The Clusterfuck Nation
Commentary on the Flux of Events
by Jim Kunstler
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December 26, 2005
Last week's blog produced another blizzard of indignant letters on two counts. One bunch scolded me for claiming to admire anything about President Bush (I thought his defense of domestic spying was legitimate). The other castigated me for failing to accept that a US government plot was behind the 9/11 attacks.
Speaking to the first one: while I think much of the public views 9/11 as just another drama that came over the cable channels, I also think it was an extraordinary injury to the nation in reality, and a huge insult to the professionals in the defense, state, and various intelligence departments. This extraordinary injury and insult has produced extraordinary results -- an unprecedented use of invasive electronic surveillance to desperately try to prevent another such injury. Unlike the Nixon years, no evidence has emerged yet that this spying was directed widely at critics of government policy. If we are listening in on phone conversations and Internet chatter involving jihadists, then that is okay with me. If this spying were to swing over to critics of the war and the news media on a wholesale basis -- as in the Nixon / Vietnam years -- I'd feel differently about it. But I do not see any evidence that it has. In the meantime, I don't see how it can be avoided.
Whether it is effective is another matter. All we know is that there hasn't been another incident like 9/11 since 9/11/01 in America. The range of hard and soft targets across this land is immense. Either our government has been working very hard to track the right people, or we have been very lucky, or both. Or perhaps the targets we present in Iraq are more attractive right now. We certainly have plenty of vulnerabilities to be concerned about at home, ranging from the number of uninspected shipping containers coming into US ports, to our leaky borders, to the scores of chemical plants and nuclear reactors, to the hundreds of bridges and tunnels. Anyone can still drive a van packed with fertilizer down K Street in Washington DC, and there are countless shoulder-launched missiles and RPGs loose in this world. Now, all that may be "proof" to the paranoid that terrorist violence only happens when the government lets it happen, but it is not proof of that to me. Which brings us to the next point.
I regard the 9/11 conspiracy theories as a fantasy and a distraction from the real problems we face. It is especially unfortunate that they became associated with the Peak Oil issue, and that was obviously a result of Mike Ruppert's elaboration of them in his book Across the Rubicon, which brought discredit to his otherwise good reporting on the global oil situation, and tainted others like myself who regard energy as the crucial geopolitical and economic issue of our time. There is enough confusion in this nation without conflating the real concerns over energy with paranoid fantasies about government plots.
That said, I think the foregoing illustrates the pernicious nature of delusional thinking generally in our highly-stressed society -- and I am as concerned over delusional thinking, delusional behavior, and delusional politics as I am over Peak Oil.
The day after Christmas the world is very still. But events are churning in the background. I am looking toward reality-based signals to understand what is going on out there: how much oil is actually coming out of the ground around the world, how much unearned money Americans spent in WalMart before Christmas, how many individuals may have decided to not buy a new house in the far-out suburbs this fall because of high heating prices. Next week I'll publish my predictions for 2006. I think we were extremely lucky to get through 2005 without a debacle in the economy, and the financial sector in particular. But the imbalances out there are greater than anything the world has ever seen before and they are working their way through the system slowly like a gigantic pig inside the proverbial python. If we are actually at the all-time oil production peak, then there is still a lot of energy to be fed into this system. The trouble is that we are doing it at the very peak of a gigantic wave, and when waves break things standing on the shore tend to get broken.
Bonus articles: two excellent essays by our Man on Wall Street, Dmitry Podborits. The first is an incisive look at the exurban housing bubble. The second is an excellent essay on the economics of cutting edge solar technology. They run concurrently on Dmitry's website, Live Journal
December 19, 2005
I rather admired George W. Bush's hard-boiled remarks Saturday about the secret snooping carried out by the National Security Agency. As if we could afford to do otherwise. I just wish he'd quit calling it the War on Terror, which is so imprecise.
The part I liked was his willingness to squarely confront the public's childish lack of seriousness. We want to be safe, but we don't want to hurt anybody's feelings. We want to feel secure within our borders, but we don't want to go beyond vigilance-lite. This is consistent with our new national religion, which is based on the idea that it's possible to get something for nothing.
The public has a short memory. I maintain that, despite a lot of sentimental posturing, for most Americans the World Trade Center knockdown was just another television show, and few people can even remember the plot of an ABC Movie-of-the-Week from a few months ago, so why should they remember the details of 9/11/01? -- namely that a posse of Islamic maniacs flew airplanes into New York's biggest skyscrapers and collapsed them (as well as ramming the Pentagon and almost hitting another target except that the hijacked fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania). And maybe we ought to keep tabs on other potential maniacs of that persuasion.
By the way, I get indignant letters every day from people who are convinced that Dick Cheney headed a plot behind the 9/11 attacks. I regard these conspiracy theories as crazy, but the craziness itself seems to be increasing in breadth and amplitude across the land -- as a subconscious expression of our collective anxiety over a way of life with poor prospects.
Anyway, since no other major act of terrorist violence has occurred in the US since then, Americans seem to have concluded that nothing would have happened since 9/11, or can happen. So call off the dawgs.
But listening in on people's phone conversations is probably pretty mild compared to what else may be going on.
As my friend Peter put it yesterday, "What you wonder is: how many motherfuckers our guys have been secretly whacking in these dark little corners around the world the past few years." His point is a good one. Do you suppose we've really discontinued covert operations out there? And if we didn't have our guys out there whacking dangerous motherfuckers, would the world be a worse place? And what percentage of the public thinks we don't do stuff like that anymore, or don't have to?
The paradoxical thing about all this is that if the President is willing to tell America that we should grow up and get serious about national security, then why doesn't Mr. Bush tell America the cold, hard, grownup truth that we are entering a permanent global energy crisis that will force us to live differently? Or tell America the truth that we are occupying Iraq in order to maintain a foothold in the region where two-thirds of the world's remaining oil is? And that the basic equation is that our current way of life depends utterly on continued access to this oil -- so either change that way of life or get used to the necessity of maintaining a garrison in the Middle East.
If Mr. Bush was consistent with these messages, the public might actually gain a sense of purpose -- that is, of devoting our patriotic spirit to prepare for the great changes we face, instead of just pretending that the funburger fiesta-on-wheels can continue indefinitely?
December 12, 2005
What on earth does George W. Bush mean by victory? To remake Iraq in the image of Indiana?
I suppose I am the 1,289,654th observer to note that the president does a poor job of articulating the goal of our military venture over there -- which is to defend our access to the oil of the Middle East.
Incessantly flogging the word freedom the past three years was probably his biggest mistake. It would have been more precise, modest, and useful to say that we were supporting elections under a new constitution (written with our assistance) because the alternative would be to just appoint a bunch of guys we liked to be a government -- and that government would have had no legitimacy among the Iraqi people, not to mention the bawling of world opinion against it (and us). So, of course, elections were a necessity, and the policing required to make that happen has been an ugly struggle.
Otherwise, the most conspicuous freedom in Iraq, for most Iraqis, the past three years has been freedom from reliable electrical service.
But victory? That's really a howler. Over what? The terrorists, I suppose, if you call the larger enterprise a War on Terror, another unfortunate locution. The fact is that there is a vast popular antipathy against the United States that emanates from west of Gibraltar clear across the eastern hemisphere to the south Pacific. In formal terms, it is an Islamic jihad. Its clear goal is to expel interlopers from Islamic territory. It imposes rather severe penalties on the perceived interlopers, and its tactics are not gentlemanly, especially where civilians are in the way.
Victory against this would seem to imply the extermination of at least tens of millions of Islamic young men, not a realistic goal. We are equally unlikely to charm them into a change of affection by demonstrating the art of elections.
Getting back to the smaller theater of Iraq itself, we see a cast of characters arrayed against our presence: Shiites acting as proxies for neighboring Iran; former Baathists seeking crazily to regain control; Sunnis desperately trying to keep a hand in the oil revenue, since most of the oil lies in either Shiite or Kurdish territory; and of course there is probably a contingent of international jihadistas, young men from all over the Middle East and elsewhere, with no regular work except to harass and exasperate the infidel occupiers. There is certainly an inexhaustible supply of these young men. And an inexhaustible supply of munitions at their disposal. There is no chance whatsoever that we are going to pacify these warriors. They will not rest until we depart their ummah and we are not going to do that until there is no oil left in it.
So, victory in any conventional sense that Americans understand this word is out of the question, and the President's use of it is his biggest blunder since the "mission accomplished" stunt of 2003. The Iraq elections may succeed in establishing a legitimate government -- but then what? Will it govern for a month and a half and fall apart? The eventual likely outcome, as everybody knows, is civil war in Iraq, and perhaps a widening conflict with Iran on one side, Syria on the other side, and Saudi Arabia left to the Jihadistas. Elsewhere in the world, things will continue to blow up.
Meanwhile, back here in This Land is Your Land, the easy motoring utopia will remain non-negotiable and we'll drive Amtrak into bankruptcy.
December 5, 2005
When people of any political persuasion cry for America to pull out of Iraq, what do they suppose will be the result? That America will go back to being the same nation of easy-motoring, McMansion-buying consumpto-trons we were in 1999? Things have changed.
The world oil markets have changed. Their stability through the 1990s was a transient phenomenon, and a circumstance which, unfortunately, put us to sleep. During that time, OPEC, led by Saudi Arabia, was the world's "swing producer" -- the oil producer with spare capacity that could always open the valves and pump more. And they did, even cheating on their own official quotas, which only had the effect of flooding the market with "product" and driving down the prices -- so by the end of the last century oil had sunk to $10 a barrel.
That was great for America in the short term. It reinforced the widespread illusion that the oil disruptions of the 1970s were a shuck and jive. We ramped up all our car-dependent behavior, built more malls and "lifestyle centers," carved more housing subdivisions in the farthest-out asteroid belts of the metroplexes, bought cars the size of tactical military vehicles, and acted as if this was a way of life with a future.
Many things have changed. One is that a potent segment of the Islamic world declared war on the west (jihad). Another is that OPEC, led by Saudi Arabia, has apparently lost its spare capacity, and therefore its role as the world's swing producer of oil. Another is that the North Sea and Alaskan oil fields have passed their production peaks and are depleting at phenomenal rates -- in the case of Great Britain's fields, up to 50 percent a year -- because they were drilled so efficiently with the latest technology. Yet Another is that rising ocean temperatures have led to several years of massive hurricanes wreaking havoc among the oil and gas platforms of the US Gulf Coast. Still another is the industrial turbo-expansion of China and India, taking advantage of their ultracheap labor to become the world's factories and back-offices, while jacking up their oil consumption
Oil trade has now become a dead heat race between supply and demand, with demand looking like the stronger horse coming into the home stretch. As it overtakes supply, even more strange changes will unfold on the world scene. These are likely to take the form of fierce geopolitical struggles to gain favor in or control those regions that still have a lot of oil, foremost the Middle East, with Iraq located at dead center of it.
There is really only one condition that will allow us to pull out of Iraq. That is if we make an enormous collective effort to change our behavior here in North America; if we break free from an economy pegged to suburban sprawl, reform the way we do agriculture and retail trade, make substantial investments in public transit and railroads in particular, and practice fiscal restraint at every scale, including an end to the reckless creation of mortgages. Unless we face these facts and the tasks associated with them, then we will find ourselves at the center of that geopolitical struggle.
Right now, nobody from any political stance is talking about these facts and these tasks. Those in the anti-war movement are by-and-large people who enjoy the same suburban "entitlements" as the war-hawks. The anti-war leadership is even worse than the pro-war leadership, because the war-hawks don't even pretend to be interested in reforming the way we live -- they've declared it "non-negotiable."
If the anti-war movement has a different idea, they sure haven't expressed it. If the Democratic party were to take the lead in the anti-war movement, they would have to start negotiations for changing the way we live in this country. To evade the responsibility for this would simply be cowardice. Leading sometimes means taking public opinion into territory it hasn't been to before.
We're now entering that territory, by the way. Stealthily over the past week, the price of natural gas has crept above $14 a unit (one million btu's). Half the houses in America are heated with the stuff. 90 percent of America's farm fertilizers are made out of it. Above $14 really is uncharted territory.
November 28, 2005
Observers are already writing off 2005 as if it had shown us everything it has to show. I think the holiday frenzy will be as instructive as the hurricanes of late summer.
A mild late-autumn combined with extra imports of European oil and refined fuels, and withdrawals from our own strategic reserve, have held the gasoline prices down here in the US. But the northeast got a four-day cold blast over Thanksgiving, along with a substantial snowfall, and the furnaces are now cranking away, even as the WalMart shoppers commenced their first mad tramplings of the season.
Natural gas, methane, which powers half the home furnaces in America, is a separate story from oil, of course. We can't import it like oil because it requires special pressurized tanker ships and dedicated port facilities -- of which there are currently only two in America -- and getting it here by those means even if the facilities were in place would be very un-cheap. We are way past all-time peak natural gas production in the US, meanwhile, and desperately making up for it by importing all we can from Canada, which is compelled to sell us as much as we demand under the NAFTA rules, despite the fact that they are way past their own all-time gas production peak and desperately need the stuff to process the tar sands of Alberta into oil (which China has contracted to buy a great deal of). You may have noticed, too, that Canada is a northerly nation with significant home heating needs of its own.
The price of natural gas is back to where it was just after Katrina-and-Rita : about $11.50, which is roughly 400 percent higher than it was as recently as 2002. Even so, we've barely seen the effects of that yet and the prospects are that it will go much higher before this winter is over. The longstanding assumption that home heating comes cheap will go down hard in this country. The homebuilding industry is going to get crushed. They will be stuck with tens of thousands of already-built spec houses in the larger-than-3000 square foot range, with great rooms, lawyer foyers, and other heat-sucking features, and they will have tens of thousands more of them under construction or tagging close behind in the permitting process. Practically all of them will be located in the remotest suburban asteroid belts, since the closer-in ones have already been built on.
Add to this predicament the number of people already living in houses like this who may be desperately looking to get out of an increasingly ominous trap, perhaps compounded by additional problems with "creative" mortgages that have left them leveraged above their eyeballs. Some of them will be looking at heating bills as high as their monthly mortgage payments around Christmas time. If enough of them panic this winter, the housing bubble, which is already deflating, will simply fly to tatters and shreds. The high cost of home heating is the IED of the housing bubble.
American economists will be shocked to discover that the housing bubble had virtually become the US economy, and that all their bullshit about "productivity," and the "consumer sector," and the idiotic metrics that they employed to rationalize their errors, will no longer conceal the fundamental unhealth of our collective behavior. The lack of new mortgages alone will throw the financial world into a fugue of affliction, and the experience will be especially severe for the pension groups who tossed their capital into the black hole of derivatives trading.
The tragic part of all this is that we have become such a foolish and craven people, so lost in our endless victory laps, incessant self-awards, and failures of attention, that we will deserve everything that reality throws at us. We are past the point of being unworthy of our own history, so maybe we ought to stop pretending to celebrate it.
Bonus Essay: An excellent new piece by our Wall Street correspondent Dmitry Podborits, with special attention to that notorious ass, Forbes Magazine columnist Peter Huber.
November 21, 2005
Should we stay or should we go? In Iraq?
Neither Jack Murtha, the congressman who set the cable news networks afire this weekend, or Frank Rich, the lead dog on the New York Times Sunday op-ed page, mentioned the word oil once. I only mention it myself because it would be nice if we could have a coherent public discussion about staying or going in Iraq, and you can't do that without talking about the oil of the Middle East.
But it does illustrate how deep the national denial runs and how foggy the debate gets. Even poor George W. Bush seems to think we're in Iraq in order to turn the people into Jeffersonian democrats, so the only issue for his opponents is whether that is possible or not.
Maybe we ought to ask: what happens to the oil supply of the Crusader West when none of its representatives maintains a garrison in the Middle East? I use the term Crusader not to be cute, but to remind you how Europe and America are viewed by many people of the Middle East. They don't like us. They have a longstanding beef with us. Some of them would like to punish us.
America is leading the current crusade because we are the society most desperately addicted to oil, and the Middle East is where two-thirds of the world's remaining oil lies. The one thing that we apparently cannot bring ourselves to talk about is our addiction itself. The commuters whizzing around the edge cities and metroplexes of this land probably got a big charge out of Congressman Murtha's anti-war blast taking over drive-time radio on Friday. I wonder if they thought about how it might affect their commuting.
This whole spectacle -- both the inept war itself and our debate about it here at home -- is particularly shameful for the official opposition, my party, the Democrats, because we could be talking about the so-called elephant-in-the-room, namely how we live in America and the tragic choices we've made, and the things we might do to change that -- but the party leadership is too brain-dead or craven to do that. As long as we don't, we're going to be wrassling a tarbaby in the Middle East.
Unless an anti-war opposition has a plan to withdraw from the project of suburban sprawl, we're going to have to keep soldiers in Iraq, if not in the cities, then out in desert bases guarding the oil works and keeping planes ready to fly in case some al-Zarqawi-type maniac mounts a coup in Saudi Arabia. It would certainly be legitimate for the Democratic party to oppose the idea that we can continue to be crippled by car-dependency, or that we ought to keep subsidizing that way of life -- which Vice-president Cheney called "non-negotiable." We'd better negotiate that or somebody else is going to negotiate it for us, and that is exactly what they are doing with IED's in Iraq and elsewhere.
But without that part of the argument, the debate in congress and on the airwaves is just stupid, because we've left ourselves no real choice.
November 14, 2005
Years ago, President Nixon nominated a legal nonentity named G. Harold Carswell for a seat on the supreme court. Derided by the newspaper columnists as "mediocre," Carswell was defended by a conservative Nebraska senator, Roman Hruska, who said, memorably: "There are a lot of mediocre people in America who ought to be represented."
Now Hruska has been reincarnated in Senator Charles ("Chuck") Grassley of Iowa, who said the following a few days ago:
"You know what? What makes our economy grow is energy. And Americans are used to going to the gas tank (sic), and when they put that hose in their, uh, tank, and when I do it, I wanna get gas out of it. And when I turn the light switch on, I want the lights to go on, and I don't want somebody to tell me I gotta change my way of living to satisfy them. Because this is America, and this is something we've worked our way into, and the American people are entitled to it, and if we're going improve (sic) our standard of living, you have to consume more energy."
Like the true-blue mediocre Americans of the Nixon era, American consumers (as we like to call ourselves) have the representative they deserve today in Senator Grassley. He expresses perfectly the dominant thought out there, which is as close to being not-a-thought as any thought can be. And this kind of proto-crypto-demi-thought is exactly what is going to lead this country into a world of hardship.
Instead of preparing the public for changing circumstances that will inexorably require different behavior on our part, our leaders are setting the public up to defend a way of living that can't continue for practical reasons. The question remains: are our leaders doing this out of cynicism or stupidity, or some other reason that is hard to determine?
Cynicism would mean that they know exactly what the score is with the global energy situation and our predicament in relation to it, and don't trust the public to deal with the truth. Two weeks ago, I was on a speaking program in Dallas with investment banker Matthew Simmons, author of Twilight in the Desert, an alarming book about the state of the Saudi Arabian oil industry. I asked Matt what he has encountered the time or two that he has had an audience with George W. Bush. Apparently, the president's reaction to Simmons' message (which is that we are in big trouble) is a kind of curious incomprehension, as in the old expression, is that so?
Personally, I don't believe that Mr. Bush or the people around him do not understand that oil production worldwide has about topped out, and that whatever oil is left belongs mostly to other people who don't like us very much. But public acceptance of this reality would mean the end of many illusions supposedly crucial to our national life, most particularly that we can continue to be an easy motoring society, and continue running an economy based on its usufructs.
But the psychology of previous investment is a curious thing. It compounds itself insidiously, and now we not only suffer from our misinvestments in an infrastructure for daily life that has no future, but we also suffer from the political investment in continuing to pretend that everything is okay. That is, if Mr. Bush went on TV tomorrow and told the public we have a problem, the public would want to know why they weren't told sooner, and why they were not directed to some purposeful adaptive behavior, and Mr. Bush's team, the Republican party, would be discredited for failing to do so.
While I doubt that the President and his posse are too dim to comprehend the energy trap we're in, there certainly is plenty of plain stupidity in the rest of our elected leadership, of which Senator Grassley's remarks are Exhibit A. To be more precise, actually, Grassley's statement displays something closer to childishness than sheer stupidity. It comprises a set of beliefs or expectations that are unfortunately widespread in our culture, namely, that we should demand a particular outcome because we want it to be so. This is exactly how children below the age of reason think, in their wild egocentricity, and it is the hallmark of mental development to grow beyond that kind of thinking. But the force of advertising and other inducements to fantasy are so overwhelming in everyday American life that they may be obstructing the development of a huge chunk of the population, something that becomes worse each year, as proportionately more adults fail to grow up mentally. This state-of-mind is made visible in Las Vegas, our national monument to the creed that people should get whatever they want.
What I wonder is: when will my fellow citizens discover that their thinking and their behavior are unworthy of their history? That we are entering a time when these things simply aren't good enough, aren't enough to meet the challenges that reality now presents. Or are we too far gone? It's possible that we are. After all, life is tragic, meaning that happy outcomes are not guaranteed and that people who forget that usually come to grief.
November 7, 2005
The American public's failure to pay attention reached supernatural levels this week as our mass media gloated over falling gasoline prices -- down 24 cents, average, to pre-hurricane levels. The news media took this to mean that all the end-of-the-summer trouble is over with and things can now get back to normal, including especially an economy based on trade in suburban houses.
What they failed to notice is this: since the hurricanes shredded our Gulf of Mexico oil and gas capacity, Europe has been sending us 2 million barrels of crude oil and "refined product" a day from its collective strategic petroleum reserve. The "refined product" includes 800,000 barrels of gasoline, plus diesel, aviation, and heating fuel. Meanwhile, US domestic production has fallen to around 4 million barrels of conventional crude a day. America uses close to 22 million barrels of oil a day. Bottom line: post-hurricane, total imports have accounted for 80 percent of America's oil consumption..
Now, the important part of all this is that last week the International Energy Agency (IEA), Europe's energy security watchdog, declared that it would now end the 2 million barrel a day shipments to the US. Not because they are hateful meanies, but because, after all, it is Europe's strategic reserve and they can't sell it all to us because, well, some strategic emergency might come up for them, too.
It will take a few weeks for the last of Europe's tankers to offload supplies and for the various fuels to work their way through the US fuels retail system. With US production and refining still crippled, we can look forward to watching the price of gasoline, heating oil, diesel and aviation fuel kick back up through Thanksgiving and on into the heart of the Christmas shopping season. At the same time, homeowners will be getting their first substantial heating bills of the season.
This will be very bad news to the guys in charge. The Hooverization of George W. Bush will resume and accelerate.
Meanwhile, the new uprising of Islamic youth in France shows no sign of letting up and, in fact, is growing in both intensity and venues. If it continues along the same upward arc, the authorities may soon start making martyrs out of the young car-bombers. The action could spread to Holland, England, and elsewhere across Europe. The potential for wider scale insurrection and systematic terror operations such as bombings is obviously huge. Anybody can get instruction in bomb-making off the Internet now. People and materials move easily over a united Europe with fewer border controls than in the old days.
Europe knows it can ill-afford antagonizing the Jihadi factions beyond its borders. With the North Sea oil fields depleting at rates as high as 20 percent a year, Europeans have little local production to fall back on if, say, regular tanker shipments of Middle Eastern oil through the Suez canal were to be interrupted for some reason. England's methane gas production is at especially alarming low levels.
Europe -- France and Germany in particular -- have enjoyed the luxury of laying back since 9/11 and allowing the US to rumble with the Islamic world, while the Europeans enjoyed a comfortable sense of moral superiority about their supposed peaceableness. Those pretenses seem to be reaching an end. So now that Europe has gallantly spent down its strategic petroleum reserve for our sake, it will be interesting to see how soon they may need it themselves.
I wouldn't venture to guess whether the young rioters of France are getting help and encouragement from somewhere outside, but there certainly are enough Jihadi professionals and cheerleaders on the sidelines to support this new frontal action in Old Europe. It is going to be an interesting holiday season all around the western world.
October 31, 2005
The cry across the land grows increasingly shrill: "THEY LIED TO US!"
For going on three years, the American public, especially on the political left, has been complaining that the Iraq War was some kind of a shuck-and-jive. The Bush government pulled the wool over everybody's eyes. They ran a vicious propaganda operation. We were fooled by all those fairy tales about WMDs, Saddam and Osama, and African radioactive yellowcake.
Now, through the fog of the Valerie Plame affair and the indictment of Scooter Libby, the cry is reaching a crescendo: "THEY LIED TO US!"
Being a Democrat myself, and therefore nominally in opposition to Bush-and-Cheneyism, one has to contend with all sorts of embarrassing nonsense emanating from one's own side. In Sunday's New York Times op-ed section, for instance, Nicholas Kristoff wrote: "Mr. Cheney, we need a stiff dose of truth." I'm sorry to tell you this Nick (and the rest of my homies), but what Jack Nicholson's character said in that court martial movie some years back still applies: you can't stand the truth.
If the American public could stand the truth, we would stop calling it the Iraq War and rename it the War to Save Suburbia. Of all the things that Bush and Cheney have said over the last six years, the one thing the Democratic opposition has not challenged is the statement that "the American way of life is not negotiable." They're just as invested in it as everybody else. The Democrats complain about the dark efforts by Bush and Cheney to cook up a rationale for the war. Guess what? The Democrats desperately need something to oppose besides the truth. If they would shut up about WMDs for five minutes and just take a good look around, they'd know exactly why this war started.
When the American people, Democrat and Republican both, decided to build a drive-in utopia based on incessant easy motoring and massive oil dependency, who lied to them? When tens of millions of Americans bought McHouses thirty-four miles away from their jobs in Boston, Atlanta, Minneapolis, and Dallas, who lied to them? When American public officials adopted the madness of single-use zoning and turned the terrain of this land into a tragic crapscape of strip malls on six-lane highways, who lied to them? When American school officials decided to consolidate all the kids in gigantic centralized facilities serviced by fleets of yellow buses that ran an average of 150,000 miles per year per school, who lied to them? When Americans trashed their public transit and railroad system, who lied to them? When Americans let WalMart gut Main Street, who lied to them? When Bill and Hillary Clinton bought a suburban villa in farthest reaches of northern Westchester County, New York, who lied to them?
You want truth, Progressive America? Here's the truth: the War to Save Suburbia entailed an unavoidable strategic military enterprise. Saving Suburbia required that the Middle East be pacified or at least stabilized, because two-thirds of the world's remaining oil is there (and in case you haven't figured this out by now, Suburbia runs on oil, and the oil has to be cheap or we couldn't afford to run it). The three main oil-producing countries in the Middle East, going from west-to-east are Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran. We had serious relationship problems with all of them at various times, and they with each other, leading at frequent intervals to a lot of instability in that region, and consequently trouble for us trying to run Suburbia on cheap oil (which they sold us in large quantities).
After nineteen religious maniacs from the Middle East, mostly Arabs (though unaffiliated officially with any state in their actions) flew planes into our skyscrapers and a big government building, we had to kick someone's ass. We decided to start by kicking the ass of Afghanistan, where one particular mischievous maniac, Mr. bin Laden, had set up operations connected with 9/11. It wasn't enough. We never could find Mr. bin Laden, Afghanistan wasn't really in the Middle East, and whatever else they were, the Afghans weren't Arabs. We had to find somebody else's ass to kick to reinforce the idea that religious maniacs unaffiliated with any particular state could not pull off lethal stunts like 9/11 without bringing substantial pain down on their own home places. To put it plainly, we had to kick some Arab ass. We picked Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Not because he had anything to do with 9/11-- which we couldn't pin on any Muslim nation -- but because Saddam's Baathist regime was Arab, and the same general religious brand as the guys who did 9/11, Sunni Muslim, and because Saddam had already proven to be a freelance mischievous maniac quite in his own right over the years, worth getting rid of, and most of all (from a strategic point-of-view) because Iraq was the perfect place geographically to open a US police station in the Middle East. It was right between those two other troublemakers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and setting up an American military presence between them, it was hoped, would moderate and influence their behavior, and discourage them from doing anything to interfere with the indispensable supplies of oil that we desperately required to run our beloved, non-negotiable Suburbia. It was even hoped, by a band of extreme idealists in the US Government, that in the process of setting up a military presence in Iraq, we could convert this troubled, fractious nation into a peaceful, cohesive, beneficent democracy, establishing a shining example, blah, blah. . . . But such is the nature of idealism.
I apologize for taking two long paragraphs to tell you the true origins of the War to Save Suburbia, but it was, after all, only two paragraphs, and the truth is sometimes not so simple. The American people have gotten exactly the war that they bargained for. The outstanding obvious question is not by what wicked and recondite means the War to Save Suburbia got started, but how come once started, we did such a poor job of resolving it, specifically why, after nearly three years, our vaunted technological mastery couldn't get the electricity running more than a few hours a day in Baghdad, why we let squads of redneck moron enlisted personnel beat up on prisoners and videotape their own antics, and why we can't even get the oil equipment in good enough shape so the Iraqis can sell us the oil we still need to run our non-negotiable way of life?
So, as a card-carrying Democrat and as a Progressive who would like to see his country successfully adapt to the changing realities of the world, I propose we stop making ourselves ridiculous by whining about being lied to, because we've only been lying to ourselves. We walked into the War to Save Suburbia with, as the old saying goes, our eyes wide shut.
October 24, 2005,
Readers of my stuff and audience members at my college blabs have been complaining lately that I wrote The Long Emergency as a wish-fulfillment fantasy because I hate suburbia. So perhaps it's a good time for me to clarify my thoughts on suburbia.
First, we need to recognize its origins. Even the Romans had suburbs, and the wish to inhabit the borderlands (to borrow John Stilgoe's term) of the largest cities is not a new thing. But in America the pattern evolved to an extent never before imagined. America's cities emerged hand-in-hand with industrialism, and by the mid-1800s the industrial city was regarded as undesirable. As soon as the convulsion of the Civil War was over, railroad suburbs were created for the very well-off, and systems for designing them were innovated by the likes of Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, creators of New York's Central Park. There were very few of these special places, and they formed the basis of what would be known as the American Dream.
The idea behind these suburbs was simple and straightforward: country life as the antidote to the horror of the industrial city, with its moiling slums, its noise, congestion, bad air, disease, and obnoxious industrial operations. One could access the city by day for business and be back in a rural villa for dinner thanks to the railroad.
The suburb of the streetcar era was an elaboration of this pattern for a growing upper-middle class (and the streetcar era was relatively brief). It allowed a finer grain of suburban development because the stops could be much closer together.
The Model T Ford was introduced in 1907 and built on assembly lines in 1913, which made them cheap and affordable. When the disruption of the First World War was over in 1918, the automobile permitted an extenstion of the suburbs far beyond (and between) the streetcar lines. The great boom of the 1920s was largely a result of all this activity. This project was interrupted by the Great Depression and the Second World War, and then furiously resumed when the war was over. Up until the 1970s, suburbia was a kind of accessory to America's manufacturing economy. But as industrial production moved overseas, the creation of suburbia itself insidiously replaced it as the engine of the US economy.
This brings us to where we are today, with an economy driven by a land development pattern and a system for delivering it that is hugely destructive of terrain and civic life. Since it depends utterly on reliable supplies of cheap oil, we can assert that it has dubious prospects as both an economic enterprise and as a living arrangement. The obdurate refusal to recognize its limitations begins to have tragic overtones for our society.
Having directed so much of our post-war wealth to constructing the infrastructures of suburban everyday life, we are now trapped in a psychology of previous investment that makes it impossible for us to imagine letting go of it. This is expressed in Dick Cheney's tragic phrase that the American way of life is non-negotiable. Now, circumstances will negotiate it for us.
It is true that I hate what the suburbs have done to my country. But the assualt on our landscape and the withering of our civic life was an obvious evil before the specter of peak oil signaled an absolute end of suburbia. What I certainly despise as much as suburbia itself is the stupid defense of it by people who ought to know better, such as columnists for the New York Times. I also believe that this stupid defense will continue and spread and become a tremendous, tragic exercise in futility for a people who could be putting their minds to a much better purpose in finding other means to carry on the larger project of civilization.
October 17, 2005
When the Museum of Bad Ideas is built by Steve Wynn in Las Vegas (designed by Frank Gehry), surely one of its remote galleries will contain this week's cover story in the New York Times Sunday Magazine about the suburban homebuilding racket titled "Chasing Ground." The story focuses on one of the nation's leading large production builders, the Toll Brothers, based in Philadelphia, and "ground" is their own cute phrase for the parcels of meadow and cornfield that they magically convert into suburban housing subdivisions all over the nation.
The Times brings its usual magisterial lack of critical thinking to the subject. Among the conclusions: that the suburban sprawl housing bubble will continue indefinitely into the future, and that the price of houses will continue to rise, probably forever, too.
"Indeed , Toll seemed certain that firms like his -- with an expertise at finding and developing land -- would become increasingly successful. The company expects to grow by 20 percent for the next two years and 15 percent annually after that."
Philosophically, the story is grounded in Times columnist David Brooks's concept that suburbia is a good thing because people seem to like it. But it's the Times's ignorance of practical matters that's really breathtaking. The nation's oil predicament is barely mentioned (and obviously only as an editorial afterthought, since the story was no doubt filed before Katrina and Rita shredded production in the Gulf of Mexico). Anyway, the issue is cavalierly dismissed. Missing altogether is America's even more dire predicament over natural gas, which is used to heat half the houses in America and 99 percent of the brand new ones. Since the story focuses on large luxury houses over 3500 square feet, featuring cathedral ceilings and yawning lawyer foyers, you'd think the question of heating these behemoths might arise, but no. The price of natural gas has quadrupled since 2002 and is still going up.
But it's the story's willingness to embrace uncritically the Toll Brothers' credo of reckless and destructive greed that is most amazing
"What happens when New Jersey reaches build-out? 'We've been trying to build it out, but we can't get our hands on it,' [Toll] said. 'We could sell every square foot that we could build on. I mean, anything within 15 minutes of Interstate 78 could be built and sold. Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton, all the way to New York City. And it's all sitting there."
The assumption, clearly, is that America will be a happily car-crazed society forever and that nothing might interfere with that. The interstates will keep humming along. The consumer sector will keep generating high-paying management jobs. The "boomburbs" of Arizona and Nevada, in particular, will continue to expand and thrive.
Here's the real dope on the situation. The big corporate production home builders, including the Toll Brothers, are selling their own stock like mad lately because they realize that the game is over, that they are in a twilight industry. (The Times left this out.) Home heating costs are going to crush the public this winter, and even the supposedly well-off in big new houses are going to feel the pain, because the truth is that many of them are leveraged up to their eyeballs to be where they are, and supernatural utility bills will push them over the edge just when the national bankruptcy laws have been revised to make wiggling out of debt much more difficult and punative. The price of gasoline will keep ratcheting upward from where it is now like a medieval torture device, and will combine with home heating costs to make the public's collective head pop like a winter melon.
Meanwhile, the mortgage industry, a mutant monster organism of lapsed lending standards and arrant grift on the grand scale, is going to implode like a death star under the weight of these non-performing loans and drag every tradable instrument known to man into the quantum vacuum of finance that it creates.
And is there anything to be said on behalf of the mutilated American rural landscape itself? Such as: might we actually need it to feed ourselves when the great Cheez Doodle sector of the economy craps out from a shortage of cheap fossil fuel "inputs?"
It's sad to see a once-great newspaper go through the motions of pretending to be intelligent.
I recommend this excellent essay by my excellent correspondent Dmitry Podborits:
ON DANGERS OF BEING AN INSECT WITH WINGS AND A MYSTERIOUS INSTANCE OF MASS MAILING
October 10, 2005
For the moment, it's back to business-as-usual for Easy-motoring Nation.
Yet 73 percent of oil from the Gulf of Mexico remains "shut in" or unavailable because of hurricane damage, and about 63 percent of natural gas production. Prior to the hurricanes, 24 percent of the nation's non-imported supply of crude came from the gulf. There are also eight refineries still shut down representing 2.1 million barrels a day of refined product capacity (900,000 barrels a day of gasoline, 500,000 of diesel and heating fuel, and 200,000 of jet fuel).
For the past month, the European Union has been sending two million barrels of crude a day to the US out of its own emergency reserves. The original deal was made in the brief lull between Katrina and Rita. It took a while for those tankers to get here. The EU imports over 15 million barrels of oil a day itself, somewhat more than the US did in pre-hurricane times.
The Federal government has loaned the oil companies crude from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The SPR contained 700 million barrels of crude when the hurricanes hit. The US uses 20 million barrels of oil a day, of which we produce altogether about seven million barrels ourselves. It is unclear how much oil is coming out of it now, but the last time a president tapped the SPR (Clinton) one million barrels a day were released.
These actions have beaten down the price of crude oil on the various futures markets. At the same time, gasoline pump prices have leveled off from the refinery squeeze. I doubt that the motoring public is driving a whole lot less. The commutes haven't magically gotten any shorter out in Dallas and Denver over the past month. The national fleet of SUVs has not been changed out either.
What's happening, therefore is that we have entered an eerie hiatus. Some band-aids have been applied to our oil and natural gas supply injuries and the bleeding seems to have stopped. But the truth is that our energy supplies are badly compromised and at the worst time of the year -- just as we slide into the home heating season. Here in the northeast, we have barely had to turn on the furnaces yet, but that will change in a week or two.
In the background of this scene, the global oil production peak lurks -- meaning that there does not seem to be any surplus production capacity anywhere in the world, including OPEC's big gun, Saudi Arabia. So all we have here in America is a temporary appearance of normality. When the furnaces go on, the WalMart aisles will be empty. If there is any reduction in car trips, it will be because Americans are making fewer visits to the Big Box stores. There will also be fewer trips out to visit the model homes in the new subdivisions.
Another unpleasant truth about the situation is that the US public wants to pretend that everything is okay as much as its leaders do. The public is not so much being misled as demanding that its leaders in government, business, and the news media continue a game of make-believe -- that we can still run a cheap oil economy without cheap oil.
October 3, 2005
I was way out in Calgary, Alberta, last week, the tar sands capital of western Canada. I was there to yak on camera for a CBC-sponsored documentary about suburbia, and the city itself proved to be a strange and interesting case of immersive delusional behavior.
Calgary started out, of course, as the railhead for western ranching and a jump-off for various gold rushes in the late 19th century. Now it has become an archetypal city of immense glass boxes in a sterilized center surrounded by an asteroid belt of beige residential subdivisions -- sort of what Rochester, New York, would be like if it had an economy. The vast suburbs ooze out onto the prairie to the east, along with their complements of strip malls, power centers, car dealerships, and fry-pits, and on the west they bump up against the foothills of the Rockies.
The real estate scene in Calgary is rip-roaring because newcomers are flooding in to work the tar sand angles. No doubt the tar sands will generate a lot of wealth in the years ahead. But those who think they will save western civilization from a Peak Oil clusterfuck are going to be very disappointed. We are not going to run the interstate highway system, Walt Disney World, and WalMart on the Canadian tar sands.
These days, a lot of people (including news reporters) are saying that the tar sands contain the equivalent of a trillion barrels of oil, which is just plain nonsense. It's more like the equivalent of 180 billion barrels -- with world consumption at 30 billion annually (do the math). But the word equivalent is tricky, too, because it's only the equivalent in volume, not in the cost of recovery, since the stuff does not flow out of the ground at room temperature like Texas sweet light crude. The process requires a huge up-front mining operation on top of everything else, conducted in a climate so cold that the 13-foot-diameter tires of giant dump trucks crack regularly. The Achilles heel of the operation is that it requires hundreds of millions of dollars a year worth of natural gas to melt the stiff goop out of the sand, and that Canada's natural gas supply is verging on depletion just as ours is. They'll have a gnarly choice in a few years: either heat their homes or power the tar sands operation.
Another catch is that even in the short term, the petroleum that is recovered is not going exclusively to the United States or even Canada. The Chinese have been very busily inking contracts for substantial gobs of it. Is George Bush going to send the 82nd airborne into Alberta to secure access to the tar sands?
But this blog entry is not really about the tar sands, it's about the expectations of the people working off of them, which is that they assume the easy motoring utopia will continue indefinitely and are madly busy building a suburban infrastructure for it to dwell in, even while Canadians themselves are now paying the equivalent of $4 US a gallon for the privilege to commute forty miles a day.
What's going on in Calgary, with new subdivisions of half-million dollar houses opening every month, is the North American tragedy in microcosm. Because every new suburban house built, every new Target store opened, every new parking lot paved, every highway widened will be a project in the service of a living arrangement with no future. It is a true madness that beats a path to historic tragedy.
And this is what you have to think about, wherever you live in the US or Canada: what kind of projects and proposals are moving right now in the permitting pipeline of your own municipal planning boards? Things waiting to be built in the next year or two. Chances are they're the same suburban furnishings we've been getting for half a century, in the latest state-of-the-art releases. Each one is a tragedy. Each one will carry us further into darkness.
How do you stop such suicidal behavior? Probably not by persuasion or exhortation. People change what they are doing when circumstances compel them to and not before. The American public barely even thinks about these things. The Sunday New York Times news section contained not one story this week bout the current state of oil-and-gas operations in the Gulf of Mexico. The fact is that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed more than 90 production platforms as well as pipelines and drilling rigs. The implications are so obvious and we are not getting them.
September 26, 2005,
Shouts of deliverance rang through the gallerias and subdivisions of Houston, while the picture of what happened off-shore remains murky. Rita might have spared the nation's fourth biggest metroplex, and most of the chemical-cracking infrastructure on-shore around it. But clawing up between Beaumont and Lake Charles, she cut a path through the densest concentration of offshore oil and gas rigs in the whole Gulf of Mexico. We don't know they all came through yet, or how the pipelines below the surface fared.
What happens next on the oil and gas markets -- and up-close in pump prices and home furnaces around the land -- will be an interesting story.
The combined fury of Katrina and Rita has obviously flattened whole communities in a large area. One outcome will be what is called "demand destruction," which means that the people who owned all those shredded homes, crushed cars, and flattened businesses will be using less oil in the months ahead. The catch is natural gas: the Gulf coastline is very temperate, even subtropical, and does not require much home heating. So, little demand for heating will have been affected, while the supply of natural gas has been cut twice in a month.
Half the houses in America are heated with natural gas and most of them are elsewhere than the Gulf Coast. On the markets, the price of gas is now heading north of $15 a unit (1000 cubic feet). It could easily hit $20 by Christmas, which would be about 700 percent higher than the price in 2002. Everyone in the non-Sunbelt is going to feel the pain this winter, and quite a few of the poor and infirm may freeze to death.
This is going to be a whole new kind of crisis for America and will set off a new kind of political fury. Both parties will get it in the neck but, of course, the Republicans led by the Bush White House will get it worse, because they are nominally in charge of things. There will be nothing they can do about the natural gas crisis. You can't get any significant amount more of it from overseas because it requires special tankers and terminals to receive it, and those terminals will not be built before the robins come back to Kalamazoo. The Democrats will have to prove that they don't deserve to join the Whigs in the Hall of Extinct Parties.
The political allegiance of the American public will be fully in play. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and we are likely to see the emergence of something new, perhaps something like the British National Party (BNP) which combines a very aggressive agenda on energy policy with overt fascism. The American people will be starved for action, too, and will be waiting for a man of action to embody their desperation. Let's hope that the characters who percolate out of this mess are not maniacs. The outrageously wealthy had better duck-and-cover -- the half-billion-dollar-CEOs, the $20-million-a-picture movie stars, perhaps even the relatively humble drivers of Hummers and Beemers. The sinking middle class will want to eat them.
Oil prices may hang back in the low 60s for a little while -- a combination of less driving, relief over the refinery situation in Houston, and some financial monkeyshines like shorting in the markets (perhaps by government-connected entities seeking to soften up futures prices). But the basic fact is that global oil supply and global demand are now so close that any loss of crude inputs anywhere is going to result in both spot shortages and higher prices. Right now, the supply crunch is being borne by third world countries. The catch there is that some of these third world countries are also oil-producing countries, like Indonesia and Nigeria, and the latter is in the process of falling into social anarchy, which will further impact the global supply. In any case, I don't expect oil prices in America to lay low for long. By Christmas, gasoline pump prices will have joined home heating prices in a vicious pincer around the neck of the non-rich classes.
The serious public conversation of our energy predicament has not begun, and when it does it will be too late. In the background of all this, an economy based on suburban sprawl and easy motoring is going to absolutely fall on its ass, and that means a much quicker end to the housing bubble than we might have expected a month ago. It might also lead to both the demise of the airline industry and the nationalization of what remains of it. It will certainly quash any remaining faith that such an economy can produce wealth, which is what the financial markets are based on, so look out below on Wall Street.
September 19, 2005
Take a good look at America around you now, because when we emerge from the winter of 2005 - 6, we're going to be another country. The reality-oblivious nation of mall hounds, bargain shoppers, happy motorists, Nascar fans, Red State war hawks, and born-again Krispy Kremers is headed into a werewolf-like transformation that will reveal to all the tragic monster we have become.
What we will leave behind is the certainty that we have made the right choices. Was it a good thing to buy a 3,600 square foot house 32 miles outside Minneapolis with an interest-only adjustable rate mortgage -- with natural gas for home heating running at $12 a unit and gasoline over $3 a gallon? Was it the right choice to run three credit cards up to their $5000 limit? Was I chump to think my pension from Acme Airlines would really be there for me? Do I really owe the Middletown Hospital $17,678 for a gall bladder operation that took forty-five minutes? And why did they charge me $238 for a plastic catheter?
All kinds of assumptions about the okay-ness of our recent collective behavior are headed out the window. This naturally beats a straight path to politics, since that is the theater in which our collective choices are dramatized. It really won't take another jolting event like a major hurricane or a terror incident or an H4N5 flu outbreak to take things over the edge -- though it is very likely that something else will happen. George W. Bush, and the party he represents, are headed into full Hooverization mode. After Katrina, nobody will take claims of governmental competence seriously.
The new assumption will be that when shit happens you are on your own. In this remarkable three weeks since New Orleans was shredded, no Democrat has stepped into the vacuum of leadership, either, with a different vision of what we might do now, and who we might become. This is the kind of medium that political maniacs spawn in. Something is out there right now, feeding on the astonishment and grievance of a whipsawed middle class, and it will have a lot more nourishment in the months ahead.
There are two things that the newspapers and TV Cable News outfits are not covering very well. One is that the Port of New Orleans is not functioning, with poor prospects for a quick recovery, and with it will go much of the Midwestern grain harvest. Another thing that has fallen off the radar screen is the damage done to the oil and gas infrastructure around the Gulf Coast, especially the onshore facilities for storing and transporting stuff, and for marshaling the crews and equipment to fix stuff. The US is going to run short of its customary supplies for a long time. The idea that these things will not affect an economy of ceaseless mobility is not realistic.
These serious problems on-the-ground are going to affect the more ephemeral elements floating around in the financial ether: the value of the dollar, the hazard in hedge funds, the credibility of institutions. By October, the hurricane season will be ending and the stock market crash season will be underway. It is hard to imagine that companies like WalMart really believe they will keep their profits up when their customers are paying twice as much as they did a year ago to heat their houses and fill their gas tanks.
Meanwhile, does anybody remember a place called Iraq? A bomb that killed thirty people was reported on page 12 of the Sunday New York Times. That's how important Iraq has become. But, I guess, a nation can hardly pay attention to a bullet in the foot when it has a sucking chest wound.
September 12, 2005,
The impediments to clear collective thinking about the problems we face were not washed away by Hurricane Katrina -- and may still be there after Hurricane Ophelia romps up the Atlantic coast later this week
One Big Thought making the rounds of the editorial pages is that "fuel efficiency" will be the cure-all for our energy predicament -- that if everybody could trade in his Ford Explorer for a Toyota Prius, life in the USA would just purr happily forward. This has been the position of the more metaphysical branches of the enviro sector, as personified by the Rocky Mountain Institute and its preposterous "hyper-car" project.
The truth is that it does not really matter whether the freeways are crammed full of SUVs or nimble hybrid cars. The problem is car-dependency and the infrastructure for daily living predicated on it, not the kind of vehicles we run. I have yet to hear one US senator of either party propose that part of the recent $300 billion highway bill ought to be redirected to rebuilding America's passenger rail system -- even after the bitter lesson of Katrina, which demonstrated that people who don't own cars can't get out of harm's way in this country.
Another Big Thought still clogging the collective imagination is the idea that if only we switch to "alternative fuels" we can run the interstate highway system, Disney World, and WalMart just like before. The country is full of people now who want gold stars for running their household car fleet on discarded Fry-Max oil from the local Dunkin Donuts. . . or on oil squeezed from hemp seeds. Notice that the premise of a drive-in society remains.
Now the scary part of this is that these ideas are coming generally from the smarter people in our society. The dumb ones are are praying for the Rapture, or waiting for the market to magically fix everything, or sitting around the suburbs of Houston oiling their riot guns in front of the Nascar telecast.
In the background, the US is chugging straight into the Christmas 2005 clusterfuck, which will consist of large numbers of citizens finding themselves financially crushed by the cost of heating their houses combined with the persistent high cost of fueling their cars for all the chores of daily life. More people may die in Chicago as a result of high heating costs this winter than were killed by Katrina on the Gulf Coast.
In the economic sector, the delusion persists that the US Economy will be "unaffected" by the massive losses entailed by Katrina (as the New York Times put it last week). We don't need no steenkin' Mississippi Reever sheeping terminals or oil refineries. It is hard to imagine what species of gnostic theology this line of thinking is predicated on. Or how the economic press figures that price inflation of all ordinary household goods will not shoot up when truckers are paying twice as much this year to move frozen fried chickens from Arkansas to Philadelphia -- not to mention the fact that the disposable income previously allocated to Blue Light Special shopping in the chain stores is now being blown out the tailpipes of people struggling to pay for their fifty-mile commutes.
The disruptions now underway will ramify whether further traumas occur this season or not -- more hurricanes, terrorist incidents, financial stumbles. People have been e-mailing me to ask if this is the beginning of The Long Emergency. I'm not a hundred percent sure myself, but you can see it from here.
September 6, 2005,
We've entered the blame-o-rama phase of Hurricane Katrina. I actually heard Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff sparring with NPR's Robert Siegal on the air last Thursday, and a more weasily performance than Chertoff's would be hard to find in any bureaucratic circle of hell. FEMA chief Michael Brown gave new dimension to the word "clusterfuck" by blocking private charity shipments of food and water into New Orleans and making the armed forces "work around" his agency in order to get anything done. And it was revealed yesterday that a navy hospital ship idled with empty beds off the Louisiana coast without orders while old people died slow deaths on the sidewalks outside the Convention Center.
There has already been one proposal for rebuilding the city, from Daniel Libeskind, whose plan for turning the World Trade Center site into the set for a German expressionist horror movie won the hearts and minds of the architectural mandarins in New York. Libeskind said that New Orleans should adopt a jazz theme. Wow! Maybe they should think about serving Creole food to go with it.
The actual tendency in practice, is to build back pretty much what was there before, because the insurance companies demand it. If a strip mall was washed away, then the insurer will only finance the rebuilding of a strip mall. This is most unfortunate, particularly for those places further east of New Orleans along the Gulf Coast, and a hundred miles inland, because they were composed primarily of suburban sprawl. If they rebuild along that template, they will do so in the face of strong signals from reality that the age of Easy Motoring is over. The romance of the car may be too great to overcome in Dixie.
We have as yet no word how the cluster of downtown skyscrapers in New Orleans proper fared, but there is a good chance that some of them will not survive the damage to their foundations. It would be a shame to rebuild priapic towers in a new era when the urban norm probably should not exceed seven stories (the walkable limit for buildings with stairs). All our big cities will be contracting in the years ahead, as the electric grid becomes less reliable, and the demographic trend of the past two hundred years reverses, with populations shifting back to small towns and agricultural regions. It was interesting to see, finally, that the driest place in New Orleans was the French Quarter, the original settlement.
The poor neighborhoods were composed largely of shotgun shacks, little post-war brick bunkers, and government-built housing projects. Virtually all of them appear to be ruined. I'd guess that few were insured, and the insurers will probably try to label it "flood damage," which generally exempts them from paying out. The population that inhabited them is now dispersed, and some of those who feel that they lost everything may not return. These neighborhoods will be blank slates. But they will also remain low-lying in relation to a coastline that is losing its wetland buffers against an ocean that is seeing a cycle of more violent storms, probably due to global warming. Anything new built in these wards will not be insurable.
Meanwhile momentous things are swirling in the background. The price of gasoline may retreat sometime in two to six weeks, but I doubt it will fall below the $2.50 range again. In fact, having gone way above the psychological barrier of $3.00, the gasoline retailers may resist falling below that. There have been no new oil refineries built in the US since the late 1970s. There will be no new ones built now, despite the crunch on refined "product." Why? Because the oil companies understand that they are in a twilight industry and refineries represent huge investments in future activity, which the corporations correctly perceive will be shrinking as global oil production passes peak.
The biggest shock to the public lies a couple of months ahead when the cost of natural gas for home heating (50 percent of the dwellings in America) combines with stubbornly higher pump prices to whap them upside the head. Natural gas at around $12.00 is now many times what it cost as recently as 2003 ($3.00). A lot of Americans will be shivering this winter and some of the weak, old, and poor will die as a result.
President Bush has already taken a hit on his appointees' Chinese Fire Drill response to disaster management. But the toll from the energy problems the whole nation faces will be more insidious. Strapped for cash from filling their gas tanks, unable to buy Christmas presents at WalMart, and huddled around space heaters, the public will be wondering why they were so poorly prepared.
Thursday Sept 1, 2005
Posting a little out of phase due to Labor Day holiday, and will return on Tuesday, but some things worth commenting on about the aftermath of Katrina.
People are emailing me to ask is this the start of the Long Emergency?
It is certainly an event of great significance. The effects of damage to our oil and gas infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico is already being felt in rocketing gasoline prices and a burgeoning supply crisis, especially in the southeast. The home heating situation is becoming a crisis before householders even turn their furnaces on. Half the houses in America are heated with natural gas, which is now clocking in at $12 a unit (1000 cubic feet). It was $3 a unit in 2003. It could go to $16. Connect the dots.
The crisis at the gasoline pumps will thunder through the economy, most ominously in the bubble suburban sprawl-building sector, which adds up to over 40 percent of business activity in the US. How many people will now contemplate buying a new McHouse 32 miles outside Atlanta (or Dallas, or Kansas City, or Washington), and what will happen in the production home-building industry as a result?
What will happen in the financial sector when the no-money-down-interest-only mortgage racket ceases to generate ever more hallucinated tradable debt? What will happen to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two federal governments sponsored entities at the center of that racket, and to their sponsor, whose treasury certificates are held by nervous foreign investors? And finally what happens to a dollar hammered by high energy costs and repatriated treasury certificates?
Turning to New Orleans. . . viewing the hurricane damage on TV, it is hard not to conclude that most of the building stock in the city is irreparably ruined. One can't help feeling that the city we knew and love is really gone forever. Some kind urban settlement will remain, but New Orleans' downtown of hotel towers and megastructures may be the first comprehensive ruin of the Modernist city. Much of the stuff just outside New Orleans, and along the Gulf Coast, was largely post-war suburban fabric -- collector boulevards with their complements of fry pits, malls, muffler shops and subdivisions. We'd hope that the states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana will not undertake to rebuild them they way they were. The era of easy motoring is over now, and to rebuild suburban sprawl would be a double tragedy.
Of the desperate behavior seen in New Orleans this week, I don't have much to say right now. The significance of it is largely self-evident. The suffering of the people stuck in the Superdome is very impressive, though. One wonders at the failure of FEMA to airdrop water and food to those stuck on highway overpasses and in high-rise buildings such as CharityHospital. On the agenda next, I'm sorry to say: cholera and typhoid fever. I'll be back here on Tuesday.
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