Peak Oil News: Things to come: part 4 and last

Monday, February 27, 2006

Things to come: part 4 and last

The Austin Chronicle


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? end story


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