Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Clusterfuck Nation

Comment on current events

by Jim Kunstler (

Lahar Rules (June 27 2005)

The east coast is a steambath, the Dow Jones is tanking, oil has crossed the $60 barrier, and Don Rumsfeld says the Iraq insurgency could run for twelve years.

Taking these things in reverse order - why twelve years? Why not forever? Actually, twelve years might as well be forever. What Rummy seems to be saying to the US public is: better be prepared to keep Fort Apache going indefinitely. The part he left out was ... "if you want to keep making that eighty-mile round trip commute from Cherokee County to Peachtree Street".

Even that simple equation assumes a lot. For instance, that Mr Suburban Atlanta Commuter will still have that job in the office tower on Peachtree. Or that he can continue to make a monthly payment of $3200 on a 4000-square-foot house in Hickory Flat. Or that the Fox TV News fans will maintain their enthusiasm for a war of attrition lacking in cineplex quality battles, while their property taxes are being jacked out of sight to cover the rising cost of maintaining senior parking privileges in the centralized school districts.

The public indeed may be losing its appetite for the Iraq project, but not for Nascar racing, fried chicken buckets, car trips to Six Flags, and round-the-clock air conditioning. What shock of recognition will flash across the TV screens when the connection is finally made that keeping all these things going is why we're in Iraq? War is the answer. Sooner or later even the folks making those jitney trips to East Hampton are going to get it.

Oil's remorseless up-ratcheting past $60 is as much a symptom of a weak dollar as a strained global energy allocation system, and the dollar is weakening because the way of life it represents is becoming more and more unreal. The harsh truth is that we've reached the limit of our ability to expand our suburban sprawl economy and there is no alternative US economy in the background ready to take its place. The world can't fail to notice this weakness. The inability to generate even fake wealth, in the form of ever more WalMarts, will take its toll on the consensus that the American Dream has enduring value.

The stock market contraction ought to reflect this reality - apart from desperate attempts by US government proxies to levitate share prices - and it is hard to imagine a rally in the face of $60 oil. I'm inclined to predict a gruesome journey down for the Dow Jones into the 4000 range by the end of the year. Until now the dollars created by the Federal Reserve's supernaturally loose credit policy have sought shelter in the "hard assets" of houses. A meltdown of the stock markets will translate into vanishing leverage in all other areas of finance, especially in real estate (as well as a swath of destruction through hedge funds, retirement accounts and, eventually, the entire creaking superstructure of the hallucinated mortgage industry). A few Americans are actually going to get the message that this is not a good time to buy an overpriced raised ranch house. A lot of real estate geniuses are going witness their own ruin with wonder and nausea.

The striking aspect in all this is that the US appears to be reaching a breaking point in the absence of any precipitating disaster. Apart from the daily meat-grinder in Iraq, the geopolitical scene is temporarily placid. The potential for disaster is huge, of course. Five pounds of Semtex in a crucial spot could crater the global economy. Sooner or later something will blow. But the US slide is commencing without a big shove. Phase change is a curious condition. Things just slip. Lahar rules.

Turning Point (June 20 2005)

Iraq is not Vietnam, all right, because there is no way the US can pull out now without severe consequences, namely the loss of our access to all the oil in the Middle East - where two-thirds of the world's remaining oil is.

In Vietnam, there was the primal fear that if we cut-and-run all of Indochina would "go communist", whatever that meant. What actually happened after we cut-and-ran in 1975 was Pol Pot and the killing fields of Cambodia, a military dictatorship in Burma, and Vietnam becoming the friendliest tourist country for westerners (including Americans) in all of Asia.

It is actually hard to tell whether the strategy to "democratize" Iraq is a childish pretense or a cynical cover story. There may be some grownups in the White House, Pentagon, and State Department who believe that a functioning, democratically-elected Iraq government would be such a mind-blower for the people of other nations in the region that all the jihadistas of, say, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Iran, and Afghanistan would enter a mystical transport and wake up as Jeffersonian democrats.

The Iraq adventure so far seems to indicate that wishing can only accomplish so much. For instance, despite desperate US offensives in Karabilah and Anbar province this weekend, Iraqi hostiles managed to blow up fifty of their fellow Iraqis in Baghdad. The New York Times had an interesting way of capturing the mood: "Life along the street running past the restaurant quickly returned to normal. Older men eighty yards away resumed curbside games of checkers before men had finished sweeping away chunks of flesh." In America these days, a wish is sometimes just another horror movie at the cineplex.

My own theory is that the war is a desperate attempt by a nation desperate over its energy supplies to retain a foothold, and therefore an economic claim, on the region where the oil is. Iraq was supposed to be our police station in a strategically vital bad neighborhood. The salient questions are: (1) assuming we can't stay there forever, how long might we hope to stick around there? And (2) at that point somewhat short of forever, will we lose our ability to even buy Middle East oil?

The conventional belief is that oil is fungible, meaning that once it enters the universal market pool, it finds its own way to customers, determined by who will pay the most for delivery. This idea was based on the assumption that there would always be a swing producer - some entity that could always open up the valves and goose up the world supply, keeping global prices within a reasonable range. The global production peak - Peak Oil in shorthand - seems to have obviated that mechanism. It's especially problematic that even Saudi Arabia and the Middle East generally appear to have peaked (see Twilight in the Desert by Matthew Simmons). From now on, access to oil may be determined by other things.

It was Amercia's hope that by turning Iraqis and other Middle Eastern people into democrats, they would magically become much friendlier and that our military presence would be happily tolerated - and that eventually all the Middle East would become so democratic, friendly, and stable that our presence there would be regarded as a Godsend. Whoops, wrong God. For starters.

The world may no longer have a swing producer of oil, but this period can probably be viewed as a swing period of history. By that I mean a period when we hoped that there was a quick and easy way to keep the oil flowing westward and found out that it wasn't so. The time is now coming when the American public won't tolerate a dozen US casualties a week, nevermind fifty Iraqis. But Americans won't tolerate $5 a gallon gasoline, either. We'll now see how the public will reconcile these intolerances.

We enter this week with oil nearing $60 a barrel. Global finance, hedging, interest rates, and the continued zest of America's last remaining industry, real estate, will all hinge on the price of oil and on America's prospects for getting it at any price. President Bush last week shifted the responsibility for an energy policy to congress, because the ideas coming out of the White House have been so transparently lame (the hydrogen economy).

My guess is that we are about to see the first act of the Hooverization of George W Bush.

California-the-tragic (June 12 2005)

I just paid $3.25 for a twelve-ounce diet coke in the Los Angeles airport, known by the affectionate name LAX by the locals (sounds so cutting age, like rap stars who give themselves technoid names such as G-Unit). The truth is, LAX is just the airport code on the baggage label that they slap on your suitcase before it vanishes forever into the black hole of lost things. Evidently there was an earthquake here today, but the vibe of the city (if you can call this toxic hyper-mega-burb that) is so catastrophic generally that I didn't even notice.

I've been on a long book publicity road trip around California, with a side trip to Seattle on Thursday, and it's hard not to feel hopeless about this country after being here. It probably doesn't help that my 10:30 red-eye flight has been delayed ("aircraft availability", the sign says) and I don't know whether I will make my morning connection in Washington for the final flight to upstate New York. My experience with United Airlines is that they (that is, the remaining skeleton crew) are a gang of lying fucks who will make up any excuse to disguise the fact that their company is a barely-functioning shell. As a matter of fact, there was not a single United employee in the entire P-7 terminal when I got here at 8:00 pm and I had to walk a half mile over to terminal P-8 to find a live gate agent. What you see in this miserable airport is simply the death of the airline industry. The airlines are the giant "canaries in the coal mine" of our imploding economy. They can't make any money, even running fully-loaded flights, with the price of jet fuel (which is little more than kerosene) not even very high yet. But I stray from my point.

Which is that what you see in California is a society with a tragic destiny. I was all over the Bay Area earlier in the week, from San Francisco to Silicon Valley to Berkeley and even down to Santa Cruz, and that was bad enough, But then I got down to Los Angeles on Friday and have been in a state of pathological reflex nausea ever since. Despite their lame attempts to rebuild a few pieces of the 2000-mile-long streetcar system that they gleefully destroyed in the 1950s, life here is all about cars and it will never not be about cars - until the reality of our oil predicament falls on the hapless public like a hammer of God and the people of California die for their fucking cars in their fucking cars and over their fucking cars. I understand that the scene here is not qualitatively different from Dallas, Orlando, Atlanta, Northern Virginia, Miami, New Jersey and other cloacal hot-spots of the world's highest standard of living. But I digress again, sitting, as I am, on the floor of terminal P-7 because I cannot find a single electric outlet anywhere near a chair, and being fifty-six years old, with an artificial hip, this is not the most felicitous scheme for composing one's thoughts.

I was invited to give a talk at Google headquarters down in Mountain View last Tuesday. They sent somebody to fetch me (in a hybrid car, zowee!) from my hotel in San Francisco - as if I had any choice about catching a train down, right? Google HQ was a glass office park pod tucked into an inscrutable tangle of off-ramps, berms, manzanita clumps, and curb-cuts. But inside, it was all tricked out like a kindergarten. They had pool tables, and inflatable yoga balls, and $6000 electronic vibrating massage lounge chairs, and snack stations deployed at twenty-five step intervals, with lucite bins filled with chocolate raisins and granola. The employees dressed like children. There were two motifs: "skateboard rat" and "10th grade nerd". I suppose quite a few of them were millionaires. Many of the work cubicles were literally modular children's playhouses. I gave my spiel about the global oil problem and the unlikelihood that "alternative energy" would even fractionally replace it, and quite a few of the Googlers became incensed.

"Yo, Dude, you're so, like, wrong! We've got, like, technology!"

Yeah, well, they weren't interested in making a distinction between energy and technology (or, more precisely where Google is concerned, a massive web-based advertising scheme - because it is finally clear that all this talk about "connectivity" just leads to more commercial shilling, shucking, jiving, and generally fucking with your headspace in the interstices of whatever purposeful activity one may be struggling to enact on the internet).

The taxi-cab ride to Berkeley (on Google's tab) ran over $160 on the meter. In Berkeley a radical leftist grandmotherly lady interviewed me for a radio show and once that was over she began to tell me about the chemical contrails that Dick Cheney was cross-hatching across the Berkeley skies for the purpose of controlling the masses of earnest, whole-foods-loving, undyed-wool-wearing devotees of diversity and turning them into whorish Stepford sex robots. Everybody knew it was a cover-up, she said.

Seattle was a blurr of traffic, tofu, and dark green things that must have been coniferous trees or seaweed, I wasn't sure. The sleeplessness was catching up with me.

Flying into LA the next day, and traversing its decrepitating central core clean out to Pasadena in the airport van, was like being immersed in an updated Hieronymous Bosch landscape of hell - only substitute SUVs for spavined reptiles and tortured peasants half-stuck inside eggshells. At every turn of the odometer, one wondered: what will become of this entropic socio-economic sink, especially as the supply of its chief nutrient declines. I conclude that it may no longer maintain its stature as the breast-implant capital of the world.

I gave a talk at the closing session of the annual Congress for the New Urbanism in Pasadena on Sunday. My message was one that readers of this blog are familiar with - namely, that we are sleepwalking into desperate circumstances largely determined by our addiction to oil, our supply of which mostly comes from distant lands full of people who hate us, et cetera. I will not bore you by rehearsing this theme further today. Now, the CNU members have generally been among the most forward-looking citizen-activists on the scene for a decade. They certainly recognize the many deficiencies of our drive-in dystopia, apart from the oil issues, and have been working to remedy it. But they don't really believe what I said to them.

The sad truth is that they are addicted to the same economic mechanisms as the sprawl-meisters: the production home-builders (so-called), the great mortgage mills of the conglomerate banks, and the real estate "industry" (also so-called). So they don't want to hear that these "sectors" of our economy are not going to make it. They don't want to hear about the necessity to downscale America anymore than the grifters who develop the WalMart power centers want to hear about it.

But we are going where circumstances are taking us whether we like it or not. We have to make other arrangements - and I mean really different from the way we live now, not just tweaking the municipal codes and building slightly better housing subdivisions and squeezing chain stores under the condominiums and hiding the parking lots behind the buildings. I hope the New Urbanists come around. They have a whole lot of very useful knowledge that will allow us to make our derelict towns habitable while we re-assign the remaining countryside for growing the food that we need locally.

Ah, I admit that I am in foul and turbulent spirits. I have been into the land of the American Moloch among its Moloch-worshippers and I am brainsick from it. I promise to cool my jets and come back next week with something a little less hysterical. By the way, my plane finally got out of LAX at 1:30 am Pacific time, three hours and ten minutes late. I missed my connection, so I am finishing this fugue in Dulles Airport, Washington.

Still Clueless (June 6 2005)

Cluelessness over the the world energy / economic predicament fogs the public discussion more than ever as we approach summer. The New York Times ran a big story in the Sunday news section about India's soaring energy needs and its future plans ("Hunger For Energy Transforms How India Operates"). India is the world's fifth leading energy user. Dig this: they import seventy percent of their oil. India's government predicts that the country will have to import 85 percent of its oil two decades from now.

So what's India's plan? According to Energy Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar, the solution is "to persuade China to cooperate rather than compete". Okay, and your bargaining chip would be ...? Also consider this: The US, Japan, Europe and China will all have to import more than three quarters of their oil supplies. Does this suggest that the world is going to remain an orderly place?

Another plan to keep the lights on in Mumbai (where power outages are routine) is a 1600-mile natural gas pipeline from Iran, through Pakistan, to India. Has anyone noticed (a) that India and Pakistan have been deadly enemies for over half a century, frequently threatening to blow each other up with nuclear missiles, (b) that Pakistan is the world's largest unstable country, and that its rugged terrain is home to many of the world's most rabid and violent Jihadista groups, and (c) that such a proposed pipeline across Pakistan would be utterly indefensible?

The Times story about all this is so devoid of critical analysis that it appears to have been written by an eleven-year-old child.

The Times's star columnist Thomas Friedman is making hay this season with his new book, The World is Flat, about the global economy. His book asserts that current trends will continue indefinitely - China will continue to manufacture ever more of America's household products, Americans will continue to enjoy cash-out home equity loans to buy plastic patio chairs made in China, WalMart will keep running its warehouse-on-wheels at a thumping great profit, and all impediments to global trade will be vanquished by telemarketing, computer technology, and confident corporate can-do spirits. I am tempted to ask how Friedman manages to type on a laptop with his head so far up his ass, but this blog is dedicated, above all, to a high-minded brand of politeness so we'll just say that he is not paying attention to a gathering global energy shitstorm that is going to change absolutely everything - including global economic relations which pundits foolishly maintain to be permanent conditions of life.

Here in the States, the price of a barrel of oil is back over $55 and we are only one week into the summer vacation driving season. President Bush is running a scam on the public by pretending to push Congress to act on an energy bill that offers nothing to realistically address the nation's oil addiction and, especially, its car dependency. He doesn't dare, I suppose, because he must know that the American economy is about little more than car dependency. But just watch: as the price for a barrel of oil heads north past $60, Bush's abject leadership failure will become self-evident and the public mood will appear to shift overnight. The oval office will become a very lonely place indeed by this coming fall, and its occupant will have three long and terrible years left to suffer there.

Pipeline-istan (May 30 2005)

It's a measure of our country's desperation that many hopes among US government officials are pinned to the just-completed 1000-mile oil pipeline between Baku on the Caspian Sea and the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. The idea is to get oil from Kazakhstan on the far eastern side of the Caspian sea through several other former Soviet states, bypassing a shorter, older route through the Black Sea, and creating an alternative to the ongoing horror show of the Persian Gulf.

The main problem is the idea that the American economy, and the easy-motoring lifestyle that holds it hostage, will now depend on a 42-inch wide oil pipe running through nations fraught with Muslim-Christian conflict on top of post-Soviet gangster politics. The good news is that the $4 billion pipe is buried underground so it will not be vulnerable to the small arms so abundant in that part of the world: shoulder-launched missiles, rocket propelled grenades, or .50 caliber bullets. The bad news is that it is only a few feet underground and can still be blown up by five pounds of Semtech strapped to a donkey. Also, the pipeline traverses some of the most rugged terrain in Asia Minor and presents many opportunities for mischief.

Another problem: Kazakhstan is right next door to China. China needs foreign oil as desperately as the US does. Nothing prevents China from commandeering Kazakhstan's oil, by means ranging from legal contracts to Chinese soldiers on-the-ground. That logically raises the question as to whether America would entertain a land war with China over landlocked Kazakhstan, 12,000 miles away from here. What would you say our prospects would be in such a venture? The Russians might have some interests there, too, not necessarily identical to ours. World War Three anyone?

Finally, the wish back in the 1990s that Central Asian oil would bail the west out of dependence on the Persian Gulf nations has faded with exploration which now indicates the region has far less oil than the 300-billion barrels originally hoped for (more like sixteen to forty billion now), and that it mostly consists of low quality "sour" crude, heavy on sulfur and more expensive to refine.

But such is the nature of strategic thinking in Washington these days that it all comes down to a 42 two inch pipeline for us now. You have to wonder, for instance, why we couldn't take that $4 billion and refurbish at least part of the US passenger railroad system - as compared to the roughly $290 billion slated for this year's federal highway construction and maintenance bill.

Get ready for the interesting half of the year 2005. The summer vacation motoring season is officially underway with the Memorial Day weekend. Oil prices are back up near $52 a barrel after falling to $46 for a few weeks in May. Americans are not going to drive fewer miles this year. Just look at how we've arranged things on the landscape. Most have to drive all over the place whether they like it or not. By the fall, motorists (that is, American citizens - aka "consumers") are going to be very disappointed with the way things are going, and they are going to start blaming the people responsible for our strategic thinking.

Paranoia Runs Deep (May 23 2005)

"Paranoia runs deep; into your life it will creep ..."

So went the lyrics to the old Buffalo Springfield song from the tumultuous Vietnam War years and now, as Yogi Berra also said around the same time, "it's like deja vu all over again".

I like to claim that I am allergic to conspiracy theories and the paranoia that attends them. But these days I'm not so sure anymore. The noise in the system is getting pretty thick, and the Internet is the perfect system for paranoia because any website can appear to be dignified and therefore to speak with some kind of authority. You have to sort out the reality from the noise the best that you can on your own. (So maybe it's not such a bad thing that this blog is so amateurish-looking, as many readers complain.)

The latest paranoid thread out there is that the US Military is waiting to commit a June assault on Iran's nuclear facilities, and that the Bush administration has been manipulating the stock markets up and the oil markets down in an attempt to to lull the public deeper into its coma of cluelessness by making the surface of American life seem placid.

I really don't know what the government is capable of doing to tweak the markets. It certainly has access to a lot of nominal "money", and I suppose that it is not to difficult to put that money into "play", by funneling it this way and that way through large institutions and agencies. The current crisis of capital derives from the fact that the American economy produces fewer and fewer things of enduring value - and more and more fluff in the form of Star Wars movies - so any financial paper or instrument that pretends to represent the nation's longer-term prospects is in danger of not being taken seriously. The wealth accumulated in the US in the second half of the last century is actually shrinking now, since our industrial base is withering away, and whatever investment we are capable of making has been increasingly directed into the "hard assets" of houses. The catch is that the "investment" in houses is almost all credit - mortgages, promises to pay most of the money later. The catch of the catch is that the cost of obtaining credit (interest rates) remains supernaturally low and the standards for creditworthiness have ceased to exist. The catch of the catch of the catch is that a lot of the mortgages are adjustable, meaning the cost of borrowing doesn't necessarily stay supernaturally low. It can float with rising interest rates.

Finance professionals know that these conditions are perverse and perilous. That's why they call it a "housing bubble". The moiling "consumer" masses only know that the dollar-value of their houses goes up ten percent or more every year, while stock and bond portfolios go sideways. So they ignore any supposed peril and keep flipping the houses. Finance professionals know that sooner or later grownups in other countries who buy our financial paper will decide that our long-term prospects are a joke, and that we will have to raise the interest rates a lot to keep them buying. When that happens, the tears begin to flow from the mortgage-holders.

Beneath all this runs the issue of our most critical resource, oil. Without it, America just stops running, and if oil gets much more expensive, major parts of our system start to break down - the easy motoring commutes, the oil-based farming, the big box retail, commercial aviation, et cetera. If oil makes a move above the $60 dollar range, all bets are off for the equity markets, the housing bubble, and the struggling "consumer" masses.

Now, it may be that the oil futures markets were simply overbought in April and the price had to go down while inventories were absorbed. The gross US inventory of oil awaiting the refineries stood at around 330 million barrels last week. Seems like a whopping great amount. We use twenty million barrels a day, so you can see that the inventory represents about 16.5 days of oil. Whoop-de-doo. But having the market price of a barrel of oil dip well below $50 was certainly a great psychological boost for the people who run America. It made President Bush seem like he can command the great forces of nature. And I suppose the oil price downturn also bestirred the equity market players to believe, if only momentarily, that there was some productive juice left in the old economy.

We now face the Memorial Day weekend, traditionally the start of the summer motoring season, when upward pressure on oil prices tends to resume. Even if the tanks are full now, it pays to remind ourselves that nearly three-quarters of that gasoline comes from other lands, including lands full of people who don't want us to be happy. One of these, arguably, is Iran - though many in the hairsplitting game would say it's only the leaders who hate us, not the youthful masses of the population, who don't remember the Shah and all that. Some months ago, our leaders said they would not tolerate a nuclear Iran. In reply, Iran told the US to, well, to go piss up a rope, so to speak. All has been quiet since that exchange. They've made it pretty plain what they aim to do. Who knows what we aim to do? But paranoia runs deep.

Hand In Hand (May 16 2005)

I was in Tallahassee, Florida, last week talking to a large room full of planning officials. My message was pretty straightforward: every new housing subdivision, every new strip mall, every parking lagoon and big box chain-store pod that you issue approvals for from this point on will lead your country deeper into tragedy.

The response was apathetic, as though I were giving a class in Chinese algebra.

Florida is one of the multiple epicenters of a hypertrophic suburban growth machine that has taken the place of the US economy. Reforming it is unimaginable because without the business generated by a cancer-like replication of car infrastructure, the economy would consist of little besides hair cutting, fried chicken, and open heart surgery. In places like Florida (and California, and northern Virginia, and Las Vegas, and Dallas), all citizens are complicit in the drive toward tragedy because all want business-as-usual to continue. The idea that any set of circumstances might put a stop to it is laughable to them. What can you do for such a people determined to commit civilizational suicide?

Meanwhile, a glance at Sunday's New York Times Magazine shows what the supposedly thinking class of America is preoccupied with these days: rescuing architectural Modernism, that twentieth century system of asthetic pretensions that affected to celebrate mankind's triumph over nature by way of technology. Those boys are in for a surprise when they discover that nature gave the human race technology in order that we might choose to shoot ourselves in the head when the time came. This is what comes of humans bethinking themselves smarter than nature. Apart from it. Superior to it.

The tragic futility of the suburban growth racket and the towering hubris of Modernism go hand-in-hand. Both rest on ideologies that drive relentlessy toward death. Both depend on a condition of widespread and extreme narcissism among individual members of society to continue their operations. Both represent a kind of wickedness that does not require religious transliteration to understand. Both will be defeated by reality.

The Rapture (May 9 2005)

When exactly the American public entered the Rapture is a little hard to say - maybe as long ago as the Reagan years - but it is not the same Rapture as the Born Agains are gleefully awaiting - the absurd cosmic vacuuming up to heaven that leaves behind all the rest of us sinners. No, the Rapture I speak of is the stupendous complacency of a people convinced that the future is going to be just like the past.

Everywhere I look I see things that are not going to work in the years ahead, and see people making plans for conditions that will no longer exist. State DOT officials in Texas are planning to build a new statewide super-mega highway network just as the global oil peak forecloses a future of easy motoring. Where I live, at the rural edge of New York's Capital District, suburban housing pods are springing up in every cow pasture in complete faith that supernaturally cheap mortgages and long commutes will continue to be the norm. Municipalities everywhere are investing in multi-million dollar parking structures in the belief that we will be using cars in 2019 exactly the way we do now. Even the enviros are enraptured. I get letters every day from bio-diesel fans who plan to run the interstate highway system and Disney World on oil derived from algae farms.

The collective consciousness is amazingly resistant to the fact that things change. Over in Syracuse, New York, a town sinking into the economic sclerosis of a former soviet-style backwater, the locals have approved perhaps the most idiotic project ever conceived by a free and sovereign people - a hyper-super-giant-mega-mall to be called DestNY USA (sic) that would include 400 stores, 4,000 hotel rooms, a saltwater aquarium, a 65-acre park under a Biosphere-like dome, and a food court based around a miniature Erie Canal {as reported in Sunday's New York Times Metro Section}. The idea is that people will flock to Syracuse by car from places with equally sclerotic economies (Worcester, Massachusetts or Scranton, Pennsylvania) in order to go on shopping sprees for new sneakers and cargo pants, which for some reason may be in short supply where they live.

The near-imbecile governor of New York, George Pataki, showed up to grandstand at the "groundbreaking" for this dumb-ass boondoggle (which has garnered tons of tax credits and other windfalls), though not a darn thing has been built since that symbolic shovelful of dirt was turned over. The developer behind DestiNY USA, one Robert Congel, was the CEO of a predatory shopping mall company, Pyramid Inc, which raped the local retail economy of many an upstate city since the 1970s. For all of its grandiosity, DestiNY USA is still minor league stuff compared to the plans afoot for Las Vegas, where the Rapture is in its most florid and terminal stage, and aggravated by yet another collective mental disorder: the belief that it is possible to get something for nothing.

I'd go as far to say that a public as complacent and clueless as America's is these days deserves to be played for fools. It's not pretty, but life is tragic. History doesn't care if we sleepwalk into a clusterfuck. Plenty of other societies have before us. The real sin in the real world is the failure to pay attention to the signals that your environment sends you. The signals aimed at us now tell us the following: the oil age is entering an unstable permanent decline; suburbia and all its usufructs is finished; the blue-light special shopping economy is about to end; easy motoring will shortly be a thing of the past; the middle class will be replaced by a new former middle class; and all bets are off as to how violently American politics will shudder when the fog finally lifts.

2041 (May 2 2005)

In his press conference last week, President Bush was fixated on the year 2041 as the point that social security will come off the rails financially if not reformed soon. He emphasized the year 2041 several times.

I wonder if the president has done the math on world oil supplies. A year ago (2004) just about any authority would tell you that, based on the current rate of use, the world oil supply would last another 37 years. Which would bring us to 2041. What a coincidence. Of the two issues, social security and oil, I have to think that running out of oil would be the more compelling, since social security will not exist unless there is an industrial society to support it. Inasmuch as industrial society runs on oil, and no combination of alternative fuels can take its place, a reasonable person would have to conclude that we face a hell of a problem.

Energy is what the president pretended to address in the first (and much briefer) part of his press conference - and he was asked hardly any questions about it during the Q and A. The president's view is that "new technology" supplied by human ingenuity will eventually solve America's problem with oil. This reveals a misunderstanding very common among those in the US public who think about these things at all, namely, that technology is thought to be synonymous with energy, that they are essentially the same thing.

The fact that energy and technology are not the same thing is crucial to understanding our predicament. There are really only five energy sources available to us: non-renewable oil, natural gas, coal, uranium, and renewable solar (which includes wind, hydro, photovoltaic, and bio-mass, all dependent on sunlight acting on the earth). The hope is that technology will somehow allow us to capture an equivalent amount of energy from renewables that we now get from non-renewables. This is the central fallacy of techno-hubris. And this popular delusion is one of the unfortunate unintended consequences of America's successful landing on the moon in 1969 - the idea that we can do anything if only we wish hard enough. Talk about diminishing returns as expressed in culture!

Of course there's a catch with the theoretical 37-year supply of world oil. The catch is that we don't have to run out of oil, or even close, to have trouble with a depleting supply. All that's necessary to destabilize the major industrial systems we depend on is a fractional yearly decline in production, say two or three percent, because that will mark the end of conventional industrial "growth" that global finance requires to continue operating. It also matters that the US has been depleting its oil at about that rate for thirty-five years and that we make up for our declining oil supply by importing two-thirds of the oil we use from other nations, many of them unfriendly.

President Bush has therefore wasted the first two months of his second term following a mistaken set of priorities. The system that is most in trouble is the oil-addicted American way of life and all its familiar accessories: the single family home in the suburbs, the multiple millions of cars and trucks running at any time, and the food grown and processed on fossil fuel "steroids". If we don't reform that system than nobody in American society will have security of any kind much sooner than 2041.

A Bitch-Slap Upside the Head (April 25 2005)

I was at the University of Wisconsin last week, doing Q and A after a lecture, when somebody asked me what it would take for the American public to start paying attention to the grave energy issues coming down at us. I answered, speaking figuratively, a bitch-slap upside the head. At once off to the side of the big room, a young woman thrust up her hand. I called on her and she said that she was offended by my remark. I was then duly upbraided for my choice of language and my attitude toward women.

This is not the first time I have encountered a reaction like this. A similar thing happened to me at Princeton last month. I remarked that Modernism had succeeded in removing all feminine qualities from architecture, in particular ornament and curves, and a wrathful female student hastened to chastise me for expressing the idea - to which, it seemed to me, any genuine feminist ought to be sympathetic.

After much pondering and prayer, I conclude that the faculties of the America's great universities have forgotten what free speech means, namely that even if expressions make us feel uncomfortable we are obliged to tolerate them so as to assure our freedom to express ideas that might make somebody else uncomfortable.

What's obvious is that these students have been carefully trained by their teachers to behave this way, conditioned to rise up on cue in censorious indignation to smack down ideas that "offend" them. Who are their teachers? A lot of the tenured ones are fellow members of my own Woodstock Generation (and many of them are women). It's awfully ironic that an intellectual trend that started with the Berkeley "Free Speech" movement in 1965 has now mutated into a widespread impulse to censor free speech on the grounds that it "offends".

This was the case earlier this year when the president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, remarked at a conference that in light of the overwhelming representation of males on the science faculty perhaps there was something innate in the difference between men and women to account for it. Summers was pilloried for his remarks. The faculty went so far as to organize a formal no confidence vote against him. He has refused to step down, though he has issued many obsequious apologies in the aftermath.

What is most amazing about the Harvard incident is that it formally established the faculty's position as being officially against free inquiry and free expression - and, of course, that it happened at the supposedly highest level of academia.

I would go so far to say now that this has all happened precisely because of differences between men and women and the fact that women have come to dominate some college faculties, especially the so-called humanities (where expression is supposedly taught). They've implanted the idea that somebody's (anybody's) personal feelings are more important than the substance of any expression, and that somebody's (anybody's) hurt feelings are grounds for shutting down the expression, and the discussion that goes with it. The implicit narcissism is also fantastic.

I regard this behavior on the campuses as pernicious fucking nonsense. It is just another thing (along with the widespread belief that it is possible to get something for nothing) that is turning America into a fourth-rate culture, a nation of cravens and cretins. And it will lead us right into the grip of the law of perverse outcomes, which states that people get what they deserve, not what they expect.

That 1914 Feel (April 18 2005)

The stock markets and the oil futures markets sank in tandem last week as the global economy responded to increasing strain by wobbling. Oil dipped below $50 a barrel. Don't expect it to linger there long, as the summer driving season approaches. (Memorial Day weekend is the traditional start.)

Americans will travel compulsively even in a darkening economy. They may not go to Europe right now, with coffee at five bucks a cup there, but they will keep driving around the US because the suburban wastelands where most Americans live are so unendurably depressing that their denizens will pay almost any price for gas to get away for a while - if only to hyper-artificial destinations like Las Vegas and Disney World. In any case, virtually all American cities (or metroplexes, since the city part is now the least of them), are so designed that stupendous rates of daily motoring are unavoidable.

Being allergic to most conspiracy theory, I am not sure that a Plunge Protection Team actually exists. (That is, a gang of institutional investors whom government leaders can call upon to prop up faltering stock markets.) If there is such a cabal, then I would be further skeptical as to the extent of their power to act. This week will test their supposed powers against a super-tide of nervous lumpen 401-K holders who have begun to notice things such as the fact that nobody wants to buy big stupid badly-designed American cars, or that Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) is hot to impose tariffs on Chinese textiles (that is, every article of clothing found in the GAP, Target, WalMart), or that we suddenly have a much more punative bankruptcy law that will make credit card free-spenders think twice about flirting with insolvency. My own predication is that the stock markets are entering a free-fall.

The excellent young historian Niall Ferguson has an essay in the current issue of Foreign Affairs ("Sinking Globalization") to remind the supposedly thinking class that the global economy is not a permanent insitution but a set of transient conditions that has come and gone before - namely, the period running from about 1870 to 1914, when the First World War put an end to the Industrial Age's first great interval of stability and free trade. That "golden age" beat a path into a gruesome intermezzo of broken political relations, depression, and more war. Globalization did not resume until the 1970s, when two things occurred: (1) the other combatants of World War Two recovered some industrial traction and (2) US oil production peaked and pricing power shifted to OPEC.

Since then, the world has enjoyed another extraordinary era of stability between the major nations. Notice, I don't use the term major powers. Many would argue that US military power is beyond challenge. A minority view states there enough small arms in the world so that any gang of miscreants with $50,000 worth of rocket-propelled grenades, shoulder-launched missiles, and Semtech plastic explosive can make the US Army do a hurt dance. The long term trend is for America to exhaust itself engaging with these fire-ants, and to withdraw from the ant-hills back into the safety of North America.

That process is now underway, and the economic implications are rather dire. The spring of 2005 has that 1914 feel. In Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, the current hiatus has settled nothing. The various tribes and factions are still pissed off at each other and at us. America is still left with its huge oil import addiction and a suburban way-of-life that no amount of "energy conservation" can appease. The tectonic stresses of economic distortion have been building under the surface of the Wal Mart / China partnership. For those of you contemplating a vacation in Las Vegas, don't bet on the status quo.

James Howard Kunstler is author of The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century (Atlantic Monthly Press (2005) and several other books.

Bill Totten


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