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Globalisation is an Anomaly and Its Time is Running Out

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  • Mike Neuman
    Globalisation is an Anomaly and Its Time is Running Out Cheap energy and relative peace helped create a false doctrine by James Howard Kunstler The big yammer
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 5, 2005
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      Globalisation is an Anomaly and Its Time is Running Out
      Cheap energy and relative peace helped create a false doctrine

      by James Howard Kunstler

      The big yammer these days in the United States is to the effect that
      globalisation is here to stay: it's wonderful, get used to it. The
      chief cheerleader for this point of view is Thomas Friedman,
      columnist for the New York Times and author of The World Is Flat. The
      seemingly unanimous embrace of this idea in the power circles of
      America is a marvellous illustration of the madness of crowds, for
      nothing could be further from the truth than the idea that
      globalisation is now a permanent fixture of the human condition.
      Today's transient global economic relations are a product of very
      special transient circumstances, namely relative world peace and
      absolutely reliable supplies of cheap energy. Subtract either of
      these elements from the equation and you will see globalisation
      evaporate so quickly it will suck the air out of your lungs. It is
      significant that none of the cheerleaders for globalisation takes
      this equation into account. In fact, the American power elite is
      sleepwalking into a crisis so severe that the blowback may put both
      major political parties out of business.

      The world saw an earlier phase of robust global trade run from the
      1870s to a dead stop in 1914. This was the boom period of railroad
      construction and the advent of the ocean-going steamship. The great
      powers had existed in relative peace since Napoleon's last stand. The
      Crimean war was a minor episode that took place in backwaters of
      Eurasia, and the Franco-Prussian war was a comic opera that lasted
      less than a year - most of it the static siege of Paris. The American
      civil war hardly affected the rest of the world.

      This first phase of globalisation then took off under coal-and-steam
      power. There was no shortage of fuel, the colonial boundaries were
      stable, and the pipeline of raw materials from them to the factories
      of western Europe ran smoothly. The rise of a middle class running
      the many stages of the production process provided markets for all
      the new production. Innovations in finance gave legitimacy to all
      kinds of tradable paper. Life was very good for Europe and America,
      notwithstanding a few sharp cyclical depressions and recoveries.
      Trade boomed between the great powers. The belle époque
      represented the high tide of hopeful expectations. In America, it was
      called the progressive era. The 20th century looked golden.

      It all fell apart in 1914. Historians are still baffled about what
      really brought on the first world war. What did France or Britain
      really care about Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the
      throne of a country already in deep eclipse? There were no active
      contests over territory at the time, not even in the Asian or African
      colonies. And yet the diplomatic failures of that fateful summer led
      to the great slaughter of the trenches, the death of a substantial
      portion of the younger generation, and a virtual nervous breakdown of
      authority in politics and culture. It would take a depression,
      fascism, and a second world war to resolve these issues and a new
      round of globalisation did not ramp up again until the mid-1960s.

      It may be significant that the first collapse of globalisation
      occurred as the coal economy was transitioning into an oil economy,
      with deep geo-political implications for who had oil (America) and
      those who might seek to control the other major region closest to
      Europe that possessed it (then the Caspian, since Arabian oil was as
      yet undiscovered). The first world war was settled by those nations
      (Britain and France) that were friendly with the greatest producer of
      oil most readily accessed. Germany was the loser and again in the
      reprise for its poor access to oil. Japan suffered similarly.

      We are now due for another folding up of the periodic global trade
      fair as the industrial nations enter the tumultuous era beyond the
      global oil production peak, which I have named the long emergency.
      The economic distortions and perversities that have built up in the
      current era are not hard to see, though our leaders dread to
      acknowledge them. The dirty secret of the US economy for at least a
      decade now is that it has come to be based on the ceaseless
      elaboration of a car-dependent suburban infrastructure - McHousing
      estates, eight-lane highways, big-box chain stores, hamburger stands -
      that has no future as a living arrangement in an oil-short future.

      The American suburban juggernaut can be described succinctly as the
      greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. The
      mortgages, bonds, real estate investment trusts and derivative
      financial instruments associated with this tragic enterprise must
      make the judicious goggle with wonder and nausea.

      Add to this grim economic picture a far-flung military contest,
      already under way, really, for control of the world's remaining oil,
      and the scene grows darker. Two-thirds of that oil is in the
      possession of people who resent the west (America in particular),
      many of whom have vowed to destroy it. Both America and Britain have
      felt the sting of freelance asymmetrical war-makers not associated
      with a particular state but with a transnational religious cause that
      uses potent small arms and explosives to unravel western societies
      and confound their defences.

      China, a supposed beneficiary of globalisation, will be as desperate
      for oil as all the other players, and perhaps more ruthless in
      seeking control of the supplies, some of which they can walk to. Of
      course, it is hard to imagine the continuation of American chain
      stores' manufacturing supply lines with China, given the potential
      for friction. Even on its own terms, China faces issues of
      environmental havoc, population overshoot, and political turmoil -
      orders of magnitude greater than anything known in Europe or America.

      Viewed through this lens, the sunset of the current phase of
      globalisation seems dreadfully close to the horizon. The American
      public has enjoyed the fiesta, but the blue-light special orgy of
      easy motoring, limitless air-conditioning, and super-cheap products
      made by factory slaves far far away is about to close down.
      Globalisation is finished. The world is about to become a larger
      place again.

      James Howard Kunstler is the author of The Long Emergency: Surviving
      the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century.

      Published on Thursday, August 4, 2005 by the Guardian (UK)
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