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A once-and-future America? Author says lean era ahead will revitalize families, communities

The Future Is Not What It Used to Be: Returning to Traditional Values in an Age of Scarcity, by Warren Johnson. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. 246 pp. $16.95. Mesmerized by the promises of ``You can have it all -- Go for it!'' advertisements and literature today, I am as obsessed as the next person with accumulation -- chasing after the elusive goal of more money, more things, more pleasure. Only in rare moments of reflection do I pause to question the legitimacy of my latest issue of Glamour (with ``Get What You Want From Your Boss,'' ``How to Get People to Do It Your Way,'' and ``Who Gets Ahead and Why?'') as a sufficient guide to life.

Warren Johnson's new book ``The Future Is Not What It Used to Be'' provided me with several such moments. Refreshingly, this author writes not of ``power,'' ``control,'' and ``self-fulfillment,'' but of ``humility,'' ``obligation,'' ``brotherhood.'' His book is a call for simpler, less materialistic times, urging the reader to slow down -- to reevaluate his needs, his life style.

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As Johnson explains the current competitive, ``stridently individualistic'' state of America, it results in part from America's unique past as a wide-open frontier society, well suited to unrestricted capitalism. With the rise of the Industrial Revolution, the most aggressive exploiter of opportunity -- of land and of people -- was often the most successful.

Johnson would claim, however, that this industrial system, upon which America's national power and affluence have been built, is on its way out. With rising deficits, stiffer foreign competition, and most important, the impending energy crunch (which Johnson sees as inevitable), America will never again be the industrial giant it once was. Possible sources of revitalization such as ``high-tech'' will require too much energy and provide too few jobs to support the present level of rising incomes and economic growth.

Johnson argues, furthermore, that as the industrial economy deteriorates, so will the so-called ``marketplace values'' it has encouraged. In a shrinking world of less energy and fewer jobs, hanging on to our present competitive ways will only lead to conflict and personal isolation as we fight more tenaciously for ``the ever-smaller amount of wealth and power available.''

But Johnson is no doomsday prophet. Quite the contrary, he is positive, upbeat -- perhaps too much so at times. Despite his basic premise of scarcity, the emphasis is on what we do have:

We have an abundance of land and all the renewable resources that go with land; we have the tools and the scientific understanding to use them; we have time to change; and most valuable of all, we have an incredibly rich heritage to draw upon.

Johnson sees the impending loss of material affluence as both a challenge to our creativity and a chance to regain some of the richer, more human aspects of life that were passed over in the course of the Industrial Revolution. He urges the reader to contemplate the collected wisdom of the past as well as the knowledge of the present in working toward the creation of a sustainable economy -- one based on renewable resources. He points to such possible areas of future opportunity as the provision of renewable energy, the provision of goods in a less ``energy intensive'' way, and decentralization of the population.

For a sustainable economy to work, Johnson insists, it must be supported by the individual's willingness to restrain himself for the benefit of others. We must begin to see wealth not in terms of material accumulation, but in terms of family and community -- to value such traditional virtues as loyalty, generosity, and cooperation.

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Even if one agrees with Johnson's economic prognosis (the present administration, as a case in point, clearly does not), it will take a good imagination to envision his picture of the future. Is it conceivable that a capitalistic economy such as America's would naturally gravitate to that of small, self-sufficient communities (that is, without some centralized institution and enforcement of policy)? Likewise, though Johnson acknowledges the difficulty of religious faith in the modern world, he nevertheless assumes that his communities will adopt the ethical systems of religion without the motivation of faith. Is this realistic?

Finally, his advice on conserving energy and doing with less in preparation for a sustainable economy might well be useful to the upper and middle classes -- to the academic gentleman farmer set (to which he, no doubt, belongs), but of what value would it be to an unemployed steelworker to suggest that he cut back on going out to eat, use more insulation, or start a sheep ranch?

And yet, in all fairness, a great deal of supportive detail would be too much to expect of a short philosophical jaunt. This is a book of stimulating ideas -- a book designed to spark further creative solutions.

The author's basic themes are thought-provoking and convincingly set forth. ``Scarcity cannot be denied.''

To survive, the human race must learn to conserve, to lead a simpler, less materialistic existence. Correspondingly, selflessness is the only legitimate means by which personal as well as public satisfaction can be achieved.

``The Future Is Not What It Used to Be'' won't change the world -- at least not cataclysmically -- but it might encourage a change of thought, a shift in our ideas of what is important. And considering the unbalanced state of today's society, surely that is more than enough to recommend it.

Michelle Slowey is on the Monitor's staff.

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