The Clusterfuck Nation Chronicle
Commentary on the Flux of Events
by Jim Kunstler
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July 19, 2004
I get a steady stream of e-mails criticizing this blog for being excessively pessimistic in general, and in particular for not offering constructive ideas, solutions and remedies. So perhaps these horse lattitudes of summer are a good time to review the things we can do to prepare for a very different way of life in the post cheap oil world.
The salient features of that world will be turbulence, economic systems failure, and falling standards of living. The greatest imperatives for Americans will be the reconstruction of local communities and economic networks of interdependency and the re-establishment of local agriculture.
As the century advances, life will get increasingly local as the giant scale of enterprise falters in everything from the manufacture and retail of goods to food production to government. Many of my friends worry about the rise of a "Big Brother" type of despotic national government. I believe that the federal government will become increasingly impotent and irrelevant. Many of our state governments are already near insolvency and management paralysis. Local politics and local government will be everything. There will be a wide variation in the quality of it from region to region.
A lot of jobs and vocational niches are going to vanish. If you are a young person, check all your career assumptions at the door. Start thinking about things you can do that will be really useful in the decades ahead. There will be far fewer positions in marketing, public relations, and TV game show hosting. There will be many more jobs in small-scale farming and gardening, in repairing things of all kinds, in the non-bureaucratic aspects of health care, local transport, local energy production (especially small hydro), and basic education. Large scale complex systems like the canned entertainment industry will decline and communities will have to furnish their own music and theater.
I've proposed before that the US economy decades from now will revolve around agriculture. This idea is almost always greeted by derisive laughter. But the current system of mega-farms run on massive oil and natural gas "inputs" is extremely fragile. It will be one of the first systems to fall apart in world of higher-priced and less reliably available energy, and when it goes down people are really going to suffer. The process of re-organizing farming on a small, local basis obviously implies enormous difficulty. Much of our prime farmland, especially adjacent to towns and cities, has been paved over. Those of you out there who think that the free market automatically fixes problems like this might put your free market minds to the task of figuring out how to accomplish the epochal task of reallocating land.
In world of greater resource scarcity, the salvage of existing material is going to be a huge business. The commercial highway strips and the Big Box pods of today may be the mines of tomorrow. The human race is resilient and resourceful and one of the tasks that we are really good at is sorting useful objects. A lot of the retail of the future will consist of recycled second-hand goods, some of it expertly refurbished. To some extent, America will become Yard Sale Nation. We will look back at the 20th century as the Age of Manufacture. There will be a lot of work for people in many levels and layers of this activity: the scroungers, the fixers, the wholesalers, the brokers, the sellers.
Life in the decades ahead will not be about going places so much as staying where you are. How and where Americans live will undergo an enormous transformation. The suburbs will surely not survive the end of cheap oil and natural gas, but the big cities are going to be in trouble too. I doubt, for instance, that skyscrapers will be usable twenty-five years from now. Indeed anything over seven stories is liable to be a problem. Unless we undertake a massive program of building nuclear generating plants, the electric grid is going to be very unreliable. The action is going to return to America's small cities and towns. We are probably going to have to junk all our current zoning and building codes in order to get the towns back in working condition. The increment of development will be the single building lot. All the complex modular construction systems that we've contrived in recent decades will probably not be available anymore and we will be back to building in masonry and wood, using traditional techniques. Construction will be much more labor intensive and that labor will be a lot cheaper than it is now.
Huge central schools that rely on yellow fleets of school buses will be obsolete. Education will have to be re-scaled, re-housed in smaller and more local buildings, and compressed into fewer years. To some degree, education will be a much more elite activity. I believe that American social life will become much more rigidly hierarchical. Whether that is a good or bad thing is surely debatable, but I think it will happen, especially with so much of the population reduced to what amounts to agricultural peasantry.
The biggest question about these massive changes is how much disorder will attend them, both in the US, politically, and around the world, as nations jockey to contest resources. For a while, there may be plenty of jobs in the military. But eventually that enterprise, if you can call it that, will exhaust itself. We already know what happens to a modern army of Hummers and Black Hawk helicopters when the fuel depots run short.
The downscaling of America is our agenda for survivial in the 21st century. It implies a lot of difficult adjustments and even hardship, but if you want to fill your heart and mind with hopefulness, think along these lines. Think about living locally in a just community, being useful to your fellow citizens, and being a good neighbor.
July 12, 2004
Michael Moore's Farenheit 9-11 was doing a brisk business for the 10p.m. show at the local cineplex Sunday night, which tells me that the public is hungry for someone to make sense of the events of recent years. It's too bad that Moore has been annointed the Great Explainer because he has only an attitude without a coherent point of view. That attitude mostly consists of paranoia, and it actually explains (and foretells) a lot.
It accounts for the American public's complicity in its own problems. The grossly obese and slovenly Moore is a poster child forWalMart shoppers everywhere, for their childish addiction to cheap goodies and lack of impulse control. Like the public he represents, Moore has no cognizance of the larger problems behind the churn of recent events, for instance the public's own surrender of its allegience and personal sovereignty to giant corporations and the cheap blandishments they offer in return for slavish loyalty. All you get from Moore is shopper's remorse. He's never gotten over the fact that his hometown of Flint, Michigan, sold its soul to General Motors, and eventually got fucked for doing it.
The Flint that Moore revisits is a slum partly self-made, full of people too busy watching $50-a-month cable television to paint their houses or even clean up their yards. Moore is angry that the great paternalistic institutions of American life have stopped being good Daddies, and so his ire and paranoia eventually fasten on the chief big daddy of all, the President. The fact that George W. Bush is a pure product of the Daddy class and its agencies feeds Moore's sense of betrayal -- but doesn't lead to any more understanding of the public's predicament. For instance, Moore dwells on the attempt to run an oil pipeline through Afghanistan. Does he suppose the oil would only benefit a few fat cats driving Hummers around Houston?
I say Farenheit 9-11 foretells a lot because as conditions grow more desperate in post-peak-oil America we will see politics grow more delusional -- especially grass roots politics. The poor shlubs who Michael Moore represents will demonize politicians who fail to keep up deliveries of cheap gasoline and bargain merchandise, and in their wrath they'll eventually elect maniacs who will make George W. Bush look like a paragon of prudence. Like the flag-waving angry mother of a dead soldier Moore portrays blundering in rage around Lafayette Park in Washington (a pitiful Moore set-up), the American public will choke on its inchoate grievance as reality withdraws all the presumed entitlements to the world's highest standard of living.
Michael Moore gives me the chills and the creeps. I see America's future in his ponderous, slovenly, lurching figure, stalking congressmen with his video camera and his childish rhetorical questions. I see a nation of feckless, clueless overfed crybabies building up to tantrum. It will be a long, destructive tantrum with no times-out and it will prevent the nation from getting on with life under the new realities of the 21st century.
July 6, 2004
The US has good reason to feel insecure about its safety at home and its position in the world: the American public and its leaders are doing absolutely nothing to prepare for the greatest single threat to both of those concerns: the coming global energy crisis.
Virtually everybody with a public voice seems to think that life in this country is just going to go on indefinitely the way it has been: more housing 'starts,' more WalMart super centers, more cars, more trips to Disney World, more credit cards. In fact we are on the cusp of the greatest contraction of human activity in recorded history. All the trends of the past sixty years are about to reverse. The world economy will become less global as nations jockey to contest the world's remaining oil reserves. Long range shipping will become hazardous and expensive. We are not going to need more parking space in America because Americans will be making fewer car trips in fewer cars. The chain stores will wither and die. We are going to have trouble staying warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Electric service will be more expensive and possibly intermittent. The Internet may not function so well in a nation where the electric power is not so dependable. Most of all, we are going to have trouble feeding ourselves when the industrial mode of farming, with all its oil and gas 'inputs,' is no longer possible.
The Independence Day celebrations, with their car parades and recreational explosions, make me sadder every year. In the difficult days ahead, this nation may not hold together. The regions that have benefited the most from cheap energy -- the west and the southeast -- are going to suffer the most in an energy-challenged era. I have maintained that we will see cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas virtually depopulated in the next fifty years as all their artificial means to support human settlement grow scarce. Imagine Phoenix without cheap air conditioning. Those fleeing the Sunbelt deserts will have to go somewhere, and whether it is northern California or Michigan their influx is liable to create friction, greater scarcity, and more conflict.
I tremble to think what life will be like in Florida and Georgia twenty years from now. I suspect they will become places of violence and lawlessness as the suburban infrastructure fails economically and the discovery dawns on them that suburbia was their economy -- and now its over. What will they do in Atlanta and Orlando? I believe the southeast will revert to being an agricultural backwater, perhaps with an overlay of despotic fundamentalist Christian politics.
The changes we face in an energy-short nation will be as disruptive as the Civil War, and possibly more damaging, because this uproar will not be fundamentally about ideas or ideals. It will be a fight over the table scraps of the industrial age.
The New York Times remains the avatar of cluelessness. This week's cover story in the Sunday Magazine was a paen to the rising industrial might of China. The issue of energy was hardly mentioned in the article. What do the editors of the New York Times suppose China will be running on five or ten years from now? And where will they get it?
June 28, 2004
The Ford Motor Company took an eight-page centerfold advertising section in a recent issue of The New Yorker trumpeting its committment to being a "green" corporation. What horseshit. This was not People Magazine you understand. This was a much more high-toned readership,
The ad copy starts with this bit of New Age babytalk:
Mary Ann Wright -- a director at Ford Motor Company -- approached the microphone and made a startling admission: she's been a vegan for twenty-three years. Not only that, her design team at Ford boasts 11 committed vegetarians.
I wonder what they think this means? To me it means that vegans and vegetarians can work just as sedulously to destroy the planet as beefsteak-eaters. The centerpiece of this massive ad -- the thing Ford is actually selling -- is their new Escape Hybrid, billed as "a partial zero emission vehicle that is the world's first full hybrid SUV."
Talk about blowing smoke up America's ass.
A lot of my friends are readers of the The New Yorker. A year ago, they got so worked up they drove their SUVs downtown to march in a street protest against the war in Iraq. Connect the dots and you will discover how we have managed to develop the world's first near zero thought intellectual class.
If readers of The New Yorker really could think, they might conclude that the suburban mode of living itself is the problem, and that hybrid SUVs will do nothing except prolong the delusion that we can continue operating this way.
Styling oneself as "green" has become a major preoccupation for the comfortable class in America. Apart from the guilt, fear, and status issues behind it, this pose has introduced an impressive amount of disinformation and confusion in the public dicussion -- what little there is -- about how we live. For one thing, it has prompted a massive effort to "green up" our towns and cities, which has only tended to suburbanize them more by sticking landscaping buffers between ugly throwaway buildings, thus making things ever more far apart and less walkable.
Perhaps a nation with an intellectual class that can't think will get exactly what it deserves in candidate John Kerry, who was once described by Kevin Phillips as "a haircut in search of a brain."
June 21, 2004
I was waiting out a delay in Terminal B of O'Hare Airport late Friday when news came over the ever-present CNN monitor that hostage Paul Johnson had been beheaded in Saudi Arabia. The other travelers, trapped in their own interior limbo of flight delay frustration, came slowly to recognize what information the aural wallpaper of news-babble was conveying, and as they understood the ghastliness of it, expressed suitable shock and disgust -- then went back to concentrating on their pizzas and boating magazines.
All around us was evidence of the deterioration of normality in the world of air travel. I'd already had my original flight cancelled out of Sacramento ("a mechanical," the gate agent told us -- a "mechanical" what, I wondered). United seemed so short of employees that the lone agent was barely able to book re-connections for all the people bumped off that flight. Now fourteen hours after I started this journey, my connecting flight in Chicago was running two hours late, and photos of Paul Johnson's headless body were being broadcast all over the internet.
The headline in one Chicago paper reported that United Airlines was refused a no-interest loan that day from the Feds and might now face bankruptcy. O'Hare is the main United Airlines hub. Jet fuel (which is basically just kerosene) is not even that expensive yet, or hard to get. I have to wonder how long it will be before airplane travel reverts to being a luxury for the privileged few and some of the sprawling concourses of O'Hare are mothballed. And meanwhile how many more Paul Johnsons and Nick Bergs will have their heads cut off by angry Arabs in the places where we get our aviation fuel.
What can we do about the turmoil in Arabia? About continued hostage-takings and murders? In my view: absolutely nothing. We couldn't control the terrain or the infrastructure if we sent an army over there. There is a limitless supply of angry, under-employed young Arab men willing to cut off the heads of "infidels" or blow themselves up in a crowd. If the foreign workers (including Americans) leave Arabia, oil production will inevitably suffer, because they have done most of the work over there for fifty years and there aren't enough trained Arabs to replace them. The Saudi government has to pretend that it supports both western notions of decent behavior and Wahabi notions of justice. America has no place else to get approximately 20 percent of its oil imports (and rising).
Something's got to give. I suppose it will be the al Saud family's grip on power. My guess is that the police killing of the four revolutionaries who killed Paul Johnson will stimulate the accelerated targeting of Saudi officials, as well as more Americans. A lot more heads may roll. Sooner rather than later, America will lose access to that twenty percent of its oil imports. I'd like to know what John Kerry and George W. Bush plan to do about this. I wonder whether the American public is able to give a moment's thought to the kind of broad changes we will have to make in our way of life before this decade is over.
June 14, 2004
A clueless nation has the clueless "newspaper of record" that it deserves.
On Sunday, the New York Times ran a front page story about "diversity" work-arounds at the University of Texas while burying on page 8 the news that another American had been murdered in Saudi Arabia. This weblog is the last place you'll ever get conspiracy theories, so I'll offer the alternative theory that the Times editors are mere fucking idiots. Evidence for that was abundant in that newspaper's Saturday page one story on oil reserves.
Times reporters had uncovered disturbing information that oil production by the "majors" was steadily declining while their reported known reserves were increasing. You don't say? Apparently they've missed the news that every oil producing entity in the world, corporation or state, has been grossly misreporting their untapped reserves (or suspected of doing so) for years. Most recently, this spring, officers of Royal Dutch Shell, the world's third largest private oil company, admitted that they had knowingly misreported their reserves by 22 percent for at least two years. Reserves are an oil company's most valuable asset, and any reclassification into less certain categories is a major concern for investors. The disclosures caused a shareholders' uproar and led to a string of resignations.
The Times has yet to run a story on Saudi Arabian misreporting, a case that could be much worse, with far more profound implications for the developed world -- since that country is now considered the world's "swing producer" -- meaning the only one that can increase production to stabilize global market prices.
A year ago, Princeton geologist Ken Deffeyes said at a major conference on peak oil: "The good news is that Saudi Arabia can no longer control the price of oil; the bad news is that nobody can." The Times didn't cover that conference either.
Perhaps when America runs out of cheap oil, we can power our drive-in utopia with "diversity."
June 7, 2004
I never voted for the guy. Yet it was touching to read the Times obituary of Ronald Reagan yesterday. The earnest boyhood. The struggles with an alcoholic father and working his way through college. The photo of him in the quaint two-piece lifeguard suit, the tale of him broadcasting baseball games over the radio from news-wire accounts, seemed like things that happened on a distant planet.
Reagan's America was on another planet. By the time he became President, he had managed to invert the values of his youth and conflate them with the essential dishonesty of Hollywood to produce a mythology that suited a nation grown surly with the vicissitudes of power. Reagan coddled the nation psychologically as perhaps he had tried to buck up his alcoholic father. He told the voters it was morning in America, even though it was more like 9:30 at night.
Reagan was fantastically lucky that he came into office as the traumas of the 70s were ending. Most of all, the world was gearing up for a final blow off of the oil age. The North Sea and Prudhoe Bay fields came on-line and saved the Western world's ass for the next twenty years, and it made Reagan look good. It kept the enterprise of the drive-in utopia going. The whole country could be made over in the image of California and prosperity would filter down to the masses.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union crumbled under its own inertia and Reagan got the credit for that, too.
The "conservatism" for which he became the "spokesman" was really an aggressive action against everything truly civic and communal in our national life, for the benefit of private luxury and the aggrandizement of individuals -- everything from accumulation of obscene riches by Sam Walton and his spawn, gained from the systematic destruction of American towns, to the cult of the cowboy promoted among a nation of commuters cruelly trapped on freeways in cars named Laredo and Cheyenne.
According to books published since his retirement, he was a cheerful friend to all, and took the time to write personal letters to many of his admirers. He wanted to be what he thought America was when he was a boy: honest, helpful, kind, cheerful. In old age, he was probably to far gone in the head to know what happened to this country. That it had grown complacent with its entitlements to perpetual fun and excitement, that it had turned into Las Vegas from sea to shining sea, a nation of obese cringing losers waiting at the free all-you-can-eat buffet for the hollow-eyed avatars of Muslim vengence to come and blow it up.
June 1, 2004
Most of the assumptions of the American public about how we are going to be living in the years ahead do not comport with reality. Cases in point:
If you sit in on any planning board meeting in the US these days, the main preoccupation among both citizens and officials is parking. Where are we going to put all these goshdarn cars?!? They expect the future to be a linear extrapolation of what's happening now. The answer is to build multi-million dollar parking structures. Now a big public investment like this ought to have a life-expectency of twenty or thirty years. Are automobiles going to play the same role in our lives twenty years from now? Or even ten? Personally, I doubt it. We're just at the beginning of a permanent global fossil fuel crises. If there's anything the public will really need it is passenger railroad service, and that's absolutely the last thing that anybody wants to talk about.
Everybody involved in rebuilding the World Trade Center -- including the public, elected officials, and the architects -- has assumed that the site requires tall buildings of some kind. In fact that's the one thing they all agree upon. Guess what? We are entering a permanent North American natural gas shortage (as well as a global oil crisis). Exactly how are we going to run all these megastructures? Believe me, you're not going to run the elevators with solar electric or wind turbines. not to mention the HVAC.
Every local economic development agency in my part of the country believes that they are going to solve their desperate economic problems by inviting in a WalMart or gearing up tourist attractions for the motoring public. One proposal, ominously called DestiNY (sic), in Syracuse, NY, combined both ideas in a project that would have created the world's biggest mall around a food court "themed" on the Erie Canal. The idea was that people as far away as Scranton and Hartford would drive all the way to Syracuse to buy a new pair of sneakers and eat a slice of Pizza. It almost got built. (Financing sunk it.)
In my travels lecturing at colleges around the country, I tell audiences to expect a future American economy centered around agriculture. They think I am completely insane. They are waiting for the Hydrogen Economy, which, once instituted, will bring about a permanent utopia of leisurely motoring and an endless supply of Cheez Doodles.
May 24, 2004
Seymour Hersh's New Yorker reports about the Pentagon's Special Access Program (SAP) that included the shenanigans at Abu Ghraib reveal, unintentionally I think, more about the dark place the American psyche has entered than even the clownish photographs show. Mostly, they reveal the fecklessness of a society so conditioned by scripted, canned entertainments that we can't tolerate anything that departs from the storyboard or doesn't have a happy ending.
The staged antics at Abu Ghraib bear a striking resemblence to those "Funniest Home Video" shows that self-replicate to fill the insatiable vacuum of cable TV which has become the substitute for public life in America (with an overlay of amateur porn as found all over the internet). And the soldiers mugging in them are young people raised in that vacuum. The pathetic thing is that, for the most part, the Abu Ghraid escapades were an attempt to inflict torture with a minimum of real injury, except for a few cases where the "stunts" went awry (as they do on a movie set) such as the dog who actually bit a prisoner.
According to Hersh, the operation was based on the notion that Arabs are particularly vulnerable to sexual humilation. So Abu Ghraid became a kind of GI's Gone Wild show intended to be not much different than the video frolics shot at spring break in Florida. And all for a good cause: to make Iraq safe for Democracy. The young soldiers seem so avid in these snapshots because it was all just harmless fun piling up the naked men and posing the fake blow-job shots, like working on the set of a porn studio in Sherman Oaks. Thus, America is revealed to be a nation insufficiently serious to carry out real torture. Is that the real humiliation of Abu Ghraid in the eyes of our adversaries? Do Americans even believe that we have real adversaries, or does that stray too far from the script of Friends, too?
That's why the beheading of poor Andrew Berg was such a clarifying event. Guess what, we do have adversaries. We make amateur porn videos where no one really gets hurt. They make snuff movies. And the body of the lead actor turns up dumped in a gutter a few days later.
The American public's ambivalence over the war in Iraq exists in direct relation to the fantastic dissociations of daily life in this country. We're dissociated mainly from the fact that our current living arrangement depends utterly on oil supplies from the Middle East. Iraq is the first act in what is likely to be a long, bitter, and ultimately futile contest to control those oil supplies and the people who own them. We're certainly not going to do it without hurting anybody.
May 10, 2004
The price of gas at the pump goes up relentlessly. Here in the northeast, we are just now topping two dollars a gallon, but in California, dogged by refinery problems, the price has been over the two dollar hump for months. NASCAR fans in Atlanta and the southeast have generally paid the lowest prices. When they go over the hump, things will get ugly.
The media still hardly gets it. This morning, NPR quoted Trilby Lundberg (of the oil industry's Lundberg Letter) to the effect that gasoline prices were going up because the price of a barrel of crude was going up. Duh. I wonder if we will bring the same laser-like intelligence to the hydrogen economy project.
The reason that gas is going up is because there are no swing producers anymore. A swing producer is someone who can pump any amount extra a day to meet world demand. America was the world's swing producer for a hundred years until 1970, when US production peaked and no amount of pumping would ever again increase the flow coming out of the ground. For the past 34 years, Saudi Arabia has been the world's swing producer -- with a lot of "inspiration" from England and Norway's North Sea bonanza (which saved the West's ass). Alas, the North Sea peaked in 2001.
Saudi Arabia has used its pricing power very conservatively because they prefered an orderly flow of income to the political unknowns of sick and angry Western economies. It has been a good strategy. They succeeded in putting the American public to sleep over energy issues. And with the North Sea fields recently passing peak, the Europeans haven't dared to intrude in Islamic affairs.
But the status quo of the past thirty-odd years is unraveling quickly. Saudi Arabia may not be the world's swing producer anymore. We don't know for sure because the information they release is dodgy and unreliable. But they may be pumping as much as they can, which is one way of saying that they may have reached peak production sooner than anybody expected. Their Ghawar oil field (the world's largest), which accounts for over half of Arabian production, is so old and feeble that they have to pump millions of gallons of sea water into it a day to keep the pressure up. Unfortunately, this huge "water cut" also has the tendency to damage the field and impinge on future production. Meanwhile, 2003 was a signal year in the oil exploration industry; no significant new finds were made anywhere in the world.
We're in uncharted territory now. If the world has no swing producer then there is no power on earth that can keep oil markets stable. The price will probably not go up in a straight diagonal line, though, because each major price rise will sicken the industrial economies enough to dampen demand. Instead, we will see a kind of ratcheting movement. If the industrial economies get sick enough, prices may even fall back a little before ratcheting up again. The trend, however, will be ever upward.
The upshot will be a persistent lack of economic "growth," job loss, and hardship. The housing mania will subside into a repossession fiesta. The Dow will head south, perhaps even below 1000. This will all be very confusing to NASCAR Nation, since neither the Republicans nor Democrats will be able to do anything about our oil predicament. My guess is that we will go through some years of intense blame-gaming, and that new parties, perhaps very sinister ones eager to use the powers of coercion, will crop up. Of course, the Islamic oil nations will not be immune to political turbulence. The Sauds will be tossed out. International jihad will get more intense. America will probably not have the cash or the political will to maintain a meaningful military presence in that part of the world for more than a decade. China will go adventuring for the world's remaining oil. We will retreat into our hemisphere and try to figure out how to live in a post oil world. (Hint: there's not going to be any hydrogen economy.)
The little children now being ferried about in SUV's with Finding Nemo playing on the DVD on their way to the WalMart, are going to grow up into that world. What will they think of us?
May 2, 2004
The Democratic party is stuck with such a stiff in its presumptive nominee, John Kerry, that I think pressure will be brought on him in the months ahead to release his delegates, step aside, and throw the convention open to come up with someone else. This outcome would be, in my view, the only way to rescue the party from irrelevence and possible Whig-style death.
* * *
Here's an idea to reduce the amount of useless motoring going on in the United States: give big retail companies a meaningful tax break for doing home delivery. Current retail practice has used the ubiquity of car ownership in the US to shift all the burdens of wholesale distribution onto American shoppers. Americans are buying such large automobiles partly because they shlep wholesale lots of canned tuna and pallet-loads of dog food home from "warehouse" stores. Until a couple of decades ago, there really was a distinction between warehouses and stores.
We will have to return to more fine-grained trade networks in the future, as the oil markets wobble, but that will obviously require major infrastructure changes. In the meantime, let's push the chain stores to invest in fleets of delivery vans and do the shlepping for us. Home delivery would be especially suitable for routine grocery shopping. You don't have to feel a pound of butter or a box of Cheerios to buy with confidence. Obviously, a certain percentage of people will still want to go to the stores themselves. But a substantial minority may opt for home delivery, and that could make a huge difference in congestion and overall gasoline use.
I know personally that home delivery works. I grew up in Manhattan where there are no parking lots and not owning a car was normal. My mother called the local grocer on the telephone and rattled off a shopping list. By late afternoon, a carton or two of groceries was waiting in front of the door of our 12th floor apartment. I know the logistics are different in the suburban subdivisions of today, but I'm sure that some of the ingenuity currently assigned to the "hydrogen economy" could be brought to bear in solving the less recondite problems of home delivery.
Home delivery companies have been tried before in recent years and largely failed. But these were independent ventures, grafted awkwardly onto the existing system, with no help from the chain stores themselves. It's time to enlist the chains in helping to solve a problem that they created, even if society as a whole has to pay them via tax breaks.
April 26, 2004
Whoever has the misfortune to be elected to the White House in November is going to preside over four years of shocking turbulence in world affairs and will be largely helpless in the face of such events as the wobbling of world oil markets, the tanking of hallucinated finance, asymetrical jihadi terrorism, increasing climate abnormalities, and the circulation of desperate third world populations. Though I am a registered Democrat, I often think it would be better if George W. Bush continued in office, in part because I doubt that Mr. Kerry would be any more effective in the face of these disorders, but also because it would put an end to the dominant Republicanism of the past 20 years as neatly as the Civil War killed off the feckless Whigs.
The only hitch with this scenario is that both the Republicans and Democrats look like the Whigs of 1860. Both parties today are blind to the greatest problem facing American civilization: our over-investment in oil-and-gas-dependent technology, and the looming depletion of those primary resources. Neither party has the courage to tell the public the truth: that the suburban dream is coming to an end and that we have to change the way we live and work in this country fundamentally. Both parties promote the wishful myth that a high-tech miracle ("the hydrogen economy") is going to rescue America from the rigors and hardships of a post-cheap-oil world.
The Republicans may be marginally more reckless and dangerous since so many of them subscribe to an apocalyptic brand of Christianity that appears to welcome world cataclysm -- either that, or they are pretending to be pious. Both parties are hostage to predatory corporatism as embodied in Enron and WalMart. Bill Clinton didn't show any more enthusiasm for enforcing the anti-trust laws than Dubya Bush. While the Republicans may be crazy in matters of religion, the Democrats have long given up on the important social issues of wealth inequity for a craven preoccupation with race pandering under the banners of "diversity" and "multiculturalism." Neither party is interested in defending our immigration statutes. For all that, I regard the Democratic party as marginally more capable of re-adapting to the terrible realities of this new century. At least they are not waiting for "the rapture."
But they may have to feel four more years of pain -- along with the rest of the country -- to get where they need to go and find candidates who are capable of leading the public instead of just following in the their sleepwalking footsteps.
April 19, 2004
Whenever I am in the vicinity of Interstate-87, the Adirondack Northway, with its great six-lane stream of cars and trucks whooshing back and forth between New York City and Montreal, I marvel that there are hundreds of other scenes like this all over America, most of them much busier in traffic volume -- from Northern New Jersey to the Baltimore / D.C. metroplex, to the suburban asteroid belts west of Chicago, to the ghastly corridor between Fort Worth and Dallas, to the churning voids of outer Denver, to the crudscapes of Phoenix shimmering in the desert heat, to the ongoing catastrophe of California. Normal American life is mainly about driving around in cars and trucks.
I also marvel that this normality could end at any moment. One incident somewhere in the world could bring the whole frantic panorama to a screeching halt. Some pious soldier of Allah could walk into Prince Abdullah's office with a piece of plastic explosive the size of a cell phone and that would be the end of about 17 percent of our oil imports. Some aggrieved party could set off a "dirty" bomb in Tel Aviv, and then Ariel Sharon's government would have to consider taking out a Muslim capital, or several, or maybe all of them. You can believe that will stop traffic around the world. A few maniacs could drive a van into the heart of Washington and fire off shoulder launched missles at any number of targets in half a minute. Or maybe that neatly-dressed fellow in the elevator with the somewhat large attache case is up to no good in Paris, New York, or London.
We're at the mercy of events now, but we're not prepared for what those events might bring. You can see it coming from miles away, but we're taking no real measures. We expect the churn of traffic to just somehow continue, no matter what.
It won't, of course. At some point, the players are going to have to leave the casinos, the raptures of "American Idol" will flicker out, an eerie silence will descend on the the NASCAR ovals, the electricity will go out in the fry-o-laters, the hand-lettered signs will get taped up on the pumps: "No Gas Today."
Are any of you out there thinking: what will we do then???
April 12, 2004
The strange assumption gathering behind the 9/11 Commission is that the government ought to be omniscient and omnipotent. And, oddly, those who seem most disappointed with the government's failure to know absolutely everything about everybody, and to control what they do, are the very faction who would most object to a government that actually tried to do so -- namely, Democratic progressives. This is one of many palpable ironies in our conflicted national mood these days.
The scene in Iraq has grown exceedingly dark lately as Shia, Sunni, Baathists, and freelance jihadistas join to kick America's ass. US troops appear to have lost the ability to control large chunks of territory, and are drawn into exactly the kind of urban combat that strategists at the Pentagon feared most when this operation started a year ago. US casualties have ratcheted up from three or four a week to more like thirty a week. The American public grows restive and anxious and, as befits an actual democracy, we wring our hands very openly in public forums such as the 9/11 Commission. How and why did we ever get into this mess?
We're in it because we have entered a new era of international politics. The Democratic Progressives are most confused because the nature of the struggle goes against their most cherished idea of the past quarter-century: diversity. All cultures are equally okay and ought to co-exist peacefully. Radical Islam doesn't believe this silly shit at all. Radical Islam thinks that western culture, in particular its American branch, should be wiped off the face of the earth. They have the money and the personnel to try to accomplish this and they are going for it by any means necessary.
A big part of the American public, meanwhile, still wants to celebrate diversity while motoring in air conditioned comfort with the cup-holders full of iced drinks and old Beatles hits on the stereo -- give peace a chance! These are the people who complain because the Iraq war is "all about oil."
Okay, then, fine. Give up your big cars and air conditioning and iced sport beverages and walk to work from Cherokee Count, Ga, to Dekalb, if you still have a job in a post-oil economy.
The news is that defending the way of life we've grown accustomed to is going to be very costly. We're in Iraq because we need desperately to maintain a police station in the Middle East, especially next door to Saudi Arabia, so the whole region doesn't fall under the sway of jihad, taking the stability of the global oil markets with it. That was the reason from the start, whatever the window-dressing of politics might have been.
If the Democratic Progressives want to grow up and act like a respectable and responsible opposition, they might quit being crybabies about the war and commence some public reflection on the insanity of our current way of life, which has no future under any circumstances. I'd like to hear the Democratic Progressives talk about restoring passenger railroad service and public transit. I'd like to see one Democratic politician stand up against WalMart and the forces that destroy local economies. I'd like to see one of them talk about stopping subsidies to suburban sprawl. I'd like to hear one define a new national purpose beyond bargain shopping and trips to Las Vegas for "excitement."
Until that happens, I'll stick with Condeleeza Rice.
April 5, 2004
The New York Times is rapidly becoming the supreme organ of cluelessness in our so-called culture, and its avatar is columnist David Brooks, who wrote a hymn to suburbia in this week's Sunday Magazine ("Our Sprawling Supersize Suburbia"). Not just suburbia, actually, but the outer asteroid belts of the newest hyper suburbs, especially the ones far beyond even the olifactory influence of any real city or town, and most particularly the ones composed of the biggest McHouses.
Brooks has been a cheerleader for yuppiedom and its entitlements since he emerged from the neo-con ooze a decade ago. He celebrates suburbia and all its efluvia (fast fried food, Disney, Prozac, Monster Truck rallies, golf) the way the harridans of the English faculties celebrate "diversity" and all its perquisites of race and gender. He attributes the glory of the hyper burbs to what he calls America's "future-minded mentality" -- as if Americans were the only human beings on this planet with hopes and dreams -- and he labels the package of delusions it encompasses as "the Paradise Spell." (Brooks is apparently unaware that people elsewhere are in thrall to another version of paradise, for instance the suicide bombers of radical Islam.)
Brooks heaps up the quotes from Emerson, Einstein, Santayana and other authorites like sneaker endorsements in his attempt to find a philosophical basis for our way of life, but he never even stumbles close to the true nature of his subject, which is precisely that suburbia is an infrastructure for daily living with no future. The subconscious apprehension of that, and the anxiety and depression it generates in its denizens, is the main reason that suburbia has been consistently subject to ridicule. And, of course, he never actually touches upon the primary cause of suburbia's origin, which is nothing so metaphysical as a hundred years of cheap gasoline. In fact, Brooks never mentions oil, not once, in his ridiculous encomium.
The article was drawn from Brooks's forthcoming book on the subject, which was obviously in the works a few years before the current up-wobble in gasoline prices, which must be giving those jolly suburbanites at least a mild case of the heebie-jeebies. The New York Times and Brooks's self-satisfied readers are going to discover soon what a catastrophe this way of life really is, and they will be shocked to discover that they were not rushing wide-eyed to embrace the future but rather sleepwalking into it.
March 31, 2004
My friends, who tend to be mostly Democrats, tell me I have to get behind John Kerry to stop the Evil One, as many of them like to call President Bush. I'm a registered Democrat too, but try as I might, I can't shake the feeling that Kerry is not only a fraud but a high-class whore as well.
Yesterday Kerry was in California inveighing against high gasoline prices and saying that if he was president he'd do something about it. What horseshit. Jawbone the Saudis, I suppose. What if the reports we've been hearing are correct and the Saudis have been over-reporting their reserves for years? And their largest oil fields are no longer able to produce what we wish they could produce? Blame the Haliburton Company? They may be venal, mendacious swine, but they're not responsible for the price at the pump.
Kerry simply lacks the courage to tell the American public the truth, which is that we are entering a shaky era of permanent oil supply problems because of the global production peak. Instead, Kerry promised to "solve" the problem by marshaling "science and technology" to "come up with" something to take the place of oil. He must be getting bad advice, because as much as some might wish it, we are not going to re-fit our drive-in utopia with a magic new fuel and keep running the suburban program. No combination of alternative fuels will allow us to run what we are currently running. For those of you who haven't heard yet, the hydrogen economy is pure fantasy. It ain't gonna happen. The 20th century is over and we have to make new arrangements.
In fact, we are close enough to being in a permanent emergency over oil and natural gas that the public needs to know what the score is right away and what our real alternatives are. These are, to reconstruct rail and public transit, to live closer together, to rebuild local trade networks to replace the WalMarts, to get ready to practice a lot more small-scale agriculture, and to downscale virtually all of our activities and institutions from retail to schooling.
Instead, Kerry has dedicated himself to supporting not only the unsustainable status quo, but the dangerous psychology behind it, namely that we are entitled to a hyper-turbo consumption society and if the world doesn't let us have it, we are justified in striking out against the people and places that we suppose want to deprive us of it.
March 25, 2004
The US economy has been kept in a state of supernatural levitation by two things: military power and gasoline fumes.
The military power allows us to keep extracting oil from half a world away, even from people who revile us and would like stamp out western civilization, secular law, and humanist culture. The military power is, increasingly, all that is left of the national wealth and social capital we have squandered in order to become a society of obese motorists driving from Nascar to WalMart to Las Vegas in search of "excitement."
The projection of military power provides the gasoline fumes that allow us to maintain the illusion that we are nation that actually creates wealth. This has kept the brisk trade in suburban houses going, and with it the trade in mortgages and other forms of credit, which is to say hallucinated wealth. The trade in suburban houses, meanwhile, has kept going the "consumer sector" devoted to furnishing and accessorizing the houses with everything from coffee-makers to strip malls.
The levitation occurs in the form of faith, our own and that of other peoples, that keeps the racket going. The other people, in other countries, buy our debt (faith in our interest-bearing bonds) so Americans can keep on borrowing money (whether they are credit-worthy or not), so that the people in other countries can keep on selling us coffee-makers.
The US economy is a black hole of borrowed money sucking in oil and manufactured goods from people who either have nothing else to sell (Saudi Arabia) or are creating perhaps the world's last industrial economy by combining the diminishing reserves of the world's cheap oil with extremely cheap labor (China).
Once the world passes the all-time global oil production peak, the game is over. The Chinese economy can no longer power more factories, the US can no longer base its economy on the building of unsustainable suburban infrastructure, Saudi Arabia can no longer control the price of oil, the US mortgage-and-debt machine throws a rod, and trillions of dollars in faith-based financial instruments goes up in a vapor.
Nobody knows for sure whether the world has passed the global oil peak, because the information about how much oil remains in the ground has been routinely misreported by nations and companies for a hundred years in order to enjoy market and tax advantages. But a lot of people -- including some of the world's most eminent oil company geologists -- think we are at or near that peak.
The game I have described -- of global trade based on fake wealth -- has continued in that vacuum of information. But sooner or later everybody will know what the score is because nobody will be in control of the price of oil. The price will keep going up and all the producers will be pumping flat out, unable to increase the global supply and drive down the price. Maybe we are there now.
Some results can be predicted. America's suburban sprawl economy will wobble. The idea of living 38 miles outside Atlanta will become less appealing, and so will the new houses that make that possible. Fewer coffee-makers will make that long trip from China to the WalMart. Fewer houses and strip malls will be built. Incomes will vanish. Fewer mortgage and credit card payments will be made. Chattels will be repossessed by lenders. The belief that we are a wealthy country will dissolve. Foreigners will want to hold fewer US treasury notes. Interest rates will have to rise to try to prevent that sell-off in foreign-held debt. Higher interest rates will squash what is left of demand for new suburban houses. The US economy will stop levitating.
I think this is happening now. The further results of this could be a lot of turbulance in the world and here in the US especially.
March 22, 2004
In our transports of recrimination over the war in Iraq, Americans seem to have forgotten that there is a very real war going on between what is loosely called "the West" and Islamic fundamentalism -- even, I hasten to add, taking into account the obvious internal problems the West has with its current mentality of hyper-turbo consumerism, vulgar and idiotic pop culture, relativist values, and extreme short-term thinking. Whatever our merits or defects, Islamic fundamentalism wants to kill Westerners (Americans especially), blow us up, destroy our sacred places, and make everyday life as difficult as possible.
The Spanish railway bomb massacre just before the election last week was a real victory for Islamic fundamentalism. They accomplished regime change in Spain much more efficiently than America has in Iraq. And the subsequent Spanish turnabout on supporting the the US effort to police and rebuild Iraq will do much to encourage more terrorist massacres anyplace that does not line up against the US. Europe has an additional problem with its huge (and growing) populations of increasingly restive and belligerant Muslims.
Then, there is this week's blow against American credibility by Richard Clarke, former White House anti-terrorism coordinator under Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II. For that reason, Clarke's accusations of incompetence against Bush II have to be taken very seriously. The specifics are damning: that before 9/11 the White House ignored his repeated requests for high level meetings, and tried to bully him on tailoring his views to suit their own intentions. I saw Clarke on 60 Minutes last night, and his story is both credible and scary. But however mendacious the Bush camp may be, I'm still not convinced that anybody could have prevented a major terror strike against America, nor that our takeover of Iraq was unnecessary.
Iraq might not have been connected or allied with Islamic terror per se before 9/11, but Saddam Hussein had grandiose fantasies about leading an international Muslim (as opposed to Islamic) campaign against the West and I believe that sooner or later he would have allied himself with the religious fanatics bent on carrying out an overt jihad. He may not have possessed so-called weapons of mass destruction (or he may have off-loaded whatever he did have, nuclear or biological, to other states or client entities. But had he remained in control of Iraq, Saddam certainly could have become a major weapons broker between the suppliers and the rogue market. Iraq also occupies a strategic geographical position between Asian Islam and Middle East-and-North-African Islam, and it was useful for the West to set up, in effect, a large police station there bisecting global Islam, preventing a geographically-unified Islam, in effect.
The combination now of the Spanish fiasco and Richard Clarke's accusations will surely rock public opinion in the US and widen the fissures between those who want to pretend that there is no conflict between Islam and the West, and those who feel they have to attend to the war, however ineptly they may do it.
I don't know what John Kerry would be doing differently. He voted to authorize the Iraq War in the Senate, when he had the chance to oppose it. Would he now just pull all our troops out a la Saigon in 1975? I don't know. I do know that Iraq is nothing like Vietnam, at least not in terms of casualities -- several hundred dead versus 50,000. I don't believe Kerry has any idea what he would do differently or better. And if we pulled out of Iraq, Islam's determined struggle against the West would not stop.
What we are seeing is America having a very hard time with the inherent contradictions of our position in the world today. We have the planet's most potent military, yet we have an economy and a national infrastructure for daily life that are more vulnerable to disruption than any in the world -- and entirely because of the bad collective decisions we have made -- namely, becoming so car dependent that we are hopelessly reliant on people who hate us for the oil that we are so addicted to.
If I fault the Bush gang for anything, it is for not telling the American public the truth about our predicament over oil or the fiasco of our suburban economy. I haven't heard a peep about these things from any candidate on the scene including Bush, Kerry, Dean, Ralph Nadar, you name anyone.
Meanwhile, the latest information on al Qaeda is that they have gotten their hands on "nuclear devices." ("Al Qaeda No. 2, "We Have Briefcase Nukes") What happens if they are crazy enough to use one against the most likely target: Israel? Chew on that.
March 8, 2004
If the New York Times is any measure of things, the national superego is in a state of terrific confusion about sex.
Exhibit one: we get Jonathan Rauch's lead-off article in the Sunday Magazine promoting gay marriage. Rauch, of the Brookings Institution, is the author of a forthcoming book on the subject by (who else) Times Books. Rauch's idea is that President Bush's stance on social value of marriage is unwittingly an argument favoring gay marriage. Essentially, Rauch says, any marriage ought to be construed as a benefit to society.
Exhibit two: the lead article on page one of the Sunday Styles section about "transgender" students at elite colleges. Here's the lead:
Arriving in Providence last fall to begin his senior year at Brown University, Luke Woodward didn't have to tell friends what he had done on his summer vacation. They could tell with one glance. Before the summer, Luke had the body of a woman. Now Luke's breasts were gone, leaving a chest more compatible with Luke's close-cropped hair, baggy jeans and hooded sweatshirt. Some classmates had chipped in to pay for the surgery; to cover the rest, Luke took out loans.
Note that this story ran in what is essentially the fashion section of the Sunday paper, and note also the emphasis the reporter puts on sex change surgery as a fashion statement. The surgery goes with the outfit.
Exhibit three: the "Lives" endpaper of the Sunday Magazine, an article by a woman whose life was devastated because a 21-year-old male babysitter had given her 9-year-old daughter kissing lessons.
I have been puzzling over the issue of gay marriage myself the last few weeks, as perhaps many of you have. It seems to me that everything necessary in the way of legal protection for same-sex partners was already available in the several "domestic partner" laws already enacted in states such as Vermont. Gay marriage, on the other hand, is an effort to gain official approbation for a form of sexual behavior and establish it as socially normative. This, it seems to me, has several drawbacks for all concerned, gay and non-gay alike.
As much as the gay community wishes, they will never persuade the non-gay majority that homosexual behavior is wholesome, in particular between males. In reality, the norm of male gay social behavior is extreme promiscuity with predatory overtones -- hence, for example, all the problems the Catholic church is having with what is basically a homosexual subculture devoted almost exclusively to victimizing boys.
The wish to normalize male homosexuality is inevitably a way of discounting and marginalizing male heterosexuality. However, I'm not convinced that male homosexuals want to cede the social margin to the straights; that "outsider" position is so deeply connected with gay culture generally. What we are really seeing, I believe, is the final tactical move of the womens' movement to keep bothersome men away from them generally and to get as many men as possible corralled into a gay ghetto with the priapic diversions of gay life.
In the end what bothers me about gay marriage is the idea that it is exactly the same thing as marriage between a man and a woman, and this is the obvious result of the extreme relativism that has reigned as a kind of supreme fashion statement among high culture vamps since the 1960s. This relativism has been a long game of pretend -- pretending that all behaviors are equally okay.
It seems to me that this kind of lazy relativism is a luxury that can only be enjoyed by a cossetted elite luxuriating in a high entropy economy. Why else would the students at elite universities like Brown be so preoccupied by adolescent sexual confusion? I would think that seniors at Brown (and Yale, and Princeton, and Harvard) would be more concerned with how our society is going to function in the permanent energy crisis soon to come, or how we are going to reorganize farming so we can feed ourselves when oil-based agriculture ends, or how we are going to reestablish local networks of economic interdependency when WalMart globalism grinds to a halt. Instead, they are being encouraged to submit to extreme acts of surgical mutilation in order to erase their sexual identity.
Finally, though, the New York Times gives the game away with that Magazine endpaper about the babysitter who gave kissing lessons and thus destroyed a mother's life. The Times stands for a new and extremely peculiar form of puritanism: one that regards heterosexuality as fundamentally disgusting and homosexuality as the greatest social good. The subtext is the end-game of the womens' movement: the complete marginalization of men. As a heterosexual male (and a registered Democrat), I've had about enough of this point-of-view and I will fight to overturn the cultural consensus that supports it.
On another subject, people have been asking me for days how I feel about Martha Stewart's conviction -- since my new novel, Maggie Darling, is based on a Martha-like character. I conclude that the jury reached a reasonable verdict, and I interpret this a very ominous sign for the economic elites of America. Their greed has been out-of-this-world in recent years and, as the American economy steadily tanks, and general suffering among the non-elite spreads, this elite is apt to be punished severely. I suspect, though, that plucky Martha will somehow rise out of the ashes, rescuing herself like the famous turkey she once nearly incinerated during a pre-Omnimedia Thanksgiving. The idea of Martha in jail, however, is a little bit like finding Nancy Drew working as a pole dancer in a South Florida gin mill. Something awful is underway in our nation.
March 1, 2004
I'm always amazed at how America is gripped by the Oscar race,. But it especially interested me this year because the movie that got the most awards -- The Lord of the Rings, Part III -- was such an utterly empty spectacle devoid of narrative coherence. In that sense, I suppose, it perfectly represented the current state of American life. But the casual observer is left with the frightening thought: am I the only one who notices this?
I happened to be in California most of last week, though not anywhere near the Oscar-rama. I was in Monterey at a conference called TED (Technology, Entertainment, & Design) that is attended by an impressive array of Internet billionaires, media biggies, venture capitalists, and corporate leaders. I was one of the speakers, and the crowd seemed chagrined by my assertion that America was unlikely to be rescued by technology from the oil-and-gas depletion problems that loom ahead. Our business leaders believe that anything is possible if you wish hard enough -- the philosophy of Jiminy Cricket.
One of the other speakers in the four-day event was a gentleman who has spent forty years developing a "skycar," a kind of George Jetson style vertical takeoff vehicle. He symbolized our current national mood perfectly. Near the end of his presentation, he literally declared that we could solve all the problems of our congested urbs by making it possible for folks to commute from even greater distances than they do now.
Meanwhile, I couldn't help but reflect on the future prospects for California. Poor Monterey has become just another parking lot (with nice water views). The nearly fifty mile stretch running from San Francisco airport to quite a way below Silicon Valley (San Jose) is a shocking wilderness of freeway ramps, sodium vapor lamps, and crummy garden apartments built like packing crates. The region seems destined to complete and utter dysfunction as soon as this country suffers even the first mild tremors of the coming oil shocks. If Californians think that life is tough now under Schwarzenegger, they haven't seen anything. I advised everbody I talked to who lived there to get out while the getting is possible. They all regarded me as crazy.