Things to come, part 1

September 30, 2005

Britt Ekland was a gorgeous “Bond girl,” Miss Mary Goodnight in The Man With the Golden Gun, a celebrity more than an actress, but no fool. In a recent interview, Ekland, now 62, offered an idea to be remembered if we are to endure the enormous changes that are overtaking us: “The key to life is being able to downsize without losing your dignity.”

That thought will run through this series of columns, in which I’ll sketch, as best I can, what we’re in for (for good as well as for ill). One disclaimer, though: I’m assuming a best-case scenario for global warming; that is, climate changes proceeding at about their present rate. If those changes turn drastic, as other scenarios suggest, all bets are off.

In a column titled “$4 a Gallon” (The Austin Chronicle, April 29 [EB editor: re-printed at the end of this article) I wrote, “Gas prices can only go up. Oil production is at or near peak capacity … that means $4 a gallon by next spring [2006], and rising … probably $10 by 2010.” Three days before Hurricane Katrina hit, The New York Times (Aug. 26, p.1) reported $3 a gallon in some parts of the country. That article noted: “In two years, the national oil bill has jumped by $210 billion, or 54%.” Since Katrina, $3 has become the national norm in many parts of the country. If Rita had behaved as advertised, it would be closer to $4. Katrina increased the rate of America’s decline by at least a year, and Rita has confirmed out vulnerability. Heating oil was expected to rise 17% this winter before Katrina (NY Times, Sept. 8, p.C5). Expect $4 this spring, probably $5 next summer, $6 next hurricane season. Long before then, it will be obvious to all that nothing can remain the same.

People grasping at straws often argue, “Gas has been $6 a gallon in Europe for years, what’s the problem?” With Europe’s national health insurance, Europeans (and their businesses) aren’t burdened with our incredible health costs, which are due to rise 10% next year (The Week, Sept. 23, p.8), while Medicare premiums will rise 13% (NY Times, Sept. 17, p.8). The average American family health policy is now $11,000 yearly (USA Today, Sept. 15, p.1B); next year’s 10% hikes raise that figure to $12,100. If we weren’t shelling out so much money to insurance companies, we could absorb $6 a gallon too. (Even some conservatives are realizing that national health insurance would lift an enormous burden from large and small businesses as well as consumers.) More importantly, most Europeans don’t need a car and most Americans do, because Europe is structured around cities while America is structured around suburbs. Minus the sparsely populated stretches of Norway, Sweden, and Finland, Europe is roughly half the size of the U.S., so its transport costs are half. Finally and crucially, Europe has the finest rail system in the world. We’ve let ours go to the dogs, though railroads are the cheapest way to carry people and cargo (more on this in future columns). Also, Europeans recognize the importance of global warming and peak oil. As Jeff Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, recently said, “Europe today is the major force for environmental innovation. European governments have encouraged their companies to invest [in] and produce clean power technologies.” (NY Times, Sept. 21, p.25) Europe has big problems too, but has positioned itself intelligently for the 21st century. America still clings to the 20th, and we’re about to pay for that.

With its excellent rail system, Europe is far less dependent (internally) upon air travel. That is tonight’s subject. More than pump prices, and perhaps more than heating-oil prices, the first drastic change for middle-class and more-or-less affluent Americans will be their inability to fly.

In the last year, the price of jet fuel has risen 50% (NY Times, Sept. 15, p.C1). The airlines have desperately tried to absorb this price hike, keeping fares low and hoping for the best. But those days will be over by Easter, if not Thanksgiving. USA Today, Sept. 15, p.1B: “The airline’s jet-fuel bill this year will be about $3.3 billion [a pre-Rita figure], up from $2.2 billion last year and $1.6 billion in 2003.” That article notes that four of our seven largest airlines are now in Chapter 11: “51% of the USA’s top 12 airlines is now operating under bankruptcy protection.” The article quotes James May, CEO of the Air Transport Association: “No business model of any airline can survive with sustained jet-fuel prices of $90 to $100 a barrel.” Yet those are exactly the prices predicted by many experts in the relatively near future; a major natural or manmade disruption could bring them about in a day. There is no relief in sight. This situation cannot be sustained. The average driver may be able to absorb fuel costs for a few years more, but not the average flier. Within a year – or two, or three? – affordable passenger flight will be history.

What will that mean in real life?

Airfares will skyrocket. Schedules will be pared to the bone. If you’re not rich, and if your lifestyle includes hopping planes when you choose – you’re grounded. As airlines fail and the surviving carriers cut back, flights will be fewer, especially to smaller cities. Some areas will lose service altogether unless the government mandates that every city of under half a million people must get, say, two flights a week. Conventions and conferences of every description will be beyond the means of any but the wealthy. The average person won’t be able to jet to the wedding, sick bed, or funeral of a loved one. Even if you can scrounge the money for a ticket, there may not be a flight. Music and film festivals that can’t be sustained locally will be a thing of the past (unless and until rail service is restored). Families will think twice about letting their kids apply to colleges hundreds or thousands of miles from home. Family members who live scattered all over the country will see one another rarely, if at all (again, unless and until rail service is restored). None but the rich will vacation in far-off places – and “far off” will come to mean any place beyond two tanks of gas. The gaudy entertainments that depend on flight in places like Orlando and Las Vegas will dry up and blow away. The real estate value of summer homes or winter playgrounds will fluctuate wildly; those accessible mainly by air will plunge. Flight’s ancillary industries – hotels, restaurants – will hit bottom, displacing and impoverishing many hard-working people. Tourism as we know it, an industry merely decades old, will not survive. Nor will such minor luxuries as next-day delivery. Mega-airports and mega-hotels will become ghostly caverns, monuments to a failure of foresight.

What good could possibly come of this? Well, for starters, if it happens soon enough it may save many millions of lives. The Economist, Aug. 6, p.10: “[E]xperts now believe a global outbreak of pandemic flu is long overdue, and the next one could be as bad as the one in 1918 [before passenger flight], which killed somewhere between 25 and 50 million people.” The Times, Sept. 22, p.12: “Just as governments around the world are stockpiling millions of doses of flu vaccine and antiviral drugs in anticipation of a potential influenza epidemic, two new surprising research papers … have found that such treatments are far less effective than previously thought.” The experts’ greatest fear has been that air travel will spread the disease uncontainably before its symptoms are obvious, raising the casualty rate into the hundreds of millions. Without convenient air travel, that’s unlikely.

Another benefit: 9/11 turned the U.S. into a no-fly zone for three days. There were many reports that air quality throughout the country (after just three days!) was measurably much better. Drastic curtailment of flight would not only make our environment healthier, but would probably do more to slow global warming than the full enforcement of the Kyoto Treaty, and do it quicker.

I’ll explore other benefits in future columns, but briefly now: Amid this massive disruption, we will be forced to pay attention to where we are. You can’t go elsewhere for culture; you must cultivate it where you are. You can’t go elsewhere for beauty; you must create beauty where you live. Family life will be literally closer: a Georgia gal won’t take a job in Seattle if it means she may not see her mother again for many years. With long-distance travel a rarity, communities will become more conscious of being communities. I’m no optimist, but perhaps, perhaps, many will realize that we’re all in this together, and that our well-being and our neighbors’ are entwined. Above all, the frantic pace of American life will slow down. Way down. That’ll drive some people crazy, but others – perhaps, perhaps – will discover a truth put best, once again, by Caroline Casey: “Beauty is abundantly available to the unhurried mind.”

Things to come, part 2

October 14, 2005

Long after we’ve stopped expecting anything intelligent from Congress, a conservative from Maryland has turned the tables on us all. On March 14, and again on April 20, Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett gave two extraordinary speeches in the House (available on his Web site or from the Congressional Record). Bartlett tried to make his colleagues understand that the United States must change drastically to accommodate the coming scarcity of oil. His speech received scant coverage and prompted no action. Nevertheless, Congressman Bartlett represents a healthy sign: People of all political persuasions are beginning to face reality.

Bartlett summed up the problem and suggested the solution. “Oil companies have admitted that their estimates of the reserves were exaggerated.” Demand for oil is outpacing supply and refining capacity. This will cripple our economy’s ability to grow. “We have a debt that we cannot service. It will be essentially impossible to service that debt if our economy does not continue to grow.” Government itself, then, will be severely hampered. “At $100 or $200 a barrel” other oil sources, like Canadian sand tar, may become economically viable, but that will take an enormous investment (and, a point he did not make, a great deal of time to get up and running, so scarcity in the short term will occur anyway). “We’re also running out of topsoil, without which we need oil-derived fertilizer to grow food.” “The green revolution” (advances in agribusiness that enable us to feed so large a population) has been “very largely the result of our intensive use of oil.” A “transition to sustainability” is a matter of survival, but it “will not happen [by] applying market forces alone.” (Yes, this is a Republican speaking.) Bartlett pointed out that “the hydroelectric and nuclear power industries did not arise spontaneously from market forces alone. They were the product of a purposeful partnership of public and private entities focused on the public good. This is what we have to do relative to alternatives.” He proposed “a Manhattan-type project focusing on renewables.” “The real challenge now is to use conservation and efficiency to reduce our demand for oil so that we have enough oil left to make the investments on alternatives and renewables [that] can take the place of oil.”

Of course, Congressman Bartlett wasn’t heeded last spring. It’s surprising he was even given the time to make such a presentation. But next year, or the next, many will be making the same speech, in diners and flea markets as well as city councils and Congress.

“We live in a plastic world,” Bartlett noted, “and all that plastic is made from oil.” Look about you and notice everything made of plastic. All that’s about to change. It will be evident very soon that we cannot afford to wrap our garbage and leftovers in oil. We cannot afford to package dental floss and hotdog buns and every damn thing in oil. We cannot afford an entertainment industry based on oil, with its plastic goods and packaging. We may find a way to continue affording computers made of oil, but we certainly can’t put up with razors and pens and Lord-knows-what made of oil. We can no longer afford a disposable society. Idealists have been saying this for years. Realists will chime in soon. What was idealism in an era of deceptive plenty will be realism in a continuing emergency of scarcity.

The petrochemical industry, which Rep. Bartlett would dearly like to save, is doomed. When oil reaches $100 and $200 a barrel, and it will, most plastic products will rise beyond the means of most consumers. Who’ll spend $25 for a box of garbage bags, or a pack of razors, when it costs $150 to pump your car? The market for many plastics will dry up.

The most crucial uses of oil and natural gas are agriculture, heating, and essential transport. As Bartlett pointed out, “We are just on the verge of not being able to feed the world. Tonight about one-fifth of the world will go to bed hungry.” Whether by market forces or government edict, as the price of oil rises its prime use must be agriculture – while oil-free modes of agriculture are developed on a fast track. Americans aren’t much concerned with famine in Africa, but food shortages here will get prompt attention. People across the political spectrum will be screaming for government regulation – and for smart rationing. The far right needs to eat just like anybody.

Eating habits will change. As the conservative Mr. Bartlett noted, “The time will come when you will not be able to eat the pig that ate the corn, because there is at least 10 times as much energy in the corn that the pig ate as you are going to get out of the pig by eating him. We actually do a lot [toward conservation] by living lower on the food chain.” The same goes for cattle. When beef is $20 and $30 a pound – and it will be – hamburger joints will be a thing of the past; arable land and ethanol-capable grains will be far too dear to waste on cows. Sugar will be too valuable to waste on sweets. Brazil, the world’s largest sugar exporter, is already using an unexpectedly large portion of its crop to produce ethanol, pushing American sugar prices to new highs (The New York Times, Sept. 28, p.C6); we’ll see the day when sugar is rationed as a precious energy commodity and a bottle of Coke will be rare and expensive. With all these changes we’ll be eating less and healthier. Not much meat, hardly any sugar, lots of grains and beans, plus vegetables, fruit, and fish. A Mediterranean-Mexican-Asian diet, enforced by circumstance. Not a bad thing at all, in the long run.

Oil scarcity will prove that the power of global corporations has been exaggerated both by capitalists and anti-capitalists. Not that corporations don’t wield great power, but their power is, at its base, fragile. They must play so many ends against so many middles at once that even a slight drop in profits throws them into confusion, and many are not flexible enough to sustain a deep, long-term drop. Their viability depends upon cheap transport. It doesn’t matter how cheaply you produce in Asia if it’s expensive to get your product to an Iowa mall. Outfits like Wal-Mart face a dim future. Wal-Mart posted lower-than-expected profits in August because people were driving less. Wal-Mart is made of plastic. Walk its aisles and all you see is plastic. When the price of plastic goes through the roof, in tandem with the price of transport (80% of Wal-Mart’s goods are made in China), goodbye Wal-Mart. Many major corporations will find themselves in similar straits.

The good news is that it will become not only viable but essential to manufacture locally. It will be cheaper to move raw materials by rail to be manufactured into products locally than it will be to transport finished products halfway across the world by ship and truck. Jobs will come back, though they won’t be the jobs that left. Labor prices won’t reach anything like their old levels, but there will be many new jobs – however, not as many as needed to replace all the jobs lost to pricey oil.

But other jobs will be created unpredictably by the new situation, for manufacturing will become not only local but personal. As Jim Kunstler writes, “The salvage of existing material is going to be a huge business. The commercial highway strips and the Big Box pods of today may be the mines of tomorrow. … A lot of the retail of the future will consist of recycled, second-hand goods, some of it expertly refurbished. To some extent America will become Yard Sale Nation. … There will be a lot of work for people in many levels and layers of activity: the scroungers, the fixers, the wholesalers, the brokers, the sellers.” The handy neighbor who fashions this-and-that into that-and-this – an object you can use – will become a prime supplier. So will people who can sew. Not to mention local moonshiners (for rationed grain and costly shipping will, alas, deprive me of my Irish whiskey). There will be a large black market – or rather gray, since it will be everywhere and involve every possible item from batteries to bullets. The disposable society will become the scavenging society, the inventive society.

Life will be a lot less predictable and a lot more for real. The greatest art will be the art of survival. Your credit rating won’t matter (you won’t have one), but your word will matter a great deal. It always does in an informal economy. Careers, as we know them, will be a thing of the past, but so will boredom; most people will be in the same boat, swapping services and skills and not knowing what tomorrow may bring. Ours will be a leaky boat, in need of constant attention. It’ll be intense, interesting, and often dangerous – and that’s when people feel most alive. Folks will look back at how we live now and wonder at the triviality that, as a society, we allowed ourselves to settle for. If we survive, there will be many great stories to tell your grandchildren.

Things to come, part 3

October 28, 2006

This series is based on five assumptions.

One: Global climate change may be drastic, catastrophic in places, but not universally catastrophic, forcing civilization to change but allowing it to continue. Some credible experts consider that view optimistic, but apocalyptic scenarios are paralytic. For the sake of the children, and for the dignity of the human heritage, do what you can while you can – and, as they said in the wild West, be game.

Two: In the next five to ten years, oil, upon which our way of life is based, will be scarcer and much more expensive. (Google “peak oil,” read articles pro and con, judge for yourself.) The U.S. Department of Energy reports that Americans “will spend 18% more on energy this year” than last (The New York Times, Sept. 9, p.C3). That article cited a report that this winter “heating oil will probably cost 31% more and natural gas will jump 24%.” Now the Department of Energy has revised that gas-hike estimate to 48% (USA Today, Oct 21, p.2B). (Natural gas generates much of our electricity.) How long can this go on without serious disruption and change? Not very long.

Three: Our present systems will slide from dysfunctional to untenable. The first response of many will be to throw up their hands and wail, but after wailing does no good we may rediscover that human beings have an enormous capacity for resilience and creativity. Many who’ve been neither resilient nor creative will discover they can be both, coming up with new living arrangements for practically everything, on a mostly local scale – which may be surprisingly interesting. To paraphrase the last line of The Wild Bunch, it won’t be like the old days but it’ll do. But it will be wild, especially at first. We will have to accept again what our not-so-distant ancestors never forgot: Pain is inevitable and, ultimately, security is not a human possibility.

There is no point minimizing the suffering and danger in store for most of us. During the transition to whatever will be, big cities will have an especially rough time, and nobody will have an easy time anywhere. History isn’t a spectator sport, especially when history makes a massive shift. Nobody will be on the sidelines, and everybody will be needed. As a teacher I’ve often felt that we contribute to our children’s aimlessness and angst by failing to tell them what’s most important about them: that they are needed. The human heritage is a collective responsibility, it is in all our hands, and it cannot survive unless each generation accepts responsibility for its transmission. That, too, was something our not-so-distant ancestors presumed – it was, in many ways, the very air they breathed. We may breathe that air again, when we realize we have a new world to build, a new way of life, and there’s nobody to build it but us.

Of course this will go differently in different places, terribly in some, better in others, depending on a more or less haphazard distribution of resources and resourcefulness.

Which brings me to my fourth assumption: Insofar as life can be consistent and reasonably safe, it can be so only in a tenable community – whether that community is a county of farms, a town, or a neighborhood. Our society has lost cohesion to the extent that it has lost community. Even the rebel, artist, trickster, loner, or shaman can only be genuine in relation to a community. Somebody grows the food the rebel eats, somebody else transports it, somebody else sells it, while the rebel’s job is to show a society where it’s weak, hypocritical, or worse – as the artist’s job is to prove that beauty exists no matter what. We’ve lost respect for these mutual functions (which in practice have always been difficult, and will remain so). To rely on hope is passive, but to believe in possibility is to be open to what’s out there. There is the possibility that, given the dire necessity of remaking the world, the dynamics of true community and the dance of contrapuntal roles may assert themselves and be valued. Maybe not happily, but genuinely. I don’t see how we will survive otherwise. (As a species we’re adept at horror, and we’ll no doubt practice horror in our new world. I’ll leave that for others to predict and invent. I’m a cheerful semiapocalyptic.)

Fifth and last of my assumptions: The unexpected always happens. That is the one unalterable law of life that I know. In ways little and big, bad and good, the unexpected always happens. Given climate change and oil scarcity, we’re in for the unexpected on a huger scale than most generations experience. But we who crunch the numbers and try to find pattern in the data must remember that expecting everything to collapse may be as unrealistic as expecting everything to continue as it is. There will likely be a kind of dialogue of events, continuance answering collapse, collapse answering continuance – or, to switch metaphors, history will play a raucous, discordant music of simultaneous continuance and collapse, and we will hear (and perform!) chords of events, melodies of experience, unheard and unimagined by any of us.

I see the future as movement in two directions at once, not backward and forward but sort of up and down – which is, after all, the way one walks. Lifting the foot up, putting it down.

Down: To our children and grandchildren, many ways of the 19th and early 20th centuries will be more familiar than those of the late 20th and the present. The bicycle in the city and the horse and wagon in the country may become common modes of transportation; journeys between continents may again be by ship; homemade clothing, glass containers, mechanical metal appliances built to last instead of electronic plastic appliances built not to, local doctors not making much money but making house calls, people trading services, enduring summer heat and winter cold, and life a largely local affair – that may be a best-case scenario, but it’s possible.

Up: The Chinese are serious about space travel, and they’re the only ones with the money to do it. (They’re sitting on such a money stash that oil scarcity will hit them more gradually than us. They’re in a position to do what GOP Rep. Roscoe Bartlett suggests we do: “Use oil [now] to make the investments on the alternatives and renewables … that can take the place of oil.”)

There are many “up-down” possibilities, but let’s focus on trains. With oil rationed to agriculture, essential services, and (inevitably) the military, and with personal long-distance driving and passenger flight no longer feasible – then, if the United States is to remain a continental entity (and it may not), the only answer is trains. Before 1945, an American could get on a train in, say, Clarendon, Texas, or Embudo, N.M., or Red Cloud, Neb., and go anywhere on the continent. Trains can run on anything: wood, coal, electricity, or, more productively, fuels derived from corn and sugar. There are many good arguments why grain and bio-mass fuels aren’t practical for personal (automotive) transportation on a mass scale; but they’re imminently practical for trains. We will need a crash program to rebuild our rail system with engines that run on grain-derived fuel. Last year we spent $455 billion on our military [60 Minutes, Oct. 2], more than the rest of the world combined. The U.S. can try to remain the military superpower (it will fail), leaving the rest of our society in shambles; or the U.S. can spend $200-300 billion of that money on rail (local and national) to retain its coherence as a society. Obviously, we don’t have the leadership to make that choice now. But as things start to fall apart, and people are desperate for leaders who can handle the real world, such leaders might show up.

In fact, possibilities for rail are astounding. Seventy years ago, Germans invented a train technology called Maglev. Now Shanghai has the first Maglev train, on a short run – it works. Google up “Maglev,” read a few articles. “Mag” stands for magnetic, “lev” stands for levitation. Magnets literally levitate the trains and, in a way that I don’t understand, propel them. Maglev trains use no fuel. Emit no pollutants. They cost a lot to build but have no moving parts and thus are cheap to maintain. They are almost noiseless. They vibrate (according to the site) “just below the human threshold of perception.” And they can go more than 300 miles an hour. In other words, over land Maglev is a viable alternative to flight. “Down,” we’re back to trains; “up,” there’s grain-fuel and Maglev.

Up and down – it’s a way of walking into the future. We’ll need to find many up-and-down ways. The transition is going to hurt like hell. The planet may be tired of us. But if it’s not, we’d do well not to underestimate ourselves. Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz saw more horror than most ever see, yet he described humanity like this: “They are so persistent, that give them a few stones/and edible roots, and they will build the world.”

Things to come, part 4

November 11, 2005

Just when I fear I’ve dwelt on these subjects too long … just when I’m hoping I’ve exaggerated to myself and to you about the crisis I see before us … just when I wish hardest that I’m wrong … here comes George H.W. Bush’s speechwriter, conservative Republican Peggy Noonan, writing in the oh-so-conservative Wall Street Journal (Oct. 27) how she fears that “the wheels are coming off the trolley and the trolley off the tracks. … [I]n some deep and fundamental way things have broken down and can’t be fixed, or won’t be fixed anytime soon … and tough history is coming.”

When Peggy Noonan sounds like me (or vice versa), it’s evident there are thinkers from all political perspectives looking at more or less the same facts and coming to more or less the same conclusions. (In earlier columns I’ve cited former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and conservative GOP Congressman Roscoe Bartlett.) What we wish to do about it may be different – though often, as in the case of Rep. Bartlett, not very different – but the fundamental analysis is neither “left” nor “right.” It just is. I’m sure Noonan, Volcker, and Bartlett are as hungry as I am for facts that will change our minds about what James Howard Kunstler calls “the long emergency.” Such facts have not been forthcoming.

On the contrary, scanning the papers every day I find evidence enough for my thesis to fill many columns – usually in short articles crammed into the middle of the business section and not covered at all on broadcast news. But it’s enough to observe how many feel comforted that gas prices have temporarily dipped to the levels of late August – though in late August everybody thought gas prices were outrageous. What was outrageous in August is comforting in November. That’s the behavior of people attempting to acclimate to an ongoing, growing crisis. An emergency that isn’t going away.

The defining feature of that emergency, at present, is: We are on our own.

Right now, and for at least the next three years of this administration, the United States of America is not being governed. Not really. Emotional push-button issues and ideological obsessions constitute almost the whole of the federal agenda. No attention is being paid to what is necessary. Neither the White House nor Congress gives more than lip service to issues upon which our future depends. Energy, transport, global warming, education, health care, subsidies, scientific research, sustainable agriculture, infrastructure upkeep and modernization, state-of-the-art communication, manufacturing capacity – at the federal level you will find almost nothing concrete, nothing useful, nothing that addresses root problems. It is government by, for, and of the lobbyists, as even Peggy Noonan admits. Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, and Iraq every day confirms, that the powers-that-be are dysfunctional. We are on our own.

A most important fact of our situation was shoved back to page 5 of The New York Times’ business section on Oct. 1: “Since the end of 2000 … federal debt is up by $1.l trillion. American investors, as a group, have lent not one penny of that.” Almost all that money has been lent by foreign entities. This means that the USA no longer owns itself. Not only are we on our own, but as a nation, we are owned. When the emergency heightens and we are more helpless, foreign investment will dry up. Our government will have far less money. One can always depend on governmental stupidity: All available monies will pour into the military first, nothing second, everything else third. Education, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other programs upon which many depend will be crippled or let go. Not in rhetoric, but in practice. For most things, federal regulation and enforcement will exist only on paper. That will be good and bad. As we-the-people realize that many laws and regulations can no longer be enforced (because there’s no money, therefore no manpower, for enforcement) we will dutifully fill out the paperwork and cleverly (or not) make arrangements of our own. On a local level, America will become the Ad-Hoc Nation. The Improvised Nation. Where we-the-people are resourceful that will work very well – better than now. In other places, not so well. Elsewhere, it will be a disaster. It will all come back to the fact that we’re on our own.

Take education as an example. Public schools will realize that all those federal- and state-mandated regulations and standards don’t mean a damn anymore. There will be no money to pay the monitors, record-keepers, chastisers – there will be no one to answer to, except on paper. As the economy tanks, private school enrollments will plummet. Private schools that exist just for the money will largely disappear; private schools that exist because of their passionate dedication to a vision of child development will see their enrollment shrink by half, but those schools will hang on because passion always hangs on. Parents who no longer are affluent, but are highly educated, will again send their children to public schools; they’ll have no choice. The involvement of those parents will elevate certain public schools, once teachers and administrators realize that federal and state governments can no longer look over their shoulders. This will develop differently in different places. Districts that want creationism will get it – and will send incompetent children into a world that will eat them alive. Districts that want intelligence will get that. Being on our own will have its costs and rewards. Who we are, and how we are, will matter – much more than now, when we’re all having to play by rules that people of all political beliefs agree are crazy.

In many cases the first will be last and the last will be first. Undocumented immigrants waiting for work outside Home Depot may be much more useful, and fare much better, than the affluent middle managers who now hire them cheap. The undocumented, after all, have proven themselves capable of an epic, dangerous, demanding journey, and they wouldn’t be standing at Home Depot if they hadn’t demonstrated pioneerlike endurance and resourcefulness. They’re far more inured to emergency than most and have developed survival skills that middle managers, intellectuals, and service workers generally lack. The cheap laborer you hire today may tomorrow be your teacher and coveted ally – if you can speak his language.

Occupations now thought humble will regain their old status and be much in demand. With oil and gas too precious for items like plastic razors, men may again be shaved regularly by their barbers, and the barbershop will again become a center of community (as it was in this country for more than a century). With grains a priority for food and fuel, and transport prohibitively expensive, the price of beef will be too high to sustain the cattle and leather industries, plastic will be too dear for footwear, and cobblers (shoemakers) will have their hands full keeping old footwear serviceable and making the old into the new – and they’ll have ready apprentices. The same goes for local dressmakers, seamstresses, and tailors – in a nondisposable society, without the money for new fashions every season, these and many other practical pursuits will thrive. So will tinkers and mechanics – anyone with the skill to keep appliances going long past their shelf life, and anyone who knows how to build handy items from scrap. Services will be traded as often as purchased. Local actors, dancers, musicians, and storytellers may again become crucial to communities that can no longer depend on force-fed media. When you’re on your own, life becomes more immediate and personal. More face-to-face. More real.

Look … I’d like my cozy, convenient writer’s life to continue as uncharacteristically tranquil as it’s been lately, writing my novels and poems and columns, downsizing as gracefully as I’m able, living with a truly delectable slowness, testifying to the truth of Caroline Casey’s sentence “Beauty is abundantly available to the unhurried mind.” But I look at the facts as I understand them and can come to no conclusion but that these too-convenient days are numbered, and I’d best enjoy the present, behave alertly, and be ready for a storm, always remembering the three qualities that Henry James noted were most important in a human being: “Kindness, kindness, and kindness.”

Life is about to become both slower (with more opportunities for beauty) and more urgent, governed by necessity rather than desire. The unexpected will happen – in the context of “tough history.” We will be called upon to do more, and be more, than we thought ourselves capable of. So … OK, Universe, call on me to be more and do more than I thought myself capable of!

Once upon a time, wasn’t that all I asked of life?

$4 a gallon

April 29, 2005

America is over. America is like Wile E. Coyote after he’s run out a few paces past the edge of the cliff – he’ll take a few more steps in midair before he looks down. Then, when he sees that there’s nothing under him, he’ll fall. Many Americans suspect that they’re running on thin air, but they haven’t looked down yet. When they do …

Former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker, a pillar of the Establishment with access to economic information beyond our reach, wrote recently: “Circumstances seem to me as dangerous and intractable as any I can remember. … What really concerns me is that there seems to be so little willingness or capacity to do anything about it” (quoted in The Economist, April 16, p.12). Volcker chooses words carefully: “dangerous and intractable,” “willingness or capacity.” He’s saying: The situation is probably beyond our powers to remedy.

Gas prices can only go up. Oil production is at or near peak capacity. The U.S. must compete for oil with China, the fastest-growing colossus in history. But the U.S. also must borrow $2 billion a day to remain solvent, nearly half of that from China and her neighbors, while they supply most of our manufacturing (“Benson’s Economic and Market Trends,” quoted in Asia Times Online) – so we have no cards to play with China, even militarily. (You can’t war with the bankers who finance your army and the factories that supply your stores.) China now determines oil demand, and the U.S. has no long-term way to influence prices. That means $4 a gallon by next spring, and rising – $5, then $6, probably $10 by 2010 or thereabouts. Their economy can afford it; ours can’t. We may hobble along with more or less the same way of life for the next dollar or so of hikes, but at around $4 America changes. Drastically.

The “exburbs” and the rural poor will feel it first and hardest. Exburbians moved to the farthest reaches of suburbia for cheap real estate, willing to drive at least an hour each way to work. Many live marginally now. What happens when their commute becomes prohibitively expensive, just as interest rates and inflation rise, while their property values plummet? Urban real estate will go up, so they won’t be able to live near their jobs – and there’s nowhere else to go. In addition, thanks to Congress’ recent shameless activity, bankruptcy is no longer an option for many. What happens to these people? Exburb refugees. A modern Dust Bowl.

For the rural poor it’s even worse. They are the poorest among us, with no assets and few skills; they earn the lowest nonimmigrant wages in America, and they must drive. When gas hits $4, their already below-the-margin life will be unsustainable. They’ll have no choice but to be refugees and join in the modern Dust Bowl migration. So, too, will people who live where people were never intended to live in such numbers – places like Phoenix and Vegas, unlivable without air conditioning and water transport (energy prices will rise across the board, regular brownouts, blackouts, and faucet-drips will be “the new normal” everywhere). In the desert cities, real estate will plunge, thousands will be ruined, most will leave – while all over the country folks will have to get used to “hot” and “cold” again.

But where will the new refugees go, and what will they do when they get there? They will migrate to the more livable cities, where rents are already unreasonable and social services are already strained, and where the new refugees will compete with immigrants for the lowest-level housing and jobs. Immigration issues will intensify to hysteria. Native-born Americans will clamor for work that only legal and illegal aliens do now. In a culture as prone to violence as ours, that will probably get ugly.

Meanwhile, suburbs and cities will be in various states of chaos, depending on their infrastructure. As inflation and interest rates rise, and the real estate bubble bursts, millions will see their assets plunge precipitously. In five years, many who are now well-off will live as the marginal live today, while the marginal will sink into poverty. With gas at $4-plus a gallon, real estate values will depend on nearness to working centers and access to transportation. As has already happened in Manhattan, the well-off will head for what are now slums, and the slum-dwellers will go God-knows-where. Places with decent rail service will be prime. Places without rail service will be in deep trouble.

One key to America’s future will be: How quickly can we build or rebuild heavy and light rail? And where will we get the money to do it? Railroads are the cheapest transport, the easiest to sustain, and the only solution to a post-automobile America. (For reasons I haven’t space to detail, hybrid cars and alternative energy won’t cut it, if by “cut it” one means retaining anything like the present standard of living. See James Howard Kunstler’s “The Long Emergency” on Rolling Stone’s Web site. Also check Mike Ruppert’s site and the documentary The End of Suburbia.) A massive investment in railroad infrastructure could offer jobs to the unskilled and skilled alike, absorb much of the inevitable population displacement, and create a new social equilibrium 10 or 15 years down the line. Old RR cities like Grand Junction, Colo.; Amarillo, Texas; and Albuquerque, N.M., could become vital centers, offering new lives for the displaced. Railroads are key, but the question is: how to finance them?

There’s only one section of our economy that has that kind of money: the military budget. The U.S. now spends more on its military than all other nations combined. A sane transit to a post-automobile America will require a massive shift from military to infrastructure spending. That shift would be supported by our bankers in China and Europe (that is, they would continue to finance our debt) because it’s in their interests that we regain economic viability. What’s not in their interests is that we remain a military superpower.

And that’s where things get really interesting. The question becomes:

Can America face reality? If the government responds to the coming changes by attempting to remain a superpower no matter what, there is no way to underestimate the harm. The numbers speak for themselves. Soon we’ll no longer have the resources to remain a military superpower and sustain a livable society that is anything like what we know today. It happened to England; it happened to Russia; it’s about to happen to us. England sustained the transformation more or less gracefully; it lost its dominance while retaining its essential character. Russia is still in a period of transformation, but has remained a player thanks to its oil reserves. Europe in general – France, Germany, Italy, and Spain (all world powers in the fairly recent past) – is creating a post-national society, the most experimental form of governance since America’s revolution. We have no appreciable oil, and we no longer have a manufacturing base. So what will the United States do? Sanely recognize its declining status and act accordingly, or make one last ignoble stab to retain its position by force?

Half a century ago James Baldwin wrote: “Confronted with the impossibility of remaining faithful to one’s beliefs, and the equal impossibility of becoming free of them, one can be driven to the most inhuman excesses.” Americans believe they’re “No. 1,” destined to lead the world. That is the America that’s over. If we insist on that illusion, then this world is in for tough times. We will neither hold on to what we have nor create what we might have, but we will wreak untold harm (if we don’t destroy the species altogether). Or we can face and embrace reality. And that reality is: There is no such thing as “No. 1” … there is no such thing as an ideal destined country that is better than any other … there is only us, doing the best we can, trying to live free and sanely, within limits that are about to become only too clear. Our glory days are done. What’s next?

Remember, we’re not talking about the far future. We’re talking about the next decade.

No country gets two centuries anymore. The 21st will be China’s century. That’s what $4-plus a gallon means, and nothing can stop it. So: How will we change? But the question “How will we change?” is really the question “How will I change?” Because history isn’t a spectator sport. It’s you and me. Everything depends on whether we side with reality or illusion. Face reality, and we have a chance. Cling to illusion, and we are lost. The America we’ve known is over – very soon. The America we can create is up to us.