"Awash In Self-Delusional Cornucopianism"

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by James H. Kunstler via Peak Prosperity,

For most people, the collapse of civilizations is a subject much more appetizingly viewed in the rear-view mirror than straight ahead down whatever path or roadway we are on.

Jared Diamond wrote about the collapse of earlier civilizations to great acclaim and brisk sales, in a nimbus of unimpeachable respectability. The stories he told about bygone cultures gone to seed were, above all, dramatic. No reviewers or other intellectual auditors dissed him for suggesting that empires inevitably run aground on the shoals of resource depletion, population overshoot, changes in the weather, and the diminishing returns of complexity.

Yet these are exactly the same problems that industrial-technocratic societies face today, and those of us who venture to discuss them are consigned to a tin-foil-hat brigade, along with the UFO abductees and Bigfoot trackers. This is unfortunate but completely predictable, since the sunk costs in all the stuff of daily life (freeways, malls, tract houses) are so grotesquely huge that letting go of them is strictly unthinkable. We’re stuck with a very elaborate setup that has no future; but we refuse to consider the consequences. So messengers are generally unwelcome.

Awash in Self-Delusional Cornucopianism

Will the cost or availability of oil threaten America’s Happy Motoring utopia? There should be no question. But rather than prepare for a change in our daily doings, such as rebuilding the railroad system or promoting walkable neighborhoods over suburban sprawl, we tell ourselves fairy tales about how the Bakken shale oil play will make America “energy independent” to provide the illusion that we can keep driving to WalMart forever.

This is an especially delusional season in the USA, with salvos of disinformation being fired every day by happy-talkers seeking to reassure a nervous public that everything is okay. Just in the past few weeks we’ve seen an Atlantic Magazine cover story titled “We Will Never Run Out of Oil” followed by a report from the International Energy Agency stating that the USA would become the world’s number one oil producer by the year 2020, and many other bulletins of comforting optimism from The New York Times, NPR, and Forbes. The Atlantic Magazine used to be a credible organ of the American thinking classes, and the Paris-based IEA is vested with authority, though its political agenda (to prop up the status quo) is hidden. In any case, these are the interlocutors of reality for the public (and its leaders) and the memes they sow travel far, wide, and deep, whether they are truthful or not. The infectious cornucopianism they gleefully retail has goosed the stock markets and made it even more difficult to put out the contrary view that we are in deep trouble, perhaps even on the verge of an epochal disruption.

The Warnings of History

Dmitry Orlov published a fascinating book on this subject in 2008 titled Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Experience and American Prospects. Orlov, born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1962, had the unusual experience of emigrating to the US as a twelve-year-old in the mid 1970s, and then returning periodically to what is now called Russia before, during, and after the collapse of its soviet system. He had a front-row seat for the spectacle and an avid intelligence rigorously trained in the hard sciences to evaluate what he saw. He also possessed a mordant, prankish sense of comedy that endowed his gloomy subject with a lot charm, so that reading him was the rare pleasure of encountering true prose artistry on a par with his countryman and fellow émigré, the late Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov was a scientist, too, by the way, working for years as a professor of entomology (insects, with a specialty in butterflies) to pay the light bill.

Recall the smug triumphalism in America that greeted the shockingly sudden collapse of the sclerotic USSR in 1991 (no bang and little whimpering). Serious historians were so intoxicated that one of them declared it to be “The End of History,” meaning that there would be no more geopolitical struggles henceforth, a preposterous idea that became instant dogma from Harvard to the US State Department. To our pols and their wonks it proved the manifest superiority of neoliberal corporate capitalism. Case closed. Now the USA could go forth unopposed and turn the Black Sea into a lagoon of pure Coca Cola, bringing liberty, democracy, Chicken McNuggets, and Michael Jackson videos to the disadvantaged citizens of long-benighted lands yearning to “consume” freely.

From his special perch between the two nations, Orlov saw the whole show differently: as a warning that the USA would probably meet a similar fate, but that the outcome for us would probably be much worse due to our massive stranded assets (the whole kit of suburban sprawl), our degraded sense of public goods, our lost traditional craft skills, and our pathetic lack of mental fortitude. The arguments he presented were clear, sensible, and absent in virtually every other venue where people discussed the repercussions of the Soviet collapse. To me, Orlov’s points were startling in the slap-your-forehead sense of “…but of course! Why didn’t I think of that?”

History to Repeat Itself "Over Here"?


For instance, he pointed out that the food production system in the Soviet Union had been so direly mismanaged for so long — most of the 20th century — that a whole counter system of work-arounds had been established in the form of nearly universal household gardening. Even families who lived in the ghastly Modernist apartment slabs of Moscow had access to garden plots in the vast un-suburbanized Russian countryside, and they could get there on public trains and buses. The more privileged had dachas ranging from humble shacks to fancy villas, each with its garden. The Russian people were used to the necessity of growing their own food and had the skills for preserving it to offset the idiocy of the official distribution system in which citizens wasted whole days waiting on line for a cabbage ­— only to be told they had run out. When the soviet system collapsed, the effect on society was far less than catastrophic, perhaps even salutary, because a large cohort of people with an interest in growing food, who formerly only pretended to work in dismal bureaucratic jobs, were now available to reoccupy and reactivate the de-collectivized farming sector that had been a drag on the Russian economy for generations.  After a period of adjustment, one thing was self-evident: no more lines at the Russian grocery stores.

Russia's dacha gardens feed body and soul (The Christian Science Monitor)

Summer retreats provide not only solace but lots of produce – and even more of it now, amid economic hard times.

Home grown: Lydia Kolbetskaya stands in her greenhouse in this summer-cottage village 100 miles east of Moscow. She grows strawberries, tomatoes, and more – enough for the retiree to feed herself and help her daughter’s family.

By contrast, in the USA, even farmers don’t have kitchen gardens. This is not a myth. I live in an agricultural backwater of upstate New York where dairy farming modeled on industrial agri-biz reigned for decades (it’s in steep decline now) and as a rule the farmers do not grow gardens. They buy balloon bread, Velveeta, and Little Debbie Snack Cakes at the supermarket, just like the insurance adjusters and other office drones, and whatever leftover part of their farm is not planted in corn is occupied by an above-ground pool, or the carcasses of retired all-terrain vehicles, or the miscellaneous plastic crap associated with raising children in a “consumer” culture. When even  farmers don’t grow any of their own food, you can bet that a lot of knowledge has already been lost. American supermarkets operate on a three-day resupply cycle. The system is much more fragile than most Americans probably suppose. My guess is that few even think about it. The resupply system has never failed, except briefly, in localities hit by natural disasters.  However, a financial crisis could cripple the food distribution system of the entire nation. Truckers who don’t get paid won’t deliver. Trouble in the Middle East oil nations could provoke an oil crisis — something we haven’t experienced since the 1970s.  There are many ways for this complex system to fail — the point being that when it does, there will be no backup as was the case in the former Soviet Union. So one might conclude from reading Orlov that our prospects for being able to feed ourselves are a lot worse.


Housing: a similar story. There was no private real estate in the old USSR. People just occupied apartments and homes that belonged to the state and were assigned largely on the basis of privilege and connections to the people in power. When the political system collapsed, nobody got kicked out of their dwelling place. No foreclosures occurred. Over time, the situation took care of itself emergently, shall we say. Private ownership resumed after a 75-year hiatus. Laws regulating it were put in place. Many Russians ended up in possession of apartments and houses they had occupied for decades and a real estate market emerged from that (with some strong-arming from the potent Russian mafia).

Contrast that outcome with America’s experience beginning in 2007 with the imploding housing bubble: an extravaganza of foreclosure and even homelessness. And that episode must be considered a preview of coming attractions because the USA has not entered the robust phase of collapse yet. When that happens, you can expect the tribulations of property loss to be epic. It could throw our system of property law into chaos for a generation or more as the volume of foreclosures would become virtually unmanageable. Property law is at the core of our political system, which would then follow directly into an unmanageable condition. Orlov’s point, I think, is that a political collapse in the US would leave many more people discommoded than was the case in old soviet Russia.


Similarly, too, transportation. The Russians never adopted a culture of car dependency. A small minority of connected people had cars that they ostensibly “owned,” but the vast majority of the population depended on an elaborate public network of subways, trams, buses, and railroad trains. As a result they never constructed an alternative universe of suburban sprawl. When the soviet system imploded, the trains and buses, etc., kept on running. Russians could still get where they had to go to do what they had to do (rebuild their lives). We in America have poured our accumulated national wealth into a drive-in utopia that has no future in the remaining years of non-cheap oil. Any kind of an oil problem, whether it is a sharp geo-political event or just the slow crushing grind of high gasoline prices, will leave American stranded.

Conclusion (to Part I)

The arc of history is clear on what can (and usually does) happen when societies exceed their ability to support themselves sustainably. The swift vaporization of the USSR is our most recent example; one that should be especially concerning to Americans as the US (for reasons cited) is less prepared to absorb the shocks of a similar systemic failure.

In Part II: A Clear Picture of What to Expect, we examine Orlov's most recent work, which shows how sovereign collapse progresses along a well-understood trajectory: Financial > Commercial > Political > Social > Cultural.

The US looks certain to follow this progression -- at least partway -- in our lifetimes, likely sooner than later.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
otto skorzeny's picture

russians are a hardy, non-complaining nation of people- sometimes to their detriment

DoChenRollingBearing's picture

The end of an American cornucopia along the lines of Kunstler will likely be very ugly.  I am not looking forward to it.

Pinto Currency's picture


Our society is not running aground on the shoals of complexity.

It is running aground on the shoals of central planning and fiat money.

The failure is not preordained except as far as we embark on these destructive paths.

SAT 800's picture

Correct. It's running aground on "Leadership" from an enormously bloated and willfully blind central government; not un-like Russia. I'm on record as receiving the news that Russia had collapsed; in silence, thinking for 30 seconds, and then responding, "He who laughs last, laughs best". I'm good at understanding things.

noless's picture

as long as pockets of the understanding of the point of our governance remain, they will rebuild.

 sadly, ill stand with my piece, i expect to die. the poltical process is forfeit.

i appologize: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MXlCFBluTMY i know its idiotic.


i will believe once i no longer have to actively espouse an anti war sentiment to both liberals and conservatives.


until that day i will trust no one.

MeelionDollerBogus's picture

There are no real conservatives or liberals. There are only banksters and slaves.

duo's picture

Does our Leadership get their information from the Atlantic. or did our Leadership tell the Atlantic what to write?  In the end it won't matter, it's all lies.

That stupid cover story about oil caused me to cancel my Atlantic subscription after 20 years.  The last few had been pretty weak; the journalism was gone years ago.

HardAssets's picture

Our society is being destroyed by criminals inside the banking/big corporate/government fascist partnership. It seems, throughout history, that the parasites can't help but completely devour the host.

cougar_w's picture

A "parasite" that actually devours the host is more correctly called a predator.

Changes your perspective just a mite.

noless's picture

bobcats would win almost all the time without guns pointed at them. same with cougars wolves and bears..  correctly identify yourself. the raccoons and ravons laugh, but they know your motives.

it's funny how the jays telegraph to the little birds to spread the message.. 

Ignatius's picture

"...corporate/government fascist partnership."

Right, keep squeezing small competitors out of all dominated markets.

They are parisites and they are predators and because the business organization is somewhat ideal for forming capital they can 'hire guns' (politicians/bureaucrats) to squash upstarts.

Bring the Gold's picture

There is no question corruption is a huge contributing factor to our decline, perhaps even the largest. I would posit however, that the reason the parasites have turned into predators is they see the endgame that Kuntlser is pointing to and they are trying to steal everything not bolted down (and most of that too really) before hiding wherever they plan on hunkering down with plenty of guns and mercs.

That is what's going on IMO. Sooooo, many events (especially geo-political ones, both domestic and foreign) of the past 14 or so years are explained quite well by Peak Oil and all it entails. It's not just peak Oil either, Peak Silver...Peak everything really.

We aren't doomed as I don't see it playing out that way. I think things will change in ways nobody can predict. I do thinking that looking back at the past 14 or so years, the correct macro lens for elite motivations was and is Peak Oil. What happens going forward will be quite different.

MeelionDollerBogus's picture


I wish it wasn't but the underlying complexity of transport for food, fuel, construction of the tools we need every day are beyond most people. They just can't comprehend how hard it is to deal with things like nails, screws, lumber, plastic molded pieces, rubber, etc., with supply lines long interrupted and with factories gone. Machines did so much work for people they never thought to learn how it was done.

ponzisaurus's picture

Will you be here? I had sized you up for someone who has resources and skills useful outside the USA.

TotalCarp's picture

I'll take that as a compliment
As a russki, I think this is a pretty fair and sensible set of observations. I think the big differences are these:
1. By the time ussr collapsed russians had absolutely no trust in government whatsoever. That covered 99% of the society from uneducated classes to elites. In US the 2 party system has delayed this and class warfare games have meneged to keep at least a reasobanly significant portion of population trusting the govt (for now).. This obvioulsy have deteriorated rapidly over last decade but nowhere near the last days of ussr
2. Absolute wealth.. As of now US govt still has plenty to plunder and plunder they must to survive. Ussr was bancrupt inside and out. The loot ran out. This will keep the US institutions kicking for a while longer although financial rpression will steadily escalate
3. Social cohesion - US seems quite good at dealing with short term crisis but thing fall apart quickly after unless the cavalry arrives. As the article notes, the russians have been far more trained in self sufficiency, so if things "go south" in US there will be no long term russian or japanese stoicism on display i suspect...

A Lunatic's picture

Also if things go south in the U.S. the whole fucking world will be (rightfully) kicking us while we're down. Hell, I'll probably even do some kicking myself.........

TotalCarp's picture

Yep there arent many friends left out there tbh.. And those who were true friends have been so disgusted over the last 15 years they are decidedly turning away and plotting their own course.

Reptil's picture

Hmmm it's more the case that many (all over the world) are becoming aware of the power, and very damaging role of multinational corporations.
These are not tied to any nation, but behave like parasites, and have co-opted the american people (through politicians and media) to do their bidding.
As any parasite, once the host is exhausted, they abandon their former healthy but now near death victim, and hop over onto the next one.

It has now progressed so far that a number of these multinational corporations are threatening the very basic building blocks of life (and with it, the production of food). This is dawning on the (intellectually lazy) elite as well. A rude awakening that their grandkids will be sterile as well, and their wealth doesn't buy them a sustainable biotope.

This process of destruction has progressed a little further in the US of A. Time is running out.
some links fyi



Weisshaupt's picture

This is why I laugh at the folks who think "leaving the US" will solve the problem- maybe if you can pass for native where you are going.   After the collpase a lot of people will be "leaving the US" and they will not be greeted with welcoming arms. It won't matter that you were there yearsbefore the others.  "F'ing Spoiled arrogant useless Americans " will be heard frequently and in dozens of languages.

 Its not just the US economy that depends on dollars - its the world reserve. Heck, Argentines are still using them- and they should know better.  Perhaps the migration away frm the dollar will occur slow enough that the rest of the world won't suffer as badly,  but if it is sudden (say a deliberate attack by China dumping their tresuries)  its not just the US that will be caught in the malestrom.  A sudden Collapse is going to be global in extent - some places more than others obviously,  but no one will be left untouched 



SAT 800's picture

These fundamental human virtues can never be a detriment; as the real Otto Skorzeny, and many of his contemporaries found out to their great cost.

Diogenes's picture

200 years of careful sifting by the secret police removed anyone with brains, character, and independence.

GaryNeville's picture

This is a fantastic article - and many of the facts are simply undeniable.

However I would point out that the USA is still an Agricultural heartland of the world -  and has the worlds largest grain belt. Additionally, the majority of US land is arable, and many of the US states have an abundency of water/ rainfall. Something which needs to be acknowledged to create a fair assessment of America's chances in collapse.

The Alarmist's picture

The point is that the complexity of the system that delivers the final consummables from the raw output of the agricultural heartland are such that the vast majority of people in the US, including the farmers, wouldn't know what to do with an ear of corn or a sheaf of wheat if those were presented as the final forms of foodstuffs available to them. I'm sure more than a few people would quickly re-learn vegetable gardening, but then they'd have to deal with the inevitable SWAT raids to protect the royalties of a certain large agribusiness conglomerate that is making life "better" by patenting it for their exclusive license.

Cleve Meater's picture

Just like Zimbabwe was once the bread basket of Africa, and is now just a basket case. I'm not certain I buy into the fact that just because we have resources, we'll be able to soldier on.

Cleve Meater's picture

Just like Zimbabwe was once the bread basket of Africa, and is now just a basket case. I'm not certain I buy into the fact that just because we have resources, we'll be able to soldier on.

** sorry... Double post

Seer's picture

[I didn't down-arrow you]

Part of what you say is correct, part is not.

You are correct in that there is a lot of arable land and that in places there is plenty of water/rainfall.  However...

That large "grain belt" is precarious given that it relies heavily on oil and, for much of it, the Ogallala aquifer, which is being rapidly drawn down.  Interestingly, the extraction of the water itself relies on a LOT of energy/oil: I'd once read that 10% of all of CA's energy use was consumed in pumping water.

The word "abundance/abundant" merely suggests the state of something, it does not tell us how MUCH nor does it indicate how sufficient it is to keep up with perpetual growth (nothing can keep up with PG, so that's kind of a trick statement).  The condition of Ogallala should provide a good warning for why we need to try and quantify using actual numbers rather than tossing out broad statements.

With 300 million people in the US it's pretty hard to toss everyone into a category.  The same with the Russians (w/o numbers for comparison it's a bit hard to measure)- I don't believe that it was all so automatic for the Russians, though I do believe that by comparison their performance will be shown to be better than the US's (at handling the big crisis): the thing to note, however, is that when it all goes down in the US it'll likely be happening in the rest of the world- there won't be outside money flowing in looking for big deals (as it was in Russia).

tip e. canoe's picture

global drought map

don't forget to click to zoom over N.America.   lotsa red on those Plains.

Weisshaupt's picture

Rain and arable land won't do anything for you if no one has the skills to farm, and produce in the fields won't help you if you have no way to transport them to the cities. During the 30's Americans very less than one generation from the Farm, the skills required existed, and cities held a much smaller proportion of the population. Even so, many crops never made it to the city- because they were unable to be brought to market at a cost people could afford. Now people in cities don't even have the sense to bury their crap in a disaster- defecating in stairwells rather than working together to dig latrines in the park. 

Add to that the militarization of police,  the use of Government power to target and persecute political opposition, and a growing distrust of government - a government whose power is largely based on control of the dollar.  Deep political and philosophical  divisions that have only be exacerbated  in recent years, and  those divisions are correlated geographically in a rural/city split. Lots of entitled useless masses in the cities, with no real world skills or even a vague understanding  of how fragile their urban landscapes are, and a bunch of others who are ready to let it all burn.   Americans will not pull together in this - and a civil war is a very real possibility. 

nmewn's picture

"Any kind of an oil problem, whether it is a sharp geo-political event or just the slow crushing grind of high gasoline prices, will leave American stranded."

So I'll be safe from the hoards of idiots who can't live without an eggmcmuffn?

Eggsellent ;-)

CrashisOptimistic's picture

You'll also be safe from any groceries you usually buy from a grocery store -- since they get to those shelves via truck.

samsara's picture

He was sayin the he was beyond easy walking distance from THOSE who ONLY know the grocery store. Like yourself for example?

Seer's picture

But what about DIESEL?  I don't care about GASOLINE*, I NEED DIESEL to run my tractor and my truck!  Seriously, this is going to OUCH even for rural folks like myself.

* Shit!  The chainsaws, the chainsaws!

Weisshaupt's picture

You can make bio-diesel yourself, and from  the oils in food crops. . rural areas will have a thier own source of diesel - And many areas have thier own petrol wells.

Likewise with Alcohol - which used to be the primary fuel used on farms.  Yes, conversions are required, and doing something like a chiansaw is going to be harder,  but it can be done.  And will be done.  After all, there is money to be made. 



atomicwasted's picture

Anyone who holds up Russians as an example cannot be taken seriously.

Kunstler becomes more shrill in his left-wing populism as the years go by.


otto skorzeny's picture

enlighten us on as to the reasoning of your  first statement.

fonzannoon's picture

My wife's family is from Minsk. My mother in law is a total badass. She had a dacha and she can build a house from scratch. Not because it was a hobby, because her life depended on it. Her parents lived in the woods for 3 years. That movie "Defiance" was based on one of the groups she was in. I kiss her ass on a daily basis because I know when shit gets rough she may be the most important person in my life.

Ignatius's picture

Right on, fonzaman.  We used to NEED our wives and each other.

Temper tantrums on the prairie 150 years ago didn't cut it... you died.

TotalCarp's picture

Great point, i know some of these folks - sadly very few are still with us - and they are hard as nails.
I am not saying that the are no americans who can match that, but lets be honest, the country has sunk in the dumb/fat/happy culture of suburban mall food courts..

cougar_w's picture

There are a lot of folks living outside the mainstream Amerikan suburban experience who can still saddle a horse, dig a well, clear land, and make a useful kitchen chair from branches and wire.

And they is my people. I don't hang around them much (buncha hillbillys anyway) but I give them credit where due. And since the apple don't fall far from the tree I can become just like them in a second.

Knowing what to do. Allows for a very modest kind of patience these days.

MeelionDollerBogus's picture

from Mallrats to Mall-manatees

jwoop66's picture

My sister married a Russian.  A lazy, worthless, no job holding, wishing there was more govt in this country-turd.   Wasn't that country broke throughout the ninety's and most of the 2000's with the exception of the "new" millionaire class?   Didn't putin gain power because most Russians wanted a more powerful central govt?   Didn't the communist party have at least 30%or 40% of "the vote"  for the past twenty years?  

Not to disagree about central planning inevitably killing the economy in this country, but seriously, Russia as a model of self sufficiency?!   Please...

fonzannoon's picture

jwoop it's funny you say that....every russian male in my wife's family is a deadbeat except my wife's Uncle, who is an sbolute whale. But the rest of them are total garbage. The women though, are fascinatingly talented. Each and every one.

Bring the Gold's picture

That seems a common trait in a huge swath of the world actually contrary to all the self-back patting misogynists here on ZH (if you dear random reader aren't one of them, I'm not talking about you).

My experience of that region of the world bears out what you say quite a bit. There are certainly boatloads of worthless women in the US, and same with the men as far as self-sufficiency goes. There are also tons of supremely talented women and men. The US is probably one of the least homogenous countries on earth on the margins. The vast mainstream is however rather fantastically worthless. :)

samsara's picture

F-in Right. The woman KNOWS what "Real" is.

You are lucky to have her.

Harbanger's picture

 "I kiss her ass on a daily basis because I know when shit gets rough she may be the most important person in my life."

That's pretty sad Fonz.  There's a reason she didn't stay in her native country.  Survivors from anywhere are tuff.

The Alarmist's picture

Russia is the only place where I have seen a smoking hot babe smash with her bare hands a cock-roach crawling across a table without giving it a second thought.  And that was before the vodka.  

Seer's picture

How about we all contribute some money to have her go and kick atomicwasted's ass?  Lots of "weeding" to be done...

On a fully serious note, I totally understand what you're saying.

Dr. Engali's picture

Oh please....And who should we listen to? American leadership? Don't make me laugh. These idiots have created on fine mess, and they are bound to drag the whole stinking world down with us.