The “Long Emergency” Has Been Rescheduled for Obama’s Second Term
This week blogger Libby Anne wrote a post about the apocalyptic predictions made by Focus on the Family prior to the 2008 election detailing the fallout of an Obama victory. It’s no surprise to learn that, no, the Boy Scouts did not cease to exist, and no, all FCC restrictions of the broadcast of pornography were not lifted. But these predictions weren’t especially unique in the context of the last several presidential elections.
There was someone making predictions that fall that were somewhat novel, simply because the 2008 financial crisis broke wide open at a moment that coincided with the peak weeks of the campaign season. So how did the first Obama term shape up compared to the predictions of the new urbanist, novelist, professional doomer, and raconteur James Howard Kunstler?
Kunstler, it must be noted, publicly supported Obama in 2008, but predicted that Obama or no Obama, the American mode of petroleum-fueled consumerism would be dead by 2012, done in by the perfect storm of a busted credit bubble and peak oil. Now, one can largely agree with Kunstler’s critiques of suburbia, consumerism, and post-modern finance, and one can be of a generally pessimistic outlook regarding the sustainability of the western lifestyle, and one can even believe in the peak oil hypothesis, and still not come to the conclusion, as Kunstler has, that there will be a rapid de-industrialization (happening over a period of 5-10 years, as in many works of post-apocalyptic fiction) rather than a slower, if still disruptive and sometimes disorderly, transition to whatever ultimately replaces oil, coal, and natural gas.
So, what bullets have we dodged, according to JHK?
1.) A rapid unwinding of modern consumer society. This is the big one, and JHK predicted that it could no longer but put off more than a few months, given the sudden realization that the mid-2000s recovery and boom was built on a foundation of sand.
“My guess, given the usual time-lag factor, is that the super-inflation snap-back will occur six to eighteen months from now. And the main result of all this will be our inability to buy the imported oil that comprises two-thirds of the oil we require to keep WalMart and Walt Disney World running. At some point, then, in the early months of the Obama administration, we’ll learn that “change” is not a set of mere lifestyle choices but a wrenching transition away from all our familiar and comfortable habits into a stark and rigorous new economic landscape.”
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“Many Americans have already bought their last car — they just don’t know it yet.”
2.) Bumpy transition to a new economy based on small-scale-industry and local food production, or else violent revolution. Kunstler calls the post-petroleum, de-industrialized economy the “long emergency,” and he detailed what it would look like in his 2006 book of the same name. When the financial crisis hit two year later, he was finishing up his first novel set in this post-oil world, “World Made By Hand”
“To be specific about this new economy, we’re going to have to make things again, and raise things out of the earth, locally, and trade these things for money of some kind that we earn through our own productive activities. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is optional. The only other option is to go through a violent sociopolitical convulsion….My own starting point for this is the belief that in the years just ahead any sociopolitical entity organized at the giant scale will flounder — this includes everything from the federal government to global corporations to factory farms to centralized high schools to national retail chains. So even expecting Mr. Obama’s government to act effectively may be asking too much in a situation that will require mostly local action.”
3.) Oil shortages. The U.S.’s creditworthiness (which, to be fair, did take a hit from Standard & Poor’s in 2011) was to be downgraded so severely by the bond markets that the country would no longer be able to purchase the 2/3 of its daily petroleum needs.
“Does Mr. O know that the current re-inflation program being run by the Treasury and the Federal Reserve is so egregious that it may lead to loss of the dollar’s legitimacy, to the renunciation of dollar holdings by other nations, to the down-rating of US Treasury debt instruments, and finally to an inability of the US to purchase foreign oil — which comprises two-thirds of all the oil we use every day?…….a lack of capital to go forward with the new oil projects that were designed to mitigate the present depletions in old oil fields. The result of this quandary is as likely to be oil shortages in 2009 as much as an extremely sharp snap-back in oil prices.”
4.) A return to the civil unrest of 1968, sparked by Wall Street malfeasance. Here, he was partially on to something–Occupy did spring up, but it did not inspire waves of violent activism. There was the pepper-spray-happy police officer at U.C. Davis, but that’s hardly Kent State redux.
“The darkling mood of political protest and violent activism that saturated my own young adult years is scudding up again on the horizon. Mr. Obama’s pick for attorney general, the mild-looking Eric Holder, may be the key figure in the early months of the new government. If he doesn’t commence some aggressive investigations and prosecutions — beginning with Henry Paulson for insider trading when he was in charge of Goldman Sachs and shorting his own company’s mortgage-backed securities — then the whole Obama enterprise could fall under suspicion of illegitimacy.”
“For the moment, the Chinese are struggling with epic factory closures with the sudden prospect of a restive lumpenproletariet. The situation there is bound to get worse. Before long, these broke-and-hungry masses may actually challenge the present government. In the meantime, there’s no telling what the (unelected) Chinese government might do either to keep itself in power, or genuinely defend its country’s perceived economic interests. One thing is self-evident: we are not returning to the old racket of toys-for-treasury-bills. One thing China might do in economic self-defense is shed whatever US dollar-denominated paper is moldering in their vaults before it becomes valueless altogether.”
And what about the next four years? Kunstler isn’t voting for Obama, but he’s reasonably certain the president will be re-elected (cause for concern, Messrs Plouffe and Axelrod!). Also, the Republican party will implode and join the Whigs on the scrapheap, following the Romney defeat. The long-awaited Long Emergency will get started in earnest this term, and it will “make the Great Depression look like an episode of Cake Boss.” (The man is never wanting for an imaginative simile.) As our democracy teeters, Kunstler has a neo-Roman vision of how we fill the power vacuum:
“The Democratic Party may not blow up quite like the Republicans, but it could become the front organization for the imperial return of Bill and Hillary Clinton. I’ve maintained for over decade that Bill Clinton will get back into power despite the 22nd amendment because the nostalgia for the 1990s will be so overwhelming and irresistible in a harsh age. The only thing I wonder about is whether Bill or Hillary will succeed in getting the other bumped off.”