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Forecast 2013: Contraction, Contagion, and Contradiction
By James Howard Kunstler
on December 31, 2012 8:25 AM
The people who like to think they are managing the world's affairs seem fiercely determined to ignore the world's true condition -- namely, the permanent contraction of industrial economies. They just can't grok it. Two hundred years of cheap fossil fuel programmed mankind to expect limitless goodies forever on an upward-swinging arc of techno miracles. Now that the cheap fossil fuels have plateaued, with decline clearly in view, the hope remains that all the rackets of modernity can keep going on techno miracles alone.
Meanwhile, things and events are in revolt, especially the human race's financial operating system, the world's weather, and the angry populations of floundering nations. The Grand Vizier of this blog, that is, Yours Truly, makes no great claims for his crystal ball gazing (Dow at 4,000 - ha!), but he subscribes to the dictums of two wise men from the realm of major league baseball: Satchel Paige, who famously stated, "Don't look back," and Yogi Berra, who remarked of a promising rookie, "His whole future's ahead of him!"
In that spirit, and as for looking back, suffice it to say that in 2012, the world's managers -- and by this I do not mean some occult cabal but the visible leaders in politics, banking, business, and news media -- pulled out all the stops to suppress the appearance of contraction, and in so doing only supplied more perversion and distortion to the train of events that leads implacably to an agonizing workout, or readjustment of reality's balance sheet. There's a fair chance that these restraints will unravel in 2013, exposing civilization to a harsh new leasing agreement with its landlord, the Planet Earth.
On a personal note, I published a book in 2012 titled Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation. By an interesting coincidence, folks in the USA were engaged that year in manifold strenuous exercises in wishful thinking, ranging from fantasies of "energy independence," to belief that central bank interventions could take the place of productive economic activity, to the idea that winks, suggestions, and guidelines were an adequate substitute for the rule of law, to the omnipresent mantra invoking "technology" as the sovereign remedy every problem of existence (including the problems caused by technology), to the dominions of utter stupidity where climate change deniers hold hands with the funders of "creation" museums. Since wishful thinkers, by definition, are allergic to arguments against wishfulness, my book failed to make an impression. Anyway, gales of propaganda were blowing across the land, especially from the oil and gas fraternity, with the added cognitive dissonance hoopla of a presidential election -- so the public was left wishfully bamboozled as it whirled around the drain of its hopes and dreams.
The Oil and Money Predicament
If you understand the basic formula that ever-increasing cheap energy resources were the fundamental condition for industrial growth for two centuries, then you must realize that they are also behind the modern operations of capital, especially the mechanism that allows massive volumes of interest on debt to be repaid -- hence behind all of contemporary banking. And if you get that, it is easy to see how the end of cheap energy has screwed the pooch for modern finance.
In fact, let's step back for a panoramic view of what happened with that relationship in recent times: In 1970 you get American peak oil production at just under 10 mmbd (million barrels a day). This chart tells the story:
US Oil production 1920 to 2012
US oil prod plain_edited-2.jpg
That event was little noted at the time, but by 1973, the rest of the world was paying attention, especially the OPEC countries led by the big exporters in the Middle East. All they had to do was look at the published production figures and by 1973 the trend was apparent. They apprehended that US production had entered decline -- predicted by American geologist M. King Hubbard -- and that they, OPEC, could now put the screws to the USA. Which they commenced to do during a decade of rather messy oil crises (messy because they were accompanied by geopolitical events such as the Yom Kippur War and the 1979 revolution in Iran). OPEC could put the screws to the USA because our still-growing industrial economy required a still-growing oil supply -- the growth of which now had to be furnished by imports from other nations. The catch was that those other nations raised the price substantially, virtually overnight, and since everything in the US economy used oil in one way or another, the entire cost structure of our manufacture, supply, distribution, and retail chains was thrown askew.
The net effect for the USA was that our economy went off the rails for a decade and lots of strange things started happening in the financial sector. They called it "stagflation" -- stagnant economic activity + rising prices. It was hardly a conundrum. The OPEC price-jackings of 1973 and 1979 made everything Americans had to buy more costly, in effect devaluing the dollar while throwing sand in the gears of industrial production. Meanwhile, dazed and confused American industry started losing out to Japan and Europe in things like electronics and cars. Price inflation was running over 13 percent in the late '70s. Interest rates skyrocketed. When Federal Reserve chair Paul Volker aggressively squashed inflation with a punitive prime rate of 20 percent in 1981, the economy promptly tanked.
Now look at this chart:
US Oil Consump.jpg
Notice that our oil consumption kept rising from the early 1980s until the middle of the early 2000s. Now look at the circle in the chart below. That rise of production from the late 1970s to about 1990 is mostly about production from the Prudhoe Bay oil fields in Alaska -- one of the last great discoveries of the oil age (along with the North Sea and the fields of Siberia). US production did not regain the 1970 peak level, but it put a smile on the so-called Reagan Revolution and on Margaret Thatcher's exertions to revive comatose Great Britain.
Post Peak Bump up from Alaskan Oil
US Oil Prod + Alaska_edited.jpg
Now look at the price of oil (chart below). You can see what a fiasco the period 1973 to 1981 was for US oil prices: huge rapid price rises in '73 and '79. But then the price started to fall steeply after 1981 and stayed around the same price levels as its pre-1973 lows.
1970s Oil Price Spike and Thereafter
Notice the price started to fall after 1981 and landed close to its pre-1973 levels by 1986 and hung out there (though more erratically) until the mid-2000s. Because of those aforementioned last great giant oil field discoveries, OPEC lost its price leverage over world oil markets. Through the 1980s and 90s the price of oil went down until it reached the modern low of about $11 a barrel. That was when The Economist magazine ran a cover story that declared the world was "drowning in oil." It was the age of "Don't worry, be happy."
The price behavior of the oil markets after 1981 had interesting reverberations in both the macro economy and the financial sector (which is supposed to be part of the macro economy, not a replacement for it). A consensus formed in business and politics that it was okay to yield manufacturing to other nations. It was dirty and nasty and caused pollution, so let other countries have it. We followed the siren call of clean and tidy forms of production: "knowledge work!" The computer revolution had begun in earnest. The financial sector began its metastasis from 5 percent of the economy to, eventually, 40 percent, and really cheap oil prompted the last great suburban sprawl-building pulsation into the Martha Stewart bedecked McMansion exurbs. In effect, financial shenanigans and sprawl-building became the basis for the vaunted "Next Economy." It lasted about 20 years.
That incarnation of the US economy failed spectacularly as soon as oil prices started to creep up in the early 2000s. And, of course, the final suburban sprawl boom went hand-in-hand with all the shenanigans in banking. So when it all blew up, beginning in 2007 with the collapse of Bear Stearns, the USA was left with a gutted economy, insolvent banks, and a living arrangement with no future.
The Current Situation
We're now entering the seventh year of a smoke-and-mirrors, extend-and-pretend, can-kicking phase of history in which everything possible is being done to conceal the true condition of the economy, with the vain hope of somehow holding things together until a miracle rescue remedy -- some new kind of cheap or even free energy -- comes on the scene to save all our complex arrangements from implosion. The chief device to delay the reckoning has been accounting fraud in banking and government, essentially misreporting everything on all balance sheets and in statistical reports to give the appearance of well-being where there is actually grave illness, like the cosmetics and prosthetics Michael Jackson used in his final years to pretend he still had a face on the front of his head.
The secondary tactic has been intervention in markets wherever possible and the intemperate manipulation of interest rates, all of which has the effect of defeating the principle purpose of markets: price discovery -- the process by which the true value of things is established based on what people will freely pay. For instance the price of money-on-loan. The functionally less-than-zero percent interest rates on money loaned between giant institutions like central banks and their client "primary dealers" (the Too Big To Fails) essentially pays these outfits for borrowing, which is obviously a distortion in the natural order of things (because it violates the second law of thermodynamics: entropy) as well as an arrant racket. The campaign of intervention and manipulation also deeply impairs the other purpose of markets, capital formation, by the resultant mismanagement and misallocation of whatever real surplus wealth remains in this society. What's more, it allows these TBTF banks to become ever-bigger monsters which hold everybody else hostage by threatening to crash the system if they are molested or interfered with.
Which brings us to the third tactic for pretending everything is all right: complete lack of enforcement and regulation by all the authorities charged with making sure that rules are followed in money matters. This includes the alphabet soup of agencies from the Securities and Exchange Commission to the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, to the Federal Housing Authority, and so on (the list of responsible parties is very long) not to mention the Big Kahunas: the US Department of Justice, and the federal and state courts. Aside from Bernie Madoff and a few Hedge Fund mavericks nipped for insider trading and arrant fraud, absolutely nobody in the TBTF banking community has been prosecuted or even charged for the monumental swindles of our time, while the regulators have behaved in ways that would be considered criminally negligent at best, and sheer racketeering at less-than-best, in any self-respecting polity. The crime runs so deep and thick through all the levels of money management and regulation that one can say the whole system has gone rogue, up to the President of the US himself, the chief enforcement officer of the land, who has not lifted a finger to discipline any of the parties involved. The fact that Jon Corzine, late of MF Global, is still at large says it all.
Fourth-and-finally, the news media in league with the public relations industry have undertaken a campaign of happy talk to persuade the public that everything is okay and all the machinations cited above are kosher so that there is absolutely no political agitation over these crimes against their own interest, which is to say, the public interest. The PR/media happy talk racket is also aimed at maintaining various subsidiary fictions about the economy, such as the fibs that the housing market is bouncing back, that "recovery" is ongoing, and that the channel-stuffing monkeyshines of the car industry amount to booming sales of new vehicles. Perhaps the most pernicious big lie is the bundle of fairy tales surrounding shale oil and shale gas, including the idea that America will shortly become "energy independent" or that we have "a hundred years of shale gas" as President Obama was mis-advised to tell the nation. It is pernicious because it gives us collectively an excuse to do nothing about changing our behavior or preparing for the new arrangements in daily life that the future will require of us.
The Shale Ponzi
Well, because that's what it is: a Ponzi scheme, aimed at gathering in sucker-investors to boost share prices of oil and gas companies, with the hope that some miracle will occur to make financially broke societies capable of paying three or four times the price for oil and gas than their infrastructure for daily life was set up to run on, back when it seemed to be running okay. This is just not going to happen.
Let's start with shale gas. The gas is there in the "tight" rock strata, all right, but it is difficult and expensive to get out. The process is nothing like the old conventional process of sticking a pipe in the ground and getting "flow." It's not necessary to go into the techno-details (you can read about that elsewhere) but to give you a rough idea, it takes four times as much steel pipe to get shale gas out of the ground. I have previously touched on the impairment of capital formation due to machinations in banking - themselves a perverse response to the loss of capacity to pay back interest at all levels of the money system, which was caused by the world's running out of cheap oil and gas. (Note emphasis on cheap.) The net effect of all that turns out to be scarcity in another resource: capital, i.e. money, rather specifically money for investment in things like shale oil and gas.
Ironically, plenty of money was available around 2004-5 when the campaign to go after shale oil and gas got ramped up over premonitions of global peak oil. How come there was money then and not now? Because we were at peak cheap oil and hence peak credit back then, which is to say peak available real capital. So, the oil and gas companies were able then to attract lots of investment money to set out on this campaign. They brought as many drilling rigs as they could into the shale oil and gas play regions and they drilled the shit out of them. Natural gas was selling for over $13 a unit (thousand cubic feet) around 2005, and it was that high precisely because conventional cheap nat gas production was in substantial decline.
That was then, this is now. As a result of drilling the shit out of the gas plays, the producers created a huge glut for a brief time. They queered their own market long enough to wreck their business model. Unlike oil, nat gas is much more difficult to export -- it requires expensive tankers, compression and refrigeration of the gas to a liquid, seaboard terminals to accomplish all that (which we don't have), so there was no way to fob off the surplus gas on other nations. The domestic market was overwhelmed and there was no more room to store the stuff. So, for a few years the price sank and sank until it was under $2 a unit by 2011. Since shale gas production is just flat-out uneconomical at that price, the companies engaged in it began to suffer hugely.
In the process of all this a pattern emerged showing that shale gas wells typically went into depletion very quickly after year one. So all of the activity from 2004 to 2011 was a production bubble, aimed at proving what a bonanza shale gas was to stimulate more investment. It required a massive rate of continuous drilling and re-drilling just to keep the production rate level -- to maintain the illusion of a 100-year bonanza -- and that required enormous quantities of capital. So the shale gas play began to look like a hamster wheel of futility. After 2011 the rig count began to drop and of course production leveled off and the price began to go up again. As I write the price is $3.31 a unit, which is still way below the level where natural gas is profitable for companies to produce --say, above $8. The trouble is, once the price rises into that range it becomes too expensive for many of its customers, especially in a contracting economy with a shrinking middle class, falling incomes, and failing businesses. So what makes it economical for the producers (high price) will make it unaffordable for the customers (no money). Because of the complex nature of these operations, with all the infrastructure required, and all the money needed to provide it, the shale gas industry will not be able to go through more than a couple of boom / bust cycles before it begins to look like a fool's game and the big companies throw in the towel. The catch is: there are no small companies that can carry on operations as complex and expensive as shale requires. Only big companies can make shale gas happen. So a lot of gas will remain trapped in the "tight" rock very far into the future.
Obviously I haven't even mentioned the "fracking" process, which is hugely controversial in regard to groundwater pollution, and a subject which I will not elaborate on here, except to say that there's a lot to be concerned about. However, I believe that the shale gas campaign will prove to be a big disappointment to its promoters and will founder on its own defective economics rather than on the protests of environmentalists.
Much of what I wrote about shale gas is true for shale oil with some departures. One is that the price of oil did not go down when US shale oil production rose. That's because the amount of shale oil produced -- now about 900,000 barrels a day -- is working against the headwinds of domestic depletion in regular oil + world consumption shifting to China and the rest of Asia + the declining ability of the world's exporters to keep up their levels of export oil available to the importers (us). We still import 42 percent of the oil we use every day.
The fundamental set up of life in the USA -- suburban sprawl with mandatory driving for everything -- hasn't changed during the peak cheap oil transition and represents too much "previous investment" for the public to walk away from. So we're stuck with it until it manifestly fails. (Life is tragic and history doesn't excuse our poor choices.) The price of oil has stayed around the $90 a barrel range much of 2012. Oil companies can make a profit in shale oil at that price. However, that's the price at which the US economy wobbles and tanks, which is exactly what is happening. The US cannot run economically on $90 oil. If the price were to go down to a level the economy might be able to handle, say $40 a barrel, the producers of shale oil would go broke getting it out of the ground. This brings us back to the fact that the issue is cheap oil, not just available oil. As the US economy stumbles, and the banking system implodes on the incapacity of debt repayment, there will be less and less capital available for investment in shale oil. As with shale gas, the shale oil wells deplete very rapidly, too, and production requires constant re-drilling, meaning more rigs, more employees, more trucks hauling fracking fluid, and more capital investment. This is referred to as "the Red Queen syndrome," from Lewis Carrol's Through the Looking Glass tale in which the Red Queen tells Alice that she has to run as fast as she can to stay where she is.
The bottom line for shale oil is that we're likely to see production fall in the years directly ahead, to the shock and dismay of the 'energy independence' for lunch bunch. 2012 may have been peak shale oil. If the price of oil does go down to a level that seems affordable, it will be because the US economy has been crushed and America is mired in a depression at least as bad as the 1930s, in which case a lot of people will be too broke to even pay for cheaper oil. Hence, the only possibility that America will become energy independent would be a total collapse of the modern technological-industrial economy. The shale oil and gas campaign therefore must be regarded as a desperate gambit by a society in deep trouble engaging in wishing and fantasy to preserve a set of behaviors that can no longer be justified by the circumstances reality presents.
Major fissures began to show in the Ponzified global financial system in 2012 and it is hard to imagine them not yawning open dangerously in 2013. All the Eurozone countries are in trouble. Its collective economy has been tanking faster than the US economy because the member nations can't print their own money and it is harder to conceal the financial tensions between debt accumulation and government expenditures. These tensions end up expressed as "austerity" -- meaning fewer and fewer people get paid, which makes people angry and makes governments unstable. Bailout procedures are transparently laughable under the European Central Bank and the other bank-like "facilities," giving money to governments so that they can give it to insolvent banks, so the banks can buy government bonds, which only stuff the banks with more bad paper, and take the national debts higher. Several Euro member countries are contenders for default this coming year: Greece, Spain, possibly Italy, and perhaps even France, which is now a basket-case dressed in Hollandaise sauce.
A perfect storm in the global bond market has formed with Europe crippled, Canada and Australia entering their own (long-delayed and spectacular) housing bubble busts, the USA sharply losing credibility as it fails to politically address its balance sheet problems -- or even continue to pretend that it might -- and Japan utterly floundering under a new lack of commitment to nuclear power, the need to import virtually all the fossil fuels it needs for its industrial economy, a consequent negative balance of trade (for the first time in decades), and a deadly debt-to-GDP ratio around 240 percent. Many observers see the new Japanese government under Shinzo Abe as determined to inflate his own currency away to nothing in an effort to unload exports and erase debt, and nobody understands how that strategy turns out well. My own view, expressed here before, is that Japan is on a fast track to become the first advanced nation to opt out of industrialism and go medieval. It might sound like a joke, but its not. And it would be consistent with Japan's historic cultural personality of making stark choices, even if it was not clearly articulated in the political theater. The journey to that destination could include a war with China, which also would be consistent with Japan's suicidal inclinations, so clearly displayed in its last major war with the US.
The global bond market is held together with baling wire and hose clamps. Since money is loaned into existence (in the words of Chris Martenson) the global financial system is underwritten by its bonds, and the bonds are underwritten only by the faith that issuers can pay the interest due to bondholders. Risk rises in an exact ratio as that faith wanes. And interest rates must rise hand-in-hand with that rising risk -- unless the ruling authorities (central banks and governments) conspire to repress them. These "unnatural" interventions will only cause the trouble to be expressed elsewhere in collapsing currencies and economies. It is already happening under the various ZIRP regimes, setting up a feedback loop in which it becomes even less likely that bond-holders will be paid and more faith erodes until nobody wants any bonds and the market for them seizes up and all that paper becomes worthless.
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Monday, December 31, 2012
Wednesday, December 26, 2012
In the Shadow of Christmas
By James Howard Kunstler
on December 24, 2012 9:05 AM
on December 24, 2012 9:05 AM
Do you know why scenes or even just shots of freeways so seldom appear in the movies we watch? Because they are so depressing that nobody can stand to see them. The jolts of terror that you get in a horror movie at least inform you that you're alive, but the sight of a freeway only reminds you of what it's like to be dead.
By extension, the true condition of the USA is too depressing to think about, and that's largely the reason for our political paralysis. The "fiscal cliff" is only one step on a stairway to a different disposition of things, a world made by hand, in which we will no longer be prisoners of the freeway or hostages of the WalMart corporation, and I'm in favor of hastening the journey to get there rather than waste what remains of our wealth and spirits in futile rear-guard actions to stay where we are. There may be fewer frenzied days of Christmas shopping in that future world, but the company will be better, and the music will include the sound of your own voice.
It's not that hard to imagine where history is taking us, if you accept the fact that it means a very different shape and texture of daily life. For instance: the jobs problem. We seem disappointed that none of our policy dodges -- money-printing, stimulus packages, bailouts, wars -- can bring back the working-stiff paradise of 1965 in which assembly line workers made as much money as tenured college professors and a year at the State U cost $500.
I don't happen to be a political conservative in the standard sense, but the right-wingers have a point when they say there are a lot of idle people out there who can't be supported forever by transfer payments. A lot of positions will be opening up in agriculture, but not in the way it is practiced today. The Agri-biz model of food production is not going to be operating much longer. We're on the verge of a world food crisis that will provoke a complete revolution in farming, from the giant scale to the small and local scale, from industry to husbandry, from automation to loving care. The transition might not be a smooth one, since it entails questions of land ownership that, historically, get settled by political upheavals. But eventually we'll get to that place of social re-set and there will be plenty of work for even the partially able-bodied. Hard to imagine, I know.
The future is quite the opposite of the robotic wet dream currently being sold out of the corporate propaganda mills. It's much more likely that human labor (and human attention!) will be needed in millions of local economic niches, since rebuilding local economies is at the heart of that future. This will be true in the activities that support local agriculture, but also in rebuilding Main Street commercial networks, the physical reconstruction of towns and neighborhoods to replace failed suburbs and failed giant metroplex cities, in transportation, education, and medicine, and in running households that are organized differently than today's familiar McHouses.
Right now the political process is resisting any effort to imagine that future, the aforementioned right-wingers most of all, despite their recognition of the transfer payment trap. More disturbing, though, is the likely apprehension by those in authority that the current arrangement of things is dangerously fragile. They are hostages to their own unwillingness to imagine living differently. So, doing nothing to upset the current system of organized complexity seems like the only safe option.
These implacable forces of history cannot be held back forever and will only move toward greater criticality in 2013. My annual forecast on these questions will come out next week in this space. Meantime, find whatever joy you can in the frantic exertions of Christmas, as practiced today, mostly on the freeway, coming and going to and from the WalMart or Target or TJ Max -- and if you happen to be on the path to living differently tell us what your Christmas is like in the comments roll.
Sunday, December 23, 2012
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
America the Horror Show
By James Howard Kunstler
on December 17, 2012 9:26 AM
on December 17, 2012 9:26 AM
Finally the USA has an act that perfectly expresses its true spirit as the horror show nation among nations: the random mass slaughter of little children by a maniac. Is it not so that the failure to protect little children from harm is the most shameful weakness an adult human can present?
Next, of course, comes the empty ritual of pretending that we must make sure something like this never happens again. How? By some forensic inquiry into the psychology of the shooter, Mr. Lanza... his comings, goings, email musings, Netflix rentals, chemical composition of his fingernail clippings? We flatter ourselves with the technocratic conceit that if we can measure something enough, we can control it. Ban assault weapons or tighten up the background checks? The horse is out of the barn on that one. There are enough weapons loose in the USA to conduct a full-scale Civil War right now. And probably enough ill feeling. Just pick the flavor of the conflict you want: ideological? Religious? Racial? Regional?
For what it's worth, the Newtown Massacre to me is largely about the failure of men in America, and in particular the failure of men to raise up male children into men. The tragic monster that Mr. Lanza grew up into lived with Mom and ended up parking four bullets in her brain. Imagine the tensions in that monster. It's not an accident that the commercial fantasies represented in movies and television aimed at boys are populated by legions of super-heroes. This sort of grandiosity -- the wish to project supernatural powers -- is exactly what you get in boys who have not developed competence in any reality-based, meaningful realm of endeavor -- and I wouldn't necessarily include school, such as it is in our time, as a reality-based, meaningful realm of endeavor, since it is mostly a brutally boring accreditation process. Notice, Mr. Lanza's chief instrument of death was the "Bushmaster." His weapon made him a "master" of something, at least, even if it was just the systematic slaughter of six-year-old kids and the women in charge of them.
History has its own arcs and particular moments in history have their own spirits of the time. This moment for us is the sum of the unintended consequences of countless bad choices we've made for many decades against the backdrop of enormous material riches. I've inveighed against these manifold fiascos enough for this audience. The net result is a nation that has turned men either into weaklings, fakes, or monsters. I think the greater tragedy is that we are past being able to teach ourselves how to act and now it is up to nature and history to provide the only kind of instruction we can understand.
I used to crack a joke when showing a particular slide in my visiting college lectures that "we're a wicked people who deserve to be punished."
It's not so funny anymore. Look around at the squalid mess that America has made of its own terrain: the endless wastelands of free parking and slumping strip malls, the wilderness of tract housing subdivisions, the cities left cored, rotting, and stinking in the fall drizzle, the countless redundant roadways -- and while you're at it, take a good hard look at the depressing and disgraceful industrial boxes that school is conducted in, these euphemistically-named "facilities." We live in physical surroundings that are the perfect growth medium for serial killers, mass murderers, psychopaths with no feeling, and sado-masochists preoccupied only with the ritual orchestration of their own shame and guilt in the service of inflicting pain.
Let me remind you that there is a range of thought and feeling evinced in human culture that no longer exists in America. These things were called virtues. They are qualities in thought and action related to goodness and excellence, and they are in very short supply these days in the USA, though we are well-supplied with fakes and approximations of virtue -- such as the moments of sham heroism witnessed yesterday afternoon and evening by men watching televised football. What matters now is that an epochal undertow of events is dragging this enormous nation into an economic convulsion that will inevitably turn political. I don't think that our society can be redeemed in its current form. It has to pass through a tribulation that demands the reemergence of adult male humans who know how to be men in more than one dimension. And you who make it through to the other side will barely comprehend the monsters left behind, or how they made themselves that way.
Monday, December 17, 2012
By James Howard Kunstler
on December 10, 2012 9:00 AM
on December 10, 2012 9:00 AM
On Saturday, the town next to us, Cambridge, New York, put on its annual Christmas breakfast in the main theater of its old opera house, HUBBARD HALL. Cambridge is a farming town in a farming economy that died and is just beginning to be re-born. The town occupies a landscape of tender hollows and gentle hills that rise toward the Green Mountains of Vermont twenty miles east. This topography allowed a specialty economy of seed husbandry to thrive. Each little hollow, like a little isolation ward, could be used to cultivate pure seed strains of a vegetable untainted by other varieties.
The modest red-brick factory in the center of town was never a smokestack industry. It was a seed-sorting and packing operation. Today, the "re-purposed" building occupies a very mixed assortment of activities: a specialty woodworking shop, a health club full of cardio machines, and artist's studios. The town - indeed, much of Washington County - has attracted bohemians over the years. It is just a little too distant from New York City to have been taken over by weekenders, and my guess is that the way things are going the danger of that is now past.
Of course, bohemian artists are generally not wealthy and a glance down Main Street shows all the usual signs of distress visible in the shattered economies of small towns around the region. Many of the operating storefronts are antique shops - an effort to wring residual value from emptying the attics and barns of homesteads under-occupied and under utilized, the strip-mining of history. Many of the big wooden houses, typical of the 19th century when large inter-generational families were the norm, are slowly decrepitating. They require a lot of expensive maintenance, which has been impossible for decades now, and it shows.
Hubbard Hall, a big wooden heap with its Second Empire mansardic tower, was erected in 1878 for the traveling shows and vaudevilles of the day and shuttered in the 1920s. It was rescued from oblivion in the 1970s and has evolved into a very busy center for the lively arts, which now includes two other buildings, freight barns adjacent to the defunct railroad station. There's a ballet studio, a music rehearsal room, a room for kids' art classes, and a separate building for contra dances. The programming is very rich. The old theater, where at least four plays and sometimes operas are performed by a capable local troupe each year, is the heart of the operation and that is where last week's Christmas breakfast was held.
It is the kind of gathering place for people that could never be built now under the absurd burden of our construction codes. And that is finally what I want to talk about here: the magnificence of the room itself and how it affects the beating life of this struggling community. Unlike the depressing "facilities" most of our festivals take place in around the USA - the gymnasiums and Holiday Inn "function rooms" with their extraneous furnishings, acoustical ceilings studded with fire-prevention shower heads, off-gassing carpets, and atrocious fluorescent lighting - Hubbard Hall has a lofty painted ceiling and a graceful swooping wooden balcony in the rear. The proscenium arch is decorated in floral motifs out of the William Morris pattern book. The big room smells like old wood and history and the stairs to it creak musically.
For seventeen years, the town has put on a Christmas breakfast devised to celebrate the culture of a foreign land, mostly for the sake of the children who grow up in a town that is, in the language of social services, ethnically un-diverse. This year it was Poland. Now, it happens that I joined a string band about a year ago that practices every week and plays for the monthly contra dance. I play fiddle, an instrument that is easy to play badly. We practiced four Polish folk dance tunes for the month preceding and rehearsed with the dancers, a troupe of middle school girls, once.
I was not prepared for how splendid the event turned to be. The theater walls were decorated with pine boughs. Little electric lights and swags of pine edged the apron of the stage and the balcony rail. Many tables were set where the audience usually sits (the chairs are movable), covered with table-cloths, with a big platter of Christmas cookies at the center of each. Children about ten or eleven circulated with platters of pirogies and strudels. The bustle of life in that room was enchanting. There were two seatings at the breakfast, nine and eleven, both of them very full. The program on stage was a mixed bag of dance, story-telling, puppetry, and musical performance, all done surprisingly well and with the wonderful élan of people who know and care about each other. When both seatings were over, our little band broke spontaneously into Christmas carols, which we hadn't practiced at all, and somehow managed to play pretty well as the townspeople drifted toward the exits.
I maintain that there is something about the room itself, its small-scale magnificence, that honored the presence of the people in it, and amplified all the pleasures of being together for the purpose of festivity. America these days is mostly composed of places that are not neutral as they seem, but positively hostile and antagonistic to what is most human in us - the mechanism that produces love. To quote myself from a book published some time ago, we built a nation of scary places and became a land of scary people. Thus, we are truly fortunate that the long emergency is upon us, because now circumstances will compel us to do things differently.
Saturday, December 15, 2012
Monday, December 03, 2012
By James Howard Kunstler
on December 3, 2012 9:14 AM
on December 3, 2012 9:14 AM
Even if the so-called economy were "recovering," the people of the USA would be stuck in a physical setting for daily life that has no future - the nightmare infrastructure of subdivision houses, strip malls, and WalMarts, all rigged up for incessant motoring. Of course, the so-called economy is not recovering because there is no more cheap oil. If oil ever gets cheap again, it will be because nobody has enough money to pay for it and surely you can connect the dots to what that hamster wheel of futility means.
In fact, the heart of our economic predicament is that the American economy came to be based on the construction ever more suburban stuff, the financing of which, especially the houses, became the fodder for an episode of epic swindles that has left our banking system a hollowed out shell of accounting fraud. In short, we built even more stuff with no future, and ruined our society in the process. How tragic is that?
The behavioral habits, practices, and consequences of being stuck in that living arrangement may end up being at least as problematic as the physical residue of it. It has left the people in a network of alienation, anxiety, and misery that defeats exactly the mentality needed to break free of it. For the truth is we're faced with a massive necessary re-ordering of daily life in this country, and there is no vision or will to get on with job.
Among the tribulations of this living arrangement is the utter loss of connection between place and purpose often expressed in the phrase "loss of community," which is a little too abstract to me and fails to convey the tragedy of individuals living with no sense of purpose -- and by that I mean duties, obligations, and responsibilities to other human beings.
Obviously, the whole idea of a single-family house by definition dictates a certain disposition of things. It will lack the dimension and social relations of a household composed of multiple generations plus non-family members, helpers, employees, servants. And it should also be obvious that the single-generation, single-family house is a product of mid-20th century industrial dynamism that made even factory worker wage slaves rich by historical standards - Tom Wolfe pointed out years ago that the average GM assembly line drone enjoyed more sheer physical luxury at home than Louis XIV.
Put the single-family house in the context of a suburban monoculture organized to conform relentlessly to the dictates of single use zoning, and you get a recipe for instant (and permanent) social dysfunction. Then, fill that house with electronic diversion devices and a microwave oven and you end up with a very few disconnected humans who rarely share a meal and exist, while "at home," in a narcissistic vapor-realm of canned entertainment, pornography, texting (i.e. melodrama created to fill a void of purposelessness), and the sado-masochistic combats of video games (a substitute for purposeful, virile endeavor), all floating on a virtual river of relentless advertising.
It always interests me to see the emergent purposeless of the American Dream expressed so vividly in the television sitcoms of that mid-20th century day - the very moment of its emergence. Ozzie Nelson of Ozzie and Harriet seemed to have absolutely nothing to do except sit around the kitchen waiting for somebody else to come in for a cup of coffee. He clearly had nowhere else to go. The ennui of Ozzie Nelson was a source of mirth to busy hipsters who savored the ironies of behavioral kitsch - loving what's horrible for the horror it induces. But it really isn't so funny since it is a portrait of an un-manned man trapped in utter purposeless and reduced to the pathetic existential status of somebody endlessly waiting for nothing. (Cue Samuel Beckett....)
Anyway, that was then and it's all crashing down now in a great galumphing debris-field of bankruptcy, psychosis, regret, obesity, and foreclosure. So what comes next? They say that the millennial generation is the most group-oriented, cooperative bunch to come along in the march of Boomers, Xs, and Ys. How much of this is an hallucination of transient computer connectivity, I don't know. The fact that it is so difficult for them financially to even hope to form a household will surely be a defining factor in the choices they make ahead about how exactly to inhabit the landscape. I think they will make out better in this project than their Boomer forerunners, who started out in communes sharing toothbrushes and graduated to dismal McMansions in a geography of nowhere, while dedicating their careers to the looting of posterity.
I'm quite sure that many will rediscover a sense of purpose in the re-ordering of social life that lies ahead, which includes a return to different household arrangements and probably much more hierarchical social relations. Implicit in the latter is the now-utterly-incorrect-and-taboo notion of someone knowing their place. The catch is: you need to have a place in order to know your place, and therefore know who you are - and in a society full of people for whom place means nothing, there is little chance of acquiring a real identity, other than the sham raiment of the app-supported avatar life that has taken the place of being human.
I had a fugitive thought the other evening walking through my beaten-down small town in the late fall chill. I imagined that instead of the blue tomb-like glow of television emanating from house to house that I could hear the sequential music of parlor pianos, and voices singing to them, and of healthy people coming and going from warm kitchens to fetch firewood, and of groups of people gathered around tables for a meal, and generally of buildings that were truly inhabited, not just storage containers for lives unspent. I grant you it was a fleeting nostalgic fantasy. But isn't nostalgia just a state of being homesick?