I’m confident that what follows is the best paragraph I’ll read this week. I daresay it may be the best one you’ll read, too. Unsurprisingly, it’s from James Howard Kunstler’s blog. For me, it provides both a substantively and a tonally accurate description of what I’ve been seeing, hearing, and experiencing around me in recent weeks and months (and years).
Poor old Karl Marx, tortured by boils and phantoms, was right about one thing: History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. Thus, I give you the Roman Empire and now the United States of America. Rome surrendered to time and entropy. Our method is to drive a gigantic clown car into a ditch.
BONUS ITEM: Here’s the best headline I’ve read in recent memory. The story itself resides behind a paywall at The Washington Post, so I don’t know what it actually says, but the headline alone probably says it all:
Rocket man and dotard go bonkers in toontown
I can’t help wondering if this headline might serve for future generations as some sort of quasi/crypto-Zen koan of esoteric fascination, in the same way that “No Wife, No Horse, No Mustache” worked for Robert Anton Wilson.
It looks like we can forget about “collapse fatigue,” the term — which I just now made up (or maybe not) — for the eventual exhaustion of the doom-and-collapse meme that has been raging its way through our collective public discourse and private psyches for the past decade-plus. I say this based on three recent items that have come to my attention spontaneously, as in, I didn’t go looking for them, but instead found them shoved into my awareness.
ONE: Just a couple of weeks after James Howard Kunstler asked “Are You Crazy to Continue Believing in Collapse?” — and answered, in sum, “No” — we now see that
TWO: a new collapse warning of rather epic proportions and pedigree has begun making its way through the online doom-o-sphere, starting with a piece in The Guardian:
A new study sponsored by Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution. Noting that warnings of ‘collapse’ are often seen to be fringe or controversial, the study attempts to make sense of compelling historical data showing that “the process of rise-and-collapse is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history.” Cases of severe civilisational disruption due to “precipitous collapse – often lasting centuries – have been quite common.”
. . . By investigating the human-nature dynamics of these past cases of collapse, the project identifies the most salient interrelated factors which explain civilisational decline, and which may help determine the risk of collapse today: namely, Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy.
These factors can lead to collapse when they converge to generate two crucial social features: “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity”; and “the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or “Commoners”) [poor]” These social phenomena have played “a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse,” in all such cases over “the last five thousand years.”
. . . Modelling a range of different scenarios, Motesharri and his colleagues conclude that under conditions “closely reflecting the reality of the world today . . . we find that collapse is difficult to avoid.”
The study highlights, in a manner reminiscent of dystopian science fiction, the specific way this division into Elites and Masses not only might play out but has played out in the histories of real societies and civilizations: Read the rest of this entry
A recent article about the imminent collapse of Sears (see below) brings out the mythic resonances of America’s current economic and sociocultural crises with gripping clarity, and also with more than a dose of poignancy. Read it and, if not weep, then at least feel properly braced and saddened, and not only at the colossal mess the whole situation currently embodies but at the future-less dream that Sears represented for several generations of people. Although the overt thrust of the article is to point out that the company’s troubles are self-inflicted, since the company failed to change with the times and meet the demands of the new business model that arose with Wal-Mart etc., the underlying point is clear: that the so-called American Dream, as conceived in terms of open access to middle-class material prosperity and upward mobility, is not just on the rocks but is, perhaps, exhaling its last breath.
How very, very fascinating to see James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency and World Made by Hand, and one of contemporary America’s most visible, forceful, caustic, and eloquent prophets of doom (via peak oil, economic collapse, climate change, and more), turning to none other than H.P. Lovecraft for a properly evocative literary reference in his most recent blog post about first-world economic and industrial decay.
Kunstler begins his June 1 blog post, “Shattered and Shuttered,” with this:
The dollar was up to its armpits in quicksand, and oil prices had crept stealthily into the death-to-airlines range, and if, in the old slogan, what’s good for General Motors really is good for the USA, then destiny was dealing a harsh lesson to The Land of the Free — while I made a drive on Thursday (in a Japanese rent-a-car) through the remotest ends of upstate New York State into the province of Ontario, Canada, to see what I could see. What I saw was pretty scary.
You get into these far reaches of upstate New York and your senses report that you have entered something like an HP Lovecraft story, where the sun comes up twenty minutes late, and the magnetic poles are not where they’re supposed to be, and the few remaining denizens of the towns all have eleven fingers. . . . Even though I’ve seen plenty of desolation like it in other parts of the country — the back roads of Ohio, the Mississippi River towns of the upper Midwest, the morbid stretch of blue highway between Memphis and Little Rock — I’ve never encountered a landscape so shattered by the mere ravages of economic fate.
He goes on to exposit this observation by describing his northward trip in the inimitably vivid Kunstlerian fashion, telling us that “The most striking feature is how all the things once so ‘modern,’ all the roadside business enterprises designed along ‘space age’ motifs — the car dealerships with boomerang-shaped signs, the rocket-ship-style food huts, the schools that look like atomic power installations — all teeter now in sublime decrepitude. The reversal of spirit from childlike exuberance of the 1960s to the senile sclerosis of today said everything about where America is at.”
He shares with us that “The most horrifying part of the trip was the old city of Watertown, a short hop shy of the Canadian border,” where post-industrial decay has set in with a vengeance, and where “The humanity visible on the downtown streets. . . looked like extras who wandered away from the latest Road Warrior location shoot — semi-hominid creatures with strange loping gaits, arresting hair-dos, and enough tattoos to qualify them for harpoon duty on Herman Melville’s Pequod.”
After reflecting on what this all means for the “American dream” and describing how things were, sadly, ever-so-much more pleasant north of the U.S./Canadian border, Kunstler closes with this:
My daddy bought Chevrolets in the 1950s, marvelously crazy-looking machines with winged tail-lights that handled like pontoon boats, broke down after 30,000 miles, and were tossed out every couple of years not on account of their mechanical failures so much as their obvious lack of up-to-the-minute styling. The post-war prosperity dazzled his generation with its democratic cornucopian bonanzas. The innocence of all that is truly lost now. There is a dark sense of things shifting out there now in a major way. The tectonics of history are taking us to a strange place. Maybe Mr. Lovecraft had it right.
For people like me, and also, I know, many of my readers, whose intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic sensibilities resonate so strongly with Lovecraft’s signature themes, this double invocation of two major Lovecraftian tropes — that of hereditary genetic degeneration and that of epic cosmic and historical cycles which dwarf the scale of human comprehension and horrify with their unfathomable impact on our lives — really thrills with its creative hitching to Kunstler’s signature focus on the long view of American history and industrial civilization, which he sees as having reached an economic, technological, and ecological dead end, beyond which lies a convulsive period of collapse and (temporary?) dystopia.
I can easily envision a type of horror fiction that would embrace the internal logic of this thematic hybrid as its inspirational core.
On another note, Bryan Alexander, at his interesting blog Infocult, points to this latest Kunstler piece in a post titled — perfectly — “The Lovecraft Economy,” and describes it as “Jim Kunstler channels HP Lovecraft.”
Bryan also linked last year to my own post about “The Frankenstein Economy,” in which I pointed to the many recent uses of the Frankenstein metaphor to describe current economic developments. Now zombies have gotten in on the economic act as well.
I guess it was only a matter of time before some smart chap recognized HPL’s usefulness in all of this.
Greetings, Teeming Brainers. I’m back from attending the 29th annual Armadillocon in Austin, Texas, where I spoke on several panels (and served as moderator for one of them, which was a new experience) and enjoyed hobnobbing with various writers, editors, and fans of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative literature. It was a nice time overall.
I’m just hopping online right now — an increasingly rare occurrence over the past several weeks — to unload a few choice headlines and news stories that have entered my field of awareness recently. If you’re not paying attention, then you may have missed the fact that everybody, including, finally, the U.S. Federal Reserve, is now admitting that we’re in the midst of a major and mounting financial crisis. Stock markets and banking systems around the world have been wetting all over themselves with worry in recent weeks. Last week the Fed poured billions — that’s right, billions — of dollars into the U.S. banking system to slow down the hemorrhage from the subprime mortgage blowout, whose effects have now spread to the commercial market (in contradiction to earlier statements by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and others who had claimed the subprime threat was contained and would not hurt the wider economy in general). Other central banking systems around the globe, including the European Central Bank and the central banks of Japan and Australia, performed similar injections of emergency liquidity. Companies directly associated with the mortgage business, like Countrywide Financial, have announced profit problems or pullbacks, as have others that are only indirectly associated with it, such as The Home Depot, which announced an actual drop in its net income, and Wal-Mart, which reduced its profits forecast based on slowing consumer spending. Meanwhile, in the (only) seemingly distant realm of actual life on the ground, many prices continue to rise, including energy and food costs, with the price of milk recently rising to an all-time high.
In the midst of it all, there’s some amazingly frank and brutal rhetoric about the severity of the situation flying around in the air. And methinks it’s not just rhetoric.
Some of the comments focus on the specifics of the situation at hand in the financial markets. From an August 15th article at Bloomberg: “‘U.S. subprime losses have detonated a global financial markets disaster,” said Vickie Hsieh, who helps oversees $1.4 billion at President Investment Trust Corp. in Taipei.” From an August 15th column by David Pauly highlighting the fact that supposedly “safe” mortgages have turned out to be the ones most at risk: “The reality is an entire market in default. And the mess threatens to do for the credit markets what the collapse of dot-com shares did for the stock market in the three years beginning in 2000.” And then of course there’s Jim Cramer, the “Mad Money” guy himself, going into his absolutely astonishing rant on CNBC on Friday, August 3rd, wherein he prophesied financial armageddon and screamed that Bernanke and his compatriots at the Fed have “NO idea what it’s like out there! None! They know nothing! The Fed is asleep!”
Others look at the wider view and see reason to brace for major upheavals. Probably the most sweeping of these dire forecasts is the one coming from David Walker, head of America’s Government Accountability Office. He’s been traveling around the country for several months now on a “fiscal wake up tour” in an effort to bypass federal bureaucratic bullcrap and put out a direct warning of America’s looming financial disaster based on its profligate reliance on credit and its unfulfillable entitlement programs. He’s not talking about an impending crash but a mounting crisis — namely, national insolvency — with a foreseeable eruption date. “I would argue,” he told 60 Minutes, “that the most serious threat to the United States is not someone hiding in a cave in Afghanistan or Pakistan but our own fiscal irresponsibility . . . . If nothing changes, the federal government’s not gonna be able to do much more than pay interest on the mounting debt and some entitlement benefits. It won’t have money left for anything else — national defense, homeland security, education, you name it.”
More recently, as in, just yesterday, the Financial Times quoted Walker as drawing a direct comparison between modern-day America and the late Roman Empire: “Drawing parallels with the end of the Roman empire, Mr Walker warned there were ‘striking similarities’ between America’s current situation and the factors that brought down Rome, including ‘declining moral values and political civility at home, an over-confident and over-extended military in foreign lands and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government.'” Comparisons to Rome may seem like they’re a dime a dozen, but when the comptroller general of the U.S. makes them, they take on added weight. And need I remind you that Walker is saying exactly what Morris Berman and others have been saying for quite some time now? The parallels with peak oil and its ongoing transition from being viewed as a fringe position to a mainstream concern are obvious.
Equally obviously, the current panic in the financial markets is distinct from the message of national danger and decline being presented by Berman, Walker, et al. But distinct doesn’t mean separate. America’s financial greed, along with that of all the other modern nations who have imitated us Yanks by selling their souls to the gods of financialization and consumer capitalism, stands as the bass note underlying these distinct melodies.
And what does it all mean in the end? As indicated by my reference to soul-selling above, I’m preoccupied lately with the issue of spiritual and psychological investment, as in, where do you invest your sense of self? What do you depend on for your sense of happiness and stability? In what basket are you putting all of your spiritual/psychological eggs? In this regard, I’ll give the final word to a couple of my favorite authorities.
From James Howard Kunstler, from his recent blog post “Margin Call,” the material view: “The upshot is that we are going to find ourselves a poorer nation. There will be far fewer people with money. There will be far fewer buyers of repossessed McHouses, bass boats, etc. Even the houses in Sagaponak and the Manhattan apartments will go cheap. The effort to pretend our way out of a financial crisis will fail. Sooner or later the recognition will set in that all that ‘boo-yah’ was dreamed up. The United States swindled itself. We became a nation of such greed-crazed clowns that we committed financial suicide in an orgy of self-deception.”
And from Jesus of Nazareth, the spiritual view: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also . . . . No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth . . . . Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”