Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Climate, Oil, War, and Money

Clusterfuck Nation

by James Howard Kunstler

Comment on current events by the author of
The Long Emergency
(2005) (December 07 2009)

Against a greater welter and flow of incoherence jerking the nation this way and that way en route to collapse comes "ClimateGate", the latest excuse for screaming knuckleheads to defend what has already been lost. It is also yet another distraction from the emergency agenda that the United States faces - namely the urgent re-scaling, re-localizing, and de-globalizing of our daily activities.

What seems to be at stake for the knuckleheads is their identity, their idea of what it means to be an American, which boils down to being an organism so specially blessed and entitled that it is excused from paying attention to reality. There were no doubt plenty of counterparts among the Mayans when the weather changed and their crops failed, and certainly the Romans had their share of identity psychotics who doubted reality even when Alaric the Visigoth was hoisting off their household treasure.

Reality doesn't care if we are on-board with its mandates or not. The human race has to get with whatever program reality is serving up at a particular time. Are we shocked to learn that scientists fight among themselves and cheat as much as congressmen? Does that really change the relationships we understand about parts-per-million of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere and the weather?

What the people of the world can do or will do about a change in climate is something else. My guess is that the undertow of entropy is now too great to provoke any meaningful unified change in behavior. The collapse of the US economy is too close to the horizon, and the so-called developing nations will have problems equally severe. In the meantime, it is unlikely that any of the major players will burn less coal and oil, or not cheat on each other even if they pledge to burn less. People who are not knuckleheads will make the practical arrangements that they can. These will, by definition, be localized, small-scale, and non-global communities, doing what they would have to do anyway.

A parallel identity mania afflicts those who have decided that the Bakken shale oil deposits and the Marcellus gas play will allow the USA to cancel any modifications to our living arrangements. This cohort of knuckleheads wants to believe the public relations of the oil and gas industry, and in particular the bankers who are arranging the financing for these ventures. The facts are irrelevant to their identity-claims (that the USA has limitless energy resources). In fact, the Bakken shale formation is unlikely to produce more than a few hundred thousand barrels of oil a day in a nation used to burning about twenty million. A few hundred thousand might mean a lot if were only used to light kerosene lamps, but it is unlikely to keep the faithful motoring off to WalMart and Walt Disney World - which is the exact expectation of the knuckleheads.

Shale gas is a similar story. It will be too expensive to get out of the tight rock at a flow that will allow business as usual to continue. It certainly won't be produced at under $10 a unit, and the nation's comprehensive bankruptcy accelerates every day, making it less likely that the public can pay premium prices within the framework of our current living arrangements.

Who the hell really knows what we're up to in Afghanistan. President Obama tried to present a coherent explanation last week but, frankly, it all just seemed an exercise in futility - and reminded me of those countless wealth-sapping expeditions the Roman army made to the frontiers of their own empire during the period of collapse. Paul Craig Roberts, the former Reagan treasury official turned fierce critic of bail-out economics, said on a podcast {*} last week, that he thought our adventure there was about protecting a Unocal oil company pipeline from Turkmenistan. Sorry, Paul. I can't buy that. Like, we're going to post soldiers every two hundred yards across some of the most forbidding terrain in world? And keep them posted there, and provisioned ... forever? I don't think so.


One pet theory of mine about the Af-stan adventure is that we wanted to make a baloney sandwich out of Iran by posting armies on both sides of them, with Iraq and Af-stan as the Wonder Bread. All I can say about that is that it doesn't seem to have affected Iran much during the past six years, or modified or influenced their behavior favorably. Or perhaps it just allows us to stand close by to Pakistan, in case the Islamic maniacs get their mitts on central power there - and by extension, on a bagful of nukes. It's a lot less easy to believe that we have any prospects for really domesticating and/or democratizing Af-stan itself. And even if we do manage to suppress the Taliban for a few years, are we prepared to continue the mission... forever? As soon as we're out of there, the Afghanis are back to tribal business-as-usual. So why not just bail while the bailing is good? Make like the Russians and the Brits before them and cut our losses? Is our prestige at stake? And by extension our identity as world-savers?

I suppose this leads to larger questions of (a) the stability of Islamic Central Asia in general, and (b) the capabilities and intentions of the maniacs within it who would like inflict punishment on us Western crusader types. One popular theory, of course, is that they only feel that way because of our intrusions in the Islamic Ummah; that they would back off and mind their own business if we would just quit sending our knights over there. I have no idea if this is true, though one would suppose there is a certain inertia in play that would keep their animosities at work for a long time to come, not to mention the millions of under-employed young men who seek to work off their testosterone by blowing things up.

One thing you can state pretty categorically about the Af-stan war: it sure is a good way to blow an additional one trillion dollars worth of capital - that is, money we lend to ourselves, which leads to the next link-in-the-chain: the destiny of our national finances. If a clerk at H and R Block sat down for an hour with Uncle Sam, he'd surely be reaching for the Pepto-Bismol after five minutes. We've been able to play games with ourselves for a whole year about the true state of our capital resources. It is a mighty big system, kept chugging along on little more than inertia, as things will when they are headed downhill and gravity exerts its influence. But it begins to seem now like a great reeking freight train of toxic waste out of control on the downgrade and headed for a very nasty smash-up. The Green Shoots crowd - a sub-category of identity maniacs, who think the USA is immune to the laws of history and physics - has made common cause with the oil and climate knuckleheads to proclaim that we are returning to normal, back to the "consumer" orgy, the suburban sprawl nexus of McHousing and miracle mortgages, and new frontiers of corporate profit-raking.

They are tragically wrong. Instead, we're headed into the wildest king-hell debt workout that the world has ever seen, which will propel a lot of people used to working in air-conditioned cubicles into a world made by hand. We march day by day into the great holiday season with mortgages going unpaid and the credit cards getting cancelled and money disappearing and the fears and grievances mounting. Pretty soon, the folks doing "God's work" at Goldman Sachs (and their tribal kin on Wall Street) will announce their annual bonuses (because they are publicly-held companies, which have to do so). Won't that be a galvanizing moment for us all?


The Sequel to World Made By Hand is now done and scheduled for publication by the Atlantic Monthly Press in Fall, 2010.

(c) 2009 All Rights Reserved.

Bill Totten


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