James Howard Kunstler

Our Economy Is Built Around a Bunch of Scams and Pure Greed -- and the Alternatives Are Staring Us in the Face

Wall Street is only one of several financial roach motels in what has become a giant slum of a global economy. Notional “money” scuttles in for safety and nourishment, but may never get out alive. Tom Friedman of The New York Times really put one over on the soft-headed American public when he declared in a string of books that the global economy was a permanent installation in the human condition. What we’re seeing “out there” these days is the basic operating system of that economy trying to shake itself to pieces.

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The Smog of Fraud Permeates the American Economy

Team Obama pulled a cute one last week nominating Blythe Masters, JP Morgan’s commodity chief, to an advisory committee of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) which supposedly regulates activities on the paper trades in corn, pork bellies, cocoa, coffee, wheat, corn — oh, and gold, too, by the way, in which JP Morgan has been suspected of massive gold (and silver) market manipulations and other misconduct lately. That would include the 2011 MF Global Fiasco in which nearly a billion dollars from “segregated” customer accounts somehow ended up parked over at JP Morgan as a result of bad derivative bets on tanking Eurozone bonds. MF Global, primarily a commodities trading brokerage, was liquidated in 2011. The CFTC never issued referrals for prosecution to the Department of Justice in the matter and, of course, MF Global’s notorious CEO, Jon Corzine remains at large, enjoying caramel flan lattes in the Hamptons to this day. Such are the Teflon transactions of the Obama years: nothing sticks.

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Why America & China's Future Plans Are Totally Nuts

Societies periodically go insane. Fallacious memes sweep through a frightened and confused populace and bad things happen, bad choices get made. Two bad ideas in particular infect the American thought-o-sphere these days: 1) that non-cheap oil can keep all the rackets of consumerism going; 2) that we can offset all the quandaries of non-cheap oil with accounting fraud and debt creation.

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Consider Obama's Pick to Regulate Finance -- If We Were a Functioning Republic, It Would Be Called Insane

History has a special purgatory where it sometimes stashes feckless nations punch drunk on their own tragic choices: the realm where anything goes, nothing matters, and nobody cares. We've surely crossed the frontier into that bad place in these days of dwindling winter, 2013.
Case in point: Mr. Obama's choice of Mary Jo White to run the Securities and Exchange Commission. A federal prosecutor back in the Clinton years, Ms. White eventually spun through the revolving door onto the payroll of Wall Street law firm Debevoise & Plimpton, whose clients included Too Big To Fail banks JP Morgan, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, and UBS AG, defending them in matters stemming from the financial crisis that began in 2008, as well as other companies that needed defending from allegations of financial misconduct, such as the giant HCA hospital chain (insider trading), General Electric (now a virtual hedge fund with cases before the SEC), and the German-based Siemens Corporation (federal bribery charges).
A republic with a sense of common decency -- and common sense -- would have stopped the nomination right there and checked the "no" box on Mary Jo White just for violating the most basic premise of credibility: that trip through the revolving door that shuttles banking regulators from the government agencies to the companies they used to oversee and sometimes back again.
Has there not been enough national conversation about the scuzziness of that routine to establish that it's not okay? Does it not clearly represent the essence of dysfunction and corruption in our regulatory affairs? Didn't President Obama promise to seal up the revolving door? So how could Mary Jo White possibly be taken seriously as a candidate for the job? And how is it possible that everyone and their uncle, from The New York Times editorial page to the Sunday cable news political shows to the halls of congress, is not jumping up and down hollering about this? Well, because anything goes, nothing matters, and nobody cares.
The funny part is that, when challenged over her past connections to the banks and companies she would now have to regulate, Mary Jo White offered to recuse herself from future cases involving them. So, from the get-go as SEC head, Ms. White would not concern herself with the doings of JP Morgan, Bank of America, and Morgan Stanley? How is it that gales of laughter did not blow Mary Jo White clean out of the hearing room? Is there not another qualified person from sea to shining sea who could come in and do the job without one hand tied behind his or her back?
Now it also turns out that upon leaving Debevoise & Plimpton, Ms. White is scheduled to collect monthly retirement checks from the company amounting to a half million dollars a year -- that's for life, by the way -- while she supposedly runs the SEC. How is that not a conflict of interest? The remedy proposed by Ms. White and her attorneys was for her to take the retirement loot as a lump sum during her tenure as SEC chair, after which she could revert to collecting her pension in the $42,500 monthly payouts. Pardon me, but, well ...what the fuck? What planet are we on?
As if that's not enough, Ms. White's husband, John W. White, is a partner at another giant Wall Street law firm, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, which frequently tangles with the SEC on behalf of its clients. Mr. White proposed to change his pay structure while his wife runs the SEC. More gales of laughter. He is also on the advisory committee of the Financial Standards Accounting Board, the group that oversees national accounting practices and which, in 2009, infamously changed its Rule157 so that TBTF banks could "mark to fantasy" the fraudulent CDOs and other bond-like "innovative" securities that they created -- many of which they had to eat after the housing bubble bust when the collateral for these swindles lost its value and the "innovators" could no longer pawn the stuff off on credulous pension funds and other client "muppets."
The silence over this disgraceful matter -- and many others like it, including the dead hand in the empty suit posing as US Attorney General -- indicates that not only is the rule of law extinct in this country, but so are public figures of principle and credible news organs. Nobody has made a noise about it. Anything goes, nothing matters, and nobody cares. So, the objection to it has to come from outside the authorized channels. And the consequences will mount outside the fortress of lies that the establishment has become.

After Ruining America, the Era of Giant Chain Stores Is Over

Global currency wars (competitive devaluations) are about to destroy trade relationships. Say goodbye to the 12,000 mile supply chain from Guangzhou to Hackensack. Say goodbye to the growth financing model in which it becomes necessary to open dozens of new stores every year to keep the credit revolving.

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The Delusional People Who Want to Frack This Country Up

On Sunday night CBS hauled Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy, on board their flagship Sunday infotainment vehicle, 60 Minutes, to blow a mighty wind up America's ass (as they say in professional PR circles). America is lately addicted to lying to itself, and 60 Minutes has become the "go-to" patsy for funneling disinformation into an already hopelessly confused, wishful, delusional, US public.
McClendon told the credulous Leslie Stahl and the huge viewing audience that America "has two Saudi Arabia's of gas." Now, you know immediately that at least half the viewers misconstrued this statement to mean that we have two Saudi Arabia's of gasoline. Translation: don't worry none about driving anywhere you like, or having to get some tiny little pansy-ass hybrid whatchamacallit car to do it in, and especially don't pay no attention to them "green" sumbitches on the sidelines trying to sell you some kind of peak oil story.... It also prepared the public to support whatever Mr. McClendon's company wants to do, because he says his company will free America from its slavery to OPEC. By the way, CBS never clarified these parts of the story by the end of the show.
First of all, they are talking about methane gas, not liquid gasoline or oil. There are large deposits of methane gas locked into shale deposits roughly following the Appalachian mountain chain from New York State through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, into Ohio, but also hot spots out west. It's hard to get at. You have to basically blow up the shale rock deep underground with high pressure water that is loaded up with chemicals and sand particles to keep the rock fragments separated once they are blown apart. Chesapeake Energy specializes in this rock fracturing (or "fracking") method for drilling. You can get gas out of the ground this way. The question is how much, over what time period, at what cost.
At the present time, with America anxious about any kind of future energy, shale gas sounds like a dream-come-true. Mostly what the public saw on 60 Minutes last night was a sell-job for Chesapeake Energy to boost its stock price. Here are some facts:
Over a 50 year period ahead, all the shale gas drilling of the Marcellus fields in New York State will produce the equivalent of three years US consumption at 2008 levels.
A price of $8 per unit is required to make shale gas fracking economically viable in theory even for a short time. Gas is currently around $4. Expect to pay at least twice as much for gas.
Even at higher costs, shale gas fracking is arguably uneconomical. It requires huge numbers of rigs, generally 8 wells per "pad," meaning very high capital investments. The wells produce nicely for a year, average, and then deplete very steeply - meaning you get a lot of money up front and very soon all that capital investment is a wash. Translation: Chesapeake can make a lot quick money over the next few years of intense drilling and they don't care what happens after that.
Chesapeake itself estimates that 5.5 million gallons of fresh water are needed per well, often delivered in trucks, which require fuel.
It takes three years, average to prepare a drilling "pad" and the up to 12 wells on it, working 24/7 in rural areas with significant noise and electric lighting
The fracking fluid is a secret proprietary cocktail formula amounting to 5 percent of the liquid injected into the earth. It's composed of: sand; a jelling agent to suspend the sand because water is not "thick" enough; biocides to kill bacteria that thrive in jelling agent; "breakers" to thin out jell-thickened water after fracking to get the fluid out of the way of released gas and improve "flowback;" fluid-loss additives to decrease "leak-off" of fracking fluid into rock; anti-corrosives to protect metal in wells; and friction reducers to promote high pressures and high flow rates. Of the 5.5 million gallons of fluid injected into each well, 27,500 gallons is the chemical cocktail.
Mr. McClendon said on 60 Minutes that it couldn't possibly harm the public's water supply because they were drilling so far below the 1000-foot-deep maximum of most water wells. He left out the fact that they have to drill through those drinking water layers to get down to the shale gas, and pump the fracking fluid through it, and then get the gas up through it. He also left out the fact that the concrete casings of drill holes sometimes crack and leak at any depth.
The fracking fluid cannot be re-used. You have to mix new cocktail fluid for each injection.
"Flowback" fluid inevitably comes back up with the gas, sometimes spilling over the ground. In any case, the stuff that does come back up is stored on the surface in lagoons. Often it contains heavy metals, salts, and radioactive material from drilling through strata of radon-bearing granite and other layers. Liners of flowback fluid lagoons have been known to fail.
Gas well failures in Pennsylvania, where production was ramped up quickest in recent years, have ended up polluting well water to the degree that residents can no longer use their wells.
Little is known about the migration of fracking fluids underground.
It seems to me that the chief mass delusion associated with this touted "bonanza" is that Americans would supposedly be able to shift to driving cars that run on natural gas. I believe they will be hugely disappointed. Between the cost of fracking production (and its poor economics), gearing up the manufacture of a new type universal car engine, and installing the infrastructure for methane gas fill-ups - not to mention the supply operation by either new pipelines or trucks carrying liquefied methane gas, we will discover that a.) America lacks the capital, and b.) that households will be too broke to change out the entire US car fleet.
What this disgusting episode really shows is how eager the USA is to mount a campaign to sustain the unsustainable at all costs, including massive collective self-deception. The lying starts at the very top, not just in Aubrey McClendon's office at Chespeake, but in every executive suite throughout the land - including the Oval Office - where any lie is automatically swallowed and then upchucked for public consumption in the interest of keeping a nation based on addictive rackets stumbling on without having to change our behavior.

America Is One Big Clunker and No Amount of Cash Will Buy Us a New One

In The Long Emergency (2005, Atlantic Monthly Press), I said that we ought to expect the federal government to become increasingly impotent and ineffectual -- that this would be a hallmark of the times. In fact, I said that any enterprise organized at the colossal scale would function poorly in years ahead, whether it was a government, a state university, a national chain retail company, or a giant midwestern farm. It is characteristic of the compressive contraction our society faces that giant hypercomplex systems will wobble and fail. We should expect this.

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We Must Imagine a Future Without Cars

The following is James Howard Kunstler' recent speech to the Commonwealth Club of California. An audio stream of the speech is available.

Two years ago in my book The Long Emergency I wrote that our nation was sleepwalking into an era of unprecedented hardship and disorder -- largely due to the end of reliably cheap and abundant oil. We're still blindly following that path into a dangerous future, lost in dark raptures of infotainment, diverted by inane preoccupations with sex and celebrity, made frantic by incessant motoring.

The coming age of energy scarcity will change everything about how we live in this country. It will ignite more desperate contests between nations for the remaining oil and natural gas around the world. It will alter the fundamental terms of industrial economies. It will ramify and amplify many of the problems presented by climate change. It will require us to behave differently. But we are not paying attention.

As the American public continues sleepwalking into a future of energy scarcity, climate change, and geopolitical turmoil, we have also continued dreaming. Our collective dream is one of those super-vivid ones people have just before awakening, as the fantastic transports of the unconscious begin to merge with the demands of waking reality. The dream is a particularly American dream on an American theme: how to keep all the cars running by some other means than gasoline. We'll run them on ethanol! We'll run them on biodiesel, on synthesized coal liquids, on hydrogen, on methane gas, on electricity, on used French-fry oil... !

The dream goes around in fevered circles as each gasoline-replacement is examined and found to be inadequate. But the wish to keep the cars going is so powerful that round and round the dream goes. Ethanol! Biodiesel! Coal Liquids. ...

And a harsh reality indeed awaits us as the full scope of the permanent energy crisis unfolds. The global oil production peak is not a cult theory, it's a fact. The earth does not have a creamy nougat center of petroleum. The supply in finite, and we have ample evidence that all-time global production has peaked.

Of course, the issue is not about running out of oil, and never has been. There will always be some oil left underground -- it just might take more than a barrel-of-oil's worth of energy to pump each barrel out, so it won't be worth doing.

The issue is not about running out -- it's about what happens when you head over the all-time production peak down the slippery slope of depletion. And what happens is that the complex systems we depend on for everyday life in advanced societies begin to falter, wobble, and fail -- and the failures in each system will in turn weaken the others. By complex systems I mean the way we produce our food, the way we conduct manufacture and trade, the way we operate banking and finance, the way we move people and things from one place to another, and the way we inhabit the landscape.

I'll try not to dwell excessively on the statistics since I am more concerned here with the implications for everyday life in our nation. But it is probably helpful to understand a few of the numbers.

Oil production in the US peaked in 1970. We're now producing about half of what we did then, and our own production continues to run down steadily at the rate of a few percentage points of recoverable reserves each year. It adds up. In 1970, we were producing about 10 million barrels a day. Now we're down to less than five -- and we consume over 20 million barrels a day. We have compensated for that since 1970 by importing oil from other nations. Today we import about two-thirds of all the oil we use. Today, the world is consuming all the oil it can produce. As global production passes its own peak, the world will not be able to compensate for its shortfall by importing oil from other planets.

Nor is there any real likelihood that new discoveries will be adequate to compensate. Discovery precedes production, of course, because you can't pump oil that you haven't discovered. Discovery of oil in the US peaked in the 1930s -- and production started declining roughly 30 years later. Discovery of oil peaked worldwide in the 1960s, and now the signs suggest the world has peaked. Discovery of new oil worldwide in recent years has amounted to a tiny fraction of replacement levels. In fact, we may be burning more oil just in our exploration efforts than we will get from the oil we're discovering.

The oil industry has been dominated by what are called supergiant fields. The four reigning supergiant fields of oil our time were discovered decades ago and are now in decline. The Burgan field of Kuwait, the Daqing of China, Cantarell of Mexico, and Ghawar of Saudi Arabia. Together in recent decades they were responsible for 14 percent of the world's oil production, and they are now in decline. All except Ghawar of Saudi Arabia have been declared officially past peak by their own governments and Ghawar is showing clear signs of trouble -- though Aramco itself won't say so. Ghawar has provided 60 percent of Saudi Arabia's production. Saudi Arabia's total production is down 8 percent in the year past, despite a massive increase in drilling rigs, and the incentive of high prices.

Last year, the Mexican national oil company, Pemex, declared its supergiant field, Cantarell, to be officially past peak and in decline. As in the case with Ghawar and Saudi Arabia, Cantarell has been responsible for 60 percent of Mexico's oil production. Cantarell is now crashing at an official decline rate of at least 15 percent a year -- perhaps steeper. Mexico has been our No. 3 source of oil imports (after Canada and Saudi Arabia). The crash of Cantarell means in just a few years Mexico, our No. 3 source of imports, will have no surplus oil to sell to the US. It also means that the Mexican government will be strapped for operating revenue -- and you can draw your own conclusions about the political implications.

The North Sea and Alaska's North Slope were some of the last great discoveries of the oil era. Plentiful North Sea and Alaskan production took away OPEC's leverage over the oil markets. This led to the oil glut of the 1990s, driving oil prices down finally to $10 a barrel. It is also what induced the American public to fall asleep on energy issues. It seemed as if cheap oil was here to stay. Forever.

Both The North Sea and Alaska are now past peak and in depletion. Prudhoe Bay proved to be Alaska's only super giant oil field. Several other key fields were discovered. None were even 1/6th the size of Prudhoe Bay.

North Sea oil was produced using the latest-and-greatest new technology for drilling and guess what: it only allowed the region to be drained more rapidly and efficiently. Now 57 of Norway's 69 oil fields are past peak and the average post-peak decline rates average 17 percent a year. The UK's share of the North Sea has declined to the extent that England is now a net energy importer.

Russia, despite current high levels of post-Soviet-era production, peaked in the 1980s, and may now be past 70 percent of its ultimate recoverable reserves. Iran is past peak. Indonesia, an OPEC member, is so far past peak it became a net oil importer last year. Venezuela is past peak. Iraq and Nigeria are consumed by political insurrection. The companies developing Canada's tar sands have announced this past year that their costs will double original estimates -- in other words, whatever comes out of the ground there will be very expensive.

Meanwhile, in the background, completely ignored by the US media, an additional problem is developing on the oil scene. Net world production is going down by just under 3 percent a year, but total exports from the top ten exporters are going down at an even steeper rate. Geologist Jeffrey Brown, among the excellent technicians at TheOilDrum.com website, writes that the top ten exporters are showing a net export decline rate of 7 percent the past year, trending toward a 50 percent export decline over the coming ten years. Why? Because on top of production decline rates, nations like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Venezuela are using more of their own oil at home with rising populations and more automobiles.

A few additional background items. Most of the easy-to-get, light and sweet crude oil is gone. We got that out of the ground in the run-up to peak [oil]. We found that high quality oil in temperate places onshore, like Texas, where it was easy and pleasant to work, and the stuff was relatively close to the surface. The remaining oil is, each year, proportionally made up more of heavy and sour crudes that are hard to refine and yield less gasoline. Most of the refinery capacity in the world cannot process these heavy and sour crudes and there is no world-class industrial effort to build new ones -- and on top of that, existing world refinery infrastructure is old and rusty. Finally, most of the remaining oil in the world exists either in geographically forbidding places where it is extremely difficult and expensive to work, like deep water out in the ocean or in frozen regions, or else it belongs to people who are indisposed to be friendly to us.

The natural gas situation is at least equally ominous, with some differences in the technical details -- and by the way, I'm referring here not to gasoline but to methane gas (CH4), the stuff we run in kitchen stoves and home furnaces. Natural gas doesn't deplete slowly like oil, following a predictable bell curve pattern; it simply stops coming out of the ground very suddenly, and then that particular gas well is played out. You get your gas from the continent you're on. Natural gas is moved to customers in the US, Canada, and Mexico in an extensive pipeline network. To import natural gas from overseas, it has to be liquefied, loaded in a special kind of expensive-to-build-and-operate tanker ship, and then offloaded at specialized marine terminal, all adding layers of cost. The process also obviously affords us poor control over not-always-friendly foreign suppliers.

Half the homes in America are heated with gas furnaces and about 16 percent of our electricity is made with it. Industry uses natural gas as the main ingredient in fertilizer, plastics, ink, glue, paint, laundry detergent, insect repellents and many other common household necessities. Synthetic rubber and man-made fibers like nylon could not be made without the chemicals derived from natural gas. In North America, natural gas production peaked in 1973. We are drilling as fast as we can to keep the air conditioners and furnaces running.

That's the background on our energy predicament. Against this background is the whole question of how we live in the United States. I wrote three books previously about the fiasco of suburbia. There are many ways of describing it, but lately I refer to it as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. Why? Because it is a living arrangement with no future. Why doesn't it have a future? Because it was designed to run on cheap oil and gas, and in just a few years we won't have those things anymore.

Having made these choices, we are now hobbled by a tragic psychology of previous investment -- that is, having poured so much of our late-20th century wealth into this living arrangement -- this Happy Motoring utopia -- we can't imagine letting go of it, or substantially reforming it.

We have compounded the problem lately by making the building of suburban sprawl the basis of our economy. Insidiously, we have replaced America's manufacturing capacity with an economy based on building evermore suburban houses and the accessories and furnishings that go with them -- the highway strips, the big box shopping pods, et cetera -- meaning that our economy is now largely based on building more and more stuff with no future -- on a continued misallocation of resources. Roughly 40 percent of the new jobs created between 2001 last year were in housing bubble related fields -- the builders, the real estate agents, the mortgage brokers, the installers of granite countertops. If you subtracted the housing bubble from the rest of the economy in recent years, there wouldn't be much left besides hair-styling, fried chicken, and open heart surgery. Much of this housing bubble itself was promulgated by an equally unprecedented lapse in standards and norms of finance -- a tragedy-in-the-making that has now begun to unwind. What are we going to do about our extreme oil dependence and the living arrangement that goes with it?

There's a widespread wish across America these days that some combination of alternative fuels will rescue us; will allow us to continue enjoying by some other means what has been called "the non-negotiable American way of life." The wish is perhaps understandable given the psychology of previous investment.

But the truth is that no combination of alternative fuels or systems for using them will allow us to continue running America the way we have been, or even a substantial fraction of it. We are not going to run Wal Mart, Walt Disney World, Monsanto, and the interstate highway system on any combination of solar or wind energy, hydrogen, nuclear, ethanol, tar sands, oil shale, methane hydrates, thermal depolymerization, zero-point energy, used french-fry oil, or anything else you can name. We will desperately use many of these things in many ways, but we are likely to be disappointed by what they can actually do for us, particularly in terms of scale -- apart from the fact that most or all of them are probably net energy losers in economic terms.

For instance, we are much more likely to use wind power on a household or neighborhood basis rather than in deployments of Godzilla-sized turbines in so-called wind farms.

The key to understanding what we face is that we have to comprehensively make other arrangements for all the normal activities of everyday life. It is a long, detailed "to do" list that we can't afford to ignore. The public discussion of these issues is impressively incoherent. This failure of the collective imagination is reflected in the especially poor job being done by the mainstream media covering this story -- in particular, The New York Times, which does little besides publish feel-good press releases from Cambridge Energy Research Associates, the oil industry's chief public relations consultant.

These days, the only aspect of these issues that we are willing to talk about at all is how we might keep all our cars running by other means. We have to get beyond this obsession with running the cars by other means. The future is not just about motoring. We have to make other arrangements comprehensively for all the major activities of daily life in this nation.

We'll have to grow our food differently. The ADM/Monsanto/Cargill model of industrial-scale agribusiness will not survive the discontinuities of the Long Emergency -- the system of pouring oil-and-gas-based fertilizers and herbicides on the ground to grow all the cheez doodles and hamburgers. As oil and gas deplete, we will be left with sterile soils and farming organized at an unworkable scale. Many lives will depend on our ability to fix this.

We will find out the hard way that we can't afford to dedicate our crop lands to growing grains and soybeans for ethanol and biodiesel. A Pennsylvania farmer put it this way to me last month: "It looks like we're going to take the last six inches of Midwest topsoil and burn it in our gas tanks." The disruptions to world grain supplies by the ethanol mania are just beginning to thunder through the system. Last months there were riots in Mexico City because so much Mexican corn is now being already being diverted to American ethanol production that poor people living on the economic margins cannot afford to pay for their food staples.

You can see, by the way, how this is a tragic extension of our obsession with running all the cars.

In the years ahead, farming will come back much closer to the center of American economic life. It will necessarily have to be done more locally, at a smaller-and-finer scale, and will require more human attention. Many of the value-added activities associated with farming -- making products like cheese, wine, oils -- will also have to be done much more locally. This situation presents excellent business and vocational opportunities for America's young people. It also presents huge problems in land-use reform. Not to mention the fact that the knowledge and skill for doing these things has to be painstakingly retrieved from the dumpster of history.

We're going to have to move people and things from place to place differently. It is imperative that we restore the US passenger railroad system. No other project we could do right away would have such a positive impact on our oil consumption. We used to have a railroad system that was the envy of the world. Now we have a system that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of.

The infrastructure for this great task is lying out there rusting in the rain. This project would put scores of thousands of people to work at meaningful jobs, at every level, from labor to management. It would benefit all ranks of society. Fixing the US passenger rail system doesn't require any great technological leaps into the unknown. The technology is thoroughly understood. The fact that from end-to-end of the political spectrum there is no public discussion about fixing the US passenger rail system shows how un-serious we are.

There's another compelling reason we should undertake the great project of repairing the US passenger rail system: it is something that would restore our confidence, a way we could demonstrate to ourselves that we are competent and capable of meeting the difficult challenges of this energy-scarce future. ... And it might inspire us to get on with the other great tasks that we will have to face.

By the way, it is important that we electrify our railroad system. All the other advanced nations have electric rail systems which allow them to run on something other than fossil fuel or to control the source point of the carbon emissions and pollution in the case of coal-fired power generation. Electric motors are far simpler and way more efficient even than diesel engines. The US was well underway with the project of electrifying our railroad system, but we just gave up after the Second World War as we directed all our investment to the interstate highway system instead.

We're going to have to move things by boat. But we've just finished a 50-year effort in taking apart most of the infrastructure for maritime trade in America. Our harbors and riverfronts have been almost completely de-activated. The public now thinks that harbors and riverfronts should only be used for condo sites, parks, bikeways, band shells and festival marketplaces. Guess what: We're going to have to put back the piers and warehouses and even the crummy accommodations for sailors.

We're going to have to move a lot more stuff by water or our ability to do commerce will suffer. Meanwhile, if we use trucks, it will be for the very last local increment of the journey. Leaders in business and municipal politics will have to wrap their minds around this new reality.

We are probably in the twilight of Happy Motoring -- as we have known it. The automobile will be a diminished presence in our lives. I'm not saying that cars will disappear, but it will become self-evident that our extreme dependency will have to end. It is possible, but not likely, that affordable electric cars will come on the market before we get into serious trouble with oil. More likely, we'll be facing an entirely new political problem with cars as motoring becomes increasingly only something that the economic elite can enjoy.

For decades, motoring has been absolutely democratic. Everybody from the lowliest hamburger flipper to the richest Microsoft millionaire could participate in the American motoring program. Right now, let's say six percent of adults in this nation can't drive, for one reason or another: They're blind, too old, too poor, et cetera. What if that number rose to 13 percent, or 26 percent of Americans because either the price of fuel or the cost of a vehicle rose beyond their means. Do you suppose that a whole new mood of grievance and resentment might arise against those who were still driving cars? And how would the large new class of non-drivers feel about paying taxes to maintain the very expensive interstate highway systems?

Back to the task list:

We're going to have to make other arrangements for commerce and manufacturing. The national chain discount stores that took over American retail in recent decades will not survive the discontinuities of the Long Emergency. Their business equations and methods of operations will fail, in particular their remorseless cancer-like drive toward replication and expansion. They will lack the resilience to adapt due to their gigantic scale of operations -- a scale that will no longer be appropriate to the contracting available energy "nutrients."

The so-called "warehouse on wheels" composed of thousands of trucks circulating incessantly around the interstate highways will not work economically in a new era of scarcer and expensive oil. Not to mention the 12,000-mile supply line to the factories of Asia which we have tragically come to depend on for so many of our household goods.

We have to check all our assumptions at the door about how things will work in the years ahead. Lately, thanks to Tom Friedman and other cheerleaders for the global economy, we've adopted the notion that globalism is a permanent condition of life. I think we will be disappointed to learn the truth -- that globalism was a set of transient economic relations made possible at a particular time by very special conditions, namely half a century of cheap energy and half a century of relative peace between the great powers.

Those conditions are about to end, and with them, I predict, will go many of the far-flung economic relations that we've come to rely on. When the US and China are contesting for the world's remaining oil resources, do you think it's possible that our trade relations might be affected? These are things we had better be prepared to think about it. China has way outstripped its own dwindling oil supply. China has gone all over the world in recent years systematically making contracts for future delivery of oil with other nations, including Canada, as that nation ramps up production of the tar sands in Alberta.

I want to remind you that there is such a thing as the Monroe Doctrine, an American foreign policy position that essentially forbids nations outside the western hemisphere from intruding in or exploiting affairs in this part of the world. It may be an old and perhaps an arrogant policy -- but I predict the time will come when the United States will invoke it in order to preserve our access to Canadian oil supplies. And if-and-when that occurs, what do you suppose that will mean to our trade relations with China? How many plastic wading pools and salad shooters will Wal-Mart be ordering then?

These are the kinds of things we are not thinking about at all, and which leave us woefully unprepared to face a very uncertain future.

Getting back to retail trade in the US -- it is important to recognize the damage that the national discount chain stores have already done in systematically destroying local commercial economies. If you travel around the main street towns of this nation, as I do, you see places in Pennsylvania, and Michigan, and Alabama, and Oklahoma, and Connecticut, and in my region of the upper Hudson Valley in New York that look like former soviet backwaters. The destruction, the abandonment and desolation in the fabric of our towns is just out of this world.

This era of chain store supremacy will not continue far into the future, and as it wobbles and falls we will be faced with a tremendous task of rebuilding the fine-grained, multi-layered local networks of economic interdependency that the chain stores destroyed. As that rebuilding occurs we will restore social roles as well as economic roles that have long been absent in our home places.

In destroying local retail infrastructures, the chain stores wiped out a whole mercantile middle class. These were the people ran local businesses, who sat on the library and hospital boards, who sponsored the little league baseball, who employed their neighbors and had to behave decently toward them, as well as treating their neighbors decently in matters of trade. They were people who uniformly had to take care of at least two buildings in town -- the place where they did business and the place where they lived. These were the people who were the caretakers of our communities, and the extermination of this class of citizens has been devastating.

We don't know how we are going to make things again in America, for instance, ordinary household products. We're not going to re-live the 20th century, when the US was on a great upswing of energy resources and we made everything for ourselves from toasters to record players. Where I live, in the upper Hudson and Mohawk Valley region of New York, most of the factories have actually been knocked down in the past 20 years. The water power is still there in many of these places, but the buildings are gone. Among all our other wishes, there is a wish that we will innovate stunning new methods for making things, such as nanotechnology. I'd repeat that we'd better check all our assumptions at the door and that we are liable to be disappointed by what these wishes will eventually lead to.

I think the truth is, we are going to have fewer things to buy. The Blue-Light-Special retail orgy of recent decades will fade into history, and shopping will retreat into the background of daily life. Consuming things will not be our sole reason for living.

The role of finance as we know it today will be severely challenged by the Long Emergency. Declining energy supplies have one particular grave implication for industrial societies: that they can no longer take for granted the 3 to 7 percent annual growth in gross domestic product that has been assumed to be normal throughout recent history. In fact, the energy picture -- the dwindling of a particular, extraordinary, one-time, very special resource -- implies a general contraction of productive activity.

Our expectations for growth are vested in tradable paper certificates -- currencies, stocks, bonds, and other instruments that represent our confidence that society will produce more wealth, and that this increase can be enjoyed in the form of profits and dividends. What happens when that consensus about reliable increase falls apart? What happens to the entire edifice of finance when these abstract certificates are no longer backed by the faith of people who have been trading them?

We can see the beginning of this process right now in the unwinding of the home mortgage sector. This recent experiment in the abolition of moral hazard, in the suspension of norms-and-standards in lending, in the fobbing off of risk, is climaxing in one of the great debacles of modern economics. It was based on the idea that immense numbers of promises for future payment could be bundled into bonds, resold, and parlayed to leverage evermore abstract casino-like bets masquerading as investments. This is anything but investment in future productive activity.

It is now being discovered that at the foundation of all this jive-finance activity lie bundles of broken promises, "non-performing loans," as they're called. It remains to be seen how this mortgage-and-housing bubble fiasco will play out, but I think it will be one of the major events leading to an overall loss of presumed wealth for American society. And is likely, as well, to infect the jury-rigged structures of global finance to a disastrous degree.

The key to all our everyday activities in the future is scale. We will probably have to live more locally than has been the case in recent decades. I think we can state categorically that anything organized on the gigantic scale, whether it is an agricultural system, or a finance system, or a corporation, or a chain of stores, or a school, or a government, is going to run into trouble.

School is another item on our "to do" list of things that we have to make other arrangements for. The gigantic centralized public school systems all over America that depend on the massive fleets of yellow school buses for collecting the students every morning around the 50-mile-radius 'pupil sheds' -- this way of doing things will probably encounter failure. Not to mention that we used the same kind of sprawling, one-story, flat-roofed buildings in Florida as in Minnesota -- and given the situation with natural gas we'll have trouble heating these buildings in the colder states. Of course there are plenty of reasons to suspect that schools this large, designed like medium security prisons, are not optimum settings for learning even if oil and gas were plentiful.

Complicating the issue is the fact that our school systems are at the center of the psychology of previous investment. We have put so much of our collective wealth in these sprawling, oversized, vehicle-dependent institutions -- with all their fabulous amenities of swimming pools, video labs, and free parking -- that it will be very difficult for us to let go of them -- even after it is self-evident that they are no longer working. What will replace our giant centralized public schools? School districts will be starved for cash in the Long Emergency. I doubt that we will be able to replace the centralized schools with a whole new system of smaller buildings distributed more equitably around the places where people live. If anything, I suppose a replacement may arise out of home schooling, especially as home schools aggregate into larger neighborhood units so that every parent doesn't have to duplicate the vocational role of teacher (and of course not all parents would even be capable of acting in that role).

The destiny of higher education ought to be especially troubling. The giant universities are exactly the kinds of institutions that will prove unwieldy and unsupportable in the Long Emergency. College will cease to be the mass consumer activity it became in the cheap energy heyday. If it survives at all, it is likely to be -- as earlier in history -- an activity for a much smaller economic elite.

The question of class relations per se will be affected by our energy situation, since it is necessarily linked to our economy. The Long Emergency is going to produce a lot of economic losers -- a whole new group I call the formerly middle class. They will lose jobs, vocations, and incomes that they will never get back. They are going to be full of grievance, anger, resentment, and bewilderment at the loss of their entitlements to the "non-negotiable" American way of life, including home ownership and affordable happy motoring. They are likely to express these feelings politically. We will be lucky if they do not turn to demagogues who promise to mount one sort of campaign or another to restore the entitlements of suburbia.

Such a campaign would be an enormous exercise in futility and a gross waste of our scarce remaining resources. But it is the kind of thing that happens when a society comes under extreme stress, and we had better be prepared for it. Social friction may also be prompted as agriculture comes closer to the center of our economic life, and we're faced with conflict between those who retain wealth in productive land and those who must resort to working in agriculture to make a living. In history, this typically sets the stage for the radical redistribution of property, seizure of land, in short, for political revolution. It could happen here. We are certain to experience epochal demographic shifts in any case. The 200-year-long trend of people leaving the rural places and the small towns to go to the big cities will very likely go into reverse.

Our hyper-gigantic cities and so-called metroplexes are a pure product of the 200-year-long upward arc of cheap energy. Like other things of gigantic scale, our cities will get into trouble. They are going to contract substantially. The cities that are composed overwhelmingly of suburban fabric will be most susceptible to failure. Orlando, Houston, Atlanta. The cities that are overburdened with skyscrapers will face an additional layer of trouble -- the skyscraper, like the mega-city, was a product of cheap energy, and we are going to have trouble running them, especially heating them without cheap natural gas.

As our cities contract, I think they will re-densify at their centers and around their waterfronts, if they are located favorably on water, and depending on how (or if) rising ocean levels might affect them. The process of contraction in our cities is likely to be difficult, disorderly and unequal. Some cities will do better than others. In my opinion, Phoenix and Tucson will be substantially depopulated. They will face additional problems with their ability to produce food locally and with water.

In Las Vegas, the excitement will be over. That will be a good thing since it has become the holy shrine of America's new chief religion: the worship of unearned riches -- based on the belief that it is possible to get something for nothing -- a belief that underlies, by the way, a great deal of the delusional thinking abroad in this land about the ability of alternative fuels and energy schemes to rescue our current mode of living.

It is hard to be optimistic about the destiny of our suburbs. My referring to them as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world pretty much says it all. There will be a wish to rescue them, of course, but it is unlikely to go beyond the wishing stage. We will be a less affluent society in the years ahead than we were when we built the suburbs in the first place, and we will have fewer resources to fix them or retrofit them. The Jolly Green Giant is not going to come and move the houses closer to the shopping -- to undo the vast absurdities of single-use-zoning.

We could reform our codes and regulations which have virtually mandated a suburban sprawl outcome in every American locality -- but it's a little late for that. The horse is out of the barn on that one. And anyway, I believe the mortgage-and-housing bubble fiasco will mark the end of the whole project of suburbanization per se. I don't believe the production home builders will ever recover from it in our lifetimes; we certainly don't need a single additional WalMart or fried food joint; and the energy problems we face will eventually overcome all our wishes to keep that system going, whether we like it or not.

Realistically, I think we will have to return to a set of traditional ways of inhabiting the terrain -- towns, smaller-scaled cities composed of walkable neighborhoods, and a productive rural landscape with more of a human presence than we see in today's countryside. We have thousands of smaller towns and cities waiting to be re-inhabited and re-activated. Most of them occupy geographically important or valuable sites, especially the ones near fresh running water.

For the past two decades I have been associated with the New Urbanist movement. The New Urbanists were architects, planners, and developers who recognized the tremendous weaknesses and liabilities of the suburban pattern and have been campaigning to reform the way we build things in this country. Their methods are consistent with what we are going to need in the decades ahead to refashion human habitats that have a future and which are worth caring about.

The great achievement of the New Urbanists was not in the projects and new towns that they designed and caused to get built in recent years, but in their heroic act of retrieving lost knowledge from the dumpster of history -- a whole body of principles, methods, and skills necessary to design places worth living in. This was knowledge and principle that we had thrown away in our mad rush to become a drive-in utopia. We threw it away thinking that we could replace urban design and artistry with mere traffic engineering and statistical analysis. The result of that is now visible for all to see in the tragic landscape of the highway strips and the single-income housing pods. What we managed to do was build a land full of scary places that turned us into a nation of scary people. But this was the final tragedy of suburbia: we put up thousands of places that aren't worth caring about, not understanding that when we had enough of them, we might be left with a nation not worth defending.

So there you have a comprehensive "to do" list of efforts we can make to meet the challenges of the permanent global energy crisis, things we can do to mount an intelligent response to these circumstances that reality is sending our way. Growing more of our food locally; restoring our railroads and other forms of public transit; rebuilding local networks of commerce and economic interdependency; reorganizing education at an appropriate scale for the future.

We cannot assume a seamless transition between where we are today and where we're going. It maybe turbulent and disorderly.

We cannot assume that technology alone will rescue us. In fact, one of the major obstacles to clear thinking these days is the mistaken belief that technology and energy are the same thing; that they are interchangeable; that if you run out of one, you can just plug in the other.

Energy and technology are related to each other but they are not the same. Technology may help us get energy resources, or use energy resources, but it is not an energy resource itself. We assume magical properties for technology largely because, in our lifetimes, the energy has always been there behind it, steady, dependable, and cheap.

What's more energy and technology both entail very insidious side effects. Energy throws off entropy, a protean force of disorder and loss that manifests in everything from the wasted heat coming out of an engine tailpipe to the immersive ugliness of the American commercial highway strip -- which is entropy-made-visible.

Technology throws off diminishing returns, in the sense that the more complex you make things, often the worse the effect on society as a whole. My favorite example is the telephone system. For more than two decades we have invested billions in computerizing every phone system in the land. The net result, after all that investment and effort, is that it is practically impossible to reach a live human being on a telephone -- not to mention the monumental ten-times-a-day aggravation of getting booted into a computerized phone menu leading to the purgatory of terminal "hold."

I hope we can overcome our tendencies to try to get something for nothing and to engage in wishful thinking. The subject of hope itself is an interesting one. College kids on the lecture circuit always ask me if I can give them some hope. Apparently, they find this view of the future to be discouraging. It may mean fewer hours playing Grand Theft Auto with a side order of Domino's pepperoni pizza, but there are many positive implications for our lives in the future. We may once again live in places worth caring about, where beauty and grace are considered everybody's birthright. We may work side-by-side with our neighbors, on things that are meaningful. Instead of canned entertainments, we may hear the sounds of our own voices making music, see the works of our own dramatists and dancers.

Hope is something we really have to supply for ourselves. We are our own generators of hope, and we do it by demonstrating to ourselves that we are capable of facing the circumstances of our time, of working competently to meet these challenges, and of learning the difference between wishing and doing. In fact, what we need is not so much hope, but confidence in our inherent abilities and the will to act.

We've got a lot to do. We've got to put down the iPods and get busy. There's no time for hand-wringing and whining. As Yogi Berra said, our whole future's ahead of us.

Ten Ways to Prepare for a Post-Oil Society

Editor's Note: James Howard Kunstler is a leading writer on the topic of peak oil the problems it poses for American suburbia. Deeply concerned about the future of our petroleum dependent society, Kunstler believes we must take radical steps to avoid the total meltdown of modern society in the face looming oil and gas shortages. For background on this topic, read Kunstler's essay, "Pricey Gas, That's Reality."

Out in the public arena, people frequently twang on me for being "Mister Gloom'n'doom," or for "not offering any solutions" to our looming energy crisis. So, for those of you who are tired of wringing your hands, who would like to do something useful, or focus your attention in a purposeful way, here are my suggestions:

1. Expand your view beyond the question of how we will run all the cars by means other than gasoline. This obsession with keeping the cars running at all costs could really prove fatal. It is especially unhelpful that so many self-proclaimed "greens" and political "progressives" are hung up on this monomaniacal theme. Get this: the cars are not part of the solution (whether they run on fossil fuels, vodka, used frymaxâ„¢ oil, or cow shit). They are at the heart of the problem. And trying to salvage the entire Happy Motoring system by shifting it from gasoline to other fuels will only make things much worse. The bottom line of this is: start thinking beyond the car. We have to make other arrangements for virtually all the common activities of daily life.

2. We have to produce food differently. The Monsanto/Cargill model of industrial agribusiness is heading toward its Waterloo. As oil and gas deplete, we will be left with sterile soils and farming organized at an unworkable scale. Many lives will depend on our ability to fix this. Farming will soon return much closer to the center of American economic life. It will necessarily have to be done more locally, at a smaller-and-finer scale, and will require more human labor. The value-added activities associated with farming -- e.g. making products like cheese, wine, oils -- will also have to be done much more locally. This situation presents excellent business and vocational opportunities for America's young people (if they can unplug their Ipods long enough to pay attention.) It also presents huge problems in land-use reform. Not to mention the fact that the knowledge and skill for doing these things has to be painstakingly retrieved from the dumpster of history. Get busy.

3. We have to inhabit the terrain differently. Virtually every place in our nation organized for car dependency is going to fail to some degree. Quite a few places (Phoenix, Las Vegas, Miami ...) will support only a fraction of their current populations. We'll have to return to traditional human ecologies at a smaller scale: villages, towns, and cities (along with a productive rural landscape). Our small towns are waiting to be reinhabited. Our cities will have to contract. The cities that are composed proportionately more of suburban fabric (e.g. Atlanta, Houston) will pose especially tough problems. Most of that stuff will not be fixed. The loss of monetary value in suburban property will have far-reaching ramifications. The stuff we build in the decades ahead will have to be made of regional materials found in nature -- as opposed to modular, snap-together, manufactured components -- at a more modest scale. This whole process will entail enormous demographic shifts and is liable to be turbulent. Like farming, it will require the retrieval of skill-sets and methodologies that have been forsaken. The graduate schools of architecture are still tragically preoccupied with teaching Narcissism. The faculties will have to be overthrown. Our attitudes about land-use will have to change dramatically. The building codes and zoning laws will eventually be abandoned and will have to be replaced with vernacular wisdom. Get busy.

4. We have to move things and people differently. This is the sunset of Happy Motoring (including the entire US trucking system). Get used to it. Don't waste your society's remaining resources trying to prop up car-and-truck dependency. Moving things and people by water and rail is vastly more energy-efficient. Need something to do? Get involved in restoring public transit. Let's start with railroads, and let's make sure we electrify them so they will run on things other than fossil fuel or, if we have to run them partly on coal-fired power plants, at least scrub the emissions and sequester the CO2 at as few source-points as possible. We also have to prepare our society for moving people and things much more by water. This implies the rebuilding of infrastructure for our harbors, and also for our inland river and canal systems -- including the towns associated with them. The great harbor towns, like Baltimore, Boston, and New York, can no longer devote their waterfronts to condo sites and bikeways. We actually have to put the piers and warehouses back in place (not to mention the sleazy accommodations for sailors). Right now, programs are underway to restore maritime shipping based on wind -- yes, sailing ships. It's for real. Lots to do here. Put down your Ipod and get busy.

5. We have to transform retail trade. The national chains that have used the high tide of fossil fuels to contrive predatory economies-of-scale (and kill local economies) -- they are going down. WalMart and the other outfits will not survive the coming era of expensive, scarcer oil. They will not be able to run the "warehouses-on-wheels" of 18-wheel tractor-trailers incessantly circulating along the interstate highways. Their 12,000-mile supply lines to the Asian slave-factories are also endangered as the US and China contest for Middle East and African oil. The local networks of commercial interdependency which these chain stores systematically destroyed (with the public's acquiescence) will have to be rebuilt brick-by-brick and inventory-by-inventory. This will require rich, fine-grained, multi-layered networks of people who make, distribute, and sell stuff (including the much-maligned "middlemen"). Don't be fooled into thinking that the Internet will replace local retail economies. Internet shopping is totally dependent now on cheap delivery, and delivery will no longer be cheap. It also is predicated on electric power systems that are completely reliable. That is something we are unlikely to enjoy in the years ahead. Do you have a penchant for retail trade and don't want to work for a big predatory corporation? There's lots to do here in the realm of small, local business. Quit carping and get busy.

6. We will have to make things again in America. However, we are going to make less stuff. We will have fewer things to buy, fewer choices of things. The curtain is coming down on the endless blue-light-special shopping frenzy that has occupied the forefront of daily life in America for decades. But we will still need household goods and things to wear. As a practical matter, we are not going to re-live the 20th century. The factories from America's heyday of manufacturing (1900 - 1970) were all designed for massive inputs of fossil fuel, and many of them have already been demolished. We're going to have to make things on a smaller scale by other means. Perhaps we will have to use more water power. The truth is, we don't know yet how we're going to make anything. This is something that the younger generations can put their minds and muscles into.

7. The age of canned entertainment is coming to and end. It was fun for a while. We liked "Citizen Kane" and the Beatles. But we're going to have to make our own music and our own drama down the road. We're going to need playhouses and live performance halls. We're going to need violin and banjo players and playwrights and scenery-makers, and singers. We'll need theater managers and stage-hands. The Internet is not going to save canned entertainment. The Internet will not work so well if the electricity is on the fritz half the time (or more).

8. We'll have to reorganize the education system. The centralized secondary school systems based on the yellow school bus fleets will not survive the coming decades. The huge investments we have made in these facilities will impede the transition out of them, but they will fail anyway. Since we will be a less-affluent society, we probably won't be able to replace these centralized facilities with smaller and more equitably distributed schools, at least not right away. Personally, I believe that the next incarnation of education will grow out of the home schooling movement, as home schooling efforts aggregate locally into units of more than one family. God knows what happens beyond secondary ed. The big universities, both public and private, may not be salvageable. And the activity of higher ed itself may engender huge resentment by those foreclosed from it. But anyone who learns to do long division and write a coherent paragraph will be at a great advantage -- and, in any case, will probably out-perform today's average college graduate. One thing for sure: teaching children is not liable to become an obsolete line-of-work, as compared to public relations and sports marketing. Lots to do here, and lots to think about. Get busy, future teachers of America.

9. We have to reorganize the medical system. The current skein of intertwined rackets based on endless Ponzi buck passing scams will not survive the discontinuities to come. We will probably have to return to a model of service much closer to what used to be called "doctoring." Medical training may also have to change as the big universities run into trouble functioning. Doctors of the 21st century will certainly drive fewer German cars, and there will be fewer opportunities in the cosmetic surgery field. Let's hope that we don't slide so far back that we forget the germ theory of disease, or the need to wash our hands, or the fundamentals of pharmaceutical science. Lots to do here for the unsqueamish.

10. Life in the USA will have to become much more local, and virtually all the activities of everyday life will have to be re-scaled. You can state categorically that any enterprise now supersized is likely to fail -- everything from the federal government to big corporations to huge institutions. If you can find a way to do something practical and useful on a smaller scale than it is currently being done, you are likely to have food in your cupboard and people who esteem you. An entire social infrastructure of voluntary associations, co-opted by the narcotic of television, needs to be reconstructed. Local institutions for care of the helpless will have to be organized. Local politics will be much more meaningful as state governments and federal agencies slide into complete impotence. Lots of jobs here for local heroes.

So, that's the task list for now. Forgive me if I left things out. Quit wishing and start doing. The best way to feel hopeful about the future is to get off your ass and demonstrate to yourself that you are a capable, competent individual resolutely able to face new circumstances.

Finding Hope in a Post-Oil Society

As the American public continues sleepwalking into a future of energy scarcity, climate change, and geopolitical turmoil, we have also continued dreaming. Our collective dream is one of those super-vivid ones people have just before awakening. It is a particularly American dream on a particularly American theme: how to keep all the cars running by some other means than gasoline. We'll run them on ethanol! We'll run them on biodiesel, on synthesized coal liquids, on hydrogen, on methane gas, on electricity, on used French-fry oil...!

The dream goes around in fevered circles as each gasoline replacement is examined and found to be inadequate. But the wish to keep the cars going is so powerful that round and round the dream goes. Ethanol! Biodiesel! Coal liquids...

And a harsh reality indeed awaits us as the full scope of the permanent energy crisis unfolds. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, world oil production peaked in December 2005 at just over 85 million barrels a day. Since then, it has trended absolutely flat at around 84 million. Yet world oil consumption rose consistently from 77 million barrels a day in 2001 to above 85 million so far this year. A clear picture emerges: demand now exceeds world supply. Or, put another way, oil production has not increased despite the ardent wish that it would by all involved, and despite the overwhelming incentive of prices having nearly quadrupled since 2001.

There is no question that we are in trouble with oil. The natural gas situation is comparably ominous, with some differences in the technical details -- and by the way, I am referring here to methane gas (CH4), the stuff that fuels kitchen stoves and home furnaces, not cars and trucks. Natural gas doesn't deplete slowly like oil, following a predictable bell-curve pattern; it simply stops coming out of the ground when a particular gas well is played out. You also tend to get your gas from the continent you are on. To import natural gas from overseas, it has to be liquefied, loaded in a special kind of expensive-to-build-and-operate tanker, and then offloaded at a specialized marine terminal.

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Moving in Uncharted Territory

When people of any political persuasion cry for America to pull out of Iraq, what do they suppose will be the result? That America will go back to being the same nation of easy-motoring, McMansion-buying consumpto-trons we were in 1999? Things have changed.

The world oil markets have changed. Their stability through the 1990s was a transient phenomenon, and a circumstance which, unfortunately, put us to sleep. During that time, OPEC, led by Saudi Arabia, was the world's "swing producer" -- the oil producer with spare capacity that could always open the valves and pump more. And they did, even cheating on their own official quotas, which only had the effect of flooding the market with "product" and driving down the prices -- so by the end of the last century oil had sunk to $10 a barrel.

That was great for America in the short term. It reinforced the widespread illusion that the oil disruptions of the 1970s were a shuck and jive. We ramped up all our car-dependent behavior, built more malls and "lifestyle centers," carved more housing subdivisions in the farthest-out asteroid belts of the metroplexes, bought cars the size of tactical military vehicles, and acted as if this was a way of life with a future.

Many things have changed. One is that a potent segment of the Islamic world declared war on the west (jihad). Another is that OPEC, led by Saudi Arabia, has apparently lost its spare capacity, and therefore its role as the world's swing producer of oil. Another is that the North Sea and Alaskan oil fields have passed their production peaks and are depleting at phenomenal rates -- in the case of Great Britain's fields, up to 50 percent a year -- because they were drilled so efficiently with the latest technology. Yet another is that rising ocean temperatures have led to several years of massive hurricanes wreaking havoc among the oil and gas platforms of the US Gulf Coast. Still another is the industrial turbo-expansion of China and India, taking advantage of their ultra cheap labor to become the world's factories and back-offices, while jacking up their oil consumption.

Oil trade has now become a dead heat race between supply and demand, with demand looking like the stronger horse coming into the home stretch. As it overtakes supply, even more strange changes will unfold on the world scene. These are likely to take the form of fierce geopolitical struggles to gain favor in or control those regions that still have a lot of oil, foremost the Middle East, with Iraq located at dead center of it.

There is really only one condition that will allow us to pull out of Iraq. That is if we make an enormous collective effort to change our behavior here in North America; if we break free from an economy pegged to suburban sprawl, reform the way we do agriculture and retail trade, make substantial investments in public transit and railroads in particular, and practice fiscal restraint at every scale, including an end to the reckless creation of mortgages. Unless we face these facts and the tasks associated with them, then we will find ourselves at the center of that geopolitical struggle.

Right now, nobody from any political stance is talking about these facts and these tasks. Those in the anti-war movement are by-and-large people who enjoy the same suburban "entitlements" as the war hawks. The anti-war leadership is even worse than the pro-war leadership, because the war hawks don't even pretend to be interested in reforming the way we live -- they've declared it "non-negotiable."

If the anti-war movement has a different idea, they sure haven't expressed it. If the Democratic Party were to take the lead in the anti-war movement, they would have to start negotiations for changing the way we live in this country. To evade the responsibility for this would simply be cowardice. Leading sometimes means taking public opinion into territory it hasn't been to before.

We're now entering that territory, by the way. Stealthily over the past week, the price of natural gas has crept above $14 a unit (one million BTUs). Half the houses in America are heated with the stuff. 90 percent of America's farm fertilizers are made out of it. Above $14 really is uncharted territory.

Can You Spell Withdrawal without O-I-L?

Neither Jack Murtha, the congressman who set the cable news networks afire this weekend, or Frank Rich, the lead dog on the New York Times Sunday op-ed page, mentioned the word "oil" once. I only mention it myself because it would be nice if we could have a coherent public discussion about staying or going in Iraq, and you can't do that without talking about the oil of the Middle East.

But it does illustrate how deep the national denial runs and how foggy the debate gets. Even poor George W. Bush seems to think we're in Iraq in order to turn the people into Jeffersonian democrats, so the only issue for his opponents is whether that is possible or not.

Maybe we ought to ask: what happens to the oil supply of the Crusader West when none of its representatives maintains a garrison in the Middle East? I use the term Crusader not to be cute, but to remind you how Europe and America are viewed by many people of the Middle East. They don't like us. They have a longstanding beef with us. Some of them would like to punish us.

America is leading the current crusade because we are the society most desperately addicted to oil, and the Middle East is where two-thirds of the world's remaining oil lies. The one thing that we apparently cannot bring ourselves to talk about is our addiction itself. The commuters whizzing around the edge cities and metroplexes of this land probably got a big charge out of Congressman Murtha's anti-war blast taking over drive-time radio last Friday. I wonder if they thought about how it might affect their commuting.

This whole spectacle -- both the inept war itself and our debate about it here at home -- is particularly shameful for the official opposition, my party, the Democrats, because we could be talking about the so-called elephant-in-the-room, namely how we live in America and the tragic choices we've made, and the things we might do to change that -- but the party leadership is too brain-dead or craven to do that. As long as we don't, we're going to be wrassling a tarbaby in the Middle East.

Unless an anti-war opposition has a plan to withdraw from the project of suburban sprawl, we're going to have to keep soldiers in Iraq, if not in the cities, then out in desert bases guarding the oil works and keeping planes ready to fly in case some al-Zarqawi-type maniac mounts a coup in Saudi Arabia. It would certainly be legitimate for the Democratic party to oppose the idea that we can continue to be crippled by car-dependency, or that we ought to keep subsidizing that way of life -- which Vice-president Cheney called "non-negotiable." We'd better negotiate that or somebody else is going to negotiate it for us, and that is exactly what they are doing with IED's in Iraq and elsewhere.

But without that part of the argument, the debate in congress and on the airwaves is just stupid, because we've left ourselves no real choice.

The Long Emergency Ahead

When Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans and the Gulf Coast two weeks ago, a lot of the delusions cherished by the American public about the kind of nation we are becoming were washed away. The inhabitants of a region nearly the size of Italy now face real hardship and the loss of all their presumed entitlements to a way of life that is supposed to be non-negotiable. The weather has negotiated for them, and everyone else in the nation is feeling the effects at the gas pumps that rule our lives.

People often ask me why we are getting such poor leadership on the issues that comprise the Long Emergency, as I have called the difficulties advanced civilizations face in the decades ahead. Specifically, why haven't President Bush or the leaders of the Democratic opposition uttered a word about our extreme car dependency?

The answer, I think has to do with the nature of our economy. The dirty secret of the American economy for at least a decade now is that it has come to be based on the creation of suburban sprawl and the activities associated with it -- the building of cul-de-sac McMansions, highway retail pods, car sales, real estate sales, the creation of false liquidity in the form of easy mortgages and the deployment of that debt into tradable instruments. The sprawl-building industry comprises over 40 percent of what we do in this country. If you subtract it from the U.S. economy, there isn't much left besides hair cutting and open heart surgery.

Our leaders don't have the courage to tell us that we can't continue to live this way, because too many jobs, incomes, and votes would have to go with it. They may not have the courage to even face the facts themselves. They may be hostages -- like most other Americans -- to the belief that a drive-in society is the only conceivable way to live, or the best, or simply normative.

The suburban project, which has preoccupied us since the end of the Second World War, can be seen now in light of the gathering global energy predicament as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. Having put so much of our post-war wealth into this massive infrastructure for daily living, we are captives of it, subject to a corrosive psychology of previous investment, which does not permit us to imagine letting go of this way of life, or even reforming it.

Vice-President Dick Cheney's declaration that this way of life is "not negotiable" is a prime symptom of this collective psychology. With the city of New Orleans now being drained, proposals for rebuilding it are flying around the noosphere. Daniel Libeskind, the cutting-edge starchitect whose proposal for turning the former World Trade Center site into the set for a German expressionist movie won the hearts and minds of New York City planning officials, has proposed that New Orleans should be rebuilt into a Jazz theme park. Apart from the fatuousness of this idea, I'd have to simply wonder at the economic assumption that cheap airfares and motor tourism will remain at the heart of any region's economy in an energy-scarce future

More sensible proposals will be made by the New Urbanists, leading proponents for walkable neighborhoods and compact development -- which is, in fact, consistent with the original template for most of the neighborhoods ruined by floods. This means sticking to an interconnected street-and-block system, normal urban building lots, and a menu of building types consistent with the history and scale of the place. This is really not a tough assignment to either understand or execute, but if the so-called production home builders come on to the scene, they may wreak a new kind of havoc with their mostly suburban standards and practices.

Of course, any rebuilding would depend on a major engineering effort to raise the ground level in these neighborhoods. That, in turn, depends on whether whole neighborhoods are deemed to be "scrape offs," since such a project could not be done in piecemeal fashion. Finally, we would be faced with the economic paradox that new construction tends not to fall into the "affordable housing" category, and those displaced might not be able to acquire new houses to replace the ones they lost in the places where they stood. It's too early to tell what will become of New Orleans' downtown core of skyscrapers and megastructures.

On Tuesday, news began to leak out that the Superdome was damaged beyond saving and may have to be torn down. The modernist office and hotel towers have liabilities on their own terms that detract from their usefulness in the years ahead, for instance the fact that they were designed with cheap air conditioning in mind. Since cheap A.C. may not be on the menu in an energy-scarcer future, one has to wonder whether these buildings would be worth rehabilitating.

Much of the stuff just outside New Orleans, and along the Gulf Coast, was largely post-war suburban fabric -- housing subdivisions, collector boulevards with their complements of fry pits, malls, muffler shops and big box out-parcels. We'd hope that the states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana will not undertake to rebuild them they way they were. But the existing template reflects a pattern of property ownership that is not easily changed. The New Urbanists have a good record of retrofitting some of these things. For instance they have had some success in turning "dead" malls into mixed use town centers. But some of this stuff, in particular single-family housing developments, do not lend themselves very well to reform.

Many of the debates over the suburban extravaganza have been framed in terms of the "choices" Americans make. Suburbia, it is often said by cheerleaders like David Brooks of The New York Times, or Wendell Cox of the Reason Institute, represents a favorable "choice" on a big menu that includes city apartment life, or a cabin in the woods, or a soybean farm. I'd argue that the suburban choice is coming off the menu.

The public may recognize that commuting 80 miles a day to a job just isn't financially possible for many of them anymore. They may even balk at driving four miles to a food market. If the collective culture that brings us redevelopment does not change its methods -- and by this I mean everyone from the bankers to the builders to the government planning officials -- then the people of the Gulf Coast will be stuck with an infrastructure for daily life with no future.

For the moment, reality is intervening in the form of gasoline prices exceeding $3 in most parts of the nation. While the price of gasoline may go down for a while, it is not liable to stay down for long, and it is just as likely to shoot above $3 before New Year's Day 2006.

What about the x-thousand number of people around America beyond the Gulf Coast who, up until the day after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, were making plans to put in an offer on a new house 38 miles outside of Dallas (or Minneapolis, or Denver, or Washington, DC, etc.)?

What if, all of a sudden, with a full tank in their Ford Expedition costing almost $100, they begin to calculate that living 38 miles from town isn't such a great idea anymore? Surely this is occurring to some potential buyers. We won't really know until the home sales figures come in a month from now. What's more, many of them may decide that a new McMansion in a distant suburb is a bad idea not only for themselves, but an even worse idea from an investment point-of-view, in case they are buying the house just to "flip" it for the expected 10 percent annual rise in value that such houses have enjoyed in recent years.

Even if the price of gasoline retreats a bit, there will probably be resistance among the gas retailers to drop it much below the $3 range once it has been breached, and despite what you think you hear in the news, help is not necessarily on the way. For instance, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is composed of 25 percent light sweet crude and 75 percent heavy sour crude. Do you know the difference? One difference is that sour crude is more difficult and more expensive to refine. In addition to that it requires special dedicated refineries, of which there are few.

Another dot to connect. We arguably are in more trouble with our natural gas supply than with gasoline. I'm speaking of methane -- the gas we use to run our furnaces and stoves. Fully half the houses in America heat with natural gas. The gas supply was extremely tenuous even before the Hurricane struck. A great deal of it comes out wells in the Gulf of Mexico -- because we have depleted so many of our land-based wells. Natural gas sold for $3 a unit (1000 cubic feet) in 2003. The price is now around $12. Nearly half of that growth is just since the previous heating season. Imagine your heating bill doubling in a year. It could go up beyond $16 before the coming season is over. There are reports that Hurricane Katrina may have damaged three natural gas processing facilities on the Gulf Coast with a combined capacity of almost 8 percent of total national production.

Now, since Americans have fallen in love with super-sized suburban houses regardless of the local climate; and since many owners of these giant new houses are barely able to keep up with their enormous mortgage payments; and since they will pay through the nose to stay warm this season; and since they will be getting into serious financial difficulty that will be made worse by severe changes in the bankruptcy laws that take effect on October 16 -- ask yourself if that might effect the housing market, that is, the suburban sprawl-based economy.

I think it will. I think we may find ourselves in a situation that gives the term "affordable housing" whole new dimensions of meaning.

Interestingly, The New York Times ran a front-page headline on September 4 to the effect of, "U.S. Economy Not Affected by Hurricane." This is the thinking now at the highest levels of news gathering among a group I hesitate to label the power elite -- but they do exist, even for those of us allergic to conspiracy theories.

This is why we have such poor leadership: an utter failure of imagination among our leaders, including politics, business and the media.

The hurricane that shredded the Gulf Coast will have consequences, but mainly in accelerating structural problems already present in American society, with its gross imbalances and collectively suicidal economic behavior.

The next thing to look for: If fewer suburban houses are sold because of higher energy prices, the creation of false liquidity in the form of mortgages spun out of thin air will cease. If this stream of false liquidity ceases, the government-sponsored entities who bundle all this debt into tradable instruments will find themselves in trouble. If they go off the rails, the American finance sector will follow like a choo-choo train.

Things could get very serious. And just because of some bad weather.

In the meantime, Americans in all ranks of society will resist the idea that we might have to make other arrangements for daily life in the 21st century.