Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, August 20, 2005

The Clusterfuck Nation Chronicle

Commentary on the Flux of Events

by Jim Kunstler (August 15 2005)

Before I even get started, I will qualify my remarks this week by reminding you (1) I'm a registered Democrat, and (2) I'm not "pro-war".

So yesterday afternoon while working outside, I was listening to Harry Shearer's Le Show on National Public Radio. Le Show is a patchwork of skits and news commentary by the actor cum comedian who played one of the rockers in This Is Spinal Tap, and who has since shown up in several Christopher Guest mockumentaries such as A Mighty Wind.

So Shearer was on the radio and I'm not crazy about his show because he puts across a self-congratulatory air of moral superiority that, after a while, gets on my nerves. Yesterday, he was twanging on the Iraq War again and especially on the notion that the public was swindled into entering it on the phony pretext of "weapons of mass destruction( WMDs)", with the implication that he was a superior person for having figured this out.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I regard the standard WMD argument as fatuous (turned out there was nothing there, so we shouldn't have gone in and looked). But this blog isn't about the WMD argument per se. It's about Harry Shearer's snotty assumption that our exertions in the Middle East - however poorly or well we are managing them - are only undertaken for the vanity and greed of George Bush & Co.

Because as Shearer was twanging on about WMDs and Iraq and how deplorable the whole thing is, I started wondering about Shearer's real life in Los Angeles, and imagining him driving from his house in one of the better sections of the city to the studio where he does the show, or Shearer motoring across town to Melrose Avenue for sushi, or Shearer tooling up into the canyons above Hollywood to have drinks with friends, or Shearer transporting a child, perhaps, twenty miles down the freeway to a soccer game. And I was wondering what kind of car Shearer drove, and I couldn't help imagining it was probably not a cheap car, and perhaps not a little tiny car, and if Shearer was married or lived with somebody, then his wife / partner undoubtedly had a car, too - because that's how life is lived in Los Angeles, despite some of their strides in public transit. And as I imagined Harry Shearer driving around Los Angeles in an expensive car deploring this terrible war in Iraq, I couldn't shake the feeling that Shearer was getting, so to speak, a free ride.

Which gets back to the war per se. Because if anyone asked me to define what the war is about - and people have asked - I would say the war is a desperate attempt by the US to stabilize the region of the world where two-thirds of the remaining global oil supply exists in order for Americans like Harry Shearer to continue enjoying a lifestyle of extreme car dependency. Now, this war may be an exercise in futility and ineptitude by the people running it, while it includes acts of valor or brutality by the soldiers engaged in it, and certainly produces a lot of personal tragedy for the soldiers and the Iraqi people.

But I have trouble imagining what Harry Shearer thinks the Middle East would be like now if the US had not overthrown Saddam Hussein and was not struggling to maintain this police station there in the hot center of things. Does he imagine it would be a tranquil scene, like the picture on a pack of Camel cigarettes? If Shearer couldn't get as much gas as he wanted on a given day - even if he could pay high prices - to fill up his Infiniti, or Beemer, or Benzie, or Toyota Landcruiser, or whatever he drives, would he be feeling quite so superior about the war? Has Harry Shearer seen any of his children join the army and go to Iraq to preserve his entitlement to drive all over Los Angeles in a spiffy car? Has Harry Shearer made any sacrifices so that he is less oil-dependent than he was before there was a war in Iraq?

Harry Shearer with his attitude of moral superiority reminds me of my neighbor here in Saratoga Springs, the lady with the "War Is NOT the Answer" bumper sticker on her Ford Expedition. For people who want to keep on enjoying an easy motoring utopia, war is the answer.

This, of course, is the predicament of the Democrats, my own party. They have no interest in modifying the nation's suicidal suburban sprawl lifestyle either, only in the easy pretenses of political correctness. Instead of twanging on WMDs and the depravity of the war in Iraq, I'd like to hear someone like Harry Shearer (or John Kerry, or Nancy Pelosi, or Harry Reid) stand up and pitch for restoring the US passenger rail system. I'd like to hear some of these assholes propose some meaningful changes that Americans can make in behavior so we won't be so desperate to engage in military contests over the oil we need to drive for sushi in Los Angeles. (August 08 2005)

Has the world noted that the conservative establishment in America - including the always prim George W Bush and his buttoned-down minions, the heavenly hosts of mass-market evangelism, the zillionaire retired CEO authors of how-to-get-rich books, and the media tub-thumpers like David Brooks of the New York Times - I repeat, has the world noted that they all preside over the most slovenly, undisciplined, and reckless economy the world has seen since mankind started bathing regularly?

Many are amazed at the levitation of a financial system with no remaining reality-based understructure of value creation. Zero-percent financing. Loans to anybody with a pulse. Instant conversion of hallucinated house value appreciation into speedboats and Hummers, college kids declaring bankruptcy on graduation at unprecedented rates, the explosion of "creative" financial instruments conjured out of the promises of millions to pay back money that they will never earn, and swapped in a spiral of casino-like wagers into metaphysical ethers of delusion - things like that. I sort of left out the pretend money that Mr Bush's government itself affects to disburse, and the bond racket linked to that affectation.

We're a country with no discipline, led by fake scoutmasters, moneygrubbing ministers, chiseling accountants, and oversexed schoolmarms. The new national motto: Something for Nothing. The new spiritual capital: Las Vegas.

Now, it's my personal opinion that we really are headed for crash central this fall. The price of oil is entering uncharted territory. Natural gas has virtually tripled in price since 2003. People are beginning to fear that the heating season will be brutal for those in the employ of WalMart and worse for those in the employ of nobody. Magical as this phony-baloney over-leveraged economy has seemed, whatever remains of real life will be affected by higher gasoline prices. I know it sounds absurd to say that, because so far Americans have seemed to absorb a one year price doubling without complaint. But we're hostages to motoring, whether we like it or not, and when the price of gasoline goes north of $3 a gallon (coming very soon) yowls will be heard even in the soundproofed sanctums of Karl Rove's west wing headquarters.

Trouble is brewing with WalMart's chief partner, China. They are ticked off that they are prevented from acquiring hard strategic assets, such as US owned oil companies, with all those US dollars we have snookered them into hoarding from the sale of their plastic-ware. Together with Russia, China is egging on the former soviet-o-stans to kick out our military bases. China is inking long-term supply contracts with the people we desperately depend on for our oil: Venezuela and Canada. China is tired of our tendentious jive. Pretty soon they are going to want to try to kick our ass. Let's hope they don't try that by making moves in central Asia, where our prospects for fighting a land war with them are not promising.

Meanwhile, at home, we will come to grips with the sheer fact that a society unable to produce things of real value must contend with a tanking of those financial markers pegged to the expectation that a society can produce things of value. When that recognition hits, there will be far fewer zero percent loans and no money down ghost condo sales. The unwinding will begin. America will be reunited with it's long-lost biological parent: reality. What will the despondent public think of the conservative establishment then? (August 01 2005)

We begin this ominous month with the curious case of Daniel Yergin, who won the Pulitizer for his 1992 epic history of the oil industry, The Prize, later turned into a PBS megadocumentary. Since his big score, Yergin has set up a public relations firm called Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA) which, in the spirit of the PR profession, seems to have become the main disinformation organ for its clients, the major oil companies.

In a piece published in yesterday's Washington Post, Yergin takes the position that there is no problem with the global oil supply. Over the next five years, he says, both OPEC and non-OPEC producers will come up with an extra sixteen million barrels a day, taking the world from its current 85 million barrels a day to 101 million barrels a day in 2010. This will happen, he says, because of "new technology" used to exploit unconventional sources of oil such as tar sands, ultra-deep-water developments, and natural gas liquids.

More than a few elements of Yergin's pitch are shifty. The slyest one is that he does not mention that unconventional oil tends to be very uncheap, and since it is cheap oil that enables America's "non-negotiable" easy motoring way of life, and the debt-fueled suburban sprawl-building economy that has evolved to serve it, there may indeed be a problem further along in the pipeline, so to speak.

Yergin also leaves out the fact that most (and perhaps all) of the world's major conventional oil fields are past peak and now depleting at between three and twenty percent a year - and, ironically, as in the case of the North Sea, the more advanced the drilling technology, the more efficiently the oil is recovered, the greater the rate of depletion.

The big question mark, of course, is Saudi Arabia, which until recently was believed to be years short of peak. A new analysis by Matthew Simmons, chief investment banker to the US drilling industry, and author of the just-published Twilight in the Desert, concludes that Saudi Arabia is peaking now. Simmons adds that the Saudi's fifty-year-old super-giant Ghawar oil field (from which Saudi Arabia gets more than half its crude) has been structurally degraded by aggressive over-production and by the practice of injecting sea water into the geological strata in order to keep the pressure up in the wells.

Saudi oil reserve figures have been guarded as "state secrets" since they nationalized their industry in the 1970s, so nobody, including Mr Yergin, knows for sure what is left under the desert. But we do know what is coming out of the Kingdom in its tankers, and despite repeated promises to increase production in order to goose down prices over the past year, the Saudis have failed to do so. This we know.

Among the other things Yergin's rosy analysis leaves out is that oil is inequitably distributed among the nations of the world. It is a generally accepted fact that roughly two thirds of the remaining oil lies under the Middle East, and another substantial fraction is in Central Asia. That is to say, it belongs either to people who hate us, or to landlocked countries on the farthest side of the globe (next door to China). Another significant pool (though past peak) belongs to Venezuela, run by Mr Hugo Chavez, who remains irked by American attempts to overthrow his regime and have him bumped off. These facts ought to give pause to the confident.

The conclusion that a reasonable person might draw is that the West, and America in particular, is liable to have trouble getting its mitts on all the oil it needs, and that the industrial nations altogether are headed straight into a fateful geopolitical scramble for whatever's out there. That's exactly why we are in Iraq, by the way. It is our central forward base to secure Middle East oil supplies. And it also why we have embarked on the somewhat crazy and dubious project of setting up bases in several former Soviet republics. (Kyrgystan has just asked us to pack up and leave.) A great game is underway and the patriotic steroids that America has been taking since 9/11 are no guarantee that we will end up the winners.

Along these geopolitical lines, we note today the death of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. Fahd had been disabled by a stroke for years, and the Kingdom has been effectively ruled during this time by his half-brother Prince Abdullah, who now becomes king. Abdullah himself is 82 years old, and whatever his abilities have been, he would not now seem destined for a long reign. What follows Abdullah - with Arabian oil entering its arc of depletion, and the kingdom's oil welfare disbursments shrinking among an exploding population, including a large number of unemployed, futureless, non-royal angry young Arabian men occupied in the study of a militant wahhabism - may be a very turbulent chapter in the history of that region.

These are the things that Daniel Yergin's public relations escort service to the oil industry doesn't want to talk about.

By the way, the price of oil this morning: $61.02 a barrel as I close. (July 25 2005)

At the end of each vexing day, I go out for a bike ride. It sends a lot of oxygen through my brainpan and burns away all the woe and consternation that remains from attempting to make sense of the world. I'm very fortunate. I live in a place where an actual edge of town still exists, at least at the northwest corner of my town, Saratoga Springs, New York.

The ride is 7.5 miles. Half of it was unpaved until seven years ago. It is still not heavily traveled by cars. A few large land-owners - Skidmore College and the Saratoga Polo Association - have prevented the roadsides from being filled in with McHouses and the rest of the usual commercial McTrash.

See picture at

This this the road out, about one mile from where town ended. A horse farm lies on the left; to the right, about a hundred yards through the bushes, is a railroad track. Occasionally freight trains and the once-a-day (is that all?) passenger service from New York City to Montreal pass by. This stretch is obviously pretty flat, but the terrain is more rugged than it might appear and the route actually has some challenging ups and downs.

Motorists who do come by are often filled with gall and resentment that they have to swerve around me - even though I ride pretty close to the shoulder. In our society, anything that interferes with motoring pleasure is considered perverse and illegitimate. I don't have to listen to the drivers gnashing their teeth, though, because I am wearing an MP3 player. It is a cheap one and holds about thirty-odd tunes at a time. It is based around a computer jump drive and it is very easy to swap tunes on or off the thing. Here are the tunes I was listening to last week:

Start Me Up, Beast of Burden, Tumbling Dice (Rolling Stones)
Pledging My Time, Visions of Johanna (Bob Dylan)
Drives Me Crazy (Fine Young Cannibals)
Remember Me (Lucky Dube)
Don't Dream It's Over (Crowded House)
Jordan Is a Hard Road To Follow (John Hiatt and the Chieftens)
I'm Looking Through You (Wallflowers [Beatles cover])
Africa (Hymn, William Billings - 1746 - 1800)
The Full-rigged Ship (Abby Newton)
Broken Telephone (the Be Good Tanyas)
Sailing to Philadelphia (Mark Knopfler)
When I Get It Right (Joan Armatrading)
Crow Black Chicken, Cherry Ball Blues, the Tattler, Seneca Square Dance (Ry Cooder)
Nightswimming, Man in the Moon (REM)
Traveling On For Jesus (Kate and Anna McGarrigle)
Love is Everything (Jane Siberry)
I Am a Pilgrim (the Byrds)
City of Dreams (Brian Keane - From the Soundtrack of New York by Ric Burns)
The Last Rose of Summer (Ditto)
Lonesome Day (Bruce Springsteen)

I generally don't get through the whole playlist during one ride, but the next day I pick it up somewhere in the middle and start going around again. It eases the pain a lot on the uphills and scrubs my frontal lobes clean.

I am fully aware how lucky I am. I work for myself. Most of the places where people live in the United States today are fucked up beyond belief, and this kind of experience is impossible to find in them. I come out here every day precisely to forget about that. Next week we'll get back to the concerns of the real world.

Bill Totten


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