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Is optimism dead in America?

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Message Randolph Holhut
DUMMERSTON, Vt. - Americans are supposed to be an optimistic, can-do people, but no one seems to be talking about the future with starry-eyed wonder any more.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted last week found nearly two-thirds of respondents saying they don't believe that life for their children's generation will be better than it has been for them.

Only 27 percent think the United States is headed in the right direction and 58 percent believe the war in Iraq will not end in success. Of those who think the nation is not on the right track, 81 percent believe its part of a longer-term decline.

"This is just a horrendous set of numbers," said Peter D. Hart, one of the pollsters who conducted the survey. He called the national mood "as dank and depressing as I've ever seen."

By way of comparison, when a similar question about the direction of the nation was asked in a 1956 Gallup poll, only 3 percent questioned whether the nation was enjoying prosperity and just 8 percent doubted that things would keep getting better indefinitely.

Granted, in 1956, people were dreaming big. There was talk then of four-day, 30-hour workweeks and living standards that would double by 1976. Never mind that this belief in a more abundant, more prosperous future petered out by the late 1960s. What happened to that kind of optimism?

Granted, there is much to be depressed about today - things that the futurists never dream of. Global warming. The export of American jobs to other countries. The ever-increasing national debt and trade deficit. Rising energy prices and dwindling supplies of oil and gas. Imperial wars without end in Iraq and Afghanistan and the threat of more wars and more terror attacks. A democracy that is all but broken. A growing gap between rich and poor.

The optimism that has long been the hallmark of America has given way to the realization that our nation is facing many difficult problems and that our leaders haven't a clue how to deal with them.

So that leads to the next question. Is our future going to be environmental collapse and violent competition for the remainder of the world's resources? Or will we free ourselves from the downward spiral into chaos and find for ourselves a new way to care for each other and the fragile planet we all share?

In my part of the world, there are individuals and groups addressing these questions and developing solutions for them. They're starting community gardens and teaching people how to can vegetables. They're developing ways to use less energy and getting towns and businesses to participate. They are preparing for the possibility of food and energy disruptions and building community oriented solutions.

More and more people around the country know that if we are to find a way to cope with the many problems that face us, we can't count on our political leaders for help. That's because our society is structured for the quick fix, not for the long term consequences. Our economy is structured for endless growth, not sustainability. And our politics is structured to preserve the status quo, and address new problems with old thinking and rhetoric.

Can we change this? We must, because our nation, and the world at large, is heading into a turbulent time that demands creativity, innovation, flexibility and hard work from all of us. The choice, quite simply, is between chaos or community.
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Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at
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