A revisionist history of American plenty

In: Uncategorized

19 Oct 2008

Have just caught up with the first episode of Simon Schama’s BBC television documentary series on “The American Future: A History”. It might more accurately be called “reinterpreting American history to fit today’s culture of low expectations”.

The episode on “American plenty” focused on how America has, sensibly in Schama’s view, come to accept the need for limits. It starts symbolically with the Colorado river and expresses the view that “the land of plenty is running dry”. The building of the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead was basically presented as an act of hubris. Although it enabled the irrigation of several states and the creation of cities such as Las Vegas it was running dry as a result of over-use and climate change. The message was clear: America has to learn to live with fewer resources.

Schama presented the debate between expansion and restraint as a constant theme of American history. Expansion might have brought some short term gains in living standards but it was also responsible for such acts as the “ethnic cleansing” of native Americans. He also presented the 1980 American presidential election as a contest between the calls for restraint of Jimmy Carter and the drive for expansion by Ronald Reagan. He ended with the correct point that both main candidates this time around accept the need for restraint.

Schama’s history is a classic piece of growth scepticism. It downplays the huge benefits of economic growth and exaggerates the scale of problems that need to be overcome.