james howard kunstler

We Have to Embrace Apocalypse If We're Going to Get Serious About Sticking Around on This Planet

The following is an excerpt from We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out , in print at Amazon.com and on Kindle (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013):
Here’s my experience in speaking apocalyptically about the serious challenges humans face: No matter how carefully I craft a statement of concern about the future of humans, no matter how often I deny a claim to special gifts of prognostication, no matter now clearly I reject supernatural explanations or solutions, I can be certain that a significant component of any audience will refuse to take me seriously. Some of those people will make a joke about “Mr. Doom and Gloom.” Others will suggest that such talk is no different than conspiracy theorists’ ramblings about how international bankers, secret cells of communists, or crypto-fascists are using the United Nations to create a one-world government. Even the most measured and careful talk of the coming dramatic change in the place of humans on Earth leads to accusations that one is unnecessarily alarmist, probably paranoid, certainly irrelevant to serious discussion about social and ecological issues. In the United States, talk of the future is expected to be upbeat, predicting expansion and progress, or at least maintenance of our “way of life.” 
Apocalyptic thinking allows us to let go of those fanciful visions of the future. As singer/songwriter John Gorka puts it: “The old future’s gone/We can’t get to there from here.” The comfortable futures that we are comfortable imagining are no longer available to us because of the reckless way we’ve been rolling the dice; there is nothing to save us from ourselves. Our task is to deal with our future without delusions of deliverance, either divine or technological. This planet is not a way station in a journey to some better place; it is our home, the only home we will know. We will make our peace with ourselves, each other, and the larger living world here.
The first step in thinking sensibly about the future, of course, is reviewing the past. The uncertainty of our future will be easier to accept and the strength to persevere will be easier to summon if we recognize:
--We are animals. For all our considerable rational capacities, we are driven by non-rational forces that cannot be fully understood or completely controlled. Even the most careful scientist is largely an emotional creature, just like everyone else.
--We are band/tribal animals. Whatever kind of political unit we live in today, our evolutionary history is in small groups; that’s how we are designed to live.
--We are band/tribal animals living in a global world. The consequences of the past 10,000 years of human history have left us dealing with human problems on a global scale, and with 7 billion people on the planet, there’s no point in fantasizing about a retreat to Eden.
With that history in mind, we should go easy on ourselves. As Wes Jackson said, we are a species out of context, facing the unique task of being the first animals who will have to self-consciously impose limits on ourselves if we are to survive, reckoning not just with what we do in our specific place on the planet but with what other people are doing around the world. This is no small task, and we are bound to fail often. We may never stop failing, and that is possibly the most daunting challenge we must face: Can we persevere in the quest for justice and sustainability even if we had good reasons to believe that both projects ultimately will fail? Can we live with that possibility? Can we ponder that and yet still commit ourselves to loving action toward others and the non-human world?
Said differently: What if our species is an evolutionary dead end? What if those adaptations that produced our incredible evolutionary success -- our ability to understand certain aspects of how the world works and manipulate that world to our short-term advantage -- are the very qualities that guarantee our human systems will degrade the life-sustaining systems of the world? What if that which has allowed us to dominate will be that which destroys us? What if humanity’s story is a dramatic tragedy in the classical sense, a tale in which the seeds of the hero’s destruction are to be found within, and history is the unfolding of the inevitable fall? 
We love stories of individual heroes, and collectively we tend to think of ourselves as the heroic species. The question we might ask, uncomfortably, about those tales of heroism: Is Homo sapiens an epic hero or a tragic one? Literature scholars argue over the specific definitions of the terms “epic” and “tragedy,” but in common usage an epic celebrates the deeds of a hero who is favored by, and perhaps descended from, the gods. These heroes overcome adversity to do great things in the service of great causes. Epic heroes win.  
A tragic hero loses, but typically not because of an external force. The essence of tragedy is what Aristotle called “hamartia,” an error in judgment made because of some character flaw, such as hubris. That excessive pride of protagonists becomes their downfall. Although some traditions talk about the sin of pride, most of us understand that taking some pride in ourselves is psychologically healthy. The problem is excessive pride, when we elevate ourselves and lose a sense of the equal value of others. When we fall into hubris individually, the consequences can be disastrous for us and those around us. When we fall into that hubris as a species -- when we ignore the consequences of the exploitation on which our “lifestyle” is based -- the consequences are more dramatic. 
What if our task is to give up the dream of the human species as special? And what if the global forces set in motion during the high-energy/high-technology era are beyond the point of no return? Surrounded by the big majestic buildings and tiny sophisticated electronic gadgets created through human cleverness, it’s easy for us to believe we are smart enough to run a complex world. But cleverness is not wisdom, and the ability to create does not guarantee we can control the destruction we have unleashed. It may be that there is no way to rewrite this larger epic, that too much of the tragedy has already been played out. 
But here’s the good news: While tragic heroes meet an unhappy fate, a community can learn from the protagonist’s fall. Even tragic heroes can, at the end, celebrate the dignity of the human spirit in their failure. That may be our task, to recognize that we can’t reverse course in time to prevent our ultimate failure, but that in the time remaining we can recognize our hamartia, name our hubris, and do what we can to undo the damage. 
That may be the one chance for us to be truly heroic, by learning to leave center stage gracefully, to stop trying to run the world and to accept a place in the world. We have to take our lives seriously but take Life more seriously. 
We certainly live in a dangerous time, if we take seriously the data that our vast intellectual enterprises have produced. Ironically, the majority of intellectuals who are part of those enterprises prefer to ignore the implications of that data. The reasons for that will of course vary, and there is no reason to pretend these issues are simple or that we can line up intellectuals in simple categories of good/bad, brave/cowardly, honest/dishonest. Reasonable people can agree on the data and disagree on interpretation and analysis. Again, my argument is not that anyone who does not share my interpretation and analysis is obviously wrong or corrupt; many of the assertions I have made require more lengthy argument than available in this space. 
But I hold to one point without equivocation: When the privileged intellectuals subsidized by the institutions of the dominant culture look away from the difficult issues that we face today, they are failing to meet their moral obligations. The more privileged the intellectual, the greater the responsibility to use our resources, status, and autonomy to face these issues. There is a lot riding on whether we have the courage and the strength to accept that danger, joyfully. This harsh assessment, and the grief that must accompany it, is not a rejection of joy. The two, grief and joy, are not mutually exclusive but, in fact, rely on each other, and define the human condition. As Wendell Berry puts it, we live on “the human estate of grief and joy.”
This inevitably leads to the question: where can we find hope? My short answer: Don’t ask someone else where to find it. Create it through your actions. Hope is not something we find, but is something we earn. No one has the right to be hopeful until they expend energy to make hope possible. Gorka’s song expresses this: “The old future’s dead and gone/Never to return/There’s a new way through the hills ahead/This one we’ll have to earn/This one we’ll have to earn.”
Berry speaks repeatedly of the importance of daily practice, of building a better world in a practical ways that nurture real bonds in real communities that know their place in the world. He applies this same idea to a discussion of hope:
[Y]ou’re not under any obligation to construct a hope for the whole human race. What you are required to do is to be intelligent. And that means you’ve got to have an array of examples you want more or less to understand. Some are not perfect, and others are awful, and to be intelligent you’ve got to know why some are better than the others.
If people demand that intellectuals provide hope -- or, worse, if intellectuals believe it is their job to give people hope -- then offering platitudes about hope is just another way of avoiding the difficult questions. Clamoring for hope can be a dangerous diversion. But if the discussion of hope leads to action, even in the face of situations that may be hopeless, then we can hold onto what Albert Camus called a “stubborn hope”:
Tomorrow the world may burst into fragments. In that threat hanging over our heads there is a lesson of truth. As we face such a future, hierarchies, titles, honors are reduced to what they are in reality: a passing puff of smoke. And the only certainty left to us is that of naked suffering, common to all, intermingling its roots with those of a stubborn hope.
I would call this a hope beyond hope, the willingness not only to embrace that danger but to find joy in it. The systems that structure our world have done more damage than we can understand, but no matter how dark the world grows, there is a light within. That is the message of the best of our theological and secular philosophical traditions, a recurring theme of the best of our art. Wendell Berry has been returning to this theme for decades in essays, fiction, and poetry, and it is the subject of one of his Sabbath poems: 
It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old,
for hope must not depend on feeling good
and there is the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight.
You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality
of the future, which surely will surprise us,
and hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction
any more than by wishing. But stop dithering.
The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?
Tell them at least what you say to yourself.
This is what I say to myself: Whatever our chances of surviving, we define ourselves in the present moment by what we do. There are two basic tasks in front of us. First, we should commit some of our energy to movements that focus on the question of justice in this world, especially those of us with the privilege that is rooted in that injustice. As a middle-class American white man, I can see plenty of places to continue working, in movements dedicated to ending white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and U.S. wars of domination. 
I also think there is important work to be done in experiments to prepare for what will come in this new future that we can’t yet describe in detail. Whatever the limits of our predictive capacity, we can be pretty sure we will need ways of organizing ourselves to help us live in a world with less energy and fewer material goods. We all have to develop the skills needed for that world (such as farming and gardening with fewer inputs, food preparation and storage, and basic tinkering), and we will need to recover a deep sense of community that has disappeared from many of our lives. This means abandoning a sense of ourselves as consumption machines, which the contemporary culture promotes, and deepening our notions of what it means to be humans in search of meaning. We have to learn to tell different stories about our sense of self, our connection to others, and our place in nature. The stories we tell will matter, as will the skills we learn.
Berry’s basis for hope begins with a recognition of where we are and who we are, at our best:
Found your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.
Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground
underfoot. Be lighted by the light that falls
freely upon it after the darkness of the nights
and the darkness of our ignorance and madness.
Let it be lighted also by the light that is within you,
which is the light of imagination. By it you see
the likeness of people in other places to yourself
in your place. It lights invariably the need for care
toward other people, other creatures, in other places
as you would ask them for care toward your place and you.
In my own life, I continue to work on those questions of justice in existing movements, but I have shifted a considerable amount of time to helping build local networks that can create a place for those experiments. Different people will move toward different efforts depending on talents and temperaments; we should all follow our hearts and minds to apply ourselves where it makes sense, given who we are and where we live. After offering several warnings about arrogance, I’m not about to suggest I know best what work other people should do. If there is any reason for hope, it will be in direct proportion to our capacity for humility and seeing ourselves as part of, not on top of, the larger living world. Berry ends that Sabbath poem not with false optimism but a blunt reminder of how easy it is for us to fall out of right relation with ourselves, others, and the larger living world:
No place at last is better than the world. The world
is no better than its places. Its places at last
are no better than their people while their people
continue in them. When the people make
dark the light within them, the world darkens.
The argument I have made rests on an unsentimental assessment of the physical world and the life-threatening consequences of human activity over the past 10,000 years. We would be wise not to plan on supernatural forces or human inventions to save us from ourselves. It is unlikely that we will be delivered to a promised land by divine or technological intervention. Wishing the world were less harsh will not magically make it less harsh. We should not give into the temptation to believe in magic. As James Howard Kunstler puts it, we should stop “clamoring desperately for rescue remedies that would allow them to continue living exactly the way they were used to living, with all the accustomed comforts.”
But we should keep telling stories. Our stories do not change the physical world, but they have the potential to change us. In that sense, the poet Muriel Rukeyser was right when she said, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”
Whatever particular work intellectuals do, they are also storytellers. Artists tell stories, but so do scientists and engineers, teachers and preachers. Our work is always both embedded in a story and advancing a story. Intellectual work matters not just for what it discovers about how the world works, but for what story it tells about those discoveries.  
To think apocalyptically is not to give up on ourselves, but only to give up on the arrogant stories we modern humans have been telling about ourselves. Our hope for a decent future -- indeed, any hope for even the idea of a future -- depends on our ability to tell stories not of how humans have ruled the world but how we can live in the world. The royal must give way to the prophetic and the apocalyptic. The central story of power -- that the domination/subordination dynamic is natural and inevitable -- must give way to stories of dignity, solidarity, equality. We must resist not only the cruelty of repression but the seduction of comfort.
The songs we sing matter at least as much as the machines we build. Power always assumes it can control. Our task is to resist that control. Gorka offers that reminder, of the latent power of our stories, in the fancifully titled song “Flying Red Horse”:
They think they can tame you, name you and frame you,
Aim you where you don’t belong.
They know where you’ve been but not where you’re going,
And that is the source of the songs.

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.

Do Americans Harbor Childlike Delusions About the Future? James Howard Kunstler Says Watch Out

"Everybody's got a plan until they get punched in the mouth." -- Mike Tyson. “That’s a pithy way of saying where our country, perhaps the developed world, is at right now,” notes author James Howard Kunstler.
We’ve blown past the mileposts for global peak oil, says Kunstler in his new book, Too Much MagicWishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation, and we expect technology to save us.  Whether our cheap-oil lifestyle falls quickly with a single knockout blow or crumbles slowly with a battery of jabs, Kunstler is certain of one thing: We’re about to be walloped. 
We've definitively entered the epoch Kunstler calls “the long emergency,” an extended era of economic contraction and social stress caused by shrinking resources.  Yet we refuse to see this, largely because we're spellbound by the mighty systems we run with technological magic.  Peak oil got you down?  No worries; we'll run those iPads with some other undiscovered, inexhaustible means of power.
Writers Paul Smyth and Judy George spoke with Kunstler about the end of the fossil fuel era and whatever comes next.
You talk about magical thinking in two ways:  Not only do we believe we can solve our energy problems with new technology, but we infuse that belief with wishful thinking. 
These two ideas are related, and I think elements of them have to be viewed historically.  The last 150 years have amounted to such a cavalcade of wonders and technological marvels that we’ve literally programmed ourselves to expect it will continue indefinitely. This sequence of events—the telephone, the light bulb, electricity in every home, airplanes, motion pictures, television, the computer and thousands of other conveniences to human life—programmed us to think there’s an endless supply of technological magic that can overcome anything.
I think we’re heading into a time-out from technological progress as we’ve known it—and by that I mean just the way I’ve described it, the expectation of endless magic.  And I think that will come as an enormous shock to our culture.  
Why are we in for a shock?
I don’t think the previous Dark Age that followed the collapse of Rome was quite the same as what we’re facing.  That involved a profound and incremental series of losses in knowledge, technique and the ability to do things, everything from making good pottery and concrete to ways of organizing work.  
Our situation now has much more potential for cultural damage, because our conditioning in technological progress is so extreme. The letdown may be awful when it becomes evident we’re not going to solve our energy problems with algae secretions, solar, wind or other alternative fuel schemes--that we’re not going to run Disney World, the interstate highway system, Wal-Mart and the military on any combination of other energy systems.
Then what happens?
This has enormous potential for disrupting our sense of reality.  It’s hard to predict the kinds of reaction that this may generate, but I think you will have a society so profoundly disappointed by science and technology that it could propel us into a new dark age of superstition.  
What's changed since your 2005 book, The Long Emergency
First, it’s apparent that the problems we have with capital formation and the disabling of the banking system may be overcoming the issues of resource scarcity and peak oil, in the sense that we’re rapidly losing the ability to finance the kind of resource discovery and production we hoped would compensate for peak oil.  
Second, I observed in The Long Emergency that we were becoming very delusional about the set of predicaments that we’re facing. I’m a little shocked at the quality and character of the delusional thinking and where it’s coming from.  When you see articles in theNew York Times, the supposed newspaper of record, that the USA may soon become a net energy exporter, you know there’s some kind of problem with perhaps the entire intellectual class in America.  
What do you mean?
When societies get badly stressed, delusional thinking increases.  We are now in that situation.
When you traffic in delusional thinking, you tell yourself a lot of lies and untruths.  This is a dangerously infectious process. Once you start doing it in things like banking and money matters and carrying it out in the practical form of accounting fraud, then you’re really putting your culture, your society in peril.  
These problems infect all realms of practical existence, including politics, business, media, education—so you end up, for example, with the President of the United States telling the public that we have 100 years of shale gas.  That’s just an untruth. The consequence is a society that cannot and will not prepare itself for the reality of the future.  
Why are we having trouble seeing this?
We don't have the necessary conditions for reflection.  I don’t know if a given people at any time in history has ever led more frantic and distracted lives.  I think even wartime and other periods of history have not been as frantic.  Of course, the difference is that most of the distractions and interruptions of American life today are trivial.
If we accept peak oil—and the debate rages—we’ll need something else to keep the lights on.  In The Long Emergency, you held out hope for nuclear energy to help manage a transition to what you see as inevitable decline.    
I had mixed feelings in 2005 about how nuclear energy was going to work out. It was obvious that the hazards were monumental. The way I put it at the time was that nuclear energy was probably the only way we were going to keep the electricity running after a certain point, and I think that’s still categorically true. 
But I don’t think we’re going to do it now, for a couple of reasons.  One is the fiasco at Fukushima.  It's created a climate in which opposition, even in a crisis, could be enormous.  But there was always a question of whether there would be a broad enough window of opportunity for us to ramp up a program of commissioning new nuclear plants, and I think that’s closing—perhaps, closed. 
The other new wrinkle is that the capital formation issues have become so extreme in the last five years that now, even if we did have the will and consensus to go forward with the new generation of nukes, it’s improbable we’d be able to finance it.
Your message--that we're heading for a re-set to an agrarian communities, that we'll be living in ways we haven't seen for several hundred years--is often not well received.  How have you prepared for the future you envision?
I believe in facing the future with hope.  I moved from a fairly successful small town, Saratoga Springs, to a smaller, more decrepit factory village 15 miles east.  I bought three acres of land with the intention of growing a lot of food on it.  I built a substantial garden that's still under way. 
I chose to live in a place I care about.  I spend a lot of time playing music with my friends.  I also put a lot of ongoing effort into consciously building a social network here.  I'm thinking about starting a small business that would be a cafe and gathering spot, but that's in the larval stage now.

Scary People, Scary Times -- Where Is This Country Going?

Scary times, scary people. In that order. The scary people have already started coming out of the woodwork. The times lately have been mostly uncertain, but soon they'll turn scary, too, as it becomes clearer that the people running things in the USA have no idea what's going on or what they're going to do about it -- and what's going on is an involuntary permanent re-set of the terms of everyday life, from a wet-dream robotic "consumer" techtopia to something more like the first chapter of Tobacco Road, with a family of half-wits reduced by hard times to fighting over a sack of turnips in a roadside ditch. That's the story-arc anyway, and lots of people won't like it. But the theme of dwindling resources is not a pretty one.

Keep reading... Show less

It's Time to Rebuild Our Passenger Railroad System

The following is from the foreword of Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service by James McCommons (Chelsea Green, 2009).

Keep reading... Show less

"Consumerism" Is Dead -- Can Obama Lead Us to a Downscaled Lifestyle?

The public perception of the ongoing fiasco in governance has moved from sheer, mute incomprehension to goggle-eyed panic as the scrims of unreality peel away revealing something like a national death-watch scene in history's intensive care unit. Is the USA in recession, depression, or collapse? People are at least beginning to ask. Nature's way of hinting that something truly creepy may be up is when both Paul Volcker and George Soros both declare on the same day that the economic landscape is looking darker than the Great Depression.

Those tuned into the media-waves were enchanted, in a related instance, by Rick Santelli's grand moment of theater in the Chicago trader's pit when he seemed to ignite the first spark of revolution by demonstrating that bail-out fatigue had morphed into high emotion -- and that the emotion could be marshaled against public policy. The traders in the pit on-screen seemed to color up and buzz loudly, like ordinary grasshoppers turning into angry locusts preparing to ravage a waiting valley. "Are you listening, President Obama?" Mr. Santelli asked portentously.

In the broad blogging margins of the web that orbit the mainstream media like the rings of Saturn, an awful lot of reasonable people have begun to ask whether President Obama is a stooge of whatever remains of Wall Street, with Citigroup and Goldman Sachs's puppeteer, Robert Rubin, pulling strings behind an arras in the Oval Office. Personally, I doubt it, but it is still a little hard to understand what the President is up to. For one thing, the stimulus package, so-called, looks more and more like national sub-prime mortgage itself, a bad bargain made under less-than-realistic terms, with future obligations fobbed onto whoever inhabits this corner of the world for the next seven hundred years -- and all to pay for a bunch of granite counter-tops and flat-screen TVs.

I suppose Mr. Obama is burdened with the knowledge that the economic truth is so much worse than he imagined back in November that there is simply nothing to do at this point except pretend to serve up a "tasting menu" of rescue plans in the hope that markets and mechanisms might be conned back into compliance with our wish keep getting something-for-nothing forever. FDR already used the fear of fear itself trope, so Mr. O is left with little more than displaying pluck and confidence in the face of overwhelming bad news.

The sad truth is that banking has become a Chinese fire drill -- a frantic act of futility -- as insolvent companies persist in covering up their losses in order to avoid the counter-party hell of credit default swaps that would ring the world's "game over" bell. This can only go on so long. All the chatter about "nationalizing" the banks really boils down to what kind of bankruptcy work-out will they be put through, how destructive will the process be, and how much of the pain can be shoved forward in time to people now in diapers and their descendants.

Among the questions that disturb the sleep of many casual observers is how come Mr. O doesn't get that the conventional process of economic growth -- based, as it was, on industrial expansion via revolving credit in a cheap-energy-resource era -- is over, and why does he keep invoking it at the podium? Dear Mr. President, you are presiding over an epochal contraction, not a pause in the growth epic. Your assignment is to manage that contraction in a way that does not lead to world war, civil disorder or both. Among other things, contraction means that all the activities of everyday life need to be downscaled including standards of living, ranges of commerce, and levels of governance. "Consumerism" is dead. Revolving credit is dead -- at least at the scale that became normal the last thirty years. The wealth of several future generations has already been spent and there is no equity left there to re-finance.

If contraction and downscaling are indeed the case, then the better question is: why don't we get started on it right away instead of flogging rescue plans to restart something that is DOA? Downscaling the price of over-priced houses would be a good place to start. This gets to the heart of Rick Santelli's crowd-stirring moment. Let the chumps and weasels who over-reached take their lumps and move into rentals. Let the bankers who parlayed these fraudulent mortgages into investment swindles lose their jobs, surrender their perks, and maybe even go to jail (if attorney general Eric Holder can be induced to investigate their deeds). No good will come of propping up the false values of mis-priced things.

No good, in fact, will come of a campaign to sustain the unsustainable, which is exactly what the Obama program is starting to look like. In the folder marked "unsustainable" you can file most of the artifacts, usufructs, habits, and expectations of recent American life: suburban living, credit-card spending, Happy Motoring, vacations in Las Vegas, college education for the masses, and cheap food among them. All these things are over. The public may suspect as much, but they can't admit it to themselves, and political leadership has so far declined to speak the truth about it for them -- in short, to form a useful consensus that will allow us to move forward effectively. One of the sad paradoxes of politics is that democracies do not seem very good at disciplining their citizens' behavior. The wish to please voters and the influence of campaign money overwhelm even leaders with mature instincts. In America's case, this could lead to what I like to call corn-pone Nazism a few years down the road. Someone will design snazzy uniforms and get us all marching around to "God Bless America." At the point of a gun.

It's not too late for President Obama to start uttering these truths so that we can avoid a turn to fascism and get on with the real business of America's next phase of history -- living locally, working hard at things that matter, and preserving civilized culture. What a lot of us can see now staring out of the abyss is a new dark age. I don't think it's necessarily our destiny to end up that way, but these days we're not doing much to avoid it.

Zombie Economics: Don't Bail out the System that Gave Us SUVs and Strip Malls

Though Citicorp is deemed too big to fail, it's hardly reassuring to know that it's been allowed to sink its fangs into the Mother Zombie that the U.S. Treasury has become and sucked out a multibillion dollar dose of embalming fluid so it can go on pretending to be a bank for a while longer.

Keep reading... Show less

Russia's Return Bites the Neocons' Grand Energy Scheme in the Ass

The feeble American response to Russia's assertion of power in the Caucasus of Central Asia was appropriate, since our claims of influence in that part of the world are laughable. The US had taken advantage of temporary confusion in Russia, during the ten-year-long post-Soviet-collapse interval, and set up a client government in Georgia, complete with military advisors, sales of weapons, and even the promise of club membership in the western alliance known as NATO. These blandishments were all in the service of the Baku-to-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which was designed specifically to drain the oil region around the Caspian Basin with an outlet on the Mediterranean, avoiding unfriendly nations all along the way.

At the time this gambit was first set up, in the early 1990s, there was some notion (or wish, really) among the so-called western powers that the Caspian would provide an end-run around OPEC and the Arabs, as well as the Persians, and deliver all the oil that the US and Europe would ever need -- a foolish wish and a dumb gambit, as things have turned out.

For one thing, the latterly explorations of this very old oil region -- first opened to drilling in the 19th century -- proved somewhat disappointing. US officials had been touting it as like unto "another Saudi Arabia" but the oil actually produced from the new drilling areas of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and the other Stans turned out to be preponderantly heavy-and-sour crudes, in smaller quantities than previously dreamed-of, and harder to transport across the extremely challenging terrain to even get to the pipeline head in Baku.

Meanwhile, Russia got its house in order under the non-senile, non-alcoholic Vladimir Putin, and woke up along about 2007 to find itself the leading oil and natural gas producer in the world. Among the various consequences of this was Russia's reemergence as a new kind of world power -- an energy resource power, with the energy destiny of Europe pretty much in its hands. Also, meanwhile, the USA had set up other client states in the ring of former Soviet republics along Russia's southern underbelly, complete with US military bases, while fighting active engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, if this wasn't the dumbest, vainest move in modern geopolitical history!

It's one thing that US foreign policy wonks imagined that Russia would remain in a coma forever, but the idea that we could encircle Russia strategically with defensible bases in landlocked mountainous countries halfway around the world…? You have to ask what were they smoking over at the Pentagon and the CIA and the NSC?

So, this asinine policy has now come to grief. Not only does Russia stand to gain control over the Baku-to-Ceyhan pipeline, but we now have every indication that they will bring the states on its southern flank back into an active sphere of influence, and there is really not a damn thing that the US can pretend to do about it.

We could have spent the past ten years getting our own house in order -- waking up to the obsolescence of our suburban life-style, scaling back on the Happy Motoring, reconnecting our cities with world-class passenger rail, creating wealth by producing things of value (instead of resorting to financial racketeering), protecting our borders, and taking the necessary measures to defend and update our own industries. Instead, we pissed our time and resources away. Nations do make tragic errors of the collective will. The cluelessness of George Bush is nothing less than a perfect metaphor for the failure of a whole generation. The Boomers will be identified as the generation that wrecked America.

So, as the vacation season winds down, this country greets a new reality. We miscalculated in Western and Central Asia. Russia still "owns" that part of the world. Are we going to extend our current land wars there into the even more distant and landlocked Stan-nations? At some point, as we face financial and military exhaustion, we have to ask ourselves if we can even successfully evacuate our personnel from the far-flung bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

This must be an equally sobering moment for Europe, and an additional reason for the recent plunge in the relative value of the Euro, for Europe is now at the mercy of Russia in terms of staying warm in the winter, running their kitchen stoves, and keeping the lights on. Russia also exerts substantial financial leverage over the US in all the dollars and securitized US debt paper it holds. In effect, Russia can shake the US banking system at will now by threatening to dump its dollar holdings.

The American banking system may not need a shove from Russia to fall on its face. It's effectively dead now, just lurching around zombie-like from one loan "window" to the next pretending to "borrow" capital -- while handing over shreds of its moldy clothing as "collateral" to the Federal Reserve. The entire US, beyond the banks, is becoming a land of the walking dead. Business is dying, home-ownership has become a death dance, whole regions are turning into wastelands of "for sale" signs, empty parking lots, vacant buildings, and dashed hopes. And all this beats a path directly to a failure of collective national imagination. We really don't know what's going on.

The fantasy that we can sustain our influence nine thousand miles away, when we can't even get our act together in Ohio is just a dark joke. One might state categorically that it would be a salubrious thing for America to knock off all its vaunted "dreaming" and just wake the fuck up.

alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.