Which America Do You Live In?

It's a little confusing.

A story about China's industrial development in the January-February 2008 issue of Mother Jones reports it has already passed the U.S. as the leading producer of greenhouse gases and is on the brink of ecological disaster.

The statistics are frightening, if impressive. China is first in the world in production of coal, steel, cement and 10 kinds of metal. It leads the world in coal consumption - using more than the next three highest-ranked nations - the U.S., Russia and India - combined. And by 2015, it may produce the most cars.

Compare this with a story in the Brattleboro (Vt.) Reformer about local kids asking motorists to turn off their cars when they're waiting to pick up a child, make a bank deposit, or buy a hamburger. They're even suggesting that we turn off our cars at red lights. The idea is that idling adds to pollution, and to save the planet, we need to be more conscientious.

The Chinese have deforested their country; a fourth of it is desert. Acid rain falls on a third of China's landmass. Excessive use of groundwater has caused land to sink in at least 96 Chinese cities. Of the world's 20 most polluted cities, 16 are Chinese. I've read that about one-quarter of the pollution in Los Angeles comes from China.

There's an old joke that asks what would happen if every Chinese person jumped up and down at the same time. Would it cause an earthquake? Taken metaphorically and environmentally, the answer is clearly yes. And let's not forget the multitudes in India also trying to create an American-style life. According to some experts, we'd need several more Earths to satisfy this strain on resources.

Considering the massive pollution and environmental destruction going on, I sometimes think that everyone in Vermont could run a Hummer without it having a noticeable effect on the environment.

Look at money. The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday, under the headline "Visa IPO Banks on End of Cash," that the huge credit card company, currently a cooperative owned by 13,000 financial institutions, plans to take its shares public in March in order to take advantage of the coming "cashless society." (Think of those television commercials where city life merrily buzzes along as happy people swipe cards to get their upscale coffee and groceries, and then the whole thing jams up and crashes because some guy wants to pay with cash or a check. How dare that guy!)

A cashless society? Maybe, if you're lucky enough to have a paycheck. With the dollar falling, Euros at $1.48, gold at $944 (it's a sure sign the economy is tanking when people start putting their money into gold), we may be a moneyless society instead of a cashless one sometime soon. Can you say "Depression?"

Gasoline prices are rising; they won't be going down any time soon. There's an oil surtax on everything we buy caused by additional shipping expenses. Our entire economy runs on oil, and we're competing for it with stronger economies such as Japan, China and India. They have farsightedly spent the last seven years running around the world securing new resources and establishing supply lines that will last them well into the future. Us? We've been trying to take our oil by force and draining our treasury in the process.

At a Barak Obama rally in Putney last week, his foreign policy advisor, Anthony Lake, said that an Obama presidency would help "America once again lead the world."

O, Tony, that ship has passed, passed, passed. Thanks to GATT, NAFTA, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and torture, we've done what I used to think was impossible - we've turned America into a third-world nation. Obama might be able to clean up some of the mess, but we won't be leading the world any time soon.

Yet here in Vermont, we've accepted the idea of peak oil. We talk about running our cars on fry grease, heating with wood, and, in general, doing the back-to-the-land thing, 2.0-style.

We talk about starting a barter economy and creating local "dollars" to trade for goods and services. We talk about growing our own vegetables, buying local foods and turning ourselves from omnivores into localvores. We talk about using rags for tampons and diapers. We talk about learning to be self-reliant and curbing our consumerism.

It's like living in a different America. Outside, people are pretending the economy is chugging along, while we're preparing ourselves to live after a fall which most Americans don't believe is coming.

Some see the post-oil folks as the equivalent of one of those doomsday cults who stock canned food and diesel generators in their bomb shelters.

But we're really more of a throwback to America during World War II, when people grew truck gardens and accepted rationing on butter, chocolate, textiles and rubber. In the Fifties, many people tried to continue their back-to-the-land natural lifestyles. The Sixties brought the hippies and radicals to Vermont, and the back-to-the-land ethos never completely disappeared.

America may be marching on to a brave new economic future. If so, the worst that can happen to us in Vermont is that we continue to eat our fresh, organically grown fruits and vegetables, smoke our locally-slaughtered meats and enjoy living our simpler lives.

The rest of the country might find out that the true cult is Imperial America, and things will get ugly when it falls apart. They may find themselves drinking cyanid-laced Kool-Aid, or committing mass suicide because the comet that was supposed to pick them up never arrived.

A collection of Joyce Marcel's columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through joycemarcel.com. And write her at joycemarcel@yahoo.com.

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