05/19/2006 05:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Wishing Society

As we stumble into the future of a permanent global energy crisis, an interesting delusional theme has taken shape among the public and virtually all our leaders in politics, business, and even science: the obsessive notion that it's all about keeping our cars running by other means, at all costs.

This is very unfortunate because it will be a colossal act of futility. Getting through this crisis, and its entailed failures of the complex systems we rely on, which I call the Long Emergency, will require us to make other arrangements, comprehensively, for the way we produce food, get around, conduct commerce, and inhabit the landscape.

The idea that it's all about cars is probably natural for a nation that has succeeded in literally driving itself crazy with driving. And so a great wish arises for a rescue remedy, some alternative fuel that will allow us to keep the easy motoring fiesta going. This yearning originates in the half-century incessant bombardment of our society with television advertising and canned entertainment, especially the Disney variety, which informs us that when you wish upon a star your dreams come true.

It is joined by a perhaps even more pernicious belief, spawned by the sordid subculture of Las Vegas, that it is possible to get something for nothing, which has also gone completely mainstream. Most commentators would probably say that the most popular religion in America is evangelical Christianity. Not so. The most popular religion is the worship of unearned riches and its holy shrine is Las Vegas.

The idea that when you wish upon a star your dreams come true is a nice sentiment for children. They probably need to be told such things as they acquire cognitive skills, and the world begins to present all its frightening hazards, lest they be overwhelmed. But it is not such a good thing for adults to believe that when you wish upon a star your dreams come true. In fact, I'd state categorically that successfully developed adults recognize a clear distinction between wishing for things and making things happen by actively doing. Likewise, fully developed adults do not believe that it is possible to get something for nothing, and the idea is pernicious insofar as it tends to defeat all earnest efforts to get things the hard way, by paying the price for them in sweat, tears, or currency.

None of this ought to suggest that adults should not have hopes and dreams -- based on the intention to actively and earnestly make things happen.

Now, the plain sad truth of the matter is that no combination of alternative fuels or energy systems that we know of will permit us to continue the easy motoring fiesta in the face of the permanent global fossil fuel crisis. You can state this categorically, too. We are not going to run the interstate highway system, Wal-Mart, and Walt Disney World on any combination of tar sands and oil shale distillates, bio-diesel, ethanol, hydrogen, solar power, wind power, uranium, or used french-fry oil. We'll use all these things -- we'll use everything possible -- but we're not going to run the current set-up with them. They will not add up to compensate for our losses in oil and natural gas. They would be very useful in helping us make other arrangements, but first we have to get over the wish to keep the current set-up running.

I will try to be specific.

As we get into big trouble with our oil and gas supplies, we will concurrently get into big trouble with food production. Our mode of industrial agriculture requires vast "inputs" of fossil fuel based fertilizers and pesticides to keep those seemingly endless truckloads of Cheez Doodles and Pepsi Cola coming. Just in the past five years, due to steeply rising natural gas prices, more than half of our fertilizer production has moved out of the country -- much of it to the Middle East, making us now hostages to them for our food as well as our motoring fuel. We are going to have to make other arrangements for feeding ourselves, and the signs all point to a much more profoundly localized, smaller scale, organic mode of farming, probably requiring a lot more human labor. I would go as far to say that farming will come closer to the center of American mainstream economic life than anyone now living in this country can remember. This will have enormous implications, by the way, for how we regard the remaining undeveloped rural land outside our towns and cities.

In these conditions I call the Long Emergency, national chain retail will fail, and probably very quickly. Wal-Mart and its clones will not survive the shock to their financial equations as the cost of running a "warehouse on wheels" rises inexorably and erases their profit margins. They will also run into trouble in two other big ways: as their customers lose jobs and spendable incomes, and with their 12,000-mile supply lines to China, as we begin to contest the world's remaining oil with them and other nations. We're going to have to rebuild our local networks of economic interdependency -- the very systems that Wal-Mart destroyed so successfully. We will probably have far fewer things to buy, and the shopping frenzy that has occupied the forefront of our economic scene will come to seem a strange accident of history.

The 21st century will be much more about staying where you are than about the kind of incessant mobility that we have become used to. If we want to get beyond our own towns and neighborhoods, we'll have to restore the passenger railroad system and electrify it. This is a project we should have started thirty years ago. Nothing else that we could do right away would have such a significant impact on our oil use. The rights-of-way and the tracks are lying out there waiting to be re-used. The task would put thousands of people to work at something obviously useful, and would benefit all ranks of society. The fact that we're not even talking about this shows how unserious we are.

We're going to have to inhabit the terrain of North America differently. Our big cities will probably contract, and severely, even as they re-densify at their old cores and along their waterfronts. We'll probably see a reversal of the 200-year-trend of populations moving from the farms and small towns to the big cities -- as agriculture assumes a larger role in our economic life. Many of our big cities are already in an advanced state of contraction -- Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, the list is very long. Cities overburdened with skyscrapers will suffer an additional layer of trouble. These buildings are purely the product of a cheap energy century. We have no idea how we will run them without abundant supplies of oil and natural gas.

Another unavoidable fact is that America has become Suburban Nation, and that this living arrangement has no future in a scarce fossil fuel world -- no matter how many times a politician says it is "non-negotiable." Reality is going to negotiate for us. Reality will compel us to live differently whether we like it or not -- and it is another interesting symptom of the infantilization of the American public that the most common intellectual defense of suburbia states that it must be okay because people choose it (see David Brooks, Robert Bruegmann, Joel Kotkin, Peter Huber, et al, on that).

The wishful thinking I discussed above partly derives from the powerful psychology of previous investment represented by suburbia. We've put so much of our national wealth into assembling this infrastructure for easy motoring that we can't imagine having to let go of it. But reality will take a dim view of our whining. We'll have to make other arrangements whether we like it or not. Suburbia is coming off the menu.

Of course, the failure of suburbia will amount to the failure of our current economy, of which the recent housing bubble has been the florid, terminal expression. The housing bubble was especially tragic because it was all based on building more of something that had no future in the first place -- the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. If you subtract the housing bubble and all its accessories (the strip malls, big box stores, fried food huts, mortgage mills, car sales) from the US economy, there isn't much left besides haircutting and open heart surgery. This has been the dirty secret of the economy for a decade or more.

As reality compels us to make other arrangements, and develop a different economy based on local production of things like food, suburbia will lose its value both in monetary terms -- what a 3000 square foot house 28 miles outside Denver will be worth in dollars -- and in terms of its sheer usefulness. I hear fantasies all the time to the effect that Americans will just suck it up and telecommute. This idea assumes, of course, that the electric grid will continue to be reliable -- not something that I would assume. It also assumes that the same jobs will exist to telecommute to. Ditto.

The failure of suburban real estate will naturally thunder through the financial sector, since all those reckless mortgages have entered the system as time bombs in the form of securitized tradable debt instruments. A shocking amount of hallucinated wealth will go up in a vapor.

The American public, poorly prepared, indoctrinated into the worship of unearned riches and the magical power of wishes, will feel swindled and bewildered. Eventually, they will grow angry over the loss of their presumed entitlements, and possibly violent. They may end up eating Donald Trump (and the wolverine that lives on his head). But whether we go through an epochal political convulsion or not, Americans will still be faced with rebuilding our society and an economy that serves it in a way that comports with reality. For the final truth is that life is tragic, and history won't care if we pound our version of civilization down a rat-hole.

Which brings me finally to the subject of hope. It is not the same as wishing, and life without hope may not be worth living. The picture I've drawn may seem very daunting and grim. Human societies have gone through the wringer before. Hope is something that individual people have to cultivate in themselves, not something that is distributed by the government or dropped by beneficent UFOs. The way people generate hope is by developing confidence in their ability to meet the difficulties that reality presents, and this requires a clear view of the difference between wishing and doing. It also requires earnest effort, a willingness to overcome failure and frustration, and the acquisition of real skills, perhaps different than the ones acquired previously.

Life has never really been easy in all of human history. The illusions and delusions of the cheap energy bonanza made it seem as though it could be effortless, or naturally ought to be easy. We're about to learn the hard way that nothing worth having or doing really does come that way. We're going to have to put our shoulders to the wheel and use our brains until our heads hurt. And once we get to work on making other arrangements, we're going to like it a lot better than the wastelands of the spirit we've lately sojourned in.