In 2005, when Jim Kunstler published “The Long Emergency,” Â an unsettling synthesis ofÂ major market trends (peak oil),Â environmental conditions (global warming, water scarcity, disease),Â and what he called the other “converging castastrophes of the 21st century,” IÂ 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.Â
Essentially, Kunstler predicted that soaring oil prices would generateÂ enormous economic, political, andÂ cultural instability, including rising joblessness, homelessness, currency devaluations, and social disruption.Â 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 saidÂ the coming cataclysm was approachingÂ much fasterÂ than business leaders, social theorists, or elected officials either believed or acknowledged.Â Suburban America, said Kunstler, would be particularly hard hit. Urban America, with its transit systems, walkability, more compact development patterns would fare better.Â
My reporting ofÂ new marketÂ trends, explored in this blog, reached a similar conclusion about the changes we are seeing in suburban and urban communities.Â 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 emphaticÂ forecasts.
High energy pricesÂ Â have contributed to the weakening ofÂ the dollar overseas, and dramatically slowed suburban housing markets. Both trends areÂ accelerating the decline of the U.S. auto industry, which continues to produce uncompetitive fuel-guzzling vehicles, and is leading the Midwest deeper intoÂ an aggravatingÂ 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.Â
The strength of the national housing marketÂ 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 areÂ very familiar with what’s in store for the rest of the country. It’s not pretty. We already have the highest unemployment rate,Â the largest state budget deficits, and the largest declineÂ since 2000 (12 percent)Â 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 theÂ wave of home foreclosuresÂ 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,Â parts of the cityÂ areÂ “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 countryÂ 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.Â 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”, Â Kunstler explained that he didn’t welcome a national “crack-up,”Â but it was “a plausible outcome that we ought to be prepared to face.”Â 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.