Oil Prices Will Eventually Change Everything Drastically
I was plying the interstate highways of New England this weekend — there is no sane way to get from Albany, New York, to the vicinity of Middletown, Connecticut, by public transit — marveling at the vistas of normality all around me: the freeway lanes with their orderly streams of happy motorists, the chain stores floating like islands on the gray undulating landscape, the corporate towers of Springfield, Mass, and then Hartford, gleaming in the persistent pre-spring sunshine, as though they physically represented the wished-for dynamism of economies in recovery. “I see dead people…” said the kid in that horror movie. I see dying ways of life.
There was no denying the spectacular weather for us long-suffering northeasterners. A week ago, it was like living in a banana daiquiri around here. Now, it was sixty-two degrees in East Haddam, CT, along a very beautiful stretch of the Connecticut River somehow miraculously unmarred by the usual mutilations of industry or recreation. On a few hillsides facing south, daffodils were already up with blossom heads ready to pop. The mind could go two ways: into the past, when wooden sailing craft were built in yards along the river; or into the future, when it would be easy to imagine wooden sailing craft being built there again, only twenty miles or so from the great sheltered mini-sea of Long Island Sound.
Whatever else one thinks of how we live these days, it’s hard to not see it as temporary, historically anomalous, a peculiar blip in human experience. I’ve spent my whole life riding around in cars, never questioning whether the makings of tomorrow’s supper would be there waiting on the supermarket shelves, never doubting when I entered a room that the lights would go on at the flick of a switch, never worrying about my personal safety. And now hardly a moment goes by when I don’t feel tremors of massive change in these things, as though all life’s comforts and structural certainties rested on a groaning fault line.
It had been one of those eventless weeks when the world pretended to be a settled place. The collapse of Greece seemed like little more than a passing case of geo-financial heartburn. The 36,000-odd newly-unemployed were spun magically into a feel-good story for public consumption, and the stock markets ratified it by levitating over a hundred points. The news media was preoccupied with the Great Question of whether the first woman film director would win a prize, thus settling all accounts in the age-old gender war, and the health care reform bill lumbered around the congressional offices like a zombie in search of a silver bullet that might send it back to the comforts of the tomb.
All in all, it was the sort of quiescent string of days that makes someone like me nervous. I can’t help imagining what it was like in the spring of 1860, for instance, when so many terrible questions of polity hung over the country, and hundreds of thousands of young men still walked behind their plows or stood at their counting desks or turned their wrenches in the exciting new industries — not knowing that destiny was busy preparing a ditch somewhere to receive their shattered corpses in places as-yet-unknown called Spotsylvania, Shiloh, and Cold Harbor. Or else my mind projects to the spring of 1939, when men dressed in neckties and hats sat in a ballpark watching Joe DiMaggio and Charlie Keller play “pepper” in the pregame sunshine, and nobody much thought about the coming beaches of Normandy and the canebrakes of the Solomon Islands.
Everything we know about it seems to indicate that human beings happily go along with the program — whatever the program is — until all of a sudden they can’t, and then they don’t. It’s like the quote oft-repeated these days (because it’s so apt for these times) by surly old Ernest Hemingway about how the man in a story went broke: slowly, and then all at once. In the background of last week’s reassuring torpor, one ominous little signal flashed perhaps dimly in all that sunshine: the price of oil broke above $81-a-barrel. Of course in that range it becomes impossible for the staggering monster of our so-called “consumer” economy to enter the much-wished-for nirvana of “recovery” — where the orgies of spending on houses and cars and electronic entertainment machines will resume like the force of nature it is presumed to be. Over $80-a-barrel and we’re in the zone where what’s left of this economy cracks and crumbles a little bit more each day, lurching forward to that moment when something life-changing occurs all at once.
I gave a talk down in Connecticut to a roomful of people who are still pretty much preoccupied with such questions as how to fight the landing of the next WalMart UFO, or how best to entice tourists to purchase objets-d’art, or serve up weekend entertainments along with fine dining and accommodations. Meanwhile, I’m thinking: how many of you might be grubbing around the woods six months from now for enough acorns and mushrooms to make something resembling soup…? It’s an extreme fantasy, I know, but it dogs me. Elsewhere in this big nation, I imagine a laid-off engineer — a genial, capable fellow, once valued by his former employer — tinkering in his Ohio basement with a device designed to blow up the headquarters of the health insurance company that has just denied his wife treatment for cancer of some organ or other. Or my mind ventures into the rank “function room” of a Holiday Inn outside Indianapolis, where Tea Party recruits meet over chicken nuggets to discuss the New World Order, and the Bilderberg conspiracy, and the suspicious numbers of Jews in the bonus-padded upper echelons of the Wall Street banks, and what might be done about that.
On the trip back to upstate New York, my eyes couldn’t fix on anything in the landscape that seemed even remotely permanent. Even the massiveness of all that steel and concrete deployed in everything from the glass towers to the highway toll booths seemed insubstantial. I could easily envisage the Mass Pike empty of cars with mulleins and sumacs popping through fissures in the pavement, and sheets of aluminum on the vacant Big Box stores flapping rhythmically in the wind, and something entirely new going on in the hills and valleys along the way, where people labored to bring forth new life.
March 9, 2010