Carl Jung, one of the fathers of psychology, famously remarked that “people cannot stand too much reality.” What you’re about to read may challenge your assumptions about the kind of world we live in, and especially the kind of world into which time and events are propelling us. We are in for a rough ride through uncharted territory.
It has been very hard for Americans–lost in dark raptures of nonstop infotainment, recreational shopping, and compulsive motoring–to make sense of the gathering forces that will fundamentally alter the terms of everyday life in technological society. Even after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, that collapsed the twin towers of the World Trade Center and sliced through the Pentagon, America is are still sleepwalking into the future. We have walked out of our burning house and we are now headed off the edge of a cliff. Beyond that cliff is an abyss of economic and political disorder on a scale that no one has ever seen before. I call this coming time the Long Emergency.
What follows is a harsh view of the decades ahead and what will happen, in the United States. Throughout this book I will concern myself with what I believe is happening, what will happen, or what is likely to happen, not what I hope or wish will happen. This is an important distinction. It is my view, for instance, that in the decades to come the national government will prove to be so impotent and ineffective in managing the enormous vicissitudes we face that the United States may not survive as a nation in any meaningful sense but rather will devolve into a set of autonomous regions. I do not welcome a crack-up of our nation but I think it is a plausible outcome that we ought to be prepared to face. I have published several books critical of the suburban living arrangement, which I regard as deeply pernicious to our society. While I believe we will be better off living differently, I don’t welcome the tremendous personal hardship that will result as the infrastructure of that life loses its value and utility. I predict that we are entering an era of titanic international military strife over resources, but I certainly don’t relish the prospect of war.
If I hope for anything in this book, it is that the American public will wake up from its sleepwalk and act to defend the project of civilization. Even in the face of epochal discontinuity, there is a lot we can do to assure the refashioning of daily life around authentic local communities based on balanced local economies, purposeful activity, and a culture of ideas consistent with reality. It is imperative for citizens to be able to imagine a hopeful future, especially in times of maximum stress and change. I will spell out these strategies later in this book.
Our war against militant Islamic fundamentalism is only one element among an array of events already under way that will alter our relations with the rest of the world, and compel us to live differently at home–sooner rather than later–whether we like it or not. What’s more, these world-altering forces, events, and changes will interact synergistically, mutually amplifying each other to accelerate and exacerbate the emergence of meta-problems. Americans are woefully unprepared for the Long Emergency.
Your Reality Check Is in the Mail
Above all, and most immediately, we face the end of the cheap fossil fuel era. It is no exaggeration to state that reliable supplies of cheap oil and natural gas underlie everything we identify as a benefit of modern life. All the necessities, comforts, luxuries, and miracles of our time–central heating, air conditioning, cars, airplanes, electric lighting, cheap clothing, recorded music, movies, supermarkets, power tools, hip replacement surgery, the national defense, you name it–owe their origins or continued existence in one way or another to cheap fossil fuel. Even our nuclear power plants ultimately depend on cheap oil and gas for all the procedures of construction, maintenance, and extracting and processing nuclear fuels. The blandishments of cheap oil and gas were so seductive, and induced such transports of mesmerizing contentment, that we ceased paying attention to the essential nature of these miraculous gifts from the earth: that they exist in finite, nonrenewable supplies, unevenly distributed around the world. To aggravate matters, the wonders of steady technological progress under the reign of oil have tricked us into a kind of “Jiminy Cricket syndrome,” leading many Americans to believe that anything we wish for hard enough can come true. These days, even people in our culture who ought to know better are wishing ardently that a smooth, seamless transition from fossil fuels to their putative replacements–hydrogen, solar power, whatever–lies just a few years ahead. I will try to demonstrate that this is a dangerous fantasy. The true best-case scenario may be that some of these technologies will take decades to develop–meaning that we can expect an extremely turbulent interval between the end of cheap oil and whatever comes next. A more likely scenario is that new fuels and technologies may never replace fossil fuels at the scale, rate, and manner at which the world currently consumes them.
What is generally not comprehended about this predicament is that the developed world will begin to suffer long before the oil and gas actually run out. The American way of life–which is now virtually synonymous with suburbia–can run only on reliable supplies of dependably cheap oil and gas. Even mild to moderate deviations in either price or supply will crush our economy and make the logistics of daily life impossible. Fossil fuel reserves are not scattered equitably around the world. They tend to be concentrated in places where the native peoples don’t like the West in general or America in particular, places physically very remote, places where we realistically can exercise little control (even if we wish to). For reasons I will spell out, we can be certain that the price and supplies of fossil fuels will suffer oscillations and disruptions in the period ahead that I am calling the Long Emergency.
The decline of fossil fuels is certain to ignite chronic strife between nations contesting the remaining supplies. These resource wars have already begun. There will be more of them. They are very likely to grind on and on for decades. They will only aggravate a situation that, in and of itself, could bring down civilizations. The extent of suffering in our country will certainly depend on how tenaciously we attempt to cling to obsolete habits, customs, and assumptions–for instance, how fiercely Americans decide to fight to maintain suburban lifestyles that simply cannot be rationalized any longer.
The public discussion of this issue has been amazingly lame in the face of America’s post-9/11 exposure to the new global realities. As of this writing, no one in the upper echelon of the federal government has even ventured to state that we face fossil fuel depletion by mid-century and severe market disruptions long before that. The subject is too fraught with scary implications for our collective national behavior, most particularly the not-incidental fact that our economy these days is hopelessly tied to the creation and servicing of suburban sprawl.
Within the context of this feeble public discussion over our energy future, some wildly differing positions stand out. One faction of so-called “cornucopians’ asserts that humankind’s demonstrated technical ingenuity will overcome the facts of geology. (This would seem to be the default point of view of the majority of Americans, when they reflect on these issues at all.) Some cornucopians believe that oil is not fossilized, liquefied organic matter but rather a naturally occurring mineral substance that exists in endless abundance at the earth’s deep interior like the creamy nougat center of a bonbon. Most of the public simply can’t entertain the possibility that industrial civilization will not be rescued by technological innovation. The human saga has indeed been amazing. We have overcome tremendous obstacles. Our late-twentieth-century experience has been especially rich in technologic achievement (though the insidious diminishing returns are far less apparent). How could a nation that put men on the moon feel anything but a nearly godlike confidence in its ability to overcome difficulties?
The computer at which I am sitting would surely have been regarded as an astounding magical wonder by someone from an earlier period of American history, say Benjamin Franklin, who helped advance the early understanding of electricity. The sequence of discoveries and developments since 1780 that made computers possible is incredibly long and complex and includes concepts that we may take for granted, starting with 110-volt alternating house current that is always available. But what would Ben Franklin have made of video? Or software? Or broadband? Or plastic? By extension, one would have to admit the possibility that scientific marvels await in the future that would be difficult for people of our time to imagine. Humankind may indeed come up with some fantastic method for running civilization on seawater, or molecular organic nanomachines, or harnessing the dark matter of the universe. But I’d argue that such miracles may lie on the far shore of the Long Emergency, or may never happen at all. It is possible that the fossil fuel efflorescence was a one-shot deal for the human race.
A coherent, if extremely severe, view along these lines, and in opposition to the cornucopians, is embodied by the ‘die-off” crowd.1 They believe that the carrying capacity of the planet has already exceeded “overshoot” and that we have entered an apocalyptic age presaging the imminent extinction of the human race. They lend zero credence to the cornucopian belief in humankind’s godlike ingenuity at overcoming problems. They espouse an economics of net entropy. They view the end of oil as the end of everything. Their worldview is terminal and tragic.
The view I offer places me somewhere between these two camps, but probably a few degrees off center and closer to the die-off crowd. I believe that we face a dire and unprecedented period of difficulty in the twenty-first century, but that humankind will survive and continue further into the future–though not without taking some severe losses in the meantime, in population, in life expectancies, in standards of living, in the retention of knowledge and technology, and in decent behavior. I believe we will see a dramatic die-back, but not a die-off. It seems to me that the pattern of human existence involves long cycles of expansion and contraction, success and failure, light and darkness, brilliance and stupidity, and that it is grandiose to assert that our time is so special as to be the end of all cycles (though it would also be consistent with the narcissism of baby-boomer intellectuals to imagine ourselves to be so special). So I have to leave room for the possibility that we humans will manage to carry on, even if we must go through this dark passage to do it. We’ve been there before.
The Groaning Multitudes
It has been estimated that the world human population stood at about one billion around the early 1800s, which was roughly about when the industrial adventure began to gain traction.2 It has been inferred from this that a billion people is about the limit that the planet Earth can support when it is run on a nonindustrial basis. World population is now past six and a half billion, having more than doubled since my childhood in the 1950s. The mid-twentieth century was a time of rising anxiety over the “population explosion.” The marvelous technological victory over food shortages, including the “green revolution” in crop yields, accelerated that already robust leap in world population that had begun with modernity. Dramatic improvements in sanitation and medicine extended lives. Industry sopped up expanding populations and reassigned them from rural lands to work in the burgeoning cities. The perceived ability of the world to accommodate these newcomers and latecomers in a wholly new disposition of social and economic arrangements seemed be the final nail in the coffin of Thomas Robert Malthus, the much-abused author of the 1798 “An Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society.”
Malthus (1766-1834), an English country clergyman educated at Cambridge, has been the whipping boy of idealists and techno-optimists for two hundred years. His famous essay proposed that human population, if unconstrained, would grow exponentially while food supplies grew only arithmetically, and that therefore population growth faced strict and inevitable natural limits. Most commentators, however, took the math at face value and overlooked the part about constraints. These “checks’ on population come in the form of famine, pestilence, war, and ‘moral restraint,” i.e., the will to postpone marriage or forgo parenthood (from a perhaps antiquated notion that the ability to support a family might enter into anyone’s plans for forming one, or even that society could influence such choices). Malthus’s essay has been mostly misconstrued to mean that the human race was doomed at a certain arbitrary set point, and the pejorative ‘malthusian” is attached to any idea that suggests that human ingenuity cannot make accommodation for more human beings to join the party on Spaceship Earth.
Interestingly, Malthus’s essay was aimed at the reigning Enlightenment idealists of his own youth, the period of the American and French Revolutions, in particular the seminal figures of William Godwin and the Marquis de Condorcet. Both held that mankind was infinitely improvable and that a golden age of social justice, political harmony, equality, abundance, brotherhood, happiness, and altruism loomed imminently. Although sympathetic to social improvement, Malthus deemed these claims untenable and thought it necessary to debunk them.
In recent times, population pessimists such as Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb (1968), Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute, and other commentators who predicted dire consequences of overpopulation by 1980, were supposedly shown up by the failure of dire events to occur; this led a new generation of idealists (including cornucopians such as economist Julian Simon) to proclaim that hypergrowth was a positive benefit to society because the enlarged pool of social capital and intellect would inevitably lead to fantastic new technological discoveries that would in turn permit the earth to support a greater number of humans–including social or medical innovations that would aid eventually in establishing a permanently stabilized optimum human population.
I would offer a different view. Malthus was certainly correct, but cheap oil has skewed the equation over the past hundred years while the human race has enjoyed an unprecedented orgy of nonrenewable condensed solar energy accumulated over eons of prehistory. The “green revolution” in boosting crop yields was minimally about scientific innovation in crop genetics and mostly about dumping massive amounts of fertilizers and pesticides made out of fossil fuels onto crops, as well as employing irrigation at a fantastic scale made possible by abundant oil and gas. The cheap oil age created an artificial bubble of plenitude for a period not much longer than a human lifetime, a hundred years. Within that comfortable bubble the idea took hold that only grouches, spoilsports, and godless maniacs considered population hypergrowth a problem, and that to even raise the issue was indecent. So, I hazard to assert that as oil ceases to be cheap and the world reserves arc toward depletion, we will indeed suddenly be left with an enormous surplus population–with apologies to both Charles Dickens and Jonathan Swift–that the ecology of the earth will not support. No political program of birth control will avail. The people are already here. The journey back to non-oil population homeostasis will not be pretty. We will discover the hard way that population hypergrowth was simply a side effect of the oil age. It was a condition, not a problem with a solution. That is what happened and we are stuck with it.
We are already experiencing huge cost externalities from population hypergrowth and profligate fossil fuel use in the form of environmental devastation. Of the earth’s estimated 10 million species, 300,000 have vanished in the past fifty years. Each year, 3,000 to 30,000 species become extinct, an all-time high for the last 65 million years. Within one hundred years, between one-third and two-thirds of all birds, animals, plants, and other species will be lost. Nearly 25 percent of the 4,630 known mammal species are now threatened with extinction, along with 34 percent of fish, 25 percent of amphibians, 20 percent of reptiles, and 11 percent of birds. Even more species are having population declines.3Environmental scientists speak of an “omega point” at which the vast interconnected networks of Earth’s ecologies are so weakened that human existence is no longer possible. This is a variant of the die-off theme that I consider unlikely, but it does raise grave questions about the ongoing project of civilization. How long might the Long Emergency last? A generation? Ten generations? A millennium? Ten millennia? Take your choice. Of course, after a while, an emergency becomes the norm and is no longer an emergency.
Global warming is no longer a theory being disputed by political interests, but an established scientific consensus.4 The possible effects range from events as drastic as a hydrothermal shutdown of the Gulf Stream–meaning a much colder Europe with much reduced agriculture–to desertification of major world crop-growing areas, to the invasion of temperate regions by diseases formerly limited to the tropics, to the loss of harbor cities all over the world. Whether the cause of global warming is human activity and “greenhouse emissions,” a result of naturally occurring cycles, or a combination of the two, this does not alter the fact that it is having swift and tremendous impacts on civilization and that its effects will contribute greatly to the Long Emergency.
Global warming projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) show a widespread increase in the risk of flooding for tens of millions of people due to increased storms and sea-level rise. Climate change is projected to aggravate water scarcity in many regions where it is already a problem. It will increase the number of people exposed to vector-borne disease (e.g., malaria and dengue fever) and waterborne disease (e.g., cholera). It will obviate the triumphs of the green revolution and bring on famines. It will prompt movements of populations fleeing devastated and depleted lands and provoke armed conflicts over places that are better endowed.
Global warming will add a layer of further desperation to the political turmoil ensuing from contests over dwindling oil supplies. It will aggravate the environmental destruction in China, where massive desertification and freshwater depletion are already at crisis levels, in a nation grossly overpopulated and attempting to industrialize just as the means for industrializing worldwide are diminishing. Global warming will contribute to conditions that will shut down the global economy.
Revenge of the Rain Forest and Other Tiny Destroyers
The high tide of the cheap oil age also happened to be a moment in history when human ingenuity gained an upper hand against the age-old scourges of disease. We have enjoyed the great benefits of antibiotic medicine for roughly a half-century. Penicillin, sulfa drugs, and their descendants briefly gave mankind the notion that diseases caused by microorganisms could, and indeed would, be systematically vanquished. Or, at least, this was the popular view. Doctors and scientists knew better. The discoverer of penicillin, Alexander Fleming, himself warned that antibiotic misuse could result in resistant strains of bacteria.
The recognition is now growing that the victory over microbes was short-lived. They are back in force, including familiar old enemies such as tuberculosis and staphylococcus in new drug-resistant strains. Other old diseases are on the march into new territories, as a response to climate change brought on by global warming. In response to unprecedented habitat destruction by humans, and the invasion of wilderness, the earth itself seems to be sending forth new and much more lethal diseases, as though it had a kind of protective immune system with antibodylike agents aimed with remarkable precision at the source of the problem: Homo sapiens. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the precursor of AIDS, may be the revenge of the rain forest. In the twentieth century, a critical mass of humans encountered organisms long hidden in tropical backwaters, presenting ripe targets for opportunistic mutant strains of immunodeficiency virus jumping species. Once infected, these humans are able to travel out of the rain forest, courtesy of motor vehicles, and reenter the social mainstream with a newly acquired ability to infect others. One theory holds that HIV first developed in the 1940s from the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), which has long infected green monkeys, mangabeys, and baboons in Africa. The human immunodeficiency viruses HIV-2 and HIV-O both bear similarities to SIV. The virus may have jumped to humans through the consumption of monkeys as so-called “bush meat,” or through monkey bites. The virus may have infected human hosts, where it then mutated into its current lethal form. HIV probably first infected rural areas of Africa, slowly moving into the cities and around the world until it hit homosexual communities, where conditions were sufficient for rapid transmission of the disease via blood and, incidentally, other body fluids. AIDS also enjoyed the advantage of having a long incubation period so that in the initial stage of the epidemic, few if any carriers had any idea that they harbored a vicious disease, allowing them to unwittingly spread the disease further.
In any case, AIDS is now a growing menace–despite the illusion in wealthy nations such as the United States that it is a manageable chronic illness–with its cases doubling every two years around the world. Having exploded across sub-Saharan Africa, it is now marching with increasing lethality into the most heavily populated parts of the world: India and China. The virus mutates continually and there may be variants too numerous to count. It has been transmitted through homosexual and heterosexual acts, by needle sharing among intravenous drug addicts, and lately in China among commercial blood harvesters reusing needles. The virus could hardly have exhausted its ability to mutate into new modes of transmission, and while that ought to be a big worry for all human societies, there is probably little that can be done about it. A deadly emergent system has been set in motion and it has not finished emerging. All other human problems may pale in comparison to the AIDS epidemic in another ten years if infection rates continue along their current arc.
At the same time, the world is overdue for an extreme influenza epidemic. The last major outbreak was the 1918 Spanish influenza, which killed 50 million people worldwide and changed the course of history. That flu, which seems to have originated on a Kansas pig farm, affected the outcome of World War I, toppled three dynasties (the Hohenzollerns in Germany, the Hapsburgs of Austria, and the Romanovs of Russia), and set the course of the world toward fascism, communism, and the Second World War.
Disease will certainly play a larger role in the Long Emergency than many can now imagine. An epidemic could paralyze social and economic systems, interrupt global trade, and bring down governments. Regimes overwhelmed with population pressures–at a time of crashing worldwide oil supplies and a melting global economic system–might be tempted to deploy ‘designer” viruses against their own masses, inoculating beforehand an elite of select survivors. Disease would provide a convenient moral cover for an act of political desperation. The medical technology is certainly available. If this sounds too fantastic, imagine how outlandish the liquidation of European Jewry might have seemed to civilized Berliners in 1933. Yet it happened. The machinery of the Holocaust employed all the latest state-of-the-art industrial technology, and it was carried out by the statistically best-educated nation in Europe.
At the very least, the Long Emergency will be a time of diminished life spans for many of us, as well as reduced standards of living–at least as understood within the current social context. Fossil fuels had the effect of temporarily raising the carrying capacity of the earth. Our ability to resist the environmental corrective of disease will probably prove to have been another temporary boon of the cheap-oil age, like air conditioning and lobsters flown daily from Maine to the buffets of Las Vegas. So much of what we construe to be among our entitlements to perpetual progress may prove to have been a strange, marvelous, and anomalous moment in the planet’s history.
The so-called global economy was not a permanent institution, as some seem to believe it was, but a set of transient circumstances peculiar to a certain time: the Indian summer of the fossil fuel era. The primary enabling mechanism was a world-scaled oil market allocation system able to operate in an extraordinary sustained period of relative world peace. Cheap oil, available everywhere, along with ubiquitous machines for making other machines, neutralized many former comparative advantages, especially of geography, while radically creating new ones–hypercheap labor, for instance. It no longer mattered if a nation was halfway around the globe, or had no prior experience with manufacturing. Cheap oil brought electricity to distant parts of the world where ancient traditional societies had previously depended on renewables such as wood and dung, mainly for cooking, as many of these places were tropical and heating was not an issue. Factories could be started up in Sri Lanka and Malaysia, where swollen populations furnished trainable workers willing to labor for much less than those back in the United States or Europe. Products then moved around the globe in a highly rationalized system, not unlike the oil allocation system, using immense vessels, automated port facilities, and truck-scaled shipping containers at a minuscule cost-per-unit of whatever was made and transported. Shirts or coffeemakers manufactured 12,000 miles away could be shipped to Wal-Marts all over America and sold cheaply.
The ability to globalize industrial manufacturing this way stimulated a worldwide movement to relax trade barriers that had existed previously to fortify earlier comparative advantages, which were now deemed obsolete. The idea was that a rising tide of increased world trade would lift all boats. The period (roughly 1980-2001) during which these international treaties relaxing trade barriers were made–the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) –coincided with a steep and persistent drop in world oil and gas prices that occurred precisely because the oil crises of the 1970s had stimulated so much frantic drilling and extraction that a twenty-year oil glut ensued. The glut, in turn, allowed world leaders to forget that the globalism they were engineering depended wholly on nonrenewable fossil fuels and the fragile political arrangements that allowed their distribution. The silly idea took hold among the free, civilized people of the West, and their leaders, that the 1970s oil crises had been fake emergencies, and that oil was now actually superabundant. This was a misunderstanding of the simple fact that the North Sea and Alaskan North Slope oil fields had temporarily saved the industrial West when they came online in the early 1980s, and postponed the fossil fuel depletion reckoning toward which the world has been inexorably moving.
Meanwhile, among economists and government figures, globalism developed the sexy glow of an intellectual fad. Globalism allowed them to believe that burgeoning wealth in the developed countries, and the spread of industrial activity to formerly primitive regions, was based on the potency of their own ideas and policies rather than on cheap oil. Margaret Thatcher’s apparent success in turning around England’s sclerotic economy was an advertisement for these policies, which included a heavy dose of privatization and deregulation. Overlooked is that Thatcher’s success in reviving England coincided with a fantastic new revenue stream from North Sea oil, as quaint old Britannia became energy self-sufficient and a net energy-exporting nation for the first time since the heyday of coal. Globalism then infected America when Ronald Reagan came on the scene in 1981. Reagan’s ‘supply-side” economic advisors retailed a set of fiscal ideas that neatly accessorized the new notions about free trade and deregulation, chiefly that massively reducing taxes would actually result in greater revenues as the greater aggregate of business activity generated a greater aggregate of taxes even at lower rates. (What it actually generated was huge government deficits.)
By the mid-1980s deregulated markets and unbridled business were regarded as magic bullets to cure the ills of senile smokestack industrialism. Greed was good. Young college graduates marched into MBA programs in hordes, hoping to emerge as corporate ninja warriors. It was precisely the entrepreneurial zest of brilliant young corporate innovators that produced the wizardry of the computer industry. The rise of computers, in turn, promoted the fantasy that commerce in sheer information would be the long-sought replacement for all the played-out activities of the smokestack economy. A country like America, it was now thought, no longer needed steelmaking or tire factories or other harsh, dirty, troublesome enterprises. Let the poor masses of Asia and South America have them and lift themselves up from agricultural peonage. America would outsource all this old economy stuff and use computers to orchestrate the movement of parts and the assembly of products from distant quarters of the world, and then sell the stuff in our own Kmarts and Wal-Marts, which would become global juggernauts of retailing. Computers, it was believed, would stupendously increase productivity all the way down the line. The jettisoned occupational niches in industry would be replaced by roles in the service economy that went hand in hand with the information economy. We would become a nation of hair stylists, masseurs, croupiers, restaurant owners, and show business agents, catering to one another’s needs. Who wanted to work in a rolling mill?
Finally, the disgrace of Soviet communism in the early 1990s resolved any lingering philosophical complaints among the educated classes about the morality of business per se and of the institutions needed to run it. The Soviet fiasco had proven that a state without property laws or banking was just another kind of scaled-up social Ponzi scheme running on cheap oil and slave labor.5
In the short term, finance also benefited hugely from the removal of legal barriers to trade in currencies and investment instruments between nations. Computers enabled money to move around the planet at the speed of light. Investors in Luxembourg could just as easily invest in American securities, or in China’s, as in their own. Other players benefited from trading in world currencies, securities, commodities, and interest rates at minute differentials that existed because, since the 1970s, all monies and fungible financial instruments pegged to money floated on a collective hallucination of relative value, rather than being pegged to a fixed medium of value, such as gold. This aggravated the tendency, in a financial climate of extreme relativism, to create increasingly abstract vehicles of investment that were pegged to little more than wishes. These so-called derivatives ended up far removed from the actual purpose of investment, which is to pay for new or expanded enterprise in return for earnings and dividends, and instead simply became an end in themselves: bets within global finance casinos. Eventually, this speculative trade was carried on by firms and individuals at such huge increments that whole national currencies and economies could be undermined, as when financier George Soros devalued the British pound in a single currency trade gamble, or when the Long-Term Capital Management firm, operating out of a luxury boiler room in suburban Connecticut, nearly destabilized the entire world finance system in a skein of fantastically huge and complex hedged derivatives trades–i.e., wild bets.
Finance under globalism, or turbo-capitalism (Edward Luttwak’s term), or neoliberal economics (John Gray’s term) took on the characteristics of a worldwide pyramid racket, played against the background of a geopolitical game of musical chairs.6 In this case, the profits of a generation of speculators would be converted into costs passed along to future generations in the form of lost jobs, squandered equity, and reduced living standards. It was also like a convoluted liquidation sale of the accrued wealth of two hundred years of industrial society for the benefit of a handful of financial buccaneers, with the great masses relegated to a race to the bottom as the economic assets are dismantled and sold off, and their livelihoods are closed down. Both Luttwak and Gray make the case that millennial economics produced ever-greater disparities between winners and losers, between the wealthy and the poor, and that these deformities of economic behavior have the power to wreck societies.
I have argued in previous books that capitalism is not strictly speaking an “ism,” in the sense that it is not so much a set of beliefs as a set of laws describing the behavior of money as it relates to accumulated real wealth or resources. This wealth can be directed toward the project of creating more wealth, which we call investment, and the process can be rationally organized within a body of contract and property law. Within that system are many subsets of rules and laws that describe the way money in motion operates, much as the laws of physics describe the behavior of objects in motion. Concepts such as interest, credit, revenue, profit, and default don’t require a belief in capitalism in order to operate. Compound interest has worked equally well for communists and Wall Street financiers, whatever they personally thought about the social effects of wealth and poverty. People of widely differing beliefs are also equally subject to the law of gravity.
It is therefore not a matter of whether people believe in capitalism (hyper, turbo, neoliberal, or anything else you might call it), but of the choices they make as individuals, and in the aggregate as communities and nations, that determine their destiny. I am going to argue in later chapters that Americans in particular among the so-called “advanced” nations made some especially bad choices as to how they would behave in the twilight of the fossil fuel age. For instance, conditions over the past two decades made possible the consolidation of retail trade by a handful of predatory, opportunistic corporations, of which Wal-Mart is arguably the epitome. That this development was uniformly greeted as a public good by the vast majority of Americans, at the same time that their local economies were being destroyed–and with them, myriad social and civic benefits–is one of the greater enigmas of recent social history. In effect, Americans threw away their communities in order to save a few dollars on hair dryers and plastic food storage tubs, never stopping to reflect on what they were destroying. The necessary restoration of local networks of economic interdependence, and the communities that rely on them, will be a major theme later in this book.
I will also propose that globalism as we have known it is in the process of ending. Its demise will coincide with the end of the cheap-oil age. For better or worse, many of the circumstances we associate with globalism will be reversed. Markets will close as political turbulence and military mischief interrupt trade relations. As markets close, societies will turn increasingly to import replacement for sheer economic survival. The cost of transport will no longer be negligible in a post-cheap-oil age. Many of our agricultural products will have to be produced closer to home, and probably by more intensive hand labor as oil and natural gas supplies become increasingly unstable. The world will stop shrinking and become larger again. Virtually all of the economic relationships among persons, nations, institutions, and things that we have taken for granted as permanent will be radically changed during the Long Emergency. Life will become intensely and increasingly local.
The End of the Drive-In Utopia
America finds itself nearing the end of the cheap-oil age having invested its national wealth in a living arrangement–suburban sprawl–that has no future. When media commentators cast about struggling to explain what has happened in our country economically, they uniformly overlook the colossal misinvestment that suburbia represents–a prodigious, unparalleled misallocation of resources. This is quite apart from its social, spiritual, and ecological deficiencies as an everyday environment. We constructed an armature for daily living that simply won’t work without liberal supplies of cheap oil, and very soon we will be without both the oil needed to run it and the wealth needed to replace it. Nor are we likely to come up with a miraculous energy replacement for oil that will allow us to run all this everyday infrastructure even remotely the same way. I will go into detail about the mirage of alternative fuels later, in Chapter Four.
In any case, the tragic truth is that much of suburbia is unreformable. It does not lend itself to being retrofitted into the kind of mixed-use, smaller-scaled, more fine-grained walkable environments we will need to carry on daily life in the coming age of greatly reduced motoring. Nor is a Jolly Green Giant going to come and pick up the millions of suburban houses on their half-acre lots on cul-de-sac streets in the far-flung subdivisions and set them back down closer together to make more civic environments. Instead, this suburban real estate, including the chipboard and vinyl McHouses, the strip malls, the office parks, and all the other components, will enter a phase of rapid and cruel devaluation. Many of the suburban subdivisions will become the slums of the future.
Overall, I view the period ahead as one of generalized and chronic contraction. In the final chapter I will discuss comprehensively what this means in terms of how we may have to live. I refer to this process as the downscaling of America–rescaling or rightsizing might be other ways to say it. All of our accustomed modes of activity are going to have to change in the direction of smaller, fewer, and better. The crisis in agriculture will be one of the defining conditions of the Long Emergency. We will simply have to grow more of our food locally. The crisis will present itself when industrial farming, dependent on massive oil and gas “inputs’ at gigantic scales of operation, can no longer be carried on economically. The implications for how we use our land are tremendous, and the unavoidable change is likely to be accompanied by severe social turbulence, not to mention hunger and hardship. Well into the Long Emergency, food production at the local level may become the focus of the American economy. The fact that it will almost certainly require a lot of human labor has further implications of its own.
We’ll have to live in geographically more circumscribed surroundings. As the suburbs disintegrate, we will be lucky if we can reconstitute our existing traditional towns and cities brick by brick and street by street, painfully by hand. Our bigger cities will be in trouble, and some of them may not remain habitable, especially if the natural gas supply problem proves to be as dire as it now appears and electric power generation that depends on it becomes erratic. Skyscrapers will prove to be more experimental than we had come to think. In general, we will probably have to return to a settlement pattern of towns and small cities surrounded by intensively cultivated agricultural hinterlands. When that happens, we will be a far less affluent society and the amount, scale, and increment of new building will seem very modest in years ahead by current standards. We will have access to far fewer, if any, modular building systems. Construction will be much more dependent on traditional masonry, carpentry, and other journeyman skills using simple, easily obtainable, regionally determined materials. Our building and zoning codes will be increasingly ignored. If we return to a human scale of building, there’s a good chance that our new urban quarters will be more humane, which is to say beautiful. The automobile era proved that people easily tolerated ugly, utilitarian buildings and horrible streetscapes as long as they were compensated by being able to quickly escape the vicinity in cars luxuriously appointed with the finest digital stereo sound, air conditioning, and cup holders for iced beverages. This will change radically. There will be far less motoring. The future will be much more about staying where you are than traveling incessantly from place to place, as we do now.
The state-of-the-art mega-suburbs of recent decades have produced horrendous levels of alienation, loneliness, anomie, anxiety, and depression, and we may well be better off without them. Note, by the way, that we have been the only nation among the so-called advanced ones to sacrifice our traditional cities and towns so remorselessly to suburbia. Elsewhere, in Europe, Asia, and South America, whatever else their problems may be, cities and towns still exist intact in a more distinct relationship with nearby rural lands. The restoration job in America will be more difficult.
But since I believe that the human race will carry on for many generations after the end of the cheap-oil era, and that civilization of some form can continue with it, then I would have to suppose that the seasons of civilization will continue with the great cycles of contraction and expansion, and at some point in the future, who knows how many years distant, some of these cities in a land once called America may be robust and cosmopolitan in ways that we can’t imagine now, anymore than a Roman of A.D. 38 might have been able to imagine the future London of the Beatles.
In the Long Emergency, some regions of the United States will do better than others and some will suffer deeply. Places that benefited disproportionately during the cheap-oil blowout will find themselves steeply challenged when those benefits, and the entitlement psychology that grew out of them, are withdrawn in the face of new, austere circumstances. The so-called Sunbelt presents extraordinary problems. This is not a good time to begin thinking about moving to Phoenix or Las Vegas. Parts of the Southwest may be significantly depopulated, starved for energy and thirsting for water that depended on cheap energy. Other parts may become contested territory with Mexico. The prospects for disorder in the southeastern states is especially high, given the extremes of religiosity, hyperindividualism, and a cultural disinhibition regarding violence. The social glue holding communities and regions together will be severely strained by the loss of amenities presumed to be normal.
I view the period of history we have lived through as a narrative episode in a greater saga of human history. The industrial story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It begins in the mid-eighteenth century with coal and the first steam engines, proceeds to a robust second act climaxing in the years before World War I, and moves toward a third act resolution now that we can anticipate with some precision the depletion of the resources that made the industrial episode possible. As the industrial story ends, the greater saga of mankind will move on into a new episode, the Long Emergency. This is perhaps a self-evident point, but throughout history, even the most important and self-evident trends are often completely ignored because the changes they foreshadow are simply unthinkable. That process is sometimes referred to as an “outside context problem,” something so far beyond the ordinary experience of those dwelling in a certain time and place that they cannot make sense of available information. The collective mental static preventing comprehension is also sometimes referred to as “cognitive dissonance,” a term borrowed from developmental psychology. It helps explain why the American public has been sleepwalking into the future.
The Long Emergency is going to be a tremendous trauma for the human race. It is likely to entail political turbulence every bit as extreme as the economic conditions that prompt it. We will not believe that this is happening to us, that two hundred years of modernity can be brought to its knees by a worldwide power shortage. The prospect will be so grim that some individuals and perhaps even groups (as in nations) may develop all the symptoms of suicidal depression. Self-genocide has certainly been within the means of mankind since the 1950s.
The survivors will have to cultivate a religion of hope, that is, a deep and comprehensive belief that humanity is worth carrying on. I say this as someone who has not followed any kind of lifelong organized religion. But I don’t doubt that the hardships of the future will draw even the most secular spirits into an emergent spiritual practice of some kind. There is an excellent chance that this will go way too far, as Christianity and other belief systems have done at various times, in various ways.
If it happens that the human race doesn’t make it, then the fact that we were here once will not be altered, that once upon a time we peopled this astonishing blue planet, and wondered intelligently at everything about it and the other things who lived here with us on it, and that we celebrated the beauty of it in music and art, architecture, literature, and dance, and that there were times when we approached something godlike in our abilities and aspirations. We emerged out of depthless mystery, and back into mystery we returned, and in the end the mystery is all there is.