It should come as no surprise that George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, has returned to best seller’s lists. We often turn to literature to help make sense of reality, which can be incomprehensible and a lot less linear. It is easy to draw comparisons between Orwell’s alternate reality and a political administration that intentionally lies to the public, attempts to disempower and circumvent the free press, and manipulates previously published statements to fit the current version of their story; all of these disturbing points are raised in the novel. The government can exert undue influence over the population by steering public opinion, history, language and their control of the media can be used as a weapon to destroy anyone who resists.
One perspective that has not been discussed in relation to the current U.S. political administration is the story’s depiction of resource management. 1984 takes place in a world that is continuously at war. The protagonist, Winston Smith, learns that Oceania has been at war or in alliance with both Eurasia and Eastasia for 25 years, frequently switching sides. Which region is the enemy is not important; being at war drives production. Winston learns from Goldstein’s Manifesto that:
“The primary aim of modern warfare (in accordance with the principles of doublethink, this aim is simultaneously recognized and not recognized by the directing brains of the Inner Party) is to use up the products of the machine without raising the general standard of living.”
This method of production for the machine of war may have been inspired by post-WWII reality. As devastating as the war was on the world, particularly Europe, for the United States it put people back to work and closed the book on the Great Depression. The U.S. was one of the only manufacturing powers left standing and achieved unprecedented growth. Once the war ended maintaining that momentum became the sole answer to avoiding another depression.
In Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Jerry Mander discusses how the government and industry leaders joined together to develop a new economy based on manufactured consumer demand, versus actual need, to keep production lines rolling. This was achieved by marketing a new lifestyle to returning GIs; they should have their own cars, homes and appliances. They used the new medium of television as a means to sell this product-based version of the American Dream. The suburbs were created, the car culture became entrenched, and consumer competition became a norm. The economy boomed. The quality of life—as measured by how much people could buy—grew, but so did dissatisfaction and discontentment. We now live in a society that feeds itself pain killers and alcohol to numb the hole created by what we lack.
Orwell’s economy of manufactured products specifically to be destroyed in the name of war and Mander’s economy based on manufactured desire both present an unsustainable use of resources at the expense of humanity.
This begs the question; with the current administration pushing for an increase in manufacturing, and more alarmingly a substantial increase in the extraction and distribution of fossil fuels, what is their plan for using those resources? Let’s put aside the reality that the world has been decreasing its dependence on fossil fuels, particularly coal, because of increased efficiency and the impact on the environment, and that most manufacturing jobs were lost to offshoring and automation, and ask if they are able to achieve their goal of increased production how will output be purposed?
The current U.S. administration has already begun the process by green-lighting two deals that had been derailed by the Obama administration, which had cited environmental concerns. The Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone XL Pipeline, when operational, will not bring construction jobs (both pipelines are nearly complete), but will deliver up to 1.4 million barrels of crude oil every day from fracked and tar sands fields in the U.S. and Canada. Crude oil will flood a market that is already saturated, potentially impacting global oil prices. Where is this oil expected to go? Similarly, increased manufacturing in the U.S. creates more goods in a world which already has too many things at a cost that will be uncompetitive on the global market. Who will purchase these goods?
To build and maintain the manufacturing future promised in the campaign, we may need to purchase more stuff that we don’t need and can’t afford or move into a perpetual state of war to create an endless demand for production. The head of this administration has already started a war of words with other heads of state, notably with Mexico and the members of NATO; could this lead the U.S. into confrontation to fulfill his mandate to bring home American jobs?
Rather than paint another gloomy scenario, there is an alternative which would achieve the administration’s job creation goal without destroying resources or creating more consumer debt. If they continue to invest in green and renewable industries, which are in high demand globally, manufacturing and construction jobs would be created, the economy would improve with this improved commercial base, and the U.S. would have the side benefits of reducing its reliance on imported fossil fuels while cutting carbon emissions. Although they are unlikely to pursue this course, public pressure on the administration could force them to embrace the future instead of the past. Let’s stop focusing on what is going wrong and push for an more sustainable alternative.