When I saw the photo on the cover of the NY Times this week of the congregation at the Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, rallying around three huge white SUVs (yes, there were gas guzzlers on the altar), I first thought of the scene in "The Greatest Story Ever Told" where Charlton Heston’s Moses finds his people worshipping the golden calf. Moses blasts them all and, as I recall from Sunday school, God makes them wander a few more decades in the wilderness as punishment.
Now I know the Detroit congregants weren’t exactly praying to the living-rooms-on-wheels, but they were asking some higher power to "save" the American auto industry, apparently because the people of Detroit could no longer think of more earthly exit strategies.
But the more I thought about that photo, the more I realized the image was not cloned from the Bible, but more appropriately reflected a modern version of Easter Island. The giant moai, those tiki-looking statues, were Easter Island’s version of the SUV, exemplifying the excess of a once-prosperous society that consumed its way to oblivion instead of addressing the root cause of its decline.
Like the forgotten artisans who carved moai, there was once a thriving horse and buggy industry in America, but I doubt you can name any of the companies that were household names in 1900. Instead of turning their skills to the new horseless carriages, those companies were eclipsed by the more efficient/relevant enterprises like Ford and GM. Unless the incumbents of today evolve fast, they too will go the way of Easter Islanders and buggy whip makers.
But there’s hope. The auto industry in America is actually alive and well. Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Hyundai and others operate more than two dozen assembly plants in the US and none of them are standing in line for specious bailouts. Thousands of American workers are producing cars people actually want, instead of those that can only find love in a Temple. Why? Because they have evolved to make fuel efficient cars that people need, not to mention the development and deployment of hydrogen fuel cell cars and the other 21st Century technology that people REALLY want.
The dialogue in DC hasn’t caught on to this yet. Everyone talks about either a bailout or the loss a million jobs. But a court-appointed receiver under a bankruptcy reorganization could sell off the profitable divisions of teetering car companies and streamline others, saving many thousands of jobs. Instead of giving tens of billions to modern day buggy makers, the feds could then pay those who actually lose work to learn new skills. Congress could also help 21st century technology companies expand production of wind turbines, solar panels, and alt-fueled cars in the areas most hard-hit.
Or, we could keep going along the same path and let future archaeologists wonder what happened to the society that mounted giant metal sculptures in its Temples. That chapter will likely be in the same one that features Easter Island.