it always cheaper to waste?

I suggest that a better life lies ahead of us. I believe that we have the innate decency and good sense to know that we have wasted too much, too long. I refuse to regard a return to saner values as being doom and gloom. I don't even think driving smaller cars and insulating our homes is going to destroy America. I think we have more good sense than the politicians are giving us credit. We will soon find out.

Update: George Pazik died October 22 at the age of 84. For another extended piece of his, see this editorial on peak oil.


Professor Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I suggest that a better life lies ahead of us. I believe that we have the innate decency and good sense to know that we have wasted too much, too long."

What sort of innate decency and good sense have the Americans -- growing ever so obese, demanding bigger SUVs with smaller gas mileage, also bigger houses which are quickly filled with tons of consumers goods of little use and no value, and engaging in a war against terrorists because they killed 3,000 civilians and in doing so killing at least 30,000 civilians in Iraq?

The future of the United States is bleak. Americans are addicted to growth, consumption, waste and warfare. The world will not tolerate such behavior for too much longer. The Muslims have only a limited tolerance for foreigners killing their own, the Chinese are constructing their own consumer culture, and the United States' finds itself burdened by an aging infrastructure and an immense national debt.

The end is coming. Quickly.

8:21 PM  
Professor Anonymous SqueakyRat said...

I think I've read at least part of this article before. Truly an amazing, prophetic piece. Passionate and absolutely on the money. He wasn't alone. Lots of people felt the same way 30 years ago, and a lot of them stood up and said so, though perhaps not so well. Yet, they were all voices in the wilderness. How could we all have been so stupid, so blind, so greedy as to let those 30 years trickle away while we did nothing but figure out new ways to make the world uninhabitable? I really think that if there ever is enough of a human future to remember these days, the question historians will puzzle over is why we let that time go by while the abyss opened under our feet.

8:35 PM  
Professor Blogger WHT said...

Yea, I posted an earlier piece of Pazik's a few months ago. Check the updated post for the link.

10:22 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

"Like strange bulldogs sniffing each other's butts, you could sense wariness from both sides"