Fall 2009 - Volume 12 Number 4
|Reviews||Clusterfuck Nation: Comments on Current Events by the Author of The Long Emergency
Anyone upset by the title of William Howard Kunstler’s blog probably won’t like the content much either. Speaking personally, however, I am much more dismayed by the state of the planet, the systematic degradation of the environment and the refusal of political, social and economic leaders to take ecological matters seriously than I am by undignified language. The evils of impolite speech are nothing compared to the ongoing extinction of species including, eventually, our own.
As far as extinctions are concerned, the fossil record tells us is that there have been five or six mass extinctions dating back almost 500 million years ago. The ambiguity, by the way, exists because some scientists lump together two separate but temporally close eventsthe Ordovician and the Silurian extinctions that took place about 450 million years agoand some do not. Whatever the number of others, most of us are mainly familiar with the much more recent Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction eventa scant 60 million years agowhich did in the dinosaurs and gave us mammals a little “lebensraum.” Thanks to the thud of a tremendous hunk of interplanetary rubbish that smacked the Yucatan Peninsula, the opportunity for the evolution of our species was “created.”
Preoccupied with previous terrestrial melodramas and with dinosaurs, most people fail to notice that we are in the midst of a similarly sized catastrophe today. The difference is that the others were the result of some confluence of natural forces. The current devastation is entirely our own doing.
It is, moreover, not even necessary to get involved in the ongoing debate about “climate change” and “global warming” in order to develop strong views on the matter. The massive human overpopulation of the Earth and the resulting toll we take on wilderness and habitat alone would have accomplished the same destruction even if CO2 emissions had miraculously plummeted to easily sustainable levels.
What’s more, none of this is new, although some of us have been willfully ignorant for too long a time. Thomas Malthus classically informed us of the hazards of human overcrowding in An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). William Blake’s preface to Milton: A Poem (1808) alerted us to the price to be paid for industrialism and its “dark, satanic mills. Goethe’s Faust (1829) explained the dangers of overdevelopment. With such portent’s of disaster arising in our own literature, we should have known better.
One of my earliest hints came when I read Attitudes toward History (1937) by Kenneth Burke, arguably the finest American literary critic of his time. Squirreled away in a footnote on page 150, he wrote: “Among the sciences, there is one little fellow named Ecology, and in time we will pay him more attention.” This is surely the time to do so, if the time is not passed.
In my own relative youth, I dutifully read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962)shortly after it appeared; but, like others of my generation, I became too caught up in other campaigns and causes (nuclear disarmament, the emerging American civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements and the building of the once-new New Democratic Party) to be diverted by birds, bees and an infinitude of other discounted species.
In 1969, however, I began not so much to change my mind as to expand it. My “Eureka!” moment came when I saw the September, 1969 issue of Rampartsmagazine. The front cover featured a tombstone settled on a rocky beach. The inscription read:
The anticipated date for the death of the oceans was, of course, a little hasty. Even now, they are not entirely dead. Optimists can truthfully claim that: “only” about a dozen whales are on the official endangered species list; routine oil spills have not fouled “entire” coastlines; and the North Pacific Garbage Vortex, a gyre of pelagic plastics and PCBs, located at roughly 140°W and 40°N cannot, like the Great Wall of China, “quite” be seen from outer space.
Still, the larger truth of environmental fragility remains valid. It doesn’t matter if the hyperbolic announcement of the death of the oceans must delayed by a few decades or even postponed for a century or two; absent some sort of massive, almost metaphysical, shake-up in human attitudes and actions, the same ultimate fate will befall.
In the early 1970s, however, it seemed for a moment that people might be ready to pay sustained attention to what was then called nature. Spurred on by the publication of the Paul Erhlich’s explosive neo-Malthusian account The Population Bomb (1968), encouraged by Donella and Dennis Meadows’computer-modelled The Limits to Growth (1972), and much inspired by my old mentor Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind(also 1972), there was at least a tacit awareness among certain scientists of the toxic impact of our species upon the planet. Theory turned into practice as Greenpeace was founded in 1971 in Vancouver, BC, and was soon up, running and challenging opponents on the high seassometimes at considerable peril. With academics and activists sounding alarums, the environment seemed poised to take its place atop the progressive agenda.
Even in domains of high authority, cautious attention was being directed toward the problem of a world awash in waste. The United Nations, the “canary in the coal mine” for all sorts of human malfeasance from genocide on, took pains to convene international conferences on the subject. The new attentiveness yielded, in the sad futility, Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland’s tract, Our Common Future(1987). That led to the much-hyped and justifiably maligned 1992 Rio de Janeiro Conference the Environment and Development. Following was the Kyoto Accord, signed in 1997 but never taken seriouslyat least not in North America. There were subsequent events that held up human indifference to our collective habitat for all to see. Not least of these was the more recent and embarrassingly easy defeat of Stéphane Dion’s quixotic “green” Liberal leadership in Canada and the continued success of the titan of the tar sands, Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Still, despite the failure of the authorities to do more than wave words at the issue, there have been partial and local successes in “consciousness raising.” Municipal recycling programs, no-smoking zones, popular curly light bulbs and innovative Prius automobiles have had their moments and should not be trivialized. Al Gore may have been deprived of the US presidency, but he did win an Academy Award and Nobel Peace Prize. Who knows? Maybe Jerry Brown will one day return to govern California. Even these occasional sparkles of light, however, do not deeply penetrate the general darkness.
Although environmental concerns have not been totally ignored, neither have they spawned wholly effective action, and too often they have been co-opted by large corporations which attach environmental slogans to major polluting industries and allow the foxes not merely to be in charge but also to hold the mortgage on the henhouse.
It cannot be denied that sincere efforts are sometimes made. This seemed to be the case in the decade since Europe committed to the Lisbon Agenda in 2000; but, the practical results of such initiatives have been far from transformative and often less than mediocre. Instead, much of the media attention has been captured by enormous international conflabs and concurrent anti-globalization protests (though the latter have been muted since the events of 11 September, 2001). Political leaders vie for sound-bites, speak as eloquently as they are able about their concerns for sustainable development and contentedly return to their home countries to carry on business as usual. In the end, as the late Canadian environmentalist John Livingston despondently put it: “Whenever you hear the phrase ‘sustainable development,’ you can be sure of one thing; it is development that will be sustained.”
Forty years have sped by since the ailing oceans came to the attention of Ramparts readers and, although Ehrlich’s and the Meadows’ dire doomsday forecasts have not come to pass quite yet, we increasingly notice the smog and the smell of extermination, if only reflected in the price of gas, the anticipated rise in food costs and the inconvenient truth of disease and deathnot only of birds and bees and polar bears. Sometimes, in rare moments of lucidity, we even make a connection to the unnecessary and calculated devastation of the bottom billion of our own multiplying species. Sometimes … but not often.
Mostly, our society suffers from a sort of collective Attention Deficit Disorder and Social Amnesia. We focus on spectaclesa tsunami here, a hurricane there and an O. J. Simpson trial somewhere elsebut we do not prolong our interest enough to consider causes or long-term effects. So, although we have witnessed intense flaps about energy, ozone and spotted owls, these crises are seemingly short-lived. Lengthier processes such as desertification, for example, catch our interest only when they result in powerful images of starving children, and even then our interest is easily shifted. The sinking of the water table in Nebraska doesn’t stand a chance unless they can somehow be politicized. Well-remembered petroleum industry slogans such as Alberta’s “Let the Eastern bastards freeze in the dark” and America’s “Drill! Drill! Drill!” have occasionally surfaced, but ecological awareness has been dulled by the demanding needs of electronic communications and, besides phony wars against drugs and terrorism, the messiness of the recent financial meltdown and Paris Hilton’s “tweets” are generally more engaging. In such company and in such circumstances, we have pushed the environment far, far down the registry of imminent threats and entertainments.
James Howard Kunstler, the putative subject of this screed, has not. It is his appointed mission to raise the environmental agenda to the top, to restore its prominence and to keep it squarely in sight until we come to what’s left of our senses. What’s more, he does it in the context of a compelling overall critique of our culture and our political economy. If we are not alerted by the cost of home heating, he will have something to say about the design of strip malls and of the stock market, household detergents and jet fuel. And he will convincingly demonstrate how these things are linked in the “ecology” of our minds as well as in the outside world.
A reporter by trade and a writer by craft, Kunstler published his first full-length fiction in 1979, and he has produced eight more passable novels since then. He first came to wider public attention, however, with the non-fiction book The Geography of Nowhere, in which he focused on what he called “the tragic sprawlscape of cartoon architecture, junked cities, and ravaged countryside where we live and work. I argued,” he says, “that the mess we've made of our everyday environment was not merely the symptom of a troubled culture, but one of the primary causes of our troubles. We created a landscape of scary places, and we became a nation of scary people.”
Kunstler followed up with an even more impressive volume entitled The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century. In it, he contends that the coming end of fossil fuel energy will not be successfully accompanied by a dramatic shift to alternative, renewable energy sources. The end of industrial society is near, and may even be accelerated by the tremendous growth in former “Third World” countries such as China, India and Brazil. (Too bad for them!) Moreover, industrialism will not be supplanted by a prosperous, sustainable, high-tech, low-energy world of cybernetic luxury, leisure time and windmills. Instead, the end of oil will mean that bloated Western economies will not just “downsize,” but may actually collapse. North Americans, if we are lucky, will face life as it was in the 1950s, or maybe the 1930s. We will live small-scale, unable to afford travel, compelled to live on locally produced goods (including home-grown vegetables and eggs). We will abandon the suburbs or (better) convert them to the agricultural purposes they once served, provided we can find a place to dump the asphalt. Incidentally, those with a preternatural distaste for evidence and argument may find a more attractive but no less forceful expression of his views in his recent “science fiction” novel, World Made by Hand(2008).
It is Kunstler’s blog, however, that I wish to emphasize. He regularly posts essays in which he deals with big-headline issues. They are not for the faint of heart, nor for people with Wal-Mart happy faces tattooed on their foreheads. Perhaps counter-intuitively, however, he shows that the descent into the past is not all that terrifying … if we do it right.
Kunstler’s first message: the consumer society is dying. So are real estate values, especially for single-family suburban dwellings. Food and fuel scarcities are looming. Electronic toys are headed for the trash cans.
Kunstler’s first response is that we are going to have to work harder at things that actually matter. We will need to derive our pleasures and gratifications more traditionally, mainly through the company of family and friends. To do this, we must stop talking about ourselves as consumers. Consumption is a disease, and a consumer is much different from a citizen.
Kunstler’s second line of reasoning leads to the understanding that we will have to reorganize all of our everyday activities fundamentally. We will have to grow our food closer to home (or at home), and in a much more labour-intensive manner. Indeed, agriculture will have to return to the centre of economic life. Preserving and pickling pears and cucumbers may become restored skills. Mangos and pineapples may not be in large supply even in temperate climates. We may be forced to eat according to the seasons. At the same time, there may be homely benefits. If Monsanto can be stopped, we might even be able to taste a tomato again. Carrots might become distinguishable from beets by more than their colours. Wouldn’t it be nice to taste a real blueberry again?
Kunstler’s third main point is that we may have to learn how to make things as our ancestors did, or at least to fix a few of them. This can be daunting in the era of Velcro when many a teenager has not learned to tie shoe-laces, much less to read attentively for more than twenty minutes. But, there will be no choice. Big box stores are on the cusp of extinction. Local repair shops and small hardware stores with sales clerks who are actually familiar with their merchandise may be restored to dignity and use.
Kunstler’s fourth thesis is that the cost of health care will have to come down and marginally available medical techno-wizardry will become too expensive to sustain. This will be bad news for the large quantity of baby-boomers now headed for the nursing homes. In the alternative, instead of watching extreme sports, children may soon be encouraged to disconnect from their iPods and computer screens, and begin to play real games, not in $1000 pads and jerseys at hockey arenas where they’re driven by Sarah Palin clones in SUVs, but in much less stressful local school yards.
Finally, Kunstler tells us, the automobile era is coming to a close. Private cars, long-distance commercial trucking and the airline industry are failing. Public transit and railway transportation must take overand not those sci-fi bullet trains to nowhere, but time-tested rolling stock, the production of which could become the centre of a reinvigorated (but downscaled) manufacturing industry. A bad idea? Not really: I can vividly recall the days before superhighways when the trains pulled out of urban stations that were triumphs of artistry and carried passengers in comfortable seats until it was time to enter the elegant dining car. That luxury will not be restored, but efficient postmodern transportation can be created.
Finally? Well, not exactly finally, but these five are a good smattering of what’s available. Kunstler also has much to say about the imaginary economy, “socialism” for the rich, the orchestrated meaningless of life in postmodernity, the cultural horrors of commercial advertising, hideous modernist architecture ... and much, much more.
Kunstler, I believe, is also largely right in what he says. Of course, the details are sometimes a little “off,” but the trends are definitely “on”. The language is occasionally ardent, but it is never as ridiculously flawed as was Ronald Reagan’s in the mid-1950s when, as a shill for General Electric, he charmed television viewers with the slogan, “at G. E., progress is our most important product.” The only question is whether we will have time to salvage much of value from our social, political, technological and economic arrangements, or will merely fill in the gaps in a woeful narrative of the decline and fall of what passes for our civilization.
Enveloped in a world of ideological denial and psychologically disposed toward a cockeyed optimism, I try, for my own sanity, to get frequent “reality checks” from Jim Kunstler. I discuss his ideas with friends around the world via e-mail. I also distribute his essays to my students. After all, in their corporate-controlled cocoons, they need as much light as their squinting eyes can absorb.
I am not totally insensitive, however, and I do understand that there are those who cannot bring themselves to set aside their lattés long enough to swallow the strong brew of ecological reality. So, for them, I would like to offer a slightly less robust flavour. If Jim Kunstler is too challenging, I also recommend a slightly softer alternative. John Michael Greer provides a somewhat broader perspective and a gentler perspective. A little too “spiritual” for my taste (his blog is called The Archdruid Report <thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com>, Greer presents a generally cogent account and a sensible critique of the empty politics, the hollow culture and the false and phony “Wall Street” economy that created the current global financial “crisis” that now so fully consumes us. He writes lucid, revealing accounts of the origins and future of commerce and finance, focusing on the disjunction between money and wealth that will educate even those among us who cannot balance a cheque book, much less explain “futures” and “derivatives” to a ten-year-old.
Taken together, Kunstler and Greer play “bad cop” and “good cop” in the Internet interrogation of current events. Neither, however, is much interested in winning confessions or imposing punishments. Instead, they offer intimations of rehabilitation; but, the journey will not be easy.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at
The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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