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Clusterfuck Nation Archives
June 26, 2006
The energy debate around the US has taken a definite turn this spring, since oil prices stepped back up to the $70 zone, but the thinking around these issues has only gotten worse. That's because there is only one idea dominating the public discussion: how to keep our cars running by other means, at all costs.
We're certainly hearing more about energy from government and business. President Bush made the "addicted to oil" confession in January. Chevron and British Petroleum (or Beyond Petroleum, as BP wishfully styles itself) have both run ad campaigns acknowledging the oil-and-gas crunch, and the mainstream media has joined the campaign to pimp for bio-fuels. But all the talk is driven by the assumption that we will keep running WalMart, Disney World, and the interstate highway system just like we do now, only with other "alternative" liquid fuels.
The more naive members of the environmental sector have been suckered into this line of thinking, too -- especially the college kids, who imagine we can just divert x-amount of acreage from Cheez Doodle production and re-direct it to crops devoted to making liquid fuels for Honda Elements. They need to get some alt.brains.
Nobody is talking about the much more likely prospect that we'll have to reduce motoring drastically, and make other arrangements for virtually every aspect of daily life, from how we get food, to how we do business, to how we inhabit the landscape. The more we resist thinking about the larger agenda for comprehensively changing daily life, beyond our obsession with cars, the more likely we will veer into hardship, political trouble, and violence.
The reason for this collective failure of imagination seems pretty obvious: the older generations are hopelessly vested and invested in the hard "assets" of suburbia, which they feel they cannot walk away from; and the younger generation is too demoralized by the fear that they will never be vested in any assets (while many seek refuge from thinking at all in the electronic sensory distractions of video games and Ipods, or else in irony and other forms of manufactured alienation).
If I was a kid now, I'd find a lot more to rebel against than what we faced in the 1960s: the draft and the insipid program of Levittown. I'd rebel against a generation of adults selling the future for obscene pay packages. I'd rebel against everything from the mendacious nonsense of Rem Koolhaas to the profligate stupidity of Nascar. I'd want to eat Donald Trump for lunch (and set free the wolverine that lives on his head.) I'd utterly reject the false commoditized reality and set out to discover the world. I'd get busy building a society with a plausible future (and be real excited about it).
Sometimes I wonder if we just enjoy lying to ourselves. Sometimes I think: if this nation could somehow harness the energy in all the smoke it blows up its own ass, we'd all be able to drive to heaven in Cadillac Escalades.
Forgive me for starting at the end (of my West Coast excursion), but it's the most amusing part. So, they load us on United 302 (Chicago to Albany) and we push back from the jetway, and about ten minutes later I notice that we are taxiing past the "C" Concourse again, that is, we've circled around the whole airport. Okay, well, O'Hare is a weird operation.
So I sink back into the newsprint fog of the fifth newspaper I've read that day and after another ten minutes I notice we're rolling past the "C" Concourse yet again. It's also real hot in the plane because it's 90 degrees outside and the AC isn't running too well. The other passengers are getting grousy.
So, we finally stop driving around the fucking airport and apparently get on line for takeoff. Only it looks like a staggeringly long line, going forward and around the corner and up the tarmac, forever. "Kcccchhhhhhh," static over the PA as the pilot gets on the microphone. "Uh, folks...." (Whenever they start with that patronizing salutation, you know you're in for the business.) "Uh, folks, it seems to be rush hour out here. They've got us at about, oh, twenty-five or thirty for takeoff..." Groans up and down the aisle. "...and we'll give you an update as soon as we have more information, Kccchhhhhhhhh."
Okay, we're already a half an hour late for takeoff, and everybody's roasting in the cabin. I'm thinking, the pilot said, "It's rush hour out here." Wait a minute. I don't get it. Rush hour? Like a whole bunch of planes just showed up at O'Hare unscheduled? Coming and going? Nobody was informed about it ahead of time? They're all...surprised? Like there's some kind of airplane freeway ramp out there feeding onto O'Hare, and for some reason a whole lot of planes just appeared? And now the runways are clogged with planes that nobody expected or knew about...?
I mention this because this is the kind of mendacious bullshit that Americans are subjected to constantly. No wonder we can't think about public affairs anymore.
Okay, so I spent nine days on the West Coast, starting in Los Angeles, Pasadena, actually. Let's just say that part of the United States is absolutely hopeless. It consists largely of a roadway hierarchy and whatever's left is apportioned to valet parking. It has no future. The poor oblivious denizens of the place don't question their predicament. The whole sordid scene is, well, tragic, and I'm sorry, but let's pass over it for now.
So, eventually I got up to Seattle, which is trying to be a city, like a real twentieth century city -- did I say twentieth? Well, there's the problem, right there. They're lining the avenues with condo skyscrapers. Big mistake. Skyscrapers are not going to be cool in the twenty-first century as we run into problems with the electricity supply. Oh, well. The other problem with Seattle is this: the topography is really demoralizing. The hills are so steep that I got shin splints from walking around the place for one day. Now, if the people who lived there and run place had any sense, they would have cable cars or some damn thing traversing the hills every ten blocks. Then, you could walk the contours comfortably and get up the elevations okay.
But they don't do that. They probably had them ninety years ago (and, in fact, I saw framed photos of Seattle's cable cars in the Town Hall auditorium lobby where I gave a blab, so I know for a fact they did). But apparently they forgot how to do that. So now, obviously, everybody brings their car downtown because it's impossible to walk around comfortably, even if you're in shape, and Seattle has become one of the worst traffic clusterfucks in the nation.
Eventually I got up to Vancouver on Amtrak -- a very comfortable ride along the shore of Puget Sound past flocks of eagles and all kinds of natural beauty -- and when I went through customs at the Vancouver central station, I was pulled aside and directed into a grim little room with a female interogation officer. I had a New York DWAI traffic conviction dating from 1997, and did I know that this made me undesirable for entry into that fortress of rectitude, Canada? Well, gosh, no.... Then the lady officer said -- I swear she did -- that she could prevent me from entering if she had been in a bad mood. But instead, she gave me printed instructions for how to apply to the Canadian consulate back home for a document proving I had been rehabilitated (from a misdemeanor). It was interesting to note that Canadian border policy depends on the particular mood of individual customs officers.
Vancouver is a very appealing site for a city, but it is in the process of being utterly pranged (as they like to say) by massive hyper-mega-overdevelopment. And anyway, circumstances had me more-or-less house-sitting an old college friend's home way up in the hills of suburban West Vancouver, where it required fifty dollars in cab fares to get something to eat. Enough said.
I took a spectacular ferry ride, on an extravagantly comfortable (and cheap: $8.50Ca) vessel over to little Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, on the big island out in the Pacific. Victoria, too, was on its way toward a good self-pranging, but there is a visible residue of the pre-pranged city that is scaled comfortably and possesses great natural beauty. I met a lot of nice people there, and they didn't seem disturbed that nine years ago I had incurred a misdemeanor conviction for DWAI.
The rest was that torturous return journey home via O'Hare, which I already told you about. One final note, however, to the hotel chains of North America: please lose those fucking twenty-pound duvets you're putting on all the beds. They're too heavy. They're too hot, even with the AC on. I hardly slept the whole time I was away. No wonder I'm cranky.
After sitting on airplanes for two days,
like a mummy in a casket, I took the Amtrak train from Bellingham, Washington,
down to Seattle. It was an extravagant relief from harsh inanities of
aviation. The train cars were new, clean and luxurious, very unlike the
beat-up rolling stock on my usual Hudson River line (Albany to New York
City). The seats were better than first-class airplane seats. There was
a cafe car serving up hot beverages. The conductors were cheerful, as
if they actually liked what they were doing.
The view out the (clean) windows was supernaturally
beautiful. Loveliness everywhere. The tracks ran along Puget Sound most
of the way. Dark fir-covered mountains spilled down to rocky bays where,
here and there, people were digging -- for clams, I supposed. I saw three
bald eagles along the way. Also scores of some kind of stately, long-necked
wading bird with a vivid black-and-white blaze on its cheeks. At other
times we passed through farm fields and orchards. White and pink foxgloves
grew wild along tracks most of the way along with yellow broom and phlox.
As we got closer to Seattle, you saw more
people in the bays, clamming, running their dogs, hugging their girlfriends.
Almost all of them waved at the train as we passed, as if to say, "Notice
how glad we are to be here!"
When the train got to the station in downtown
Seattle, it just stopped and we got off, without ceremony or painful delay.
There was no standing around waiting to be squeezed out of tube, the way
they unload an airplane. I caught a taxi outside the station door, and
five minutes later I was at my hotel.
This line along the Pacific Northwest corridor
is one of very few extant passenger rail lines in the whole USA. There
is only one train a day each way between Seattle and Vancouver, Canada
and back -- on which Bellingham is a stop. The people in charge would
probably just as soon not even run those trains.
But why Americans do not demand to have railroad service
all over the nation is one of the abiding mysteries of these crack-up
years. What a pleasure it was to travel on that train yesterday. What
an amenity it would be if people could travel that way between Cleveland
and Columbus, or Atlanta and Birmingham, or Dallas to Denver, or Albany
and Boston. What a drag it is struggling to get to the airport, getting
processed through like a piece of meat in a grinder, and then struggling
off to your destination once you land twenty or thirty miles outside the
city you've traveled to -- not to mention the alternative insanity of
driving a car three hundred miles, or more, whenever you have to go somewhere
in this moronic republic.
June 5, 2006
The New Urbanists met for their annual confab
in Providence over the weekend and I was there among them, as I have been
for thirteen years, because there is no other organization in America
that is doing more to remediate the fiasco of suburbia -- or, as I call
it, the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the
world. I have been telling college lecture audiences for a while
now that pretty soon the only urbanism will be the New Urbanism.
I am not being facetious.
This movement has been broadly misunderstood
over the past decade, especially by some of the major morons in the mainstream
media, such as David Brooks and John Tierney of The New York Times,
who repeatedly make the fatuous argument that suburbia must be okay because
Americans overwhelmingly choose to live in it. Well, that's nice. The
trouble, though David and John, is that suburbia is coming off the menu.
In a world of $70 oil and upward, suburbia is a dish that can no longer
be served up in America's economic kitchen. Someone should inform the
The New Urbanists were first among the entire
architecture-and-planning establishment to volunteer to help in the areas
devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and they have received nothing but scorn
and ingratitude for proposing that the Gulf Coast towns be redeveloped
as something other than parking lots with casinos, or that FEMA learn
how to deliver a well-designed small cottage instead of a trailer to people
who have lost their homes. The minions of the elite architecture schools,
lead by Reed Kroloff of Tulane University, have been especially dismissive,
proposing instead architectural exercises in irony and High Art -- just
what people living in tents with no plumbing need.
The New Urbanists are the only group I know
of who offer a comprehensive set of intelligent responses to the awful
challenges we face in a looming mega crisis of the environment. Assuming
that the human race wants to carry on, and to do so under civilized conditions,
we are going to need collective dwelling places, civic habitations. It
has yet to be determined what scale will be possible, and exactly what
kind of energy will be available to us for running them. But the signs
so far indicate that the scale will have to be much more modest than what
we are currently used to, and the quality will have to be much higher.
The New Urbanists performed an extremely
valuable service to this society over the past decade. They dove back
into the dumpster of history and retrieved the knowledge needed for the
design and assembly of real civic environments -- knowledge that had been
thrown away gleefully by the traffic engineers and municipal Babbitts
in the delirious years of building the easy motoring utopia.
One day soon, America will wake up from
its infotainment-fueled sleepwalk and start desperately looking for answers
to the predicament it finds itself in. A lot of that will revolve around
the basic question of where we live, and how things in it are arranged.
When that wake-up occurs, the New Urbanists will be ready, reliable, confident,
and congenial as always -- something like our country used to be.
May 29, 2006
The New York Times Sunday Magazine
ran a front-page story this week about the difficulties faced by American
soldiers returning home from active duty. Their emotions are complicated,
ranging from the now-familiar post-traumatic stress disorders, to the
reality of horrible physical injury, to a strange letdown from the loss
of personal power they enjoyed as armed warriors in a scruffy land with
life-or-death policing authority.
A few things struck me about this excellent
story, by Scott Anderson. One was the fact that our method for prosecuting
this war is almost entirely based on driving around in cars, and that
consequently most of the deaths and injuries have occurred in connection
with roadside bombs or attacks on vehicles.
The source of Radaker's problems behind
the wheel seemed easy enough to trace and underscored Martin Sweeny's
comments about the extended state of extreme vigilance the soldiers
in Iraq had endured. Radaker had been a Humvee driver in Alpha Company
and had taken the demands of that task very much to heart. "I was
the most experienced driver in our platoon," he explained to me,
"and I just thought it was my job to keep everybody in my platoon
safe, to always be looking. They taught us, 'Watch the road, watch the
road,' so when I was driving, I was always watching, not just the road,
but what's on the left, what's on the right, watching up, watching down."
incessant patrols down Iraqi highways in the Sunni Triangle described
here, and the "recovery missions" to aid other Humvee crews
who had run into trouble was a disturbing analog to those familiar incessant
trips of civilian life down the highway strip to the WalMart. To some
extent, the essence of our mission over there has been to ensure that
those trips to the WalMart will continue. The soldiers interviewed in
Anderson's story (nor Anderson himself) had no apprehension that this
was itself perhaps an act of futility -- that the easy motoring existence
back home was remorselessly entering its terminal phase, due to the global
oil situation, and that all the Humvees on God's green earth would not
avail to preserve it.
Another element of the story that stood
out was the way these returned soldiers missed the exhilaration and camaraderie
of the war zone, and what a contrast it had been to the banalities of
civilian life they returned to in small town Pennsylvania. Some were eager
to go back over. Others, while not exactly eager, were willing to go back
if their national guard unit was called back into rotation.
Though this was not spelled out in the story,
you sensed the utter vacuum of masculine roles in American civilian life
these days. Everybody, more or less, male or female, has been reduced
to the status of a soccer mom, condemned in one way or another, to endless
duty driving the family cars here and there and everywhere, assigned the
demeaning label of "consumers," with no duties, obligations,
or responsibilities to anything greater than fetching Cheez Doodles and
Pepsi for the larder back home in the double-wide.
In all the blather about the sufferings
of women the past quarter-century, not a whole lot of attention has been
paid to the dearth of meaningful roles for men, both socially and in work,
and the drawn-out adventure in Iraq has stimulated a recognition that
the passivity of "consumerdom" is not enough to keep society
In my opinion, this must even redound into
our politics, especially the politics of the Democratic party, if it is
going to survive. It has to be re-masculinized. It has to allow men to
come back into the centers of power, including the power to speak the
truth -- even if the truth hurts somebody's feelings.
The summer driving season officially kicks
off Friday with the Memorial Day weekend and, as gasoline prices prompt
more families to stay home, a lot of Americans will be stuck in their
oppressively boring suburbs wondering about the meaning of it all. The
failures and disconnections of the living arrangement most Americans have
been induced to choose will at last become manifest.
They will discover that a luxurious private
realm, with more bathrooms per inhabitant than any other society, will
not compensate for a public realm that has been reduced and impoverished
into a universal automobile slum. The children will be relegated to their
TVs and video game terminals. The only other option will be trips to the
mall -- except that credit cards maxed out on gasoline fill-ups will put
the kibosh on recreational shopping, too, and the public will make the
additional discovery that malls have little else to offer non-spenders,
except a keener awareness of their hopeless debt levels. The adults will
blame George W. Bush.
It seems to me that as the weeks advance
into the hardcore vacation zone, the price of gasoline is only likely
to go higher. (Duh. . . .) It will be a strange interplay between increased
competition (or growing scarcity) of global oil resources and weakness
in the US dollar itself -- and it may not be so easy to tell which is
the chicken or the egg. The dollar's loss of value against other currencies
will force the federal reserve to keep bumping up interest rates so that
all the foreign holders of US debt paper will not dump it.
Higher interest rates would be good news
to savers -- except that there are none in America. They will be bad news
to the millions who bought their suburban houses using "creative"
adjustable rate mortgages when interest rates were at rock bottom. So,
on top of being bored out of their minds being stuck at home in suburbia
all summer, many will face the even greater trauma of default, foreclosure,
and having no place to live at all. Of course, selling the house would
be an option, but not a good one when everybody else is selling and few
people are buying and the seller is left in the uncomfortable position
of offering a house for less than he paid for it.
All this discontent and difficulty may
not show up in the stock markets right away, because out of the minority
of Americans who own stocks, many of these are retirees or pension institutions
who are not in a position to go to all cash. But by the traditional crash
season, fall, it will be apparent that the hallucinated US economy of
credit-and-mortgages is going up in a vapor. Then the real fun may begin.
I think it will be initially a near-hyperinflationary wave that breaks
as we enter winter into a deflationary trough of frenzied asset liquidation.
There will be lots of "pre-owned" stuff to buy, cheap.
Is it even possible these days to define
a valid doctrine of political Progressivism? The notion of Progressivism
per se really comes from that brief and amazing period in the early 20th
century when technological advance was lifting so many out of misery that
social justice actually began to seem a plausible political goal rather
than an idealist fantasy, and social reformers raced to catch up with
the advances of telephones, motorcars, and sanitary engineering.
Progressivism also may have been fatally
tied to the accompanying reality of robust industrial economic growth,
which itself was tied to abundant new energy resources, mainly oil. The
belief that more of everything would become available raised the moral
issue of allocating it fairly. Since we now face declining energy resources,
and perhaps long-range economic contraction, we would appear to also now
face the awful task of allocating less of everything -- which may be as
impossible in practice as it sounds.
So the question now might be: what kind
of economic justice is possible?
The group that used to compose the broad
American middle class of industrial workers and managers is disintegrating
economically. What will concern them in the years just ahead will be their
ability to barely hang on to what they've got, including the roofs over
their heads and their health. They will be in no mood for a political
movement that is preoccupied with pseudo-psychotherapeutic exercises in
self-esteem building along racial and gender lines.
Allocating scarcity will probably be impossible
on the grand scale, which is the federal level. The Republicans have succeeded
in recent year by enabling the allocation of false wealth, credit, but
their ability to continue that will come to an end with the housing bubble
implosion, which will destroy the presumed value of the main asset all
that credit has gone into: suburban houses. When that happens, there will
be nothing to allocate but grievance.
True Progressivism sought justice in human
affairs, that is, in socio-economic relations that people had some control
over. What can we hope to control now? Not the price of oil in worldwide
The entire thrust of American life the past
forty years has been toward the privatization of public goods. That is
why suburbia will turn out to be such a fiasco -- because the public realm,
and everything in it, was impoverished, turned into a universal automobile
slum, while the private realm of the house and the car was exalted. The
private goods of suburbia will now have to be liquidated and we will be
left with little more than parking lots and freeways too expensive to
A true Progressivism of the years ahead
has to begin by concerning itself with a redefinition of what our public
goods really are -- and in practical, not abstract terms. That's why I
harp on the project of restoring the railroad system. Not only will it
benefit all classes of Americans in terms of sheer getting around, but
it would put tens of thousands of people to work at something with real
value. It would also begin the process of healing public space ravaged
by cars for almost a hundred years.
A true Progressivism would concern itself
with the comprehensive reform of all land use laws, policies, codes, and
tax incentives that promote more new car-dependent suburban development.
A new Progressivism would put dwindling public monies into the re-activation
of our harbors and shipping infrastructure. We're going to need it. It
would direct remaining agricultural subsidies into explictly organic,
local farming enterprises, not to the Archer Daniel Midland corporation.
It would revive the legal practice of restricting monopolies in business.
It has to lead us in the direction of making other arrangements
for how we live.
The obvious problem, of course, is that
the American public doesn't want to make other arrangements. It wants
desperately to hold onto the old arrangements. The nation is stuck with
its enormous investments in car-dependency, and what has remained of our
economy lately is devoted to creating even more of it -- in the face of
signals that we won't be able to run it no matter how much people like
Progress isn't what it used to be, and it isn't
what it seems. If Americans get what they deserve they may give up on
both progress and justice.
Riding the van out of the airport Friday
night to the Park-and-Fly lot, with the planes floating down in the distant
violet gloaming, an eerie recognition came over me that life today is
as much like science fiction as it will ever get -- at least as far ahead
as I can see. Some of my friends' kids may never fly in airplanes. They
may never own cars. At some point twenty, thirty years ahead, they may
not take for granted throwing a light switch in a dark room.
Our sense of normality will be coming up
for review soon, and hardly anybody seems ready to face it. The now-consistently
moronic New York Times played a story in the Sunday business
section which said that "consumers" were just shrugging
off three-dollar gasoline and spending like gangbusters in the super discount
box stores. It seems not to have occurred to the editors that perhaps
three dollars a gallon is not the final destination of our pump prices.
They were so triumphal over the public's supernatural immunity to the
three-dollar-flu that they failed to essay what four-dollar or even five-dollar
a gallon gasoline might do to America's shopping heroes.
My own guess is that it is liable to drive
the NASCAR grandstand ticket prices a wee bit higher, at least.
But such is the mood of the nation on the
cusp of the summer driving season. What the Timesmen/women might have
also missed is the fact that all that heroic shopping is being accomplished
with "money" as yet unearned -- on plastic, that is. The three-dollar
a gallon fill-up isn't causing any pain because nobody is forking over
actual dollar bills, and the same thing with those $1500 plasma flat screen
TVs that the hero consumers are scooping up so valiantly from the Best
Buy loading docks.
I think our future perception of all this
will be as a kind of reverse science fiction -- in the sense that sci
fi has until now always been presumed to take place in the future. The
science fiction of my friends' children will take place in the past. When
some of them are old, the omnipresent electric power of this time, and
all the wonders that ran on it, will seem like an unfathomable occult
force that saturated the world like a spell. They will tell stories about
it in the flickering firelight, and their grandchildren will blink in
It's too bad they will never see a Harry
Potter movie, with its utterly blase and incessant deployments of magic.
These children of the future will be astonished when somebody manages
to roast a parsnip.
I try to avoid the term "peak oil"
because it has cultish overtones, and this is a serious socioeconomic
issue, not a belief system. But it seems to me that what we are seeing
now in financial and commodity markets, and in the greater economic system
itself, is exactly what we ought to expect of peak oil conditions: peak
After all, peak is the point where the world
is producing the most oil it will ever produce, even while it is also
the inflection point where big trouble is apt to begin. And this massive
quantity of oil induces a massive amount of work, land development, industrial
activity, commercial production, and motor transport. So we shouldn't
be surprised that there is a lot happening, that houses and highways are
still being built, that TVs are pouring out of the Chinese factories,
commuters are still whizzing around the DC Beltway, that obese children
still have plenty of microwavable melted cheese pockets to zap for their
exhausting sessions with Grand Theft Auto.
But in the peak oil situation the
world is like a banquet just before the tablecloth is pulled out from
under it. There is plenty on the table, but it is about to be overturned,
spilled, lost, and broken. There's more oil available then ever before,
but also so many people at the banquet table clamoring for it that there
is barely enough to go around, and the people may knock some things over
trying to get it.
A correspondent in Texas writes: "On
a four week running average basis, total US petroleum imports (crude
+ products) have been falling since 2/24/06, until last week, when we
finally showed an increase of 1.3 percent, after bidding the price of
oil up by about 20 percent. IMO, we bid the price up enough to (temporarily)
increase our imports. We will see what subsequent weeks show, but
I think that we are in the early stages of a bidding war for remaining
net export capacity. The interesting question is what countries
may not be importing because they can't afford the oil."
A substantial amount of total house sales
are made up of new suburban McHouses built in places at the furthest extreme
distance from employment centers -- because that's where the remaining
cheap land is after sixty-odd years of suburban development. How many
prospective house-buyers will close on those things with gasoline over
$3 a gallon? Probably fewer than are required to sell them all. And more
McHouses will be coming on the market in any case because they are products
of a planning and permitting process that takes years for things to finally
get built. Once the house-selling racket, and its associated mortgage
racket, stop grinding along, the machinery of the US economy has to seize
up. The financial sector, which used to be an appendage of the economy,
but has become an end in itself, has to implode when the stream of rebundled
securitized mortgage debt stops flowing into it.
When tablecloths are pulled out from under
banquet tables, it is hard to say how the platters, bowls, and ewers will
tumble and fall, but we can bet that few if any of them will land right-side
up, unspilled. One also has to wonder how the other people at the table
are going to behave when things come tumbling down.
April 24, 2006
America commuted back into the
unknown country of $3-plus gasoline and $75-plus oil (per barrel) last
week, and President Bush revisited the Tomorrowland of hydrogen cars in
the absence of any reality-based response to the global energy crunch
that will change all the terms of America's "non-negotiable way of
Actually, we are negotiating, or bargaining,
as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross once put it in describing the sequence of emotional
reactions of humans facing certain death:
> bargaining > depression > acceptance
seem to have dragged us kicking and screaming beyond the sheer denial
stage, since this is now the second time in six months that oil and gasoline
prices have ratcheted wildly up. Something is happening, Mr. Jones, and
now we want to talk our way out of it.
The main thread in this bargaining stage is the
desperate wish to keep our motoring fiesta going by other means than oil.
This fantasy exerts its power across the whole political spectrum, and
evinces a fascinating poverty of imagination in the public and its leaders
in every field: politics, business, science and the media. The right wing
thinks we can still drill our way out of this, if only the nature freaks
would allow them to. The "green" folks thinks that we can devote
crops to the production of gasoline substitutes, even though a scarcity
of fossil fuel-based fertilizers will sharply cut crop yields for human
food. Nobody, it seems, can imagine an American life not centered on cars.
This is perhaps understandable when you
consider the monumental previous investment in the infrastructures
and equipment for motoring, which includes the nation's car-dependent
suburban housing stock -- which in turn represents the average adult's
main repository of personal wealth. If motoring becomes unaffordable,
then what will be the value of my house twenty-eight miles upwind of Dallas
(Atlanta, Minneapolis, Denver, Chicago, et cetera)? The anxiety is understandable.
But the problem is not going away. It's
not five or ten years down the road -- it's here, now. We're in the zone.
We're entering a world of hurt. The pain will ebb and flow, as the pain
of a fatal illness ebbs and flows over the days. The price of oil and
gasoline will ratchet up and down, but along a discernable upward trendline.
Can we bust out of this narrow tunnel of
fantasy? Can we imagine living differently? Can we turn more fruitful
imaginings into action before the American scene becomes a much more disorderly
place? It would be nice to see President Bush really lead by taking a
well-publicized ride on the Washington Metro, or dropping in to visit
an organic farm, or signing a bill to increase incentives for small-scale
hydro-electricity, or turning loose some federal prosecutors on WalMart's
human resources department. It would be nice to see the Democrats put
aside their preoccupations with gender confusion and racial grievance
and start campaigning to restore the US railroad system. It would help
to see the science and technology sector return from outer space. Corporate
America and its leaders are probably hopeless, but so is the current scale
and scope of their operations, and circumstances will decide what they
get to do. The mainstream media, representing the nation's collective
consciousness, remains in a coma. This morning's electronic edition of
The New York Times displays not one home page headline about
oil or gasoline prices, despite the trauma of the week just passed.
Boy, did the "fuck you"
letters come flying in last week after I said that strategic planning
to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities wasn't such a bad idea.
So, what do you know -- Iran's president
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke out again on Friday, saying Israel was a "constant
threat" and predicted that it was on the verge of "being eliminated."
Eliminated how? one is prompted to wonder. Well, President A-jad had been
rather specific last year when he discussed "wiping Israel off the
map." On Friday he referred to Israel as a "rotten, dried tree"
that would collapse in "one storm." Interesting metaphor. Did
he mean one atomic bomb? That would probably do the job to a nation about
the size of Maryland, when you take into account the nuclear contamination,
though a toxic smear could be carried downwind east as far as China, blowing
back in Iran's face, so to speak.
Anyway, Mr. A-jad's remarks came during
the same week that he publicly announced, with great fanfare, his government's
success at enriching uranium into fissile material. It wasn't hard to
put two and two together: wiping Israel off the map + how to.
The controversy over strategic planning
of the harshest kind boiled over after Seymour Hersh's story "The
Iran Plans" broke in the April 17th issue of The New Yorker.
The agitated public and the news media (except for Terri Gross on NPR's
"Fresh Air" show) generally overlooked remarks in the article
made by Robert Baer, former CIA agent in the Middle East and author of
See No Evil and Sleeping With the Devil, who, among
other things, had investigated the Iran-sponsored Hezbollah group's links
to the 1983 US Marine Barracks bombing in Beirut. Baer had followed President
A-jad's career and connections for two decades, after Ahmadinejad had
distinguished himself as a leader among the Revolutionary Guard "students"
who captured the American Embassy in Teheran in 1979 and took 52 employees
"Baer told me. . . that
Ahmadinejad and his Revolutionary Guard colleagues in the Iranian government
'are capable of making a bomb, hiding it, and launching it as Israel.
They're apocalyptic Shiites. If you're sitting in Tel Aviv and you believe
they've got nukes and missiles -- you've got to take them out. These guys
are nuts, and there's no reason to back off.'"
So it would appear that the practical question
is not so much what America might do but what Israel might do first. And
that question puts everybody in the West in an uncomfortable position
-- since a strike by Israel could 1.) ignite a major regional conflagration
leading to even wider war, and 2.) shut down Middle East oil production
(or even permanently cripple it). Baer seems to think that this is exactly
what President A-jad wants. I think so, too. Crazy as it might seem, it
is not crazier than waging war by suicide bombers. It's just kicking
it up a notch, in the immortal words of Emeril Lagasse. It's jihad
x-treme. And the reward, in Mr. A-jad's thinking might be that a large
part of the Islamic world would survive, while Israel would be ganged
up on and eliminated -- and the Shiites would get credit for it! (not
to mention first-class tickets to heaven and all those waiting virgins).
Therefore one of the more remarkable
elements of the story is Israel's restraint so far. By historical measure,
the extremely belligerent remarks by Iran's president would have already
invited an armed response by any sane nation. You wonder how many more
times Mr. A-jad will spell it out before something has to happen.
A new meme twanging
around the chatscape this week says that the only political group with
the will to conceive of having to do something other than nothing about
Iran are the fundamentalist rednecks who would like to get their beloved
Armageddon underway. This is in the wake of rumors and stories that G.
W. Bush & Co. are hatching a plan to do something rather drastic involving
nuclear "bunker-buster" bombs to take out Iran's uranium processing
That would be pretty severe
-- but so would the outcome if Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad did
exactly what he said he would do: wipe Israel off the map, and develop
the capability to lob nukes into Europe. The striking thing is that the
American leadership classes are so spooked by the nation's precarious
position in the world that strategic planning itself is now considered
beyond the pale. By its nature, strategic planning must include some unappetizing
scenarios, including thinking the unthinkable. But that doesn't mean it
can be avoided. The alternatives are denial and / or just doing nothing.
Iran enjoys the advantage of America having
already shot its wad on "weapons of mass destruction" with Iraq.
Any accusation by America now will be written off as utterly hysterical
and also suspected of having the ulterior motive to enrich Dick Cheney's
friends at Haliburton.
The difference this time is that there
is unanimity between US and European intelligence about Iran's intentions
-- that they intend to create atomic bombs. The Europeans, with Britain
leading negotiations, are trying desperately to reach a diplomatic solution.
And the Iranians appear to be transparently jerking them off, playing
for time. There is much at stake for Europe, perhaps more even than for
the US, since Europe could be within striking distance of Iran's nuclear-armed
missiles as well as facing a cut-off of Middle East oil if the shipping
lanes around the Persian Gulf and Red Sea were shut down due to hostilities.
Then there is the additional factor
that Israel is not likely to do nothing about a state that has vowed to
destroy it and appears to be making operational plans to that end. If
Europe and America do nothing, Israel will not do nothing. Somebody is
going to have to do something, and so not thinking about doing something
is not an option.
The consequences of all the options
are very disturbing. It seems unlikely that Mr. Ahmedinejad will just
go away anytime soon. He's not the Shah. There's no revolutionary
guard looking to overthrow him. And he was only just elected a year ago.
Mr. Ahmedinejad is making several moves
at once with this nuclear threat. He is asserting a determination to lead
the Muslim jihad; he is asserting a shi'ite dominance over the sunnis
and others; and he is trying to add to the pressures that would shove
America out of the region altogether -- or prompt a demoralized American
public to demand withdrawal, which would lead to a major realignment of
If anybody were to act militarily against
Iran, the result could easily be to throw the entire Middle East into
turmoil. It could lead to the overthrow of the al Saud family or to the
destruction of oil production facilities or just to terrible trouble in
the oil markets. It could spell the end of the West's sixty-year-long
dependency relationship with Mideast oil -- and that would probably leave
the West's industrial economies in ruins. That may be a gamble that the
Iranians like, given the seeming verve of China and India lately -- but
I would not expect these nations to thrive if the West was hung out to
dry. After all, Mr. Ahmedinejad gives every sign of being a true maniac
of the type that the world produces every four decades or so, and the
strategic fantasies of such maniacs often end up being very self-destructive.
It is even within the realm of the
possible that a US military operation could successfully disarm Iran without
starting World War Three. Given the other possibilities, this is not necessarily
the worst one. From a tactical point of view, there is probably some value
in the Iranians taking this into account. So, thinking out loud strategically
is not necessarily the worst thing that the US can do.
led me to take a trip on the Washington DC beltway in a rent-a-car last
week, when some putz graduate student from the U. of Maryland failed to
pick me up at the airport. It was a navigational challenge for a stranger
to get from Northern Virginia to the campus up in College Park, MD. And
it was impressive to see how ghastly the suburban build-out has gotten
in recent years there. One could not fail to be conscious of how the viability
of all that stuff -- including hundreds of millions of dollars of beltway
widenings and new ramps I encountered under construction -- depended utterly
on a continued stream of Middle East oil imports. And you had to wonder
whether any of the senators, congressmen, or executive officials saw a
link between this tragic clusterfuck of car dependency that they live
in day in and day out and our troubles out in the world.
Post-postscript: There are
many depressing elements in the current uproar over immigration policy.
There is plenty of political blame to go around. But for me, one of the
worst is the deliberate obfuscation of who is here legally and who is
not. Once again my own party (the Democrats) takes the lead on that, especially
the disingenuous tactic of referring to illegal aliens as "undocumented"
-- as if the only problem were some sort of procedural error rather than
the fact that actual law is involved. I suspect a lot of funding
for this month's demonstrations around the country is coming from the
Mexican government itself, which is eager to outsource as much of its
poverty as rapidly as possible. I think before long we will a public response
to this that will surprise the authorities with its angry vehemence.
Americans ought to regard the word "growth"
with trepidation. When invoked by presidents and economists, it is meant
to imply ideas like "more" or "better." It's a habit
of thinking left over from the exuberant phase of the industrial age,
when there was always more of everything to get. Nowadays,
though, as we enter the terminal years of cheap energy, the word "growth"
invokes a new set ideas.
For instance, "impossible." With
the price of oil edging toward $70-a-barrel now, and likely to flirt with
$100 by the end of the year, the effect will be higher costs for virtually
all products and services, and tremendous stress on every socioeconomic
organism from the family to government at all levels to the Ford Motor
Car Corporation. The only "growth" we might expect under these
conditions is the growth in our exertions to stay where we are, and the
truth is that many of the weak will simply fall behind.
Another idea that "growth" might
invoke would be a fear of an unstoppable rising population competing for
scarcer resources: incomes, energy, food, shelter. Surely this is one
of the specters behind the illegal immigration issue, a dawning recognition
that the American cornucopia is becoming an emptier basket, with fewer
fruits, less energy, and not many gold nuggets left in it.
For those of us positioned against the suburban
juggernaut, "growth" invokes the destruction of more landscape,
the conversion of pastures and croplands into McHousing subdivisions,
with a long menu of additional liabilities -- not least being the huge
investment in a living arrangement with no future. One would think the
"homebuilders" could see this coming -- with oil edging toward
$70 -- but the truth is that their companies are programmed for only one
kind of behavior -- to keep building 3000 square foot McHouses 27 miles
outside Dallas, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Denver, et cetera. Since they won't
change the programming, then they will continue their destructive behavior
until circumstances make it impossible for them to continue -- when the
housing bubble blows up in their faces -- and then the companies will
The cheap energy era led us into a climax
of surpluses, and these surpluses represented the general "more-ness"
and "better-ness" of late industrial society. In a post cheap
energy world, accumulated surpluses will be meager to nonexistent. There
is bound to be a scramble for whatever is left. Geopolitically, this means
a contest for the world's remaining oil, which tends to be concentrated
in just a few places. In each nation, there is likely to be a parallel
scramble for whatever fruits, gold nuggets, and therms are still to be
had, throwing off a lot of red-hot political sparks that will burn people.
A lot of the remaining energy worldwide will be devoted to these scrambles,
and thus essentially wasted.
There are many ways of viewing this "growth"
predicament, and some strategies we can turn to in the face of it. An
obvious one is to change our behavior, to stop acting as though our destructive,
terminal, and futile activities were beneficial or indispensable . For
instance, we could yield to the reality that the age of mass motoring
will have to end. Instead of desperately seeking "alternative fuels"
to run our 100 million cars, we could make an effort to restore our railroads.
Instead of a million McHousing starts out in the meadows and cornfields,
we could repair our existing towns and cities. There is no reason why
they cannot be rewarding, beautiful places. There may well be greater
benefit in walking more and driving less. The well-off Americans who have
visited Europe over the past several decades invariably notice this. Anyway,
we are going to need every meadow, cornfield, and pasture that we have,
because as cheap energy wanes, we are going to be desperate to grow enough
food to feed ourselves -- another reason to be wary of alt.fuel fantasies
based on growing crops dedicated to gasoline substitutes.
One esteemed (and extremely shy) reader
refers to the process of moving from a high entropy society to a sustainable
one as "autonomic devolution."
"Positive feedback driven social systems
breed self-amplifying trends which ultimately self-destabilize,"
he writes. "Autonomic devolution societies consist of localized islands
I believe we are inevitably heading
to that destination. The only thing I wonder about is how violent and
destructive the process will have to be.