Yesterday, I shared some thoughts about why I think Occupy Wall Street might have more staying power than the last batch great round of protest movements in the 1960’s. Central to my argument was a fear of our national enemy, the Soviet Union as the embodiment of “not capitalism.” Questioning capitalism could easily, if not accurately be equated with allying oneself with our “enemy”.
There was something else about the ’60’s that is a stark contrast to what we now face as a nation and a world. Innocence, idealism, naivitee…I’m not sure what to call it except there was a great deal of hope that a better world was just ahead of us,and that if we could just solve the social ills, the racism and sexism, the war, poverty, we could enter something of a golden age of humanity. And, while all those great social movements were taking place, America was reaching for the stars, as was the Soviet Union.
Think about it. Look at the visions of the future from those times. Buck Rogers was flying something more advanced than the space shuttle in 1986 when he was catapulted into the 25th Century. By 2001, we were supposed to have Pan Am flights to orbiting space stations and outposts on the moon and space craft venturing to Jupiter. As late as 1985, we had visions of cold-fusion powered hover cars filling the skies by 2010. Some visions were more grounded in realism and hard science than others, but there were serious hopes and dreams about a future worthy of science fiction.
Environmentalism was still in its infancy, and global warming had not entered the scientific and political lexicon. Yes, there were concerns about oil spills and pollution, but for most people, the real threat of a global environmental catastrophe lay in global nuclear war…in the cold war.
In short, we weren’t really concerned about doing global damage to the planet, and even if we did, we were heading out to colonize the stars in a few generations anyway.
Now, here we are a generation or two down the road. Yes, three people live on the International Space Station, but the United States does not have the means to launch people into space. The threat of global nuclear war has largely subsided, but we now face, in Global Warming, a very real threat that can only be mitigated by making significant changes to our collective way of life, changes that the market has not yet been able or willing to deliver to as many people as it needs to reach. It is in this sobering, grounded, earth-bound context that we find the Occupy movements taking root.
So on the one hand we lack a national bogeyman to scare us away from consideration of “not capitalism”, and on the other we have a significant, existential crisis of environmental and economic sustainabilty that the free market has failed to respond to…and that’s putting it charitably. Those two key differences create fertile ground for consideration of alternatives to our current economic and political system.