Are Happy Days Here Again?

1 May 2012


After having written, just a few days ago, about declensionism as the possibly now-dominant narrative in the US (in From American Exceptionalism to American Declensionism), it seems a bit odd to take up the topic of whether happy days are here again, but I have been noticing subtle rhetorical shifts in the media that suggest that, no matter the pessimism and cynicism of the moment, Americans are always willing (if not eager) to believe in a better tomorrow. Reinvention — personal, institutional, civic, national — is one of the central themes of the American narrative, and this includes the continual reinvention of a brighter tomorrow.

There is a certain elusive nostalgia in the predictions of plentiful natural gas from shale (has anyone yet called it “power too cheap to meter?”), the revitalization of Rust Belt-era cities, and the return of manufacturing jobs to the US. The fact that these strategic trends are all based in fact does not mean that they will come together to form a coherent future, but it is (or would be) easy to put these trends together and draw conclusions from them — it is (mostly) a pleasant scenario. However, for starters, these strategic trends — all of which, I will admit without hesitation, have a clear basis in contemporary events — are mutually incompatible.

Thomas P.M. Barnett of Wikistrat has been particular assiduous on reporting both the potential for shale gas and the return of manufacturing to US shores, and in fact combining the two by considering the industrial development that will follow from the large scale commercial exploitation of fracking to extract natural gas from shale. Dr. Barnett has posted a stream of loosely related items on this, such as The coming American industrial renaissance, States and localities fighting over hydrofracturing drilling
, The displacement effect of all that new US natural gas, and North American energy boom attracting Chinese investment, inter alia.

Dr. Barnett has not been alone in predicting a revitalization of American prospects based on a conventional outlook on economic prosperity. I recently listened to the book $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better by Christopher Steiner, and while parts of this book read like “peak oil” apocalypticism, as the subtitle indicates, the author believes much good will come out of increasing unaffordable fossil fuels. He predicts the revitalization of failing metropolitan areas like Detroit, as well as the return of manufacturing jobs to the US because of the expense of transported manufactured goods when transportation costs rise sharply.

One of the most difficult things about prediction and futurism (and futurism must here be understood as a coherent group of predictions definitive of a particular way of life) is that the world is complex and interconnected, while the human mind has difficulty keeping three or four things in its focus at the same time. Both because of the practical realities of thinking and writing, which are processes that take place in time and therefore are “strung out,” as it were, rather than found together simultaneously, our narratives of necessity give a sequential account of things. This comes through very clearly in $20 Per Gallon, which exemplifies this diachronic imperative in contrast to the synchronic reality of parallel and simultaneous development. The author treats in sequence consequences of high fuel prices that will happen across the board, simultaneously, and as these consequences occur simultaneously, then will influence each other, with the result being quite beyond our powers of prediction. Complex adaptive systems are continually adapting to each other, and, in the process of adapting, changing themselves and changing the context in which all other complex adaptive systems adapt.

As I attempted to show in Futurism Without Predictions, the approach to futurism that is likely to tell us what the future is going to be like, rather than picking and choosing particular items and there, but getting the whole completely wrong, is identifying the master strategic trend, and the master strategic trend is that which not only becomes the dominant strategic trend but also that strategic trend that is intrinsically capable of subordinating the greatest number of coherent and mutually compatible (i.e., in Leibnizean terms, compossible) strategic trends.

Traditional futurists have often defended their predictions (and the predictions of past futurists, thereby to shore up the credentials of the discipline generally speaking) by pointing to individual items that were predicted and which where eventually built — submarines, helicopters, the videophone, and so forth. The problem with this strategy of rationalizing predictions (a problem that we often feel but do not always know how to express) is that particular instances of technology predicted and then built do not add up to the feeling that futurists have given of the future. It is not only that we aren’t wearing unisex leotards, going to work in flying cars, and getting all our nutrition from a single pill we take in the morning, it is that our world does not look like and does not feel like the world of the Jetsons.

To get a proper feeling for what the world is like, and what it may be like in the future, we need to stop thinking in terms of individual predictions and start thinking in terms of dominant strategic trends that shape the overall character of life in a particular historical era. In other words, we need to look at the big picture. And in the big picture, some of the obvious trends of today will be in conflict, and will not come together (cannot come together) into any kind of synthesis that will define the future.

It is pretty obvious that at least some manufacturing jobs will return to the US. As poorer countries become wealthier, it will no longer be cheaper to make things overseas and ship them back to the US. That’s pretty simple; it’s not rocket science. But the danger of thinking in terms of a US manufacturing economy is the perverse fetishism of industry that one often finds in popular writings on economics. Manufacturing is no more an answer to the economic conundra of the present than is the idea that everyone will become a hedge fund manager and work in financial services. Any real and vital economy has many sectors, and the interaction of these sectors in the marketplace is what makes an economy thrive. So don’t expect to get a job at 18 making widgets at the local factory, planning to retire in 30 years on a full pension. Those days are over. Longevity killed that dream. Ironically, we have to work longer and harder because we are healthier and live longer. This is an example of unpredictable consequences of simultaneous developments.

It is also pretty obvious that new fracking techniques are going to allow for the extraction of natural gas from shale at a level that was not previously possible. But natural gas is a fossil fuel, and although it certainly burns cleaner than coal, if the world economy expands dramatically by cranking up natural gas, we will be digging ourselves deeper into a problem that may have truly radical unpredictable consequences — like having to abandon the world’s major coastal cities because they are all under water due to rising sea levels.

Furthermore, the rentention of an economy based on cheap and widely available fossil fuels will mean that the kind of forced urbanization imagined in Christopher Steiner’s book will not occur. It is a relatively simple matter to convert cars, trains, and planes to run on one fossil fuel or another, and LNG is only marginally less convenient that oil. If natural gas is cheap and plentiful, LNG will be cheap and plentiful, and travel by private car and by airline will continue to be routine. And if the problem of hypersonic engines can be practically tamed, the world may become more internationally knit together, not less.

Make no mistake, increasing urbanization is one of the central strategic trends of our time, and we can expect it to continue. But it is likely to continue along the model of what Joel Garreau called “edge cities,” as well as sprawling, car-enabled suburbs that many people claim to disdain but which continue to grow in population.

Whether or not the trend is your friend, it is certainly your future. And the tone and feeling of the future will be set by that strategic trend that drives, shapes, and influences all the other strategic trends — either by magnifying them or by rendering them irrelevant.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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