Bill Totten's Weblog

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Clusterfuck Nation Chronicle

Commentary on the Flux of Events

by Jim Kunstler (April 03 2006)

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 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 just die.

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 of self-sufficiency".

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.

Bill Totten


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