In the Reality Lounge

The G-20 came to Washington for the weekend and sucked all the air out of the city before announcing that they were really serious about patching all the leaks in the foundering ship of globalism. Well, they have to at least pretend that they are doing something. Meanwhile, the former bit player known as reality has taken center stage in the ship’s main lounge. It is putting on an act even gnarlier than the Kit Kat Klub show in Cabaret.

This reality show is sending some clear signals to the denizens of the real and really crowded world. The main signal is that the trade and financing rackets of recent decades are over. The extravaganza of economic hypergrowth based on cheap resources is over. The promiscuous swapping around of risk and rewards is over. There is no global institutional framework for managing the impairment left in the wake of this binge. It will be up to the individual nations now to figure out their national lives and livings.

Alas, the financial impairment is still on-going world-wide and has quite a ways to run before it’s finished working its hoodoo on the so-called advanced economies. The lame duck US economic posse so far has done everything possible except the two things that really matter: allow the fraudulent securities at the heart of the problem to be exposed to the light of day to determine their actual value; and allow those companies who trafficked in them to suffer the full consequences by going out-of-business. For the moment, they’re content to shovel cash into the truck-bed of every enterprise in America that shows up at the Treasury loading dock. This can only have the effect of eventually destroying the value of that cash.

The world has changed faster than anyone realizes. One big question is how long the American people will stumble around in a daze before we get back to work doing constructive things in this country — and by that I mean activities scaled to the resource realities of the years just ahead. More specifically, I mean how we are going to grow the food we eat without massive quantities of diesel fuel and petroleum-based “inputs” and also how we are going to make any of the useful products we need in an energy scarcer time.

The transportation quandary suggests that we have to move away from the private automobile and commercial trucking, and that the airline industry is certain to contract dramatically. When are we going to start the discussion about rebuilding a US public transit system that was once the envy of the world? It no longer matters how much Americans love their cars, or even how much investment we’ve made in car infrastructure. At some point, we just have to face the fact that democratic mass motoring is no longer on the program. Nor is a commercial economy based on incessant motoring. One other implication of this is the necessity to use our waterways for moving things and people again. Has anybody noticed, for instance, that the once-bustling New York City Harbor, possibly the biggest and best sheltered deepwater harbor in the world, has next-to-zero operating docks left along its massive perimeter? While you’re at it, have a look at the waterfronts of Louisville, Cincinnati, Kansas City and a score of other inland port cities on great navigable rivers. What you’ll see are condo sites, festival marketplaces, picnic grounds, and plain old empty lots — everything but the infrastructure for commerce. We can’t afford this anymore. We have to put these places back to work.

The G-20 leaders in Washington last week made a lot of noise about ramping up domestic spending. In the decades to come, this will not happen without import replacement — which is just what it sounds like: instead of importing things you need, you make them at home, and people get paid a living wage to do it. Import replacement, by the way, is exactly how the United States rose in the 19th century to become the world’s preeminent manufacturing nation. It doesn’t foreclose trade with other countries, but it self-evidently changes the terms of that trade, and it would spell the end of the kind of predatory “globalism” that has led to the current state of gross imbalance and reckless destruction.

I believe this will happen whether we like it or not, because these things occur in cycles and the current cycle is obviously ending with a thundering crash of economies, modes of operation, habits and practices, and expectations. For better or worse, we have to move on to new ways of doing things.

I regard the most dangerous fantasy in America right now to be the wish that we can keep running things just the way they are now (my recurring synecdoche of WalMart, Walt Disney World, and the interstate highway system) by replacing oil and gas with “alternative fuels.” This just ain’t gonna happen. We’re going to use every kind of there is and they will still require us to live very differently than we did the past sixty years. The public just doesn’t get this.

Jim Kunstler
November 20, 2008