James Kunstler

Whenever the herd mentality lines up along a compass point leading to “permanent prosperity,” or a yellow brick road lined with green shoots, or something like that, I tend to see the edge of a cliff up ahead. We are now completely in the grips of the deadly diminishing returns of information technology.  The more information comes to us about How Things Are, especially from TV, the more confused or wrong the conventional view gets it.

A broad consensus has formed in the news media and among government mouthpieces and even some “bearish” investors on the street that “the worst is behind us” in this tortured economy.  This view is completely crazy.  It will only lead to massive disappointment a few weeks or months from now, and that disappointment might easily transmute to political trouble.  One even might call the situation tragic, except a closer look at the sordid spectacle of what American culture has become — a non-stop circus of the seven deadly sins — suggests that we deserve to be punished by history.

The reason behind this mass delusion is not hard to find: it’s based on wishing, especially the wish to retain all the comforts, conveniences, luxuries, and leisure that had become normal in American life.  These are now ebbing away in big gobs for most of the population — while a tiny fraction of the well-connected pile on ever larger heaps of swag, enjoying ever more privilege. Those in the broad bottom 95 percent were content as long as there was a chance that they, too, could become members of the top 5 percent — by dint of car-dealing, or house-building, or mortgage-selling, or some other venture enabled by easy credit and a smile.  Those days and those ways are now gone.  The bottom 95 percent are now left with de-laminating houses they can’t make payments on, no prospects for gainful work, re-po men hiding in the bushes to snatch the PT Cruiser, cut-off cable service, Kraft mac-and-cheese (if they’re lucky), and Larry Summers telling them their troubles are over. (If I were Larry, I’d start thinking about a move to some place like the Canary Islands.)

Too many disastrous things are lined up in the months ahead to insure that we’re entering a new phase of history: The Long Emergency.

  • Government at every level is worse than broke.
  • Our currency, the US dollar, is hemorrhaging legitimacy.
  • Inability to service old debt at all levels or incur new debt.
  • Bad (toxic) debt lurking off balance sheets everywhere.
  • The housing bubble fiasco is far from over.
  • Unemployment rising implacably.
  • So-called “consumers” unable to consume consumables.
  • Crucial energy import supply lines fragile.
  • Food supply subject to energy problems and climate abnormalities.
  • A world full of other societies who would enjoy watching us fail and suffer.

When The Long Emergency was published in 2005, I said then that the greatest danger this society faced would be its inclination to gear up a campaign to sustain the unsustainable at all costs — rather than face the need to make new arrangements for daily life.  That appears to be exactly what has happened, and it didn’t happen under the rule of some backward-facing, right-wing, Jesus-haunted crypto-fascist, but rather a “progressive” party led by a dynamically affable young man unburdened by deep cultural allegiance to Wall Street.

The broader question of where we go as a nation pulses with tragedy. History is clearly presenting us with a new set of mandates: get local, get finer, downscale, and get going on it right away. Prepare for it now or nature will whack you upside the head with it not too long from now.  Attempting to maintain anything on the gigantic scale will turn out to be a losing proposition, whether it is military control of people in Central Asia, or colossal bureaucracies run in the USA, or huge factory farms, or national chain store retail, or hypertrophied state universities, or global energy supply networks.

These imperatives are so outside-the-box of ordinary experience right now, that to drag them into the arena of politics can only evoke blank stares or nervous giggling. But whether we like it or not, these are the things that will really matter in the years ahead — not whether General Motors can ever make a profit again, or what Target Store’s sales figures are next quarter, or whether the latest high-rise condo-and-gambling complex in Las Vegas will be successfully marketed.

Here, in the dog days of summer, it seems to me that the situation in the USA is so fundamentally bad, so unpromising, so booby-trapped for failure, that I wonder if there has ever been a society so badly deluded as ours.  We’re prisoners of our wishes, living in a strange dream-time, oblivious to the forces gathering at the margins of our vision, lost in a wilderness of our own making.

Anything can happen now.  I certainly wouldn’t rule out international mischief as we arc around into fall.  The air is so full of black swans that the white swan now seems like the exceptional thing. Whatever else happens, it sure will be interesting to see the public’s reaction to Wall Street’s announcement of Christmas bonuses.  The folks at Rockefeller Center better be thinking about getting a fireproof tree.

James Howard Kunstler

August 4, 2009

James Kunstler

James Howard Kunstler is perhaps best known for his 2005 book The Long Emergency , which predicted the financial meltdown and the implications of the peak oil problem. His 1993 book, The Geography of Nowhere, about the fiasco of suburbia, is a campus cult classic among the architecture and urban planning students. It was followed by a sequel, Home From Nowhere, and a companion book called The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition. Mr. Kunstler is also the author of 10 novels including his latest book, World Made By Hand, a story set in America's post-oil future. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone and The Atlantic Monthly.

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  • rancherlady

    Dear James Howard:

    I regard myself as a mildly amusing writer, but I stand in awe of “some backward-facing, right-wing, Jesus-haunted crypto-fascist, but rather a ‘progressive’ party led by a dynamically affable young man unburdened by deep cultural allegiance to Wall Street.”

    I wish to point out on behalf of “Temporary” that at least he and Laura held hands a lot, which was certainly soothing after all those years when the current Secretary of State was flinging heavy objects at the then POTUS and the Secret Service wondered if it would become necessary to shoot her. Dubya had many flaws, but at least there was a little dignity in the White House.

    As for the “dynamically affable” young man with a deep cultural allegiance to Chicago politics, Saul Alinsky, ACORN, unions, Islam, Statism, pay to play, trail lawyers, eco-whackos, and other “principles” not dear to my heart…what is going to happen on his watch couldn’t happen to a more deserving fellow. The
    “progressive” party bit is pretty funny, too.

    Great article. I’m wit’ cha on the rest of it, and will get back to sustaining the sustainable.

    Oh, dear, here comes the laughter again…”backward-facing, right-wing, Jesus-haunted crypto-fascist.” What cadence! I toyed with the idea of turning that into Haiku, but will settle for applauding your coup again, after having written today about the threat to the chicken coop, myself, today. At least I got to deal with good, clean, nutrient-laden chicken mess.

    Compared to Washington politics that’s a very savory subject.

    Affably, LBT

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  • http://lowbar.com HowieHardcore

    Thanks for this article. It strikes a chord. We’re delusional. Instead of preparing for simpler, down-scaled times, we want to party like it’s 1999. The Fed has re-spiked the punch bowl and we’ve entered that point where drinking is no longer fun but memory erasing. I too wonder about how disappointed Americans will be when the market revisits the lows of March. Will they lose all hope? Have they really started to think that “the Long Emergency” was over that quickly? There is certainly the prospect of wide-spread depression becoming part of our Depression. We’ve been given a reprieve, a breather, a chance to prepare for mediocre times ahead. Few of us are preparing.

  • Rechill

    So we’re a circus of seven deadly sins, we live in dream time but then at the end of the article there’s this:
    “The Endless PAYCHECK PORTFOLIO: In three simple steps, unleash a steady flow of work-free income… starting with up to 75 automatic “paychecks” deposited directly into your account.”
    He just destroyed all of his credibility.

  • Bruce

    Uh…”paychecks” are slang for dividends.

    I don’t know which ones he recommends, but I have received monthly ‘paychecks” for years.

    Check out a couple of my favs:



  • Jeff

    The sad part has been that the obvious signs of unsustainable economics and government have been clearly present for 2 decades (with plenty of more subtle signs going back even further) and has only been cascading and growing with every passing year like a flash-flood coming down a canyon – it’s never been a question of if the impending disaster downstream was in the future but only how long people can be so stubbornly stupid to insist that the growing thunder is anything but a flash-flood bearing down upon them.

    @Rechill – it’s a text interstitial ad – a random ad hit doesn’t mean causation or relation. If you saw (as I did a while back) a story about a Brazilian model losing her arms and legs to toxic shock and there happens to be an ad for a weight-loss system that claims to “shave off weight from your arms and legs”, does that have anything at all to say about the truth of the article? Are you really saying it would “destroy any credibility in the article author”? Grow up and get a clue!

  • Libertarian Today Fan

    This has to be the worst string of mixed metaphors ever put together:
    “Whenever the herd mentality lines up along a compass point leading to “permanent prosperity,” or a yellow brick road lined with green shoots, or something like that…”

    It’s a miracle if anyone bothered to read on beyond the first paragraph. If ever their was a column crying out for an editor!

    [Yeah, it’s a wonder he sells all those books. And that’s why you’ve written and sold so many! I vote this most productive comment on this board ever!–ed.]

  • Compared to What

    …”dynamically affable young man unburdened by deep cultural allegiance to Wall Street.”

    Where did you pull that load of ignorance from?

    This guy’s run by Chicago crime bosses and Wall Street money.

    And allusions to allegiance to Islam, as if Islam is a real enemy, are misguided and untrue. This guy has been described by his Chicago Mafia handlers and puppeteers, such as Abner Mikvner, as the “first Jewish president.”

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  • Don

    @Rechill, you bought it hook, line and sinker.
    That article has nothing to do with Kunstler.
    If you had been paying attention you’d have realized this before sticking your foot in it.

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  • babette

    “A world full of other societies who would enjoy watching us fail and suffer.”

    The party’s over Americans!
    Wall Street and the Fed and the first jewish president will have you eating mud pies vely, vely soon.

    And, yeah, the world waits with baited breath to see arrogant amerikans get a taste of what they’ve allowed consecutive government do unto others, in their name, all over the world.

    It’s your turn now!

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  • MJJP

    I think it a bit of a stretch to blame any of this on Obama’s watch. If anything it was a bumbling idiot like GWB who was not watching the henhouse whether he knew better or not that got us in this mess. I am inclined to believe he was the dumbest president in history not being able to string seven words together to make a sentence nor keep his mind on the subject at hand. Perhaps he has unknown issues in his personality or brain and if so I apologize for poking fun at the disability. Now getting back to Obama, if anything the man is a genious and has shown he is well ahead of the curve on the intelligence meter. Yes he does have an agenda and it is not the conservative one and why should it be? Conservatives have been against the common man the entire last century. It it weren’t for those “progressive ” policies implemented years ago there would probably be bloodshed in the streets right now. Where in the hell is the average person on the street supposed to take care of his own health care, his own retirement, pay for a mortgage pay for education for himself and family while conservative policies over the years have gutted worker rights, led anti union activities which helped keep wages up, encouraged companies to take their high wage mfg jobs overseas, and encouraged foreign workers to come in and compete at poverty wages? Lets not forget the biggest beneficiary of these events were right wing corporate and typically conservative individuals. In my opinion the american worker should be looking at France instead of bashing it because if nothing else the French politician fears the French worker and the French population. That is what was intended in this country at its founding but somehow we have lost sight of this.

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