While sifting through old files the other day, I stumbled across some forgotten pages I’d torn from the March 2008 issue of Harper’s. That issue featured a piece titled “Fear of Fallowing,” a 5-page eyebrow raise at the odd bigness we’ve come to take for granted in American culture. The essay hinges on 3 then-recent books: The Age of Abundance, by Brink Lindsey; The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, by Benjamin Friedman; and Deep Economy, by Bill McKibben. The hook is a tour of Costco, the cavernous, block-long rooms dedicated to discount-pretty-much-everything, that are so familiar to anyone who’s spent any time in the bizarre landscape that is sprawling suburban America.
The essay is a reminder of how truly weird the culture and attendant built landscape are that we’ve erected for ourselves. The unlocking of fossil fuels by Thomas Newcomen in 1712 was probably the first roll of dynamite lobbed at humanity’s energy constraints, largely responsible for blowing the doors open to a new and seemingly limitless ability to turn nature into stuff. In economic terms, it marked the point at which the resource limit scenario native to the world until that point was flipped on its head: the limiting factor to human activity was no longer natural resources – it was labor, tools, and knowledge (that’s since flipped again, maybe on this day). Ever since, we’ve been flying, very close to literally, on the backs of ancient sunlight and dead dinosaurs.
On this, Steven Soll, the author, writes, “We will likely look back at the period between 1600 and 2050 as the Era of Expansion. The first date marks the beginning of surplus agriculture in England, when its population began to climb out of famine, when agrarian people all over the world entered a phase of wildfire frontier settlement, and when capitalism appeared. The second date marks the year when present trends in consumption will reach a level equal to double the Earth’s carrying capacity, requiring a second planet.” (Emphasis added.)
Compress the past million years of human development into 24 hours, Soll imagines, and the journey from steam engine to search engine amounts to about 21 seconds. 21 seconds! That’s like running a marathon, then breaking into an all-out sprint for a few meters, hoping you could keep up the pace for the rest of the race.
I thought I’d call attention to the Harper’s piece because I think, if nothing else, it’s so interesting to understand current trends and concerns in context of geological timescales. Like the famous first image of Earth from space taken in the 60’s, it’s a reminder of just how recent and odd our bigness really is. Another piece worth reading in this vein is “The Curse of Bigness,” from the March/April issue of Orion magazine.
Another thought I’d like to flag from the Harper’s essay is a quote from ecological economist Herman Daly, who compares economic policy appropriate to sustainability to the farmer’s practice of letting a field lie fallow for a season every once in a while. Fallowing allows soils to rest and regenerate, the same essential prescription for sustainability in every realm of resource use. On nature: “Leave it alone. Let it grow in order to slow or reduce the exploitation. This conforms perfectly to the economic definition of investment – a reduction in present consumption in order to increase a future capacity to consume.” Taken this way, a 4-day work week becomes a prudent national investment strategy – a kind of economic stimulus package for forests, oceans, and the atmosphere. Want to be a real investor? Drop the Fidelity mutual fund and go for a walk in the park.
“Fear of Fallowing” leaves me with one final thought, inspired by the title: What are we afraid of? What can we make of this fear of stepping off the growth treadmill? It strikes me that an unspoken piece of the sustainability challenge comes down, as things always do, to human terms. How can we find the collective courage to live differently? How can we put our trust back into the world?