Out On A Limb
by James Howard Kunstler, June 12, 2013
There is one supreme and universal law of human relations in all its manifestations, social, political, economic, cultural: people create no end of mischief in the hours when they are not sleeping. Any vision of history-yet-to-come must be predicated on this principle.
A correspondent of mine objected to the idea I floated a couple of times that Japan would be the first advanced industrial nation to "go medieval." This prompts me to clarify that emphasis should be on the word "first." The re-set to a much lower scale and intensity of human activity is certain for all nations; the only questions are the timeframe and the quality of the journey and those are sure to vary from one group of people to another.
I picked on Japan because their journey seems to have compressed and accelerated in recent years and also because there's a lot to admire in their possible destination if history is any guide: a graceful culture of lower energy and high artistry. The transition between that older culture and the point of industrial take-off was also much sharper for Japan than so-called Western societies. They did not look back on the startling episode of Rome and they didn't experience a thrilling "Renaissance" of rediscovery in its technical achievements — which eventuated in the Western discovery of a "new world" and all its exploitable resources. The Japanese were pestered by Catholic missionaries for a brief time beginning in the 1540s, but tossed them out in 1620s, along with the merchants who accompanied them — and then very consciously barred the door. They even gave up on the guns that the Euro-people had introduced, regarding them as unsportsmanlike. Finally, Commodore Perry from the USA landed in the 1850s, with all the weight of Western technological momentum behind him, and demanded access to trade there and Japan, in effect, surrendered to modernity.
They also thrived on it for a while. For one thing, they had a lot of beautifully-made exotic cultural objects to trade with the west, and their artisan skill level in things like ceramics and metallurgy made the transition to industrial technology of their own easy. In half a century, Japan went from an isolated archipelago of tea ceremonies and silks to building steel battleships and airplanes, and we all know the mischief that led to during the first half of the horrid 20th century: the Rape of Nanking, the Bataan Death March, the bombing of Tokyo, and Hiroshima. Then came Act 2: postwar economic revival, the SONY stereo, Mitsubishi, major league baseball, and really excellent automobiles. That went on for while, too. About 40 years.
There was one insurmountable problem lurking in the background: Japan did not possess any fossil fuels, oil or methane gas, to run all the equipment of modernity that they had ramped up. That didn't matter so much when imported oil was $11-a-barrel, but it became crucial when the cost quickly rose to $100-a-barrel, as it did in recent years. It also began to matter that Japan's bigger neighbor and age-old rival (and sometimes victim), China, ramped up its own industrial economy which, of course, consumed a healthy portion of what the world oil market put up for sale. By the early 21st century, China was eating Japan's lunch (its bento box, shall we say) by manufacturing the same stuff that the Japanese had excelled at making, and all of a sudden the whole project of modernity in Japan hit the skids.
Then came the Tōhoku earthquake of 2011, and the giant wall of water that slammed, among other things, the multiple nuclear reactors at Fukushima. The Japanese industrial confederation had taken a certain amount of comfort in its ability to keep the electricity going by other means than fossil fuels. Now, all of a sudden, a nuclear dragon was loose upon the land, a veritable Godzilla, Japan's worst nightmare. A year later, all but two of Japan's nuclear power plants were shut down. By no coincidence, Japan also found itself wallowing in a trade deficit after decades of enjoying trade surpluses, due to the amount of oil and gas the nation had to import to keep the electricity running.
Japan's energy predicament is expressing itself in a financial crisis, naturally enough, since finance is a set of abstract markers for what is happening in an economy — and the country's finances are pretty much running amok as its political leaders try desperately to adjust to the new realities of powerdown. They are employing accounting fraud to offset the inescapable failures of capital formation under the circumstances, the same as all the other advanced industrial nations. As a purely financial matter it simply amounts to no longer being able to generate enough new wealth to pay the interest on old credit, or to justify the creation of new credit. Since credit is the lifeblood of industrialism, the sun is setting on that phase of history. Japan finds itself in a dishonorable quandary and in tune with some of its older cultural infrastructure appears to be committing suicide with a sword thrust into the guts of its banking system.
America, in contrast, is driving over the edge of the Grand Canyon, Thelma-and-Louise-style. Europe is drinking a poison cup in sumptuous seclusion. China and India will just look like lemming marches into the increasingly vacant sea.
Financial hara-kiri might be the best outcome for Japan — better, say, than a war with China over some desolate islands — if Japan were to retreat as rapidly back into a traditional artisan economy as it bailed out of in the 1860s. I realize this is a long-shot and includes many knotty elements not under discussion here, such as population reduction and the fate of Fukushima. Also, history is almost never symmetrical. Things don't retrace the arc they came up. The journey will surely be bumpier. But Japan might get there first and set some interesting precedents for the rest of us.
At the heart of the matter is this. Industrialism is an entropic project. It accelerates and intensifies entropy, which is to say the drive toward disorder and death. Tradition in human societies is the great moderator of entropy. Of course nothing stays the same forever, but some of us would like to see the human project continue, and to get to a place where it can feel comfortable with itself for a while, perhaps even something resembling a new (and completely unfamiliar) golden age, when the people not asleep can be trusted.