by James Howard Kunstler
The idea that techno-industrial society is headed toward a collapse has become very unpopular the last couple of years. Thoughts (and fears) about it have been replaced by a kind of grand redemption fantasy that bears the same relation to economics that masturbation has to pornography. One way to sum up the current psychological state of the nation is that an awful lot of people who ought to know better don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground anymore. We’re witnessing the implosion of the American hive mind.
This is what comes of divorcing truth from reality, and that process is exactly what you get in the effort to replace authentic economic activity with accounting fraud and propaganda. For five years, the Federal Reserve has been trying to offset a permanent and necessary contraction of techno-industrialism by lobbing mortar rounds of so-called “money” into its crony “primary dealer” banks in order to fuel interest rate carry trades that produce an echo in the stock markets. An echo, let us be clear, is the ghost of something, not the thing itself — in this case: value.
The permanent contraction of techno-industrialism is necessary because the main fuel for running it has become scarcer and rather expensive, too expensive really to run the infrastructure of the United States. That infrastructure cannot be replaced now without a great deal of capital sacrifice. Paul Krugman — whom other observers unironically call Dr. Paul Krugman, conferring shamanic powers on him — wrote a supremely stupid op-ed in The New York Times today (“Stranded by Sprawl”), as though he had only noticed over the past week that the favored development pattern of our country has had adverse economic consequences. Gosh, ya think?
Meanwhile, the public has been sold a story by nervous and wishful upholders of the status quo that we have no problem with our primary resource due to the shale oil and shale gas bonanzas that would make us “energy independent” and “the world’s leading oil exporter — Saudi America!” A related story along these lines is the imminent “American industrial renaissance.” What they leave out is that, if actually true, it would be a renaissance of robots, leaving the former (and long ago) well-paid American working class to stew in its patrimony of methadrine, incest, and tattoo “art.”
To put it as simply as possible, the main task before this society is to change the way we live. The necessary changes are so severe and represent so much loss of previous investment that we can’t bring ourselves to think about it. For instance, both the suburbs and the big cities are toast. The destiny of the suburbs is to become slums, salvage yards, and ruins. The destiny of the big cities is to become Detroit — though most of America’s big cities (Atlanta, Houston) are hybrid monstrosities of suburbs and cities, and they will suffer the most. It is not recognized by economic poobahs such as Dr. Krugman and Thomas Friedman that the principal economic activity of Dixieland the past half century was the manufacture of suburban sprawl and now that the endeavor is over, the result can be seen in the millions of unemployed Ford F-110 owners drinking themselves into an incipient political fury.
Then where will the people live? They will live in smaller cities and cities that succeed in downsizing sharply and in America’s currently neglected and desolate small towns and upon a landscape drastically refitted for a post-techo-industrial life that is as far removed from a Ray Kurzweil “Singularity” fantasy as the idea of civic virtue is removed from Lawrence Summers. The people will live in places with a meaningful relationship to food production.
Many of those aforementioned swindled, misled, and debauched lumpen folk (having finally sold off their Ford-F110s) will eventually see their prospects migrate back into the realm of agriculture, or at least their surviving progeny will, as the sugar-tit of federal benefits melts away to zero, and by then the population will be much lower. These days, surely, the idea of physical labor in the sorghum rows is abhorrent to a 325-pound food-stamp recipient lounging in an air-conditioned trailer engrossed in the televised adventures of Kim Kardashian and her celebrated vagina while feasting on a KFC 10-piece bundle and a 32 oz Mountain Dew. But the hypothetical grand-kids might have to adopt a different view after the last air-conditioner sputters to extinction, and fire-ants have eaten through the particle-board floor of the trailer, and all the magical KFC products recede into the misty past where Jenny Lind rubs elbows with the Knights of the Round Table . Perhaps I wax a little hyperbolic, but you get the idea: subsistence is the real deal-to-come, and it will be literally a harder row to hoe than the current conception of “poverty.”
Somewhere beyond this mannerist picture of the current cultural depravity is the glimmer of an idea of people behaving better and spending their waking lives at things worth doing (and worthy of their human-ness), but that re-enchantment of daily life awaits a rather harsh work-out of the reigning deformations. I will go so far to predict that the recent national mood of wishful fantasy is running out of gas and that a more fatalistic view of our manifold predicaments will take its place in a few months. It would at least signal a rapprochment of truth with reality.
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