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Out On a Limb

     There is one supreme and universal law of human relations in all its manifestations, social, political, economic, cultural: people create no end of mischief in the hours when they are not sleeping. Any vision of history-yet-to-come must be predicated on this principle.
      A correspondent of mine objected to the idea I floated a couple of times that Japan would be the first advanced industrial nation to “go medieval.” This prompts me to clarify that emphasis should be on the word “first.”  The re-set to a much lower scale and intensity of human activity is certain for all nations; the only questions are the time-frame and the quality of the journey and those are sure to vary from one group of people to another.
    I picked on Japan because their journey seems to have compressed and accelerated in recent years and also because there’s a lot to admire in their possible destination if history is any guide: a graceful culture of lower energy and high artistry. The transition between that older culture and the point of industrial take-off was also much sharper for Japan than so-called Western societies. They did not look back on the startling episode of Rome and they didn’t experience a thrilling “Renaissance” of rediscovery in its technical achievements — which eventuated in the Western discovery of a “new world” and all its exploitable resources. The Japanese were pestered by Catholic missionaries for a brief time beginning in the 1540s, but tossed them out in 1620s, along with the merchants who accompanied them — and then very consciously barred the door. They even gave up on the guns that the Euro-people had introduced, regarding them as unsportsmanlike. Finally, Commodore Perry from the USA landed in the 1850s, with all the weight of Western technological momentum behind him, and demanded access to trade there and Japan, in effect, surrendered to modernity.
     They also thrived on it for a while. For one thing, they had a lot of beautifully-made exotic cultural objects to trade with the west, and their artisan skill level in things like ceramics and metallurgy made the transition to industrial technology of their own easy. In half a century, Japan went from an isolated archipelago of tea ceremonies and silks to building steel battleships and airplanes, and we all know the mischief that led to during the first half of the horrid 20th century: the Rape of Nanking, the Bataan Death March, the bombing of Tokyo, and Hiroshima. Then came Act 2: postwar economic revival, the SONY stereo, Mitsubishi, major league baseball, and really excellent automobiles. That went on for while, too. About 40 years. 
     There was one insurmountable problem lurking in the background: Japan did not possess any fossil fuels, oil or methane gas, to run all the equipment of modernity that they had ramped up. That didn’t matter so much when imported oil was $11-a-barrel, but it became crucial when the cost quickly rose to $100-a-barrel, as it did in recent years. It also began to matter that Japan’s bigger neighbor and age-old rival (and sometimes victim), China, ramped up its own industrial economy which, of course, consumed a healthy portion of what the world oil market put up for sale. By the early 21st century, China was eating Japan’s lunch (its bento box, shall we say) by manufacturing the same stuff that the Japanese had excelled at making, and all of a sudden the whole project of modernity in Japan hit the skids.
     Then came the T?hoku earthquake of 2011, and the giant wall of water that slammed, among other things, the multiple nuclear reactors at Fukushima. The Japanese industrial confederation had taken a certain amount of comfort in its ability to keep the electricity going by other means than fossil fuels. Now, all of a sudden, a nuclear dragon was loose upon the land, a veritable Godzilla, Japan’s worst nightmare. A year later, all but two of Japan’s nuclear power plants were shut down. By no coincidence, Japan also found itself wallowing in a trade deficit after decades of enjoying trade surpluses, due to the amount of oil and gas the nation had to import to keep the electricity running.
     Japan’s energy predicament is expressing itself in a financial crisis, naturally enough, since finance is a set of abstract markers for what is happening in an economy — and the country’s finances are pretty much running amok as its political leaders try desperately to adjust to the new realities of powerdown. They are employing accounting fraud to offset the inescapable failures of capital formation under the circumstances, the same as all the other advanced industrial nations. As a purely financial matter it simply amounts to no longer being able to generate enough new wealth to pay the interest on old credit, or to justify the creation of new credit. Since credit is the lifeblood of industrialism, the sun is setting on that phase of history. Japan finds itself in a dishonorable quandary and in tune with some of its older cultural infrastructure appears to be committing suicide with a sword thrust into the guts of its banking system.
     America, in contrast, is driving over the edge of the Grand Canyon, Thelma-and-Louise-style. Europe is drinking a poison cup in sumptuous seclusion. China and India will just look like lemming marches into the increasingly vacant sea.
     Financial hara-kiri might be the best outcome for Japan — better, say, than a war with China over some desolate islands — if Japan were to retreat as rapidly back into a traditional artisan economy as it bailed out of in the 1860s. I realize this is a long-shot and includes many knotty elements not under discussion here, such as population reduction and the fate of Fukushima. Also, history is almost never symmetrical. Things don’t retrace the arc they came up. The journey will surely be bumpier. But Japan might get there first and set some interesting precedents for the rest of us.
    At the heart of the matter is this. Industrialism is an entropic project. It accelerates and intensifies entropy, which is to say the drive toward disorder and death. Tradition in human societies is the great moderator of entropy. Of course nothing stays the same forever, but some of us would like to see the human project continue, and to get to place where it can feel comfortable with itself for a while, perhaps even something resembling a new (and completely unfamiliar) golden age, when the people not asleep can be trusted.
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About James Howard Kunstler

View all posts by James Howard Kunstler
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 “Out On a Limb”

  1. Ecotopian June 8, 2013 at 2:23 pm #


    • Neon Vincent June 10, 2013 at 8:33 am #

      Yes, I think you may have been the first commenter for the entire new-look site. I was looking for the new format for a couple of weeks. I missed the change on Saturday, but you caught it. Congratulations!

  2. Thaddeus Thurston Thistlethwaite III June 8, 2013 at 3:07 pm #

    Hopefully those who were abusing the comments section a few weeks back will now behave themselves. The website looks good, Jim

  3. Jaego June 9, 2013 at 1:00 pm #

    I agree. I want a Japan of samurai, geishas, and Zen monks again. And an America of manly Men and Women in dresses. And Women who when they marry are worthy to wear the White Dress.

    Needless to say, Japan’s ascent back in Medievalism is made incomparably easier by its ethnic homogeneity. Diversity makes for weakness, disunion, and ultimately war. What are we going to do? We may have to divide the Country (territory) in order to create viable nations on this continent.

    • Dee June 10, 2013 at 9:07 am #

      “And an America of manly Men and Women in dresses.”

      Well, Jako, if you really like men in dresses, you should move back to San Francisco, all the drag queens really miss you in your bareback chaps.


  4. mow June 9, 2013 at 1:41 pm #

    change is good

    • Jaego June 9, 2013 at 3:54 pm #

      Change is good? For its own sake? Change what to what? We should ask next time or we’ll end with another Obama, who is just as slim, tanned Jorge Bush.

      Oh you meant the Blog? I don’t like it so much. The old one had a distinctive layout and graphics. But as long as we get the Message out, the rest is relative.

    • bearfoot June 10, 2013 at 7:18 am #

      and difficult.

  5. Ixnei June 9, 2013 at 5:11 pm #

    Poor *Django*!!! I’m diggin it so far (except an IP ADDRESS next to each alias would make me more *comfortable*)…

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    • Jaego June 9, 2013 at 8:01 pm #

      Ix my old friend, still flying the bloody rag I see. When will you learn to love yourself?

  6. UnstoppableFarceImmovableAbject June 9, 2013 at 5:40 pm #

    It’s a nice layout, but it seems a bit bleached out. I liked the color pallet on the last one – matched JHK’s persona I thought.

  7. shorty June 9, 2013 at 5:50 pm #

    the old site looked a lot better….plenty of zesty color. New site looks like it was created by someone with one foot in the box……

  8. K-Dog June 10, 2013 at 12:02 am #

    The colors can be easily changed. I like the new format.

    And I most definitely agree with Ixnei.


  9. K-Dog June 10, 2013 at 12:07 am #

    Links to user web pages are green. I think that is the same as on the old site.

    I had the first one.

  10. Bukko Canukko June 10, 2013 at 1:10 am #

    Interesting look. It will take some getting accustomed to. But people can get accustomed to almost anything. They’ll even get accustomed to life in The Collapse. The 10% who live, that is.

    As for Japan going medieval, I think the only way that can happen is in a generalized, worldwide near-simultaneous fallback of 1,000 years of progress. If Japan tries it unilaterally, early, China is going to eat Japan’s sushi. Even though that sushi will be Fukushimareactive. Too much of a power imbalance will exist too close between the Japs and the Manchurians they once manhandled. Instead of “I drink your milkshake!” it will be “I drink your soy milk!”

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  11. anon June 10, 2013 at 6:42 am #

    Font sucks.

  12. bearfoot June 10, 2013 at 7:24 am #

    do you think the u.s. is the only gov, to scrutinize the citizenry?

  13. bearfoot June 10, 2013 at 7:27 am #

    no comment

  14. ramkawsky June 10, 2013 at 8:03 am #

    Needless to say, Japan’s ascent back in Medievalism is made incomparably easier by its ethnic homogeneity.

    So it took about five seconds for the racist to show up.

  15. mark June 10, 2013 at 8:21 am #

    James, there ain’t no going back. Modernity has reached critical mass. The major players will change as energy will still be rationed for a time before solar and storage become ubiquitous freeing humankind from fossil fuels. Still, we’re(the US) in deep do-do as the banking cartel needs a new sugar daddy. ChiIndia bekons. They’ll (the bankster) forsake us for new suckers but to make sure we’re no longer a threat to their new host, we’ll be sacrificed and left dead and dying. We’ll never see it coming – ala Robb Stark.

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  16. rube-i-con June 10, 2013 at 8:30 am #

    Nobody outside the USA will ever use this ‘free’ software again, now that ALL knows that a criminal government has key’s to your privacy.

    thanks for the very nice LAFF. “now” that everyone knows they’re being spied on? you have almost no privacy, live it, learn it, love it.

    plus, are you going to complain about your right to privacy if an attack kills 1,000, or 20,000? Pray tell how the hell the gov’t is supposed to protect us – which is their mandate – if they don’t listen in? track muslims in particular? that wont stop the homegrown nuts.

    no one’s going to stop using the internet “now” that they “know” they’re being spied on. it’s SOP.

    peace peaceniks

  17. rube-i-con June 10, 2013 at 8:32 am #

    site does kinda suck though, theres no easy overview anymore

  18. Neon Vincent July 6, 2013 at 6:30 pm #

    This page isn’t showing the pingback, but I quoted this entry’s comments about entropy and tradition at Crazy Eddie’s Motie News.


  19. kunjwe December 1, 2020 at 10:42 am #

    As you already know, Reddit posts can be redeemed, links, photos, and naturally, movies. Most movies shared on Reddit are shared from another service, by way of example, YouTube, LiveLeak, Streamable, or even something similar. In certain cases, although videos have been uploaded into Reddit straight. It creates it a small complicated to talk about with them minus the link to this original post, that will be easily accessible but probably not is everyone’s most-liked way to share it. So, in this situation, you can down load videos posted to Reddit and talk about with them long as you aren’t plagiarizing anything and giving due credit. Here is the way.