Pictures and a Crisis: Robert Crum’s “A Short History of America”

by S. Tom Bond on December 3, 2012

Pictures and a Crisis: “A Short History of America”

Commentary by S. Tom Bond of Lewis County, WV

(This cartoon series may best be seen on the internet at

My five-year-old grandson gets out the framed poster every week or two and we talk about it. All the family knows it well. It shows the pristine landscape when people of European descent first came, the coming of the railroad, the development of the city, its growth and then decline. It is very much about the incursion of development on our environment. The original came out in 1979, and then three additional panels were added in 1988.

These frames have to do with possible futures. One is a degraded, useless, uninhabited landscape, one a “high tech” future where vehicles don’t run on wheels, but are suspended above the ground, and a third consisting of a forest with houses and a lot of people outside, riding bicycles, working and walking.

Judging by its popularity, a lot of people find meaning in the set. You can buy it in poster form for less than ten dollars, or you can pay $3000 for signed original silk screen prints. Whatever you think of Crumb’s other work, this one is a masterpiece.

I wonder, however, how many of our citizens think about the number of people involved in decisions at the different stages of development? Early, the decisions to move are made by one person or a family. When the railroad comes, the Board of Directors decides for thousands. Many individual decisions fill in the spaces. But at each step more and more people have choices constrained by fewer and fewer major decisions.

The last three panels of Crumb’s history involve the future. They don’t appear in many of the sites you get by using internet search – perhaps thinking about the future is too difficult for some. But the last three are very important.

What I am coming to here is the actual future. How many individuals are making the decisions which inescapably define what the real future will be like? And who are they?

We are proud of our government in the United States because of its connection to the people. Originally, some individuals weren’t considered people: slaves and women didn’t vote, and were largely excluded from discussion. Those deficiencies have been formally remedied in the second century of the nation’s existence.

In the economic sphere, however, the situation is different. Those (people?) known as corporations have accumulated the fundamentals of production: rights to raw materials, technology and capital. Fewer and fewer are making decisions for more and more. Since government trumps the economic sphere, controls it, favorable relations between government and “business” must be maintained for economic success.

No corporation can operate without favorable laws. A few men can work together on a ship, on a farm, in a small factory and their product can be successfully merchandised without much legislation. But as business grows, more and more favorable legislation is required. Thus, lobbying and campaign contributions become prevalent. The amount spent this way must be justified by favors in the form of legislation and control of enforcement. No enforcement equals no law, may even be better, since the law can be pointed to, and proof of non-enforcement difficult to establish against authority.

A case in point is hydrocarbon fuels versus global warming. Global warming by CO2 is proved to a degree only slightly less than the interconvertibility of heat and work. Other problems with hydrocarbon burning are more than obvious. These are things that affect many, many people. However, hydrocarbon fuels are not considered a problem at the governmental level. “Nothing else in sight for 30 years,” they say. Do we know where the dollars are coming from to maintain that particular sophistication?

We need the energy. And it is going to be more intensely needed in the future. Each food calorie you eat requires 10 calories of mechanical energy input, they say. What will it be like when the two billion more inhabitants arrive in the next forty years? And what about rising expectations? And the perturbations of the climate system, now appearing, with forty more years of hydrocarbon burning. What will be happening by then?

Are we, the (individual) people, really in control of the government, or is it the (corporate) people in charge? How is it possible to turn a technological emergency, like excess emissions of CO2 into 30 more years of the same CO2 emitting way to get energy? Where is creative thinking, research? Overridden by the bottom line for the few!

Narrow, and ever more narrow constraints, fiddling while Rome burns, is not the choice of an enlightened citizenry (electorate).

Robert Crum at work

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Prof. Patti Capel Swartz December 13, 2012 at 9:08 pm

“A Short History of America” is a cartoon I use in my composition classes. Amazing how many students have never thought about the idea of unrestricted growth and land use.
Patti Capel Swartz, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of English
Kent State University at East Liverpool


Candice Goings December 15, 2012 at 8:33 am

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