[NOTE: This series (first one here) spins off from a recent series of posts in which I’ve discussed the need for all of us to move in a new direction as we anticipate the challenges to be confronted as a result of declining oil production in the years to come. The impact will be felt by all of us in one degree or another (a separate series, which began here and was re-established more recently here, addresses some of the day-to-day impacts.) It’s time to turn our attention to what the New Direction might be….]
“A Gallup poll from late last year found that 80% of Americans believe their country ‘has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world.” There are very few political propositions which can command 80% support; that this one does shows just how much American exceptionalism is solidified as political orthodoxy in the United States.’” 
For all the silliness about whether our President believes us to be an “exceptional” nation, the truth is that in many ways we are exceptional—at least our history, imperfect as it surely has been, suggests no less. (Although the insanity of the debt-ceiling debates legitimately calls that notion into question. The behavior of some “leaders” has been nothing short of both appalling and embarrassing.)
But being exceptional carries with it responsibilities, and not just on the part of our elected officials, those in the media, or industrial, academic, and business leaders.
Exceptionalism is not a birthright or an entitlement simply because….Exceptionalism—whatever its definition—must be earned, and reinforced by each succeeding generation—forged amid great conflict and challenge which has so often called on us to find our better selves and rise above petty and idiotic discourse. We have more than our fair share of that now, and we might want to collectively consider bringing the senseless dialogues that predominate to a not-so-merciful end, and soon. We’re better than that.
If we truly wish to believe and know ourselves to still be exceptional amid all the chaos and challenges and burdens that encompass us, then we need to harness a vision for the future that is not just incrementally better than this one, using the same resources and methods and strategies and ideologies that brought us to here and now. Peak Oil is going to change pretty much all of the dynamics.
We must ask ourselves—individually and community-wide—what we believe are the best opportunities for growth and prosperity going forward, and we must ask this with full awareness that we approach a future very different from the past and the present we will soon leave behind. In the years to come, the energy source which empowered and enabled us to rise to our lofty perch atop the world of technological marvel and progress will gradually but steadily fail to meet our expectations of ongoing, ready availability; ease of access, and affordability.
One of the traits which determine the extent to which an individual or group can be rightfully considered “exceptional” is the courage and honesty with which they face the challenges that lay before them and those which will surely arise in later days. Delusion, misrepresentations, outrights lies, obfuscation, confusion, and all their brethren have no role to play in the efforts required of exceptional nations. Leaders should know that being skilled at those efforts is not the “exceptionalism” we aspire to.
We will either create a new future with all of its advances and opportunities and expectations/hopes for prosperity and security and success by first acknowledging that our great progresses of the past have led us to a point where our the fossil fuel resources are on an inexorable path of decline—necessitating new ways of producing and consuming—or we stubbornly, foolishly, and futilely try to re-create the past by insisting that business as usual must prevail. Soon enough, and long before we have fully transitioned our industrial and cultural lifestyles away from fossil fuel dependency, that is the great truth we’ll confront.
Crisis or opportunity?
As difficult as it is to accept, life as we’ve know it will no longer be the same. As many other nations pursue their own ambitions and do what they can to grow their economies and rightfully fashion a better quality of life for their citizens—seeking in many respects to become more like the U.S.—just hoping or stubbornly insisting that we’re still exceptional just because we say so (or insist we must be just because … ) is not enough.
“Put another way, enthusiasts for American exceptionalism seem to love America because they see it as great and supreme, and there is the possibility that they might cease loving it if it were no longer great and supreme. When Americans say that ours is the greatest country in the history of the world, it is obviously not just a description of how they think America compares, but a claim that they must be in some way the greatest people in the history of the world by virtue of being Americans. It is self-glorification masquerading as praise of something else.
“To rephrase [Julien] Sanchez’s observation in terms of power, celebrating Americanness and congratulating ourselves for ‘our’ greatness are ways for those who feel relatively powerless to see themselves as participating in U.S. global hegemony and American ‘leadership’ in the world. This may help explain why enthusiasts of American exceptionalism on the right have become even more attached to the empire at the moment when conditions at home have worsened and America can least afford so many unnecessary commitments around the globe. It is also why there is such intense resistance to the reality that America is experiencing relative decline in its political preeminence compared with other nations. If there is relative decline, conservative Americanists insist that it is only temporary and the result of a government that does not embrace American exceptionalism, which they then have to define narrowly so as to exclude many moderate and liberal Americanists who otherwise share their assumptions.” 
Not only are we better than that, circumstances mandate that we actively demonstrate it now in as many forums and to confront as many challenges as needed.
We need to play a bigger role in determining the course and quality of our future, and we do not succeed at that if we decide that we’re going to let the marketplace, “leaders,” and corporations dictate it all while we passively go on with our lives in hopes that this will all work itself out. The choice to blindly entrust our well-being to those others does not absolve anyone from responsibility for the consequences. Given the mind-numbingly ignorant statements from—and the destructive, narrow-minded, and shortsighted-in-the-extreme policies proposed by—a determined group of national “leaders,” that choice will exact a high cost on all of us.
More information about what we face, what options we have, and what the various consequences might be is always a good thing to possess. Participating in the planning and strategy can only be a better option than just hoping that others are indeed acting in our best interests. Evidence suggests something entirely different and is perhaps not fully understood by the electorate.
It’s not the leaders who will define and demonstrate exceptionalism (God help us if that were the case!). It is what we as citizens offer, share, and contribute which will provide the examples and the inspirations. We cannot be an exceptional nation if we abdicate responsibility to understand and participate in the process of envisioning and creating a better future for each and all of us—especially one where the fundamental tools and resources we’ve relied upon for decades will no longer be at the ready. (For those who might be looking for some added motivation, this recent essay provides an abundance of food for thought.)
We need a new vision for what a strong, prosperous, successful, “exceptional” America can and will be, and that can only come from us. Ceding that critical responsibility to “leadership” cannot be one of our options. It’s all fine and well to respect our leaders for the roles they undertake and the responsibilities they assume on our behalf. A thankless job, clearly….
But respect for them does not mean abdicating all personal responsibility for planning and participating. If we don’t provide leaders with both the demands to be met and at least some of the guidelines for attainment, then we run the risk that other interests (most often those governed by stronger financial motivations) will prevail, and too often they do so at our expense. In order for us to fulfill our roles, we need to make the effort to become better informed. Given the public discourses of recent times, evidence suggests too many are falling woefully short. Leaders, and the media, share blame.
“[A] disengaged community in a democracy tends to make bad political choices. When people work with others to identify problems, recognize resources, and implement solutions, they understand far better what is necessary to make their community what they want it to be. And they support both government and community efforts to address these issues much more fully. Problems get solved and communities achieve their dreams.” 
We thus need to not just encourage our local/regional governments to step up the pace of planning for a future supported by different sources of energy, we’ll need to become more involved as well. It can be as simple as get-togethers with neighbors to discuss matters that will now or soon affect our immediate community, with someone then taking the mantle of communicating interests or concerns to local leaders. Off the top of my head, two such organizations at the national level are AmericaSpeaks (here) and The Center for Deliberative Democracy (here). I’ll have more to say about this specific topic in an upcoming post.
I’m sure there are many effective, local organizations and efforts as well. These more structured gatherings of citizens across your city/town will likely be an important prelude to the topics becoming main agenda items for local leaders. They will prove to be even more important—critically so—as time passes. (Andrew Levison recently wrote a fascinating article on citizen participation that’s well worth reading.)
It is in our local communities where the most immediate impacts of Peak Oil will be felt … be it shortages of fuel, restrictions on availability, impacts of those limitations on our abilities to get around (thus reflecting a community’s current alternative transportation capacities), or the availability of all kinds of goods, services, and supplies as they in turn are impacted by declining fossil fuel availability.
With an understanding of these and many related concerns articulated at the federal level, our local communities should have at the very least some framework from which to then fashion solutions or formulate adaptations based on resources (e.g., available mass transit in the particular community) to help local residents adjust to Peak Oil’s direct impacts. The only way these more localized efforts can prove most effective is by having an educated community which understands the challenges and has already begun the process of structuring responses.
Leaving all of the details until the last minutes is not where anyone will want to be.
The choice is ours.
I’ll continue with this theme next time….
 http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2011/03/29/exceptionalism?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+salon%2Fgreenwald+%28Glenn+Greenwald%29; Obama and American exceptionalism By Glenn Greenwald – March 29, 2011
 http://www.amconmag.com/larison/2010/11/05/patriotism-vs-american-exceptionalism/; Patriotism vs. American Exceptionalism by Daniel Larison – November 5th, 2010
 Reconnecting Government with People: Communities Solving Problems – Steps for building civic engagement infrastructure, and developing a culture of respect, sharing, and learning, to address our communities’ concerns and realize our dreams. A White Paper from the Local Democracy Collaborative by Jim Diers, Matt Leighninger, Paul Leistner, Valerie Lemmie, Ken Thomson, and Hank Topper, 3/16/11