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Poverty of Imagination

      Venturing out each day into this land of strip malls, freeways,
office parks, and McHousing pods, one can’t help but be impressed at
how America looks the same as it did a few years ago, while seemingly
overnight we have become another country. All the old mechanisms that
enabled our way of life are broken, especially endless revolving
credit, at every level, from household to business to the banks to the
US Treasury.
      Peak energy has combined with the diminishing returns of over-investments in complexity
to pull the “kill switch” on our vaunted “way of life” — the set of
arrangements that we won’t apologize for or negotiate. So, the big
question before the nation is: do we try to re-start the whole smoking, creaking hopeless, futureless machine? Or do we start behaving differently?
     The attempted re-start of revolving debt consumerism is an
exercise in futility. We’ve reached the limit of being able to create
additional debt at any level without causing further damage, additional
distortions, and new perversities of economy (and of society, too). We
can’t raise credit card ceilings for people with no ability make
monthly payments. We can’t promote more mortgages for people with no
income. We can’t crank up a home-building industry with our massive
inventory of unsold, and over-priced houses built in the wrong places.
We can’t ramp back up the blue light special shopping fiesta. We can’t
return to the heyday of Happy Motoring, no matter how many bridges we
fix or how many additional ring highways we build around our
already-overblown and over-sprawled metroplexes. Mostly, we can’t
return to the now-complete “growth” cycle of “economic expansion.”
We’re done with all that. History is done with our doing that, for now.
       So far — after two weeks in office — the Obama team seems bent
on a campaign to sustain the unsustainable at all costs, to attempt to
do all the impossible things listed above. Mr. Obama is not the only
one, of course, who is invoking the quest for renewed “growth.” This is
a tragic error in collective thinking. What we really face is a
comprehensive contraction in our activities, especially the scale of
our activities, and the pressing need to readjust the systems of
everyday life to a level of decreased complexity.
      For instance, the myth that we can become “energy independent and
yet remain car-dependent is absurd. In terms of liquid fuels, we’re
simply trapped. We import two-thirds of the oil we use and there is
absolutely no chance that drill-drill-drilling (or any other scheme)
will change that. The public and our leaders can not face the reality
of this. The great wish for “alternative” liquid fuels (bio fuels,
algae excreta) will never be anything more than a wish at the scales
required, and the parallel wish to keep all our cars running by other
means — hydrogen fuel cells, electric motors — is equally idle and
foolish. We cannot face the mandate of reality, which is to do
everything possible to make our living places walkable, and connect
them with public transit. The stimulus bills in congress clearly
illustrate our failure to understand the situation.
       The attempt to restart “consumerism” will be equally
disappointing. It was a manifestation of the short peak energy decades
of history, and now that we’re past peak energy, it’s over. That
seventy percent of the economy is over, especially the part that
allowed people to buy stuff with no money. From now on people will have
to buy stuff with money they earn and save, and they will be buying a
lot less stuff. For a while, a lot of stuff will circulate through the
yard sales and Craigslist, and some resourceful people will get busy
fixing broken stuff that still has value. But the other infrastructure
of shopping is toast, especially the malls, the strip malls, the real
estate investment trusts that own it all, many of the banks that lent
money to the REITs, the chain-stores and chain eateries, of course,
and, alas, the non-chain mom-and-pop boutiques in these
highway-oriented venues.
      Washington is evidently seized by panic right now. I don’t know
anyone who works in the White House, but I must suppose that they have
learned in two weeks that these systems are absolutely tanking, that
the previous way of life that everybody was so set on not apologizing
for has reached the end of the line. We seem to be learning a new and
interesting lesson:
that even a team that promises change is actually petrified of too much
change, especially change that they can’t really control.
      The argument about “change” during the election was sufficiently
vague that no one was really challenged to articulate a future that
wasn’t, materially, more-of-the-same. I suppose the Obama team may have
thought they would only administer it differently than the Bush team —
but basically life in the USA would continue being about all those
trips to the mall, and the cubicle jobs to support that, and the family
safaris to visit Grandma in Lansing, and the vacations at Sea World,
and Skipper’s $20,000 college loan, and Dad’s yearly junket to Las
Vegas, and refinancing the house, and rolling over this loan and that
loan… and that has all led to a very dead end in a dark place.
       If this nation wants to survive without an intense political
convulsion, there’s a lot we can do, but none of it is being voiced in
any corner of Washington at this time. We have to get off of
petro-agriculture and grow our food locally, at a smaller scale, with
more people working on it and fewer machines. This is an enormous
project, which implies change in everything from property allocation to
farming methods to new social relations. But if we don’t focus on it
right away, a lot of Americans will end up starving, and rather soon.
We have to rebuild the railroad system in the US, and electrify it, and
make it every bit as good as the system we once had that was the envy
of the world. If we don’t get started on this right away, we’re
screwed. We will have tremendous trouble moving people and goods around
this continent-sized nation. We have to reactivate our small towns and
cities because the metroplexes are going to fail at their current scale
of operation. We have to prepare for manufacturing at a much smaller
(and local) scale than the scale represented by General Motors.
      The political theater of the moment in Washington is not focused
on any of this, but on the illusion that we can find new ways of
keeping the old ways going. Many observers have noted lately how
passive the American public is in the face of their dreadful
accelerating losses. It’s a tragic mistake to tell them that they can
have it all back again. We’ll see a striking illustration of “phase
change” as the public mood goes from cow-like incomprehension to
grizzly bear-like rage. Not only will they discover the impossibility
of getting back to where they were, but they will see the panicked
actions of Washington drive what remains of our capital resources down
a rat hole.
       A consensus is firming up on each side of the “stimulus”
question, largely along party lines — simply those who are for it and
those who are against it, mostly by degrees. Nobody in either party —
including supposed independents such as Bernie Sanders or John McCain,
not to mention President Obama — has a position for directing public
resources and effort at any of the things I mentioned above: future
food security, future travel-and-transport security, or the future
security of livable, walkable dwelling places based on local networks
of economic interdependency. This striking poverty of imagination may
lead to change that will tear the nation to pieces.

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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.

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  4. FincaInTheMountains November 5, 2014 at 9:18 am #

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    3. Instill egocentric view of the world. Egoist is a loner, so it is easier to apply old rule “Divide and conquer”

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    5. Sex and violence, instead of valor and love

    6. Consumerism in its negative sense – the weapon from their arsenal, which achieves multiple targets. Makes people weak, dependent and easily controlled

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