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The Clusterfuck Nation
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by Jim Kunstler
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June 12, 2005
I just paid $3.25 for a twelve-ounce diet coke in the Los Angeles airport, known by the affectionate name LAX by the locals (sounds so cutting age, like rap stars who give themselves technoid names such as G-Unit). The truth is, LAX is just the airport code on the baggage label that they slap on your suitcase before it vanishes forever into the black hole of lost things. Evidently there was an earthquake here today, but the vibe of the city (if you can call this toxic hyper-mega-burb that) is so catastrophic generally that I didn't even notice.
I've been on a long book publicity road trip around California, with a side trip to Seattle on Thursday, and it's hard not to feel hopeless about this country after being here. It probably doesn't help that my 10:30 red-eye flight has been delayed ("aircraft availability," the sign says) and I don't know whether I will make my morning connection in Washington for the final flight to upstate New York. My experience with United Airlines is that they (that is, the remaining skeleton crew) are a gang of lying fucks who will make up any excuse to disguise the fact that their company is a barely-functioning shell. As a matter of fact, there was not a single United employee in the entire P-7 terminal when I got here at 8:00 pm and I had to walk a half mile over to terminal P-8 to find a live gate agent. What you see in this miserable airport is simply the death of the airline industry. The airlines are the giant "canaries in the coal mine" of our imploding economy. They can't make any money, even running fully-loaded flights, with the price of jet fuel (which is little more than kerosene) not even very high yet. But I stray from my point.
Which is that what you see in California is a society with a tragic destiny. I was all over the Bay Area earlier in the week, from San Francisco to Silicon Valley to Berkeley and even down to Santa Cruz, and that was bad enough, But then I got down to Los Angeles on Friday and have been in a state of pathological reflex nausea ever since. Despite their lame attempts to rebuild a few pieces of the 2000-mile-long streetcar system that they gleefully destroyed in the 1950s, life here is all about cars and it will never not be about cars -- until the reality of our oil predicament falls on the hapless public like a hammer of God and the people of California die for their fucking cars in their fucking cars and over their fucking cars. I understand that the scene here is not qualitatively different from Dallas, Orlando, Atlanta, Northern Virginia, Miami, New Jersey and other cloacal hot-spots of the world's highest standard of living. But I digress again, sitting, as I am, on the floor of terminal P-7 because I cannot find a single electric outlet anywhere near a chair, and being fifty-six years old, with an artificial hip, this is not the most felicitous scheme for composing one's thoughts.
I was invited to give a talk at Google headquarters down in Mountain View last Tuesday. They sent somebody to fetch me (in a hybrid car, zowee!) from my hotel in San Francisco -- as if I had any choice about catching a train down, right? Google HQ was a glass office park pod tucked into an inscrutable tangle of off-ramps, berms, manzanita clumps, and curb-cuts. But inside, it was all tricked out like a kindergarten. They had pool tables, and inflatable yoga balls, and $6000 electronic vibrating massage lounge chairs, and snack stations deployed at twenty-five step intervals, with lucite bins filled with chocolate raisins and granola. The employees dressed like children. There were two motifs: "skateboard rat" and "10th grade nerd." I suppose quite a few of them were millionaires. Many of the work cubicles were literally modular children's playhouses. I gave my spiel about the global oil problem and the unlikelihood that "alternative energy" would even fractionally replace it, and quite a few of the Googlers became incensed.
"Yo, Dude, you're so, like, wrong! We've got, like, technology!"
Yeah, well, they weren't interested in making a distinction between energy and technology (or, more precisely where Google is concerned, a massive web-based advertising scheme -- because it is finally clear that all this talk about "connectivity" just leads to more commercial shilling, shucking, jiving, and generally fucking with your headspace in the interstices of whatever purposeful activity one may be struggling to enact on the internet).
The taxi-cab ride to Berkeley (on Google's tab) ran over $160 on the meter. In Berkeley a radical leftist grandmotherly lady interviewed me for a radio show and once that was over she began to tell me about the chemical contrails that Dick Cheney was cross-hatching across the Berkeley skies for the purpose of controlling the masses of earnest, whole-foods-loving, undyed-wool-wearing devotees of diversity and turning them into whorish Stepford sex robots. Everybody knew it was a cover-up, she said.
Seattle was a blurr of traffic, tofu, and dark green things that must have been coniferous trees or seaweed, I wasn't sure. The sleeplessness was catching up with me.
Flying into LA the next day, and traversing its decrepitating central core clean out to Pasadena in the airport van, was like being immersed in an updated Hieronymous Bosch landscape of hell -- only substitute SUVs for spavined reptiles and tortured peasants half-stuck inside eggshells. At every turn of the odometer, one wondered: what will become of this entropic socio-economic sink, especially as the supply of its chief nutrient declines. I conclude that it may no longer maintain its stature as the breast-implant capital of the world.
I gave a talk at the closing session of the annual Congress for the New Urbanism in Pasadena on Sunday. My message was one that readers of this blog are familiar with -- namely, that we are sleepwalking into desperate circumstances largely determined by our addiction to oil, our supply of which mostly comes from distant lands full of people who hate us, et cetera. I will not bore you by rehearsing this theme further today. Now, the CNU members have generally been among the most forward-looking citizen-activists on the scene for a decade. They certainly recognize the many deficiencies of our drive-in dystopia, apart from the oil issues, and have been working to remedy it. But they don't really believe what I said to them.
The sad truth is that they are addicted to the same economic mechanisms as the sprawl-meisters: the production home-builders (so-called), the great mortgage mills of the conglomerate banks, and the real estate "industry" (also so-called.) So they don't want to hear that these "sectors" of our economy are not going to make it. They don't want to hear about the necessity to downscale America anymore than the grifters who develop the WalMart power centers want to hear about it.
But we are going where circumstances are taking us whether we like it or not. We have to make other arrangements -- and I mean really different from the way we live now, not just tweaking the municipal codes and building slightly better housing subdivisions and squeezing chain stores under the condominiums and hiding the parking lots behind the buildings. I hope the New Urbanists come around. They have a whole lot of very useful knowledge that will allow us to make our derelict towns habitable while we re-assign the remaining countryside for growing the food that we need locally.
Ah, I admit that I am in foul and turbulent spirits. I have been into the land of the American Moloch among its Moloch-worshippers and I am brainsick from it. I promise to cool my jets and come back next week with something a little less hysterical. By the way, my plane finally got out of LAX at 1:30 am Pacific time, three hours and ten minutes late. I missed my connection, so I am finishing this fugue in Dulles Airport, Washington.
June 6, 2005
Cluelessness over the the world energy / economic predicament fogs the public discussion more than ever as we approach summer. The New York Times ran a big story in the Sunday news section about India's soaring energy needs and its future plans ("Hunger For Energy Transforms How India Operates"). India is the world's fifth leading energy user. Dig this: they import 70 percent of their oil. India's government predicts that the country will have to import 85 percent of its oil two decades from now.
So what's India's plan? According to Energy Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar, the solution is "to persuade China to cooperate rather than compete." Okay, and your bargaining chip would be. . .? Also consider this: The US, Japan, Europe and China will all have to import more than three quarters of their oil supplies. Does this suggest that the world is going to remain an orderly place.
Another plan to keep the lights on in Mumbai (where power outages are routine) is a 1600-mile natural gas pipeline from Iran, through Pakistan, to India. Has anyone noticed A.) that India and Pakistan have been deadly enemies for over half a century, frequently threatening to blow each other up with nuclear missiles? B.) that Pakistan is the world's largest unstable country, and that its rugged terrain is home to many of the world's most rabid and violent Jihadista groups, and C.) that such a proposed pipeline across Pakistan would be utterly indefensible? The Times story about all this is so devoid of critical analysis that it appears to have been written by an 11-year-old child.
The Times's star columnist Thomas Friedman is making hay this season with his new book, The World is Flat, about the global economy. His book asserts that current trends will continue indefinitely -- China will continue to manufacture ever more of America's household products, Americans will continue to enjoy cash-out home equity loans to buy plastic patio chairs made in China, WalMart will keep running its warehouse-on-wheels at a thumping great profit, and all impediments to global trade will be vanquished by telemarketing, computer technology, and confident corporate can-do spirits. I am tempted to ask how Friedman manages to type on a laptop with his head so far up his ass, but this blog is dedicated, above all, to a high-minded brand of politeness so we'll just say that he is not paying attention to a gathering global energy shitstorm that is going to change absolutely everything -- including global economic relations which pundits foolishly maintain to be permanent conditions of life.
Here in the States, the price of a barrel of oil is back over $55 and we are only one week into the summer vacation driving season. President Bush is running a scam on the public by pretending to push Congress to act on an energy bill that offers nothing to realistically address the nation's oil addiction and, especially, its car dependency. He doesn't dare, I suppose, because he must know that the American economy is about little more than car dependency. But just watch: as the price for a barrel of oil heads north past $60, Bush's abject leadership failure will become self-evident and the public mood will appear to shift overnight. The oval office will become a very lonely place indeed by this coming fall, and its occupant will have three long and terrible years left to suffer there.
May 30, 2005
It's a measure of our country's desperation that many hopes among US government officials are pinned to the just-completed 1000-mile oil pipeline between Baku on the Caspian Sea and the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. The idea is to get oil from Kazakhstan on the far eastern side of the Caspian sea through several other former Soviet states, bypassing a shorter, older route through the Black Sea, and creating an alternative to the ongoing horror show of the Persian Gulf.
The main problem is the idea that the American economy, and the easy-motoring lifestyle that holds it hostage, will now depend on a 42-inch wide oil pipe running through nations fraught with Muslim-Christian conflict on top of post-Soviet gangster politics. The good news is that the $4 billion pipe is buried underground so it will not be vulnerable to the small arms so abundant in that part of the world: shoulder-launched missiles, rocket propelled grenades, or .50 caliber bullets. The bad news is that it is only a few feet underground and can still be blown up by five pounds of Semtech strapped to a donkey. Also, the pipeline traverses some of the most rugged terrain in Asia Minor and presents many opportunities for mischief.
Another problem: Kazakhstan is right next door to China. China needs foreign oil as desperately as the US does. Nothing prevents China from commandeering Kazakhstan's oil, by means ranging from legal contracts to Chinese soldiers on-the-ground. That logically raises the question as to whether America would entertain a land war with China over landlocked Kazakhstan, 12,000 miles away from here. What would you say our prospects would be in such a venture? The Russians might have some interests there, too, not necessarily identical to ours. World War Three anyone?
Finally, the wish back in the 1990s that Central Asian oil would bail the west out of dependence on the Persian Gulf nations has faded with exploration which now indicates the region has far less oil than the 300-billion barrels originally hoped for (more like 16 to 40 billion now), and that it mostly consists of low quality "sour" crude, heavy on sulfur and more expensive to refine.
But such is the nature of strategic thinking in Washington these days that it all comes down to a 42 two inch pipeline for us now. You have to wonder, for instance, why we couldn't take that $4 billion and refurbish at least part of the US passenger railroad system -- as compared to the roughly $290 billion slated for this year's federal highway construction and maintenance bill.
Get ready for the interesting half of the year 2005. The summer vacation motoring season is officially underway with the Memorial Day weekend. Oil prices are back up near $52 a barrel after falling to $46 for a few weeks in May. Americans are not going to drive fewer miles this year. Just look at how we've arranged things on the landscape. Most have to drive all over the place whether they like it or not. By the fall, motorists (i.e. American citizens -- a.k.a. "consumers") are going to be very disappointed with the way things are going, and they are going to start blaming the people responsible for our strategic thinking.
May 23, 2005
"Paranoia strikes deep; into your heart it will creep. . . ."
So went the lyrics to the old Buffalo Springfield song from the tumultuous Vietnam War years and now, as Yogi Berra also said around the same time, "it's like deja vu all over again."
I like to claim that I am allergic to conspiracy theories and the paranoia that attends them. But these days I'm not so sure anymore. The noise in the system is getting pretty thick, and the Internet is the perfect system for paranoia because any website can appear to be dignified and therefore to speak with some kind of authority. You have to sort out the reality from the noise the best that you can on your own. (So maybe it's not such a bad thing that this blog is so amateurish-looking, as many readers complain.)
The latest paranoid thread out there is that the US Military is waiting to commit a June assault on Iran's nuclear facilities, and that the Bush administration has been manipulating the stock markets up and the oil markets down in an attempt to to lull the public deeper into its coma of cluelessness by making the surface of American life seem placid.
I really don't know what the government is capable of doing to tweak the markets. It certainly has access to a lot of nominal "money," and I suppose that it is not to difficult to put that money into "play," by funneling it this way and that way through large institutions and agencies. The current crisis of capital derives from the fact that the American economy produces fewer and fewer things of enduring value -- and more and more fluff in the form of Star Wars movies -- so any financial paper or instrument that pretends to represent the nation's longer-term prospects is in danger of not being taken seriously. The wealth accumulated in the US in the second half of the last century is actually shrinking now, since our industrial base is withering away, and whatever investment we are capable of making has been increasingly directed into the "hard assets" of houses. The catch is that the "investment" in houses is almost all credit -- mortgages, promises to pay most of the money later. The catch of the catch is that the cost of obtaining credit (interest rates) remains supernaturally low and the standards for creditworthiness have ceased to exist. The catch of the catch of the catch is that a lot of the mortgages are adjustable, meaning the cost of borrowing doesn't necessarily stay supernaturally low. It can float with rising interest rates.
Finance professionals know that these conditions are perverse and perilous. That's why they call it a "housing bubble." The moiling "consumer" masses only know that the dollar-value of their houses goes up ten percent or more every year, while stock and bond portfolios go sideways. So they ignore any supposed peril and keep flipping the houses. Finance professionals know that sooner or later grownups in other countries who buy our financial paper will decide that our long-term prospects are a joke, and that we will have to raise the interest rates a lot to keep them buying. When that happens, the tears begin to flow from the mortgage-holders.
Beneath all this runs the issue of our most critical resource, oil. Without it, America just stops running, and if oil gets much more expensive, major parts of our system start to break down -- the easy motoring commutes, the oil-based farming, the big box retail, commercial aviation, et cetera. If oil makes a move above the $60 dollar range, all bets are off for the equity markets, the housing bubble, and the struggling "consumer" masses.
Now, it may be that the oil futures markets were simply overbought in April and the price had to go down while inventories were absorbed. The gross US inventory of oil awaiting the refineries stood at around 330 million barrels last week. Seems like a whopping great amount. We use 20 million barrels a day, so you can see that the inventory represents about 16.5 days of oil. Whoop-de-doo. But having the market price of a barrel of oil dip well below $50 was certainly a great psychological boost for the people who run America. It made President Bush seem like he can command the great forces of nature. And I suppose the oil price downturn also bestirred the equity market players to believe, if only momentarily, that there was some productive juice left in the old economy.
We now face the Memorial Day weekend, traditionally the start of the summer motoring season, when upward pressure on oil prices tends to resume. Even if the tanks are full now, it pays to remind ourselves that nearly three-quarters of that gasoline comes from other lands, including lands full of people who don't want us to be happy. One of these, arguably, is Iran -- though many in the hairsplitting game would say it's only the leaders who hate us, not the youthful masses of the population, who don't remember the Shah and all that. Some months ago, our leaders said they would not tolerate a nuclear Iran. In reply, Iran told the US to, well, to go piss up a rope, so to speak. All has been quiet since that exchange. They've made it pretty plain what they aim to do. Who knows what we aim to do? But paranoia runs deep.
May 16, 2005
I was in Tallahassee, Florida, last week talking to a large room full of planning officials. My message was pretty straightforward: every new housing subdivision, every new strip mall, every parking lagoon and big box chain-store pod that you issue approvals for from this point on will lead your country deeper into tragedy.
The response was apathetic, as though I were giving a class in Chinese algebra.
Florida is one of the multiple epicenters of a hypertrophic suburban growth machine that has taken the place of the US economy. Reforming it is unimaginable because without the business generated by a cancer-like replication of car infrastructure, the economy would consist of little besides hair cutting, fried chicken, and open heart surgery. In places like Florida (and California, and northern Virginia, and Las Vegas, and Dallas), all citizens are complicit in the drive toward tragedy because all want business-as-usual to continue. The idea that any set of circumstances might put a stop to it is laughable to them. What can you do for such a people determined to commit civilizational suicide?
Meanwhile, a glance at Sunday's New York Times Magazine shows what the supposedly thinking class of America is preoccupied with these days: rescuing architectural Modernism, that 20th century system of asthetic pretensions that affected to celebrate mankind's triumph over nature by way of technology. Those boys are in for a surprise when they discover that nature gave the human race technology in order that we might choose to shoot ourselves in the head when the time came. This is what comes of humans bethinking themselves smarter than nature. Apart from it. Superior to it.
The tragic futility of the suburban growth racket and the towering hubris of Modernism go hand-in-hand. Both rest on ideologies that drive relentlessy toward death. Both depend on a condition of widespread and extreme narcissism among individual members of society to continue their operations. Both represent a kind of wickedness that does not require religious transliteration to understand. Both will be defeated by reality.
May 9, 2005
When exactly the American public entered the Rapture is a little hard to say -- maybe as long ago as the Reagan years -- but it is not the same Rapture as the Born Agains are gleefully awaiting -- the absurd cosmic vacuuming up to heaven that leaves behind all the rest of us sinners. No, the Rapture I speak of is the stupendous complacency of a people convinced that the future is going to be just like the past.
Everywhere I look I see things that are not going to work in the years ahead, and see people making plans for conditions that will no longer exist. State DOT officials in Texas are planning to build a new statewide super-mega highway network just as the global oil peak forecloses a future of easy motoring. Where I live, at the rural edge of New York's Capital District, suburban housing pods are springing up in every cow pasture in complete faith that supernaturally cheap mortgages and long commutes will continue to be the norm. Municipalities everywhere are investing in multi-million dollar parking structures in the belief that we will be using cars in 2019 exactly the way we do now. Even the enviros are enraptured. I get letters every day from bio-diesel fans who plan to run the interstate highway system and Disney World on oil derived from algae farms.
The collective consciousness is amazingly resistant to the fact that things change. Over in Syracuse, New York, a town sinking into the economic sclerosis of a former soviet-style backwater, the locals have approved perhaps the most idiotic project ever conceived by a free and sovereign people -- a hyper-super-giant-mega-mall to be called DestNY USA (sic) that would include 400 stores, 4,000 hotel rooms, a saltwater aquarium, a 65-acre park under a Biosphere-like dome, and a food court based around a miniature Erie Canal.* The idea is that people will flock to Syracuse by car from places with equally sclerotic economies (Worcester, Mass., Scranton, Pa.) in order to go on shopping sprees for new sneakers and cargo pants, which for some reason may be in short supply where they live.
The near-imbecile governor of New York, George Pataki, showed up to grandstand at the "groundbreaking" for this dumb-ass boondoggle (which has garnered tons of tax credits and other windfalls), though not a darn thing has been built since that symbolic shovelful of dirt was turned over. The developer behind DestiNY USA, one Robert Congel, was the CEO of a predatory shopping mall company, Pyramid Inc., which raped the local retail economy of many an upstate city since the 1970s. For all of its grandiosity, DestiNY USA is still minor league stuff compared to the plans afoot for Las Vegas, where the Rapture is in its most florid and terminal stage, and aggravated by yet another collective mental disorder: the belief that it is possible to get something for nothing.
I'd go as far to say that a public as complacent and clueless as America's is these days deserves to be played for fools. It's not pretty, but life is tragic. History doesn't care if we sleepwalk into a clusterfuck. Plenty of other societies have before us. The real sin in the real world is the failure to pay attention to the signals that your environment sends you. The signals aimed at us now tell us the following: the oil age is entering an unstable permanent decline; suburbia and all its usufructs is finished; the blue-light special shopping economy is about to end; easy motoring will shortly be a thing of the past; the middle class will be replaced by a new former middle class; and all bets are off as to how violently American politics will shudder when the fog finally lifts.
* As reported in Sunday's NY Times Metro Section
May 2, 2005,
In his press conference last week, President Bush was fixated on the year 2041 as the point that social security will come off the rails financially if not reformed soon. He emphasized the year 2041 several times.
I wonder if the president has done the math on world oil supplies. A year ago (2004) just about any authority would tell you that, based on the current rate of use, the world oil supply would last another 37 years. Which would bring us to 2041. What a coincidence. Of the two issues, social security and oil, I have to think that running out of oil would be the more compelling, since social security will not exist unless there is an industrial society to support it. Inasmuch as industrial society runs on oil, and no combination of alternative fuels can take its place, a reasonable person would have to conclude that we face a hell of a problem.
Energy is what the president pretended to address in the first (and much briefer) part of his press conference -- and he was asked hardly any questions about it during the Q and A. The president's view is that "new technology" supplied by human ingenuity will eventually solve America's problem with oil. This reveals a misunderstanding very common among those in the US public who think about these things at all, namely, that technology is thought to be synonymous with energy, that they are essentially the same thing.
The fact that energy and technology are not the same thing is crucial to understanding our predicament. There are really only five energy sources available to us: non-renewable oil, natural gas, coal, uranium, and renewable solar (which includes wind, hydro, photovoltaic, and bio-mass, all dependent on sunlight acting on the earth.) The hope is that technology will somehow allow us to capture an equivalent amount of energy from renewables that we now get from non-renewables. This is the central fallacy of techno-hubris. And this popular delusion is one of the unfortunate unintended consequences of America's successful landing on the moon in 1969 -- the idea that we can do anything if only we wish hard enough. Talk about diminishing returns as expressed in culture!
Of course there's a catch with the theoretical 37-year supply of world oil. The catch is that we don't have to run out of oil, or even close, to have trouble with a depleting supply. All that's necessary to destabilize the major industrial systems we depend on is a fractional yearly decline in production, say two or three percent, because that will mark the end of conventional industrial "growth" that global finance requires to continue operating. It also matters that the US has been depleting its oil at about that rate for thirty-five years and that we make up for our declining oil supply by importing two-thirds of the oil we use from other nations, many of them unfriendly.
President Bush has therefore wasted the first two months of his second term following a mistaken set of priorities. The system that is most in trouble is the oil-addicted American way of life and all its familiar accessories: the single family home in the suburbs, the multiple millions of cars and trucks running at any time, and the food grown and processed on fossil fuel "steroids." If we don't reform that system than nobody in American society will have security of any kind much sooner than 2041.
April 25, 2005,
I was at the University of Wisconsin last week, doing Q and A after a lecture, when somebody asked me what it would take for the American public to start paying attention to the grave energy issues coming down at us. I answered, speaking figuratively, a bitch-slap upside the head. At once off to the side of the big room, a young woman thrust up her hand. I called on her and she said that she was offended by my remark. I was then duly upbraided for my choice of language and my attitude toward women.
This is not the first time I have encountered a reaction like this. A similar thing happened to me at Princeton last month. I remarked that Modernism had succeeded in removing all feminine qualities from architecture, in particular ornament and curves, and a wrathful female student hastened to chastise me for expressing the idea -- to which, it seemed to me, any genuine feminist ought to be sympathetic.
After much pondering and prayer, I conclude that the faculties of the America's great universities have forgotten what free speech means, namely that even if expressions make us feel uncomfortable we are obliged to tolerate them so as to assure our freedom to express ideas that might make somebody else uncomfortable.
What's obvious is that these students have been carefully trained by their teachers to behave this way, conditioned to rise up on cue in censorious indignation to smack down ideas that "offend" them. Who are their teachers? A lot of the tenured ones are fellow members of my own Woodstock Generation (and many of them are women). It's awfully ironic that an intellectual trend that started with the Berkeley "Free Speech" movement in 1965 has now mutated into a widespread impulse to censor free speech on the grounds that it "offends."
This was the case earlier this year when the president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, remarked at a conference that in light of the overwhelming representation of males on the science faculty perhaps there was something innate in the difference between men and women to account for it. Summers was pilloried for his remarks. The faculty went so far as to organize a formal no confidence vote against him. He has refused to step down, though he has issued many obsequious apologies in the aftermath,
What is most amazing about the Harvard incident is that it formally established the faculty's position as being officially against free inquiry and free expression -- and, of course, that it happened at the supposedly highest level of academia.
I would go so far to say now that this has all happened precisely because of differences between men and women and the fact that women have come to dominate some college faculties, especially the so-called humanities (where expression is supposedly taught). They've implanted the idea that somebody's (anybody's) personal feelings are more important than the substance of any expression, and that somebody's (anybody's) hurt feelings are grounds for shutting down the expression, and the discussion that goes with it. The implicit narcissism is also fantastic.
I regard this behavior on the campuses as pernicious fucking nonsense. It is just another thing (along with the widespread belief that it is possible to get something for nothing) that is turning America into a fourth-rate culture, a nation of cravens and cretins. And it will lead us right into the grip of the law of perverse outcomes, which states that people get what they deserve, not what they expect.
April 18, 2005
The stock markets and the oil futures markets sank in tandem last week as the global economy responded to increasing strain by wobbling. Oil dipped below $50 a barrel. Don't expect it to linger there long, as the summer driving season approaches. (Memorial Day weekend is the traditional start.)
Americans will travel compulsively even in a darkening economy. They may not go to Europe right now, with coffee at five bucks a cup there, but they will keep driving around the US because the suburban wastelands where most Americans live are so unendurably depressing that their denizens will pay almost any price for gas to get away for a while -- if only to hyper-artificial destinations like Las Vegas and Disney World. In any case, virtually all American cities (or metroplexes, since the city part is now the least of them), are so designed that stupendous rates of daily motoring are unavoidable.
Being allergic to most conspiracy theory, I am not sure that a Plunge Protection Team actually exists. (That is, a gang of institutional investors whom government leaders can call upon to prop up faltering stock markets.) If there is such a cabal, then I would be further skeptical as to the extent of their power to act. This week will test their supposed powers against a super-tide of nervous lumpen 401-K holders who have begun to notice things such as the fact that nobody wants to buy big stupid badly-designed American cars, or that Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) is hot to impose tariffs on Chinese textiles (i.e., every article of clothing found in the GAP, Target, WalMart), or that we suddenly have a much more punative bankruptcy law that will make credit card free-spenders think twice about flirting with insolvency. My own predication is that the stock markets are entering a free-fall.
The excellent young historian Niall Ferguson has an essay in the current issue of Foreign Affairs (Sinking Globalization) to remind the supposedly thinking class that the global economy is not a permanent insitution but a set of transient conditions that has come and gone before -- namely, the period running from about 1870 to 1914, when the First World War put an end to the Industrial Age's first great interval of stability and free trade. That "golden age" beat a path into a gruesome intermezzo of broken political relations, depression, and more war. Globalization did not resume until the 1970s, when two things occurred: 1.) the other combatants of World War Two recovered some industrial traction and 2.) US oil production peaked and pricing power shifted to OPEC.
Since then, the world has enjoyed another extraordinary era of stability between the major nations. Notice, I don't use the term major powers. Many would argue that US military power is beyond challenge. A minority view states there enough small arms in the world so that any gang of miscreants with $50,000 worth of rocket-propelled grenades, shoulder-launched missiles, and Semtech plastic explosive can make the US Army do a hurt dance. The long term trend is for America to exhaust itself engaging with these fire-ants, and to withdraw from the ant-hills back into the safety of North America.
That process is now underway, and the economic implications are rather dire. The spring of 2005 has that 1914 feel. In Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, the current hiatus has settled nothing. The various tribes and factions are still pissed off at each other and at us. America is still left with its huge oil import addiction and a suburban way-of-life that no amount of "energy conservation" can appease. The tectonic stresses of economic distortion have been building under the surface of the Wal Mart / China partnership. For those of you contemplating a vacation in Las Vegas, don't bet on the status quo.
April 11, 2005
Over in Vermont last week, I ran into a gang of biodiesel enthusiasts. Biodiesel is oil extracted from vegetable crops that can be used to run engines and do other things as a replacement for petroleum. They were earnest, forward-looking guys who would like to do some good for their country. But their expectations struck me as fairly crazy, and in a way typical of the bad thinking at all levels of our society these days.
For instance, I asked if it had ever occurred to them that bio-diesel crops would have to compete for farmland that would be needed otherwise to grow feed crops for working animals. No, it hadn't. (And it seemed like a far-out suggestion to them.) Their expectation seemed to be that the future would run a lot like the present, that bio-diesel was just another ingenius, innovative, high-tech module that we can "drop into" our existing system in place of the previous, obsolete module of regular oil.
Their scheme seemed misconceived in the same way as the ultra-high-mileage "hyper-car" that has been pushed for years by Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute -- the main effect of which would be to promote the idea (especially among environmentalists!) that we can continue the suburban life of easy motoring. Lovins' even compounded this inanity by locating his institute's new headquarters (a green building!) way up a mountain road in Snowmass, Colorado, where all the employees have to drive cars to work (in four-wheel drive vehicles!).
I notice lately that there are two kinds of hubris operating among the "forward-thinking" classes in America (which is to say, those who are thinking at all). One I call techno-hubris. It represents the idea that there are really no limits to our powers of innovation and it is obviously the product of our experience in the past century, especially of our victory in World War Two and of the 1969 moon landing. The other kind is organizational hubris, the certainty that we can organize our way around the oil bottleneck, global warming, and population overshoot. What both modes of thinking have in common is that neither recognizes the probability that we are moving into a period of discontinuity, turbulence and hardship. Both modes of thinking assume that we can negotiate a smooth transition from where we are now to a new-and-improved human condition.
There is a remarkable consistency in the delusional thinking at every level of American life these days. When Americans think about the future at all, they seem to think it will be pretty much the way we live now. The buyers of 4000 square foot McHouses think that they will be able to continue heating them with cheap natural gas, not to mention commuting seventy miles a day. The stadium builders assume that major league sports will continue just as it is today, with chartered jet planes conveying zillionaire athletes incessently back and forth across the continent. The highway engineers and the municipal planners are focused like lasers on providing more roads and more parking spaces for evermore cars. The architects are designing more skyscrapers, despite the decrepit condition of the electric grid and the frightful situation with our depleting natural gas supply. We're so confident, so sure of ourselves.
When you combine the seven deadly sins with high technology, you get some really serious problems. You get turbo-sins. It's dreadful to imagine what goeth after turbo-pride.
April 4, 2005
When historians come to write the history of this Republican reign, they will mark as the turning point the moment when Congressman Tom DeLay promised vengeance to the federal judges and others who allowed brain-dead Terri Schiavo to finally die. That was his Robespierre moment, when the little prick from Sugar Land, Texas, under-reached his grasp for the levers of public opinion because, it turned out, most of the American public did not approve of politicians pandering to them on behalf of the unfortunate Mrs. Schiavo.
Meanwhile President Bush was still out on a sixty-day cross-country blitz, hustling his proposal to turn social security into a new revenue stream for Wall Street. Historians will also note that the stock markets followed a downward trend-line while Bush was out there pitching, while day-by-day the price of gasoline followed a steep trendline upward just as Americans were getting ready for their annual fiesta of summer motoring. The public was not buying the President's pitch. The younger voters didn't believe they'd ever collect social security no matter how it was rigged up. Anyway, it was hard to give a shit about something as abstract and distant as social security when all of a sudden it cost fifty bucks to fill your gas tank.
There is something in the wind abroad in this land besides the vapors of spring.
Last week, the International Energy Agency, after years of dithering, warned of an imminent global oil shortage and made a list of surprisingly draconian recommendations, from lowering speed limits in all the advanced industrial nations, to a reduced work week, to a ban on using privately-owned vehicles (!). Nobody in the American government dared comment on that because it might unravel the web of delusion that we can continue living as a nation of tanning hut managers who qualify to buy 3000 square foot suburban McHouses (while making monthly payments on GMC Yukons).
But those rising prices at the gasoline pump send a message that is cutting through all the static of American Idol, Fox TV News, and the attempted panderings of vindictive little pricks such as Tom DeLay. Message: our standard of living is headed down. Fast.
Now, there is every reason to believe that the public will come to misinterpret that message, too, because the whole nation -- including many enviro-progressives, by the way -- have bought into the notion that, whatever else reality offers, we are entitled to a life of easy motoring and Ditech Miracle Mortgages, and an awful lot of people are going to lose their personal revenue streams when that illusion falls away.
What will remain is a continental-sized angry mob wanting to pole-axe the people who are running the show. Since the Democratic party has ceded its opposition by failing utterly to promote and alternate vision of reality, a new opposition is certain to form out of this mob. Unfortunately, it is in the nature of mobs to think not in terms of policy but of rolling heads.
The warm part of 2005 is shaping up to be a time when the center no longer holds, or even ceases to exist.
March 27, 2005
Poor Herbert Hoover, the round-faced Stanford-educated wonderboy of the 1920s boom, who got elected president in 1928 on the strength of his performance as an economic management wizard, was corn-holed by the 1929 stock market crash and humiliated by several years of depression that followed it. Hoover's reputation never recovered, and he lived a long life -- another three decades -- under a cloud of ignominy.
A similar, though probably much worse, fate now awaits George W. Bush. The Great Depression, however, was milder than what Bush (and America) now faces.
When Franklin Roosevelt came on board in 1933, he remarked that we had "nothing to fear but fear itself." This now-hoary phrase was much more precise and astute when first uttered than it seems after seven decades of recitation. The Great Depression was indeed a mystifying event because, as Roosevelt further observed, it happened in a society that was so fundamentally wealthy -- suffering "want amidst plenty," as FDR put it. We had barely begun pumping our stupendous oil endowment. We had productive farmland in abundance (even with the dust bowl happening) and plenty of food. We had loads of manpower, oodles of mineral resources, fabulous new industries like radio, motion pictures, cars, the world's most dynamic cities -- you get the picture. And yet the nation was on the ropes in 1933.
The Great Depression was a crisis of credit, capital formation, and markets, not of fundamental resources. It was a crisis of the abstract markers of real wealth, not the wealth itself. It was also a symptom of the diminishing returns of industrial hypergrowth, a kind of economic hormonal disturbance. It produced strange, unanticipated consequences. Hypertrophy in manufacturing led to saturated mass markets. The industrialization of farming led first to over-production of commodities and then to the dust bowl (thanks to that novelty, the Ford tractor). The system seized up. Money (credit) was scarce to an extreme. Farmers went broke. Factory workers were laid off. Essentially, it was intermission in the great industrial meta-drama. Everybody went out for a smoke.
After the convulsion of World War Two, we went back to confidently marshalling our resources with a vengence. We took all that oil, all the mineral wealth, the raw land, the timber, and other riches and directed it into the dubious-but-profitable project of building a suburban utopia. We're now in the final act of the industrial pageant, a few minutes to curtain. The Long Emergency that we're about to enter as the world passes the all-time oil production peak will be about the depletion and scarcity of things we used to have in plentitude: energy, electricity, food, water, minerals, with a new crisis of money and credit like a cherry on top.
Herbert Hoover was vilified for doing nothing about the depression that followed the stock market crash. When we look back on the years of George W. Bush we will marvel at his failure to lead, especially his failure to inform the public that our habits of daily life would have to change, that we could not continue to burn twenty million barrels of oil a day, and spend money we hadn't earned; that we desperately had to reform our suburban land development habits, that the WalMarts and other predatory corporations had to be restrained in their systematic destruction of local economies, that our railroads needed to be rebuilt, that our borders needed to be defended, that our local small farmers needed to be supported, that our industries needed to be re-scaled and retained here, that corporate chiseling had to be policed, that finance had to be qualitatively different than a craps game in some casino.
The Hooverization of George W. Bush has begun. Only it will go much worse for Bush. His fall could be so hard, swift and awful that he may not be allowed to finish his second term. That's how stunned the public and even their entrenched oligarchical elites will be as the economy tanks and our national life begins to unravel. The Republican majority will go down with him, including such arrant villians as Tom Delay and the hosts of corporate CEO chiselers who sold out their workers and their country. They can pray all the want. It won't help.
March 21, 2005
Now that President Bush has got permission to open up the Arcitic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, it will be interesting to see what else he has in mind to counter America's imminent collision with the Peak Oil predicament. My guess: absolutely nothing. The period after ANWAR is settled will be the time when Bush, and indeed the entire groaning apparatus of national leadership, are revealed to be detached from reality and devoid of ideas for dealing with reality.
ANWAR contains perhaps four billion barrels of oil. Since America uses over 20 million barrels a day (one billion every fifty days), ANWAR represents about a half year's supply. It will take several years to ramp up production there, and to build the expensive pipelines needed to get the oil out. By that time, the US will have hit the wall of energy reality. Gasoline will already be expensive enough to cast doubt on the continuing project of suburbia. Since building suburban houses and all their accompanying infrastructure is the basis of our national economy, the world will have reason to conclude that the US has poor economic prospects, and therefore other nations will feel a steep disincentive to continue investing in our debt and equities. When that happens, the dollar craps out, credit evaporates, and a huge new class of economic losers materializes here in the US.
When it becomes evident that Bush & Company have absolutely no energy plan beyond ANWAR, the Republican majority will begin its nauseating Icarus-like freefall from the political heights. Their unworthy opposition, the Democrats, may well go with them, since none of its stars and their hirelings have offered a single credible idea about America's energy dilemma. The result of all this compounded lack of political cred is likely to produce disorder and, ultimately, some kind of extreme behavior -- either the rise of a seriously nasty jingoistic new party pandering to all those economic losers, and / or some desperate affray with one or more of the many nations who are viewed as somehow causing America's pain, whether that is Mexico, Venezuela, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, North Korea, or, who knows, France.
The one thing American leadership seems completely unprepared and unwilling to do is admit that the game is over for the American Dream of suburbia. Our leaders will not take even the first baby steps toward admitting that the way we live is a problem, for instance making a serious effort to restore passenger railroad service. The nation's sense of identity is now tragically linked to a living arrangement that has no future. It's especially tragic because before we embarked on this childish dream of a drive-in utopia, we were a better people, a more realistic, honest, and brave people. We have become a craven people now worthy only of being lied to and misled.
March 14, 2005
Anyone who read yesterday's New York Times Sunday Business Section couldn't fail to conclude that America's leading industry is. . . accounting fraud! All three of the section's front page stories were devoted to that line of enterprise in one way or another.
The lead story, "The Last Days of Enron," by Kurt Eichenwald undertook to tell, in a by-now-familiar "behind-the-scenes"soap opera format, a tale of desperate, enraged, and weeping corporate "suits" confronting each other in 50th floor offices -- in this case, a well-known cast featuring Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, Ben Gilsen, et al.
The most telling element of the story, though, is the utter incomprehensibility of Enron's actual business dealings and the fact that Eichenwald doesn't even attempt to explicate what it consisted of. And for good reason, I think, because it consisted of nothing. Enron's business amounted to borrowing huge sums of money from banks and then creating an elaborate armature of paperwork to suggest that the money had been directed to some purpose. In fact, though Eichenwald never says so, the money was dumped into other Enron-owned pseudo-companies -- many established in Carbbean pseudo-nations with opaque banking regulations -- fictiously created to do nothing but receive borrowed money. What kept Enron's stock up, until the very end, was simply the huge scale of its borrowings. Everybody was impressed by it: the stock-holders, the bankers, the regulators, and the news media. Until Enron ran through so much borrowed cash that they couldn't borrow more to make scheduled payments on prior borrowings. Sound like a certain western hemisphere nation we all know? (Hint: English mostly spoken in it.)
The funniest element of the story is the pretense that these characters are serious people just because they wear neckties. It also turns out that the one thing they were not any good at was precisely the creation of all that paperwork. So, the moment the banks suspected that their giant lending stream was producing nothing of value, the venture instantly foundered. These clowns couldn't even come up with a credible fake spreadsheet. They just ran around from one office to another in that absurd mirrored-glass office tower of theirs down in Houston, yelling objurgations at each other.The final impression is that America's corporate crooks lack the skills to even successfully operate as criminals.
The second story is Gretchen Morganstern's column about all the legal trouble that America's big banks got into for lending astronomical sums of money to the WorldCom grift without making any serious effort to determine what the money was supposed to be used for. In the lending biz, this is called "due diligence." Somebody in the bank's office is supposed to have a look at a borrower's activities and render an opinion as to whether they have any productive purpose. The sad truth, however, was that the banks didn't give a fuck what WorldCom was supposed to be doing. The "suits" at Citigroup and J. P. Morgan Chase just wanted to rake in premiums, profits, and points so they could buy houses in Bridgehampton. Meanwhile, WorldCom did a bum of job of erecting its Potemkin ediface of fake paperwork and when the company's massive borrowings unraveled in a fiasco of non-performance, the regulators noticed. Now WorldCom's CEO, Bernard Ebbers, is on trail for fraud and the banks have had to pay civil judgements in the billions of dollars. Bottom line: America's leading bankers lack the skill to give money away.
The third front page story was about company CEOs who received whopping bonuses in the millions for "making their numbers," that is, for showing profitable activity in a given year. The trouble, alas, is that many of these CEO "suits" have cooked their books to falsely state their company's earnings and now the boards of directors are yelling to get all that bonus money back. They do their yelling through lawyers. Big mistake, because the services of these lawyers are so extremely remunerative (for the lawyers) that the cost can often exceed the value of recovering the undeserved bonus money. 414 companies have been forced to restate their earnings over the past several years, the story said. Often times the CEO's get fired for their shenanigans. But by that time they have banked tens of millions and can enjoy an early retirement from the toils of "enterprise."
March 7, 2005February 28, 2005
Last Thursday the price of oil inched above $55 dollar a barrel, which is at least $15 barrel more than it was a year ago. On Friday, the oil story was buried on page six of the New York Times business section. Apparently the price of of oil is not considered significant news, even when it goes up five dollars a barrel in the span of ten days.
On Friday evening, CNN reported that the Dow shot up over one hundred points because of favorable employment numbers issued by the government and also because there were no signs of inflation in government-reported price data.
Stock markets are generally understood to behave on the basis of a consensus among traders about future prospects. Apparently stock traders in America think there is no connection between the price of oil shooting up ten percent in little more than a week, and the price of things that depend on oil for their manufacture or distribution -- which is to say, virtually everything.
Our inability to process information is reaching an impressive level.
I, for one, would be concerned about the price of oil and inflation -- that is the loss of purchasing power in the dollar. The recent price jump in oil is happening in March, you see, a couple of months shy of the so-called spring driving season. Typically, in recent years, oil prices have seen their biggest bumps around Memorial Day, when Americans resume long-distance motoring in earnest after staying close to home all winter. If oil stays in the low to mid $50 range for a while, it would not be unreasonable to expect $60 a barrel oil in May. And that is assuming that no untoward geopolitical shock will occur, say the assassination of a Saudi prince, or an attack on an oil installation.
On Sunday, the New York Times ran a roundtable discussion (in the Book Review) between three prominent young "liberal" intellectuals (Katrina vanden Heuvel, Michael Tomasky, and Peter Beinhart) about what the Democratic Left can do to reclaim its place as a credible opposition. None of these hotshots mentioned the fact that the nation faces a defining crisis over our energy supplies. I don't think the word "oil" was even mentioned by this clueless trio. They have no idea what kind of convulsion we are heading into.
Somebody ought to bring this to the Democrats' attention. America has a problem bigger than social security, or the price of prescription drugs, or gay marriage. America is heading into a situation in which it will no longer have an economy. The Republicans at least have an excuse for their willful blindness -- they've already taken the position that the life of extreme car-dependency and everything it implies is not negotiable. They are committed to defending that position, no matter how foolish it may be.
The Republicans will certainly be disgraced by the coming vicissitudes that they allowed the nation to sleepwalk into. But the Democrats may have less credibility in the future because they were not obligated to defend a foolish status quo, and they did anyway.
I wonder if Howard Dean ever thinks about these things.
America is, after all, the world's most powerful nation.
This sentiment has been boinging around the major media lately, especially in stories and columns about the health of the dollar. But what does it really mean?
We have the world's biggest nuclear arsenal for sure. We could vaporize every world city if it came to that. But Russia has enough nuclear warheads and ICBMs to stop the world's clock, too (while standards of living and life expectancy there continue to decline). For that matter, Britain, France, Israel, and China have enough atomic military juice to seriously fuck up the current order of things.
What America definitely doesn't have is enough oil and natural gas to run the nation's economy as it currently exists -- as a chain of realtors driving SUVs to tanning booths to impress house-buyers borrowing money from lenders who flip the mortgages to government sponsored entities who can't add up a column of figures, even with the help of computers.
Speaking of math, I did the oil figures a couple of weeks ago, and it's worth repeating. Of the the 80 million barrels a day the world burns, we burn one quarter of that, or 20 million barrels a day. Every five days we burn a hundred million barrels. Every fifty days America burns one billion barrels of oil. Every year we burn seven billion barrels. The US has 28 billion barrels of oil left. If we burned every last drop of our own oil, and somehow lost access to foreign imports, our oil would last four more years.
Four more years of easy motoring, bargain shopping, RV vacations, and trading up to bigger houses farther out in the rural gloaming.
If I was a young economist, I would reflect on this situation and perhaps conclude that the American economy doesn't have great long-term prospects. In fact, I'd have to imagine the American standard of living falling of a cliff within the lifetime of a TV sitcom. I'd have to wonder about American "power" and the actual value of the dollar.
It's a good thing that friendly nations like Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Venezuela are willing to sell us oil. That way, we don't have to use up all our remaining oil in four years. And its a good thing we can pay for that oil in dollars. What else could we trade for it? Tanning booth hours? Back episodes of "Sex in the City?" Free day passes to Six Flags?
Of course, the global oil peak implies that all the nations of the world will have less total energy to divvy up. I just don't see where the United States is in a particularly favorable position on this. Have you heard of any plans to reduce our extreme dependence on cars? I don't think our supreme leader has even uttered the world "railroad" since he came on the national scene. Are we going to subcontract the Jolly Green Giant to go around America moving things closer together so we don't have to burn so much gasoline?
Excuse me for saying this, but I don't think we have any idea what we're going to do. It causes me to wonder how powerful we really are, apart from our ability to blow things up.
February 21, 2005
Last month media elder statesman Bill Moyers made a speech after receiving an award at Harvard in which he said that "born again" members of the Bush regime couldn't possibly believe in the future if they truly subscribed to the doctrines of Pentecostal Christianity -- since its theology includes the notion that the world has entered an "end times" scenario as described in the the Book of Revelations. Moyers went further, implying that people who explicitly and programmatically don't believe in the future have no business running a government, the chief task of which is safeguarding the future.
Friends of mine are alarmed about the rise of the Pentecostals and evangelicals. Personally, I think there is going to be a hearty backlash against them. It is beginning to look too obvious that they don't care about several crucial aspects of the human project in its current form. They don't care about global warming. They don't care about the gathering world energy crisis. They don't care about America's phony economy based on ever more suburban development. At the secondary level, they don't care about basic medical research, they don't care about protecting the nation's borders, they don't care about corporate depradations against communities and workers, they don't care about the growing obscene gap between the rich and the poor.
This apocalyptic religion has risen out of the Sunbelt, out of those very parts of the country that have most enjoyed hyper-turbo-mega prosperity during the high tide of the cheap oil era. Perhaps their dark vision is an apprehension that the things they have benefited from so hugely are indeed coming to an end -- easy motoring and cheap air conditioning, to name two biggies. But are they so dumb that no other way of life is even conceivable to them?
One of the dirty secrets of our time is that a large group of relatively stupid people were able to thrive in the growth medium of a cheap energy economy. People who had emerged blinking from agricultural serfdom in the 1950s found themselves, within a generation, making millions whacking together suburban houses and selling Chevrolets to other people like them. It is no accident that the main activity of televangelism is, literally, money-grubbing, or that so many of the branches of this degraded Christianity are preoccupied with unearned riches. It is also not an accident that no major spokesperson of the "born again" sector has made a peep about Las Vegas, or against legalized gambling anywhere in the country -- in fact, this New Christianity represents the Las Vegas-ization of religion per se, faith in the idea that it is possible to get something for nothing, an idea which is generally only believed in by stupid people or little children, an idea that is deeply pernicious to the human project.
As the post-war economy uprooted so many southerners from rural places, and traditional ways of life, and plunked them in alienating, lonely, disconnected suburban nowheres ruled by consumerist ways of life, religion became ever more important as the only remaining place of social enactment. Church membership across this arid suburban social landscape increasingly compensated for the absence of real communities based on networks of local economic relations. In a way, fundamentalist religion made the predations of the corporate community-destroyers easier. It made secular community seem optional, dispensable, provisional, something easily replaced by WalMart. It squared nicely with the ethos of hyper-individualism, in which bargain shopping trumped any aspect of civic amenity. The churches, meanwhile, sought to benefit from the same economies of scale as those enjoyed by the giant retail chains. Increasingly, the churches were organized on a mass basis and housed in buildings that looked like WalMart with gigantic parking facilities. In fact, evangelical churches were renowned for taking over the leases of dead chain stores in dying malls because the rents were so cheap. Sunbelt evangelicalism became a kind of WalMart of the spirit. Political leaders went bargain shopping in them for voting souls.
Since it is a religion essentially based on extreme selfishness, luxury, comfort, and self-satisfaction, it will probably become most virulent when the goodies its members have enjoyed grow scarce. In other words, when the folks in Phoenix and Atlanta find themselves on line waiting for gasoline, duck and cover. It is unfortunate that the very real hardships of the global oil crisis will appear to jibe with their stupid fantasies about the "end times," because the end of cheap fossil fuel does not have to be the end of civilization, and certainly not of the human race. But this stupidity and selfishness go hand-in-hand, so the nation as a whole has not been able to face the most obvious tasks of preparation, like reviving the railroad system.
The non-stupid, non-born again part of the nation has been cowed into submission for decades by the Sunbelt evangelicals. The Democratic party could not formulate a coherent opposition to that culture of self-satisfaction. The Democrats nominated a paragon of unearned riches as its most recent presidential candidate, a man who didn't even have the moral fiber to make his fortune selling cars or building strip malls.
Soon, the problems this nation faces will be so obvious and grave that George W. Bush and the Republicans and the WalMartians, and all the moneygrubbing TV preachers, and the people who can't imagine an hour of leisure without engines ringing in their ears, and the offspring of all the bug-eyed lynch-mob cretins of yore will stand naked in discredit. The rest of the nation, the non-stupid, non-selfish, non-childish, non-believers in the idea that it is possible to get something for nothing will take a stand. It won't be the end of the world, but it will be a political convulsion against a background of fire, proving that the future belongs to those who believe in the future.
February 15, 2005
Last week, "futurist" Joel Kotkin, a fellow of the New America Foundation, wrote a column for the Washington Post titled "Rule Suburbia," declaring that the land-use debate is now over and suburban sprawl is the undisputed winner.
"Once we acknowledge this reality, we can turn to the task of making the best of it." Kotkin wrote.
Kotkin, a highly-paid consultant to municipalities on these matters, is apparently unaware that the world is cruising at full steam into the immovable obstacle of a permanent energy crisis. But his credulous declaration of sprawl's triumph is only one small example of our society's fecklessness.
I was in Boulder, Colorado, over the weekend. This town of about 100,000 at the base of the Rockies, some thirty miles north of Denver, is struggling with some success to rebuild its center after fifty years of sacrifice to the Gods of easy motoring. Four story apartment buildings with ground floor retail have gone up where there used to parking lots and car-washes. Streets that were once dead zones have come back to life. They've cobbled together a bus transit system that runs frequently enough so that normal people (i.e. the non-indigent) will actually ride it.
Meanwhile, an orgy of suburban sprawl development continues out on the prairie between Boulder and Denver. When you actually behold this sordid smear of beige-colored tract housing, mirror-clad office boxes, and tilt-up retail pods, one message comes through with laser-like clarity: "No Future Here." The suburban "story" has a tragic arc, and since we've squandered our national wealth on it, we are apparently determined to make ourselves feel good about it. You cannot overestimate the delusional thinking that the public will bring to this effort. It will range from credentialed intellectual figures such as Kotkin, to the lowliest Nascar morons defending their entitlements to the American Dream.
At the supposedly more respectable end of the commenting industry, Kotkin now joins NY Times Columnist David Brooks in the cheerleaders' section for a way of life that Vice-president Dick Cheney said was "non-negotiable." They've made common cause with more notorious idiots such as Peter Huber (who thinks the planet has a creamy nougat center of oil), and the ambiguously rational duo of Wendell Cox and Randall O'Toole, who have made careers of pimping for the highway gang.
America can tell itself whatever it wants to hear, but history and destiny have other plans for us. That plan includes a lot of trouble with the energy needed to run the beloved drive-in utopia. No amount of cheerleading for that way of life will bring back the depleted oil fields of Texas or the tapped-out gas wells of Oklahoma, or buy us the friendship of the people around the Persian Gulf who own two-thirds of the world's remaining oil. Reality's message to us doesn't jibe with Kotkin's strange victory lap. Reality's message is "Tilt! Game over!"
February 7, 2005
Over the weekend, a friend asked me, "What if you're wrong and there's no global oil peak problem, at least not right away, and maybe never?"
Well, okay, if the global oil peak is a myth or a shuck, we're still stuck with the American oil peak, which is a fact of history. US crude oil production peaked in 1970, at more than 10 million barrels a day and our production has been going down by a few percentage points every year until it is just over 5 million barrels a day now -- and still going down. We get an additional two million barrels a day in natural gas condensates and other liquids. Since Americans consume 20 million barrels of oil a day that means we have to import more than half the oil we use. Every year, we'll have to import more as our own production goes down.
It is estimated that the US kicked off the oil age in the mid-nineteenth century with about 210 billion barrels of oil underground. According to United States Energy Information Administration (EIA), we now have about 21 billion barrels left, one-tenth of what we started with. If the US had to depend only on its own production, and if we could pump out every last drop, then we would have enough oil to last roughly three years at current rates of consumption. By the way, of the 20+ million barrels a day of oil we use, just under half of that is devoted to motor transport.
Ask yourself: are we going to reform the driving-intensive suburbs of Houston, Atlanta, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Chicago, Washington, et cetera, anytime soon? Do you know of any plans to revive the US passenger rail network?
I guess we're just going to have to depend on the good will of other oil-producing nations. Incidentally, about two-thirds of the remaining oil in the world belongs to the people in and around the Persian Gulf.
One final thing: the "cornucopians" often claim that oil is a self-renewing resource, that a great master pool of oil exists deep in the earth's core, like the creamy nougat center of a bonbon, always seeping upward and replenishing the oil fields. If this is so, then how come US production goes consistantly down year after year? Do the Gods just not like us?