When the history is written, it seems likely that not only will 2008 go down as the year when the fissures of the American way of life were made plain, but it will be understood to be the date when the beginning of the end of the American empire was made manifest. No empire of significant power falls in a day or a year, but in stages, like the slow motion internal degradation of a rotting building.
Historians will write with amazement and wonder at the madness that had swept the land, such that even (or especially) the best and the brightest believed that something - a great deal, in fact - could be had for nothing. In the course of a few months this year we went collectively from feeling wealthy and insulated from any great harms, to discovering that our entire edifice was built on a foundation of unsustainable risk. The last bit of breaking news of the year was the revelation of a massive Ponzi scheme, a bit of financial chicanery by which newer "investors" are fleeced in order to line the pockets of older "investors." The massive scheme hatched by Bernie Madoff - not now on impoverished little widows and orphans, but the power elite of America and even the world - was a smaller morality tale of the entire American financial system, one that had been all along premised upon impoverishing the young and the unborn for the sake of the living and soon dead.
Stories will be told about this year, with amazement that humans could have attempted to organize a society around a belief in the utter efficacy of self interest. This philosophy appeared to work for a time, and was well-designed to do so by virtue of the presumed existence of two phenomena that it neither created nor replenished. What allowed this philosophy of the Enlightenment - so-called - to succeed for a time were two gigantic reservoirs that the philosophy fundamentally held in contempt, yet nevertheless assumed to exist and even to persist: a long prehistoric accumulation of material and moral inheritances.
First, it assumed the existence of ample material that could be converted from a state of "waste" - to use John Locke's term for the natural condition of material things that had not been yet mixed with the sweat of human labor and use - that, upon being rendered useful for human use and consumption, would undergird a consumptive growth economy. The contradiction, of course, that lie in this assumption was the belief in a permanent co-existence of consumption and growth. The earth is a finite system, a closed natural system that has a finite amount of material and energy (including the constant stream of energy that is received from the sun). The assumption of modern economics was that increases in efficiency and the productive employment of energy, human labor and ingenuity would annually increase the overall value "created" the human economic system. What in fact occurred was the employment of a rich and seemingly inexhaustible store of non-renewable energy forms that, for a time, made it possible for humans to transform the "waste" of the natural world into the greatest wealth that humankind had ever known (yet, a better way of thinking about this "wealth" was that it was in fact the accelerated use of nature's bounty. We consumed in a century what might otherwise have been available to countless generations. In this sense, another way of looking at our wealth was that it was generational theft).
Prone as humans are to self-delusion and capable of fostering immense and engrossing distractions, we believed that we had created something wholly new and permanent - a civilization based upon human ingenuity that represented a new and permanent departure from the backwardness and myopia of previous ages. We refused, or were incapable, of seeing the reality of our "achievement": we had, for the first time in human history, tapped a finite resource base and built a civilization upon the assumption that it was somehow infinite. Even today, when the faith-based adherents of modern economics are confronted with proof of the finite limits of our non-renewable energy forms, the response is the assertion that human ingenuity will solve the problem. The "problem" was never subject to human ingenuity, since the problem itself arose not from the victory of human ingenuity, but from the foolishness of human ingenuity. Our inventiveness allowed us to employ with extreme wastefulness and lack of foresight a store of resources that had been accumulated over eons of human pre-history - we used what we thought was ours, and congratulated ourselves in the process. Our ingenuity appeared to be the be the source of this employment, but in fact it was the pride in our ingenuity that led our willful incapacity to see the endgame of this gambit.
What allowed us to submit to this delusional belief that the laws of physics had been suspended due to human ingenuity - particularly that we could ignore the second law of thermodynamics, dictating that all energy flows from organized and productive forms to dissolution and unusable forms, the entropic equilibrium that dictates the motions and destiny of the universe - was an explicit rejection of the moral inheritance of ancient pedigree, the Greek and Christian ethical systems - and their lived, everyday manifestations - that were explicitly and virulently attacked by the advanced men of the "Enlightenment." They urged the overthrow of the ancient prohibitions as so many arbitrary and inhuman oppressions, the unjustified circumscription of natural forms of human liberty that purportedly existed in some natural, pre-human condition. The success of this new philosophy relied upon the success of these attacks, the lifting of ancient beliefs and practices that, in particular, would induce generational amnesia, a forgetting of our debts to the past and our corresponding obligations to the future. A new conception and experience of time was introduced, one that - for the first time in human history - permitted, indeed encouraged, human beings to live solely in the present. The success of the modern project rested upon the overcoming and rejection of the legacy of antiquity.
At the same time, it should be understood that more deeply, the modern project relied upon the very inheritance that was being attacked - just as it rested upon the existence of a created natural order that it held in contempt as so much "waste." The inheritance of the ancients provided habits of living that stretched far into modern times - much like (to borrow an image from Vico) the sweet water of a river will travel uncontaminated for time into the brackishness of the seas, eventually mixing in until the freshness is dissipated. What we have seen in this culminating year of the American empire - and, quite arguably, the modern project, though it will continue on for a time, even oblivious to its having passed a zenith - is that very dissipation of those fresh waters that had continued to freshen the brackish waters even deep into the corrosive currents. Longtime habits of virtue, enactments of responsibility and unconscious acknowledgement of generational bonds had continued to maintain the order upon which the modern system rested and flourished, but in no way renewed or replenished. Thrift; moderation; liberality; self-sacrifice; these, and other virtues, continued for a time, but in this year were revealed to have been overthrown by the mad, even insane pursuit of temnporary and fleeting gains. We discovered at once that we had passed a tipping point in our consumption of supposed infinite energy, even as we discovered as well that we had passed a tipping point in the maintenance of the virtues that might have prevented us from such abandoned consumption. We found that neither our leading citizens nor the ordinary working stiff any longer exercised prudence or forsight in making some of the basic decisions that ensures the future of a civilization. The Ponzi scheme was suddenly revealed, and the house of cards came crashing down.
I suspect that we will now enter a time not unlike the five stages of grief described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. The expectation awaiting the savior - in the form of soon to be President Obama - indicates clearly that we are firmly in the first stage, denying any permanent significance to this moment. We await the righting of our ship of State, the restoration of American power and majesty, and more deeply still, the rejuvanation of the modern project of human conquest. In claiming an ability to "heal the planet," Obama offered the ultimate promise to moderns who are increasingly aware of the destruction that this project had wrought: to employ our massive powers to healing a planet that we ourselves had scarred, and in so doing, allowing us to continue our project of human dominion. The planet was never ours to destroy or to heal, but upon which to live: the belief that we can re-tool the economy to reverse the damage, achieve a non-damaging relationship with the natural world, create "green jobs" that achieve an equilibrium between human activity and natural processes - all the while restoring American power, status, and economic growth - is the newest and most ridiculous yet of the delusions that we have adopted in our enlightened times. Most telling to me is the fact that the Obama agricultural policy will remain wedded to a system that relies on limited fossil fuel inputs to achieve maximal caloric outputs at the cost of the ultimate viability of our capacity to grow food into any reasonable future time. Our willingness to ignore the massive damage to and erosion of the remaining topsoil of the American continent reveals most deeply that we are wedded to our continued belief in the our God given human prerogative to extract whatever we want, when we want it, at whatever price to be paid at some future time. Even as we laud our democratic accomplishments, our relationship to the world is totalitarian.
We will at some point in the nearer future achieve "acceptance" - as with any terminal patient, we will have no choice. We will accept the inevitability of the demise of our modern wager, the faith-based belief that we could master nature without being mastered by the consequences of our purported dominion. Acceptance will entail the death of a way of civilization and a philosophy that spawned it, but will likely not mean the death of humankind. It will instead mean that we will be forced into the realization of the limits of the natural world and the limits that any human philosophy must acknowledge. We will, in one way or another, discover our fallenness, our proneness to pride, sin, avarice, sloth, living in the shortest of terms. We will discover that our age was a profound heresy, a new living-out of the oldest temptation that bore humankind East of Eden, the craving to taste the fruit that we should not eat. We will, in time, discover that ours was neither an "environmental" nor "economic" nor "political" crisis, but a theological failing.
And, from this realization may come wisdom and a better way. For whatever reason - a trial imposed upon us by God for reasons we cannot understand - humankind seems to be destined to go through historical cycles in which we believe ourselves to transcend our condition, to be permitted to go beyond right or due measure, even to believe ourselves to be God. And, inevitably - whether we call it hubris or sin or nature - we are reminded of ourselves, of who we are - and who we are not. While ours, and likely the next, will be the generation that curses its fate not to have lived during a time of plenty and excess, and we will wonder why it was our bad fortune to have lived in the aftermath of an empire's glory, if we are capable of deeper and better perspective, we will understand the blessings of our age. From such times of trial a certain deeper wisdom has been made possible - one thinks especially Augustine's great blessing to have lived in a time that made it possible to write The City of God - and we may yet come to know, and accept - even embrace - the knowledge that our falsity will have spawned. While for most we will despair over our losses and pains, perhaps later if not sooner we will understand the blessings of this - our - time of trial.