I had a discussion with one guy at a Sunday night party about the prospects for hydrogen-powered cars. We rehearsed the usual reasons why such a system was unlikely to get up-and-running -- and then he said, "...but what if we took all the money from the war and put it into something like the space program and... they came up with some way to make it happen...!"
This is certainly the golden heart of the great wish out there, as the empire of Happy Motoring begins to run down on $4 gasoline. It seems inconceivable that a society so bold as to put men on the moon (fer crissake) can't overcome such a prosaic problem as finding something other than oil byproducts to run our cars on.
From this holy font all cognitive dissonance flows.
It seems inconceivable, but it begins to look like that's the way it really is, and we just can't accept it.
Of course, one of the reasons that Americans are so anxious to get away on a holiday weekend from the places where they live is because we did such a perfect job the past fifty years turning our home-places into utterly unrewarding, graceless nowheres, where the private realm of the beige houses is saturated in monotony, and the public realm has been reduced to the berm between the WalMart and the strip mall. Now, we barely have the gasoline to run all this stuff, let alone escape from it for a weekend.
We're at a dead end with all this and a lot of Americans are paralyzed with fear about what's next. This may actually be a deeper fear than the anxiety about money and banking in 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt was sworn in and tried to reassure the nation. Back then, despite the grave problems of capital, we still had plenty of everything: plenty of good productive land, plenty of manpower earnestly eager for hard work, plenty of ore in the ground, shining cities equipped with excellent streetcar systems, a railroad network that was the envy of the world, sturdy small towns and small cities fully equipped with locally-owned business, and a vast number of small family farms that could re-absorb family members unable to get wages in the cities. Most of all, we had plenty of oil in the ground, and the world's biggest industry for getting it out and selling it. What we didn't have in 1933 was cash money.
The crisis at hand now goes way beyond a crisis of capital -- though that is certainly part of it. Notice how many of the things we had in 1933 are gone now. Our cities, with a few exceptions, are imploded husks. Our small towns and small cities (Schenectady, home of G.E.!) are gutted, especially in terms of locally-owned business. Our passenger rail system is worse than anything a Soviet ministry might produce (while the airline industry that replaced it is dying of a kind of financial hemorrhagic fever). Our local transit hardly exists anymore. Family farms have all but disappeared. We have plenty of manpower earnestly eager to become American Idols (but certainly not for heavy labor). Our oil industry now supplies only a fraction of the world's daily supply (and not even enough for half of our own needs).
What happens now? We face not just change but convulsive change. The public senses the rapid unraveling of our car-centric arrangements. In the week before the holiday, gasoline prices went up several cents each day -- in upstate New York, it crossed the $4 mark and kept going up. The trucking system faces collapse as diesel fuel price-rises exceed even the rise in gasoline, and the vast number of independent truckers who make up the system confront the individual calamity of a personal business failure. American Airlines last week announced severe measures to keep operating through the fall of 2008. But none of the airlines can feasibly carry on as usual with oil prices above $120-a-barrel -- and the ominous message is of a business model that has no conceivable way to adapt to the new reality. Most likely, in a very few years air travel will no longer be a "consumer" enterprise.
In the background of these practical problems -- "off screen" during the holiday of car races and ball games -- is a crisis of capital orders of magnitude worse than the one faced by Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. For behind the "liquidity" (i.e. insolvency) issues faced by the big institutions lurks the Godzilla of the derivatives trade, which has evolved into a black hole capable of sucking all notional "money" into oblivion. That "money," which represents the aggregate value of our society, also amounts to the emperor's new clothes of an empire in serious trouble. As the black hole of derivatives sucks away these "new clothes," America will stand naked against the elements of fate. and the strip mall. Now, we barely have the gasoline to run all this stuff, let alone escape from it for a weekend.
My new novel of the post-oil future, World Made By Hand, is available at all booksellers.