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President’s Day

       A creepy feeling ushers in President’s Day this year as the
suspicion grows that nobody in charge of anything knows what what to do
next. The usual yin-yang consensus has solidified in congress along
party lines, both equally idiotic. In the White House, Mr. Obama is
under excruciating pressure to “do something” as systems unravel and
economies augur into darkness. Amid all the anxiety and raging
cluelessness, one thing is clear: we’re doing everything possible to evade reality.
     The reality we can’t face is that one way of life is over and a
new one is waiting to be born. It’s been waiting, really, since the
early 1970s, when God whacked the USA upside its head to announce that
we’d outgrown our once-stupendous domestic supply of oil. I remember
those fervid months following the OPEC oil embargo of 1973 (I covered
the story as a young newspaper reporter.) The basic message was this: from now on we’ll be running this show on other people’s oil so we better start doing things differently.
Back then, the not-yet-lost-in-a-fog-of-greed Baby Boom generation
rolled up its tie-dyed sleeves and got to work doing a lot of
forward-looking things: micro hydro-electric, passive solar
houses, rural homesteading, the next generation of public transit
(BART, the D.C. Metro), the first wave of urban gentrification….
     Then, in 1979, the Ayatollah tossed out the Shah of Iran, we got
another dose of oil problems, and a year later, President Jimmy
Carter’s clear-eyed view of the oil situation as “the moral equivalent
of war” got overturned in favor of Ronald Reagan’s dreadful Hollywood
nostalgia projector. As usual in times of severe social stress, the
public got delusional. Mr. Reagan was very lucky. During his tenure,
two of the last great non-OPEC oil discoveries came into full
production — Prudhoe Bay, Alaska and the North Sea — and took the
leverage away from the Islamic oil nations who had been making us
miserable with their threats, embargos, price-jackings, and
     Americans drew the false conclusion that Ronald Reagan was an
economic genius (a similar thing happened in Great Britain with
Margaret Thatcherism). The price of oil went down steeply while they
were in office. Britain could kick back and enjoy it’s last remaining
industry, banking, on a majestic cushion of energy resources. The USA
resumed its major post-war industry:
suburban sprawl building. Reaganism got elevated to the status of a
religion, though it was little more than a twisted version of
Eisenhower-on-steroids. Under Reagan, WalMart embarked on its campaign
to destroy every main street economy in the nation. The Baby Boomers
came back from the land, clipped their pony tails, discovered
venture capital, real estate investment trusts, securitization of
“consumer” debt, and the Hamptons. Greed was good. (No, really….)
     The first President Bush’s Gulf War jolted the oil markets
briefly, but Saudi Arabia was demonstrably on our side in that
conflict, while the non-OPEC oil supply was goosed up by production
from Mexico’s giant Cantarell field. The slight economic shudder caused
by the Gulf War was enough, though, to unseat Bush Number One in favor
of the Boomer Bill Clinton. A puzzling figure in many ways, articulate
and magnetic, Bill Clinton was hardly a reformer, surely not in terms
of the national lifestyle. He was in so many ways an exemplar of it.
He’d been governor of WalMart’s home state (and his wife sat on its
board of directors). He was a pure product of the New South, the
sunbelt, with its economy literally driven by everything connected to
cars — new suburbs, malls, fast food huts, Nascar. He wasn’t about to
pull a Jimmy Carter and try to prepare the people for some harsh
     Really nobody saw what was going on during the Clinton years. The
public was sleepwalking in a Martha Stewart nesting fantasy. Clinton
was as lucky as Reagan. The only geopolitical conflict he faced was the
Balkan gang-war that attended the collapse of Yugoslavia. Baby Boomer
greed went into overdrive during the Clinton years as the former
hippies hit their mid-life career strides, epitomized in
billionaire-worship and the eventual money-grubbing book deals both
Clintons made on departure. Does anyone remember Mr. Clinton saying,
even once, that an economy based on suburban sprawl building and car
dependency might not be such a good thing? Of course not. Under
Clinton, the SUV became our new national bird. The price of oil
flat-out crashed while Clinton was in office, sinking to the
$10-a-barrel range by the time he handed over the White House keys to
Bush Number Two.
     Poor dim “W” rode his generation’s last wave of cultural inertia
into two terms as little more than custodian of things set into motion
by others years before. Reality was shifting starkly “out there” but
“W,” raised in the protective globe of great wealth, coddled in
made-to-order business deals, surrounded by political triumphalists and
Jesus Jokers, couldn’t see through the brush-piles in his mind. (Maybe
it was all that cocaine from the years before.) He paid lip service to
a murky notion called “energy independence,” but to him that just meant
finding a home-grown way to maintain extreme car dependency and all its
perilous usufructs. The 9/11 tragedy allowed him to pretend to be a
man-of-action, but as the various wars and occupations ground on, “W”
more or less disappeared into the deep groove of his own limited
     During those years, more than a few things happened to inform the
American people — not all of whom were dim, of course — what was up.
For one, a cohort of senior geologists retired out of service to the
oil industry and started publishing their own dark thoughts about the
world’s energy future. The discussion of these matters spread to the
internet, where it grew in clarity and insight. We began to understand,
for instance, the connection between our energy predicament (peak oil,
so-called), and the growing parallel fiasco in hypertrophic debt
creation that was driving the banking system and threatening to wreck
      Now we’ve arrived at the moment of wreckage. Meanwhile, Barack
Obama sailed into the White House on a tide of “hope” for “change.” The
change was unspecified, by both Mr. Obama and the general public (and
the news media that audits its thinking). What is dogging many of us
who supported Mr. Obama is the delayed entrance of much-vaunted change.
At this moment of “stimulus” and TARP-II, it seems to have been about a
desperate attempt to preserve the hypertrophic debt economy of
“miracle” mortgages, blue-light-special shopping on credit cards, and
endless happy motoring at all costs. And by “all costs” I mean
literally bankrupting our society at every level to keep on living as
if it were still 1999. This naturally alarms those of us who perceive a
need for more drastic reprogramming in American life.
     Mr. Obama is not dim. The euphoria that attended his election was
largely about acquiring a leader of first-rate intelligence and
sensibility, compared to his lamentable predecessor. I like to think
that Mr. Obama really does know what’s up — that “change” means we
have to live a lot differently, not mount a campaign to sustain the
unsustainable. I suspect that President Obama has learned over the last
several weeks that the nation’s banking system and economy — indeed,
the whole world’s — are in way worse shape than anyone imagined before
January 20. He is faced with the immediate crushing problem of
appearing to do something while a tsunami of catastrophic debt
deleveraging sweeps away the first outlier nations and their economies
and bears down on the G-7. I suspect that in a few weeks, or possibly
even a few days, Mr. Obama will have to start announcing all kinds of
new and more drastic measures that will shock the stunned American
public — things like bank holidays, nationalizations, possibly even
dollar devaluation.
      As I’ve said more than once, I believe this basically honest and
intelligent president will have to take on the role of the nation’s
hand-holding camp counselor or school teacher. When the time comes that
he assumes this role, I think he’ll do it pretty well, even though
great pain and misery will be abroad in this land.

My 2008 novel of the post-oil future, World Made By Hand, is available in paperback  at all booksellers.

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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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