Monday, March 12, 2007

Ticking time bombs and last-minute escapes

Walk into any of America's cineplexes--they used to be called movie theaters--and you will find narratives playing on multiple screens that offer one or another variation of the ticking time bomb and the last-minute escape. Of course, those plot devices are used to create urgency and tension in the minds of moviegoers in order to involve them in the story.

But so pervasive have these themes become in American film and literature that much of the public has up until recently unreflectively embraced the idea that all emergencies will be met with unparalleled heroism that leads to the right solution--no matter how hastily and tardily conceived. Perhaps the purest example of this (and maybe the most ridiculous) is the long-defunct television show "MacGyver." For those who weren't watching television closely in the late 1980s, MacGyver (played by Richard Dean Anderson) was a secret agent who didn't carry a gun. Instead, he was amazingly resourceful in crafting weapons out of materials on hand--always, of course, in the nick of time.

Despite Americans' traditional optimism there is now a rising fear that America may have run out of MacGyvers. The popular drama "24" suggests to its viewers that this time--just maybe--we won't escape the worst. Unfortunately, "24" focuses the public's anxiety on terrorism rather than the much more potent threats of resource depletion, climate change, and habitat destruction. The anxiety is there, but it is being redirected toward something that only requires us to continue to believe steadfastly that we are always in the right and that we therefore need only continue our battle with the bad guys. This is not to suggest that terrorism is no threat. But there is almost a straight line from our dependence on finite petroleum resources to our imperial adventures in the Middle East and then to the blowback we are reaping from Arab resentment over our role there.

Nor does the public understand that it has been America's great good fortune (and curse) to have been endowed with enormous fossil fuel resources--resources upon which the fantasy of last-minute escapes largely depends. With enough energy resources one can overcome many seemingly intractable problems.

Likewise the decline in America's energy fortunes--sliding oil production for more than 35 years and now a plateau in natural gas production--has completely eluded public understanding. And, yet the public senses that something is seriously wrong, and it longs for a last-minute escape that will make everything all right again.

So at this point in our story, the tension in the American psyche is imitating art. Can we overcome the vague, menacing and unseen dangers which threaten American life? Will the hero show up in time? In the form of a new president? In the form of a cheap substitute for oil that will allow the American suburban dream to continue? In the form of a military victory in the Middle East instead of an endless, debilitating stalemate?

We wait. And, yet none of these outcomes seems in the offing. Surely this time it can't be different?

And, that's where we are in the narrative that we've come to expect--approaching the moment of maximum tension at which we hope for (even count on) a miraculous and positive resolution. But America's greatest living psychologist, James Hillman, has labeled hope a debilitating condition. Hope leaves us suspended. Hope fills our fantasies (or allows Hollywood to fill them for us). Hope can be the enemy of action.

It is not hope that we now need, but faith. Faith that as we face up to our ecological predicament, we can take steps each day that move us away from calamity and toward sustainability. Petroleum has been the father of last-minute escape fantasies. If the believers in a nearby peak in world oil production, followed by a peak in natural gas production, and then in all probability by myriad other ecological and resource catastrophes are correct, there will be no last minute escapes--only the hard work of remaking the world into something livable and just if we have to will to do so.

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