“For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors and vice versa.” These famous words were uttered in 1953 by Charles “Engine Charlie” Wilson, President of GM and newly nominated Secretary of Defense. This is a cruel and bitter joke as GM’s domestic market share has plummeted from a high of 60% in its heyday to just under 25% today and its bond rating dropped to “Junk” status. Once a paragon of American industrial might, GM is dying before our eyes.
If GM succumbs, it will be more a suicide than a murder. GM is tenaciously holding to paradigms that no longer exist, doggedly continuing to build vehicles that don’t fit changing times and consumer tastes. Recent gas price increases provide the same situation GM faced during the OPEC oil embargoes 30 years ago when imports carved increasingly larger slices of the market pie by making fuel-efficient vehicles while GM had none. Today, it’s deja vu all over again, as there are waiting lists for new hybrids while GM scrambles to engineer its first high-efficiency vehicle.
In many ways, corporations and societies are similar, in that their strength and vitality ebb and flow according to the vicissitudes of the era and their abilities to react and adjust. In the fascinating bestseller, Collapse, author Jared Diamond chronicles the downfall of several past civilizations. Particularly provocative is his subtitle, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, which also applies to corporations. In contemplating GM’s “choice,” one would surmise that failure was never a conscious goal; there was never that fateful board meeting where directors schemed, “Let’s destroy the company.” But the results will ultimately prove to be the same.
America is exhibiting the same inability to adjust to changing environments and situations. In so many ways, our empire suffers from the attributes and behaviors that have doomed all empires before us. Like GM, we stumble clueless into the future, wondering why what worked so well before works no more. We whitewash real threats, fashion artificial realities to suit our whims, distract ourselves with banal but titillating “news,” and trust good ole American ingenuity to carry us through. But the warning signs of failure are ubiquitous.
First, we’re experiencing military overextension. With about 5% of the world’s population, we spend more on our military than the rest of the world combined. As our resource needs grow beyond our domestic ability to provide them, resources must be arrogated from others, often by force. More than any other nation, we manipulate the rest of the world according to our needs, engendering deep resentment. The hostile reaction by those exploited is straining the ability of our military to maintain enduring subjugation.
Next, we’re failing to protect the environment that nurtures us. While forging the most affluent society the world has ever known, nearly every measure of environmental health is negative. Erosion and pollution of topsoils, depletion of aquifers, rivers, and mineral resources, extremes of weather, and accelerated species extinctions lead the terrible list of maladies. For decades our assault on nature has been pervasive, but the Bush Administration is fanatical in its zeal to devour what’s left, passionately eviscerating two generations of hard-fought environmental laws and policies.
Third is our economy. Once a tower of strength, today America’s economy is in disarray. It has taken but one presidential administration to turn the world’s greatest lender nation into the world’s greatest debtor, from the largest national budget surplus to the largest deficit. Over recent decades, our elected leaders have conspired with corporate strongmen in a wanton, aggressive, domineering way to decimate local economies: retailing, manufacturing, and agriculture. Our nation’s increasing disparity of wealth will foster still another malady common of empires in decline: dissent and mayhem from within.
Finally, our inability to prepare for our coming energy crisis will prove fatal. Oil in particular is destined to become increasingly scarce as we approach the peak of international production. The smallest gap between demand and supply will be calamitous, ushering in skyrocketing prices and plunging our nation into a miserable, lasting recession and many of our citizens into apoplectic fits of rage and despair. The impact will spare no one on the planet, but due to our greater dependency, Americans will suffer like none other.
It is the unkindest irony that the personality characteristics that define Americans – superiority, entitlement, hubris, arrogance, and invincibility – and the values – nationalism, individualism, hedonism, and capitalism – represent the greatest strengths in our empire’s emergence, but are becoming our grandest weaknesses. Like GM, America is doomed because change it must but change it can’t. These values are elemental to our collective psyche and are inviolable – we will cling to them resolutely. The abdication of these values for those more sustainable and equitable is unfathomable to most Americans. Individually, and in the socio-political systems we have allowed to overpower us, we are choosing to fail.
A change in the way we do, well, just about everything, is requisite, and soon. We can only hope for a magical stroke of societal enlightenment which will provide a gradual and soft landing.