Was Jim Kunstler Right About “The Long Emergency”?

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In 2005, when Jim Kunstler published “The Long Emergency,”  an unsettling synthesis of major market trends (peak oil), environmental conditions (global warming, water scarcity, disease), and what he called the other “converging castastrophes of the 21st century,” I was among the skeptics who was convinced that Kunstler’s analysis was uncharacteristically hyperbolic. Nearly two years later the shine on my bubble of optimism has dulled a bit. 

Essentially, Kunstler predicted that soaring oil prices would generate enormous economic, political, and cultural instability, including rising joblessness, homelessness, currency devaluations, and social disruption. He said that climate change would add another level of complexity and that the United States and other industrialized nations faced “a dark time.” Lastly, he said the coming cataclysm was approaching much faster than business leaders, social theorists, or elected officials either believed or acknowledged. Suburban America, said Kunstler, would be particularly hard hit. Urban America, with its transit systems, walkability, more compact development patterns would fare better. 

My reporting of new market trends, explored in this blog, reached a similar conclusion about the changes we are seeing in suburban and urban communities. Generally I’m optimistic. But as I’ve toured the country in the last couple of months, I’m continually reminded of Kunstler’s more emphatic forecasts.

High energy prices  have contributed to the weakening of the dollar overseas, and dramatically slowed suburban housing markets. Both trends are accelerating the decline of the U.S. auto industry, which continues to produce uncompetitive fuel-guzzling vehicles, and is leading the Midwest deeper into an aggravating recession. That, in turn, has contributed to the highest jobless rates in the nation, and some of the highest rates of home foreclosures and largest housing price declines

The strength of the national housing market kept the economy afloat after 9/11. Its slowdown here and in other regions is leading the nation into a recession that some economists say will be long and severe.

Michigan residents already are very familiar with what’s in store for the rest of the country. It’s not pretty. We already have the highest unemployment rate, the largest state budget deficits, and the largest decline since 2000 (12 percent) in median family income in the country. We also have a governor and a Legislature wholly incapable of finding a political consensus that will lead to a new development strategy, part of the grave electoral dysfunction that Kunstler predicted.

Indeed, the most visible and ominous result of this economic dysfunction is the wave of home foreclosures now inundating the nation. Foreclosures are mounting in almost every major American market. Even in San Diego, where million dollar homes burned in fierce forest fires in November and a traditional outpost of wealth and higher expectations, parts of the city are “approaching a point where nearly 10 percent of all homes are in some stage of foreclosure,” according to VoiceofSanDeigo.org.

More than one million new foreclosures are anticipated across the country in 2008. The mess is of sufficient economic concern that even President George Bush reached an agreement today with lenders to help some stressed homeowners, but left millions of others without protection.

And then comes the warming, the magnitude of which is increasing by every measure. New Orleans drowned in 2005. Atlanta, the Colorado Plateau (see Lake Powell in pix), southern California, and even the Great Lakes are drying up in 2007.

In the “Long Emergency”,  Kunstler explained that he didn’t welcome a national “crack-up,” but it was “a plausible outcome that we ought to be prepared to face.” I still think he’s wrong. But I’m also willing to briefly consider that enough unwelcome trends are falling into place that he could be just a little bit right.

Barack Steps Gingerly Into the Realm of A Weakened Beast

Democratic presidential candidate and Illinois Senator Barack Obama skipped across the big pond on Tuesday and landed in Detroit, where he stirred a modest amount of interest by scolding American auto makers for letting the Japanese take command of the industry, and then offering a federal hand in contributing to the industry’s health care costs in exchange for convincing auto makers to increase fuel efficiency by about 1 mile a gallon per year. 

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Big deal. Both ideas have been on the table in Motown for decades and rejected.  Detroit, after all, has a long tradition of deep sixing ideas that link in any way cars, fuel, and health care. In fact, the region and its signature industry are stubborn about their intellectual ruts. With the exception of an unexpected good run of stable fuel prices and rising incomes in the mid- and late-1990s under President Bill Clinton, the American auto industry has been steadily declining since the early 1970s. The consequences to southeast Michigan and the entire state have been profound. The Detroit region is the slowest growing, and most racially and economically segregated major metropolitan area in the nation. It ranks at the very bottom of the list for generating jobs and new businesses. Its unemployment rate, already among the highest in the country, would be significantly worse, but thousands of jobless workers have left the state to find work. 

Worst of all, arguably, is that citizens and civic leaders are absolutely incapable of coming to any agreement about how to solve the region’s myriad problems. The tradition of intellectual lassitude and clouded leadership that affects all of southeast Michigan has its roots in the auto industry. The Big Three — and this is a tired old story around here — has shown itself to be consistently inept in anticipating changes in the domestic and international markets, especially consumer desire for more fuel-efficient vehicles. I attended a conference at the Erb Institute at the University of Michigan over the weekend, and a former top Ford executive who now teaches in the university’s Ross School of Business was questioned about the industry’s dreary record in forecasting the market. “How could we know?” he shrugged. A colleague sitting in the audience turned to me and remarked, “The Japanese figured it out.”

Senator Obama is no fool. Having lived in Chicago he understands the ties between the auto industry and the economic well-being of his state and the rest of the Midwest. So you have to wonder about the strategy he unveiled today to stand on ceremony, trying to earn points from supporters for being “brave” enough to wag his finger at the auto industry about technology, oil dependence, and energy efficiency on their home turf. That’s not courage or boldness. It’s politics. And if he continues to hedge and feint and weave and dance, he doesn’t have a prayer of getting elected. Bombast only wears so long.

What he should have said is that the triple whammy of global climate change, peak oil shortages, and intense competition prompted by globalization are immutable trends in the international market that are altering how Americans live now, and that the biggest changes are still to come. If the United States wants to maintain a high standard of living for all its citizens, not just the wealthy, then a national reckoning, and a massive program to change our patterns of development is in order. The American civilization can prosper, but only if it is super energy efficient, environmentally sensitive, economically and fiscally responsible, and much more encouraging of collaboration and new ideas. The president’s role in this era is not just to marshal the financial might of the federal government for research and investment in new designs for growth — a concerted program to install photovoltaics on rooftops or a national construction program to build regional high speed rail systems are examples of a good start — it’s also to be the great convenor, drawing together bright minds and institutions to reach consensus on a new national growth strategy. 

In other words a mile per gallon per year increase in fuel efficiency in an era when competitors are producing 50 and 6o mile per gallon vehicles, and peak oil shortages are already driving prices to $4 a gallon, ain’t doing much for the United States, Michigan, or for Obama. It sounds stale and wimpy. A quid pro quo to trade federal health care dollars in exchange for convincing the auto industry to  build cars fit for the 21st century sounds like throwing good money after bad. The only explanation for the surge of Republican support for that one is that if Ford, GM, or Chrysler tank, their stock portfolios would be wounded. 

Obama came to Detroit on Tuesday and didn’t take the city, the state, or the nation anywhere. That’s not good enough in an era when the right of all Americans to live a good life is so much in doubt.