One of the last easy-motoring Christmases
Time Magazine's Person of the Year had a famous father who famously remarked a decade ago that "the American way of life is not negotiable." This remains the animating principle beneath most of America's troubles in the world.
A good many people in the United States probably still agree with this notion, but how realistic is it? How long can America base its economy on suburban land development? Realistically, that way of doing things has to end now. Unless we want to try to turn the entire Middle East (including Saudi Arabia) into an occupied colony, which would seem beyond our military capacities, to put it mildly, since we can't even enforce civil order in Iraq.
To keep the suburban expansion going indefinitely we will need to continue using one-quarter of the world's oil every day. Since this resource is about to head over the all-time peak production arc, there will be incrementally a few percentages less total oil produced every year after the peak. We'll probably have to occupy Venezuela, too, and Nigeria, to keep the suburban expansion going -- not to mention the daily operation of it, with the sixty mile commutes and the estimated average seven car trips per day per household to chauffeur kids and run errands. As we maintain our oil consumption under these conditions, other nations will have to use proportionately less. How will the Europeans and the Chinese feel about that? Will there be discontent over it? And might it affect our relations with them?
We also have a problem with natural gas (methane), the stuff that heats half of the houses in America and powers virtually all of the electric power plants built after 1980. The problem is that we are thirty years past our natural gas production peak in the US, and you tend to get natural gas from the continent you're on, because it is transported by a pipeline network. Otherwise, you have to liquify it, pump it into special, expensive tanker ships, and re-gasify it when it gets to special port terminals, all of which is costly, by the way. We have very few of these terminals and they are facilities that no community wants built near them (because of the potential explosive hazard) so even if we wanted to import a lot of natural gas, we're not prepared to do it anytime soon.
We also have to continue to pretend that we have money. We've been successful at pretending to be an affluent nation in recent years because of the intimate notional connection between money and credit. On the grand scale, money is credit because a currency is only worth what a consensus of people engaged in trade believe it is. That belief is in turn intimately connected with what people think the prospects are for a society to continue to be successful, i.e. capable of generating wealth. Americans have come to believe that buying houses on credit is a wealth-producing activity.
There's an awful lot of evidence that a suburban building boom, based on credit, will eventually lose credibility. Other people in the world may notice that the building of McHouses and WalMart stores is not an activity that in itself produces enduring value. And there's a connection between the words credibility and credit. The net result may be a society having to revert to the value of the real things that can be sold (made "liquid"). This list of things is hierarchical beginning with those things that have indisputable value (gold and gems) to those things that have elastic value (paintings by William Merrit Chase and common stock in the Krispy Kreme Corporation), to those things that may have little-to-marginal value if living conditions change (Hummer cars and McHouses built far away from any town). The medium of exchange for these items, the dollar, may itself lose credibility, which would complicate matters.
Time's Person of the Year has functioned as the cheerleader-in-chief for the non-negotiable way of life. Whatever his biological lineage, he was raised in that part of the nation most devoted to the suburban paradigm. The Person of the Year has demonstrated no capacity to imagine different arrangements. In this, he is not any different than either his lieutenants, his cohorts, his recent election opponent, or indeed of the American public itself. Even a so-called environmental leader like Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute has devoted his attention to developing cars that get better fuel milage, not to walkable communities.
So, come all ye clueless. Enjoy one of the last Christmases that will be characterized by easy motoring and Ditech miracle mortgages. Since our way of life is non-negotiable, get ready for reality to arbitrate it for us.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.