The art of survival, W. Patrick McCray, δημοσίευση στο AeonMarilena Pateraki
Ιn 1969, when the design guru, futurist and consummate bullshit artist Buckminster Fuller’s new book about the future prospects for humanity came out, he’d called it Utopia or Oblivion. It appeared on bookshelves and in college students’ backpacks just as three decades of unparalleled growth, prosperity and modernisation in the United States came to a grinding, confidence-eroding halt. Jump ahead just a few years, and it seemed pretty clear to most people which path society had placed itself on. Despite today’s sheen of Day-Glo nostalgia, the 1970s were saturated with dark, doomy and unsettling currents. Survival supplanted revolution as the new decade’s vital watchword.
Americans found themselves grappling with existential threats on two fronts. The first was economic. Starting in the summer of 1971, the Richard Nixon administration enacted a series of economic reforms designed to stabilise the dollar. At that time, inflation and unemployment rose to about 6 per cent. The subsequent ‘stagflation’ that resulted was fuelled further by the 1973 oil crisis. When Gerald Ford replaced Nixon as US president in 1974, inflation had risen to around 10 per cent,unemployment to around 5.6 per cent, and a powerful recessionary wave hit the US and rippled outward through other countries’ economies. Not captured in bloodless statistics, however, is the surge in divorce rates, mortgage foreclosures, repossessed cars and other personal hardships and humiliations. I grew up outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and have distinct memories of food banks, shuttered mills and handouts of ‘government cheese’ that began during the Jimmy Carter years and continued into the 1980s.
The second push toward pessimism flowed from Americans’ anxiety about the deteriorating quality of the environment in the US and throughout the world. Throughout the 1960s, politicians, scientists and activists saw the planet as analogous to a spacecraft, a fitting comparison during the Apollo era. The idea that the Earth was, as the poet Archibald MacLeish wrote in 1968, a ‘tiny raft in the enormous empty night’ contributed directly to a profound sense of the planet’s fragility, which had taken hold by the early 1970s. While photos of the Earth from space showed a small blue marble floating in the inky blackness of space, environmental doom-saying that approached apocalyptic millenarianism surged underneath this sense of wonder and awe.
The biologist Paul Ehrlich, via his bestselling book The Population Bomb (1968) and in television appearances with Johnny Carson, forecasted that millions of people in deprived nations would be starving worldwide by the 1970s. Intimately connected with 1960s-era fears of uncontrollable population growth were alarmist predictions of a future marked by dwindling natural resources. Petroleum prices shot up and bureaucrats enacted new rules to govern a scarcity society. In the US, this meant gas rationing, year-round daylight saving time and national speed limits. The country appeared, as the cover of Newsweek put it in November 1973, to be ‘Running Out Of Everything’. Predictions of millions of people clamouring to enter the US, and a future marked by dwindling natural resources, were understood by many Americans as a potential menace to their way of life and their national security.
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