Two Clues for the Clueless
By : James Howard Kunstler
The first clue came during a routine NPR news broadcast on Friday, which had presidential candidate Mitt Romney retailing the shopworn idea that our nation "is dependent on foreign oil." We've heard this a million times, of course, and we accept it without thinking. But if you venture forward mentally one baby step, you will quickly come to see that, no, this dependence on foreign oil is not itself the problem. The problem is that we have adopted a living arrangement so hopelessly centered around cars and incessant motoring and one of the consequences is an addiction to oil, which we happen to have a declining supply of in our own land.
In other words, the problem is not the fact that two-thirds of the oil we use comes from other nations, but is about our own behavior in our own nation. In a reality-based existence, it is more effective to modify one's own behavior than to try to govern the behavior of other sovereign individuals and entities. It ought to be a test of anybody applying for the position of president to realize this, and to communicate it to the public. One might expect a Republican candidate to artfully avoid this reality -- since car-dealers and suburban sprawl developers are among the heartiest Republicans. But it's disgraceful for the Democratic opposition to ignore this reality.
The gravest problem this nation faces, therefore, is the inability of the American public and its leaders to confront the fact that we can't continue to live the way we do -- and, by the way, when I say "leaders," I don't restrict myself to political leaders. Our failures of leadership are comprehensive, including leadership in my nominal sector, journalism. For two weeks in a row, the price of oil on the futures markets has closed above $80-a-barrel, and for these two weeks The New York Times Sunday Business Section has failed to run one story on the consequences of oil rising into this uncharted territory of high price. Are the Times editors on crack? Surely $80-plus oil will thunder through the American economy.
The second clue for the clueless came over the weekend when President Bush declared that the chaos reigning in America's airports had reached such an intolerable level that the federal government might have to step in and whip the airlines into shape by regulating routes and apportioning flights. Again, the inability of the public and its leaders to extend a thought one inch beyond the horizon of a given problem is really striking. It's as if the entire nation had suffered a lobotomy -- and perhaps we have, through the agency of excessive TV-watching.
Has it occurred to anybody that if we could run choo-choo trains between cities a few hundred miles apart -- say from Cleveland to Columbus Ohio -- we could decongest the airports overnight? That, by so doing, Americans could travel much more pleasurably and affordably between the places they travel to most often? It certainly hasn't occurred to anybody running for president, or any of the editors-in-chief in the news media, or even any executive in what remains of the the railroad industry. But I'll try to boil it down to a digestible sound byte for them: the best way to relieve the current agony of air travel is to get the passenger trains running again. Let the airlines do what they do best: really long-range trips. Let trains do the rest. We will consume less foreign oil. The jobs now hemorrhaging out of the US auto industry could move into the passenger rail and rolling stock sectors. Everybody will be much happier.
The people I know complain endlessly about how stupid President George W. Bush is, and how badly he has lied to the public about this or that. But a casual observer from Mars would have to conclude that President Bush perfectly represents a nation that shows such a thoroughgoing incapacity for thought, and such an aversion to the truth about its own behavior. A people so hopelessly unwilling to get its act together deserves to suffer.