The beautiful look of civilisation gone mad

While I was casting around for a peg to hang this New Year rumination on, an email drew my attention to the lovely barrier island of Longboat Key off the west coast of Florida.

Longboat Key is 10 miles long and mostly only a few hundred yards wide. Today every inch of it looks like this:

Longboat.jpg

This highly ‘aspirational’ environment is what you get when an ingenious species breaks into hundreds of millions of years of stored sunlight and then burns through it in a two-century splurge. A hundred years ago, Longboat Key was still more or less what it had been for thousands of years: a few dozen square miles of sandy scrub. A handful of families lived at the northern end, fishing and growing guavas and other fruit. Only when the discovery of the East Texas and Gulf oilfields kicked off America’s unprecedented expansion of the mid-20th century did the Key begin to develop into the richly-manicured fairyland you see today.

Even in the 1960s, its human population was only just over 1,000 folk. It’s grown six-fold since then, although summer and winter visitors swell the total considerably. And of course, Longboat Key is just one relatively insignificant example of the mass conversion of the Earth’s surface into what’s really, if you look at it objectively, a vast fossil fuel-drenched playground.

Maybe 5% of the world’s human population has a realistic chance of travelling to somewhere like the Key on a holiday. Most people sincerely hope that ‘progress’ will eventually allow everyone in the world to enjoy the good life epitomised by the quiet, safe streets, neat houses and well-tended vegetation of energy-intensive developments like the Key.

Doesn’t sound much to ask does it? But the further you go down the biophysical pyramid supporting our apparently harmless lifestyles, the more contradictions you encounter. In the globalised version of industrial civilisation that’s been built in the few decades since I was born, everywhere is interconnected to everywhere else. Picture postcard Cotswold villages and breezy seaside resorts keep their hands fastidiously clean by outsourcing manufacturing and waste disposal to the other side of the planet – though not for much longer – but we’re no less involved in the human exploitation, habitat destruction, degradation of life-support systems and accelerating extinction rates that go with our ‘natural desire’ to ‘better ourselves.’

I find the contradiction at the heart of all this really hard to deal with. For the more we build out our industrial civilisation, the faster we approach the appoint where it starts to collapse rapidly in the face of impossible complexity combined with steady diminution of the net energy needed to ‘solve’ the complexity problem. This is nothing new. It’s happened to every human civilisation in history – though nothing like on the scale ours will face.

Why I’m worrying, I can’t say. It’s safe to say most of Longboat Key will look like this sooner or later:

But the chances are that it won’t be in my lifetime. Perhaps in another century or two, a dozen families will again fish and farm amid the crumbling concrete remains on the Key. Although, given that its highest point is only about four metres above sea level, who’s to say climate change-driven events won’t completely erase the island.

Incidentally, the sad-looking place in the above pic was a thriving tennis resort for a few years. Over 40 years the spot went from unspoilt wildlife habitat, to 17-acre resort, to ruin. Now a developer is talking about spending a billion dollars to knock it all down and build another upscale playground for a tiny sliver of humanity. What a way to fritter away the last of mankind’s allocation of fossil sunlight.

Madness is doing the same thing over and over again hoping for a different result.

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Questions and Answers

Dreaming about rockets to Mars is easy compared to, say, transitioning our futureless Agri-Biz racket to other methods of agriculture that don’t destroy soils, water tables, ecosystems, and bodies. It’s easier than rearranging our lives on the landscape so we’re not hostage to motoring everywhere for everything. It’s easier than educating people to both think and develop real hands-on skills not dependent on complex machines and electric-powered devices.

James Howard Kunstler

Car-boom!

Yesterday’s Guardian G2 section led with the somewhat self-consciously juvenile word, ‘Vroom!’.

Subtitled ‘Why Britain can’t stop buying new cars‘, the cover story tried to answer why car sales are rising in the UK while stagnating everywhere else in Europe.

It provided a handy platform for assorted industry mouthpieces to congratulate Britons on being clever little consumers. Apparently we are becoming adept at signing personal leases and/or rushing into car dealerships to blow PPI payouts on deposits on car loans.

And to be fair, £69 a month for a brand new Skoda Citigo runaround isn’t a lot more than a his’n’hers iPhone/iPad contract. Assuming of course that you can chop your old car in for the £2,500 deposit.

And to be fairer than fair, the writer did ask some awkward questions. Why are fewer and fewer young people bothering to learn to drive? Why are annual mileages dropping?

Naturally, the industry came back with ready-prepared answers. Young people just need the right kind of ‘marketing’ to turn them back on to car ownership: cue ‘cool’ car ads that are so painful you want to stick needles in your eyes. Mileages are really falling only in London and the south east, because public transport is quite good there and executive-level company car users all use Skype or the phone these days.

To be honest, it all sounded rather defensive. The overall picture painted by the article was that of an industry whose existing customers are happy to use alternatives when they become available while potential new customers are increasingly disinclined, not to mention financially unable, to contemplate buying its products.

Cheap credit and the fact that Britain is not in the euro are behind this mini boom in UK car sales. The article pointed out that carmakers are assiduously pumping production into the UK to try to keep their factories humming as demand in the eurozone collapses.

The big risk to the UK car business is that it is storing up big problems further down the road. Sales are being bought expensively through wafer thin margins, heightened credit risks and discounts that end up depressing second values and thus hurting the all important fleet sector, which makes up half the market.

So the answer to the Guardian’s question appears to be: ‘Because British car buyers are easily-influenced novelty-seekers with an underdeveloped sense of consequences. Rather like four-year-olds.

A much more interesting question, which hopefully the Guardian will get round to investigating, is why so many Europeans have apparently broken themselves of the new car habit?

What do they see that we don’t?

The retailers’ tale

Well I went to the mall on Sunday and bought a disposable fountain pen for £3.20. Big deal. Getting to the mall and back by car cost used £5-worth of petrol* . Then there was the £6.50 two coffees and a slice of shortbread, plus about £40 on a tin of paint, a light fitting, some sandpaper, and a notepad and birthday card for a friend’s daughter.

So a bit under sixty quid in a three-hour sojourn at the coalface of consumerism. Not a great economic return on the £20 million-worth of cars gathered around it, plus whatever it costs to keep the place running seven days a week. Although by recent standards, the mall was decently decked-out with people, you couldn’t always call them ‘shoppers’ since there seemed to be many more of them in the thoroughfares and coffee bars than in the shops.

At least a dozen units, including some anchor locations, were closed. My wife said she’d only counted six shuttered units a couple of weeks ago. The mall operators had got round to boarding-up about half the closed units. Printed across the hoardings were slightly larger-than-life images of artfully minimalist shop window displays. They showed frocks, shoes and handbags in oddly muted colours – as if apologising for drawing attention to the two-dimensionality of retail gratification.

Several of the stores had closed in the past few days. Monsoon and East had evidently decided they had too many outlets for today’s demand for massively marked-up garments imported from the low-wage countries, as somewhat cynically evoked by their brand names. Stripped of stock, fittings and twinkly display lighting, the vacated units looked cramped and ugly. But the gods of retailing abhor dark spaces far more than ugliness so each empty space was bathed in a wan glow seeping from a few basic light fittings.

Notices taped to windows still streaked with dust left by the removal men varied from brashly informative, poster-sized placards – “You can still visit us at Canary Wharf!” (just 120 miles away) – to shamefaced bits of A4, apparently knocked out on the stockroom inkjet moments before it was hauled off to head office. Few people looked at the notices, let alone past them to the stripped-out interiors. Who wants to see the dreary concrete and steel carapaces encasing the brightly lit fantasy of each carefully-differentiated fashion brand? Who wants to see the cheap sameness of production, margins, distribution, positioning, promotion and ‘loyalty-building’ laid bare by the pitiless emptiness behind dirty plate glass?

In any case, what good are repeat customers if they’re too broke to take advantage of the volume-related discounts that masquerade as loyalty? We are in a deflationary depression. Hardly any of the expanding supply of funny money from central banks is finding its way into people’s pockets. With every passing year, more people are corralled into shopping for necessities alone. Fewer and fewer have spare cash to shop at Karen Millen and Cecil Gee, even though they still have the inclination to do so.

Ironically, the primary reason for the death of the retailers in the mall on the hill was scattered thickly across its windswept car parks. Without cars, the out-of-town retail park wouldn’t exist. But with cars, the customers can’t afford to buy the goods. Cars are a commitment to waste. Day in and day out they cost the average owner £14 in fuel, bills and depreciation. Cars spend 95% of their time doing precisely nothing. That’s 13.30 a day, £93 per week, £4,840 a year to do nothing apart from suck up money.

But unless people maintain their financial commitment to personal mobility, going to the mall would be half the fun for twice the price. Going there by train and bus instead of by car would have taken us twice as long and cost about twice as much as the roughly 45p per mile it costs to run the car. The bottom line is the mall’s future is tightly tied to the future of cars-first transportation. In a future where cars-first transportation probably won’t exist, there will be no rationale for places like the mall.

Significantly, several of the outlets that have recently abandoned the out-of-town mall have moved to units at its new town-centre rival. That place doesn’t have ‘easy surface parking’ or a major motorway running right past it but it’s slap bang in the heart of the city, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people who could … at a pinch … put a couple of thousand quid of shopping money in their pockets each year by chucking-in car ownership.

That’s a calculation more people are starting to make. And of course, if fewer people drive in cities, the cities become more liveable. Then moving retail … or what’s left of it …to the centre makes more sense. Unfortunately, the economy is so utterly geared to driving that moving away from a cars-first lifestyle will cause a long period of stagnation punctuated by brief upticks and occasional crashes. But the end of affordable oil has baked that scenario into the cake anyway.

The spiral is self-reinforcing. Less driving = less money. Less money = less retailing. Less retailing = less money (in a so-called ‘consumer’ economy). Less money = less retailing. Rinse and repeat. Until or unless energy starts getting cheaper again (and there is no reason why the fossil energy that powers 90% of global industrial civilisation will get any cheaper), that process will inexorably accelerate.

For a while to come, places like the mall will be able to mask the decline with dressy pictures of dressed-up windows that disguise the gaps in their pearly smiles. But eventually the point will come when someone has to weigh up the costs of constructing a really good public transport link out to the fringe mall (say a tramway) against the obvious and far cheaper expedient of moving the flagship retailers back to where the people already are – which of course would be the end of the out-of-town retail park.

Me? Well apart from a bottle of perfume my wife chose as a present to herself from her mother there was nothing we couldn’t have bought online, or in our nearest town. We went because we still have a modest amount of time, money and fuel to waste. When we don’t we won’t. And that will be another tick on the countdown to the end of car-dependent retailing.

* £5 is what it cost to buy it. Arguably such a fantastic store of lightweight, transportable energy is worth much more than a fiver