By James Howard Kunstler
The wheel of time rolls forward, never retracing its path, but because it is a wheel, and we are riding in it, a persistent illusion persuades us that the landscape is recognizably the same, and that our doings within the regular turning of the seasons seem comfortably normal. There is no normal.
There is for us, at this moment in history, an especially harsh turning (so Strauss and Howe would say) as our journey takes the exit ramp out of the high energy era into the next reality of a long emergency. The human hive-mind senses that something is different, but at the same moment we’re unable to imagine changing all our exquisitely tuned arrangements — especially the thinking class in charge of all that, self-enchanted with pixeled fantasies. The dissonance over this is driving America crazy.
The wheel hit a deep pothole in 2008 turning onto the off-ramp and has been wobbling badly ever since. 2008 was a warning that going through the motions isn’t enough to sustain a sense of purpose, either nationally or for individuals trying to keep their lives together ever more desperately. The cultural memory of the confident years, when we seemed to know what we were doing, and where we were going, dogs us and mocks us.
The young adults feel all that most acutely. The pain prompts them to want to deconstruct that memory. “No, it didn’t happen that way,” they are saying. All those stories about the founding of this society — of those Great Men with their powdered hair-doos writing the national charter, and the remarkable experience of the past 200-odd years — are wrong! There was nothing wonderful about it. The whole thing was a swindle!
They are feeling the wheel’s turning most painfully, since they know they will see many more turnings in the years ahead, and the direction of the wheel is vectoring downward for them. The bottom-line is less of everything, not more. That is a new ethos here in America and it’s hardly comforting: Less income, fewer comforts, more literal hardships, fewer consolations for the universal difficulty of being alive. No wonder they are angry.
It’s this simple. We landed in the New World five hundred years ago. It was full of good things that human beings had barely begun to exploit, laid out like a banquet. There was plenty of good virgin soil for growing food, the best timber in the world, clean rivers and great lakes, ores full of iron, gold, and silver, and down deep a bonanza of coal and oil to drive the wheel through very flush times. The past century was particularly supercharged, the oil years.
Imagine living through the very start of all that, the blinding, fantastic newness of modernity! Look back at the stories and images around Teddy Roosevelt and his times, and the confidence of that era just astonishes you, An emergent cavalcade of wonders: electricity, telephones, railroads, subways, skyscrapers! And in a few more years movies, cars, airplanes, radio. Even the backstage wonders of the day were astonishments: household plumbing for all, running hot water, municipal water and sewer systems, refrigeration, tractors! It’s hard to conceive how much these developments changed the human experience of daily life.
Even the traumas of the 20th century’s world wars did not crush that sense of amazing progress, at least not in North America, spared the wars’ mighty wreckage. The post-war confidence of American society achieved a level of in-your-face laughable hubris — see the USA in your Chevrolet! — until John Kennedy was shot down, and after that the delirious moonshot euphoria steadily gave way to corrosive skepticism, anxiety, acrimony, and enmity. My generation, booming into adulthood, naively thought they could fix all that with Earth Day, tofu, and computers, and keep the great wheel rolling down into an even more glorious cybernetic nirvana.
Fakeout. That’s not where the wheel is going. We borrowed all we possibly could from the future to pretend that the system was still working, and now the future is at the door like a re-po man come to take away both the car and the house. The financial scene is an excellent analog to our collective psychology. Its workings depend on the simple faith that its workings work. So, it is easy to imagine what happens when that faith wavers.
We’re on the verge of a lot of things coming apart: supply lines, revenue streams, international agreements, political assumptions, promises to do this and that. We have no idea how to keep it together on the downside. We don’t even want to think about it. The best we can do for the moment is pretend that the downside doesn’t exist. And meanwhile, fight both for social justice and to make America great again, two seemingly noble ideas, both exercises in futility. The wheel is still turning and the change of season soon upon us. What will you do?