Born in the Twilight

Published 2006-04-05

Today's Salon features an interview with William Easterly, who criticizes U.S. foreign aid as stuck in a top-down model that hasn't worked since the 1960s. This jibes with a recent trend of ideas recycled from the era before my birth: building moon cities, spreading democracy in hostile nations, or protesting en masse. Cripes, it appears Neo Marxism is poised to make a comeback. It's not as if all the recycled thoughts are liberal either — I'd argue that conservatism since Goldwater has pretty much been a constant reaction to the Permanent Revolution founded in the summer of love. The End of History, indeed.

Which leads me to suspect that either a) all the ideas we had in the 1960s were so good that we simply can't top them, or b) Western (in particular American) culture reached its creative apogee in about 1969, and it's just been all downhill since. Of course, it could also be c) we're still waiting for the Baby Boomers to enter their long-anticipated dotage, at which point the era will lose its freshness altogether.

While I hope the answer here is c (I'm looking forward to a presidential election in which the Vietnam War is not an issue), I sneakily suspect we might be looking at a combination of a and b. The creative impulse of Western culture peaked in 1969, approximately coincident with the peak output of American oil fields. Civilization runs on more than just Big Thoughts, it requires actual physics. The more machines we can employ in the service of, say, food production and household chores, the greater effort we can invest in, say, hippie love-ins and movement conservatism. For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, all that cheap energy lurked, literally, beneath our feet, but as it began to decline we had to pump ever more energy into obtaining it from other sources. This makes Reagan's "shining city on the hill" look a little less hopeful and a little more wistful.

I am just old enough (barely) to remember being told fantastic-yet-plausible stories of moon cities, twenty hour work weeks, and robot butlers. Kids only a few years younger than myself will find this notion ironic, but in all seriousness, there was a time in (my!) living memory when the world really felt like it was getting better.