“The Permanent Problem” is an ongoing series of essay about the challenges of capitalist mass affluence as well as the solutions to them. You can access the full collection here, or subscribe to brinklindsey.substack.com to get them straight to your inbox.
In my recent essay on our growing predilection for virtual experience over the real thing, I ended with a question. The problem, I said, isn’t our interest in experiencing virtual worlds; it’s our lack of a sufficient anchor in the physical world. But, I asked, how do we rebuild ours?
What we need is no less than a major cultural shift, a change in the way we view our relationship with the world around us. We need to recover our sense of ambition and see the physical world once again as exciting and challenging – an arena for great deeds and historic accomplishments. We need to reawaken our desire to leave the indelible mark of our civilization upon it, for all later generations to behold and admire.
Thinking this way used to be second nature, especially for Americans, but we have lost the knack. For the past half-century or so, the dominant attitudes in our culture regarding our relationship to the physical world are shame and guilt – shame over the harms we have inflicted in constructing our built environment, guilt over all the rights violated along the way. Our retreat from reality has been driven by pangs of conscience.
I have already written about the anti-Promethean backlash, the reaction against technological progress precipitated by recognition of the terrible environmental damage inflicted by industrial civilization. Instead of seeing that damage as a technological problem to be solved by new and cleaner technologies, leaders of the new environmental movement generally put the blame on human arrogance – our presumption to dare to manipulate nature to serve our purposes – and urged us to call off our toxic assaults and learn to live within appropriate “limits to growth.” In taking this line, the environmental movement maintained the old, industrial-era assumption of a zero-sum, adversarial relationship between man and nature; its innovation was simply to root for the other side.
The anti-Promethean backlash dates back to the dramatic surge in environmental awareness during the 1960s and 70s. At around the same time, another backlash was brewing – this one spurred by a newly critical posture towards America’s past and a special focus on the victims of the American experience. The ensuing “history wars” have continued to this day, as evidenced by the 1619 Project and likeminded initiatives on the one hand, and flailing, often illiberal attempts by conservatives to push back in the other direction. But regardless of the political fireworks, those quarters of society with the greatest cultural influence are now firmly in the camp committed to emphasizing the dark side of American history.
I have already written on the general problem of progressive loss of faith in the most progressive nation in history. Here I want to focus on one particular aspect of this broader phenomenon: the complete reversal in attitudes about America’s westward expansion. Prior to the 1960s, this was the great heroic adventure at the heart of the American story. Exhibiting the restless energy and yearning for new horizons that are the signal virtues of a free people, settlers left behind everything they knew in search of something better. And with perseverance, ingenuity, community spirit, and can-do pragmatism, they overcame all obstacles and hardships to transform a largely unpopulated wilderness into the richest and most powerful country that has ever existed. Repeated to the point of triteness, it was said that Americans “tamed a continent.” How things have changed: When Donald Trump used this well-worn turn of phrase in a speech at the U.S. Naval Academy in 2018, he was roundly excoriated in progressive circles for his racial insensitivity and mangling of history.
In the revised understanding of American history that is now orthodoxy among the country’s cultural elite, the story of the expansion of the United States to continental dimensions is first and foremost a story of great crimes: the mass murder and expropriation of American Indians; an unconscionable, aggressive war of conquest against Mexico; and heedless, rapacious environmental destruction. In view of that dismal record, taking pride in this chapter of American history is considered morally obtuse at best. The recently fashionable practice of making “land acknowledgments” – i.e., noting at the beginning of some event that the proceedings are taking place on stolen land – is indicative of the dutiful contrition we should display instead.
Here’s the thing: All those crimes really happened. It’s undeniably true that American history is replete with oppression, abuses of power, broken promises, and betrayals of principle. But here’s another thing: Everybody’s history is like that, in all places at all times, including for the Indians who lived here before Europeans arrived. Any story involving large numbers of human beings is going to be jam-packed with sin – welcome to life after Eden! But focusing on the crimes of the past and ignoring its glories distorts our understanding of history, and ourselves, every bit as much as whitewashing does.
It’s simply impossible to develop any kind of rounded understanding of the past without recognizing that it is a record of human nature in all its wide range. When we face up to the complexity of human nature and thus the inevitable moral complexity of human history, we are in a position to turn the study of the past to its fullest effect: We can gain inspiration from heroes great and small, we can hone our senses of empathy and justice by learning of the suffering of some and the misdeeds of others, and we can develop that kind of ironic detachment so essential to true wisdom by tracing how often history’s twists and turns confound the intentions of history’s actors.
As to the history of the American West, the old triumphant stories of indomitable pioneer courage omitted important and inconvenient truths – but they contained important truths as well. The settling of the continent constituted a truly astonishing mobilization and channeling of human energies, and its success was owed to the cultivation of active virtues on a colossal scale. When we think of the qualities that defined what were traditionally thought to be the best elements of the American character – physical courage, willingness to take risks, openness to adventure, curiosity about the unknown, no-nonsense practical-mindedness, ingenuity in the face of problems, fortitude in the face of setbacks – we see that all of them were forged and refined in the crucible of frontier life. As Frederick Jackson Turner put it in his famous essay:
Thus American development has exhibited not merely an advance along a single line, but a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, and a new development for that area. American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character.
From the perspective of the 21st century, where despite all our resources and organizational skills it so often seems beyond our capacity to act swiftly, boldly, and decisively, where accomplishing anything at scale in the physical world requires running a punishing gauntlet of veto points, what is so striking about looking back at our pioneering past – when we adopt a frame a mind that allows us to look there for positive examples – is the astonishing personal and organizational dynamism on display. Consider just one, quintessentially American episode: the Mormon migration to Utah. After the murder of Joseph Smith in Illinois, Latter-day Saints under the leadership of Brigham Young made the radical decision in 1846 to relocate far away, beyond the current boundaries of the United States, in some location that nobody else was interested in. The first wagon train to the Salt Lake Valley departed in 1847, and by the end of that year some 2,000 Mormons had already arrived. Over the next 20 years until the coming of the transcontinental railroad, wagon trains were the primary means of reaching “Zion”: All told, some 70,000 Americans made the journey. And of course, the organization and execution of that colossal relocation were only the first part of this amazing story; what the Mormons did when they got there was just as impressive. By the time Utah became a state in 1896, nearly 250,000 Mormons lived there in thriving communities, building novel social institutions that, although changing substantially over time to clash less with the American mainstream, still make Utah distinctive for its relatively high levels of social capital and wellbeing.
Of course it should be pointed out that the Mormons were fleeing persecution, and such hardship encourages bold action. America was much, much poorer back then as well, and poor people have less to lose and therefore are willing to take bigger risks. In our own day, we still see people facing persecution in poor countries who take incredible risks and endure great hardships for a chance to get to the United States or Europe. The Mormon migration, however, was so much more than a desperate fight-or-flight response: In the face of the threats that confronted them, Mormons responded by organizing meticulously, cooperating deeply, and building a whole new society from scratch together.
I’m afraid that the cultural heritage bequeathed by America’s pioneering past and exemplified by the Mormon exodus has all but totally vanished. In part, of course, because our circumstances have changed so much, but in part because we have expressly disowned our inheritance. Between the anti-Promethean backlash’s hostility to technological progress and the new revisionist history’s stigmatization of the frontier, our culture no longer prizes the capacity to bend nature to human purposes – an atrophying of national character exacerbated by enervating loss aversion and the frictionless distractions of living virtually.
In the retreat from reality spurred by this cultural turn, we imagined that our backtracking amounted to progress. We saw ourselves as leaving behind belching smokestacks for the air-conditioned cleanliness of the service economy and the information age; we have moved on from pouring concrete and bending metal to manipulating bits and engineering financing. We declared our economies “developed” and came to see our cities as fully built, erecting more and more barriers to new construction and pursuing historical preservation with ever-looser criteria.
But although we decided we were too rich and advanced to care much about physical reality anymore, it turns out that reality didn’t stop caring about us. In the 21st century, we discovered that just ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away. After the eradication of smallpox, we came to think that the age-old scourge of infectious disease was behind us, but HIV and Covid-19 have each claimed tens of millions of lives – and there is good reason to believe that our current globalized, factory-farming lifestyle creates ideal conditions for more and worse outbreaks. After we closed off our most productive cities to new construction, we discovered that people didn’t stop wanting to move to them – and so we now face a rash of affordability crises at the local level and a hobbling of economic growth and social mobility nationwide. And after congratulating ourselves on strangling the nuclear power industry in its crib, we are now scrambling to make up for lost time in transitioning to clean energy as the harms inflicted by climate change steadily mount.
These recent and current crises – the return of reality, with a vengeance – create a pressing need for the recovery of old, lost habits: a reorientation toward the real and a recultivation of the active virtues needed to reshape and heal our society and our world. The good news is that we are beginning to see a real policy response, and just the push to confront these problems will serve to reorient society to a degree. Moving in the right policy direction will spur a big boom in construction and installation jobs as well as attracting more top talent to STEM fields.
But although encouraging, these policy initiatives are relatively narrow efforts, directed by technocratic elites and attempting to push action through the molasses of an indifferent-to-hostile culture. We need a more broad-based change in attitudes to develop the social momentum necessary to carry us all the way to the next level of technological development.
This is where I believe that a successful economic independence movement could make a decisive difference. Let me refer back to my original inspiration for this idea: a 2017 article in National Affairs by my friend Adam Garfinkle titled “A New Pioneer Act.” This was the piece that first planted the seed in my mind of seeing a move toward local self-sufficiency as the master strategy for stabilizing and revitalizing capitalist society.
Here is Adam’s basic pitch:
America once excelled at basic craftsmanship and useful invention, and in many ways it still does. But too many of our people have forgotten how to work with their hands, losing skills that nurture mind and soul alike, that produce more than the social sum of their parts when joined in democratic communities of craftsmen, artisans, and their families. The ultimate purpose of a New Pioneer Act, therefore, is not just economic or even political — although it certainly is both. It is fully social as a byproduct, so to speak: It envisions a post-Fordist society in which life and work assemble to create fulfilled personalities, one that strives toward goals that are priceless instead of toiling to produce machines and disposable products costing such and so many dollars.
By allowing some lands now owned by the federal government to become new communities conceived as experiments in both new modes of self-government and new modes of agriculture, the New Pioneer Act could be a way to try out 21st-century solutions to some of our key problems, and to do it by taking those problems seriously while recognizing that we are short on real solutions now. It is an approach that draws on the best of the American tradition in an effort to revive America’s lost faith in the future.
The focus in Adam’s proposal is on establishing a limited number of model communities, while the vision that I have developed is more wide-ranging – in particular, in aiming to promote greater local self-sufficiency in existing communities, including urban environments. But my hopes for a truly transformative movement hinge on pushing forward in the way Adam suggests: building new communities designed to showcase technological and organizational innovations.
If the project of building new places committed to new ways of doing things were to really take off, our culture can recover what it has lost: We can revive exploring and settling the physical world as ongoing and valued aspects of the human experience. We can reopen the frontier, and in so doing remind ourselves that the physical world – all of it, every remote corner – is our home; it is the arena in which our highest qualities are developed and put to the test. We can rebuild our anchor in the world and learn to resist the siren song of the experience machine.
But didn’t we learn from Turner that the frontier was officially declared closed in 1890? How do we reopen it? Yes, there is no longer any unowned, unclaimed land: All of the Earth’s six inhabited continents are now at least nominally subject to the jurisdiction of an organized state. But urbanized areas make up only a couple percent of the world’s total land area; meanwhile, 70 percent of the Earth is covered with water, most of which is not subject to any national authority. There are still plenty of wide open spaces.
Once the environmental movement began raising our awareness of the damage humans have inflicted on nature, the proper response wasn’t to demonize technology and give up on progress. Rather, it was to see environmental degradation as a technological problem and then to start looking for technological solutions. In the same way, the proper response to our raised awareness of the dark side of American history is not to demonize the pioneer spirit. Rather, it is to revive that spirit and imbue it with humanitarianism and environmental consciousness.
Such a spirit would impel human beings to rise to the challenge of living in all kinds of places – to appreciate and take care of the natural beauty around them while establishing a flourishing human presence. A pioneer communities program could encourage this kind of adventurous self-sufficiency by devoting a certain fraction of its resources to supporting pioneer outposts in remote, exotic, and spectacularly beautiful settings – deserts, mountains, canyons, on the sea, under the sea. For all these outposts, part of the community’s mission would be environmental stewardship of some kind – part-time park rangers and citizen scientists in place. And the design mission for all of them would be to create beautiful and sustainable built environments that harmonize with and complement the natural surroundings.
In reviving the appeal of exploring and settling, we can recover humanity’s signature move, a major source of our dynamism as a species – namely, breaking off from the crowd with a like-minded group and striking out on your own. After the breakout from Africa roughly 70,000 years ago, this is how Homo sapiens ended up blanketing the planet in only a few dozen millennia. No doubt these wanderings were frequently pushed by climate change and the exhaustion of game, but it seems that some people will head off on their own just because they can. A more recent example of this that I marvel about regularly is the peopling of Polynesia: What conflicts at home, what injunctions from strange gods, what deep, essential restlessness drove people to cross thousands of miles of trackless seas in double-hulled canoes? Whatever happens to spur it, that wandering, questing spirit is the fountainhead of so much of human greatness.
And it is, I believe, the key to the fulfillment of humanity’s highest destiny. As I wrote in my last essay, I don’t see how humanity can truly flourish over the long term if it remains confined to its planet of origin. We will have to restrain our population, we will have to avoid high-energy breakthroughs that are too dangerous to deploy, and so the roads of physical progress will all eventually be blocked. If we don’t sink into a general stagnation, it will only be because we turned inward – into the virtual – and found our escape by succumbing to the experience machine. Unless, then, we can establish a permanent presence off-world and then begin the long, great adventure of cosmic expansion, I’m afraid that the human story will peter out prematurely in one dead end or another.
It’s worth noting here that, at the dawn of the Space Age, when the idea of extending the human presence beyond our home world first became a practical possibility, the cultural memory of America’s pioneer past was still very much alive. Indeed, the imagination of a space-based future was firmly rooted in America’s pioneer experience. Recall that Star Trek was set in the “final frontier” and was originally pitched to studio executives as “Wagon Train to the Stars.”
After a decades-long hiatus in the progress of rocket science, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has now revolutionized the launch industry with its commitment to reusability. In terms of cost per kilogram of payload, the price of accessing space has already dropped some 90 percent. If the development of the mammoth new Starship proceeds successfully, another 90 percent drop may be in the cards.
Accordingly, the technical feasibility of large off-world human populations is now coming into view. The cultural feasibility, however, has fallen into considerable doubt. How will we get people to live on Mars if we can’t even get them to live in the Plains states? If we can’t convince them that watching a dazzling sunset from 30,000 feet in the air is better than squinting at the latest Marvel dreck on your phone?
For all those serious about establishing a spacefaring civilization, let me suggest that the first priority must be to reestablish an Earthfaring one – a civilization that recognizes exploration and the extension of the human presence to new places as vital avenues of human flourishing.