Whatever goes up

Soaring skyward, the rocket photographed on the Life magazine cover told the story, and captured the spirit, of the era, pointing the way for the decades ahead.

"Power" reads the headline on Jan. 4, 1954: "Special Issue: U.S. Growth -- Our Biggest Year ... And Basis for A Bigger Future.

Inside the magazine, which conveyed a buoyant homogeneous consensus that today seems from a completely different time, if not another planet, articles posited, "Looking ahead 10, years, 25 years, there is nothing to hold us back. New technologies, new products mean a larger U.S. ... Each year we put more coal, oil, electricity to work. And when the coal and oil run low, the peaceful use of atomic energy - as President Eisenhower proposed to the Russians - and eventually the direct energy of the sun will power our country. The special Life issue describes "extra luxuries for families," "handsome additions to landscape," "mass-produced car of the future" and "wizards of coming wonders" as if the trajectory was headed right off the page, like the rocket, unstoppable.

The caveat, says the glossy-for-its-time magazine, measuring a whopping 10 1/2 by 14 inches, is a continued growth in energy supply, including coal, oil, and atomic power.

Of course, this astonishing Life doesn't introduce the boom years, which had been building since the wartime economy ramped up from the dismal Depression low. But it heralds a glorious ascendance which ushers in a hyper-marketing attitude (noted in this issue by the example of Shopper's World in Framingham, Mass., as a concentration........ It extols synthetics that are on the horizon and dazzling new advances by the chemical industries which the magazine says promises to ..... and points to coming automation in manufacturing and glorious improvements ahead in transportation, all of which promise a golden age by 1976, when the United States will mark its bicentennial.

("The Audacious Americans," an essay by Pulitzer prize-winning historian Allan Nevins in the June 2, 1950 edition of Life, reviews the first half of "the American Century" this way: "Bold experimentalism gave us five decades if dazzling achievement. That was our adolescence; now we have come to responsible maturity.")What if instead of abundance and quanity, we'd been presented with quality and equality ... and an appreciation for making do? What if instead of hypermarketing competition as a primary virtue we'd been offered instead cooperation?

Along with a mushrooming standard of living (economically speaking) and an expanding middle class, what's also ahead by 1954 is consolidation of a host of economic sectors as a handful of corporations ratchet up to dominate an emerging global economy. Over time, wealth becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. As the world's population has tripled (from 2.55 billion in 1950 to nearly 7.8 billion today) and aerable farmland has been reduced, food production has been concentrated as well, with gargantuan feedlots and massive pollution from waste and nutrient runoff.

The boom has also brought concentrations of industrialized food production, of a dramatically larger population, of wealth and power. And there's been belated realization that there may be limits. Given the collapse of colonialism, the great Civil Rights Movement of the 1970s, defeat in Vietnam, growing conflicts over Mideast oil, ghastly nuclear proliferation and even changes to our climate itself may cause mass extinctions of interdependent species, we may be awakening finally that power may have its limits.

We have thousands of homeless people -- many of them veterans from an interminable string of wars -- living on the streets, millions of unemployed or underemployed members of our society, crumbling roads and bridges, children who are malnourished with families unsure where their next meal is coming from, and an environment with species dying off and moving toward becoming uninhabitable.

The Doomsday Clock, a reckoning by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, remained at 2 minutes before midnight in 2019, drawing " attention to the devolving state of nuclear and climate security. It also points to a qualitative change in information warfare and a steady misrepresentation of fact that is undermining confidence in political structures and scientific inquiry. At the same time, science is racing forward, and new global governance structures are desperately needed to manage rapidly evolving and potentially dangerous technologies."

A new setting for the measure of overall danger to us all is due later this month at thebulletin.org/doomsday-clock.

But if nuclear proliferation, and the buildup of nuclear waste, is a reminder of down-to-Earth reality even as the new Space Corps and efforts to get at least the richest of us of to more limitless frontiers, the image of the garbage barge still looms for those who remember. The withering of the middle class here, and perhaps in the post-Brexit U.K. and in other Western countries even before the full magic of automation takes its toll, is being accompanied by the vortex of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a reminder that our days of simply throwing "it" all away won't work indefinitely.

Life's special Mid-Century Issue in 1950 included an article about another central force in the greatly expanding American Dreamland: opening the floodgates of large-scale advertising to stimulate mass public consumption for we were were told we needed. Now we're left with way more garbage than we'll ever know what to do with.

The seemingly limitless boom does, it seem, have limits.

Instead of investing in cooperation and human-scale quality of life that emphasized justice and -- if you can imagine such a bold principle, once intended as the foundation of the soon-to-be 75-year-old United Nations -- peace-- our fascination with power has brought us to this moment where some thrill in making this nation "great again."

Let’s be clear: economic growth, if checked by effective government regulation and guided by a genuine concern for all the people, can be a force for the common good.
But the natural world and the good of all society must prevail. Rampant capitalism has been shown to be entirely prone to gilded empire building and capable of eating through the middle class while threatening democracy and the planet itself.
And that’s not an overstatement.

But, some of us ask ourselves: can we simply dedicate ourselves to being good, truly good, for the sake of all of our grandchildren, and their grandchildren's grandchildren?


Check out my books, Inner Landscapes and Good Will & Ice Cream