Friday, March 8, 2013

The Current Interval

You may ask yourself, where is that large automobile?
You may tell your self, this is not beautiful house !

Talking Heads


      Here's a couple of thought provoking essays for your contemplation.  First Greer  suggest that we are in the calm before the storm.   Most people are still listening to the siren songs of the "experts" -  Soothing words, like  "Everything is normal"  "The US is the new Saudi Arabia" "Housing is making a come back".   But, there is still no discussion of the real problems. 

      "Between the point when a nation moves into the penumbra of crisis, and the point when that crisis becomes an immediate threat to national survival, there’s normally an interval when pretense trumps pragmatism and everyone in the political sphere goes around insisting that everything’s all right, even though everything clearly is not all right."

Soon that will become apparent that things are different.

"Over the decades ahead, the people of the United States and the rest of the industrial world are going to have to deal with the unraveling of an already declining American global empire, the end of a global economic order dominated by the dollar and thus by America’s version of the imperial wealth pump, the accelerating depletion of a long list of nonrenewable resources, and the shattering impact of rapid climate change, just for starters. If history is any guide, the impact of those already inevitable crises will likely be compounded by wars, revolutions, economic crises, and all the other discontinuities that tend to crop up when one global order gives way to another. 

Soon , the curtain will be pulled back.  What will be an appropriate response?  Shall we take to the streets, and present a list of demands?  "We demand cheap oil!"   " A house in the suburbs!"   "Two large automobiles in every garage".   
     But it's too late.  the horse has left the barn.  The engine that provided all those goodies, is running out of steam.     As Kunstler points out,  (interview here) as resources become more expensive, in money and energy, wealth declines.  It just disappears.      We are left with the magic of serial bubbles, that give us the appearance of wealth, without the substance.

"Now, it is coming to be understood that there is an additional deeper relationship between the end of cheap oil and the workings of banking and capital.
As energy “inputs” to an industrial economy decline, the ability to generate wealth declines, too – and contrary to conventional “wisdom,” it is not offset by “efficiencies,” high-tech or otherwise. In fact, the decline of true capital accumulation in the USA since the 1970s was offset only by the hypertrophic unnatural enlargement of the financial sector from about 5 percent of the economy to 40 percent today. The sector transformed its original mission of managing and deploying accumulated wealth for purposeful enterprise (a.k.a. investment) to sets of rackets designed to game financial mechanisms (markets, interests rates) in order to get something for nothing. It amounted to a sort of national economic self-vandalism.
More to the point, perhaps, is that the diminished accumulation of real wealth due to decreasing inputs of the master energy resource – cheap oil – has impaired the ability of interest to be repaid on the grand scale. There was a correlation between abundant cheap oil and the creation of abundant credit. That relationship is now broken. There are more paper (or computer) claims against wealth than there is wealth, which is no longer growing, to pay back the debt. Hence, the interventions of governments and central banks to offset this ruinous new dynamic and artificially prop up the price of assets; i.e., collateral subject to liquidation at bargain prices by insolvent debtors.

      Besides the resource problems, of course is Global Weirding.  The food system is already getting out of whack.  See e.g. Food riots -the new normal
       Greer suggest that, a useful task during this interval, would be to forget about state and national politics, and start getting local.  Really local.  Neighborhood groups, Co-ops, service groups, school boards, (and of course Granges).  Start getting used to democracy on the small scale.  Kunstler offers a similar prescription:

Smaller, Closer, Simpler

First, circumstances imply that we have to downscale just about everything that supports civilized life – the size of enterprise (both private and public), the length of supply chains and distribution webs, the amount of capital expenditure, the complexity of organization. We’ll have to grow our food differently as industrial agri-business flounders on non-cheap oil. We’ll have to rethink transportation as commercial aviation withers and Happy Motoring enters its twilight. We’ll have to do commerce differently as the Wal-Mart model unravels. We’ll have to inhabit the terrain differently.
Second, as a consequence of the foregoing, we’ll see economies become much more local and regional again, as the current episode of globalism unwinds in the face of rancorous competition for increasingly scarce vital resources. Contrary to Tom Friedman of the New York Times, globalism is not a permanent fixture of the human condition; it was an episode of history. The world is getting less flat and more wide again.
I certainly do not mean that trade between different nations and peoples will stop altogether, but the economies of scale that funneled cheap goods made in Asia to all the Wal-Marts of America are coming to an end. The economy of North America will have to become more internally focused than it has been for generations. It will surely be a smaller economy in terms of volumes of production, but it could be a finer economy of things done better and with more care. This has tremendous implications for how human settlements are arranged on the landscape.
One is that more goods and people will have to move by boat and rail. As it happens, most traditional cities and towns in the USA are where they are because they occupy important geographic sites on rivers, harbors, and rail lines. North America also has one of the finest inland waterway systems in the world, including the Missouri/Mississippi, the Hudson/St. Lawrence corridors, and the Great Lakes (our freshwater Mediterranean). Many of the cities and towns on these waterways will regain importance as the era of cheap trucking and air freight ends.
It remains to be seen whether we have the political will or the good sense to rebuild the conventional railroad system. It would be hugely disadvantageous if we fail to do so. We’re too broke to build a national high-speed network, and the incessant idle chatter about it is only another symptom of techno-narcissistic wishful thinking. But we have a conventional railroad system that was the envy of the world in my parents’ lifetimes, and it would be a tragic mistake not to fix it.
Be aware that the issue of scale issue applies acutely to our big cities. They will have to get smaller. They have achieved levels of size and complexity that cannot be supported by the energy- and capital-formation realities of the future. They will not be able to maintain their colossal infrastructures. They’ll be fortunate to contract around their old cores and waterfronts, if they have them. Climate change will have something to say about that, too, as the rise of sea levels and more frequent super-storms affect seaports. Half a year after Hurricane Sandy, talk about protecting New York’s subway and underground electric infrastructure has faded from the newspapers.  There is little public consciousness of how the contraction of our big cities might be managed, and no discussion of it. It is likely to proceed in a disorderly way as property loses value, services have to be curtailed, and people are displaced.
The cities overburdened with skyscrapers and mega-structures will discover, sadly, that these things are not assets, but liabilities. We are unlikely to have the capital or even the modular fabricated  materials to renovate them. They will have one generation of life, and that will be all. Expect the condominium model of property financing to fail, also, since it was invented during an era of prolific, cheap capital now drawing to a close, and individual defaults will now be magnified as the property owners’ associations of mega-structures go broke and routine maintenance has to be deferred.
The American suburbs are self-evidently nearing the end of their run as a plausible way of life. We will soon have to sign off on car-dependency. Amid all the chatter about finding new ways to run the cars – electric vehicles, natural gas, refined petro-algae secretions, etc – we overlook other parts of the equation. For instance, Americans are used to buying cars on installment loans. The failures of capital formation ensure that there will be a lot less money available for car loans and far fewer qualified borrowers. It means that car ownership will become increasingly less democratic. One reason the Happy Motoring system worked for as long as it did was because everyone, from the lowliest hamburger flipper in his beater to the hedge fund mogul in his chauffeured Beemer SUV, could get out on the road. As driving becomes incrementally less democratic, it is sure to provoke political grievance, resentment, and blowback.
Another consequence of impaired capital formation is that governments at all levels are broke. We will be surprised to discover how this affects our ability to maintain the fantastic hierarchy of roads and highways that have accreted over the past century. Very probably we will not be able to keep up with the maintenance, and a triage situation will emerge in which some roads (bridges and tunnels) just have to be let go.

The Future of Suburbia

Much of the current campaign to sustain the unsustainable includes fantasies of retrofitting Suburbia in a way that will allow us to continue living in it when the conditions that made it possible in the first place change. I think that is unlikely to happen. Rather Suburbia has three likely destinies, none mutually exclusive: slums, salvage, and ruins. Of course not all suburbs are the same and not all are destined to fail entirely, depending on factors such as their geographic relation to real towns, waterways, rail lines, and agricultural land. Some entire regions, though, are hopeless: Southern California’s “Inland Empire,” almost all of Arizona, large sections of Florida, and New York’s Long Island are just a few examples. Altogether the suburban prospect will be disappointing and vast amounts of sunk costs will eventually amount to losses.
One popular fantasy has suburban householders turning each of their quarter acre lawns into mini-farms in a hardship economy. This idyll doesn’t take into account the difficulty of maintaining civil order and social structure under conditions of economic hardship. It also ignores the essential nature of American suburbs in which the perversity of single-use zoning in force all over the country has created sterile monocultures that do not add up to complete human habitats. As the cheap oil / Happy Motoring system winds down, the Jolly Green Giant will not pick up all the tract houses and move them closer to the shopping centers and office parks. In fact, those non-residential monocultures will endure failures of their own as both the “consumer” economy and the corporate organization of office work in its current form fade into history. The suburbs in all their parts and features are just too fundamentally dysfunctional and capital scarcity insures that we won’t have the resources to rearrange their pieces.
By another interesting irony, most of the built fabric of Suburbia was designed and constructed so poorly, despite elaborate codes, that it wouldn’t last very long under any circumstances — the mass-produced houses made of strand-board and vinyl (i.e. glue and plastic); the tilt-up strip malls; the ubiquitous sprawling consolidated schools with the same flat roof whether built in Orlando or the outlands of Minneapolis. We face a colossal mess of delaminating structures, crumbling reinforced concrete subject to rotting re-bar, and roof failures. The salvage of materials with high “embedded” energy, including concrete blocks, aluminum sashes and trusses, steel I-beams, and glass, will occupy a lot working people in the decades to come. One thing that human beings are very good at is sorting stuff out.

Managing Contraction

Because of these looming dynamics – the contraction of our giant metroplex cities and the failure of the suburbs– the most favorable places to live and work in the coming years will be existing small towns and small cities, places that are scaled to the energy and resource realities of the future, and especially places that exist in a meaningful relationship to good farmland. As I’ve already said, towns on our inland waterways will be advantageous, especially if they hold potential for local hydro-electric power generation. At the moment, these are some of the most desolate, devalued places in America – the sad little Main Street towns all over the East and Midwest, and the abandoned river cities like Troy, New York; Dubuque, Iowa; and Saginaw, Michigan. The list is very long.
The agricultural landscape itself will have to be inhabited differently, too, since farming will require more human attention and will have to be practiced on a finer scale.
What you can count on is that we will return to the traditional mode of assembling human habitats – that is, integral, walkable urban places on the variable scale of village-town-city with work, commerce, housing, and culture woven tightly together in the recognizable form of a real civic organism, not a simulacrum or a cartoon of one. Places that add up to more than the sum of their parts, places worthy of our affection that we can call “home” without irony or regret.
These logistical matters will have to work themselves out, and they will, because human societies are essentially emergent, self-organizing phenomena that respond to the imperatives reality presents. We can help ourselves by intelligently anticipating dynamic changes and make plans accordingly, but history suggests that civilizations are mostly improvisational. Some societies turn out better than others. Some are luckier, some more tragic, some foolish, and some (the Aztecs? the USA?) are just plain batshit crazy.
Surely the most urgent political mission of our time is managing the contraction of industrial economies to avert some of the more desperate outcomes. So far, we haven’t shown much interest in managing contraction. Rather, we’d prefer to pretend that it’s not happening. The time will come when we simply won’t be able to ignore it any longer, and it is in the interval between where readers will find communities worth building their lives in.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home