When the Democrats won a majority in both houses of the U.S. Congress, I remembered how my father told a story about another "citizen groundswell." About two days before English civilians rescued more than 330,000 Allied troops in Operation Dynamo, my 17-year-old father and a few buddies were abandoned by his officers south of Calais during the battle of Dunkirk. They blew up their strategic targets, and then raided an abandoned bakery where they sat down to snack on pastry and argue with some French soldiers about what to do next.
The French soldiers favored surrendering to the oncoming Germans, but my dad’s friends were volunteers who had only been in Europe for a few weeks. For them, internment wasn’t an option. Since my father had always loved trains and travel, he suggested they find one in nearby Boulogne and ride it south until they were well away from the oncoming German army.
The next morning near Cherbourg, my father and his friends "acquired" a small fishing boat with what they thought was enough gas to make it to Cornwall, where they could catch a train for London. That night, they rowed ashore on a beach near Penzance, where they were met by an Intelligence Officer alerted by Britain’s ever-watchful Home Guard. They rode back to London in style with their rucksacks and rifles and muddy boots stuffed into a Bentley owned by a well-dressed Englishman named Harry.
It was a beautiful spring morning in London, the beginning of Operation Dynamo and of my father’s interesting war career. Years later, when I asked him how he’d managed to improvise his escape from France, dad told me, "You can be pretty creative when you have a knife at your throat."
Economically and environmentally, culturally and collectively, we now have a knife at our throat. A big one. It’s time to get really creative. Thankfully many industries and many people already are.
These days, manufacturers are increasingly confronted with the problem of declining resources and increasing costs. Many people say there is only 40 years worth of petroleum left and leave it at that, concluding that escalating energy costs are a complete explanation for industrial financial hardships. Of course the real picture is much more complex.
The U.S. Geological Survey reports there is only enough economically recoverable lead left for 18 more years at current levels of manufacture; for tin their figure is 20 years; for copper, 25 years; for bauxite, 69.
The steel industry has already taken up this challenge, which in itself is reassuring, since steel is used to manufacture more consumer goods—cars, appliances, buildings—than all other metals combined. If current consumption doesn’t increase, there is still only about 64 years worth of iron ore left, so steel manufacturing is now beginning to shift from mines to recovery-based electric-arc steel mini-mills. Currently, 71 percent of all American steel is recycled from scrap including nearly all cars, 90 percent of all household appliances and 60 percent of all cans.