Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Long Emergency

I have started reading one of the classics of paperback misanthropism: “The Long Emergency” by James Howard Kunstler. I know I have seen this book tucked away in more than one Neo-Malthusian's bag at different conferences over the years. And this far, the book really must confirm their worldview with its basic argument that modernity is bad, bad, bad, and that the progress of the last hundred years is only a “bubble of abundance” supported by cheap fossil fuels.

As much as I think that humanity will be faced with difficult challenges in the century ahead, I am afraid that this book could single-handedly turn me into a neo-liberal:

1) In line with many other writers in the tradition, Kunstler does not at all seem to appreciate the flip side of alienation, namely freedom. He only sees the loss of “organic community” and the rise of “loneliness, anomie, anxiety, and depression”. Yet, anyone who has grown up in a small town or a village knows what social control means and what emancipation it can bring to be allowed to define oneself anew in an urban environment rather than being forced to stay within the same static social role.

2) According to Kunstler, the end of economic globalization is nigh. He views the period ahead as “one of generalized and chronic contraction”. As much as I am tempted to quote Keynes here, I think what is fundamentally missing from his analysis is the fact that people today, unlike in the past, aspire towards the global. People everywhere want their children to grow up and learn about the world. It is a simple fact that once you travel, you want to travel more. And though it may not immediately turn people into political cosmopolitans, the increased mobility does bring an everydayness to the “international” that earlier generations did not have. Although I know that much of this is remain an elite project, it is worth noting that global tourism last year increased to 940 million international tourist arrivals (despite the recession). And as for the global economy as whole, I think Kunstler makes a mistake when he equates the long-term potential of (welfare) capitalism with the last decade of easy credit and speculation. In particular, he seems to entirely ignore the role of education and social policy as drivers of growth.

3) The hopeless lack of a global subject. As much as Kunstler may be right that peak oil, pandemics and habitat destruction are difficult problems he does not seem to appreciate the possibility that humanity may actually “wake up” and decide to act proactively in the century ahead, that we may eventually understand that we are the masters of our own fate and that, working together, we can do remarkable things. It may sound science ficitonish but when thinking about it, the step from fearful nation states to political cosmopolitanism is nothing compared to the historic leap from tribalism to abstract statehood. Perhaps my basic point is that Kunstler, like many of his friends, are obsessively focused on the ills of consumption rather than the possibilities of production, creativity and imagination. And despite the risk of sounding very much like Johan Norberg now, all this made it impossible for me to resist having a nice Thai crunch salad with avocado at California Pizza Kitchen at the newly opened restaurant in 청랑리억.



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