Thursday, April 05, 2007

World War II as a Metaphor - Part I

This post was inspired by the fact that I keep running up against the notion that all we have to do is be as we once were, and we can defeat peak oil and climate change without really disrupting our world and society. I don't think that's likely - but whether or not it is possible, it certainly requires more analysis than simply referencing World War II as a metaphor for what we can accomplish. This is Part I of a two part series.

World War II as Metaphor
by Sharon Astyk

The response of the US to World War II has emerged as one of the most commonly used ways of thinking about what will be required of over the coming decades as we confront peak oil and climate change. Because the second world war was a period of remarkable national unity that accomplished some astounding things, we tend to look back at the period as evidence that we as a nation can accomplish equally astounding things in our response to these challenges. And to some degree that may well be the case.

The Hirsch report, commissioned by the US Department of Energy and published in 2005 uses World War II repeatedly as an analogy. We are told that a program that was similar to but *in excess of* the World War II response would be required in order to effect a transition away from fossil fuel dependency *in 20 years* - the word used more than once is "unprecedented." So to do climate change writers use WWII as an analogy. Joseph Romm, former Assistant Secretary of Energy under the Clinton administration writes in _Hell and High Water_, "This national (and global) reindustrialization effort would be on the scale of what we did during World War II, except it would last far longer." (Romm, 235). Romm's book and the Hirsch report are among dozens of books I am aware of that use reference to World War II scale changes as a useful model or analogy.

Such analyses imply that not only would we need to do what we did in World War II, as Niels Bohr put it, "turn the entire nation into a factory," but also that the same mobilization of civilian resources would be required - that is, ordinary Americans would be called upon in similar ways to World War II. During the second world war, Americans endured rationing, women were called upon to enter the workforce, factories were staffed 24 hours a day, imports were restricted and nearly every aspect of daily life was altered.

But if we are to use World War II as evidence, metaphor or argument for our capacity to transform our society, we need to understand which parallels are relevant and which are not - that is, we need to know what enabled the World War II response, and what is similar or different in our own society. I am not attempting to assess the whole of our national capacity to respond to peak oil, or whether World War II is the best or only analogy, but merely to analyze how likely it is that the same strategies used during the 1940s would be available to us now. In taking a closer look at home front strategies, it is worth noting that much has changed that may make things more difficult for us. We do have some advantages as well, most notably that the entire nation could be mobilized, rather than moving large percentages of it overseas to die (assuming, of course, that we cease waging war in our spare time).

I suggest, then, that we think very carefully about what we can and *should* do (it may well be the case that something like what we accomplished in the 1940s could occur, but that it would be a disaster to do so from a long term standpoint - more on this later), what is possible and what is not possible, what is different and what is the same. It is all very well to call for a national commitment and build out, but the stakes of failure are extremely high, and if we allow the metaphor of World War II to overpower the fact that we live in a very different world than we did then, we are likely to make mistakes in our choices.

First, the major disadvantages we experience. You will note, sadly, that this is a much longer list than the subsequent one of advantages that will appear in part II.

1. We are starting much further behind than we were in World War II. To a large degree the success of the World War II build out depended on the anticipatory vision of Franklin Roosevelt and some of his advisors. He began laying the groundwork for the defense build out long before it was obvious that the US must become involved in the War - as early as the 1938 Munich Conference, Roosevelt ordered the development of a preparedness program and a vastly expanded air force. Until the attack on Pearl Harbor at the end of 1941, the US was at best divided between isolationists and interventionists, and there was no unified political will to create a defensive build up. And yet, by using his political capital, Roosevelt began laying the groundwork for expanding American defensive resources in 1938, and for providing aid to Britian in 1939, several years before the US would be embroiled in war. 18 months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, in the spring of 1940, for example, Roosevelt established the NDAC, a board designed to bring business, consumers, labor and industry together for defense production While the board was later replaced, the notion that all participants in the economic process had to be brought together, because of the scale of the operation was a radical one, and Roosevelt anticipated it, laying the groundwork for the war production board, rationing, price controls and other economic strategies.

It is worth noting here that even though Roosevelt was extremely prescient, the delays inherent in large-scale build out might have proved disastrous in other circumstances. Britain was able to hold out against the Nazis in part because of a miscalculation by the Germans that enabled the evacuation of Dunkirk. Had the Germans pressed further on Britain, they might have taken the Island early in the war, before the US managed to bring its supplies of guns, tanks and its men into full preparedness. Germany would then have attacked Russia on a single front and most likely taken all of Europe fairly quickly (the single front estimates of time for Russia to fall to Germany were under 2 months), and then begun to look toward the US. That is, we got damned lucky, and we should not count on that happening again. It took a full 18 months to get US production up to where it was intended, much of it in infrastructure construction.

We should take from this the lesson that we cannot begin preparing too soon - in fact, as we all know, it is almost certainly too late. We are already well into climate change, committed to a significant and continual temperature rise. We are also most likely at or near the world oil peak, with natural gas to follow shortly. And new research suggests that coal is also in shorter supply than expected. In both cases, we should have begun decades ago, and whatever we do now will be affected by contracting resources, rising prices and the fact that infrastructure construction will also take a considerable amount of our time and energy. Our position is roughly analagous to our beginning war planning only after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

2. Leadership counts - and we haven't got it. To an enormous degree, the US ability to respond to the rise of fascism was determined by the leadership of Roosevelt and his advisors. He was able to guide the nation in a direction that its own political will was not adequate to take - and convince the nation to support him. Roosevelt took enormous risks with the nation - and they paid off. It is hard to judge whether he was simply fortunate or whether his ability to forsee what happened was a particular gift, but whatever it was, for example, Roosevelt believed that Britain could hold on despite the German onslaught. The majority of Roosevelt's military advisors believed that Britain would fall, and strongly opposed Roosevelt's plan to send arms to Britain - arms that the US would need in the event of an attack. But Roosevelt's strategy of stripping the US army to buy time worked.

Roosevelt also had Eleanor, whose importance should not be understated. Her consistent emphasis on not just winning the war but creating a just society influenced her husband, who had similar goals but was much more inclined to bow to political realities. Both believed that soldiers had to return home to a real democracy - for example, FDR called for the nation to treat "four freedoms", including freedom from want, on par with the Bill of Rights. He did not live to see that happen, but they did effect a large scale redistribution of wealth from rich to poor, encouraging the rise of the middle class. Eleanor Roosevelt consistently brought human rights and civil rights to the table, and insisted that her husband pay attention to those interests, and that plan for a just future. She consistently was concerned with the creation of a post-colonial society, with universal civil rights, desegregation and the needs of women and returning soldiers. While Franklin Roosevelt was primarily focused on what was necessary, Eleanor Roosevelt was most concered with what should be. The two of them together, along with their aides, creating something greater than either could have alone, a nation with not only military might but a moral center. We lack a moral center today.

Neither were perfect, and I do not intend to suggest that their handling of the war, or their policies were ideal. The Japanese internment camps, the refusal of refugee status to fleeing Jews, and many other war policies were just plain amoral, and many other practices were mistaken. But realistically, we cannot expect leaders who won't make mistakes, or even leaders who will never do anything wrong or evil. At best, we can hope for people who see the future and seek to get us there, while keeping track of issues of principle and justice. I am not attempting to absolve either Roosevelt for any of their errors - but the reality is that both led the nation, rather than simply following - and that alone is quite an accomplishment.

The present situation is very different - not only, as well know, is the present administration made up of fools and liars, but there are no great leaders waiting in our wings that I am aware of. Perhaps such a leader will appear as a product of difficult times, or perhaps someone who I do not see as great will find greatness. I do not know. Moral arguments, however, have been reduced to what Ron Dreher, author of _Crunchy Cons_ describes as "Look, it is Janet Jackson's unsheathed ta-ta!" Finding someone (or someones) who can enable us to face the future and also our own deficiencies seems difficult. Preserving what is worthwhile (or was) in American society will be as integral as preserving what we can of our economy and culture, perhaps more so.

On the other hand, it is worth noting that many nations have faced crises without a great leader - as long as the people were great and led in the right direction, "leaders" arose and stood around directing traffic. The Roosevelts, for example did not arise in a vacuum. They were products of a nation of activists and the politically engaged, and both were regularly moved by the influence of ordinary people who spoke publically about their experience. The power of ordinary people often drove events forward, while Franklin and Eleanor enabled them. Even if we have no great leaders, we the people have the power to move the nation forward without them. It is also possible that a new moral commitment to a better society would draw those who resist public life but care about justice into it. We might create better leaders if we become better people.

3. We're starting from behind on many counts. Those who believe in a techno-fix to peak oil often point out that the US produced 6000 military planes in 1939, and that number, in merely 3 years, rose to nearly 100,000. This is absolutely true, and it was a remarkable accomplishment that we might to some degree duplicate. But it is worth noting that at present the US is starting with some notable disadvantages. Among them are our loss of manufacturing, the globalization of trade, a shaky economy, energy shortages and lack of a trained populace.

In 1940, the US had the largest manufacturing economy in the world. Despite the great depression, the US had enormous production capacity, far greater than even Germany's. And while it was an enormous political project to begin mobilizing commercial production for military use, the facilities themselves, and a large population of trained laborers was in place. Thus, when the war production began in earnest, factories that produced civilian goods rapidly began producing for military purposes. Clothing manufacturers made uniforms. A toy factory made military compasses. The auto industry essentially ceased manufacturing personal vehicles in favor of building tanks and planes.

While many untrained workers eventually joined the production workforce, including many women, the transitional period occurred before the first large scale wave of call ups, and much of that transition was created by using practiced labor. It is certainly possible to train new workers - World War II provides considerable evidence. At one point an advertisement suggested that if a woman had sewn on a button, she could operate a lathe, and to a large degree, this turned out to be true. But in a society where comparatively few people either sew on buttons or operate lathes, we face something rather different.

Over the last 20 years, the US has seen the destruction of most of its manufacturing base. Thousands of factories all over the US have closed, many have been abandoned or converted into office space, and workers have been retrained. Much of our manufacturing has been offshored to Asia and other nations. Most younger workers have absolutely no experience with making things - they have worked in a largely service based economy. At the same time, we have seen a tremendous loss of power to labor - if we are to draft large portions of the population into aiding us with a build out, we must also reverse decades of bestowing power on corporations and away from ordinary people, or those who are being asked to sacrifice will simply decline - or be effectively enslaved. If we imagine our build-out occuring without becoming a fascist nation, power will have to be vested in the lands of employees, citizen and laborers, not in corporations.

The US managed its enormous rate of production by effectively nationalizing many industries, including the automotive industry. The government set prices, profit margins and policies. They made possible things like 24 hour shift staffing, building worker housing in urban centers and creating infrastructure, while also ensuring reasonable labor standards and practices. That is not possible for industries located outside the US - we cannot, for example, demand that Chinese factories meet our production goals. We certainly cannot hold them to decent labor standards - although, of course, we have ample evidence that Americans don't much care if things are built by slaves. But even if we don't care about labor practices, we cannot ensure, for example, that other nations will build production capacity when we need it and ensure we get what we want when we need it. If the US is to engage in a massive build-out, in order to ensure production and stable prices, this will have to occur in our own factories, under our own regulations. Unfortunately, that means recreating our manufacturing infrastructure, which we have just spent a generation dismantling. This will add on to our lead time. We will almost certainly require much, much more than 18 months.

Could we do this on a world scale, rather than on a national one? Could we simply allow market forces to resolve the issue? Perhaps - but we would be depending on getting just as lucky as the British got at Dunkirk. We would be depending on the stability of our currency, that other nations would prioritize production for our needs on our timescale, and we would, in the end, ensure that much of the wealth from this new growth industry travelled out of our nation (probably based on debt) and to other nations. That is, if every nation is trying as best they can to address coming urgent shortages of resources, other priorities will fall by the wayside - if other nations are engaged in similar build outs, trying to complete them before they run into shortages of energy and before rising costs affect national economies, many of the things that Americans do to make money will fall by the wayside - and thus, the US economy is likely to falter. If the next (last?) big boom is in renewable energies, a service economy that cannot be sustained without large influxes of fossil fuels will not make us rich enough to adapt our infrastructure.

Globalization also represents a potentially serious barrier to success. The conventional wisdom of market economics, including the doctrine of specialization is antithetical to the practices we need to engage in in order to ameliorate both climate change and peak oil. As the energy and climate implications of moving things around the globe increase, the need to create local infrastructure for millions of items, including food, tools, clothing and other essentials increases. But the globalized economy discourages generalization, and localization. It is virtually impossible for local food and clothing systems to compete with existing industrial mechanisms unless subsidies for industrial systems are withdrawn, and economic burdens like carbon taxes level the playing field for those goods made locally. We may well be hoist on our own petard.

4. Where does the money come from?

One would think that in comparison to the US in 1940, our economy would be one of the ways in which we come out ahead in the 21st centure. We are certainly much richer, and we have the advantage of not having suffered more than a decade of deep depression. But the economic advantages that enabled success in war are unlikely to be duplicated. The US government was ultimately responsible for 38% of the total build out, and it funded its military program in two ways. The first was through borrowing, and the second was by taxing the heck out of the populace, particularly the richest portion of the populace, while simultaneously strongly encouraging voluntary investment in War Bonds. The national savings rate rose to its highest levels ever during World War II - with most of that money invested directly in the country itself, in part because of memories of the dangers of banks.

It is conceivable that the present government might be able to convince gullible Americans to invest their savings in War Bonds or something similar. Given America's present credit rating, however, there is no reason to believe that this would be a wise long-term investment, and I think present day cynicism about government would prevent many people from taking advantage (being taken advantage of).

Our capacity to borrow from other nations is also somewhat limited by our enormous debt and shaky currency. The US was, at the time of the second world war, a comparatively good credit risk because many of the nations it was borrowing from were dependent on US munitions to survive against the Germans. While China may well become increasingly dependent on US grain, it is not at all clear that China requires us to be a rich nation in order to keep their interest in our agriculture alive. At the very least, the incentives other nations have to keep our economy going are much smaller than the incentives lending nations had during the second world war.

In 1944, Franklin Roosevelt proposed taxing all income over 25,000 dollars at the 100% tax rate (to give you a sense of perspective, General Douglas MacArthur made 8,000 dollars per year and only 48,000 Americans made more than 2,500 dollars per year in 1940). Although Roosevelt's proposal failed (pity), it is beyond imagining an equivalent proposal today - try and conceive of any leader attempting to tax incomes over 1 million at the 100% rate. But the fact that Roosevelt's proposal was a serious one is a measure of how hard the government worked economically to keep wealth fairly distributed. This emphasis on fair distribution enabled the national savings rate - despite the fact that in equivalent dollars people were much poorer than they are now, the redistribution of wealth downward meant that ordinary people could invest significantly in their nation. At present, however, wealth is vastly less fairly distributed, national savings is negative, and there are real limits to our ability to mortgage our houses and put our infrastructure changes on our credit cards.

Large tax increases may end up happening, but they will probably lead in the long term to the expansion of our permanent underclass, rather than, as the World War II expansion did, an across the board increase in wealth among working people. At the end of World War II, the average income of ordinary people had doubled, while the incomes of rich folk rose only 50%. The massive changes in policy that would enable ordinary Americans to be financially stable enough, in the face of an energy crisis, to invest in their nation seem politically impossible in the present situation. They may not be. But yet again, we are starting from behind.

Our economy is being held up, to a large degree, by other nations, because it is in their interest to keep our economy afloat and thus keep us buying their manufactured goods. But a new, national economy that focused on serving national needs would keep money at home, rather than sending it overseas. Combine that with the fact that every other nation on earth will also need to husband their resources in order to respond appropriately to climate change and peak oil in their own nation, and the incentive for foreign banks to continue to loan money to us and prop up our currency are greatly reduced.

Will China and Japan loan us the money to serve our national interests, given that we have at present no prospect of paying back what we've borrowed? Their economic investment is great, and it stands to cost them if our currency collapses, or our economy does. On the other hand, our currency collapsing would reduce our ability to compete with them for major stores of fossil fuels. I'm no economist, and I don't claim to be able to predict whether our economy and our ability to borrow money will continue as they are - but I wouldn't count on it.

Our national debt rating has been steadily downgraded - will we be able to borrow the money to make massive infrastructure changes and educate our populace for the new economy? And given our warmaking, will other nations see it as in their interest to fund us. Speaking of war, our policies in the middle east are at present overextending us economically on another front - at some point, the sheer number of complications and variables we face overwhelms the ability of systems to cope. Can we take on several enormous projects while waging war? Because it does not seem that the Democrats are going to meaningfully stop the war. So whatever we do will take place in a politically unstable arena, while many of our resources are being devoted to a pointless war or wars.

5. Where does the energy Come from?

In 1940, America was the largest producer of oil and gas in the world, and to a large degree, that, combined with the massive production capacity it enabled, was what won the war. America never experienced gas shortage - there was gas rationing, but rationing existed in order to conserve tires, since rubber production was controlled by Japan. The transformation of the entire nation into a massive factory was fueled by (for the period) unlimited access to energy. Indeed, Germany's loss was at least in part caused by literally running out of gas. America effectively nationalized its oil and gas production, giving itself priority for all energy resources and installing price caps, and was well able to fuel its build out with its own resources.

Now, almost 40 years past the American production peak, there is no way that America can fuel a massive build out without relying heavily and for many years to come on imported fossil fuels. We have no way of manufacturing solar panels, mining metals, building wind turbines and rail lines, manufacturing insulation or growing biofuels without massive inputs of fossil fuels at every stage of the process. Because we are starting when we are, in an era of rising energy costs, decreasing production and reduced availability (OPEC announced 3% cuts this year, but export rates are falling by 7% overall according to Jeffrey Brown), our ability to fuel our own infrastructure transformation is likely to be dramatically affected by oil availability and price.

For example, solar panels, already beyond the means of many Americans, will probably drop in price somewhat as mass production ensues, but that drop will be offset by consistent rises in production costs, and eventually, potentially, reduced availability. This is true of everything we may come to need, from woodstoves to buses, efficient deep well pumps to low output toilets.

Many people assume that if we simply build out enough spare capacity, we will eventually have
the ability to manufacture more renewables entirely with renewable energies, but there is no evidence for this claim. It is conceivable that large scale technological break-throughs will occur, or that we will find ways to return to earlier materials (one of the great research products of the war was the struggle to create synthetic rubber for tires and other uses, made from petroleum - perhaps we will go back to rubber and back to natural materials for thousands of other products now made from petroleum derived synthetics), but this will involve not one but hundreds and thousand of individual technological breakthroughs, and many may simply not happen.

Much as we like to believe otherwise, simply wanting something to happen often does not make it occur. And even if such breakthroughs were inevitable, all of this depends on our being able to manufacture enough spare capacity quickly enough to then use our renewable energies not just for running hospitals and lighting our homes, but also for alloying metals, running heavy mining equipment, shipping, making plastics and doing a million other things that have thus far been done by fossil fuels. It seems more likely, given the time required for build out, that we may not have that spare capacity, so that even if it were technically possible (and we have no idea if it is) to replace all or even most fossil fuel based processes and materials, we may well not have the energy to do it without sacrificing something else we desperately need. This represents the largest possible barrier to having any success with build out - and is a reason we should seriously reconsider our expectations.

A massive build out on World War II scale is simply not a permanent, automatic solution to our energy crisis - wind turbines and solar panels, rail lines and woodstoves age and breakdown, or must be replaced by more efficient models. Eventually, everything must be replaced or done without - and having used our resources and burned that carbon, the next generation, who must, 20 years from now, build all this over again, will be vastly less able to do so. If we rely primarily on build-out as a strategy, and are not lucky enough to manage sufficient extra capacity for renewables to become self-replacing, we condemn our children and grandchildren to a much, much worse future. They may not have the option of mobilization - instead, they may simply have to suffer as the solar panels for even needed things like hospitals gradually fail. Perhaps it will be worth it to risk build out - but we should know what and who we are risking, and choose carefully what risks younger people and people yet to come should bear.

It may simply be that fossil fuels can never be replaced in some uses - in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals and plastics for medical equipment or solar panels - and it may be that we have no choice but to reserve some oil and gas for future generations to meet their most basic needs, rather than serving our own desire to maintain our own comfort.

6. Who will do the work?

The final barrier to a build out in itself is the lack of a trained populace. World War II does show that it is possible to fairly rapidly mobilize untrained populations and make them into skilled manufacturers. But there are two simultaneous projects to a World War II scale program - the first is to obtain the skills required to build what we need to make infrastructure changes. The next is to build the skill set required to live a sustainable life. Both are necessary, and both together will constitute the most massive retraining of a population ever. During World War II, only one form of retraining was required.

In World War II, the Victory Garden movement was begun by garden clubs and groups of home gardeners. 44% of all of America's vegetables were grown in gardens. This was possible because a large percentage of the US population (48%) had already had extensive gardening experience. Many families survived the depression in part because of food they were able to grow. If we are to reduce reliance on long distance transport for watery foods like produce, we will need a new Victory garden movement - in a nation where less than 8% of the population has any familiarity with gardening, and where more than 1/2 of all school children don't know whether broccoli grows on trees or not.

On the home front, ordinary people took up hundreds of different jobs necessary to the war effort. Women sewed clothing and knitted socks for soldiers. People repaired items that couldn't be had because they were imported or rationed. When food rationing was in place, people mostly ate at home, cooking from scratch. For the most part, large scale training in these skills was not needed - most families cooked meals from scratch, repaired things that were broken, sewed some of their clothing or at least did simple repairs. Those who lacked these skills were surrounded by those who had them - and local clubs and social organizations offered canning classes and training for hospital volunteers. Large percentages of Americans belonged to charitable, social and community organizations and were accustomed to learning things from them and volunteering through them.

Both America's basic skill set and its sociology has changed. By every measure, we are less sociable, less connected to our neighbors, less involved in our communities and more suspicious of one another. We spend less time volunteering, and many traditional sources of social and community support have declined or disappeared. The US government relied on existing social structures to transmit knowledge and encourage their memberships - many of those groups don't exist. In order to enact large scale social changes, we will have to form new groups, and get people reaccustomed to engaging with their neighbors. There are some hopeful signs - the growing co-housing and intentional community movements and the resiliance of religious communities suggest a strong desire for community. But infrastructure building of all sorts takes time, and this is likely to extend our lead time further

We also lack many necessary skills. Rosie the Riveter may have needed to learn how to rivet, but she already knew how to cook dinner, even in the face of rationing, and how to grow a victory garden. We no longer cook from scratch- less than half of all meals are eaten at home, and only 1/4 of those eaten at home don't involve opening some kind of package. Rosie is not only going to have to get a new job, she's going to have to learn an entirely new skill set - operating in a society where you can't go buy anything you want, anytime you want, and where old manual skills that the depression generation learned at their parents knees must be recreated by clumsy adults with no experience.

We should neither underestimate the learning curve for things like intensive gardening and sustainable living, nor should we mistakenly prioritize the industrial skills of build out over the skills of daily, low-input life. At best, those industrial skills for most people will have short term, limited utility. The ability, however, to grow food, use tools, make do and make things, however, will be necessary for many lifetimes and ought to be prioritized.

7. Ask what we *weren't* doing during our build out!

While the US turned itself into a massive production factory, it stopped producing many other items and either instituted rationing. Rationing was a good idea - and it remains a good idea for the coming crisis. It ensured that things weren't rationed by cost - that is, rich folk didn't get the tires while the poor folk got the shaft. Instead, rationing meant that rich and poor were both in the same boat, and that class resentment was comparatively minimized. There is no question that a system of rationing for both carbon emissions and probably many other resources is an inevitable outcome of peak oil and climate change - we will have to prioritize our use of resources, just as we did during World War II. The national system proposed in the Richard Heinberg and Colin Campbell's Oil Depletion Protocol, for example, proposes tradable energy rationing, as do various carbon regulation systems.

Rationing during the second world war affected every element of domestic life. Most people were limited to 3 gallons of gasoline per week, at a time when fuel efficiency was very low. Coffee was rationed - 1 cup per adult per day. Industry was required to limit the use of leather, cotton, silk and other materials - so the government went so far as to regulate hem lengths and lapel sizes. Butter, meat, sugar and wheat were all rationed - recipes for vegetarian and sugar free recipes abounded. You needed ration coupons to buy an annual pair of shoes, and there was an attempt (although public outrage eventually overturned the ban) to eliminate girdles. Unnecessary trips and travel were strongly discouraged, and many imported goods were simply unavailable because of the danger of shipping goods.

It was not just the automobile and shipbuilding industries that were mobilized - toy companies made compasses, printing companies produced military maps, clothing manufacturers made uniforms, lingerie companies produced parachutes. Automotive production stopped entirely. All of that is to say that a vast number of things that people were accustomed to simply became unavailable - because we were building up our defense resources.

It was so essential to focus on the most necessary projects that Roosevelt proposed conscripting civilians so as to resolve labor shortages in copper mining and munitions manufacture. That is, he felt the war could only meet production goals by telling people where they had to work. His bill to do so was defeated, but Britain did in fact engage in civilian conscription, and the US used POWs and prison labor to work on farms and to do difficult and dirty jobs no one wanted to do. There was so much work to do that there was a national labor shortage.

The consequences of the 1940s build-out included the relocation of millions of people to where the jobs were. For example, 81% of southern, rural African-Americans relocated to urban centers over a period of 12 years, beginning at the end of the depression. Millions of people flooded Detroit and California taking on jobs building tanks, planes and ships. Although there were exemptions for farmers from the draft, farmer's children often were taken off to war, and many of them never returned to the land, hastening the reduction of the US's agricultural population.

A large scale build out is likely to require large quantities of manpower to concentrate in the places where the factories are. But peak oil and climate change also require large scale relocalization and the return of small, stable, fairly self-sufficient communities. The build out of World War II, and its associated housing shortages, racial conflicts and other difficulties was the beginning of both urbanization and suburbanization in its contemporary form. To a large degree, this was the result of the mobilization of home front manpower to jobs.

There is a fundamental incompatibility, then, between industrial scale build out and the society that we need to be creating. If we are to get to work at making all the things we will need in the future, that is likely to happen in centralized areas. But the centralization of the population will not enable us to produce food without massive fossil fuel inputs - for that, we need to decentralize and disperse. This will not be an easily resolved incongruity - most of the projects of addressing climate change and peak oil require reasonably stable communities, and food and energy security are long term projects of relocalization. We cannot move large percentages of the national population to where factories are, and then move them out again at great fossil fuel cost.

We might decentralize production, producing millions of small factories rather than thousands of large ones. This would probably be wise, and would enable people to find jobs in small towns. But the transport of components to decentralized locations represents in increased cost and use of limited resources, and such factories may not be able to make use of economies of scale. And it is worth noting that doing so would require a different model than the World War II one, in which an enormous amount of production was concentrated in only a comparatively small number of companies. Doris Kearns Goodwin notes that in 1939, 70% of production was done by small companies, and 30% by a few hundred large ones. By 1944, those numbers were entirely reversed, concentrating most war production and the wealth it created in only 100 companies.

And, if we were to engage in a massive build out on the same scale, an almost infinite number of other projects would have to be put aside - we would be using our fossil fuels to manufacture and import railroad electrification materials, not ipods, and to make woodstoves, not cars. Large chunks of our economy would be changed or would disappear entirely - our service economy, for example, would be largely destroyed. While travel agents and fast food managers might find work making solar panels, there would be widespread economic disruption. In 1940, 17% of the US workforce was out of work, and another 6% was on the New Deal payroll. Many others remembered recently having been unemployed.

This is not true at present, and thus, prioritizing resources will be much more painful than it was almost 70 years ago. At best, what we are anticipating is two simultaneous, somewhat incompatible projects - the people of our nation need to stay put, and we also need to produce a lot of things. It is not clear to me how we would do this.

We would also have to change our national habits enormously - not only would our customary levels of consumption change, not only would we have to build distribution centers to bring food to exurbs and suburbs, not only would we have fewer private cars and a new economy, but we would have to change our ways of thinking about our future - the short term thinking we have engaged in over the last few decades must end if there is to be any significant hope for the future. All of this psychological readjustment will be an enormous undertaking, and since we have squandered the possible opportunity to move the nation in a new direction offered after September 11, any future change requires being attuned to arising opportunities that will certainly be less dramatic.

Part II forthcoming. Some good news at long last.


Anonymous said...

This is a very impressive analysis, and (speaking as a historian), much more accurate than one would expect. One quibble: the Roosevelt Administration did undertake much of the leadership burden on the home front, but in several areas --- nobably scrap metal drives --- the media took a leading role. We wouldn't be able to produce an effort similar to the home front without motivated publishers and editors and their powerful voices.

David said...

Thanks, Sharon. Another classic post. Can't wait to see part II.


Kiashu said...

Impressive stuff, though I'm puzzled as to the "new direction after September 11" the country could have gone in. Why would a few terrorists flying into buildings prompt economic and industrial restructuring? I can't see the relation - except that, of course, if you use less or no fossil fuels, then you can tell the Middle East to go to hell, and if not interfering politically there, probably will have less terrorists want to hurt you...?

jewishfarmer said...

Thanks for the kind words, anonymous. I flatter myself that a decade of studying 17th century literature made me tolerably good at historical accuracy. I do agree with you about the importance of the press and the media - completely. In fact, that will come up in the "advantages" section - because I think the internet represents a kind of social advantage that is one of our few major pluses.

Kiashu, when I say "new direction after Sept. 11" I simply mean that the current administration had an enormous amount of political capital, and could (were they different people and hadn't sold thier souls to Satan a long time ago ;-) have done all sorts of things - among them caling on Americans to conserve and invest in renewables, to change lifestyles, etc... There was an overwhelming sense of people wanting to *do* something - and nothing, except 'go shopping' was asked of them. We lost the political motivation there, and it will be hard to regain. To some degree, political will follows traumatic events - pearl harbor pretty much ended the isolationist movement and resistance to things like the draft.


RAS said...

Good post Sharon. I've had my doubts about the WWII build-out analogy as well, but you're analysis has clarified them.

BTW, there is an effort to start a new Victory Garden movement. Miranda started it, actually. Her blog is:
and the VG website is:

Michelle in Ga said...

Sharon, you have such a way with
words. I'm a regular reader now.
Keep up the good work. Michelle

Zach said...

A nitpick: The author of Crunchy Cons is Rod Dreher, not Ron.

Mr Alfred said...

Nice article. However, I am sure I read somewhere that by the end of WWII around half of all petrol rations were diverted to the black-market. Clearly, people are much more ego-centric these days than they were then. Perhaps, in parallel with rationing, there should be a white-market - a sort of EBay - where people can sell unwanted rations and buy the ones that are more important to them.

jewishfarmer said...

Thanks for the correction re:Dreher. Mr. Alfred, I hadn't heard that such a large percentage of gas rations were on the black market although certainly some were. Is this in the US or Britain? But I personally strongly favor *tradable* rationing - it seems to me the best possible way to allocate wealth, so that the poor, who consume less, can profit from their lack of consumption.

And RAS, thanks for reminding me of Miranda's site. I've also got a Victory Garden site (in part) my rarely updated but hopefully-soon-fixed, and there are a few other such sites on the web. Hopefully, this will coalesce into a real movement soon.


Anonymous said...

Not to sound like a nasty old lady (which I think I am) but one huge difference I see is that many people have lost the art of delayed (or denied) gratification. Even if the government dangles a nice carrot at the end of the stick, I have a horrible feeling that some people won't take one step towards it.

I'm more familar with the social climate of England (working class Derbyshire) than the US at this period, but there was a tremendous feeling of "we are all in this together." Of course, there were differences: one that comes to mind is how cruely hard clothes rationing was on the poor who started out with fewer garments, had fewer tablecloths to cut up, and couldn't afford longer wearing clothes.

These days, I feel so alienanted from mainstream society, and know that lots of the people I know find me very hard to understand. There are huge divisions in my little town for example. And I don't know what it would take to pull together.


RAS said...

Hey Sharon,
Check out this book review:

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