Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Trouble Brewin'

Ford's June sales are down 27.9% from the same time last year. "Ford sales sank to a new 52-week low, while rival General Motors Corp. shares are trading near their lowest level in more than a half century" according to our friends at the Associate Press Tom Krisher and Dee-Ann Durbin. Everyone in both the auto and airline industries must be flabbergasted. Who could have imagined everything would come apart so quickly? Well, actually we Peakniks imagined it, but no one listens to us much. People can't afford new cars and they certainly can't afford to keep those cars running. Who can save anything when the cost of the necessary driving takes up every available dollar and then some?

I was listening to NPR yesterday morning and heard a story about how the rural poor are being hit the hardest by the multiplying of gas prices. These are people who live way the hell out in the middle of nowhere but commute to factory jobs and such very far away. They aren't really rural, but are as Jim Kunstler puts it "living urban lifestyles in rural settings." These people are not going to make it. It was heart-breaking to hear one woman break down a bit when she discussed the impending loss of her home. Sometimes there are no easy answers or quick fixes or any fix at all. Sometimes there is only suffering to be had for the bad choices already made. (And sometimes the bad choices for which we suffer aren't even our own! )

The contrarian expectation to which I'm so prone is for energy prices to reverse their direction at least for a little while. After all, just when everyone is convinced of one thing it's time to make bets that everyone will be proven to be wrong. In this scenario, however, I suspect that things will turn out much, much worse than the majority of folks expect. They'll be surprised anyway, just not in the manner they were expecting. Prices up, wages down, jobs lost, etc, nothing new here, but we ain't seen nuthin' yet. I suspect the (emerging and permanent) energy crisis will bring the soon-to-be-formerly middle class of this country to absolute ruin before energy prices ease off. A few numbers to illustrate the point: by the time pump prices stabilize at $10, they will have already hit $15 or $20 long enough to drive most suburban households (which are still most households) to bankruptcy and foreclosure.

There is going to be work aplenty, however, for these newly ruined masses. We in this country will have a lot of rebuilding to do. A lot of what we've built in the past 60 years will have to be abandoned. Our challenge will be to build walkable towns and cities that will conform to the new world of decreased available energy. The same stuff that New Urbanists and Peak Oil Prophets have been begging the citizens of the U.S. to do by choice will have to be done out of hard, tearful necessity. There will be a hundred million families in this country who will watch everything they've come to view as normal simply cease to work: where they've been able to live, the physical manifestation of their communities in service to driving and car storage and multi-mile commutes, the way they've conducted business, the manner in which they've gotten their food. All of this is going to be forced to change. I gave up campaigning for these changes as a matter of mass volition years ago. I find it much more satisfying to watch as we all catch it in the neck and scarcity makes the changes for us while making paupers of us all.