Peak Oil and Unpaid Mortgages Will Kill Suburbia

In a place like upstate New York, north of Albany, where April is more generally known as “mud season,” and the wait for “ice-out” on the big lakes takes forever, and on frigid nights the windigos steal through the tops of the tall pines — it would seem foolish to complain about perfectly beautiful weather.

We just had a week in the 70s, with more to come. The grass went from ochre to bright green in about thirty-six hours. The buds are popping like mad. This is usually what the first week of May is like around here, and that fact alone may explain New York state’s relentless population drain over the past forty years.

I was out on my bicycle, naturally, taking it all in — like, why sit inside and sulk because the weather is strange in a pleasant way? — and I ventured into the outlands east of town, where an impressive number of gigantic new houses had landed like alien mother-ships in the former cow pastures and wood lots. Of course, the aesthetics were an issue apart from the socio-economics of it, but nonetheless interesting.

Each new, gigantic house seemed the result of a losing struggle to reinvent basic design principles that did not require re-invention. I doubt the spirit of joyous “creativity” among the star-architects has seeped down to the level of the provincial house-builders, who, after all, are just assemblers of modular materials like dimensional lumber and eight-foot sheet-rock. It’s their inability to assemble these parts coherently that’s really striking, so what you get is an endless variety of mistakes along with a complete absence of anything done really well — which may be the essence of what the “diversity” craze has really meant to us, the ethos of current times.

The abiding quality of all these houses was grandiosity (by which I do not mean grand-ness). That, too, is a signature of these times in America — the nation too big to fail and tragically destined to do just that on account of its too big to fail-ness. And, of course, one could not fail to wonder, cruising by these hideously ponderous houses, whether as a matter of fact they were failing in terms of the owners’ ability to keep up with the payments, for instance. One after another, I pictured a husband and wife within sitting in the sunny breakfast room on Easter morning humped in tears as they sorted through stacks of bills and bank statements… and I imagined the yellow foreclosure tape a few weeks hence atop the weird split-block portico treatments and misbegotten arrays of concrete balusters, and the colossal Palladianesque windows with their pathetic snap-in muntins (and the fantastic solar heat-gain, not figured-in by the designer-builder, that would turn the lawyer-foyer into something like a crematorium by two p.m.)… and the pension fund in Wisconsin or Norway that was sitting on the booby-trapped CDO that contained this sketchy mortgage and thousands of others just like it… and, well, this choo-choo of thoughts led to envisioning the train-wreck of economies and nations that lies in wait just around the bend….

One also could not fail to reflect on the recklessness of a nation that placed untold million-dollar bets on the idea that it would be possible to travel anywhere in an automobile from houses like these a few scant years from now. This far along in the tribulations of our time, most Americans still have not heard of peak oil, and the few who have regard it as some figment that Ralph Nader or Al Gore conjured up on an acid trip in a sweat lodge.  The more sophisticated among the mentally unwashed are certain that the earth has a creamy nougat center of low-sulfer light crude oil, or they heard that the Bakken formation in Dakota holds more oil than Saudi Arabia, or that the whole US car and truck fleet will be electrified in a year or two, or that we can drill-baby-drill our way to permanent oil abundance, or just that the American can-do spirit will come up with something to keep Happy Motoring alive because we’re the greatest! Such grandiosity!

Personally, I look at these houses scattered around what was only recently a dedicated farm landscape and I am quite sure that the denizens within will be marooned in their great rooms, and that very probably many of them will have no job to go to — in the conventional sense of what we think a job is, in some corporation or institution — and that in a surprisingly short span of years these buildings will be ruins or squats. I think these thoughts after struggling up a rather steep hill more than half-a-mile (and many others previously). A trip anywhere from here, to do anything, and the return trip, would occupy an entire day even for someone in decent physical condition. Somebody accustomed to rations of Cheez Doodles and Mountain Dew would be dead by then. There will be lots of dead.

On the macro level, the feeling spreads across the USA that our troubles are behind us. Employment is ticking up. The S & P index only goes up now. The banks have stabilized and those “toxic assets” (which I call “frauds” and “swindles”) have been disarmed and safely buried under Yucca Mountain. Housing starts may still be weak, but the “gaming” industry is making great strides in places like the old Puritan commonwealth of Massachusetts, so soon we’ll have a virtually automatic economy of leisure-and-entertainment paid for by creaming off a small percentage of the quarters pumped into video slot stations. No doubt the Chinese will be jealous and try to imitate us.

All these lovely mild days, I was not unconscious of the eeriness of the weather and the possible insidious effects of it on the local ecosystem in everything from the added generations of deer ticks carrying Lyme disease and the death of the honeybees to the fate of this year’s apple crop. I confess: it made me very nervous. Something is happening… out there.

James Howard Kunstler
Whiskey & Gunpowder

April 6, 2010

P.S.:Click here to listen to my new play Big Slide about life as the long emergency gains traction.

The Daily Reckoning