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Trouble with Ideology

One of the reasons we are running into trouble is our reigning ideologies. In a world with limits—which ours is—they have become dysfunctional.

Consider a minor example with major effects: the ideology of the frontier in the United States. The frontier was the edge of the country, with wild country beyond, and expansion meant pushing back and conquering the frontier. There was always more room; it was a big country.

In fact, the "wild country" had residents with a culture and civilization of their own, but in frontier mythology, they were savages and enemies to be conquered in the name of progress. When the continental U.S. had become 48 states (instead of a mix of states, territories, and "wild country"), the frontier was physically closed. But it remained part of U.S. mythology, and not only in Western movies. The expansion of suburbs around our cities, which involves "conquering" farmland, is arguably patterned on the conquest of the West, although without the bloodshed. The spread of suburbs even involves a change of culture, from rural to suburban, and dislocation of existing residents to new places. We want to move out of the city and into the vast untamed. Or into a suburb with houses so far apart that they are effectively isolated and unreachable without cars. It should come as no surprise that advertisements for cars picture vast expanses of empty countryside, for that is how we think of the suburbs, at least in fond imagination.

The realities, both of the real frontier and of the suburbs, could not be more different from the myth. The movement of the real frontier meant conquering and killing residents—an expansion similar to that of the Roman empire. The reality of the suburbs is isolation, endless big box stores and parking lots, enormous traffic jams, out-of-control consumption of fossil fuels, and the destruction of the countryside.

Far more insidious, however, is the reigning ideology of growth. In the 19th Century, both socialist and capitalist thinkers assumed that unlimited growth was possible. In our own time, socialism has faded from the picture in the U.S. Free-market ideology seems triumphant. But what has persisted is the ideology of growth. We measure our economic health, our prosperity, and our quality of life by our ability to produce and consume more and more stuff. We call this "economic growth," and it does produce prosperity of a kind—but at the expense of our environment, our health, and our overall quality of life.

The problem for the future is not just rebuilding our cities or our economic systems. It is finding new ways to think about prosperity and quality of life. Europeans are closer to solving this problem than we in the U.S., but they, too, have not fully succeeded. The idea of constant growth as the engine of progress and the good life has been around a long time. If there is to be a long-term future, we will need to find a replacement for it.