February 10, 2009
…He is Us

I’m afraid Jim Kunstler is right. Go read it all, and remember that no people ever had a government better than itself. We have indeed met the enemy and sure enough…

The attempted re-start of revolving debt consumerism is an exercise in futility. We’ve reached the limit of being able to create additional debt at any level without causing further damage, additional distortions, and new perversities of economy (and of society, too).

We can’t raise credit card ceilings for people with no ability make monthly payments. We can’t promote more mortgages for people with no income. We can’t crank up a home-building industry with our massive inventory of unsold, and over-priced houses built in the wrong places. We can’t ramp back up the blue light special shopping fiesta.

We can’t return to the heyday of Happy Motoring, no matter how many bridges we fix or how many additional ring highways we build around our already-overblown and over-sprawled metroplexes. Mostly, we can’t return to the now-complete “growth” cycle of “economic expansion.” We’re done with all that. History is done with our doing that, for now.

So far — after two weeks in office — the Obama team seems bent on a campaign to sustain the unsustainable at all costs, to attempt to do all the impossible things listed above. Mr. Obama is not the only one, of course, who is invoking the quest for renewed “growth.”

This is a tragic error in collective thinking. What we really face is a comprehensive contraction in our activities, especially the scale of our activities, and the pressing need to readjust the systems of everyday life to a level of decreased complexity.

For instance, the myth that we can become “energy independent and yet remain car-dependent is absurd. In terms of liquid fuels, we’re simply trapped. We import two-thirds of the oil we use and there is absolutely no chance that drill-drill-drilling (or any other scheme) will change that.

The public and our leaders cannot face the reality of this. The great wish for “alternative” liquid fuels (bio fuels, algae excreta) will never be anything more than a wish at the scales required, and the parallel wish to keep all our cars running by other means — hydrogen fuel cells, electric motors — is equally idle and foolish.

We cannot face the mandate of reality, which is to do everything possible to make our living places walkable, and connect them with public transit. The stimulus bills in congress clearly illustrate our failure to understand the situation.

The attempt to restart “consumerism” will be equally disappointing. It was a manifestation of the short peak energy decades of history, and now that we’re past peak energy, it’s over. That seventy percent of the economy is over, especially the part that allowed people to buy stuff with no money…


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Posted by Jerome Doolittle at February 10, 2009 10:55 AM
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Personally I don't think hydrogen fuel cells are remotely idle or foolish.

Posted by: Mahakal on February 10, 2009 11:59 AM

Kunstler has cried wolf for so long that people don't seem to pay attention to him. Unfortunately he is more right than wrong, particularly about the "growth" economy.

He is right that the idea of some new method of propelling private automobiles is a non-starter idea. Hydrogen fuel cells are little more than a boondoggle for the energy industry which will extort billions in subsidies and tax breaks to build a completely new infrastructure to distribute hydrogen to motorists. Likewise electricity. Where do we think the increased demand for electric power will come from? Bigger power plants owned by bigger corporations extracting bigger profits and making bigger bribes to politicians. Another loser.

I agree fully with Kunstler's proposals:
1. "We have to get off of petro-agriculture and grow our food locally"
2. "We have to rebuild the railroad system in the US"
3. "We have to reactivate our small towns and cities"

There is no political will to get move forward on any of these proposals and there won't be until it is clear to everyone that there is no alternative. Even then, let's not assume that the needs and will of the people will be of any concern whatever to Washington.

Posted by: Charles on February 10, 2009 12:25 PM

the Obama team seems bent on a campaign to sustain the unsustainable at all costs

No one wants to acknowledge the end of the era, lest they be blamed for it.

Posted by: Roddy McCorley on February 10, 2009 2:31 PM

Solar panels are maybe ten percent efficient. With technology improvements, we could see massive amounts of "free" energy harnessed. Armory B. Lovins, who apparently has some credos in the energy field wrote an interesting post at the Times Freakonomics blog yesterday. Go read it for a completely different perspective on the future of power production in this country. He envisions locally produced energy and the eventual dismantling of huge power plants and nuclear facilities. Much like locally grown crops. If solar panels and other renewable energies can approach the technological speed of improvement similar to Moore's law for computers, his analysis is spot on. It's all based on silicon.

I'm not counting on a return to the dark ages anytime soon. There are already huge factories ready and able to produce tremendous quantities of solar panels at current efficiencies. If technological innovation can boost the efficiency of these devices to 30 or 40%, we won't need no stinking power plants.

Check it out:

http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/02/09/does-a-big-economy-need-big-power-plants-a-guest-post/

Posted by: Buck on February 10, 2009 7:44 PM

I agree in part with what has been said and yes we need to become more of a European model of more train less auto for not only people but also freight. Look, Obama has only been on the job for 3 weeks and although I disagree with the money to Wall Street I'm in favor of the money to the projects that rebuild infrastructure. And you know what's funny is I really believe that having all these people in his cabinet that have pimped for this industry or that industry would probobly know and recognize when they are being pimped themselves. If you want to keep your computer from being hacked, hire a hacker. We'll see. And OB has good political skills and is not afraid to use them. Give'em enough rope and they will hang themselves, funny how ego is sometimes more powerful then common sense.

Posted by: Russell LaHart on February 11, 2009 6:40 PM

Charles wrote, "Hydrogen fuel cells are little more than a boondoggle for the energy industry which will extort billions in subsidies and tax breaks to build a completely new infrastructure to distribute hydrogen to motorists."

This makes no sense to me. Hydrogen is plentiful, though fuel cells require some scarce materials at present. Technological improvements can remove or reduce that problem, but as far as infrastructure to distribute hydrogen -- bring it on.

Posted by: Mahakal on February 13, 2009 1:12 AM
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