Wolfe spoke at a mid-’70s seminar on “The United States in the Year 2000.” Not surprisingly, Wolfe was one of the few voices of optimism there; but even he had no idea how grim things were going to get for mankind by the end of the 20th century:
How other people attending this conference felt by now, I didn’t dare ask. As for myself, I was beginning to feel like Job or Miss Cunégonde. What further devastations or humiliations could possibly be in store, short of the sacking of Kansas City? It was in that frame of mind that I attended the final panel discussion, which was entitled “The United States in the Year 2000.”
The prognosis was not good, as you can imagine. But I was totally unprepared for the astounding news brought by an ecologist.
“I’m not sure I want to be alive in the year 2000,” he said, although he certainly looked lively enough at the moment. He was about thirty-eight, and he wore a Madras plaid cotton jacket and a Disco Magenta turtleneck jersey.
It seemed that recent studies showed that, due to the rape of the atmosphere by aerosol spray users, by 2000 a certain ion would no longer be coming our way from the sun. I can’t remember which one … the aluminum ion, the magnesium ion, the neon ion, the gadolinium ion, the calcium ion … the calcium ion perhaps; in any event, it was crucial for the formation of bones, and by 2000 it would be no more. Could such a thing be? Somehow this went beyond any of the horrors I was already imagining. I began free-associating … Suddenly I could see Lexington Avenue, near where I live in Manhattan. The presence of the storm troopers was the least of it. It was the look of ordinary citizens that was so horrible. Their bones were going. They were dissolving. Women who had once been clicking and clogging down the avenue up on five-inch platform soles, with their pants seams smartly cleaving their declivities, were now mere denim & patent-leather blobs … oozing and inching and suppurating along the sidewalk like amoebas or ticks … A cab driver puts his arm out the window … and it just dribbles down the yellow door like hot Mazola … A blind news dealer tries to give change to a notions buyer for Bloomingdale’s, and their fingers run together like fettucine over a stack of New York Posts … It’s horrible … it’s obscene … it’s the end—
I was so dazed, I was no longer wondering what the assembled students thought of all this. But just at that moment one of them raised his hand. He was a tall boy with a lot of curly hair and a Fu Manchu mustache.
“Yes?” said the ecologist.
“There’s one thing I can’t understand,” said the boy.
“What’s that?” said the ecologist.
“Well,” said the boy. “I’m a senior, and for four years we’ve been told by people like yourself and the other gentlemen that everything’s in terrible shape, and it’s all going to hell, and I’m willing to take your word for it, because you’re all experts in your fields. But around here, at this school, for the past four years, the biggest problem, as far as I can see, has been finding a parking place near the campus.”
Dead silence. The panelists looked at this poor turkey to try to size him up. Was he trying to be funny? Or was this the native bray of the heartland? The ecologist struck a note of forbearance as he said: “I’m sure that’s true, and that illustrates one of the biggest difficulties we have in making realistic assessments. A university like this, after all, is a middle-class institution, and middle-class life is calculated precisely to create a screen—”
“I understand all that,” said the boy. “What I want to know is—how old are you, usually, when it all hits you?”
And suddenly the situation became clear. The kid was no wiseacre! He was genuinely perplexed! … For four years he had been squinting at the horizon … looking for the grim horrors which he knew—on faith—to be all around him … and had been utterly unable to find them … and now he was afraid they might descend on him all at once when he least expected it. He might be walking down the street in Omaha one day, minding his own business, when—whop! whop! whop! whop!—War! Fascism! Repression! Corruption!—they’d squash him like bowling balls rolling off a roof!
Who was that lost lad? What was his name? Without knowing it, he was playing the xylophone in a boneyard. He was the unique new creature of the 1970’s. He was Candide in reverse. Candide and Miss Cunégonde, one will recall, are taught by an all-knowing savant, Dr. Pangloss. He keeps assuring them that this is “the best of all possible worlds,” and they believe him implicitly—even though their lives are one catastrophe after another. Now something much weirder was happening. The Jocks & Buds & Freaks of the heartland have their all-knowing savants of O’Hare, who keep warning them that this is “the worst of all possible worlds,” and they know it must be true—and yet life keeps getting easier, sunnier, happier … Frisbee!
How can such things be?
Of course, it’s much easier to keep calm when you’ve seen these doomsday reports over and over ad nauseum. As Zombie noted in a recent post on climate catastrophe déjà vu:
The solution (commit civilizational suicide) always remains the same; all that differs are the wildly divergent purported “crises” proffered up to justify the imposition of the solution.
Seen from this angle, the entire Climate Change field should be more properly reframed thus:
In order to weaken and eventually destroy the existing industrialized nations, we must devise an ecological “crisis” so severe that only voluntary economic suicide can solve it; and if this first crisis doesn’t materialize as planned, then devise another, and another, even if they flatly contradict our previous claims.
And pray nobody’s paying enough attention to realize they’ve seen all this before.
Update: Technology to the rescue! Shrinkage crisis averted! “New York Man ‘Grows’ Six Inches Through Surgery.” Warning: auto-play video of Barbara Walters — which should make you miss Gilda Radner all the more, after all of the ’70s references in this post.