Cheap Oil Is Over: Kiss the Gas-Guzzling NASCAR Era Good-Bye

The following is excerpted from an essay by James Howard Kunstler published in the book Thrillcraft: The Environmental Consequences of Motorized Recreation (Chelsea Green, 2007).

The tendency for symbolic behavior in human beings is impressive. We are naturally and unself-consciously metaphorical beings, especially as our technological culture has evolved, and we have developed more and bigger prosthetic extensions of our powers. By the 1960s, when America's industrial "smokestack" economy was at its zenith, cigarette smoking was at its peak, too. Forty percent of the adult population smoked, each smoker behaving like a little factory, expelling the by-products of combustion at all hours of the day and night. It was practically required as a mark of adulthood. It was at least an entitlement. You could smoke on the job and in the college classroom. You could smoke in the doctor's waiting room. You could smoke in your seat on an airplane -- a little ashtray was provided right there in the armrest -- and nobody was allowed to complain about it. Every middle-class household had ashtrays deployed on the coffee table, even if the members were themselves nonsmokers.

In those days, smoking was more central to socializing than sharing food. TV broadcasting was largely supported by tobacco advertising. Smoking denied the character of movie stars: Humphrey Bogart expressed the entire range of human emotions in the way he handled his beloved Chesterfields, and eventually they killed him. In the middle of Times Square, a mechanized billboard with a hole in it blew "smoke rings" of steam out over the masses on the sidewalk. The adult population had plumes of smoke coming out of its collective mouth and nostrils the way that our society had smoke coming out of its cities and mill valleys. Notice how cigarette smoking has waned in lockstep with the decline of American smokestack industry.

Along similar lines today, it's compelling to see how NASCAR auto racing has risen to the level of a mania in early 21st century America, as the nation has reached its absolute zenith of automobile use. Even as the world approached the all-time global oil production peak -- with its ominous portents for social relations in this country -- Americans rallied obliviously to the weekend proving grounds of the stock-car gods. NASCAR has eclipsed baseball, football and basketball in popularity among spectator sports. Of course, in real life, such as it was in America, driving automobiles had come to occupy a huge amount of the public's time, day in and day out. Many adults were spending a good two hours a day commuting to work and back.

They were spending more time alone in their cars than with their spouses and children. NASCAR was the apotheosis of the same kind of cars that Americans drove to work. The competition vehicles were called stock cars, after all, because they were, theoretically, just souped-up versions of the same models that anyone could find in stock at an ordinary car dealership: Fords, Pontiacs, Chryslers and so on -- unlike the Formula One race cars favored in Europe, which were specially designed just for sport (hence the quaint term sports car from the 20th century).

What's more, the American economy was now mostly based on creating and maintaining the enormous infrastructures of motoring, as in suburbia, just as it had previously centered on the infrastructures of industrial production. So, the masses merely shifted their symbolic behavior focus from an emphasis on expelling smoke to an emphasis on watching souped-up ordinary cars move symbolically around in circles. Or more precisely, ovals, which, from the grandstand, was sort of like sitting on a freeway overpass for five hours watching traffic. The NASCAR racetracks evolved from county fair dirt tracks with a few rickety bleachers to gargantuan stadiums with luxury sky boxes accommodating more than a hundred thousand spectators. It was significant, too, that the NASCAR subculture arose in the South, the old Dixie states, where the automobile had had tremendous social transformative power in the previous half century. Prior to the Second World War, Dixie had been an agricultural backwater with few cities of consequence, peopled by (among other groups) a dominant Caucasian peasantry called "rednecks" (because of the effects of the sun on exposed pale skin in the dusty crop rows).

States like Georgia, North Carolina and Alabama were huge. You could fit eleven Connecticuts in Alabama and have room for Rhode Island and Delaware. Unless they lived right along the railroad line, the folks down on the farm were pretty much stuck in place. The automobile liberated the redneck peasantry from the oppression of geography as emancipation had liberated the black peasantry from the legalities of chattel ownership.

In fact, the effect of the car was arguably much greater, since blacks continued to exist in economic quasi-serfdom despite the putative change in their legal status. The car and all its manifold benefits hoisted poor rednecks into a middle-class existence that had seemed like a distant fairytale previously, something only seen in the magazine pages they had used to wallpaper the rooms of their "cracker cottages" (their own typological term for such a dwelling). They became truckers and car dealers and car repairmen and the owners of fried food franchise shacks out on the highway. They made good wages and some became rich. Once a broad money base was established, they excelled at suburban development because rural land was so cheap, and there was so much of it. They worshiped the car more than they worshiped Jesus. The economy of the South was utterly transformed after the Second World War and the new economy was mostly about the car.

Cheap gasoline along with cheap air conditioning made the South livable for people who had a choice about where to make their homes. Cheap air conditioning in particular made city life possible in a region that had lagged hopelessly behind the states of the Old Union -- to the degree that Dixie had not a single city substantial enough for a major league baseball team prior to the 1960s. But the cities that arose in Dixie after the war were not like cities elsewhere in physical form.

Orlando, Houston, Charlotte and places like them had gone from being smaller than Buffalo, N.Y., to becoming immense crypto-urbations of ring freeways, radial commercial highway strips and far-flung housing subdivisions around tiny withered peanuts of prewar traditional downtown cores. Houston by the year 2000 was not a city in the traditional sense of being composed of neighborhoods and districts; rather, it was an assemblage of single-use zoning wastelands: the shopping wasteland, the medical-services wasteland, the university wasteland, the cul-de-sac house wasteland and so on, dominated by massive overlays of automobile infrastructure.

The economy of the "New South," as it liked to call itself in the late 20th century, was more about the making of suburban sprawl than the corporations that were lured down from the north to the Carolinas, Tennessee and Georgia for the cheap labor available. After all, the factories themselves eventually closed up shop as globalism made even cheaper labor in distant nations more attractive to corporate enterprise; but the sprawl remained, along with the office parks, where obscenely paid top executives now ran things, while the once-mighty working classes slid into a new kind of trailer-trash penury.

And that is where things stand today with the region and the nation it is still attached to, sleepwalking into the early years of a permanent global fossil fuel crisis that will once again transform the nation in ways we can only sketchily imagine. Into the first decade of the new century, the New South has begun to be viewed as so successful compared to failing regions like the Midwest rust belt, coastal New England, and even California (in its latter stages of being America's all-purpose shit magnet) that the behavior emanating from Dixie became paradigmatic for the nation as a whole. It was infectious. These days, the working and sub-working classes from Maine to Minnesota follow country music as avidly as the folks down in Spartanburg, S.C.

They favor the kind of military leisurewear -- especially camouflage gear, with patches and insignia -- that come straight from a region that is demographically overrepresented in the armed forces and sets the styles for all of lumpen America. They adopt locutions originating in the southland, the "y-offglide" (or the confederate a), for example, in which words like my became mah. They put "Git 'er Done" decals on their pickup bumpers, name their sons Buddy, and cry "booyah" when overcome by excitement. They revel in the romance of rearms to such a pathological degree that hardly a year goes by when some disgruntled employee in the United States doesn't lug a duffel bag with his own arsenal into a place of business and blow away two or three annoying co-workers in a rapture of scripted conditioning straight out of the Hollywood studios.

Some lumpen motoring activities have regional characteristics of their own that don't migrate well. Snowmobile culture arose in the northern states around 1970, when the take-home pay of people performing low-skill jobs reached its all-time high. A machine formerly used as a rescue vehicle at ski areas and a maintenance tool on ranches was marketed as a winter toy for grownups in its own right. This was clearly something that was not going to be as popular in Arkansas as in Minnesota. In fact, as this relatively new snowmobile subculture evolved, it became less about the machines themselves and more about drinking with friends in the outdoors -- an unfortunate combination as anyone who reads the newspaper in what's left of small-town America can see in the Monday police blotters when snowmobilers with six Budweisers under their belts decapitate themselves running through fence lines at 50 miles an hour. When they are actually on board the vehicles, usually en train with buddies, and not running into unforgiving objects or rolling fatally down ravines, the disturbance to the peace of the rural places they traverse is self-evident and horrible.

All-terrain vehicles, or ATVs, those clumsy three- and four-wheeled motorbikes, were most popular proportionately in the American West, where hunters were able to extend their range to the vast back country of federal lands and get their meat home with the assistance of a gasoline engine. Likewise, the dune buggy originated in California for the simple reason that desert terrain was adjacent to the populous Los Angeles basin. While it has persisted in its limited milieu, dune-buggy culture never quite recovered socially from its association with the murderous doings of Charles Manson and his "family." The dirt-bike phenomenon also came out of California but evolved quickly from an off-road work and play vehicle to the dirt-bike tracks of competitive racing, where it gave young men a way to channel surplus testosterone by winning trophies (and cash). Ironically, wilderness trail areas around the suburbs have lately been taken over by nonmotorized mountain bikes, which are causing plenty of destruction in their own right. The jet ski, or "personal watercraft" (in the military lingo beloved by the lower orders because it makes things seem more technically complex and hence magical), is perhaps the most baroque and arguably the last in the line of such dedicated leisure vehicles, being in essence a boat with hardly any storage capacity on which one can do little else besides move at great speed over water while soaking wet. Fishing from such a craft is awkward. Even drinking on them presents problems, especially where the bulky favored beverage of the sporting masses, beer, is concerned.

The abuse of public lands during this long fiesta of off-roading has led to a crisis of ethics and law. As of this writing, of the 262 million acres under the federal Bureau of Land Management, 93 percent is open to off-road riding machines. Of 155 national forests, only two are off-limits to off-roaders.

Regulation of snowmobiles, ATVs and dirt bikes on public lands has consistently failed in the face of lobbying by corporations who make these toys and of the peremptory claims of "rights" by those who use them. Whenever attempted -- for instance, an effort to limit access to snowmobiles in Yellowstone by the Clinton administration -- the rules have been defeated in short order. In a nation of outsourced blue-collar jobs, shrinking incomes, vanishing medical insurance, rising fuel and heating costs, and net-zero personal savings, the anxiety level of the struggling classes has to be appeased politically, and one way to minimize the current cost of that anxiety is to charge it off to posterity and the public interest.

Where does this leave us as we enter the new period of history I have several times alluded to: the post-cheap-oil world and eventually a world altogether without recoverable fossil fuels? You could say up a cul-de-sac in a rusted GMC Denali without a fill-up. Or you could say, more to the point, in a society that will have to get its thrills and satisfactions in other ways, involving fewer prosthetic projections of our will to power. The will to power itself will probably be subdued by something more elemental: a will to stay warm, clean, and well-nourished in the era of post-oil-and-gas hardship and turbulence we are entering, which I have taken to calling the "Long Emergency."

In this new era, coming soon to a 21st century region near you, the formerly industrial nations will have a great deal of trouble keeping the lights on, getting around and feeding their people. Vocational niches by the hundreds will vanish, while the need to make up for a failing industrial agriculture, with all its oil and gas inputs, will require a revived agricultural working class in substantial numbers. This is, in effect, a peasantry, and the word itself obviously carries unappetizing overtones, especially among those who used to be certain that the perfectibility of both human nature and human society were at hand. It all seemed that way, I suppose, in the early 1960s, when the United Auto Workers was setting up vacation camps along the Michigan lakes, and President Kennedy promised to put a man on the moon before the decade ended, and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction kept a sort of peace among the great military powers, and Dad drove home from the Pontiac showroom with a new GTO, which his son, Buddy, used to cruise the strip on Friday nights while "Born to Be Wild" rang out of the radio and into the warm, soporifc San Fernando night.

All over. All over but the keening for our soon-to-be-lost machine world. We'll have to find new satisfactions now looking inward and reaching out with our limbs to those around us to discover what they are finding inward and outward about themselves. We'll certainly find music there, and dancing, and perhaps some fighting, and we will still have the means to make bases and balls and sticks for hitting them, and gloves for catching them, and twilight evenings in the meadow to play in. Amid a great stillness. With the moon rising.

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