Jim Kunstler is a doomer, and today I found his forecast for 2009. This is doomer-porn at its finest, and unfortunately events may prove him correct. Robert Samuelson, also writing today, describes the trashing of conventional economic wisdom and closes with:
Much depends on whether the frantic policies to combat the recession succeed. Probably they will, but there are no guarantees. Our ignorance is humbling.
Kunstler is no economist and Samuelson is no doomer, yet both are uneasy about our hazy future. The bottom line is that we cannot assume the return of Business As Usual (BAU). Why am I talking about this? I finally caught up with current events in Rogers Park, specifically the death of Isaiah Stroud, and in reading through it all I have seen a glimpse of what might be, and it is chilling.
Craig Gernhardt has put up several posts about Isaiah's killing, starting here, then on to here, here, here and ending with this piece by Mike Harrington.
Through most of this Craig invited young people to post their comments about what was going on in their lives and their reaction to Isaiah's death. Moving past the poor grammar, all CAPS comments, and emotion on all sides, what is clear is that a slice of the current generation is headed down the slope with little hope of a better future. Whether or not that lack of hope is the result of out of touch parents, young people who will/do not take advantage of the opportunities available (pointed out by Man On The Street), poor schools, economic meltdown in local families, systemic racism, an overburdened social safety net, bankrupt government entities, exhausted taxpayers, or some combination of all of the above and more, the fact remains that in the decades to come we will continue to reap what has been sown, or not, in this community and others.
What has this to do with Peak Oil and the Long Emergency? The current credit crisis has put the kibosh on fossil fuel projects that are difficult, technologically challenging, and thus capital intensive. This includes new projects in the Canadian tar sands. The impact on all of us comes from the continuing decline of the older oil fields with few, if any, replacements to pick up the supply slack. Cantarell is now declining at a rate of 30%/year. Mexico, once the second largest and now 3rd largest supplier of oil to the US will quickly fall off that radar. Russia's Gazprom is either holding back or has reached peak production. Northern Ghawar is rumored to have watered out, or is about to, which leaves the southern wells as the last stand for this supergiant field. Ghawar was the largest field ever found, Cantarell the second largest. Arctic oil and gas fields are assumed but there is no current data that can offer a reliable number in terms of proven reserves. Eventually, the consequences will be a resumption of the climb to stratospheric prices, perhaps in a year, no more than two. Our economy is fueled by oil; primarily as a transportation fuel but also in the plastics industry (fertilizers in the case of natural gas.) The timing and shape of any economic recovery will be heavily influenced by the availability and cost of fossil fuels, especially oil.
If Kunstler is correct and BAU does not resume, then opportunities for undereducated, emotionally immature youth will deteriorate. If the young posters at Craig's site are unhappy now about the dearth of jobs they consider acceptable, they will become apoplectic in the near future. The current economic environment has made it a buyer's market where jobs are concerned. The competition from bright, educated, underemployed individuals will crush those who possess only the most rudimentary skills. The skills needed to keep this society running will not be obtained running drugs, hanging on street corners, or walking away from opportunities because you don't like what has been offered and prefer immediate gratification to pursuing a long term plan.
I have long maintained that poverty is no guarantee that a person will become a criminal or a failure. I have only to look at my own family to know that is true, starting with myself. At the same time, I am watching the most vulnerable of my family begin that slide downwards, and I fear that nothing I say or do will cause them to take command of their futures and turn their lives around. One is autistic and will need help all his life. One has Aspergers, which was diagnosed late in his teens so he has had little help. He has decided to quit school, get a job and pursue a GED. His mother does not object. Stocking shelves and bagging groceries are obvious options. Whether or not he can achieve more will be up to him but he has shown little initiative to date. One niece has completed college and is starting a family while another struggles to survive. Ours is not a family with a history of dysfunctional behavior or parenting, at least not in my parents' generation. Yet members of my family may join the tide of people who will become fodder for those who are better able to survive. They may become part of the new servant class that Kunstler foresees.
Reading the comments at Craig's blog I cannot help but believe that some of those who wrote in will engage violently with a future that shunts them aside. They will be ill-equipped to survive any other way. iPods, Blackberries, and text messaging are no substitute for skills that pay wages. Flipping burgers at Ronald's house may help with the rent, but are no substitute for skills that are in demand for a lifetime.
NGOs and non-profits can provide opportunities and resources. Governments can provide structure. Parents and other adults can provide guidance. Young people can learn and embark on a future fueled by hope in lieu of despair. But it won't happen if all don't do their part. In the Long Emergency we can either face an uncertain future with the expectation that we can maneuver through it and come out whole on the other side, or we can assume the onset of systemic collapse and hunker down in our best imitation of societies that previously traveled this path; Serbians, Croatians, Palestinians, Afghanis, Armenians, Sudanese, Hutus, Tutsis, Congolese, Cambodians and countless others.
Isaiah's death can be just another meaningless loss of a boy who may, or may not, have associated with gangs. Just another tickmark in Chicago's homicide count for 2008. Or, perhaps, in view of the economic and credit crisis in front of us and the risk to all of us if our economy, society and government fail, his death can become an opportunity to renew our commitment to improving this community for everyone. Mike Harrington's essay gives several excellent suggestions.
The Long Emergency has just begun to peek over the horizon and has yet to play itself out. It is up to us to manage it and help the other "Isaiahs" pursue a more positive future. It is in our shared interest to do so.