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by Jim Kunstler
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November 3, 2005
I voted against Wal-Mart and NASCAR. I pulled the lever for Kerry. At six-thirty this morning, it looked like Wal-Mart and NASCAR won in taking Ohio by 130,000-odd votes. But given the complications of the 2000 election, none of the networks will call it yet.
John Kerry hasn't conceded and it looks like the Democratic lawyer squads may be heading into Ohio (with Republican lawyers flocking into Pennsylvania).
What strikes me in the tally is how overwhelming the victories are in many states for either side. In California and New York, Kerry murdered Bush by a million vote margin. The margin for Bush in smaller "heartland" states was even greater: 68 to 30 percent in Idaho, 62 to 36 percent in Kansas, 60 to 40 percent in Kentucky, 55 to 44 in Arizona. Obviously this denotes a deeply divided nation. But do the divisions make any sense?
We know that Bush Republicans stand for aggressive corporatism, blood-for-oil, and the suburban dream-at-all-costs.
Kerry's positions remained murky to the end. He seemed to support blood-for-oil, saying only that he could do it better -- though many of the Democratic rank-and-file were vocally anti-war. He certainly took plenty of cash handouts from big corporations. And he urged crowds to go out and buy SUVs because it would be good for the economy. In the end, he made himself out to be little more than a pale carbon copy of Bush.
Neither candidate had a credible position on the energy predicament the country faces, and its dire economic implications. Neither dared say a word about out-of-control illegal immigration.
Only on a couple social issues did the candidates really differ: abortion and stem cell medical research. Kerry never actually supported gay marriage, but Bush was decisively against it.
Bush will enter his second term with a flimsy mandate. He will preside over the global oil production peak and the widespread instabilities it will initiate, including ever-widening jihad. There is every indication that the US economy -- based on continual suburban development -- will crater under the circumstances of the next four years. Bush II is likely to become Herbert Hoover II.
A Bush victory will have two salutary political results. It will leave Republican conservatism discredited when the administration is overwhelmed by the problems described above. And it will force the Democratic party to either transform itself into a vehicle for meaningful ideas-and-action, or die.
Kerry was the perfect media creation for his time: tall, handsome, with great hair and a deep voice and beyond that an absolutely empty vessel. He was quite remarkably unable to articulate a coherent political point of view on the great problems of the day. I voted for him with the deepest displeasure. George W. Bush, for all his fumbling, made his position quite clear: keep on shoveling coal with him on a runaway train.
The senate will be an interesting place with two freshman mad-dog conservatives elected: Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, both of them practically Nazis. Democratic senate minority leader Tom Daschle is out, whupped by a telegenic John Thune. The Republicans have a more solid majority now. The GOP also increased their margin in the House of Representatives. That sets them up nicely to be blamed when the shit hits the fan over the next several years.
It is hard to not view John Kerry as representing some essential failure of the educated minority of the baby boom generation. We didn't have the starch to stand up to the NASCAR boobs and the morons who want to sell their country to Wal-Mart. We couldn't form a plausible opposition to the those who act as if the future doesn't exist.
November 1, 2004,
With battalions of lawyers waiting in the wings, and new voting machines of unknown reliability, and motor-voter systems that enroll new voters who register a car, whether they are qualified citizens or not, there's a fair chance that a close presidential election may not produce a clear and timely result. In fact, there's a possibility that it could remain contested and unresolved, leading to a crisis of legitimacy.
This will be an interesting example for Iraq -- and the rest of the world.
America's national psyche is a fraught and riven thing, like the soul of one of those tortured trailer park drunks in a television cop show. Our futureless suburban mode of living, our sick addiction to cheap oil, our something-for-nothing casino economy, our remorseless hunger for entertainments, our show biz religion, have all left us unable to function.
At the bottom of this dysfunction is the loss of faith in ourselves and our way of life, which is exactly what happens to a drunk or a drug addict whose own behavior is so self-destructive that he can no longer trust his own instincts or know what to believe.
Our worship of technology (and cluelessness about its diminishing returns) has led us to 'fix' a voting system that wasn't broken, and that will lead us to election results that we do not trust -- to be arbitrated by lawyers. Shakespeare was onto something essential about politics when he has a character in Henry VI say, "First. . . kill all the lawyers."
A second impasse of legitimacy in two consecutive elections would be an extreme crisis for our system of governance. The nation could recover, but probably not without going through the kind of convulsion that a drunk or a drug addict has to endure to sober up. That convulsion is likely to come anyway, in the form of a permanent global energy crisis and the bloody conflict between nations that it will entail. That conflict is already upon us in our awkward attempt to pacify the Middle East, where more than sixty percent of the world's remaining oil is.
Notice that neither candidate for president had the fortitude to challenge the issues of our collective behavior here at home. An election that refuses to resolve will be nature's way of telling us that neither man was qualified to lead this nation out of its self-destructive course.
A gridlocked election in the US will also, of course, be a tragic example for our enterprise in Iraq, which is predicated on our effort to establish legitimacy there by means of fair elections. It was a laudable ambition -- after all, the only alternatives were to impose leadership on them or allow somebody besides Saddam Hussein to seize it. But when our own election ends in a train wreck, what we will we teach them about democracy? Choosing your own destiny is not necessarily the best outcome when your own habits and behaviors leave you too incompetent to function.
Like every other commentator in America, I'll run a post-election analysis on Wednesday Morning.
October 25, 2004,
Indignant readers e-mail me regularly to say that John Kerry can't be expected to tell voters the truth about our national predicament because the public would only resent him for it. Of course, this condescending attitude assumes that the public is so childish that they hardly deserve the right to vote in the first place.
The "truth" is the proverbial elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about. Namely, that our suicidal addiction to easy motoring and the sick dependence on Middle East oil that it entails will soon plunge American society into an unprecedented crisis. The price of a barrel of oil has shot up by one-third since the political conventions wrapped up. That ought to, at least, be a clue that something odd is happening in the world.
That "something" is the geological, not political, fact of the global oil production peak. How to account for the public's lack of interest in it, and the candidates' lack of leadership in bringing it to their attention?
Personally, I'm allergic to conspiracy theories. The information about the global oil peak is simply too easy to get. Nobody's trying to hide it. It just doesn't register on the public. Well, here are a couple of social psychology explanations for the public's cluelessness. One is Sergey Borovik's apt term: "outside context problem." Peak oil, and its awful implications about the end of easy living, are too surreal for the public to process. Mention of the issue causes instant cognitive dissonance, or static in the brain. Suburban life and all its habits are too deeply established as normal for Americans to imagine any other way of existence. The collective investment in all the freeways, housing subdivisions, office parks, and strip malls is too massive for the public to imagine having to give up on. This failure of imagination is related to another condition identified by Erik Davis, author of Techgnosis, as the "consensus trance" -- which means that the collective agreement about what reality consists of is so powerful that it resists, even repels, any challenge to its validity. Okay, but how to explain our leaders apparent cluelessness?
It is a matter of public record that George W. Bush has been briefed more than twice by Matthew Simmons, the foremost investment banker of the oil industry, who has been campaigning tirelessly for four years to bring the facts of peak oil (and natural gas) to public attention. Bush cannot fail to know that something momentous is up, something that will completely change the terms of everyday life in America.
But his faith in technological salvation must be equal to his Christian zeal -- he is reported by worried aides to be found on his knees praying incessently in the oval office, and to carry a bible with him around the White House. However, if he is a truly pious Pentecostal Christian, then he most likely subscribes to the"End Times" scenario of its doctrine, which states that very shortly all believers will be hoisted rapturously en masse to the side of Jesus's golden throne while the Earth roasts in a fiery apocalypse. All of which would suggest that the future down here doesn't mean anything to him.
John Kerry's cluelessness, and his pandering to the status quo ("Buy an SUV! Great for the economy!") is impossible to explain. Could the US government be so inept that Senators are not briefed on vital information? What could be more vital than a global condition that would destroy industrial economies and modern life as we have known it? Does Senator Kerry dismiss the peak oil issue as a "kook theory?" If so, he is poorly advised. Is he too cynical or cowardly to challenge the public's consensus trance? That's what leaders are for. If he wins the election, will he continue to pander to the public's cluelessness as the price of oil ratchets up to $60 a barrel?
Kerry could have, by the way, made a major committment to restoring America's passenger rail service without even having to engage the peak oil issue.
It is hard not to conclude that Kerry is either a twit or a scoundrel.
I take the point, however, that a twit / scoundrel may still be a better choice than a Christian fanatic who completely discounts the future of life on Earth.
What a sorry people we have become to have given ourselves such a choice.
October 18, 2004
You have to feel sorry for the man who ends up in the Oval Office the next four years. He'll preside over the singular event of the global oil production peak and all the turbulent emanations from it, including the de-stabilization of most of the complex systems that the industrial world depends on: agriculture, finance, trade, transportation, and electric power generation. Oh yes, and peace between nations, which is more a condition than a system.
This, of course, is exactly what the American public is not hearing about from the candidates or, for that matter, what they are not putting to the candidates in any forum of public discussion, whether it is a staged debate or the editorial pages. But over the next four years the public will find out exactly what the War in Iraq has been about -- not a favor for Haliburton by Bush & Cheney, but a natural consequence of the public's own sick dependence on cars.
I was in Dallas two weeks ago, a wilderness of eight-lane freeways and sodium vapor lamps. I had to remind myself that this is how most Americans live. The so-called "city" was a product of the late 20th century cheap oil fiesta. If you live there, driving is mandatory, and lots of it, over heroic distances. It took me half an hour (and forty bucks) to get across just the north side of the sprawling town to the airport at five-thirty in the morning when the traffic was still light. This is exactly the kind of place that is going to be in deep trouble over the next four years. There are scores of places like it all over America. The people who live in them will be full of consternation and gall when their chosen living arrangement begins to fail them. They will blame whoever is sitting in the oval office.
"Why didn't you tell us something awful was going to happen?"
"Why didn't you ask?"
The main pretension of the Presidential campaigns is the idea that the next President will have any ability to control the events that will most determine how we live in this country. The federal government is likely to become more impotent and therefore increasingly irrelevent.
"Why didn't you do something?"
"We didn't want to upset you."
What was the "truth" about the American condition in 2004? The truth was that we had made some bad choices about how we live and that events would soon compel us to change drastically whether we liked it or not. Nobody wanted to hear that, and no political leader dared say it.
John Kerry has made some joking references to the immense wealth he married into, but a few years from now it will not seem very funny to a public with no jobs, steeply declining standards of living, and no way to get around. Nor will George W.Bush's family advantages go unnoticed. Personally, I am allergic to Marxist doctrine, but I believe nonetheless that a few years from now, the American public will want to eat the rich. Some demagogue will arise out of the NASCAR mob and then the real fun will begin.
October 11, 2004
Two gruesome stories on John Kerry appeared in Sunday's New York Times. The first one, on Page One of the news section, detailed the candidate's stupendous wealth acquired through marriage to ketchup heiress Theresa Heinz -- enough to make John F. Kennedy and Teddy Roosevelt look like office temps in comparison. It may be unfair to fault Kerry for such a happy accident of matrimonial luck, but I was provoked to reflect on the idea that when societies stagger with hardship, elites suffer the public's wrath. Since Mr. Kerry would serve his term during the most unprecedented economic shitstorm in US history, it was hard to feel optimistic about his ability to govern a public full of grievance against the wealthy.
The second article was actually more disturbing: "Kerry's Undeclared War" in the Sunday Magazine. The Times tried to play it as though Kerry was simply misunderstood on the issue of the war. The subtitle said, "John Kerry has a thoughtful, forward-looking theory about terrorism and how to fight it. But can it resonate with Americans in the post-9/11 world?"
Once into the body of the article, by Matt Bai, the story was hardly so reassuring. Kerry's "theory" it turns out, is that the "War on Terrorism" ought to be fought like the "War on Drugs." Well now, there's a successful model, if ever there was one!
How did Kerry come up with such a stupid fucking idea? Turns out that he chaired a senate foreign relations subcommittee that produced a report cataloging the various methods that drug lords used to move money around the world. This led to some banking legislation and diplomatic strong-arming that closed a few avenues to hot money for a while. Based on this "success," Kerry made the leap that the forces of militant Islamic fundamentalism could be defeated by just such methods! His plan was additionally "thoughtful and forward-looking," the Times went on, because Kerry essayed "to strike at the underlying conditions -- despotism, hopelessness, economic repression -- that breed fundamentalism and violence in the first place." Oh, I get it. Kerry would fight international jihad the way America fought the "War on Poverty." Remember that?
We're led to conclude, then, that these ideas are so abstruse and recondite that Kerry would not dare to try an explain them to the public in a format such as a presidential debate.
Instead, Debate Two held last Friday, degenerated at once into a 90-minute mutual carping session. If Kerry "won," as some news organizations allege, it was only because President Bush reverted to some unfortunate chimpanzee-like body language as he struggled with his own befuddlement.
One other note on the Times Sunday Magazine story. Kerry came off as an exceedingly unlikable individual. Of the interviewing experience, reporter Matt Bai wrote: "...he acts as if you've been sent to destroy him, and he can't quite figure out why in the world he should be sitting across from you. When I met him for our first conversation, in the cabin of the 757 that shuttles his campaign around the country, Kerry didn't extend his hand ot even look up to greet me when I entered, and he grew so quickly and obviously exasperated with my questions abvout his thoughts and votes on Iraq that he cut the interview short. (Embarrassed aides later told me he had been abruptly roused from a nap.)"
Note, the Times Magazine article on Kerry's plan for Iraq did not mention the word "oil" once.
October 4, 2004
Speaking as a registered Democrat, I propose that a big reason John Kerry's campaign has been floundering for months has to do with the delusional thinking among rank-and-file grassroots Democrats. I'm thinking especially of my fellow fifty-something fellow hippies-turned-yuppies, who want to enjoy all the luxuries and conveniences of the cheap oil life, but believe like little children that it can continue without any sacrifices.
There's just such a couple who live a few blocks away from me. In their front yard stands a blue sign that proclaims "War is not the Answer." They have two SUV's in their driveway. Somebody really needs to inform that war is the answer if they want to enjoy a life of low-gas-milage-easy-motoring.
This is perhaps a roundabout way of getting to the point that our military presence in Iraq is really not optional. We're not there because George W. Bush is trying to prove his virility. We're there for a couple of extremely serious and specific strategic reasons having to do with our sick dependency relationship with the nations of the Middle East: 1.) to modify the behavior of Iran and Saudi Arabia by maintaining a military presence next door to each of them; 2.) to operate a "police station" in the center of an inflamed Islamic world that stretches from Morocco to Indonesia so that it cannot present a geographically monolithic threat to the West. Obviously, the underlying reason for all this is a desperate attempt to secure the terrain where so much of our imported oil comes from.
When I hear John Kerry and my fellow Democrats start talking about modifying our own behavior in the US in order to reduce our sick dependency on these other nations, then I'll take Mr. Kerry seriously. But, you know, in the past six months John Kerry hasn't said a fucking word about rebuilding our national passenger railroad system (a system that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of, by the way), or stopping subsidies for suburban sprawl, or paying for our sick dependency by instituting a gasoline tax, or telling the American public that we have to make substantial modifications in our way of life. A couple of months ago in California, in fact, Kerry remarked that people should buy SUVs because it was good for the economy (!).
I'm also sick of hearing the fatuous argument that the Bushites lied about Weapons of Mass Destruction. The truth is that we didn't know what was in Iraq, really, and the UN weapons inspectors were prevented by Mr. Saddam Hussein from searching inside the extensive bunkers that German engineers had designed and built for him, and which he labled "presidential palaces" in order to keep out the UN inspectors. These represented hundreds of thousands of square feet of deep, secure, underground storage facilities with enough room for all kinds of dangerous stuff ranging from fissionable metals to stocks of viruses and bacteria, to tactical poisons. We simply had to get in there and look. The fact that nothing was found does not negate the initial necessity of looking. It was only one of the possible outcomes.
The final delusion is the idea that the other nations of the world would help us out in the Middle East if only we hadn't been so pushy and insistent about it. By this we generally mean France and Germany. The truth is, they would not have joined a coalition against Saddam Hussein under any circumstances, because a.) Saddam was into them for a lot of money, b.) they didn't want to get their hands dirty, c.) they didn't want to help pay for the operations, and d.) they stood to benefit if the US weakened itself by engaging militarily in the Middle East (while France and Germany benefited as well from uninterrupted Middle East oil supplies). In short, these nations behaved like craven chickenshits.
So, I'm sorry. I just don't buy John Kerry's line of bullshit. I still may have to hold my nose and vote for him, but I don't believe a word he says, and I'm ashamed of my generation's reasoning abilities. We were the best-educated generation in world history on a broad basis, and we learned nothing.
September 27, 2004
John Tierney's piece in the New York Times Sunday Magazine ("The Autonomist Manifesto") can only be interpreted as a sign that this country is really in trouble. When the newspaper of record promotes the idea that suburban sprawl is a great thing, you can conclude that America has a death wish.
Tierney invokes the ideas of two libertarian crazies currently functioning as chief shills for the status quo: Randall O'Toole and Peter Huber. O'Toole, of the one-man Thoreau Institute, has been inveighing against railroads and the New Urbanism in recent years. He regards motoring as the ultimate libertarian right and public good and any attempt to modify America's extreme car dependency as an "elitist" plot.
Huber, author of the remarkably snotty and idiotic book Hard Green, argues that virtually all modern ecological activism and policy have been not just a waste of time but have produced only negative results. Huber writes: "We discern no ineluctable tie at all between nature's decline and humanity's."
That the New York Times would pimp for the positions of these two assholes demonstrates our culture's desperate determination to resist change that circumstances will impose on us whether we like it or not. After all, Tierney, O'Toole, and Huber's notions about the wonderfulness of our entropic lifestyle are based on the prime assumption that it can continue. Events, meanwhile, clearly show that the price of prolonging our sick dependency on cars and the oil they require will be the blood of American soldiers shed in the sands of Iraq and other oil-rich place we are compelled to secure and defend.
My own sense of things is that the American public is deeply conflicted over the choice we face -- to live differently or to struggle to maintain the previous investment in our drive-in utopia -- and the Times article indicates that the public will fail to resolve this internal conflict. The result will be a descent into economic hardship and political turbulence here in the US. We will flail and convulse instead of getting our house in order. America will have a long and costly tantrum, and we will emerge from it a lesser nation isolated in our hemisphere.
I am generally allergic to conspiracy theories, but looking back on what led up to the election campaign, it's hard to escape the feeling that some kind of "fix" thrust John Kerry into the winner's circle in the Iowa caucuses ten months ago. Not a dark, malicious plot, but a desperate move by scairdy-cat Democratic insiders to keep their grip on the party machinery.
I'm 55 years old and I have never seen a more feckless Democratic candidate than John Kerry. It's not as if Kerry isn't out there saying things every day; it's that his every utterance is fatuous and disappointing. To make things worse, his speaking cadances are disturbingly reminiscent of Richard Nixon's, except that he sounds like Nixon without any of Nixon's conviction.
Most extraordinary is his failure to galvanize even a tiny portion of swing voters in a nation a'blaze with hatred of Bush. I hasten to add that I'm not a Bush-hater myself, though I remain in the opposition because I am against the continued amalgamation of power by corporate oligarchs.
Kerry the candidate represents a victory of conditioning over content. They say that in prep school Kerry's classmates used to whistle Hail to the Chief when he came around. Vietnam gave him a chance to bathe in the spotlight as polished spokesman for disgruntled vets. But he never showed any real passion in that role. It was just a springboard for a career in public office, where he has served with no particular distinction since.
In Bush the nation has that strange figure, the genuine fraud. Kerry is a mere secret fraud. I'm not at all sure which is worse. The public is obviously more comfortable with the former.
Am I the only person who wishes that Howard Dean was leading this campaign now?
September 13, 2004
There's a third player in the upcoming national elections whose beliefs and behavior counts much more than anything George Bush or John Kerry say or do. This third player is the American public. Collectively, they are not accountable to anybody. Neither major party candidate has challenged the public to think about the consequences of its own behavior. To do so would be leadership in the true meaning of the word.
The US public enters the fall of 2004 apparently content to continue being a nation of compulsive motorists and WalMart shoppers. I have to wonder: is there any fear out there? Is there any inkling that this way of life has no future?
Both candidates seem to be telling the public that if only we take care of this terror thing, then everybody from sea to shining sea can just kick back and enjoy the scenery on cruise control. The truth, I think, is that within the President's next term, whoever he is, the American dream of a drive-in utopia complete with Nascar and round-the-clock tabloid entertainment is going to seize up in its own engine block. The American public will explode in violence and grievance when that happens because they will not be properly prepared. They will have had no leadership.
What the public certainly doesn't understand about the world energy situation is that we don't have to run out of oil and gas for life to turn upside down in this country. All you have to do is squeeze the supply and tweak the price and all the systems and sub-systems we depend on will de-stabilize -- and nature is going to do that, not politics. The world's demand for oil and gas is exceeding the world's supply at the critical point when global production passes its all-time peak. All-time as in forever.
The public has been induced to believe that they'll be rescued by hybrid cars and wind power. But the only thing that will really rescue the nation from a long period of chaos and destitution is a comprehensive re-organization of the way we live. We're going to have to give up suburbia, WalMart, and industrial agriculture. We will have to live locally in a way that does not require us to drive cars all the time. We have to grow more of our own food closer to home. We have to prepare for useful vocations.
Leadership is showing people where they have to go because circumstances are taking them there, and doing it in a way that inspires the public to make that necessary leap.
September 6, 2004
In Beslan, Russia, over one hundred and fifty children have been slaughtered (along with an equal number of adults, plus multiples of maimed and wounded) by a band of suicidal Islamic maniacs. This fantastic paramilitary insult has come on the heels of two airplane bombings and a Moscow subway bombing. So far (Monday, evening six p.m. EDT) there has been no military response to the act by Russia. Think like a Russian for a few minutes.
Russians do not have an equivalent of poltical correctness. Russian politicians don't get brownie points for competitive empathy. There is no inclination to take a therapeutic view of cultural conflict. There is a strong bent for national survival, and a disposition to deal with adversaries ruthlessly. What does the Russian leadership consider doing in the aftermath of Beslan?
I believe they will think about wiping a major Islamic city off the map. Say, Tehran or Damascus, as an object lesson to the Islamic world, with the admonition that if there is any more fucking nonsense emanating from that part of the world, all Islamic population centers will be turned into ashtrays (Cechenya included, of course, but Baghdad and Kabul conveniently excluded for the time being).
The US might pretend to deplore such a development, but it would probably do nothing to stop whatever action Russia takes, and it might be in America's interest to let the Russians wipe up the floor with the Islamic world and take the heat for it. "They're savages," our talk show stars would say of the Russians, allowing Americans to feel morally superior while they enjoyed the benefit of a world without militant Islamic fundamentalism.
Russia is the world's number two oil producer after Saudi Arabia. The whole world is in trouble with oil, but the Russians arguably would not suffer any sooner or much worse if Riyadh and Jedda were leveled. (The US would be discommoded, but we might soon be on the scene repairing the pipelines and terminals.)
This a pretty harsh picture I am sketching, admittedly, but I wouldn't underestimate the Russians. The murder of all these children (one girl shot forty-six times in the back, according to NPR today) ranks at least with our 9/11. I don't think President V. Putin is going to take a very long time twiddling his thumbs in the Kremlin. I have to say: expect some very severe action in the eastern hemisphere this coming week.
August 30, 2004
The past week's events demonstrate the persistent power of delusional thinking in a nation determined to be misinformed and misled. Oil prices zoomed up near $50 a barrel two weeks ago. When they fell back to about $43 last week, the news media heaved a great sigh of relief, the stock market posted a winning week, and the public concluded that the previous rise in prices was just another hiccup the world will get over and forget. No problemo.
Over the weekend, in two seperate incidents, Iraqi insurgents blew up a total of eight oil pipelines in the region close to the Persian Gulf export terminals, which account for 1.85 million barrels a day, or about three percent of global daily demand. (These incidents were barely reported in the mainstream media, certainly not on Page One of the New York Times.)
This is going to send the price-per-barrel ratcheting back up toward $50 and perhaps beyond. The ratcheting effect will be the recurrent pattern. The price will tick up five clicks, fall back three clicks, tick back up five clicks, and so on, and this is how it will go barring a truly significant event such as an insurrection against the house of al Saud.
A great deal of oil is being produced in the world today. That is the inherent nature of the global production peak. But enormous as the production is, it is not keeping up with world demand. There is no spare capacity. There aren't any more swing producers who can, at the nod of a head and turn of a valve, flood the world market with product to drive down the price.
Then, of course, once the world passes peak, and we proceed down the depletion arc where demand will always exceed capacity (while capacity steadily falls 2 - 5 percent a year), we will witness the destabilization of all the major systems that support modern economies -- a process that will be both preceded and attended by massive sociopolitical turbulence.
If the candidates for president even understand this, they must understand too that our way-of-life here in America will have to change whether Americans like it or not. The single most important thing either George Bush or John Kerry can do is prepare the American public for these unavoidable changes. That is leadership.
I felt deep pangs of sorrow this morning listening to NPR play recordings of Jimmy Carter's 1980 acceptance speech, the year he ran against Ronald Reagan and lost. Carter was a deeply humane and brave president who didn't shrink from telling the public the truth about our fundamental predicament in the world -- which has not changed in a quarter century. We have invested our national wealth and our national will in an energy-gluttonous infrastructure for daily life that has no future. That future is now here.
Under Carter's brief single term, real changes were made in federal energy policy, including conservation measures that would be intolerable to the present generation of Americans -- e.g. the 55mph speed limit. When Reagan came in, he took the solar collectors off the White House roof that Carter had installed and rewrote federal energy rules so that efforts like small-scale hydroelectric generation no longer paid.
Whoever is elected President this year will be swept away on a torrent of change coming in the next four years. Personalities will hardly matter. Events will be in the driver's seat. The only thing the president will be able to do is tell the public the truth, and if he has the guts to do it, they will hate him for it.
August 23, 2004
The only media coverage John Kerry can get these days is of his attempts to defend himself against an apparently scurrilous effort to defame his war record. Unfair as it might be, it is happening because he has nothing coherent to say about any of the other issues.
An example is his response last week to George W. Bush's announcement about reducing troops stationed in Germany by 70,000 over the next ten years. Kerry retorted that it was the wrong time and the wrong place for troop reductions. The trouble was, he didn't explain why. He just asserted it.
Well, most Americans think that World War Two has been over for half a century, and the Cold War ended a decade ago, and they may need a reason to understand why we should keep troops posted in Germany.
With oil prices jumping more than ten dollars a barrel over a four week period, Kerry has no credible position of energy policy. His promise to deliver "alternative fuels" to the public is an empty one since no combination of currently-known alt fuels will allow us to continue running our suburban sprawl economy. Kerry even remarked to one audience in California that buying SUVs was a good thing. What planet is this guy on?
Kerry can't get any traction in this campaign because he is, as Kevin Phillips aplty put it, "a haircut in search of a brain." He doesn't have any more "vision" than Bush 41 or Bush 43. He lacks the moral courage to tell the public the truth about our futureless living arrangements. His position about the war against Islamic fundamentalism is incomprehensible. For all I know he distinguished himself in Vietnam, but he's mentally AWOL in the 2004 campaign for the White House. Am I supposed to vote for him just because he isn't Bush? As a registered Democrat, that's not good enough for me.
August 16, 2004
As summer enters its home stretch, nausea reigns.
The Republican convention in New York -- what were they thinking? -- looms as the potential perfect storm of asymmetrical warfare. I keep imagining three well-groomed Middle-eastern young men sitting in an SUV with the Flatiron building visible outside the tinted window and a large black rolly-bag suitcase in the backseat. George Bush is accepting the nomination over the radio. The three men begin fervently wailing "Allah Akbar!" The one in the back seat dials a number on a cell phone and there is a monstrous flash. . . .
In the new book Imperial Hubris by Anonymous (a US Intelligence officer), several references are made to the fact that there are a few old Soviet suitcase-size nuclear bombs loose in the world, some thought to be in the possession of radical Islamists. Nicholas Kristoff riffed on this in last week's New York Times. He estimated 750,000 dead if a relatively tiny 10 kiloton device was set off in Manhattan. All I know is: if it happened during the Republican convention, many of those who run the US government could be vaporized, and New York would be finished as an operating city for a long time. (It would also probably be a kill-shot to the US economy when you tote up the number of toasted corporate headquarters.)
I'm not really fond of spinning nightmare scenarios. I've published nine novels and none of them were even dimly related to war, terrorism, or paranoid politics. (Career mistake?) But this thing troubles me more and more. Imperial Hubris is a sobering read. Mr. Anonymous has the highest respect for his enemy, Mr. Bin Ladin. He warns us that Bin Ladin's long silences between strikes are designed to make us nervous. He considers Bin Ladin implacable and absolutely determined to bring down American hegemony over Islamic territory -- which means, among other things, any claims to even being a customer of the Islamic oil industry, let alone meddling in their internal affairs. Anybody can see, meanwhile, that we're not in any position to give up our claims to their oil or meddling in their business.
No need to spin this one further. The stomach simply churns.
If Bin Laden is not in the mood to stage an extravaganza, he can just kick back and watch the world oil markets squeeze the supersized American "consumers" as they waddle around the gas pumps on their way to the Wal-Mart. The price of a barrel of crude is heading inexorably up to $50. Fewer gummi bears will be sold. The dollar may wobble, adding to the epidemic of nausea -- perhaps a good counter to epidemic obesity.
Finally there is the Olympics. I can't even bring myself to read about it in the paper. All those fine young athletes racking up the gold medals only give the world another reason to hate America. I'm not against sports or international competition, but if there was ever a time not to rub other peoples' faces in American dominance, could this be it? Excuse me while I hurl. . . .
August 9, 2004
The only entity in this country last week that seemed to notice something was happening, Mr. Jones, was the stock market, which started what could be a nasty skydive without a 'chute. And what was it that did happen? OPEC announced dryly that they were unlikely to increase oil production. Wouldn't, or couldn't? It wasn't exactly clear. But the price of a barrel of crude shot up and up on the futures markets and our so-called economy wobbled.
What OPEC seemed to be saying, without coming out and stating it, was this: Saudi Arabia, the world's last "swing" producer, is pumping at 100 percent full bore. Meaning, they have no spare capacity. Meaning, the world has no spare capacity (since they were the last ones with spare capacity). Why does such a dry fact have such ominous overtones? Because it implies that nobody has any spare oil production capacity, meaning the world has arrived at the fateful collective production peak. We will never again in world history produce as much oil as we can now.
Well, you could also translate that to mean: industrial economies will no longer grow.
Since our economy at any given moment consists of sixty million people driving to Walmart to buy stuff made by people 12,000 miles away, on credit (that is, the expectation that they will have money in the future) the markets have reason to worry. Not since the days of the late Roman empire has there been a national economy based so little on true economic exchange of real value. They had the coliseum. We have Las Vegas and reality television.
The national media sure haven't registered what's going on vis-a-vis the global oil predicament and its connection with our vaunted way of life. The New York Times opinion writers, for instance, were too busy yesterday inveighing against Kobe Bryant's defense team. America's free press is free to snooze. The lead story in today's Times Business Page: "Young Men Are Back Watching TV. But Did They Ever Leave?"
Nothing John Kerry or George Bush did or said yesterday -- with less than 100 days to the election -- registered on either the front page of the Times or CNN's home page. They might start thinking about how Americans are going to feed themselves when the Archer Daniels Midland model of oil-based industrial corn production stops working.
Indignant readers have written back to me that John Kerry would only jeopardize his election chances if he told Americans the truth, so don't hold it against him. I guess the Democratic faithful have even more contempt for the public's collective intelligence than I do.
August 2, 2004
Writing as a registered Democrat, I'm sorry to say that a worse maunder of platitudes than John Kerry's acceptance speech has not been uttered by another presidential candidate in my lifetime. The emptiness of it was actually thrilling after the opening inanity of the "reporting for duty" line -- you began to wonder with each sentence whether he could top the previous one for vapidity and banality.
My dad did the things that a boy remembers. He gave me my first model airplane, my first baseball mitt and my first bicycle.
To dissect it further as oratory would only be cruel -- and depressing! -- except to make these two points. First, the narcissism it displayed was impressive: Kerry's lavish thanking of the crowd and his family, as though he had won an acadamy award rather than a daunting nomination in a dark time; the shameless grandiosity of his self-conscious annointment to greatness. Second, perhaps a quibble, that his vocal rhythms eerily resemble Richard Nixon's, for instance the tendency to speak through his applause lines. Mostly, though, I was dogged throughout the speech by the dismaying thought that George W. Bush will wipe up the floor with this guy.
The party that wants to stand for everything and everybody ends up standing for nothing. The internal contradictions of the Democratic party today are so gross that it may not survive beyond this election. It pretends to be liberal, but it's thoroughly corporatist. It trumpets "diversity" but squashes independent thinking (the essence of political correctness). It's anti-war but pro-military.
And our energy plan for a stronger America will invest in new technologies and alternative fuels and the cars of the future -- so that no young American in uniform will ever be held hostage to our dependence on oil from the Middle East.
Given my preoccupations, this is the line that galls me the most, since it indicates so starkly how clueless Kerry is about this country's foremost challenge. The truth is that nothing on earth will allow Americans to continue living the way we have the past fifty years. We're not going to become "energy independent" -- certainly not before the hardships of the global oil peak kick in. We're not going to retrofit the US car fleet and all its accessory services to a fuel other than gasoline -- certainly not hydrogen, if that's what Kerry is thinking. We'll be lucky if the economic meltdown of suburbia doesn't tear this nation apart. In short, Kerry is blowing smoke up America's ass.
The Republican right really needs to be taught a harsh lesson. They've sold the United States to a claque of corporate swine. WalMart. Archer Daniels Midland. Enron. The Republicans have acted like a predatory company using the tactics of hostile takeover to plunder the assets of a valuable aquisition (the United States). The Republicans ought to be judged and punished for it.
Kerry shows no awareness of what this country is up against. The party that produced him has become a kindergarten of whiners, lost in a bawl of childish peeving. It has no recognition of its opponent's real errors and misfeasances, because the Democrats are so intolerant of independent thought that they've allowed the Republicans to do their thinking for them for twenty years.
Want a real opposition platform? Okay, here it is:
-- Do everything possible to prepare this country for a lower energy future.
-- Begin at once to plan a new generation of nuclear generation plants.
-- Begin at once the rehabilitation of the national railroads.
-- End all government subsidies for suburban development.
-- End support for corporate agriculture and shift it to small scale farmers.
-- Assign the US military to close the border with Mexico.
-- Reform the immigration laws to reduce the flow of all newcomers.
-- Prepare for an era of asymmetrical warfare.
-- Join other civilized nations in the effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
July 26, 2004
There's a lot about the 9/11 Commission, and its report, that seems crazy to me, but most of all the idea that some cabinet level "Intelligence Czar" could remedy the problems of our spying bureaucracies. For instance, that such a figure could "fix" something like the FBI, CIA, and DOD refusing to share information. Excuse me, but why can't the president do that? Can't he get the respective department heads together in the oval office and instruct them to share all pertinent information? How might a person in a new post make it more clear to the heads of the agencies? Would he threaten to tell the president if they fuck up?
Obviously the 9/11 attacks were a terrible trauma for the public and the government. A citizen panel of inquiry was probably inevitable for all sorts of reasons. But an underlying theme of the commission disturbs me: our belief that there is a soverign remedy for the uncertainty of life, and that if we pick over the minutiae of the past long enough, and examine it sedulously under a microscope we will eradicate uncertainty just as the microbe hunters of yore vanquished infectious diseases.
The commission habit started with the one headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren following President Kennedy's assassination (in what appeared to be a nearly incredible feat of marksmanship.) It raised more questions than it ever answered. Much more successful was the 1973-74 Watergate Committee of the US Senate. Its proceedings unfolded like a Greek tragedy set in a three ring circus and its final result was unambiguous: Nixon's resignation. Since then, America has held a commission orgy. Iran-Contra, Flight 800, Clinton's love life. None of them will ever be as conclusive or successful as Watergate.
Meanwhile, uncertainty runs rampant in the world, especially lately in the form of jihadist terrorism by which means a handful maniacs can wreak havoc against a nation-state. It's not as if the world had no prior experience with airplane hijacking. We just fell asleep over it. But there are innumerable other ways that suicidal maniacs can wreak havoc in any society, and as soon as we manage to hermetically seal the airline industry, some other kind of awful mischief will occur by a different method.
It would be nice to see US officials and opinion leaders pay attention to some of the obvious problems that we're currently sleepwalking through rather than obsessively trying to make up for sleepwalks of the past. For instance, we know that a national electricity grid dependent on natural gas is fucked. If we want to keep the lights on in America after 2025, we'd better start talking right now about an aggressive program for building new nuclear generating stations. We know that the suburban development pattern run on imported oil has no future -- can we talk about how we're going to live in this country twenty years from now? We know that we are going to have to rebuild the passenger railroad system -- could the New York Times get interested in this, or maybe even Mr. John Kerry?
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.