(Note: Linked Website Contains Profanity)
While there is some justice to the observation that Chesterton romanticized the medieval peasantry - though even this observation can be, and has been, overstated - the notion that economic decentralization and its logical correlate, political decentralization, (whether one wishes to refer to this as old-fashioned American federalism, or, more philosophically, subsidiarity) are exercises in wild-eyed, Jacobinical romanticism is - to put a blunt point on the matter - nonsensical. While I've scant interest in unfolding a lengthy disquisition on the inviability of proposed energy alternatives, suffice it to state that the beginning of the end of the Era of Cheap Energy, with all that cheap energy has made possible, is nigh upon us, if it has not yet dawned. Globalization itself, though it manifestly presupposes cheap energy, promises a steady increase in the costs of energy, and has already occasioned the weakening of Big Oil as a geopolitical force; declining reserves, and the strategic nature of such resources, have precipitated a renewed movement to declare such resources 'strategic', and to shepherd them as forms of sovereign wealth, as opposed to commodities to be auctioned off to multinationals. Even, that is to state, if Peak Oil has not yet come to pass - though it must, in time, if it has not already - there will be exerted a steady upward pressure on energy prices; recessions may develop, but the economies of the world are predicated upon ceaseless expansion, meaning that anything necessary will be undertaken to stimulate Growth, that god of the age. And Growth demands energy; and energy is finite, and certainly only renewable at levels far below the plenitude to which we have become accustomed, and on the presupposition of which our societies constructed.
Herewith, therefore, James Kunstler on the absurdity of our growth-economy and its consequences:
A reader sent me a passle of recent clippings last week from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It contained one story after another about the perceived need to build more highways in order to maintain "economic growth" (and incidentally about the "foolishness" of public transit). I understood that to mean the need to keep the suburban development system going, since that has been the real main source of the Sunbelt's prosperity the past 60-odd years. They cannot imagine an economy that is based on anything besides new subdivisions, freeway extensions, new car sales, and Nascar spectacles. The Sunbelt, therefore, will be ground-zero for all the disappointment emanating from this cultural disaster, and probably also ground-zero for the political mischief that will ensue from lost fortunes and crushed hopes.
Continuing with a series of practical measures, Kunstler writes:
Stop all highway-building altogether. Instead, direct public money into repairing railroad rights-of-way. Put together public-private partnerships for running passenger rail between American cities and towns in between. If Amtrak is unacceptable, get rid of it and set up a new management system. At the same time, begin planning comprehensive regional light-rail and streetcar operations.
End subsidies to agribusiness and instead direct dollar support to small-scale farmers, using the existing regional networks of organic farming associations to target the aid. (This includes ending subsidies for the ethanol program.)
Kunstler's policy programme continues in this vein, encompassing the reforms of town planning, education, and the nation's economic architecture - all of which will be eminently necessary once a certain critical threshold of the depletion of energy resources has been surpassed. All the more reason to contemplate the requisite decentralist solutions presently. Additionally, Americans, he writes, would be well-counseled to "prepare psychologically for a sociopolitical climate of anger, grievance, and resentment." When people suddenly find themselves deprived of the material abundance they have presumed to be a birthright - and more than that, a feature of nature itself in operation - they will be quite disturbed, and disturbing. All the more reason...
And the significance of all of this for distributism as a way of thinking about political economy? Simply that a world of enormous unaccountable conglomerates will no longer be feasible once the implications of energy scarcity are assimilated; more localized, small-scale ownership and production will be our principal recourse once the present economic architecture suffers the loss of its material preconditions.