America's New Religion
by James Howard Kunstler
Okay, here's the big problem in America; we made this unfortunate set of choices to create the drive-in utopia, the happy-motoring utopia. America's oil consumption is the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. We're not going to be able to continue this living arrangement and that makes it, by definition, the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.
But we like things the way they are. So we will not change our behavior until conditions force us to change. We Americans have put so much of our resources, so much of our wealth, so much of our spirit into constructing and assembling this energy-intensive infrastructure for daily life, that we can't imagine letting go of it.
But get this; no combination of alternative fuels or systems for running them will allow us to run Walt Disney World, Wal-Mart, and the interstate highway system. We're not going to run those things on any combination of solar, wind, nuclear, bio-fuel, used French fried potato oil, dark matter, or all the other things that we're wishing for, or even a substantial fraction of it.
I'm not against alternative fuels or making investment in alternative systems. But what you need to know is we'll probably be disappointed in what they can actually do for us. They can do things for us, but not the things that we're wishing they can do for us. One of the main implications of "the long emergency," therefore, is that we're going to have to downscale everything we do. So the 3,000-mile Cesar salad will not be with us that much longer.
Let's talk about the thing that the American people really do believe: when you wish upon a star your dreams come true. This is what adults all over America believe. This is a nice thought for children, but it's not a good thing for adults to believe. So what we've got now in the US is a tremendous amount of delusional thinking, especially around the issues of energy, and especially around what we're going to do in the face of a probable energy crisis. And this delusional thinking is joined by a second idea: many people think that the leading religion in America is Evangelical Christianity, but it's not. The leading religion is the worship of unearned riches.
This religion has now become normative throughout America. But this is a bad religion. The reason that it's a bad idea to believe this is because it's based on the fundamental unreality that it's possible to get something for nothing. That's why it has been a very bad idea to promote legalized gambling all over America for the last 30 years. I am not an Evangelical; I'm not a Christian. I'm not a campaigner for social reform, but I believe that legalized gambling is one of the most pernicious things that we've done to ourselves in society in my lifetime. It promotes the idea that it's possible to get something for nothing. And when you join that idea with the idea that "when you wish upon a star your dreams come true," you get a really dysfunctional, delusional country, unable to conduct a coherent discussion about what's happening to us.
One of the reigning delusions is that energy and technology are the same things. If you run out of one, you just plug in the other. I had a very interesting experience about a year and a half ago. I was invited to give a talk at the Google headquarters, and I went down to the Silicon Valley, to the Google suburban office pod. The whole building was tricked-out like a kindergarten. They had the knock-hockey sets and the computer game consoles and the Lucite boxes with the gummy bears and the yogurt-covered pretzels. And you know, the impression I had was, "Wow! This is really a child-like kind of atmosphere!"
And then the Google employees came into the auditorium. These were Google millionaires: young people who had gotten in on the ground floor pretty early: engineers and executives, and had been paid in stock and stock options. And they had become millionaires by the age of 27 and they were dressed like skateboard rats. Their ass-crack was showing; they had the sideways cap on, dressed like nine-year-olds. And I gave my talk and they all got up afterwards for comments and questions. There were no questions whatsoever, just one uniform comment from 17 people, and the comment was, "Dude, we've got like technology." Subtext: you're an asshole.
That experience was very instructive for me because I began to understand a few things about where we are as a nation. What we've got at the highest level of American high-tech enterprise are people who believe that technology and energy are the same. (How much trouble does that tell you we're in?) And I think you can account for this ignorance in the following way: these are people who have become tremendously, personally, successful from moving little pixels around on a screen with a mouse. So they assume that that activity will solve all the problems of the world. But guess what? We're not going to change out the hardware on the $2.7 trillion dollar fleet of Boeings and Airbuses all around the world. We're not going to change them out to run on some other kind of energy. We're either going to run these things on liquid hydro-carbons or we're not going to run them at all.
This is the most important thing I've got to tell you today: the only conversation that's going on around America is how are we going to run the cars by other means than gasoline. That's across the whole political spectrum and from the lowest ranks of society to the highest. From the dumb people, the NASCAR morons, clear up to the Ivy League.
But we've got to have a conversation about a lot of other things besides how we're going to run the cars. We have to make other arrangements for living. We have to behave differently in the Western World, but particularly in North America. We're going to have to do farming differently; we're going to have to do commerce and trade differently; we're going to have to do schooling differently; we're going to have to learn to make some things in our own countries again.
The thing that Thomas Friedman calls globalism and regards as a permanent condition of life: guess what? It's not a permanent condition of life; it's a set of transient economic relations that exist because we have been living in a period of extraordinarily cheep and abundant energy and extraordinary relative peace between the great powers. And that's why we have globalism. When neither of these conditions obtain anymore, we will not have globalism and we will not have those trade relations any more.
One other thing; we're going to have to occupy the terrain of North America differently. Suburbia is going to fail. You can state that categorically: It's going to fail in terms of investment and it's going to fail in terms of utility.
Suburbia is going to fail. You can state that categorically: It's going to fail in terms of investment and it's going to fail in terms of utility. We're not going to be able to use it; we're not going to be able to make those trips from 38 miles outside of Minneapolis and Dallas.
The Europeans, by the way, they're going to have plenty of problems too. They're not going to be without problems, but they made a set of different choices. They didn't destroy either their central cities or the idea that city life had value. Very important. They didn't destroy their public transit and they didn't destroy their local agriculture. We did all of those things and so the people in Minneapolis or 28 miles outside of Dallas or Orlando are going to be twiddling their thumbs, while the people in Barcelona and Dusseldorf are going to be going about their lives -- more or less -- more normally than we will.
We're going to have to inhabit the land differently. That means cities that will have a different character from what we understand now a city to be. And it means a productive rural landscape that behaves differently. We're going to have to get very serious about growing our own food closer to home or we're going to starve. I heard a very interesting thing from a Pennsylvania farmer five months ago at a conference down there -- a sustainable agriculture conference, talking about the ethanol program. And he said, "We really get what it's all about, we're going to take the last six inches of Midwestern topsoil and burn it in our gas tanks." So that's what that's about.
We're going to have to get very serious about growing our own food or we're going to starve. And we have no idea how we're going to arrange that. It's going to be one of the most difficult parts of the problem. So get this: We've got enough retail. We don't need any more Target Stores. There may be a few more twitchings of this phenomenon, but the national chain retail scene is going to tank. Wal-Mart will not be able to conduct the warehouse on wheels, the incessant circulations of 18-wheelers all around the US, when diesel fuel reaches a certain point.
Then there's the whole question of our what are our trade relations with China and Asia are going to be like when the contest for the remaining oil left in other parts of the world becomes a more robust contest. Here's a prediction I'll make right now, which is really outside of the box. You're aware, being in Western Canada, that there's such a thing as the tar sands, and that we have a lot of expectations for the tar sands providing us with a lot of oil. Well guess what? The Canadians have made substantial contracts with China for the byproducts of the tar sands. So here's what I predict: within five, seven years, the USA is going to invoke the Monroe Doctrine and tell the Chinese and the Canadians those contracts are void. And you now have to send the byproducts of the tar sands to us in the USA. And the Canadians are not going to be not very happy about that, and the Chinese are not going to be very happy. And I predict we will get far fewer plastic salad-shooters from China after that point.
So we're going to have to reconstruct local networks of economic interdependency. I don't pretend to know how we're going to do it, but circumstances will compel us to do it. One of the main justifications for the American way of life, particularly suburbia, as expressed by people like David Brookson, The New York Times, and Joel Kotkin, and Peter Huber at Forbes magazine, is that it's okay because people like it. But the future is not going to be about what we like; it's going to be about what circumstances require us to do, and how they require and compel us to live.
We're going to have to learn to make things again. But in my corner of the country, the upper Hudson and Mohawk Valley, we've successfully dismantled about three quarters of the factories that existed there. It is now a de-industrialized zone that looks like the former Soviet Union. But we're going to have to make things again and we have no idea how we're going to do it.
Schooling: we're going to have to do that differently because we'll also discover the great tragedy of making that decision to centralize every school district in America to save on administrative costs. And now we're going to find that we cannot bus all the kids around on this umbilicus of yellow school busses every morning. That's going to be a problem. I think what you'll see is whatever replaces this as this goes down will come out of the home-schooling movement, not necessarily the Christian home-schooling movement; it may well be very secular. But as those things aggregate, that's what will replace the failure of the suburban schools system.
Railroads: This is terribly important. We have a railroad system that the Bolivians would be ashamed of. Now get this: there isn't a more important project in America for reducing our oil consumption across the board than repairing and restoring the passenger railroad system in North America. The infrastructure is lying out there rusting in the rain. It would put scores of thousands of people to work at meaningful jobs at all levels from labor to management. It's something we already know how to do. We don't have to reinvent anything. And the fact that we're not talking about it shows how un-serious we are, how un-serious we are about our problems. Because this is something we could start doing tomorrow.
But no one's talking about it on the Democratic side of the spectrum, and no one's talking about it on the Conservative and Republican side of the spectrum, or even in the middle. What are we talking about? We're talking about gay marriage. That's occupying our head space. So if there are any of you out there who consider yourselves Democratic, progressive people, start including railroads in your discourse, and if you are Conservatives, start putting that into your discourse. The railroads are terribly, terribly important. And the reason is self-evident: Moving people and things around by truck is the least efficient means of transport. It is the most oil-, and gasoline-, and diesel-fuel-consumptive way. We're going to have to get back to doing it differently.
"The long emergency" is going to produce a lot of economic losers and they're going to be very pissed off. Because they we're told by their leaders that the American way of life was non-negotiable. And I think that what you're going to see is the rise of a new group of people called the "formerly middle class." The "repoed," the dispossessed, the people who made those unfortunate mortgage contracts. I think we under-appreciate the potential for disorder that this is going to bring.
A lot of people working as marketing directors for The Gap right now- those vocational niches might disappear. And they might find themselves incongruently working in agriculture, "Oh wow! I never thought this would happen when I got my MFA, my MA in business administration!" What are the social relations going to be between the people who maintain wealth in good productive land, and the people who have been repoed out of their McHouses 28 miles outside of Minneapolis? We have no idea yet. It's liable to cause a lot of problems.
What's a city going to be like? Well, you'll see that places that do not occupy important sites, like Denver, or places that occupy sites that are ecologically disadvantaged, like Phoenix, are going to dry up and blow away. And the good news is that in Las Vegas, the excitement will be over for everybody but the tarantulas and the Gila monsters.
Whenever I speak at a university, the college kids always, always, always, they're very demoralized. The cognitive dissonance is so deep. And they always say, "Oh can't you give us solutions? Can't you give us hope?" And I have to tell them, "I'm not a hope dispenser."
I was around back in the 90s at the ascent of political correctness. And I saw that whole interesting phenomenon. I went to the conference at Yale about the future of the American city, and one by one, all the academics got up and said, "The solution to the future of the American city is to give the poor self esteem." So I got up when it was my turn, and I said, "We should give the poor cocaine because it makes you feel great about yourself without accomplishing anything. You can get something for nothing." Even at the highest level of academia they believed it was possible to get something for nothing.
So what I tell the college kids is also valuable for you: You have to be the generators of hope. And the way you generate hope is by demonstrating that you're capable of understanding what reality is sending to you, what the new circumstances are. You generate hope by demonstrating to yourself that you're competent of meeting these challenges, of changing your behavior of adopting, and that you're brave and spiritually capable of adsorbing a certain amount of shock and hardship and necessity to behave differently, and that's how you generate hope.
And I hope that this group of people before me will be able to find and generate new hope around the idea of investment, because we're going to need that desperately. Because the old idea of what investment was and what investment instruments were is going to be very deeply challenged. And I want you to go forth and find a new paradigm and a bunch of new models for that that are going to work for us so that we can do things like the things that we have to do, so that we can rebuild the railroads systems, so that we can occupy the terrain differently and rebuild our smaller towns, smaller cities, and manage the contraction of the large cities, and do all the things that are necessary.
Go forth and do good work. Thank you.