Wednesday, September 07, 2005

In the Background
Tuesday, September 6, 2005,
Clusterfuck Nation by Jim Kunstler
Comment on current events by the author of "The Long Emergency" (also on

We've entered the blame-o-rama phase of Hurricane Katrina. I actually heard Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff sparring with NPR's Robert Siegal on the air last Thursday, and a more weasily performance than Chertoff's would be hard to find in any bureaucratic circle of hell. FEMA chief Michael Brown gave new dimension to the word "clusterfuck" by blocking private charity shipments of food and water into New Orleans and making the armed forces "work around" his agency in order to get anything done. And it was revealed yesterday that a navy hospital ship idled with empty beds off the Louisiana coast without orders while old people died slow deaths on the sidewalks outside the Convention Center.

There has already been one proposal for rebuilding the city, from Daniel Libeskind, whose proposal for turning the World Trade Center site into the set for a German expressionist horror movie won the hearts and minds of the architectural mandarins in New York. Libeskind said that New Orleans should adopt a jazz theme. Wow! Maybe they should think about serving Creole food to go with it.

The actual tendency in practice, is to build back pretty much what was there before, because the insurance companies demand it. If a strip mall was washed away, then the insurer will only finance the rebuilding of a strip mall. This is most unfortunate, particularly for those places further east of New Orleans along the Gulf Coast, and a hundred miles inland, because they were composed primarily of suburban sprawl. If they rebuild along that template, they will do so in the face of strong signals from reality that the age of Easy Motoring is over. The romance of the car may be too great to overcome in Dixie.

We have as yet no word how the cluster of downtown skyscrapers in New Orleans proper fared, but there is a good chance that some of them will not survive the damage to their foundations. It would be a shame to rebuild priapic towers in a new era when the urban norm probably should not exceed seven stories (the walkable limit for buildings with stairs). All our big cities will be contracting in the years ahead, as the electric grid becomes less reliable, and the demographic trend of the past two hundred years reverses, with populations shifting back to small towns and agricultural regions. It was interesting to see, finally, that the driest place in New Orleans was the French Quarter, the original settlement.

The poor neighborhoods were composed largely of shotgun shacks, little post-war brick bunkers, and government-built housing projects. Virtually all of them appear to be ruined. I'd guess that few were insured, and the insurers will probably try to label it "flood damage," which generally exempts them from paying out. The population that inhabited them is now dispersed, and some of those who feel that they lost everything may not return. These neighborhoods will be blank slates. But they will also remain low-lying in relation to a coastline that is losing its wetland buffers against an ocean that is seeing a cycle of more violent storms, probably due to global warming. Anything new built in these wards will not be insurable.

Meanwhile momentous things are swirling in the background. The price of gasoline may retreat sometime in two to six weeks, but I doubt it will fall below the $2.50 range again. In fact, having gone way above the psychological barrier of $3.00, the gasoline retailers may resist falling below that. There have been no new oil refineries built in the US since the late 1970s. There will be no new ones built now, despite the crunch on refined "product." Why? Because the oil companies understand that they are in a twilight industry and refineries represent huge investments in future activity, which the corporations correctly perceive will be shrinking as global oil production passes peak.

The biggest shock to the public lies a couple of months ahead when the cost of natural gas for home heating (50 percent of the dwellings in America) combines with stubbornly higher pump prices to whap them upside the head. Natural gas at around $12.00 is now many times what it cost as recently as 2003 ($3.00). A lot of Americans will be shivering this winter and some of the weak, old, and poor will die as a result.

President Bush has already taken a hit on his appointees' Chinese Fire Drill response to disaster management. But the toll from the energy problems the whole nation faces will be more insidious. Strapped for cash from filling their gas tanks, unable to buy Christmas presents at WalMart, and huddled around space heaters, the public will be wondering why they were so poorly prepared.