Bill Totten's Weblog

Thursday, September 09, 2010

In The Headlights

by James Howard Kunstler

Comment on current events by the author of
The Long Emergency
(2005) (September 06 2010)

The toils of summer are bygone now. The days grow shorter and America stands in the darkling road of its own prospects like a dumb animal frozen in the blinding light of approaching fury. The White House must be a strange place these days with the management of the USA turned over to astrologasters, alchemists, prayer-wheel spinners, fakirs, viziers, necromancers and other visitors from occult realms unaffiliated with the dominion of reality.

One of these characters, Ms Christina Romer, at a luncheon celebrating her departure as chief of the White House Council of Economic Advisors (that is, readers of spilled goat innards) even blurted out that she had no idea what's been going on in banking and business and how come America can't be more like it was in 1999. Don't cry for Christina. A cushy chair awaits her at the Hogwarts Berkeley outpost where she can repose in a trance of unknowing until California slides into its own tar pit of default and disintegration.

It's all a mystery in Washington. Nobody can figure out what happened to their green-eyed champion called Growth, that savior who rights all wrongs and insures our eternal exception from the sad fates of other less-blessed empires. Isn't there a book of conjures somewhere in the Harvard Business School that guarantee perpetual growth - even if there are different tomes around the campus that describe the essential tragic nature of life, viz, that there is a beginning, a middle, and an end to everything. And while this might not be the end of the human project in North America, it is certainly the end of the cheap oil abbondanza, and everything spun off of it in the way of mass consumer luxury, with air-conditioning and a cherry on top.

My own view - I might be wrong - is that we are going through an epochal compressive contraction, which is the opposite of growth. Money is disappearing because debts are being welshed on in such a volume that all the digital dollars conjured out of chief wizard Ben Bernanke's magic booty box are but empty spells cast into a hurricane of broken promises. This is no Hurricane Earl - which stared into the discharge tube of Lloyd Blankfein's cappuccino machine and skidded off whimpering into the fogs of Newfoundland. This economic contraction storm has a long way to go, and it will be taking the USA on a strange journey, a trip more marvelous and hazard-fraught than the trek across the Oregon Trail - and the destination may be a strange country where promises are taken seriously. What an idea!

In the meantime, the managers of US polity, Mr Barack Obama and Company, look to continue scattering goat innards on the new carpet in the Oval Office in their desperate seeking for a miraculous return to the non-stop celebration that was ringing through the nation a decade ago. Any moment now, the President will announce some new "program" aimed at propping up house prices - in order, you understand, to allow banks to pretend that they are still solvent. It won't do a thing for the poor schlemiels who already paid way too much for a house, and it won't do a thing for anyone looking to buy a house with a shrinking income, but it's probably what he'll do, along perhaps with some other cockamamie flim-flams, like temporarily suspending the payroll tax so the American people can stock up on Cheez Doodles and beer for the football festival known as Thanksgiving. I have a better idea: put a seven-trillion-dollar tax on Lloyd Blankfein's cappuccino machine.

I voted for Barack Obama. I don't know about you, but I'm a tad disappointed in how things turned out with him. These days he makes Millard Fillmore look like Frederick the Great. His speech last week on Iraq and, incidentally, economic matters, was such a puffery of hollow platitudes that I was a little surprised he didn't go up in a vapor at the end of it like a genie and retreat inside his desk lamp in a little trail of steam. Nobody can figure out why he keeps the same krewe of viziers at his elbow after all these months of failure to engage with reality. The voters were expecting a champion and got a Labradoodle instead.

Not that his political adversaries are any better. In fact, I wouldn't depend on John Boehner to pull a straight furrow in three feet of dry loam, or Mitch McConnell to tie his own shoelaces and chew gum at the same time but its certainly reassuring to know that Sarah Palin is waiting offstage to enter the 2012 national beauty pageant and that all of America can stop wasting money on education now that Fox News has installed a blackboard on Glenn Beck's soundstage.

Let me tell you exactly what is going on "out there". The so-called developed world is watching two giant forces race each other to put an end to business-as-usual for industrial civilization. These two forces are the catastrophe of debt and predicament of oil supplies. They had been running neck-and-neck for a few years, but now the catastrophe of debt is pulling slightly ahead. But even this is an illusion because these two forces are actually hitched in tandem, with the rickety cart of civilization bouncing perilously behind them, and whatever one of these forces does will affect the other. Bad debt will eventually cripple the global oil industry's ability to perform, and the failures of the oil industry will only amplify the killing force of debt. It's that simple.

And the simple moral of the story is that the only sane thing America can do is simplify itself, de-complexify its dangerously hyper-complex organs of daily life. I've stated them before but, briefly, this means simplifying the way we do farming, commerce, transportation, inhabiting the landscape, schooling, medicine, and banking. Everything we do to add additional layers of complexity to these already tottering systems will guarantee an eventual orgy of blood and material destruction to this land. Everything we do to prop up the unsustainable instead of reconstructing the armatures of everyday life will make American life a nightmare in a very few years ahead.

It must be the case that President Obama and the other denizens of high places do not have a clue what I might mean by all this - though I am hardly the only one advancing this set of ideas and it is not really radical considering the alternatives. But our leaders' foolish intransigence insures a political convulsion that will follow the onset of an involuntary restructuring that can't be avoided anymore, because reality has mandates of its own, and is closer to God than all the hosts of our ridiculous politics.


A sequel to my 2008 novel of post-oil America, World Made By Hand, will be published in September 2010 by The Atlantic Monthly Press. The title is The Witch of Hebron.

Mr Kunstler's biography is at see

Bill Totten


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