There is surely a correspondence between an exhausted culture and a populace devolved so far into mental dullness that it can’t recognize its predicament. We don’t seem to get how much the industrial production spree of the past 200 years has just plum worn us out, not to mention the ecosystem we were designed to dwell in. My general sense of things for at least a decade is that we are closing this chapter of history and heading into something smaller, slower, and simpler, and that we could either go there willingly or get dragged there kicking and screaming by circumstances.
It interests me to reflect that they way things are temporarily is the way people define normality, and think things will always be, so that if you are living in a big city like New York where so much remaining wealth is concentrated, and you are dazzled by the whirr and flash of things, including all the pretty young people drilling into their iPhones, you might expect a longer arc to the moment at hand.
Out here in the provinces it’s a different story. The exhaustion is palpable. I dropped into the mall at mid-day on Sunday to take the pulse on the ballyhooed post-Thanksgiving ritual shopping frenzy and the place was like a ghost town. The sparse stream of supposed “consumers” had the dazed, beaten-down look of people pushed beyond the edge of some dark threshold, like displaced persons in a low-grade war zone.
Their behavior seemed ceremonial, though, mere acting-out as opposed to acting. They were not carrying bags with purchases. I saw almost nobody actually shopping, that is, fingering the merchandise, in either the two department stores I passed through or the smaller shops lining the corridors. There were strikingly few clerks in either the big or little retail operations and you got the feeling that these stores were now expected to run on automatic pilot, with a skeleton crew of employees because the margins just aren’t there anymore. They are going through the motions of being in business, and when Christmas is over some will not be there anymore. America has had enough, notwithstanding the latest YouTube videos showing crazed mobs fighting over worthless plastic crap at the “Black Friday” WalMart openings elsewhere around the country.
The physical condition of our so-called towns (many of them just “facilities” smeared carelessly over the landscape) is something else. We are not taking care of our property in part because we don’t have the money, but also because so much of it is obviously not worth caring about, was not designed and built to be cared for – and anyway, there is the lure of the narcotic flat-screen television within to distract anyone with a fugitive thought of opposing the pervasive entropy of these times. The disgrace of this nation – I mean it quite literally – is now total, from our bodies to everything around us. We are entropy made visible.
Variations on this exhaustion are playing out in other parts of the “advanced” world, Europe and Japan, where all the money-related parts of the modernity machine have gravel in their gears and are grinding into self-destruction. China will get to the same event horizon soon, too, despite the fact that so much of their stuff is brand-new – after all, what use is a set of new super-highways if Brent crude prices remain above $110?
What if we just accept the reality that the industrial spree was a self-limiting adventure and now we have to move on? What do we give up? What do we actually do with our time and effort?
There’s a clear trend to give up on the gigantic nation-state, at least in its current corporatist configuration, most recently in Spain with separatists winning this week’s election in the northern province of Catalonia. Perhaps greater Spain will now join the defunct entities of Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the USSR. There are rumblings of “secession” here in North America now, where a certain moron-inflected cohort favors a replay of the Civil War, largely for sentimental reasons instilled by TV. What Dixieland doesn’t seem to grok is the unraveling of its own Sunbelt miracle economy which was, in effect, a suburban development bubble, and which will land them back in a ditch with a sack of turnips like Jeeter Lester’s family in Tobacco Road.
Here are some trends we would benefit from getting comfortable with:
Globalism is withering and will end with a whimper (sorry, Tom Friedman). The economy of North America will become much more internally focused in the decades ahead. If you are young, think about getting into the boat business on the continent’s magnificent inland waterway system. There will be no more trucking to move stuff around, and at the rate we’re going the railroads will never be fixed.
National chain retail will be dying as its economies-of-scale vanish. WalMart and everything like it will be gone. No more Black Friday toy riots. Sorry. If you are young, think about getting into some kind of local business that will play a role in your rebuilt local economic network. There will be plenty of work for you, but not so much new cheap plastic crap to hassle with. Lots of opportunities for the business-minded!
Farming comes back to the center of economic life. Hard to believe, I’m sure, if you live in an iPhone fantasy-land of apps and tweets. Forget all that stupid shit. The electric grid will certainly fail, or at least fail to be reliable enough to matter, in the next couple decades, and the real value in human existence will be using the land to produce a living. Lots of opportunities for young people who like to work outside. Also, some chance of political revolution to expedite changes in land tenure.
Farewell to the auto age and hello again to real communities. Hard to believe, I’m sure, as you read this in traffic on your iPad, but your commuting days are numbered. Indeed the whole car thing comes to a rather stunningly abrupt halt – though we are certainly doing everything possible now to prop it up. The old Herb Stein formulation will apply here: people do what they can until they can’t, and then they don’t. The implications in this for how we inhabit the landscape going forward are rather huge. Find a nice small town on a waterway surrounded by farmland and get ready to have a life.
In the meantime, as these circumstances roil in the background, you can be sure that the people running things will campaign strenuously to keep the current set of rackets running. The results will be sad and possibly terrifying. Be brave and seek opportunity in these epochal changes. Modernity has nearly put us out of business. Leave the exhausted enterprise behind and be human for while. Enjoy the time-out from techno-progress that is at hand. It will be something to be grateful for.