Did the nation heave a sigh of relief when BP announced that their latest gambit to “cap” the Deepwater Horizon gusher will result in hosing up fifty percent of the leaking oil? If so, the nation may be sighing too soon since the other half of the oil will still collect in underwater plumes and hover all around the Gulf Coast like those baleful mother ships in the most recent generation of alien invasion movies. I shudder to imagine the tonnage of dead wildlife flotsam that will wash up with the tide for years to come. It will seem like a “necklace of death” for several states, though even that may not be enough to distract them from the more gratifying raptures of Nascar and NFL football.
For the moment we can only speculate on what the still-unresolved incident will mean for America’s oil supply. The zeal to prosecute BP for something like criminal negligence has bestirred a Department of Justice comatose during the rape-and-pillage of the US financial system. BP may be driven out of business, but then what? The net effect of the oil spill, one way or another, will be the gradual shut-down of oil drilling activity in the Gulf of Mexico. New government supervision will make operations very costly, if not non-viable, and the surviving companies will probably pack up for the west coast of Africa where supervision is almost non-existent. Anyway you cut it, the US will produce less oil and import more — and have to rely on the political stability of places like Angola and Nigeria, not to mention the simmering Middle East.
So far, also, the US has done nothing in the way of holding a serious national political discussion about the the most important part of the story: our pathological dependency on cars. I don’t know if this will ever happen, even right up to the moment when the lines form at the filling stations. For years, anyway, the few public figures such as Boone Pickens who give the appearance of concern about our oil problem, end up down the rabbit hole of denial when they get behind schemes to run the whole US car-and-truck fleet on something besides gasoline.
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This unfortunate techno-narcissism shows that almost nobody wants to think about living with fewer cars driving fewer miles. We’re going to be dragged there kicking and screaming, but that’s our destination, like it or not. All the effort now going into developing alt-fuels and “green” cars is just a form of “bargaining” on the Kubler-Ross transect of grief.
Traveling around the US, it’s easy to understand our failure to come to grips with reality. The nation is fully outfitted for extreme car dependency. You go to places like Atlanta and Minneapolis and you understand how deep we’re into this. We spent all our collective national treasure — and quite a bit beyond that in the form of debt — building the roadway systems and the suburban furnishings for that mode of existence. We incorporated it into our national identity as the American Way of Life. Now, we don’t know what else to do except defend it at all costs, especially by waving the talismanic magic wand of techno-innovation.
The obvious remedy for the oil-and-car problem would be to live in walkable towns and neighborhoods served by the kind of public transit that people are not ashamed to ride in. But it may be too late for that. We’re going to be a much poorer society from now on. We squandered the financial resources for that transition on too many other things. We’re stuck with our investments in houses and their commercial accessories, built where they were built, and no Jolly Green Giant is going to pick them up and move them closer together in an artful way that adds up to real towns. A reorganization of American life will occur, but now it will be on much less deliberate terms, a much messier and more destructive operation, a default to the smaller scale by extreme necessity, with a lot of losses along the way. The Deepwater Horizon incident only hastens the process.
Anyway, the collapse of suburbia is running neck and neck (and hand-by-hand) with the collapse of capital. Angela Merkel flicked US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner off like a flea over the weekend at the G-20 meeting in Sitges, Spain. Germany doesn’t want to hear about bailouts and stimuli anymore. Germany is looking to reinstate something like a “normal” economy based on producing things of value and paying for things when you have the capital to do it. Germany is pulling the plug on the debt-o-rama banking rackets — at least insofar as these rackets leave Germany holding the bag for a growing list of deadbeat nations. I don’t see how the Euro survives. the remarkable appearance of prosperity in places like Greece and Spain turned out to be a combination of borrowed money and all-time-high tourist flows. Both of these “resources” are heading way down. There’s a dwindling supply of middle-class candidates for tourism, especially in the US and the UK, and the Europeans have woken up painfully to the recognition that existing debt is unserviceable. National dominos are wobbling left and right, from Hungary to Latvia to Portugal….
Even the severe steps initiated by Germany may not be enough to keep the lights burning in Europe since the continent has little oil and nat-gas of its own. Europe’s experiments with wind power have been valiant (and France’s nuclear venture has been daring), but neither of these things will offset the problems associated with peak oil, especially if trouble starts in the Middle East. It was chastening for me to bike around Berlin a week ago and realize that even nations with sturdy cities and good railroads can fall into political chaos. Berlin was a charming place when Hitler arrived on the scene and twelve years later it was a smoldering heap of shattered brick and glass.
The American Way of Life is not so charming, but its very sprawling character may prevent a political maniac from controlling enough of a base to hold all the states and regions together in a thrall of fascism — and there are all those firearms to think about. I maintain that the trend is down for centralized power here, in the direction of impotency and decreasing competence at anything. I don’t subscribe to the paranoid themes of Big Brother government domination, the surveillance state and related fantasies. It’ll be more Home Alone meets Risky Business — a dangerous places with no adult supervision.
The New York Times ran a front-page story on Sunday suggesting that maybe there was something to this nutty idea of Americans preparing for trouble in the months and years ahead, paying down debts, putting some food aside, thinking about where to ride out a socio-economic storm. Their attitude was patronizing of course, and where the actual issues of our oil predicament were concerned, the editors went straight to their “go-to-guy” Daniel Yergin and his public relations shop, Cambridge Energy Research Associates, the official PR whore of the oil industry. The Times obviously finds it amusing that some Americans see a collapse on the horizon. The Times is so deep into its own collapse that it doesn’t even remember how to cover a story.
This article was previously published on James Howard Kunstler’s blog.