Cargo Karma

In 1973, when the first shopping mall opened on the outskirts of my town, Saratoga Springs, the local paper ran a special Sunday supplement touting its wonders and marvels. The advertisers who paid for it were all downtown merchants; and within ten years virtually all of them were out of business.

This is a common story, of course, all over America, and the wreckage is visible in crumbling, vacant Main Streets everywhere. Around where I live in upstate New York the magnitude of the loss is spectacular. There are once-venerable industrial towns along the Hudson and Mohawk River valleys so sclerotic now that an invasion of zombies would improve their economic prospects — not to mention the street life. Elmira, where circumstances took me last month, seemed like a former Soviet backwater, minus the old-world charm. That’s how it is these days in the gloaming beyond the Metroplexes.

But for all the tears shed over the ruins of Main Street America, there is no question that we got exactly what we wanted. The local merchants who touted the new mall in Saratoga back in 1973 all believed in the righteousness of American business through and through, and they believed in land development as an unequivocal good — no matter what form it took or where it was allowed to occur on the landscape. They were all members of the various local business booster clubs, sodalities for reinforcing the groupthink of the day.

Back in ’73, the odium of the Vietnam War was still abroad in the land, and to be against malls was to be an enemy of the republic. The “business community,” as they liked to call themselves, took a dim view of hippie-freak anti-war enviro-bleeding-heart nature romancers, so whatever the freaks were against — shopping malls, for instance — small town businessmen had to be for. They were ripe for a hosing and they got it good from the mall developers who enlisted them in cheerleading for the very mall that killed their livelihoods. Predictably, the death of the business community eventually led to the death of communities in general.

Those local merchants were led into a very fundamental error in thinking that everybody in business — mall builder and main street shop-owner alike — wanted the same thing. “We mall builders are pro-business, and you Main Streeters are pro-business, so get behind this mall idea and there will be more business for everybody!” Plus, that thing they all wanted would be good for their country. What was that thing they wanted, anyway? A bright future, I suppose. The mall promised it in the way that a visit from an unusually benevolent UFO might signify shining gifts from on high, the perfect set-up for a “cargo cult.”

The interesting sociological phenomenon of the cargo cult is best illustrated by the encounters between the tribal peoples of the South Pacific and European explorers, soldiers, and traders. The Europeans first arrived on the scene in the 1500s in sailing ships so big and strange they might as well have been UFOs. They brought with them wonders that had never been seen before, even on bountiful and idyllic South Pacific islands: guns, mirrors, iron cooking pots, bolts of cloth, crosscut saws, you name it. They left a lot of these goodies behind in exchange for food and other fresh necessities. The Europeans would then sail away and their ships would not return to a particular island for a long time — years, decades, even generations. Their visits, therefore, entered into the mythology of the island peoples.

The wish to induce the return of the mythic ships led the islanders to such crypto-religious behavior as building big cane or rattan effigies of the ships, and placing them along the shore as sort of cosmic lures to attract real ships bearing goodie cargo. Well, sure enough, because exploration and trade were on the increase, sooner or later another ship would swing by and more goodies would be dispensed, reinforcing the cult behavior. Important in this whole dynamic is the fact that the islanders had no idea how the goods got made, or what kind of economy and society were necessary to enable the making of them. They just appeared.

Cargo cult behavior in the South Pacific continued right up into the modern era. During World War Two, some remote islands became supply depots with airstrips. Planes would land and some of the cargo disgorged naturally made its way into the hands of the amazed locals. When the war ended, the B-29s stopped coming. In the years after, the locals constructed cane effigies of the planes on mountain tops hoping to lure back the real ones and their goodies. This really happened. Eventually, of course, many of those tribes were subsumed into the developing economies of Indonesia, the Philippines, and other newish nation states, and there are few islands left where things like soda pop and portable radios retain that transcendental allure.

Today the cargo cult is exemplified by the American economy as a whole. The UFOs now land here in the form of Wal-Marts and Target Stores, but the underlying theme is the same: The magical appearance of goodies. They aren’t exactly free, but they come at supernatural discount prices that are the next best thing to free. The prices are so low because of an anomalous conjunction of circumstances. Cheap energy and surplus labor have allowed Asian nations, China in particular, to ramp up the last industrial manufacturing economies of the oil age. The decay of banking and lending standards has allowed Americans bearing credit cards to hallucinate unearned wealth, and to buy goods manufactured cheaply elsewhere. For Americans, every day can be like Christmas, an orgy of consumer cargo; and the Chinese get to enjoy the illusion that they are building an economy with a future.

In this hugely entropic racket, the diminishing returns in the form of punishing debt and eventual bankruptcy are immense. The ecology of the planet suffers the most from the side effects of burning ever more oil — namely climate change. And when the global oil production peak is achieved, the racket will have to come to an end, because the primary implication of the oil peak is that industrial economies predicated on an ever-expanding oil supply will not grow anymore. The supply of fuel needed to feed the beast, so to speak, will never increase again, and there is no credible evidence that a hydrogen economy or any combination of alternative fuels will take its place. When industrial economies can no longer expand, Americans will have to stop pretending that Master Card is money, and the Chinese will lose the prime customers for their cut-rate products. They may well find themselves in a desperate economic vortex, with unemployment soaring at orders of magnitude we here can barely imagine, and violent social upheaval in the offing — and this in the most environmentally degraded territory the world has ever seen. Americans will find themselves foreclosed, repossessed, impoverished, up a suburban cul-de-sac, in a cement SUV without a fill-up. When that happens, there will still be a lot of oil left in the Middle East and both the U.S. and China will still have large and formidable militaries. Duck and cover.

I stray slightly from my point, however — a luxury of writing for the Internet where one’s thoughts can roll out expansively, as in the drawing room of a palazzo on a drizzly spring day, with a good supply of Madeira on hand — and that point is that we Americans have unfortunately gotten exactly what we asked for. Like those feckless Main Street merchants in my town who led the cheers for the mall until the day they shuttered their own stores, the American public in general has supported the Wal-Mart cargo cult until their own towns stand in ruins. I have been present in many a planning board battle both at home and in other parts of the country and watched a broad faction of that public holler about their right to “bargain shopping” as though it were one of the first ten amendments to the constitution. Whatever its merits as legal theory, in practice it has turned out to be a very bad bargain.

Americans thought that discount shopping would make their lives better, that saving seven dollars on a hair dryer would make America a better country. They were quite wrong. The Wal-Marts, Targets, and Best Buys landed like the Martian mother ships from The War of the Worlds, and in thirty years they have transformed the American terrain into a desolate wilderness of free parking and sodium vapor lamps. The existing infrastructure of our towns was left to rot, and local networks of economic interdependence were systematically dismantled. The local businessmen forced to close up shop had made up much of the middle class across America, filling both economic and social roles. They were the caretakers of the local institutions. They sat on the hospital and library boards. They paid for the little league. They employed people they knew intimately, and were held accountable for their treatment of them.

The Martians who hosed them turned out to be their fellow American businessmen, led by that avatar of relentless expansion and efficiency, Sam Walton. After efficiently laying waste to one community after another, and selling out hundreds of American manufacturers in order to buy cheaper stuff made by dollar-a-day factory slaves 12,000 miles away, old Sam entered the pantheon of American heroes along with Davy Crockett, Thomas Edison, and Walt Disney. The American public never caught on. They were too distracted by all the glittering cheap cargo to even notice. And the idle moments that might have permitted some quiet reflection on this tragedy were hijacked by NASCAR, Lotto, and “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire.” The American public threw their towns away in order to get something for nothing, so to speak. And in so doing, they sacrificed many of the mechanisms of culture that ensure the continuity of civilization from one era to the next.

The era we are entering is going to be a humdinger and it is natural to doubt that we are prepared for it. In this election year, none of the candidates is addressing the awful questions arising out of the global oil peak, including how we are going to feed ourselves when our oil- and gas-based agriculture grinds to a halt, as it surely will. There ought to be no question that we will have to reconstruct local networks of economic interdependency in the very near future — that is if we want to continue as a civilized society.

Jobs are not prizes handed out by a government. They are roles in a social matrix. A big box store is not a social matrix. It is a parasitical economic swarm organism like a cloud of locusts that descends on a locality and picks it clean.

As the oil markets collapse, Wal-Mart and its kindred swarm organisms will not be able to continue their operations, which depend on both the price and supply of gasoline remaining very cheap and utterly dependable forever. Old Sam’s “warehouse on wheels” won’t be worth running up and down the subsidized interstate highways. Old Sam’s customers will not be able to pretend they have purchasing power anymore. Old Sam’s suppliers in China may find their government maneuvering strategically with the US to secure the remaining oil in Arabia. And that kind of international friction generally makes for poor trade relations.

As these things come to pass in succession, the parking lots will empty and the lights will go out in the big boxes. Maybe then the public will begin to notice that something has happened to our country.

James Howard Kunstler harangues OrionOnline readers regularly; he is featured in the Jul/Aug 2004 issue of Orion magazine. Kunstler is the author of The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, and the raucous and irreverent Maggie Darling: A Modern Romance, published by the Atlantic Monthly Press.