Needed: A New Year’s reality check

Published on January 5th, 2009

January 1, 2009
San Diego Union-Tribune

The easy call for the defining moment of 2008 is a beaming President-elect Barack Obama standing triumphant in front of a sea of Americans gathered in Chicago’s Grant Park in celebration of his historic ascension to the White House. It was a moment that brought the Bush era to an end as succinctly as President Ford’s eulogy had closed the book on Richard Nixon, Vietnam and the 1960s: “Our long national nightmare is over.”

But the quintessential moment of perhaps the most turbulent period in America since the tumult of 1968 actually passed with little notice as 2008 ground to a close. Featured was not Obama, but rather Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Holding forth for the cameras of CBS’ “60 Minutes” as he cruised his biodiesel Hummer around Venice Beach in Los Angeles, Schwarzenegger told reporter Scott Pelley that despite dire threats to both California’s ecosystems and economy, he rejected “guilt-trip environmentalism” – his new sound-bite of choice for dismissing critics of wanton consumption and growth.

The solution, the governor insisted, is not less of anything, but rather more technology.

“People, keep all of the stuff that you like, but change the technology,” Schwarzenegger said. “So I started pushing that agenda in a positive way. Look at the great things we can do, we can turn this whole thing around. The damage that we have created over the last hundred years; we can undo that.”

Say what you will about Schwarzenegger’s acting, he does know how to play to an audience; as he used Pelley’s star-struck, pedestrian interview to announce that he would, indeed, like to be president, if only Congress would do something about that pesky native-born constitutional requirement. And Schwarzenegger knows you don’t get to be president – or governor, for that matter – by offering a candid assessment that the age of mass consumerism is unsustainable and now screaming toward its inglorious end on the trash heap of history, quite literally. Perhaps he feels that’s a role better left played by a familiar character actor like Ralph Nader.

But if Obama has spoken inspirationally to our hope for a dramatic change in how the country is run and where it is heading, then Schwarzenegger’s comments were a sly appeal to a widespread delusion that fundamental change can be achieved without dramatically altering anything; from our lifestyles and our levels of consumption to our surging population growth.

But Schwarzenegger’s insistence that we can keep the party going should be of no surprise. Politicians and preachers increasingly cater to crass materialism in order to put warm bodies in the pews and in the polling booths. Prosperity sermons abound from both the pulpit and the campaign stump, using the “name it and claim it” mantra that Schwarzenegger just refined to its essence: “Keep all the stuff you like.” That’s not “’guilt-trip environmentalism,” it’s “guilt-free gluttony.”

The governor’s dreamy musings come from the chief executive of a state that takes home the Oscar this year for Worst Performance in a Bad Comedy – a production that Sacramento ran $40 billion into the red.

The state’s staggering budget deficit strikes as many public school districts’ chaotic and overcrowded campuses remain locked in a death-spiral of high dropout rates and basement-level test scores. The network of health care facilities, particularly those that serve the state’s most at-risk and in-need populations, continue to falter and close in the face of uncompensated care and increased demand.

A new report by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program projects sustained drought will continue to grip much of the state, even as California’s population continues to surge as a result of immigration. If people seem upset now because their 401(k)s have been drained, just wait until the water supplies run dry. The impacts of peak oil will be a fond memory in contrast with the widespread hardship that is now on the horizon with the commoditization of water.

In spite of all this, Schwarzenegger blithely reaffirms his orthodox faith in the religion of mass consumerism, waving away the suggestion that the paradigm of ever-greater growth has brought us to the brink of catastrophe in California. The bottom line is as clear as it is hard: nearly 40 million people now live in California, and 20 million more are projected to join us by mid-century. Keeping all the “stuff you like” won’t be on the menu if our present growth and consumption patterns continue apace. Rather, our grandkids will wait in suspense to see what their rationed water allotment will be.

In honor of the Schwarzenegger’s commitment to consumption, I suggest a new state motto for California’s flag: “Keep all the stuff that you like!” We can put it right under the extinct California grizzly.

Cromer is a senior writing fellow for Californians for Population Stabilization.

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