Finally, it seems to be hitting us. The Carter administration is telling us that the economic slow down may deepen into a recession and there is a feeling amoung many that the recession may deepen into something worse. Gas lines and the rising prices are not aberrations. The energy crisis is no longer a passing phenomenon: we have come to a juncture in the American way of life, and we are going to heve to change.
A lot of us feel trapped right now, victims of the greedy Arabs and the profiteering oil companies. This is July 4, a day in which we celebrate our independence and our prosperity by blowing $20 on fireworks that don't work, but many of us don't feel at all independent or prosperous anymore.We know the Arabs and the oil companies have us in a stranglehold.
Ours is a country that has responded to past adveersity with generosity, courage, energy and innovation. We've responded to this crisis by hoarding and butting into gas lines. For months now, we've been sure this crisis will pass. Only now is it dawning on many of us that the life o plentiful consumer goods, abundant leisure time, constant quick travel by car, a life of big houses and big cars and unlimited energy, is over.
Those of us in the baby boom generation may finally have to grow up.
"You made no personal sacrifices," says my mother, who lived through the Depression. "One way or another, every need of yours was met."
Ours was a generation that grew up with plenty of leisure time and money and had no memory of want, no memory of the Depression. Our parents were upwardly mobile. They made the move from the two- and three-bedrooms, homes in the cities to the four-bedroom homes in the suburbs. Not only did we not share bedrooms, we didn't have to take hand-me-downs.
Our families in the '50s and '60s routinely purchased two cars, and when we got to be 15 or 16 years old we routinely expected to have liberal use of them. Some of us even got our own cars. An entire generation of teen-agers came of age in the automobile, teen-agers in motion, traveling to the local high school in cars, cruising on weeknights and weekends. Cars became the necessary accessoories with which we passed through the rites of life, establishing our independence from school buses, from our families, establishing ourselves within the worlds of work and love. Cars were, after all, one of the few places teen-agers could be alone.
Ours was a generation impassioned by causes. The baby boom generation was the one that insisted blacks were equal, that insisted the Vietnam war was wrong. It was a generation that gave up months and sometimes years of its youth to right social wrongs, a generation that picketed, marched and got arrested on behalf of ideas. But it was not a generation challenged by economic sacrifice. We traded in our pleated skirts, for jeans, our blazers for work shirts, and moved out of our parents' homes into roach-infested walkups on the Lower East Side, but even if we had to split the rent two and four ways, somebody always had an expensive stereo.
Together with our parents we shared lives of abundance and upward mobility on a scale unmatched in history. We got college degrees, jobs, expendable income, and plenty of leisure time for travel and fun. We married and move from appartments to houses. We traded in sedans for station wagons and vans. We became a nation of adults in motion, driving ourselves to work, our childern to their many activities, stopping frequently at the shopping malls to consume. We decorated and redecorated dur homes. We bought two televisions and two steros and amassed splendid record and tape collections. We made our mark with our vigor, our youth, our purchasing power.
Now, many of us find ourselves lecturing our children that no, we can't afford a particular record, mush less another stereo. More and more we are saying no to requests that involve spending money or using gasoline. Trips to movies, the shopping malls, libraries, hairdressers, quick trips to the store to pick up a few things for dinner are now major expeditions.
The age of opulence is over. We face profound economic and social changes that will penetrate our patterns of work, purchasing, transportation, child raising, housing and recreation. We are going to have to look to other countries and to the past, for guidance on how to live with less. We are going to have to look to new technology for more efficient uses of energy and to new sources of energy.
We are going to have to slow down our pace of life, and we are going to have to forgo things we would like to have. Our real income is deteriorating and we are confronting hardship for the first time. We are finding it very unpleasant. We can continue to complain about the Arsbs and the oil fartels or we can finally face the situation the way Americans have faced adversity in the past: we can settle down to the business of adjusting, accommodating and growing. It may not be so bad.
We can walk more and learn to ride bicycles again. We can coordinate shopping trips with neighbors and welcome corner grocery stores, drugstores and pubs back into the neighborhoods.Our feverish preoccupation with segregating commercial from residential districts may give way to the pragmatic realization that corner store may be far more useful to the subdivision that another four-bedroom, three-bath house.
Industry and government may adopt much more flexitime and four-day work week schedules to reduce congestion on highways and rapid transit systems. Think of it: life without rush hour. Children may play closer to home, neighborhood schools may start opening in the evenings to serve as recreation and cultural centers. Businesses may use telephones more and airplanes less, which may mean that parents will travel less.
So far, we've been insisting that this is merely a crisis, something that will pass with the summer, as it did before. Now, everything we are hearing from the Carter administration is saying that the high energyprices are permanent. We didn't believe it could happen, and the way the administration warned us about this situation last winter and this spring was so stupefyingly dull and incomprehensible that it was difficult to fathom the message. Now, we have to listen and the administration has to lead.
And it must lead with good, sound, practical advice instead of the frenzied pronouncements and contradictory predictions we've been hearing lately.The administration needs to tell us what we as individuals can do in this new era of thrift and frugality to reduce our energy consumption.
George Perry, an economist at the Brookings Institutions, says we should net expect the future to be one unending gasoline line. He does not see a "distinct reductionin the quality of life." He believes that in five or six years we will develop much more fuel-efficient cars, better insulated housing, evolutionary changes in our methods of transportation that will make us less vulnerable that we have been to political upheaval in the Middle East.
That is the long run. Now the era of cheap energy is over. And we have to face the fact, individually, and within our families and communities, that the life style of plenty it brought us, the life of big, fast cars, of waste and excessive consumption, a life of boundless expectations, is a way of life that is ending.
We need to look to the past to find out how people used to live with one car, a vegetable garden, an electric fan and a bike. We need to look back to find out how neighborhoods were planned around commuter buses, how children grew up playing on the street where they lived. And we need to look back to find out how people flourished and enjoyed life, depending on their own personal energy and thrift.
There in the past we may find the patterns of life that will once again allow us to be an independent nation.