Monday, October 29, 2007

The Long Emergency: Year One

Kunstler's column today is an especially good one. He speculates how countries around the world, particularly Japan and the nations of Europe, will endure the Long Emergency as they compete with America for diminishing supplies of oil. (All emphases and links mine.)

October 29, 2007

When historians glance back at 2007 through the haze of their coal-fired stoves, they will mark this year as the onset of the Long Emergency – or whatever they choose to call the unraveling of industrial economies and the complex systems that constituted them. And if they retain any sense of humor– which is very likely since, as wise Sam Beckett once averred, nothing is funnier than unhappiness– they will chuckle at the assumptions that drove the doings and mental operations of those in charge back then (i.e. now).

The price of oil is up 53 percent over a year ago, creeping up now toward the mid-$90-range. The news media is still AWOL on the subject. (The New York Times has nothing about it on today’s front page.) The dollar is losing a penny a week against the Euro. In essence, the American standard of living is dropping like a sash weight. So far, a stunned public is stumbling into impoverishment drunk on Britney Spears video clips. If they ever do sober up, and get to a “…hey, wait a minute…” moment when they recognize the gulf between reality and the story told by leaders in government, business, education, and the media, it is liable to be a very ugly moment in US history.

One of the stupidest assumptions made by the educated salient of adults these days is that we are guaranteed a smooth transition between the cancerous hypertrophy of our current economic environment and the harsher conditions that we are barreling toward. The university profs and the tech sector worker bees are still absolutely confident that some hypothetical “they” will “come up with” magical rescue remedies for running the Happy Motoring system without gasoline. My main message to lecture audiences these days is “…quit putting all your mental energy into propping up car dependency and turn your attention to other tasks such as walkable communities and reviving passenger rail….” Inevitably, someone will then get up and propose that the transition to all-electric cars is nearly upon us, and we should stop worrying. As I said, these are the educated denizens of the colleges. Imagine what the nascar morons believe – that the ghost of Davey Crockett will leave a jug of liquefied “dark matter” under everyone’s Christmas tree this year or next, guaranteed to keep the engines ringing until Elvis ushers in the Rapture.

The educated folks – that is, the ones subject to the grandiose story-lines of techno-triumphalism taught in the universities – are sure that we’ll either invent or organize our way out of the current predicament. A society that put men on the moon in 1969, the story goes, will ramp up another “Apollo Project” to keep things going here. One wonders, of course, what they mean by keeping things going. Even if it were hypothetically possible to keep all the cars running forever, would it be good thing to make suburban-sprawl-building the basis of our economy – because that’s the direct consequence of perpetually cheap energy. Has anyone noticed that the housing bubble and subsequent implosion is following the peak oil line exactly?

It’s a bit harder to discern what the assumptions really are among leaders in the finance sector, since so much of their activity the past ten years has veered into sheer fraud. The story line that everyone is putting out – from the Fed chairman Bernanke to the CEOs of the Big Fundz – is that American finance is a python that has swallowed a few too many pigs, but if we jigger around interest rates a little bit more, and allow some more money to be lent out cheaply, the python will eventually digest the pigs and go slithering happily on its way along the jungle trail with a burp and a fart. From this vantage, one sees a rather different story: more like a gang of human grifters sweating through their Prada suits as it becomes increasingly impossible to conceal massive losses incurred through overt reckless misbehavior. My own guess is that a lot of these boyz will be in line for criminal prosecution before too long. The political assumptions one hears are the most astoundingly naïve and ridiculous, especially the ones that involve other countries and our relations with them. NY Times followers no doubt believe, along with Tom Friedman, that the global economy is now a permanent fixture of the human condition, and that soon it will transform itself into a colossal engine of “green” (i.e. benign) commerce. Friedman and his followers tend to forget the second law of thermodynamics when spinning their fantasies of a world that can harmlessly manufacture and market an endless number of plastic salad shooters from one side of the planet to the other without incurring any losses to the health of said planet.

My own assumptions are somewhat different. I think we’re likely to see a lot of nations scrambling for survival, initially manifesting in a contest for the world’s dwindling supply of oil (and oil-like substances). For instance, when viewing the globe, few people consider that Japan currently imports 95 percent of its fossil fuel. Japan has been a “good boy” among nations since its episode of “acting out” in the mid-20th century and has enjoyed a long industrial prosperity since then. But what happens when there is not enough oil in the world to be allocated rationally by markets among the powerful nations? Will Japan just roll over and die? Will they shutter the Toyota factories and happily turn to placid tea ceremonies. I think Japan will freak out, and it’s hard to predict exactly who will feel its wrath and how.

Similarly, Europe. Americans view Europe as a kind of theme park full of elderly café layabouts swaddled in cashmere as they enjoy demitasse cups in the outdoor cafes of their comfortable art-filled cities (some of them not long ago rebuilt from rubble). Europe has let America do its dirty work for it in the Middle East for the past decade while enjoying tanker-loads of oil coming up through the Suez Canal. Europe has only had to make a few lame gestures in defense of its oil supplies. But the North Sea oil fields, which for twenty years have hedged the leverage of OPEC, are crapping out at a very steep rate. Sooner or later Europe will freak out over oil, and geo-political flat-earthers will be shocked to see that all the nations of café layabouts can mobilize potent military forces. God knows whose side who will be on, exactly, when that happens, and where America will stand – if its own military is not so exhausted that it can even stand up.

Personally, I think the world will be growing a lot larger again, and less flat, and that eventually America will find itself isolated once again between two oceans – though incursions by desperate foreign armies in one way or another, is not out of the question as the great struggle for resource survival gets underway. In time, however, I think the current Great Nations of the world will lose their ability to project power in the ways we’ve been conditioned to think about it. In the meantime, our own nation has become a society incapable of thinking, and the failure at all levels of rank, education, and privilege is impressive. If you listen to the people running for president – many of them overt clowns – you’d think that that all the comfortable furnishings of everyday life can continue with a few tweaks of the dials. They are cowards and it is possible that they perfectly represent a whole nation of cowards who deserve cowardly leadership. The danger, of course, is that when a non-cowardly leader finally does step forward in a desperate America, he will not shrink from pushing around a feckless people, or doing their thinking for them.

Who Would the World

Saturday, October 06, 2007

The White Flannel Film and Similar Genres

In 1996, Andrea Shaw wrote Seen That, Now What?: The Ultimate Guide to Finding the Video You Really Want to Watch, a movie guide arranged by genre, mood, and theme, and occasionally by actor and director.

There are eleven main groupings: Action, Comedy, Drama, Documentaries, Foreign Films, Horror, Kids, Musicals, Sci-Fi and Fantasy, Thrillers, and Westerns. Each is further subdivided into more specific genres, such as "white flannel," which is highlighted on the back of the book, and almost synonymous with "Merchant-Ivory film". ("White flannel" derives from the white flannel trousers men would wear to teas, garden parties, and so on. See Emily Post: "If some semi-formal occasion comes up, such as a country tea, the time-worn conservative blue coat with white flannel trousers is perennially good.") As Shaw writes, "As in other costume dramas, the period details are celebrations of all that was brilliant and luxurious, with the camera sweeping over British, Indian, or African countryscapes and exquisite turn-of-the-century interiors. But all this lush upholstery doesn't cover up the intelligent, thoughtful stories--usually based on Lawrence, Forster, and Waugh novels--played by stellar British actors" (pp. 218-219). On page 255, Shaw adds, "Messrs. Merchant and Ivory and company continue to crank out these handsome literate films of pre-World War II Britain and her subjects that combine photogenic nostalgia for a gracious way of life now gone, and an often humorous examination of its foibles." Wikipedia describes the typical "Merchant-Ivory film" as "a period piece set in the early 20th century, usually in Edwardian England, featuring lavish sets and top British actors portraying genteel characters who suffer from disillusion and tragic entanglements."

Of course, settings range from the late Victorian era to the late 1930s, and from Africa (Greystroke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes) to Boston (The Bostonians). (Remember, as Wikipedia says, " [i]n all art forms, genres are vague categories with no fixed boundaries. Genres are formed by sets of conventions, and many works cross into multiple genres by way of borrowing and recombining these conventions.") James Ivory was the quintessential white flannel director and his comedy of manners A Room With a View (1986) the quintessential white flannel/Merchant-Ivory film.

Similar to white flannel are certain Japanese costume dramas which share its time frame, such as Kon Ichikawa's Makioka Sisters (1983), in which four sisters in Osaka witness the slow decline of their family's fortune. Shaw also notes French versions of Merchant-Ivory: "Marcel Pagnol's novels and memoirs that take place in southern France are often the basis for these nostalgic stories..." (p. 313). Claude Berri's Jean de Florette (1987) and Yves Robert's My Father's Glory (1991) are prime specimens of the genre. Each had a sequel, Manon of the Spring (1987) and My Mother's Castle (1991), respectively.

Hawaii's film industry is far from mature, but as it grows, I would like to see adaptations of what I call the kama`aina style genre: lush, elegiac stories of Hawaii's haole and Hawaiian elites in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. John Dominis Holt is the quintessential author here. (Not only do I intend to read his works but also the article by Sheldon Hershinow, titled, "John Dominis Holt: Hawaiian-American Traditionalist" [MELUS, 7:2, Summer, 1980, pp. 61-72].) To get an idea of what a kama`aina style movie would look like, I recommend Picture Bride.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Selling Out?

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is trying to update its look, but may alienate its core readership in the process.,1518,507549,00.html

On nineteenth-century newspaper layout design:

From Planes to Trains

October 1, 2007

Two Clues for the Clueless

The first clue came during a routine NPR news broadcast on Friday, which had presidential candidate Mitt Romney retailing the shopworn idea that our nation "is dependent on foreign oil." We've heard this a million times, of course, and we accept it without thinking. But if you venture forward mentally one baby step, you will quickly come to see that, no, this dependence on foreign oil is not itself the problem. The problem is that we have adopted a living arrangement so hopelessly centered around cars and incessant motoring and one of the consequences is an addiction to oil, which we happen to have a declining supply of in our own land.

...The second clue for the clueless came over the weekend when President Bush declared that the chaos reigning in America's airports had reached such an intolerable level that the federal government might have to step in and whip the airlines into shape by regulating routes and apportioning flights. Again, the inability of the public and its leaders to extend a thought one inch beyond the horizon of a given problem is really striking. It's as if the entire nation had suffered a lobotomy -- and perhaps we have, through the agency of excessive TV-watching. Has it occurred to anybody that if we could run choo-choo trains between cities a few hundred miles apart -- say from Cleveland to Columbus Ohio -- we could decongest the airports overnight? That, by so doing, Americans could travel much more pleasurably and affordably between the places they travel to most often? It certainly hasn't occurred to anybody running for president, or any of the editors-in-chief in the news media, or even any executive in what remains of the the railroad industry. But I'll try to boil it down to a digestible sound byte for them: the best way to relieve the current agony of air travel is to get the passenger trains running again. Let the airlines do what they do best: really long-range trips. Let trains do the rest. We will consume less foreign oil. The jobs now hemorrhaging out of the US auto industry could move into the passenger rail and rolling stock sectors. Everybody will be much happier. ...

Rail could also be revived in Hawaii, which had many railways in the early twentieth century. Here is a description of the Hilo Railroad. Though Kunstler doesn't mention them, airships should also be used in cargo and personal transport.

More on airships here. An excellent account of airships being used for passenger travel is this book, The Golden Age of the Passenger Airships: Graf Zeppelin & Hindenburg, by Harold G. Dick with Douglas H. Robinson (Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991) .