A couple of weeks ago GM discontinued the Hummer H1 after sales dropped to 100 per year of the militaristic looking “SUV”. The fact that it is the vehicle of choice of our Kalifornia Governator, Ahnold Schwarzenegger, says it all really: it is (was) the epitome of macho poserism. Happy as I am to see it cancelled, I also think this is symptomatic of a worrying down-turn in the American psyche, and perhaps not for the reason you might think.
If you’re above the age of 35 you might remember the classic TV series Connections done by James Burke, in which he engagingly wove together stories of scientific discovery and technological development to show how unexpected events could be triggered by well-intentioned inventions. The first episode started out with the story of the 1978 power blackout that affected all of New York City, and commented on how riders on the subway bided their time assuming that the power would be restored and they would be rescued. It never occurred to them, states Burke, that it would not come back on. He then goes on to describe in vivid detail how dependent we are on our complex technological systems. If things really went sideways, would you know how to plow the land, for example?
The response of the subway riders is ingrained in the American psyche: the future will be better than the past (or at least not any worse). The idea that life would get worse, rather than continuing to improve and become richer, more comfortable, more upwardly mobile, is unthinkable. To think it is almost, in fact, un-American. This word has a unique moral power in this country: it’s not the same at all as saying un-English or un-French, which merely indicate a lack of decorum of taste. America is not just a country, it’s an idea. To say that the standard of life will retrograde goes against the moral fibre that built the country, that inspired its very creation.
The Hummer H1 was a tragic-comic expression of this ideal, flying in the face of all logic and scientific knowledge. Oil is running out, that’s a fact. We are polluting the atmosphere to the breaking point, that’s a fact. America’s 5% of the world population is using 25% of the world’s resources, that’s a fact. GM chose to make the H1 anyway, cynically understanding that people would buy it regardless, because they could not conceive of a future bleaker than today.
Consider: the H1 is cancelled, oil prices are high, America has made a hash of the Middle East, this season’s Survivor was the boring-est ever, this global warming thing might actually be taking effect. Is it all sinking in and the America people are staring into the abyss?
(By the way, if you want to have some self-indulgent fun at Hummer’s expense, check out fuh2.com)