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An Odd Rumination

       Can’t we just drop Pee Wee Herman on Tripoli? Surely this shocking manifestation of everything toxic in America’s existential zeitgeist arsenal would send the Gadhafi corps shrieking for the blank Saharan interior – somewhere between Murzuk and Timbuktu – where timeless dunes shift in the eternal wind, and the cares of modern life, armies, geopolitics, banks, bombs, and crusaders in red bowties are but grains of sand under the uncountable stars. To recline there, outside the tent, in the bracing chill of the desert night, against the warm backrest of a sleeping camel, with a glass of strong tea, would bring one into communion with the peace of Allah – don’t you think?
     But it appears we’re going for the heavy ordnance instead, aided by the latest and greatest in video-gaming technology, and, by Gawd (yes, that one, ours, the one Michelangelo painted in Rome) we are going to give this cheeky Gadhafi fellow something like a Semtex colonoscopy and few around the wide world will shed a tear as he is translated into just another late-night snack for the rats and scorpions.
     Good gracious what an exhausting month this has been!
     Most remarkable in the tsunami of events last week was the peculiar dearth of actual reported news – as in hard, reliable information. CNN played the same loop all weekend of brave Japanese firemen marshalling outside the Fukushima reactors, trotting this way and that way in disciplined ranks, while alarms went out about radioactivity showing up here and there, in milk, spinach (did it grow overnight?), and on airline customers de-planing in the otherwise spotless reaches of Dallas, Texas. My correspondents tell me that the radioactive scare meme is way overblown, with the number of actual dead so far at exactly zero from the whole reactor event- and they may be right, or not, though it is hard to imagine no severe consequences at all over time from this disgusting mess. More to the point perhaps is the loss of about 30 percent of Japan’s electric power. What will they do in the long agony of sorting things out there?
     I have a peculiar fantasy about Japan. It burbled up in my mind even before the earthquake-tsunami-reactor disaster, and I conceived it in rumination upon Japan’s weird twenty-year-long economic malaise, as the nation’s population shrank, and its debt climbed to astronomical heights, and its young people lost heart, and it seemed just to go through the motions of whatever modernity required of them – ship the cars, package the robot parts, show up at the salaryman drinking contest, get stuffed into another late-night commuter train. I don’t claim to be a Japan expert, but I think all this was getting to them in a deep, major way. I think they perhaps secretly longed to get back to something like an older traditional Japanese society – the one before car assembly plants, big steel ships, chain reactions, and fluorescently-lighted pachinko parlors, back to the society that blossomed and fruited in cycles of centuries on those beautiful rocky, sea-washed islands into a culture saturated in artistry – unencumbered by idiot religions or the bothersome neediness of other nations.
     I can’t shake the odd feeling that Japan was looking for a way to get back to the 19th century, and perhaps even deeper beyond that – to the dream-time before they made the fateful decision to industrialize. The earthquake-tsunami-reactor moment is their chance now to begin that journey. Frankly, I don’t know what else they can do. Japan imports over 95 percent of the fossil fuels it uses (that would be oil, coal, and natural gas). Does anyone think they’ll be able to continue that indefinitely? Sorry, I just don’t see it under any circumstances. And, anyway, the geographic region where the bulk of the world’s oil comes from is in the process of blowing up. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are like some kind of mansion where fire has broken out simultaneously in the kitchen, the conservatory, the media room, the master bathroom, the chauffeur’s apartment over the garage, and the pool house, and whenever the flames are doused in one spot, they break out in another. Yesterday it was Syria and Yemen. Bahrain is under lockdown. The Egyptians are having second thoughts about the loss of a grinding stability, trouble is stirring up in Kuwait, Iraq is like a crazy person in the rubber room of history, and who knows what kind of spells the vizeer Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is laying out in his Kevlar sanctum. There is just too much tension in the world and it is demanding release in the most vexing ways.
     So, I can see the Japanese people – a deeply homogenous society – veering toward an as yet un-articulated consensus: let’s just get out of the modern world. Let’s go back home. Let’s don the kimono and the hakama, get us some horses, sharpen the katana, and kick back in the chaniwa garden with a bowl of green tea – and forget about all that dirty, disgusting, dangerous, heavy manufacturing-for-export (to an insane world) nonsense. History may record their industrial adventure as a weird blip of activity in a much longer timeline. As it will for us and everybody else, I believe. In fact, this fantasy about the Japanese shrugging off the toils of modernity is exactly what all the other so-called advanced nations of the world will find themselves doing sooner rather than later as we all take the road back to a world made by hand. The Japanese may just be the pioneering exemplars of the universal process.
     What we’re seeing these days is an epochal unspooling of hypercomplexity. The world just can’t take anymore of it. The world is telling us to cut it out or it is going to kick our upright bipedal asses. Of course, America may be absolutely the last society to get this message. We’ll receive it in the car-wash, no doubt. On our iPhones.


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James Howard Kunstler is the author of many books including (non-fiction) The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency and the four-book series of World Made By Hand novels, set in a post economic crash American future. His most recent book is Living in the Long Emergency; Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward. Jim lives on a homestead in Washington County, New. York, where he tends his garden and communes with his chickens.

24 Responses to “An Odd Rumination”

  1. asoka March 21, 2011 at 10:01 am #


  2. Leibowitz Society March 21, 2011 at 10:02 am #

    The Libyan intervention is another sign of our increasing desperation to try to stabilize our failing economy and industrialized way of life.
    Visit http://leibowitzsociety.blogspot.com for commentary on the coming dark age, as well as a path for preserving our important knowledge for future generations, when it comes time to rebuild.

  3. LaughingAsRomeWasBurningDown March 21, 2011 at 10:08 am #

    JHK, great column this week. One thing though, sure you are not confusing Pee Wee Herman with Gilbert Gottfried? The latter was in the news for getting fired over his twit’s on Japan.

  4. Hairhead March 21, 2011 at 10:10 am #

    To answer the question: “How did the spinach become radioactive?”, it’s radioactive steam rising into the air and falling on the plants as radioactive rain, i.e. “fallout”. Have we forgotten the bugaboos of the ‘fifties and ‘sixties which forced atom bomb testing into (mostly) deep holes in the ground?
    As for the Great Unravelling (which is what I call it), it is proceeding apace. Just this morning some Yemeni General sided with the protesters. The big problem with dictators murdering many of their own people is that at some point, those soldiers doing the murdering receive phone calls, “You and your friends just killed Uncle, or Brother, or Sister. . .” And at some point the soldier, faced with either killing his own family or turning the gun on his hated officers, will do the latter.
    Dictators can’t kill TOO many people, or there’ll be no one to dictate to.

  5. onearth March 21, 2011 at 10:12 am #

    There is an excellent book written just about Japan and the Edo period where the environmental changes required Japanese to use less resources, water, etc. It is JUST ENOUGH by Azby Brown. The blueprint is there for all of us.

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  6. Pottsville Diana March 21, 2011 at 10:14 am #

    I wish I could be so sure that the radioactive fears emanating from Fukushima were overblown. Cabinet Secretary Edano just said, “At the moment, we are not so optimistic there will be a breakthrough.” What an understatement for fuel ponds naked to the atmosphere, Reactor 3 building blown to shreds, pressure building, grey smoke ascending and all that scary plutonium still inside, one hopes. It may be true that no one has died yet from radiation, but it looks like a large swath of Japan is going to be contaminated for a long time. I think the upshot will be that no one in Japan will trust authority for a long time either, once the full magnitude of the contamination is known.

  7. LaughingAsRomeWasBurningDown March 21, 2011 at 10:17 am #

    Could Japan deindustrialize itself without reducing its population by a half (or more)?

  8. Großdeutschland March 21, 2011 at 10:17 am #

    I got a fantasy about Japan, too. I don’t think it’s very peculiar, though. It involves 18-year-old girls, school-uniforms, white, knee-high stockings and black high-heels. Know wut I’m sayin, Dawg?

  9. asoka March 21, 2011 at 10:17 am #

    JHK said: “But it appears we’re going for the heavy ordnance instead…”
    When talking about those going against Libya, let us remember who “we” are: Norway, Belgium, Great Britain, France, Canada, Denmark, and “us”

  10. ergriefer March 21, 2011 at 10:19 am #

    I think it’s a mistake to believe that many Japanese would reminisce wistfully about their pre-industrial past. Japan was a land of frequent civil wars, rule by warlords, constant threats from any number of rival eastern powers, etc. Not a pretty picture.

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  11. suburbanempire March 21, 2011 at 10:20 am #

    “The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are like some kind of mansion where fire has broken out simultaneously in the kitchen, the conservatory, the media room, the master bathroom, the chauffeur’s apartment over the garage, and the pool house, and whenever the flames are doused in one spot, they break out in another.”
    With all these “fires” breaking out in the mansion of the middle east…. I would think arson might be the cause.
    Someone(s) going in there and setting them intentionally…making sure the “fire department” (ie; war machine) has to “be called” (summoned by the “UN”)
    Looks like the CIA fingerprints are all over the middle east… especially with our instant war against “Libyan oppression”… no doubt protecting “the people” will involve securing the oil……
    When one totalitarian regieme has an uprising… the people might have grown their own balls… when it happens to two, it might be a fluke… but when 5-7 nations start in at the same time… that is part of the deception of warfare.

  12. zxcvbnm March 21, 2011 at 10:20 am #

    That’s why Libya employs foreign nationals to man the army.

  13. The Walking Dead! March 21, 2011 at 10:21 am #

    JHK, Kind of disappointed this week. Not your usual insight (Pee Wee come on) until the final paragraph. I foresee the Japanese people settling back into a pre 1920’s society, but do not be surprised if they start to quietly horde resources. I finally got my root cellar finished and all of my potatoes are about to go into the ground. I’m hoping I will be prepared for the long winter that is coming!

  14. pedal pusher March 21, 2011 at 10:22 am #

    You’re going to get a lot of flack for dissing Pee Wee Herman…and deservedly so! Rubens has been one of many comics who has exposed (so to speak) the ghastly nature of the American Cream Dream.

  15. walt March 21, 2011 at 10:24 am #

    We can imagine anything we like but I don’t think the Japanese, all 130 million of them, are eager to return to some quaint tea ceremony of a nation. Nostalgia is a strange narcotic, to be sure. It’s why millions of otherwise illiterate, tea-bagging blowhards commune with the spirits of Frnaklin and Jefferson (with Fox-News chryons translating the incomprehensible archaicisms into the Deeply-Held Truths of electronic authority).
    This was a quiet week in Saratoga Springs, someone’s hometown. So, what passes for analysis starts off a diatribe couched in Kunstler’s coquettish homophobia before collapsing into the logorrhea of a keyboard warrior devoutly wishing ruin on Israel’s enemies. Yay for our team. Let’s invite some Japanese to a Renaissance Faire so they can see how real Americans escape reality.

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  16. LaughingAsRomeWasBurningDown March 21, 2011 at 10:31 am #

    And we’ll need to replace those 110 cruise missiles we fired into Libya, at a million a pop. No doubt there was some high-fiving going on at Boeing this weekend.

  17. lbendet March 21, 2011 at 10:32 am #

    Love the image of PeeWee Herman as a toxic weapon, JHK.
    The Oil Drum has an interesting article on the energy problems that the Japanese face.
    [What we urgently need now is fuel, heavy and light oil, water and food. More than anything else, we need fuel because we can’t do anything without it. We can’t stay warm or work the water pumps,” said Masao Hara, the mayor of Koriyama city, in Fukushima prefecture.]
    There was also discussion today on Morning Joe that Japan was gearing up to to export food, all vanishing in the radiation vapors of the destroyed Fukushima Daiichi plant.
    To hear Sir Howard Stringer CEO of Sony (with whom I once went to the theater and dinner on a double date) tell it, all will be back to normal soon–Oh and better than ever. Some people don’t quite read the writing on the wall.
    The idea that the food is still within safe radiation levels or that nobody has died from the radiation is a false assumption. Radiation is cumulative throughout a lifetime, so this constant exposure will take it’s toll.
    Just like the effects of Corexit in the Gulf of Mexico, this is a living laboratory and the results may not come in for a long time…well after the cameras stop rolling. If someone dies from exposure to radiation and nobody sees it, did it really happen?
    One more rumination of my own. I checked up on our old friend, Lockerbie terorrist, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and his alive and well living in comfort in his family compound.–hmm BP got its way, and Gadaffi got a good laugh, but I wonder how we feel about that.
    Anyway today on MJ they were discussing Obama’s advisors, many of whom are Clintonistas who won the argument over Gates in intervening in Libya to avert 100,000 deaths. Is that even an accurate potential?

  18. Newfie March 21, 2011 at 10:36 am #

    The Japanese will encounter problems in their transition back to the good old days. People are stacked on top of one another 50 deep in Tokyo and other large cities. And the ancestral homeland is partly buried under hundreds of square miles of reinforced concrete and asphalt. How will they peel off the enormous cancerous growths of concrete and asphalt without the enormous amounts of energy from fossil fuels that put it there ? Without oil or electricity from nuclear power, how many Japanese can the land support ? Probably no where near the current population of 125 million…

  19. Auntelope March 21, 2011 at 10:41 am #

    On the dangers of radiation: leukemia and thyroid cancer don’t show up right away. Let’s ask Ann Coulter if she wants to go suck on an isotope.

  20. Warren Peace March 21, 2011 at 10:43 am #

    I think you may be projecting your own yearnings onto the Japanese people.
    There was a fascinating article on Energy Bulletin about Japan in the Edo period providing an example of a truly self-sufficient society. Japan’s population remained relativley stable at around 30 million for centuries (as opposed to 127 million post- industrialization). It was isolated from the world, this provided all its own resources sustainably, utilizing waste in intelligent ways. Before industrialization, they had plenty of time to contemplate nature, art, poetry. That article is here:
    Japan’s sustainable society in the Edo period http://www.energybulletin.net/node/5140
    The book it was based on is translated here:
    Some commentators have speculated that Japan has simply entered the post-growth phase earlier than the rest of the world, and could provide a template for how to do it. That article is here:
    Japan: the world’s first post-growth economy http://makewealthhistory.org/2011/02/01/japan-the-worlds-first-post-growth-economy/
    Already Japan is what is sometimes called “Demographic Doom” Maybe it’s a natural reaction to overpopulation on an island. There has been much hand-wringing about this, but we all know this is what has to happen in every country if we are to survive. Japan is usually described as “futuristic”. Maybe it’s true, just not in the way most commentators think!

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  21. James Howard Kunstler March 21, 2011 at 10:44 am #

    Walt says: “This was a quiet week in Saratoga Springs, someone’s hometown. So, what passes for analysis starts off a diatribe couched in Kunstler’s coquettish homophobia.”
    Actually, you’re just plain mistaken, Walt. No undertone of persecution against gay anything. You must be preoccupied with something in your own head. But it’s a rather scurrilous comment and if you serve up another one like it i’ll just ban you from this blog.

  22. Al Klein March 21, 2011 at 10:48 am #

    Question for all you articulate CFN readers: what is the opposite of Nemesis? Nemesis is that which initially provides something seemingly good (advantageous), but which ultimately leads to something bad (disadvantageous). In Japan’s case, or so JHK suggests, the reverse may be happening. Something bad has happened which may lead to something good. The so-called cloud with a silver lining, maybe. I’m inclined to agree, with a nagging thought – that Mother Nature is blind when it comes to our “wishes” when she corrects excess. To wit, if Japan reverts back to a simpler, unhurried society, will there be room for all the current Japanese in that Nirvana? Methinks not.

  23. Solar Guy March 21, 2011 at 10:50 am #

    There is just too much tension in the world and it is demanding release in the most vexing ways
    Rode an electric bike this weekend, and it was pretty slick.
    JHK Keep up the blog, excellent work, thank you.

  24. VyseLegendaire March 21, 2011 at 10:50 am #

    I don’t think Japan, like any industrialized nation, will willingly go back to the feudal-era level of economy. Lets keep in mind today’s Japanese are modern people through and through. They would have to be dragged kicking and screaming back to that essentially stone age culture.
    Second I see Japan moving towards a re-militarization and a ‘new nationalism’ after this event. They will align with UN/NATO forces to begin an desperate grab for resources around the globe. Japan has a long history of sudden nationalistic fervor during times of transition and pressure.
    I only hope they keep their cool and maybe kick out their kleptocratic bureaucracy in the wake of these latest disasters, but history paints a different picture.