#028 – Lessons from Japan: How to Behave When the Shit Hits the Fan

by Jay Carter on March 17, 2011

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James Howard Kunstler

James Howard Kunstler

James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency, The Geography of Nowhere and the World Made By Hand novels joins us this week to talk about the still-unfolding crisis in Japan.

As we observe how the people of Japan are responding to shortages of food, water, fuel and shelter with a determined stoicism and strong sense of community (see “Why Is There No Looting In Japan?“), we can’t help but wonder how Americans might handle themselves in a similar crisis.

In this interview, Kunstler also ponders whether Japan is now racing toward the kind of permanently downscaled, energy-scarce living arrangement that he envisioned in his World Made by Hand novels.

“I have this sort of strange fantasy that Japan is headed in that direction, in the sense that they’re going to go back to a much more downscaled way of life than they’re living now,” Kunstler said. 

“And they may have known that or suspected that in the past 20 years, and it may be behind the economic doldrums they’ve been in during that time span, which included tremendous banking problems. I think this event just may propel them in that direction much more quickly.”

Kunstler went on to explain why the disaster in Japan could soon lead to major economic problems across Europe and the world.

Here is our interview with James Howard Kunstler (or listen to it now by clicking the play button at the top of this post):

FINANCIAL SURVIVAL RADIO:  This is one of those ‘There but for the grace of God’ moments, where you watch these events in Japan and wonder just how different the response would be from American citizens if such an event were to happen within our borders. Did that thought happen to cross your own mind as you watched this?

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER:  Of course it did.  Although I wouldn’t want to go recklessly projecting negativity over the American public.  We too are capable of being brave and even stoic, although there are other possibilities.  You can’t fail to notice the stoicism and bravery of the Japanese people under these circumstances.  It’s a little hard to tell how much of that is just sheer shock and numbness, but it’s impressive considering what a blow they’ve taken.

FSR:  In your latest blog entry, I was struck by what you wrote.  You said:

“We [Americans] deserve what just happened to Japan three times over. And we might just get the equivalent at least in social and political trouble as our money follies unwind and normal living here becomes untenable on the old terms.”

FSR:  Those are some strong words, Jim.

JHK:  Well, I guess they were kind of strong.  I think the damage we’re suffering from the recklessness in banking, and the fraud and swindling, and the failure to re-establish the rule of law in our money relations is going to take a huge toll on our society.  It already is – think of all the people suffering out there.  They’ll never get their jobs back,  houses, income, et cetera… They’ve suffered all kinds of collateral damage from their families breaking up and their social networks disintegrating.  So the damage is ongoing out there. 

At this time of year, because there’s no foliage concealing the human imprint on the land where I live in the upper Hudson Valley of New York state, I am just knocked out by how decrepit our nation has become, how broken-down everything looks, how uncared-for and sclerotic.  That’s been in the background of our lives – at least in this part of the country – for quite a while.  It’s getting to the point of such decrepitude now that it’s just striking.  This country looks like it’s lost a war.

FSR:  Yes, the infrastructure, the airports, everywhere you look is in so much need of…

JHK:  Yeah, we have an awful lot to do in this country.  I’m about to write a new chapter in a new non-fiction book I’m working on that’s more or less about the diminishing returns of technology and how we’re getting ourselves in trouble with wishful thinking.  At the beginning of this chapter, I need to remind the readers that there’s an awful lot that we can do.  One of the things we need to do is make a clear distinction in our public discussions as to what is industrial growth and what is economic activity, because we may not have industrial growth of the kind that made us so wealthy in the last 100 years of this fantastic fossil fuel boom.  But there are certainly all kinds of activities that we can do to carry on the project of human existence and civilization.  Most of this revolves around reorganizing the systems of daily life that we depend on, like the way we do our trade and farming and transportation.  These are not abstract things.  But all of them need to be fixed and changed, and probably down-scaled and re-localized, and these are big projects that we have to do. 

In the meantime, what we’re really doing is squandering all our remaining dwindling resources on all kinds of quixotic projects that are designed to sustain the unsustainable.  We’ll get $800 Billion in stimulus money to build new circumferential highways around giant sunbelt cities.  I’m sorry, we don’t need more circumferential highways.  What we need to do is restore the regular passenger railroad service in America, and I’m not talking about high speed.  I’m talking about the stuff that’s already out there rusting in the rain – we need to fix that.  That’s something we can do.  We don’t have time to be crybabies and hand-wringers.  There’s too much we’ve got to do:  We’ve got to figure out a way to grow food closer to home, to reorganize farming.  We’ve got to figure out a way to rebuild local networks of economic interdependency which, by the way, we used to call, ‘Main Street,’ or the local business district.  We’ve got to re-build those networks because Wal Mart is not going to be able to carry on. 

These are pretty simple equations.  There’s nothing esoteric about this.  When the price of diesel gets to a certain level that is not too far from where we’re at now, the truckers are all basically going to go broke.  Most of the truckers in America are independent contractors who have to pay their own costs.  They’ve got to buy their own diesel fuel, their own insurance, and maintain and pay the “mortgages” on their rigs.  When the price of diesel goes up 27 cents in a given month, their business doesn’t pencil out anymore.

FSR:  Yes, that’s the potential disruption in the food supply that I always worry about.

JHK:  It is connected to that.  The same chain of truckers who deliver the plastic wading pools to the K-Mart is the same chain that delivers the potatoes to the local Safeway.

FSR:  The London Telegraph just posted a headline that reads, “Why is there No Looting in Japan?”  Even when people are without power, without food, without fuel, there is a sense of cooperation.  People are respecting the private property of others.  Store owners are not gouging, they’re deeply discounting or in some cases even giving away food and supplies.  Jim, are Americans simply incapable of that kind of orderly, compassionate behavior when everybody’s hungry and without power?

JHK:  We’ve seen some examples of how Americans behave under duress and sometimes they behave very badly, and sometimes they behave well, as in the case of 9/11.  During the electric blackouts in New York City in the 20th Century, they behaved badly.   Let’s remember that Japan is a very different society structurally.  It is a society that doesn’t have a lot of cultural diversity.  Everybody subscribes to pretty much the same value system and the same set of behavioral norms.  They don’t have people coming from other cultures or people who are alienated – well, they do have alienation in Japan, and a lot of it is the result of the economic failures that they’ve endured for the past 20 years.  But they don’t have the kind of alienation that we do in terms of the black and Hispanic populations, for example.

My generation – the Boomer generation – invented the idea of multiculturalism.  It’s a nice idea, it was a wishful idea.  The idea was, “can’t we all just get along?”  But it was mostly wishful, and it had the unfortunate effect of allowing ourselves to construct different standards of behavior for different groups of people in our own country.  And now we have to deal with the consequences.  We’re having a very hard time establishing what norms of behavior are. 

In Japan, they have a highly disciplined society with very clear ideas about what is okay and what is not okay.  And by the way, I do not think they’re incapable of experiencing some kind of social breakdown.  If things got bad enough there, we might indeed see people battling each other in the streets or the supermarket aisles in some way.  It hasn’t happened yet, and may not happen.

FSR:  That’s true.  We’re just in the beginning phases of all this, and anything could change.  But it seems to me that two of the most important things you really need in a survival situation are skills and community.  It strikes me that we’re hearing how some Japanese citizens in stricken communities are truly improvising their own response…creating water barrels, nominating leaders among themselves.  They’re not waiting for some government team to swoop in, or the Red Cross or something like that. 

JHK:  Well, they are an admirably disciplined people, and they’re very adult.  One of the things you might say about American culture is that we have become rather childish and infantile in many ways.  One idea that’s become pretty normal in America is that if you wish upon a star, your dreams will come true, you know.  That’s now normal thinking for adult Americans, it used to be normal thinking for children.  Even in the way we present ourselves in our costumes.  One of the reasons young men in America dress in these peculiar hip-hop costumes, with short pants that hang down to their ankles…

FSR:  Yes, it’s really baggy and large.

JHK:  Yes, and real big shirts.  It’s because 4-year-olds have very large torsos and very short legs, so they’re presenting themselves as babies.  And I think what it says is that they don’t feel like men.  They feel like human beings who have not fully developed, and they’re expressing that very clearly in their costumes.  By the way, there’s no analog for that in young women in America who tend to dress like over-sexualized adults.  And a lot of these people are clearly young men who grew up without fathers in their household and they’re probably suffering from not having much of a role model.

Nonetheless, that’s where we are.  We are a childish culture, and children tend to behave badly when they’re under stress.  But all that said, I still would not necessarily discount the possibility that Americans could pull their act together if there were forced to.  There’s plenty of evidence that we do have enough remnants of common culture to pull it together.  Of course, we’re speaking hypothetically because we haven’t suffered this kind of disaster, this level of emergency.  So it is all hypothetical.  And in my weekly blog and my other writings, I do come down hard on American culture.  But I don’t want to leave out the possibility that we can do better.

FSR:  Yes, but there are a lot of Americans who feel it is getting pretty bad out there and that it is questionable as to whether most Americans will be able to handle themselves.  For me, the breakdown of modern systems we’re seeing in Japan also brings to mind those in the survivalist movement who know something awful is about to happen here in the US, and yes, they’re swapping info on how to plant crops, how to build water barrels and they’re talking about building a dependable community.  But unlike the Japanese, they’re also arming themselves to the teeth.  Do you think many Americans instinctively know that people in this country just won’t be able to handle a disruption in the everyday systems of living on which we depend?

JHK:  Well, we have made room in our culture for a lot of weaponry, and we’re going to have to deal with that.  To some extent, you might consider it a part of our childishness, but it’s there.  I myself have the New York State handgun permit.  I don’t play with guns, but nonetheless it’s there, and it’s scary.

I want to get back to something you mentioned earlier, the idea that skill and community are probably the crucial elements in this.  Community is especially problematic because so much has happened in American culture and economic life in the last 50 years has basically alienated people from any kind of connection with others.  It’s so extreme now.  By the way, the idea that the internet and electric gadgetry like the Iphone compensates for not seeing people regularly or consorting with people regularly…

FSR:  Not knowing your neighbor?

JHK:  Yeah, or the idea that Facebook is an adequate substitute for a social life. These are very unfortunate fake ideas that we’re going to probably un-learn the hard way. But the bottom line is, an awful lot of Americans have absolutely no connection to anything outside of their household and their television menu. We’re paying a high price for that, and a lot of this inauthentic activity has been the result of salesmanship and advertising.  We do an awful lot to tell ourselves that these things are okay and they’re not.….

The virtual is not an adequate substitute for the authentic.  A virtual social life is not an adequate substitute for a real social life.  But we’ve been swindled into thinking that’s true, and into buying all the software and equipment and gadgetry to enrich the manufactures and developers of these things at the expense of our own lives.

This is a technological trance or rapture that we can break ourselves out of, it doesn’t have to put us out of business. But the outstanding feature of what we’re going through right now is our inability to construct some coherent narrative or consensus about what’s happening to us or what we’re going to do about it….

I imagine the Japanese are also to some degree lost in Internet raptures and social networking bullshit.  But underlying that is a much stronger homogeneous society, a common culture.  Despite all the social networking nonsense they may have been swindled into over there, they still have that.  So as the [virtual] social networking recedes and breaks down, they still have that [strong culture] to get back to, and we don’t much anymore.  All we have is a network of chain stores, parking lots, decrepitating towns, suburbs that people feel lost and alienated in, and cities that are probably too big to manage going into the future.  I don’t know how we’re going to put our shoulders to the wheel.  And I’m saying this in the absence of any kind of major catastrophe such as what happened to Japan.

FSR:  One other important thing to point out that also falls within your beat as a writer is the fact that Japan was desperate enough for electric power that it chose to build several nuclear power plants all across an island nation with a strong history of violent earthquakes.

JHK:  George Friedman at the geopolitical website stratfor.com wrote a piece last night that was very eloquent that mentioned that Japan does not have fossil fuel resources.  They’ve literally had to import 99% of their oil, their coal, their gas, everything. 

Let’s remember back in the 20th Century they basically fought World War II over oil resources.  That’s why they went down to Indonesia which was one of the great oil regions of the mid-twentieth century.  That was why they bombed Pearl Harbor.  It was why we fought them in the Pacific, so they couldn’t control the mineral resources of Indochina, et cetera.  And so they embarked on that tragic project of WWII and they got their asses kicked, and then they got bombed with nuclear bombs, and that put them through some changes. 

As they redeveloped the late 20th Century and rebuilt their new industrial economy on top of the ashes of their old one, they didn’t have any mineral resources.  The one thing that made them feel as if they were in control of their destiny was their ability to generate electricity from uranium.  That was a big thing psychologically for them. 

So George Friedman has made the point that they don’t have mineral resources.  If you deprive them of their nuclear capacity, which nature has now done, they’re going to be very discouraged and demoralized about how they face the future. 

Now, I do think there’s a catch in this, and I want to talk about this for a moment with a kind of out-of-the-box idea, OK?  As you know, I wrote these two novels in 2008 and 2010 called World Made by Hand and The Witch of Hebron and they were set in the post-oil, post-economic collapse American future.  And this was obviously a hypothetical dramatized scenario that I cooked up.  It seemed to me to be one possible outcome. 

World Made by Hand is about pretty much what it sounds like:  It’s about an American economy that has become profoundly re-localized, where electronic communication is gone.  People can’t even ride bicycles any more, because they can’t get the replacement parts like metal or rubber, and the pavement is all broken up.  They’re basically living a life that’s more like the 19th Century than the age that we’re in. 

I have this sort of strange fantasy that Japan is headed in that direction, in the sense that they’re going to go back to a much more downscaled way of life than they’re living now.  And they may have known that or suspected that in the past 20 years, and it may be behind the economic doldrums they’ve been in during that time span, which included tremendous banking problems.  I think this event just may propel them in that direction much more quickly.  They may have to start making some decisions now that will be forced up on them that they may have only been creeping toward before, being dragged kicking and screaming into, I don’t know.  They may be going to a way of life now and will get there more quickly than we are…and they’re going to make some of these decisions that we need to make but will instead fight against with all of our power.  We’re going to continue to mount these campaigns to sustain the unsustainable while the Japanese will be forced to do the very things we have to do:  Downscale, find a way to live with far fewer energy imports, find a way to live with far less electricity, downscale their cities.  Their population has been going down for a while.  But it may be that this will accelerate their population going down to a level that is more consistent with what the Earth can provide.

FSR:  Yes, in this nuclear scare there are reports that the elite are getting on airplanes and getting the heck out of dodge.  And I wonder how many of them will even come back?

 JHK:  At the moment, a lot of people are leaving Tokyo due to fear of radioactive releases and perhaps fear of food scarcity and systems failure.  That’s far from resolving, we don’t have a clear picture of where any of that is going.  But it seems to me that Japan as a whole is not going to be the same kind if industrial power that it was up until that moment on Saturday.  They’re going to be going in a different direction.  If they recognize the reality of that and can go with the flow of where history wants to take them, then they may be in a more advantageous position than we are, because we’re just going to fight it tooth and nail.  Unfortunately, what is most important to Americans is just staying behind the wheel of a car at all costs.  We can’t get beyond that idea.  It’s impossible for us to even imagine giving that up.

FSR:  Any final thoughts about the disaster in Japan, where this is all going, and how Americans are likely to behave in a future crisis?

JHK:  Actually, I think some of the questions hanging on the Japanese earthquake and nuclear disaster have a lot to do with money and finance and the operations of banking and credit in the world.  One of the things I’m watching is this:  The last time the sick European nations had to roll over their bonds a few months ago, the Japanese bank stepped in and bought a lot of those pieces of debt paper.  So Japan basically bailed out the ailing European nations.  The Japanese are not going to show up for the new bond auctions in Europe later as these nations roll over their debt.  So one thing to keep your eye on is whether the European banks are going to be able to survive that.

At the same time, the Japanese probably have to liquidate a lot of their American treasury holdings, as well.  And if they do it rapidly for some reason, that’s going to cause a rout in the bond market and it would probably result in interest rates going way up.

Those may seem like esoteric questions and they’re obviously not the only things we need to be concerned about with the Japanese.  The situation there at the moment hinges mostly on radioactive exposure and whether they can actually keep their supply chains going so the Japanese people can actually eat and whether they can be kept warm and have shelter for the homeless.  So there’s an awful lot to sort out there.  And actually, the whole situation has been greatly distracted over the past four days because of the nuclear emergency that followed the earthquake.  There’s a whole other layer of trouble just from the earthquake itself that is off screen now because of the nuclear plants.  I wish them well and it will be interesting to see where they’re able to go from here.

Hyperinflation in America:  Hear how Gonzalo Lira would invest a hypothetical $10,000 to best prepare for a hyperinflation crisis in the US.  Listen…

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