Article

Review:
Crimes against Nature by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
The long emergency by James Howard Kunstler

Robert F Kennedy Jr., son of the senator and nephew of the president, describes the US as it is: in his words, a “fascist” state run by “corporate robber-barons”. James Howard Kunstler looks into its future—for what can such a country do when the oil runs out? In Britain, we are left to marvel yet again that our elected leaders, Brown as well as Blair, are so besotted by a society that is so obviously dysfunctional and a regime so clearly off-beam. Blair will surely take his much-anticipated place in history alongside Mussolini: the little big man who got it all horribly wrong.

Kennedy for 20 years has been an environmental lawyer. Reagan was short-termist (“How many trees do you want?”, he famously asked) but compared to Bush he was cuddly. America's government is answerable to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which should function as a streamlined House of Lords, as a monitor and tweaker of legislation. But for Bush, OIRA is a personal hit-squad. He is a corporate man through and through and treats the presidency as the Borgias treated the papacy—a handy addition to the portfolio.

Take just one example, from agriculture. Smithfield Foods raises pigs. Each pig produces as much excrement as 10 people and a typical Smithfield's unit, with 850,000 animals, thus produces as much ordure as London. One such has long been polluting virtually all the rivers of North Carolina. After some years, in 2000, Kennedy was able to bring a case against them, on behalf of the environment lobby Waterkeeper Alliance.

Under the Clean Water Act, factories cannot dump inadequately treated effluent into rivers and the judge, a Reagan appointee, accordingly ruled that Smithfield must clean up their act. But this would have put them and their ilk out of business—exposing the lie that such farming is truly “efficient”. One year later the Bush administration declared that Smithfield's diabolical units should be subject only to the rules that apply to small farms, which are allowed to put manure (in small and useful quantities) on to the land. OIRA continues to hammer home the point such that now, in 13 states, special “veggie libel” laws make it illegal even to criticise food from factory farms or industrial processors. When the law itself is on the side of the villains, what are the people supposed to do?

Kennedy's solution is for a truly free market. But markets do not operate in the interests of society as a whole unless bound by laws that are rooted in morality: and if the market is thus restrained, how “free” can it be said to be? But this is civilised discourse—the kind that used to occupy Old Labour and the traditional Tories. What we have now is frank, legalised corruption. Bush's regime is fascist, says Kennedy, by definition: a state run by big business. Mussolini, an idealist of a kind, recognised that this is what fascism amounts to, and regretted it.

But, says Kunstler, the US way of life and its global influence are on the way out. They depend entirely upon cheap energy, and global oil production has already peaked. More than half of all Americans live in vast, rambling suburbs—a 30 mile drive to and from work and another 20 more to the supermarket. The average suburbanite makes five such journeys a day. In US cities people typically live and work in the world's tallest buildings. Meanwhile, big industry and farming have been “out-sourced” to less-advantaged people far away to carry out for slave wages, far from the gaze of pesky environmentalists.

Take away the oil or make it dear, and the whole bubble collapses. The suburbs become uninhabitable. Proud, mortgaged home-owners find themselves stuck with junk. One power cut per year and people might struggle to the top of a skyscraper. But when the cuts become routine the towers cease to be functional and must be abandoned -- although they are too expensive to demolish and can only be left to decay. With industry gone and farming robotised there is nothing for anyone to do. This is not fantasy. Already, big pulsing cities like Detroit are “donuts”: the middle gone—reduced to slums and wasteland—and only the suburb left. Others seek to stave off the decay with spanking new art galleries and sports stadiums (sounds familiar?). But, says Kunstler, the only truly viable towns these days are the small traditional ones that you can walk around, surrounded by farmland that once produced food for local consumption, and could do so again. Like Kennedy, and unlike almost all the world's most influential politicians, including all of Britain's, Kunstler takes farming seriously. He recognises that the future, like the past, must be primarily agrarian if humanity and the world at large are to survive.

Kunstler sees the end of the global corporates: “Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target, Home Depot are all going to wither and die”. He is surely right. But will the mentality that gave rise to them die as well? To some extent it must. Globalisation and hence the transnationals must peter out as the oil disappears and mass rapid transport becomes unsupportable. But in general, the old ways of thinking will persist. Corporations, like governments, are run by hawks, and hawks are always with us. Kunstler suggests that the hawks in a post-corporate, post-oil, post big tech world may well manifest as new-born Feudal barons: the newly poor, stranded suburbanites obliged faute de mieux to be their serfs. As humanity moves into the post-oil world we need new ways of living, right enough. But we also need new forms of governance to ensure that we don't simply go on creating the same old dreary hierarchies in different forms, era after era. We need to design mechanisms of government that can pre-empt the rise of gangsters—in short, to make democracy work. But at least the passing of cheap oil will draw the teeth of the present incumbents.

There are jokers in the pack which neither author spends much time on. One is the rise of IT which in principle puts everyone in touch with everyone else. Energy may be too dear to ferry people and goods around the world willy-nilly but we could run the global internet on solar power. This should seriously modify the isolationism of traditional economies—possibly with evil consequences but also, potentially, for good. Another, more immediate joker, is the present economic shift. Will China just stand by while America decays? Will it put the boot in, or strive for its own reasons to prop it up? Or will its own new economy collapse, as America's must, as global warming bites and the oil runs out? Before too many decades China's own Manhattan skylines, in Beijing and Shanghai, will surely seem just as forlorn as Manhattan's are going to.

We, Great Britain, are a kind of joker. Our own role in world affairs under Blair and Brown is as an irritant, minor but perhaps crucial, supporting all the forces that are squandering resources, consolidating power in the hands of the few, and undermining the possible and necessary alternatives—a more civilised Europe; agriculture as a whole. America's own style of Protestantism has given rise to fundamentalism which, so Robert Kennedy tells us, has created an apocalyptic mentality. People in high places as well as in the sticks and suburbs truly believe that Christ will soon be back, and the world will end, so there is no point in thinking about the future at all. Bush may think he is the messiah; Blair and Brown seem content to be his disciples. Those who feel that humanity should continue must circumvent these people with their narrow, short-term vision. Analysis is needed—how did we get into this mess?—and practical suggestions. The necessary literature is building up apace, and Kennedy and Kunstler are key contributors. If you give a damn, you should read these books.