[permaculture] A look at the severe times ahead. Will we love another or kill one another?
garden at hal-pc.org
Sun Mar 5 13:14:56 EST 2006
All., I know this is long. Maybe you can print it and take it to the
bathroom when you got a good one rolling. Seriously, if any citizen of
the U.S. cares anything about our country, themselves and our children,
this type of scenario is a history making one. Americans , if they want
to suceed in the coming years, will finally get to un-polarize
themselves and re-integrate into the American fibre of mankind. We'll
have that good ole WWII "working together". Post-Carbon need not be a
diaster. It can be a catalyst to collective thinking, sharing of
resources and collaboration. Yes, there are some scenarios spelled out
in the article that are "Mad Max" style. But, that's only if pride and
stubborness remain in the way of the greater good trying to be achieved
by people wanting to change and live and share unashamedly. You know, it
really is a step back to the " on the farm" way of life. And those guys
were content and grateful with what they had. Lived in harmony with the
Earth and closer to it. Like I say, print it, read it in weird places,
tell people your eccentric (or whatever) friend sent this but do try and
take some of the data in. Maybe for amusement, maybe for education,
maybe for perspective. I read been reading this stuff since last Fall. I
think it hits all 3 just mentioned.
http://www.energybulletin.net/13200.html. Energy Bulletin is updated daily.
Published on 27 Feb 2006 by Austin Chronicle. Archived on 27 Feb 2006.
Things to come (parts 1-4)
by Michael Ventura
Things to come, part 1
September 30, 2005
Britt Ekland was a gorgeous "Bond girl," Miss Mary Goodnight in The Man
With the Golden Gun, a celebrity more than an actress, but no fool. In a
recent interview, Ekland, now 62, offered an idea to be remembered if we
are to endure the enormous changes that are overtaking us: "The key to
life is being able to downsize without losing your dignity."
That thought will run through this series of columns, in which I'll
sketch, as best I can, what we're in for (for good as well as for ill).
One disclaimer, though: I'm assuming a best-case scenario for global
warming; that is, climate changes proceeding at about their present
rate. If those changes turn drastic, as other scenarios suggest, all
bets are off.
In a column titled "$4 a Gallon" (The Austin Chronicle, April 29 [EB
editor: re-printed at the end of this article) I wrote, "Gas prices can
only go up. Oil production is at or near peak capacity ... that means $4
a gallon by next spring , and rising ... probably $10 by 2010."
Three days before Hurricane Katrina hit, The New York Times (Aug. 26,
p.1) reported $3 a gallon in some parts of the country. That article
noted: "In two years, the national oil bill has jumped by $210 billion,
or 54%." Since Katrina, $3 has become the national norm in many parts of
the country. If Rita had behaved as advertised, it would be closer to
$4. Katrina increased the rate of America's decline by at least a year,
and Rita has confirmed out vulnerability. Heating oil was expected to
rise 17% this winter before Katrina (NY Times, Sept. 8, p.C5). Expect $4
this spring, probably $5 next summer, $6 next hurricane season. Long
before then, it will be obvious to all that nothing can remain the same.
People grasping at straws often argue, "Gas has been $6 a gallon in
Europe for years, what's the problem?" With Europe's national health
insurance, Europeans (and their businesses) aren't burdened with our
incredible health costs, which are due to rise 10% next year (The Week,
Sept. 23, p.8), while Medicare premiums will rise 13% (NY Times, Sept.
17, p.8). The average American family health policy is now $11,000
yearly (USA Today, Sept. 15, p.1B); next year's 10% hikes raise that
figure to $12,100. If we weren't shelling out so much money to insurance
companies, we could absorb $6 a gallon too. (Even some conservatives are
realizing that national health insurance would lift an enormous burden
from large and small businesses as well as consumers.) More importantly,
most Europeans don't need a car and most Americans do, because Europe is
structured around cities while America is structured around suburbs.
Minus the sparsely populated stretches of Norway, Sweden, and Finland,
Europe is roughly half the size of the U.S., so its transport costs are
half. Finally and crucially, Europe has the finest rail system in the
world. We've let ours go to the dogs, though railroads are the cheapest
way to carry people and cargo (more on this in future columns). Also,
Europeans recognize the importance of global warming and peak oil. As
Jeff Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, recently said, "Europe today
is the major force for environmental innovation. European governments
have encouraged their companies to invest [in] and produce clean power
technologies." (NY Times, Sept. 21, p.25) Europe has big problems too,
but has positioned itself intelligently for the 21st century. America
still clings to the 20th, and we're about to pay for that.
With its excellent rail system, Europe is far less dependent
(internally) upon air travel. That is tonight's subject. More than pump
prices, and perhaps more than heating-oil prices, the first drastic
change for middle-class and more-or-less affluent Americans will be
their inability to fly.
In the last year, the price of jet fuel has risen 50% (NY Times, Sept.
15, p.C1). The airlines have desperately tried to absorb this price
hike, keeping fares low and hoping for the best. But those days will be
over by Easter, if not Thanksgiving. USA Today, Sept. 15, p.1B: "The
airline's jet-fuel bill this year will be about $3.3 billion [a pre-Rita
figure], up from $2.2 billion last year and $1.6 billion in 2003." That
article notes that four of our seven largest airlines are now in Chapter
11: "51% of the USA's top 12 airlines is now operating under bankruptcy
protection." The article quotes James May, CEO of the Air Transport
Association: "No business model of any airline can survive with
sustained jet-fuel prices of $90 to $100 a barrel." Yet those are
exactly the prices predicted by many experts in the relatively near
future; a major natural or manmade disruption could bring them about in
a day. There is no relief in sight. This situation cannot be sustained.
The average driver may be able to absorb fuel costs for a few years
more, but not the average flier. Within a year – or two, or three? –
affordable passenger flight will be history.
What will that mean in real life?
Airfares will skyrocket. Schedules will be pared to the bone. If you're
not rich, and if your lifestyle includes hopping planes when you choose
– you're grounded. As airlines fail and the surviving carriers cut back,
flights will be fewer, especially to smaller cities. Some areas will
lose service altogether unless the government mandates that every city
of under half a million people must get, say, two flights a week.
Conventions and conferences of every description will be beyond the
means of any but the wealthy. The average person won't be able to jet to
the wedding, sick bed, or funeral of a loved one. Even if you can
scrounge the money for a ticket, there may not be a flight. Music and
film festivals that can't be sustained locally will be a thing of the
past (unless and until rail service is restored). Families will think
twice about letting their kids apply to colleges hundreds or thousands
of miles from home. Family members who live scattered all over the
country will see one another rarely, if at all (again, unless and until
rail service is restored). None but the rich will vacation in far-off
places – and "far off" will come to mean any place beyond two tanks of
gas. The gaudy entertainments that depend on flight in places like
Orlando and Las Vegas will dry up and blow away. The real estate value
of summer homes or winter playgrounds will fluctuate wildly; those
accessible mainly by air will plunge. Flight's ancillary industries –
hotels, restaurants – will hit bottom, displacing and impoverishing many
hard-working people. Tourism as we know it, an industry merely decades
old, will not survive. Nor will such minor luxuries as next-day
delivery. Mega-airports and mega-hotels will become ghostly caverns,
monuments to a failure of foresight.
What good could possibly come of this? Well, for starters, if it happens
soon enough it may save many millions of lives. The Economist, Aug. 6,
p.10: "[E]xperts now believe a global outbreak of pandemic flu is long
overdue, and the next one could be as bad as the one in 1918 [before
passenger flight], which killed somewhere between 25 and 50 million
people." The Times, Sept. 22, p.12: "Just as governments around the
world are stockpiling millions of doses of flu vaccine and antiviral
drugs in anticipation of a potential influenza epidemic, two new
surprising research papers ... have found that such treatments are far
less effective than previously thought." The experts' greatest fear has
been that air travel will spread the disease uncontainably before its
symptoms are obvious, raising the casualty rate into the hundreds of
millions. Without convenient air travel, that's unlikely.
Another benefit: 9/11 turned the U.S. into a no-fly zone for three days.
There were many reports that air quality throughout the country (after
just three days!) was measurably much better. Drastic curtailment of
flight would not only make our environment healthier, but would probably
do more to slow global warming than the full enforcement of the Kyoto
Treaty, and do it quicker.
I'll explore other benefits in future columns, but briefly now: Amid
this massive disruption, we will be forced to pay attention to where we
are. You can't go elsewhere for culture; you must cultivate it where you
are. You can't go elsewhere for beauty; you must create beauty where you
live. Family life will be literally closer: a Georgia gal won't take a
job in Seattle if it means she may not see her mother again for many
years. With long-distance travel a rarity, communities will become more
conscious of being communities. I'm no optimist, but perhaps, perhaps,
many will realize that we're all in this together, and that our
well-being and our neighbors' are entwined. Above all, the frantic pace
of American life will slow down. Way down. That'll drive some people
crazy, but others – perhaps, perhaps – will discover a truth put best,
once again, by Caroline Casey: "Beauty is abundantly available to the
Things to come, part 2
October 14, 2005
Long after we've stopped expecting anything intelligent from Congress, a
conservative from Maryland has turned the tables on us all. On March 14,
and again on April 20, Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett gave two
extraordinary speeches in the House (available on his Web site or from
the Congressional Record). Bartlett tried to make his colleagues
understand that the United States must change drastically to accommodate
the coming scarcity of oil. His speech received scant coverage and
prompted no action. Nevertheless, Congressman Bartlett represents a
healthy sign: People of all political persuasions are beginning to face
Bartlett summed up the problem and suggested the solution. "Oil
companies have admitted that their estimates of the reserves were
exaggerated." Demand for oil is outpacing supply and refining capacity.
This will cripple our economy's ability to grow. "We have a debt that we
cannot service. It will be essentially impossible to service that debt
if our economy does not continue to grow." Government itself, then, will
be severely hampered. "At $100 or $200 a barrel" other oil sources, like
Canadian sand tar, may become economically viable, but that will take an
enormous investment (and, a point he did not make, a great deal of time
to get up and running, so scarcity in the short term will occur anyway).
"We're also running out of topsoil, without which we need oil-derived
fertilizer to grow food." "The green revolution" (advances in
agribusiness that enable us to feed so large a population) has been
"very largely the result of our intensive use of oil." A "transition to
sustainability" is a matter of survival, but it "will not happen [by]
applying market forces alone." (Yes, this is a Republican speaking.)
Bartlett pointed out that "the hydroelectric and nuclear power
industries did not arise spontaneously from market forces alone. They
were the product of a purposeful partnership of public and private
entities focused on the public good. This is what we have to do relative
to alternatives." He proposed "a Manhattan-type project focusing on
renewables." "The real challenge now is to use conservation and
efficiency to reduce our demand for oil so that we have enough oil left
to make the investments on alternatives and renewables [that] can take
the place of oil."
Of course, Congressman Bartlett wasn't heeded last spring. It's
surprising he was even given the time to make such a presentation. But
next year, or the next, many will be making the same speech, in diners
and flea markets as well as city councils and Congress.
"We live in a plastic world," Bartlett noted, "and all that plastic is
made from oil." Look about you and notice everything made of plastic.
All that's about to change. It will be evident very soon that we cannot
afford to wrap our garbage and leftovers in oil. We cannot afford to
package dental floss and hotdog buns and every damn thing in oil. We
cannot afford an entertainment industry based on oil, with its plastic
goods and packaging. We may find a way to continue affording computers
made of oil, but we certainly can't put up with razors and pens and
Lord-knows-what made of oil. We can no longer afford a disposable
society. Idealists have been saying this for years. Realists will chime
in soon. What was idealism in an era of deceptive plenty will be realism
in a continuing emergency of scarcity.
The petrochemical industry, which Rep. Bartlett would dearly like to
save, is doomed. When oil reaches $100 and $200 a barrel, and it will,
most plastic products will rise beyond the means of most consumers.
Who'll spend $25 for a box of garbage bags, or a pack of razors, when it
costs $150 to pump your car? The market for many plastics will dry up.
The most crucial uses of oil and natural gas are agriculture, heating,
and essential transport. As Bartlett pointed out, "We are just on the
verge of not being able to feed the world. Tonight about one-fifth of
the world will go to bed hungry." Whether by market forces or government
edict, as the price of oil rises its prime use must be agriculture –
while oil-free modes of agriculture are developed on a fast track.
Americans aren't much concerned with famine in Africa, but food
shortages here will get prompt attention. People across the political
spectrum will be screaming for government regulation – and for smart
rationing. The far right needs to eat just like anybody.
Eating habits will change. As the conservative Mr. Bartlett noted, "The
time will come when you will not be able to eat the pig that ate the
corn, because there is at least 10 times as much energy in the corn that
the pig ate as you are going to get out of the pig by eating him. We
actually do a lot [toward conservation] by living lower on the food
chain." The same goes for cattle. When beef is $20 and $30 a pound – and
it will be – hamburger joints will be a thing of the past; arable land
and ethanol-capable grains will be far too dear to waste on cows. Sugar
will be too valuable to waste on sweets. Brazil, the world's largest
sugar exporter, is already using an unexpectedly large portion of its
crop to produce ethanol, pushing American sugar prices to new highs (The
New York Times, Sept. 28, p.C6); we'll see the day when sugar is
rationed as a precious energy commodity and a bottle of Coke will be
rare and expensive. With all these changes we'll be eating less and
healthier. Not much meat, hardly any sugar, lots of grains and beans,
plus vegetables, fruit, and fish. A Mediterranean-Mexican-Asian diet,
enforced by circumstance. Not a bad thing at all, in the long run.
Oil scarcity will prove that the power of global corporations has been
exaggerated both by capitalists and anti-capitalists. Not that
corporations don't wield great power, but their power is, at its base,
fragile. They must play so many ends against so many middles at once
that even a slight drop in profits throws them into confusion, and many
are not flexible enough to sustain a deep, long-term drop. Their
viability depends upon cheap transport. It doesn't matter how cheaply
you produce in Asia if it's expensive to get your product to an Iowa
mall. Outfits like Wal-Mart face a dim future. Wal-Mart posted
lower-than-expected profits in August because people were driving less.
Wal-Mart is made of plastic. Walk its aisles and all you see is plastic.
When the price of plastic goes through the roof, in tandem with the
price of transport (80% of Wal-Mart's goods are made in China), goodbye
Wal-Mart. Many major corporations will find themselves in similar straits.
The good news is that it will become not only viable but essential to
manufacture locally. It will be cheaper to move raw materials by rail to
be manufactured into products locally than it will be to transport
finished products halfway across the world by ship and truck. Jobs will
come back, though they won't be the jobs that left. Labor prices won't
reach anything like their old levels, but there will be many new jobs –
however, not as many as needed to replace all the jobs lost to pricey oil.
But other jobs will be created unpredictably by the new situation, for
manufacturing will become not only local but personal. As Jim Kunstler
writes, "The salvage of existing material is going to be a huge
business. The commercial highway strips and the Big Box pods of today
may be the mines of tomorrow. ... A lot of the retail of the future will
consist of recycled, second-hand goods, some of it expertly refurbished.
To some extent America will become Yard Sale Nation. ... There will be a
lot of work for people in many levels and layers of activity: the
scroungers, the fixers, the wholesalers, the brokers, the sellers." The
handy neighbor who fashions this-and-that into that-and-this – an object
you can use – will become a prime supplier. So will people who can sew.
Not to mention local moonshiners (for rationed grain and costly shipping
will, alas, deprive me of my Irish whiskey). There will be a large black
market – or rather gray, since it will be everywhere and involve every
possible item from batteries to bullets. The disposable society will
become the scavenging society, the inventive society.
Life will be a lot less predictable and a lot more for real. The
greatest art will be the art of survival. Your credit rating won't
matter (you won't have one), but your word will matter a great deal. It
always does in an informal economy. Careers, as we know them, will be a
thing of the past, but so will boredom; most people will be in the same
boat, swapping services and skills and not knowing what tomorrow may
bring. Ours will be a leaky boat, in need of constant attention. It'll
be intense, interesting, and often dangerous – and that's when people
feel most alive. Folks will look back at how we live now and wonder at
the triviality that, as a society, we allowed ourselves to settle for.
If we survive, there will be many great stories to tell your grandchildren.
Things to come, part 3
October 28, 2006
This series is based on five assumptions.
One: Global climate change may be drastic, catastrophic in places, but
not universally catastrophic, forcing civilization to change but
allowing it to continue. Some credible experts consider that view
optimistic, but apocalyptic scenarios are paralytic. For the sake of the
children, and for the dignity of the human heritage, do what you can
while you can – and, as they said in the wild West, be game.
Two: In the next five to ten years, oil, upon which our way of life is
based, will be scarcer and much more expensive. (Google "peak oil," read
articles pro and con, judge for yourself.) The U.S. Department of Energy
reports that Americans "will spend 18% more on energy this year" than
last (The New York Times, Sept. 9, p.C3). That article cited a report
that this winter "heating oil will probably cost 31% more and natural
gas will jump 24%." Now the Department of Energy has revised that
gas-hike estimate to 48% (USA Today, Oct 21, p.2B). (Natural gas
generates much of our electricity.) How long can this go on without
serious disruption and change? Not very long.
Three: Our present systems will slide from dysfunctional to untenable.
The first response of many will be to throw up their hands and wail, but
after wailing does no good we may rediscover that human beings have an
enormous capacity for resilience and creativity. Many who've been
neither resilient nor creative will discover they can be both, coming up
with new living arrangements for practically everything, on a mostly
local scale – which may be surprisingly interesting. To paraphrase the
last line of The Wild Bunch, it won't be like the old days but it'll do.
But it will be wild, especially at first. We will have to accept again
what our not-so-distant ancestors never forgot: Pain is inevitable and,
ultimately, security is not a human possibility.
There is no point minimizing the suffering and danger in store for most
of us. During the transition to whatever will be, big cities will have
an especially rough time, and nobody will have an easy time anywhere.
History isn't a spectator sport, especially when history makes a massive
shift. Nobody will be on the sidelines, and everybody will be needed. As
a teacher I've often felt that we contribute to our children's
aimlessness and angst by failing to tell them what's most important
about them: that they are needed. The human heritage is a collective
responsibility, it is in all our hands, and it cannot survive unless
each generation accepts responsibility for its transmission. That, too,
was something our not-so-distant ancestors presumed – it was, in many
ways, the very air they breathed. We may breathe that air again, when we
realize we have a new world to build, a new way of life, and there's
nobody to build it but us.
Of course this will go differently in different places, terribly in
some, better in others, depending on a more or less haphazard
distribution of resources and resourcefulness.
Which brings me to my fourth assumption: Insofar as life can be
consistent and reasonably safe, it can be so only in a tenable community
– whether that community is a county of farms, a town, or a
neighborhood. Our society has lost cohesion to the extent that it has
lost community. Even the rebel, artist, trickster, loner, or shaman can
only be genuine in relation to a community. Somebody grows the food the
rebel eats, somebody else transports it, somebody else sells it, while
the rebel's job is to show a society where it's weak, hypocritical, or
worse – as the artist's job is to prove that beauty exists no matter
what. We've lost respect for these mutual functions (which in practice
have always been difficult, and will remain so). To rely on hope is
passive, but to believe in possibility is to be open to what's out
there. There is the possibility that, given the dire necessity of
remaking the world, the dynamics of true community and the dance of
contrapuntal roles may assert themselves and be valued. Maybe not
happily, but genuinely. I don't see how we will survive otherwise. (As a
species we're adept at horror, and we'll no doubt practice horror in our
new world. I'll leave that for others to predict and invent. I'm a
Fifth and last of my assumptions: The unexpected always happens. That is
the one unalterable law of life that I know. In ways little and big, bad
and good, the unexpected always happens. Given climate change and oil
scarcity, we're in for the unexpected on a huger scale than most
generations experience. But we who crunch the numbers and try to find
pattern in the data must remember that expecting everything to collapse
may be as unrealistic as expecting everything to continue as it is.
There will likely be a kind of dialogue of events, continuance answering
collapse, collapse answering continuance – or, to switch metaphors,
history will play a raucous, discordant music of simultaneous
continuance and collapse, and we will hear (and perform!) chords of
events, melodies of experience, unheard and unimagined by any of us.
I see the future as movement in two directions at once, not backward and
forward but sort of up and down – which is, after all, the way one
walks. Lifting the foot up, putting it down.
Down: To our children and grandchildren, many ways of the 19th and early
20th centuries will be more familiar than those of the late 20th and the
present. The bicycle in the city and the horse and wagon in the country
may become common modes of transportation; journeys between continents
may again be by ship; homemade clothing, glass containers, mechanical
metal appliances built to last instead of electronic plastic appliances
built not to, local doctors not making much money but making house
calls, people trading services, enduring summer heat and winter cold,
and life a largely local affair – that may be a best-case scenario, but
Up: The Chinese are serious about space travel, and they're the only
ones with the money to do it. (They're sitting on such a money stash
that oil scarcity will hit them more gradually than us. They're in a
position to do what GOP Rep. Roscoe Bartlett suggests we do: "Use oil
[now] to make the investments on the alternatives and renewables ...
that can take the place of oil.")
There are many "up-down" possibilities, but let's focus on trains. With
oil rationed to agriculture, essential services, and (inevitably) the
military, and with personal long-distance driving and passenger flight
no longer feasible – then, if the United States is to remain a
continental entity (and it may not), the only answer is trains. Before
1945, an American could get on a train in, say, Clarendon, Texas, or
Embudo, N.M., or Red Cloud, Neb., and go anywhere on the continent.
Trains can run on anything: wood, coal, electricity, or, more
productively, fuels derived from corn and sugar. There are many good
arguments why grain and bio-mass fuels aren't practical for personal
(automotive) transportation on a mass scale; but they're imminently
practical for trains. We will need a crash program to rebuild our rail
system with engines that run on grain-derived fuel. Last year we spent
$455 billion on our military [60 Minutes, Oct. 2], more than the rest of
the world combined. The U.S. can try to remain the military superpower
(it will fail), leaving the rest of our society in shambles; or the U.S.
can spend $200-300 billion of that money on rail (local and national) to
retain its coherence as a society. Obviously, we don't have the
leadership to make that choice now. But as things start to fall apart,
and people are desperate for leaders who can handle the real world, such
leaders might show up.
In fact, possibilities for rail are astounding. Seventy years ago,
Germans invented a train technology called Maglev. Now Shanghai has the
first Maglev train, on a short run – it works. Google up "Maglev," read
a few articles. "Mag" stands for magnetic, "lev" stands for levitation.
Magnets literally levitate the trains and, in a way that I don't
understand, propel them. Maglev trains use no fuel. Emit no pollutants.
They cost a lot to build but have no moving parts and thus are cheap to
maintain. They are almost noiseless. They vibrate (according to the
CalPoly.edu site) "just below the human threshold of perception." And
they can go more than 300 miles an hour. In other words, over land
Maglev is a viable alternative to flight. "Down," we're back to trains;
"up," there's grain-fuel and Maglev.
Up and down – it's a way of walking into the future. We'll need to find
many up-and-down ways. The transition is going to hurt like hell. The
planet may be tired of us. But if it's not, we'd do well not to
underestimate ourselves. Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz saw more horror than
most ever see, yet he described humanity like this: "They are so
persistent, that give them a few stones/and edible roots, and they will
build the world."
Things to come, part 4
November 11, 2005
Just when I fear I've dwelt on these subjects too long ... just when I'm
hoping I've exaggerated to myself and to you about the crisis I see
before us ... just when I wish hardest that I'm wrong ... here comes
George H.W. Bush's speechwriter, conservative Republican Peggy Noonan,
writing in the oh-so-conservative Wall Street Journal (Oct. 27) how she
fears that "the wheels are coming off the trolley and the trolley off
the tracks. ... [I]n some deep and fundamental way things have broken
down and can't be fixed, or won't be fixed anytime soon ... and tough
history is coming."
When Peggy Noonan sounds like me (or vice versa), it's evident there are
thinkers from all political perspectives looking at more or less the
same facts and coming to more or less the same conclusions. (In earlier
columns I've cited former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and
conservative GOP Congressman Roscoe Bartlett.) What we wish to do about
it may be different – though often, as in the case of Rep. Bartlett, not
very different – but the fundamental analysis is neither "left" nor
"right." It just is. I'm sure Noonan, Volcker, and Bartlett are as
hungry as I am for facts that will change our minds about what James
Howard Kunstler calls "the long emergency." Such facts have not been
On the contrary, scanning the papers every day I find evidence enough
for my thesis to fill many columns – usually in short articles crammed
into the middle of the business section and not covered at all on
broadcast news. But it's enough to observe how many feel comforted that
gas prices have temporarily dipped to the levels of late August – though
in late August everybody thought gas prices were outrageous. What was
outrageous in August is comforting in November. That's the behavior of
people attempting to acclimate to an ongoing, growing crisis. An
emergency that isn't going away.
The defining feature of that emergency, at present, is: We are on our own.
Right now, and for at least the next three years of this administration,
the United States of America is not being governed. Not really.
Emotional push-button issues and ideological obsessions constitute
almost the whole of the federal agenda. No attention is being paid to
what is necessary. Neither the White House nor Congress gives more than
lip service to issues upon which our future depends. Energy, transport,
global warming, education, health care, subsidies, scientific research,
sustainable agriculture, infrastructure upkeep and modernization,
state-of-the-art communication, manufacturing capacity – at the federal
level you will find almost nothing concrete, nothing useful, nothing
that addresses root problems. It is government by, for, and of the
lobbyists, as even Peggy Noonan admits. Hurricane Katrina demonstrated,
and Iraq every day confirms, that the powers-that-be are dysfunctional.
We are on our own.
A most important fact of our situation was shoved back to page 5 of The
New York Times' business section on Oct. 1: "Since the end of 2000 ...
federal debt is up by $1.l trillion. American investors, as a group,
have lent not one penny of that." Almost all that money has been lent by
foreign entities. This means that the USA no longer owns itself. Not
only are we on our own, but as a nation, we are owned. When the
emergency heightens and we are more helpless, foreign investment will
dry up. Our government will have far less money. One can always depend
on governmental stupidity: All available monies will pour into the
military first, nothing second, everything else third. Education,
Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other programs upon which many
depend will be crippled or let go. Not in rhetoric, but in practice. For
most things, federal regulation and enforcement will exist only on
paper. That will be good and bad. As we-the-people realize that many
laws and regulations can no longer be enforced (because there's no
money, therefore no manpower, for enforcement) we will dutifully fill
out the paperwork and cleverly (or not) make arrangements of our own. On
a local level, America will become the Ad-Hoc Nation. The Improvised
Nation. Where we-the-people are resourceful that will work very well –
better than now. In other places, not so well. Elsewhere, it will be a
disaster. It will all come back to the fact that we're on our own.
Take education as an example. Public schools will realize that all those
federal- and state-mandated regulations and standards don't mean a damn
anymore. There will be no money to pay the monitors, record-keepers,
chastisers – there will be no one to answer to, except on paper. As the
economy tanks, private school enrollments will plummet. Private schools
that exist just for the money will largely disappear; private schools
that exist because of their passionate dedication to a vision of child
development will see their enrollment shrink by half, but those schools
will hang on because passion always hangs on. Parents who no longer are
affluent, but are highly educated, will again send their children to
public schools; they'll have no choice. The involvement of those parents
will elevate certain public schools, once teachers and administrators
realize that federal and state governments can no longer look over their
shoulders. This will develop differently in different places. Districts
that want creationism will get it – and will send incompetent children
into a world that will eat them alive. Districts that want intelligence
will get that. Being on our own will have its costs and rewards. Who we
are, and how we are, will matter – much more than now, when we're all
having to play by rules that people of all political beliefs agree are
In many cases the first will be last and the last will be first.
Undocumented immigrants waiting for work outside Home Depot may be much
more useful, and fare much better, than the affluent middle managers who
now hire them cheap. The undocumented, after all, have proven themselves
capable of an epic, dangerous, demanding journey, and they wouldn't be
standing at Home Depot if they hadn't demonstrated pioneerlike endurance
and resourcefulness. They're far more inured to emergency than most and
have developed survival skills that middle managers, intellectuals, and
service workers generally lack. The cheap laborer you hire today may
tomorrow be your teacher and coveted ally – if you can speak his language.
Occupations now thought humble will regain their old status and be much
in demand. With oil and gas too precious for items like plastic razors,
men may again be shaved regularly by their barbers, and the barbershop
will again become a center of community (as it was in this country for
more than a century). With grains a priority for food and fuel, and
transport prohibitively expensive, the price of beef will be too high to
sustain the cattle and leather industries, plastic will be too dear for
footwear, and cobblers (shoemakers) will have their hands full keeping
old footwear serviceable and making the old into the new – and they'll
have ready apprentices. The same goes for local dressmakers,
seamstresses, and tailors – in a nondisposable society, without the
money for new fashions every season, these and many other practical
pursuits will thrive. So will tinkers and mechanics – anyone with the
skill to keep appliances going long past their shelf life, and anyone
who knows how to build handy items from scrap. Services will be traded
as often as purchased. Local actors, dancers, musicians, and
storytellers may again become crucial to communities that can no longer
depend on force-fed media. When you're on your own, life becomes more
immediate and personal. More face-to-face. More real.
Look ... I'd like my cozy, convenient writer's life to continue as
uncharacteristically tranquil as it's been lately, writing my novels and
poems and columns, downsizing as gracefully as I'm able, living with a
truly delectable slowness, testifying to the truth of Caroline Casey's
sentence "Beauty is abundantly available to the unhurried mind." But I
look at the facts as I understand them and can come to no conclusion but
that these too-convenient days are numbered, and I'd best enjoy the
present, behave alertly, and be ready for a storm, always remembering
the three qualities that Henry James noted were most important in a
human being: "Kindness, kindness, and kindness."
Life is about to become both slower (with more opportunities for beauty)
and more urgent, governed by necessity rather than desire. The
unexpected will happen – in the context of "tough history." We will be
called upon to do more, and be more, than we thought ourselves capable
of. So ... OK, Universe, call on me to be more and do more than I
thought myself capable of!
Once upon a time, wasn't that all I asked of life?
$4 a gallon
April 29, 2005
America is over. America is like Wile E. Coyote after he's run out a few
paces past the edge of the cliff – he'll take a few more steps in midair
before he looks down. Then, when he sees that there's nothing under him,
he'll fall. Many Americans suspect that they're running on thin air, but
they haven't looked down yet. When they do ...
Former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker, a pillar of the
Establishment with access to economic information beyond our reach,
wrote recently: "Circumstances seem to me as dangerous and intractable
as any I can remember. ... What really concerns me is that there seems
to be so little willingness or capacity to do anything about it" (quoted
in The Economist, April 16, p.12). Volcker chooses words carefully:
"dangerous and intractable," "willingness or capacity." He's saying: The
situation is probably beyond our powers to remedy.
Gas prices can only go up. Oil production is at or near peak capacity.
The U.S. must compete for oil with China, the fastest-growing colossus
in history. But the U.S. also must borrow $2 billion a day to remain
solvent, nearly half of that from China and her neighbors, while they
supply most of our manufacturing ("Benson's Economic and Market Trends,"
quoted in Asia Times Online) – so we have no cards to play with China,
even militarily. (You can't war with the bankers who finance your army
and the factories that supply your stores.) China now determines oil
demand, and the U.S. has no long-term way to influence prices. That
means $4 a gallon by next spring, and rising – $5, then $6, probably $10
by 2010 or thereabouts. Their economy can afford it; ours can't. We may
hobble along with more or less the same way of life for the next dollar
or so of hikes, but at around $4 America changes. Drastically.
The "exburbs" and the rural poor will feel it first and hardest.
Exburbians moved to the farthest reaches of suburbia for cheap real
estate, willing to drive at least an hour each way to work. Many live
marginally now. What happens when their commute becomes prohibitively
expensive, just as interest rates and inflation rise, while their
property values plummet? Urban real estate will go up, so they won't be
able to live near their jobs – and there's nowhere else to go. In
addition, thanks to Congress' recent shameless activity, bankruptcy is
no longer an option for many. What happens to these people? Exburb
refugees. A modern Dust Bowl.
For the rural poor it's even worse. They are the poorest among us, with
no assets and few skills; they earn the lowest nonimmigrant wages in
America, and they must drive. When gas hits $4, their already
below-the-margin life will be unsustainable. They'll have no choice but
to be refugees and join in the modern Dust Bowl migration. So, too, will
people who live where people were never intended to live in such numbers
– places like Phoenix and Vegas, unlivable without air conditioning and
water transport (energy prices will rise across the board, regular
brownouts, blackouts, and faucet-drips will be "the new normal"
everywhere). In the desert cities, real estate will plunge, thousands
will be ruined, most will leave – while all over the country folks will
have to get used to "hot" and "cold" again.
But where will the new refugees go, and what will they do when they get
there? They will migrate to the more livable cities, where rents are
already unreasonable and social services are already strained, and where
the new refugees will compete with immigrants for the lowest-level
housing and jobs. Immigration issues will intensify to hysteria.
Native-born Americans will clamor for work that only legal and illegal
aliens do now. In a culture as prone to violence as ours, that will
probably get ugly.
Meanwhile, suburbs and cities will be in various states of chaos,
depending on their infrastructure. As inflation and interest rates rise,
and the real estate bubble bursts, millions will see their assets plunge
precipitously. In five years, many who are now well-off will live as the
marginal live today, while the marginal will sink into poverty. With gas
at $4-plus a gallon, real estate values will depend on nearness to
working centers and access to transportation. As has already happened in
Manhattan, the well-off will head for what are now slums, and the
slum-dwellers will go God-knows-where. Places with decent rail service
will be prime. Places without rail service will be in deep trouble.
One key to America's future will be: How quickly can we build or rebuild
heavy and light rail? And where will we get the money to do it?
Railroads are the cheapest transport, the easiest to sustain, and the
only solution to a post-automobile America. (For reasons I haven't space
to detail, hybrid cars and alternative energy won't cut it, if by "cut
it" one means retaining anything like the present standard of living.
See James Howard Kunstler's "The Long Emergency" on Rolling Stone's Web
site. Also check Mike Ruppert's site www.fromthewilderness.com and the
documentary The End of Suburbia.) A massive investment in railroad
infrastructure could offer jobs to the unskilled and skilled alike,
absorb much of the inevitable population displacement, and create a new
social equilibrium 10 or 15 years down the line. Old RR cities like
Grand Junction, Colo.; Amarillo, Texas; and Albuquerque, N.M., could
become vital centers, offering new lives for the displaced. Railroads
are key, but the question is: how to finance them?
There's only one section of our economy that has that kind of money: the
military budget. The U.S. now spends more on its military than all other
nations combined. A sane transit to a post-automobile America will
require a massive shift from military to infrastructure spending. That
shift would be supported by our bankers in China and Europe (that is,
they would continue to finance our debt) because it's in their interests
that we regain economic viability. What's not in their interests is that
we remain a military superpower.
And that's where things get really interesting. The question becomes:
Can America face reality? If the government responds to the coming
changes by attempting to remain a superpower no matter what, there is no
way to underestimate the harm. The numbers speak for themselves. Soon
we'll no longer have the resources to remain a military superpower and
sustain a livable society that is anything like what we know today. It
happened to England; it happened to Russia; it's about to happen to us.
England sustained the transformation more or less gracefully; it lost
its dominance while retaining its essential character. Russia is still
in a period of transformation, but has remained a player thanks to its
oil reserves. Europe in general – France, Germany, Italy, and Spain (all
world powers in the fairly recent past) – is creating a post-national
society, the most experimental form of governance since America's
revolution. We have no appreciable oil, and we no longer have a
manufacturing base. So what will the United States do? Sanely recognize
its declining status and act accordingly, or make one last ignoble stab
to retain its position by force?
Half a century ago James Baldwin wrote: "Confronted with the
impossibility of remaining faithful to one's beliefs, and the equal
impossibility of becoming free of them, one can be driven to the most
inhuman excesses." Americans believe they're "No. 1," destined to lead
the world. That is the America that's over. If we insist on that
illusion, then this world is in for tough times. We will neither hold on
to what we have nor create what we might have, but we will wreak untold
harm (if we don't destroy the species altogether). Or we can face and
embrace reality. And that reality is: There is no such thing as "No. 1"
... there is no such thing as an ideal destined country that is better
than any other ... there is only us, doing the best we can, trying to
live free and sanely, within limits that are about to become only too
clear. Our glory days are done. What's next?
Remember, we're not talking about the far future. We're talking about
the next decade.
No country gets two centuries anymore. The 21st will be China's century.
That's what $4-plus a gallon means, and nothing can stop it. So: How
will we change? But the question "How will we change?" is really the
question "How will I change?" Because history isn't a spectator sport.
It's you and me. Everything depends on whether we side with reality or
illusion. Face reality, and we have a chance. Cling to illusion, and we
are lost. The America we've known is over – very soon. The America we
can create is up to us.
J. Kolenovsky, 2003 Honorable Mention Award, Keep Houston Beautiful
ô¿ô - http://www.celestialhabitats.com - environmental resource
ô¿ô - http://www.oilcrashmovie.com/
ô¿ô - http://www.peakoil.org and http://www.endofsuburbia.com -
start becoming attuned to the "new lifestyle" ahead of you
ô¿ô - http://www.hal-pc.org/~garden/personal.html - personal
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