Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Owning Up to the Mess

In a recent article by Conservative columnist Peggy Noonan, she confesses that after his major speech before the Houses of Congress last week, she has finally accepted that Barack Obama really is her president. It became clear to her that whatever difficulties and debacles surround him, Obama convincingly communicates to the public that someone is at last in charge. "Someone's in the kitchen," she says. "Someone's cooking."

"Mr. Obama doesn't do jaunty," she added. "He did not leave people thinking, now I know we will defeat this calamity. But he did leave them feeling, now I know someone's in charge, finally someone's taken ownership of the mess." It's a huge relief, as Noonan says, to have someone in office who is actually minding the store, and to know that this time around, we have a President who is stepping up to the plate. I felt so exhilarated myself by this feeling of relief that I even bought a tee-shirt and a necklace of different colored, blue-glass beads--things I don't really need. For an hour or so I morphed back into being a happy, oblivious consumer, but my high spirits did not last. It didn't take much before I lapsed back into worry mode again, because I realize that no matter who is doing the cooking, we are still fucked. Even if the smartest guy in the room, bar none, serves up the Mother of All Banquets, we may not defeat this calamity. I know to say this is the mark of a "debilitating pessimism," and I will not be looked on favorably for spending time in this dismal place--it is not the way to win friends and influence people--but there it is: my dirty secret. I confess I'm not sure even (my) beloved Barack is ready to face the kind of changes we are probably in for.

The fact that we have moved out of the previous ongoing fiasco of governance into the miracle of real leadership has not stanched the massive hemorrhaging of the global financial system. On his blog, Clusterfuck Nation (http://jameshowardkunstler.typepad.com) Kunstler, a Peak Oil expert, dares to ask the question nobody wants to ask, because the true answer may just be too death-dealing: Is the USA in recession, depression, or collapse? We're now at 340 pink slips per hour, but the debate continues to revolve around whether to call what is happening a recession or a depression. Except for a handful of folks like Kunstler, no one wants to stare down at ground zero and enlist the dreaded word: ongoing "collapse."

Looking at the world through the President's eyes, normality will return. Economic confidence will return, but "not overnight." The consumer economy will stand on its feet again and resume "growth" mode, albeit not before mammoth cash infusions and technological innovations that will make everything more environmentally sustainable. Looking at the world through Kunstler's eyes, however (a vision which is sadly closer to my own), the consumer era is over for good, and most of what has been lost in 2008 will not be recovered; in Kunstler's words, "enterprises, personal fortunes, chattels, reputations." Technology will not be able to rescue us from our fossil-fuel predicament, and we should be facing that fact, according to Kunstler, instead of imagining ways and mounting campaigns to sustain the unsustainable: "electric cars or diesel-flavored algae excreta," and "drive-in espresso stations...run on a combination of solar and wind power."

It's not that Kunstler doesn't support and admire Obama. He voted for him. However, "I fret about the measures he'll promote to rescue the the Status Quo....I am especially concerned," he writes, "about an infrastructure stimulus project aimed at highway improvement at the expense of public transit...[because] the car system is going to fail in manifold ways whether we like it or not." The impossibility of getting car loans or paying for fuel will escalate the impending collapse of an industry already on its last legs and going into bankruptcy. Eventually, Kunstler believes even the federal government will flounder just like General Motors, Citicorp, and other giant corporations have already floundered; eventually even counties, municipalities, and states will all 'join in the bankruptcy fiesta." Maintaining public services like water systems, sewage treatments, and even food distribution will become impossible. Danger and deprivation will be the new and disturbing name of the game. It's not a pretty picture for the human race, and the end is not happy. You can understand why Obama, and the rest of America, refuses to go there. It's just too dark and desperate.

Kunstler has written a novel called "World Made by Hand, in order to give us the feel, in fictionalized form, of what that future may look like when all fantasies of the "growth economy" are long gone. I am currently reading his book, and will probably blog about it in another post. Meanwhile, in the current entry on his blog, he has this to say:

"If we're really lucky, human affairs will eventually reorganize at a lower scale of activity, governance, civility, and economy. Every week, the failure to recognize the nature of our predicament thrusts us further into the uncharted territory of hardship. The task of government right now is not to prop up doomed systems at their current scales of failure, but to prepare the public to rebuild our systems at smaller scales....If the US government is going to try to make remedial policy for anything, it better start with agriculture, to promote local, smaller-scaled farming using methods that are much less dependent on oil byproducts and capital injections."

The post-industrial, post-fossil fuel, post-technological, and post-consumer society will definitely need to have its agrarian ducks in a row, if it is going to survive.

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