Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, May 19, 2006

Clusterfuck Nation

Comment on current events

by Jim Kunstler

the author of The Long Emergency (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005)

Progressivism (May 15 2006)

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 markets.

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 use.

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 it.

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.

Science Fiction (May 08 2006)

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 valiently 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 amazement.

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.

Peak Behavior (May 01 2006)

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 activity.

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 twenty 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.

Desperation (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 revisted 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 life."

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:

denial > bargaining > depression > acceptance

Events 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, M. 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 still pretends we can still drill our way out of this, if only the nature freaks would allow them to. The "green" folks think 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 prosectors 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.

Bill Totten


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