The Long Sleep

Richard J Barnet’s The Lean Years: politics in the age of scarcity was published in 1980. I bought a copy and have kept it with me ever since.

Mr Barnet, a US citizen, died in December 2004, aged 75. His obituary in the Washington Post (December 24th 2004) calls The Lean Years a book about “the environmental movement”, as if it were an ordinary kind of history, and not a masterly analysis of the narrowing choices facing mankind as we overshoot our planet’s resources.

The publication year, again, was 1980. Part one is titled ‘The coming of the postpetroleum world’. The book also tackles resource struggles for minerals, food and water, and the malign impacts of multinational corporations.

1980 is a generation ago. During the intervening years, the concept of the post-petroleum world changed from a far-away dot in the landscape to a looming precipice that we will soon tumble down. Yet we were told.

Governments did scarcely anything. The most powerful made sure their military forces had the means to sequester energy and mineral resources, so their time of affluence would last a little longer, but they did not face up to the dangerous imbalance between population and resources. They ignored the facts. Facts do not persuade unless you are predisposed to be persuaded.

I was thinking about the lowly status of facts this week in connection with the Parliamentary rebellion against Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation. Several facts about the extent of illegal phone tapping by Mr Murdoch’s Sunday tabloid the News of the World, and by other media too, were known back in 2006, but the Metropolitan Police decided not to investigate further, so 11,000 pages of evidence were bagged up and consigned to storage. Why has it become such a big issue now? I can only think that it is because of an emotional shock, the revelation that the News of the World  commissioned or at least condoned both the hacking into the mobile phone voicemail of teenage murder victim Milly Dowler in 2002, and the removal of messages while Milly was missing.  Milly’s family thought she must be alive, because who else other than Milly would be accessing her messages and deleting them?

We need a story, we have to set abstract notions into a context that is real for us. We can recognise the Dowler family among our own friends and neighbours. Perhaps this is why we the public were less than incensed when celebrities like actor Hugh Grant accused tabloid  newspapers of invading their privacy, because many of us think of celebrities as somehow different from us, and rich and powerful enough to fight their own battles.

Facts do not persuade. We need a story, a story that engages our emotions, to wake us up from decades of lazily dreaming that the lean years will not apply to us.

Time to wake up?

The Lean Years: politics in the age of scarcity was published in New York by Simon and Schuster in 1980, and in London in 1981 by the Abacus imprint of Sphere Books. Richard J Barnet had, with Marcus Raskin, founded the Institute for Policy Studies in 1963.


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