by James Howard Kunstler
America is starting to remind me of Bette Davis in the horror movie classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? America is losing its grip on reality. America is acting like an elderly strumpet in too much pancake makeup performing a song-and-dance on the beach while its kinfolk lie dying in the sand.
History is taking us in a certain direction and we don’t want to hear about it. We’ve got our hands clapped over our ears and we’re shouting “Kittens and puppies! Kittens and puppies!” Here are some of the things that we’re confused about:
- We tell ourselves we’re in an economic recovery, meaning we expect to return to a prior economic state, namely, a turbo-charged “consumer” economy fueled by easy credit and cheap energy. Fuggeddabowdit. That part of our history is over. We’ve entered a contraction that will seem permanent until we reach an economic re-set point that comports with what the planet can actually provide for us. That re-set point is lower than we would like to imagine. Our reality-based assignment is the intelligent management of contraction. We don’t want this assignment. We’d prefer to think that things are still going in the other direction, the direction of more, more, more. But they’re not. Whether we like it or not, they’re going in the direction of less, less, less. Granted, this is not an easy thing to contend with, but it is the hand that circumstance has dealt us. Nobody else is to blame for it.
- A particular set of economic behaviors are over. The housing sector will never come back to what it was because that whole living arrangement is over. We built too many houses in the wrong places in no particular civic disposition and it only worked for a few decades because of cheap oil, cars purchased on credit, and foreigners lending us their money. We’re done building suburbia, and after while, when we can no longer stand the dysfunction and inconvenience, we’ll be done living in the stuff that’s already there. To complicate matters, we have no idea how over all this is. That’s why one of the main themes in this presidential election – not even stated explicitly – is the defense of the entitlement to a suburban lifestyle; in other words, a campaign to sustain the unsustainable. As the suburban dynamic increasingly fails, disappointment may turn to fury. It will be the result of leaders not telling the public the truth for many many years. This public fury may be very destructive. It could bring down the government, provoke civil war, or lead us into foreign military adventures – the result of blaming other people for our own bad choices. If we put our effort and spirit into inhabiting our piece of the planet differently, this might turn out differently and better. By this I mean returning to traditional development patterns of civic places (towns) embedded in productive rural places (the agricultural landscape).
- More higher education is not going bring back the turbo-charged consumer economy. We will not need more office gerbils, bond salesmen, regional deputy managers, or Gender Studies PhDs. That’s going in the opposite direction too. Though corporations and giant institutions seem to rule our lives these days, they will soon go extinct. Anything organized at the giant scale is going to wobble and fall: national chain retail, trans-national companies, colossal banks, big universities, you name it. The center of economic life in America will be food production and other agricultural activities, not computer gaming, big box bargain shopping, and hybrid car sales. We will need more farmers, more people competent in agricultural management, and more human laborers working in the fields. There will be a lot of other practical, “hands-on” kinds of jobs, but not so many positions in air-conditioned cubicles. You might want to check the “no” box on those things, but reality will have her way with you anyway.
- We’re real confused about our energy predicament. Stories are flying all around the news media to the effect that the USA will soon be an oil exporter. That’s utter nonsense, by the way. We still import more than two-thirds of the oil we use. Another story is that the Bakken shale oil fields will make us “energy independent.” That is a complete misunderstanding of reality. Another widely-repeated untruth is the notion that we have “a hundred years of shale gas.” These are stories generated by the particular stage of collective grief we have entered – the bargaining stage, where we attempt to negotiate a better contract with reality. Good luck with that. The truth is, we’re nearly out of the good cheap oil and gas and what’s left is so expensive and difficult to extract that we may not have the capital investment resources to get it. One byproduct of ignoring the disorders in our banking system is that we are also failing to pay attention to the absence of real capital formation. Meanwhile, the oil and gas companies are propagandizing tirelessly in TV commercials in order to get “other people’s money” to sustain their Ponzi operations. (Translation: swindling retirees who cannot get yield from “safe” investments such as bonds.) Eventually we’ll have to face it: the fossil fuel age is ending and there are no miracle rescue remedies waiting to come on-stage.
- We’re not going to “tech” our way through the array of mega-problems we face, in particular the energy predicament. The American mind-space today is clogged with cargo-cult fantasies about electric cars, nano-manufacturing, and “information” technology that would allow the trajectory of progress to continue just as we have known and loved it. This too, like the end of suburbia, will lead to vast disappointment. We’re heading instead into a “time-out” from technological progress, duration unknown, which will probably also result in the loss of some tricks we’ve already learned. The leading wish-fulfillment fantasy, of course, is that we will change out all the gasoline and diesel cars for electric cars. This is not going to happen. We will be a far less affluent society. There will be much less capital available to devote to auto loans. Our towns, counties, and states are all going broke and will not be able to keep the stupendous roadway system in repair. That’s a major reason why we have to return to living in walkable towns instead of disaggregated suburbs, and why we desperately need to repair the regular (not high-speed) rail system.
- We pretend that if we ignore the problems in banking / money / capital formation they might just fade away like the morning dew. The failure to reintroduce the rule-of-law into these matters will destroy the system, and will probably even overtake the destabilizing potential of the peak oil problem – in fact, will accelerate it due to capital scarcity. President Obama is not doing America any favors by, for instance, allowing Jon Corzine to remain at large. If we continue this policy of pretending that nothing has gone wrong, reality will correct our money system for us, by sweeping away all our current arrangements and forcing us to begin over again from scratch. I mean literally from scratch.
It would be nice if we could correct the disorders in the collective conversion that we call “politics,” but we are probably going to see ever greater divergence with reality. For the moment, all leadership in America has drunk too much Kool-aid, all of it lacks conviction and competence, none of it wants to enter the actual future.