Archive for December 15th, 2008

Scenes from the Mall

Sharon December 15th, 2008

Last night, Eric and I did something we simply never do - we went to the mall.  My mother was visiting, and kindly offered to babysit while the two of us went out to dinner, and since we do this sort of thing quite infrequently, we jumped at the chance to do a few errands uninterrupted and have a quiet meal together.  Our first two choices for dinner were closed, due to the massive power outages that still plague our region.  So, since we knew the lights were on, we ended up at the Crossgates mall.  And I have to say, even to my doomy eyes, the experience was pretty unsettling.

The restaurants were reasonably busy, and there were cars in the parking lots.  In fact, my initial reaction was that things didn’t seem to be as bad as I’d read here.  My mother had stopped to have lunch with a friend earlier today, and said that the restaurant had just re-opened, after four days without power, but was packed with people who were content to drink coffee and sit somewhere with central heating. More than 10,000 people in my region are still without power, and we figured that this would push people into the malls.  And while Sunday night isn’t peak shopping, generally speaking, an evening this close to the holidays would have been busy.

It wasn’t.  The restaurant was less busy than I’d anticipated but not empty - but the mall itself was a ghost town.  Here we were, 10 days before Christmas, on a night where for many the mall was warm, lighted, unlike home, and it was nearly empty.  The people who were there simply weren’t buying - I counted two shopping bags during the 2 hours we spent wandering around, looking and listening in gloomy fascination at the demise of American shopping. 

Every store was offering at least 30% off, often on everything, and often that over and above other discounts.  Several stores had “store closing” or “going out of business” signs up already.  Many stores had the appearance of having given up - the window of the Oshkosh children’s store, instead of cute baby mannequins in overalls was filled with half-packed boxes.  One store, selling novelties and junk was literally deserted - we walked in and waited, called out and no one appeared for a good 15 minutes - we finally gave up (we didn’t want to buy anything, we were simply curious about whether the store was actually as abandoned as it appeared to be).  No one stole anything - there really wasn’t anything to steal, or anyone to steal it.  At one store, three employees had put up a nerf basketball hoop and were taking shots, clearly having given up on sales.  Several stores looked as though their shelves hadn’t been neatened in several days.

The single line we saw was at the dollar store (not coincidentally, the only place we bought anything - I found a deck of Uno cards 2/$1 for the boys and clothespins for a buck) - otherwise, most stores had no customers at all.  When we stopped and chatted with store employees, most of them said they’d had few, if any, sales.   

Malls are not the place to restore your faith in humanity’s ability to survive hard times, and they tend to bring out a black irony in me.  The sight of some poor kid trying to get anyone to taste a plastic sausage from Hickory Farms - he called to us the full length of the aisle, and practically chased us down the corridor - was funny.  But of course, underlying the dark humor was the fact that this young man and all the employees who are paying for college (the mall is right next to SUNY Albany and draws many employees from there) and making a living are about to be the next victims in a round of layoffs.  We know, for example, that if enrollments all off enough at SUNY, my husband will probably get the axe as well - that kid with the sausage is a link in a chain that goes to our family, and thousands of other places as well.

And you can see the calculations in people’s eyes - why buy today, when things are at 40% off?   They will be 70% off after the holidays, when the chain goes bankrupt.  And then, of course, they won’t be there at all.  Eric and I stopped in Williams Sonoma to speculate on at what price we’d be willing to buy another Le Creuset dutch oven or a serious Wusthof butcher knife - the price we’d consider was well below the present valuation, but getting closer than they had been in years. 

The problem, of course, is that everyone’s ability and willingness to buy is contracting faster than the prices are deflating - it doesn’t matter how cheap the dutch oven is, in a sense - I don’t want it badly enough to spend what money we have on it, not if Eric’s job is in jeapardy.  A million such decisions and we have…detente, but not in a good way.  Even at Borders I couldn’t find anything I really wanted to buy.

The stench of failure is death to retail - even those chains that survive, in bleak half-empty malls that have to cut their heating back because revenues are down will then suffer from the new atmosphere, the stench of disaster.  Who goes to those kinds of bleak malls? 

I tried to think about what we might do with this mall, and the other malls.  Could it house students in a new, lower budget subsidized education system  - they could grow food for the dining halls and make the storefronts into small dorm style apartments. Could one revitalize a small number of malls with local businesses?  It is hard to imagine every needing anything on this scale again - there are shops that sell only caps, those that sell only shirts describing multi-gendered, nude sprting events, calendars, nauseatingly scented candles that poison the atmosphere,  (I have to say, the demise of Yankee Candle will not bring me sorrow - I can only even walk past them from as far away as possible - the stench is repulsive), and overpriced stuffed animals.  It is impossible to imagine the need for this much retail space in a more constrained society without this acute over-specialization.  So little of this meets actual needs. 

I admit, the sheer emptiness of it shocked even me - I knew how much retail sales had fallen, but knowing and seeing are two different things.   What are you seeing in your local retail sector?


2009 Predictions: Its Hour Come Round At Last

Sharon December 15th, 2008

I’m writing this a little early this year - _Independence Days_ is due in a couple of weeks, and I anticipate a great deal of distraction as the end-of-the-year predictions really start pouring out, so I thought I’d jump the gun and make mine now.

But first, how did I do last year? (And note, just ’cause I got some right last year doesn’t mean that you should take my word as gospel - I don’t think that everything that comes out of my ass is the high truth, and neither should you ;-)

I called this year “Here be Dragons” arguing that this was when the maps we use to make sense of the world begin to fail us.  I think that was pretty accurate - I think most people still don’t really understand how badly our maps have failed us, how the operation of our economy, our ecosystem, our culture is simply different than what we’ve been taught.  I think we can all see that most experts are pretty lost too - not because they are simply stupid, but because they aren’t prepared to work off the map.  The stories we tell ourselves shape what we can see in the world - and the conventional narratives have undermined our understanding of the realities.

Here are my predictions for 2008 and my comments on how they came out:

1. This year, the words “peak oil” will go mainstream, but this mainstreaming will not be matched by a subtle or nuanced understanding of what the words mean. That is, peak oil will be used for political purposes, and not necessarily ones anyone will approve of.

- I called this one.  As oil prices rose, CNN and the rest of the MSM couldn’t get enough of PO poster boys Simmons and Kunstler.  But, of course it wasn’t really possible to create, in that media, a complex enough understanding for people to realize that peak oil hasn’t gone away just because prices have collapsed, that, in fact, for the long term, the collapse of prices probably ensures that we’re past peak oil. 

2. By the end of the year, there will begin to be runs on preparedness equipment and food storage, a la Y2K.

- It wasn’t quite as dramatic in the equipment department as Y2K, although woodstoves and electric bikes were backordered like crazy.  But the big story was people fighting over bags of rice at Costco and other stores back in the spring. And unfortunately, for other reasons, I think we may see this one again.  Called it.

3. The NeoCons will not go gently into that good night - there will be at least one serious surprise for us. G-d willing, it won’t involve the word “nukuler” or any of its cognates.

- I’d give myself 50% on this one - I think the build up with Russia was indeed a final Neo-con attempt to make themselves seem like the best answer to a scary world (and Alaska as our DMZ), but it wasn’t as dire as I feared.

4. Hillary will not win the 2008 election. Neither, despite all the people who keep sending me emails saying he will, will Ron Paul.

- Got it.
5. The economy will tank. Yup, I’m really going out on a limb here.

- Got it.

6. Many of us will find we are being taken more seriously than we ever expected. We will still be taken less seriously than any celebrity divorce, however.

- This was certainly true for me - I don’t really know how John Michael Greer, Kunstler and Orlov, for example, felt about it, but I was surprised at how seriously my predictions were taken, and how few people thought I was over-reacting, even when doing, say ABC affiliate radio interviews.  But, of course, there are limits to seriousness - fairly few people really critiqued the worldview, but comparatively few people paid attention, either.  

7. We’ll see food riots in more nations and hunger will increase. The idea of Victory Gardens won’t seem so crazy anymore.

 - Yup.  31 nations and counting had some form of food riot this year.  And Michael Pollan wrote “Farmer in Chief” and the “White House Farm” idea hit the blogosphere.

8. The biofuels craze will begin to be thought the better of - not in time to prevent the above.

- Called it.  The collapse of oil prices of course is doing its own work, but even before that, we were finally seeing serious questioning of the premise of biofuels hit national discourse, at least in Europe.

9. We will see at least one more image of desperate people, walking out of their city becuase there’s no other alternative. And a lot of images of foreclosures.

Part one of this is the only one I got wrong, and that only partly.  People were walking out of Houston, and a whole lot of people were walking around looking for Gas in Memphis and Atlanta, but it didn’t quite have the resonance of Katrina or 9/11 - the media wasn’t paying attention, so it wasn’t the kind of iconic image that I was expecting.  The second part I called.

10. TEOTWAKI, if it ever happens, will be delayed long enough for my book to be released this fall and to make back at least the advance, so my publisher won’t have any reason to try and sue me ;-)

- I’m not sure, but I think I might have actually made back my advance by now (all 4K of it), and my publisher is still in business.  Who knows, I might actually make a pittance!

Ok, what about the coming year?  While I think 2008 was when most people first realized something was wrong, I’m going to go out on a limb here (ok, not a huge limb, but a limb) and say that 2009 will be the year we say that things “collapsed.”  I don’t think we’re going to make it through the year without radical structural changes in the nature of life in most of the world.   I’m calling it, a la Yeats’s “Second Coming” the “The Year ‘Its Hour Come Round at Last’” 

 What do I mean by collapse?  We throw that word around, but it is easy to misunderstand.  I mean that the US is likely to undergo a financial collapse a la the Great Depression - widespread unemployment, lots of people facing hunger, cold and the inability to get health care, a disruption of what we tend to assume are birthright services, and a sense that the system doesn’t work anymore.  I don’t claim that we are headed by Thursday to cannibalism, however - what I think will be true is that we will often do surprisingly well in the state of collapse, as hard as it is.

 In previous years, I was fairly lighthearted about my predictions - this year, I don’t find it possible to be.  I really hope I’m wrong about this.  And I  hope you will make decisions based on your own judgement, not mine.  These are predictions, the results of my analysis and my intuitions, and sometimes I’m good at that.  But I do not claim that every word that comes out of my mouth or off my keyboard is the truth, and you should not take it as such.  You are getting this free on the internet - consider what you paid for it, and value it accordingly.

1. Some measure of normalcy will hold out until late spring or early summer, mostly based on hopes for the Obama Presidency.  But by late summer 2009, the aggregate loss of jobs, credit and wealth will cause an economic crisis that makes our current situation look pretty mild.  With predictions of up to a million jobs lost each month, there will simply come a point at which the economy as we understand it now cannot function - we will see the modern equivalents of breadlines and stockbrokers selling apples on the streets.

2. Many plans for infrastructure investments currently being proposed will never be completed, and many may never be started, because the US may be unable to borrow the money to fund them.  The price of globalization will be high in terms of reduced availability of funds and resources - despite all the people who think that we’ll keep building things during a collapse, we won’t.  We will have some variation on a Green New Deal in the US and some nations will continue to work on renewable infrastructure, but a lot of us are going to be getting along with the fraying infrastructure, designed for a people able to afford a lot of cheap energy, that we have now.  The most successful projects will be small, localized programs that distribute resources as widely as possible. 

I pray that we will have the brains to ignore most other things and set up some kind of health care system, one that softens the blows here.  If not, we’re really fucked - the one thing most of us can’t afford is medical care as it works now in a non-functioning economy.  Unfortunately, my bet is that we don’t do something about this, but I hope to God I’m wrong.

3. 2009 will be the year that most of the most passionate climate activists (and I don’t exclude myself) have to admit that there is simply not a snowball’s chance in hell (and hell is getting toastier quickly) that we are going to prevent a 2C+ warming of the planet.  We are simply too little, too late.  That does not mean we will give up on everything - the difference between unchecked emissions and checked ones is still the difference between life and death for millions -  but hideously, regretfully and painfully, the combination of our growing understanding of where the climate is and the economic situation will force us to begin working from the reality that the world we leave our children is simply going to be more damaged, and our legacy smaller and less worthy of us than we’d ever hoped. 

4. 2008 will probably be the world’s global oil peak, but we won’t know this for a while.  When we do realize it, it will be anticlimactic, because we’ll be mired in the consequences of our economic, energy and climate crisis.  Lack of investment in the coming years will mean that in the end, more oil stays in the ground, which is good for the climate, but tough for our ambitions for a renewable energy economy.  Over the long term, however, peak oil is very much going to come back and bite us all in the collective ass.

5. Decreased access to goods, services and food will be a reality this year.  Some of this will be due to stores going out of business - we may all have to travel further to meet needs.  Some will be due to suppliers going under, following the wave of merchant bankruptcies.  Some may be due to disruptions in shipping and transport of supplies.  Some will be due to increased demand for some items that have, up until now, been niche items, produced in small numbers for the small number of sustainability freaks, but that now seem to have widespread application.  And some may be due to deflation - farmers may not be able to harvest crops because they can’t get enough for them to pay for the harvest, and the connections between those who have goods and those who need goods may be thoroughly disrupted.  Meanwhile, millions more Americans will be choosing between new shoes and seeing the doctor.

6. Most Americans will see radical cut backs in local services and safety nets.  Funding will simply dry up for many state and local programs. Unemployment will be overwhelmed, and the federal government will have to withdraw some of its commitments simply to keep people from starving in the streets.  Meanwhile, expect to see the plows stop plowing, the garbage cease to be collected, and classrooms to have 40+ kindergarteners to a class - and potentially a three or four day school week.

7. Nations will overwhelmingly fail to pony up promised commitments to the world’s poor, and worldwide, the people who did the least harm to the environment will die increasingly rapidly of starvation.  This will not be inevitable, but people in the rich world will claim it is.

8. We will finally attempt to deal with foreclosures, but the falling value of housing will make it a losing proposition.  Every time we bring the housing values down to meet the reality, the reality will shift under our feet. Many of those who are helped will end up foreclosed upon anyway (as is already the case) and others will simply see no point in paying their mortgage when, by defaulting, they could qualify for lowered payments (as is already the case).  Ultimately, the issue will probably self resolve in either some kind of redistribution plan that puts people in foreclosed houses with minimal mortgaging, with foreclosures dragging down enough banks that people find it feasible to simply stop paying mortgages that are now unenforceable, or with civil unrest that leads people simply to take back housing for the populace.  I don’t have a bet on which one, and I don’t think it will be resolved in 2009. 

9. By the end of the year, whether or not we will collapse or have collapsed will continue to be hotly debated by everyone who can still afford their internet service.  No one will agree on what the definition of collapse actually is, plenty of people will simply be living their old lives, only with a bit less, while others will be having truly apocalyptic and deeply tragic losses.  Some will see the victims as lazy, stupid, alien and worthless, no matter how many there are.  Others will look around them and ask “how did I not see that this was inevitable?”  Many people will be forced to see that the poor are not a monolith of laziness and selfishness when they become poor.  We will know that we are in our situation only in retrospect, only in hindsight - our children will have a better name for the experience than we will, caught up in our varied personal senses of what is happening  Meanwhile, each time things get harder most of us will believe they are at the bottom, that things are now “normal” and adapt, until it becomes hard to remember what our old expectations were.

10. Despite how awful this is, the reality is that not everything will fall apart.  In the US, we will find life hard and stressful, but we will also go forward.  People will suck a lot up and retrench.  It will turn out that ordinary people were always better than commentators at figuring out what to do - that’s why they stopped shopping even while people were begging them to keep buying.  So they’ll move in with their siblings and grow gardens and walk away from their overpriced houses, or fight to keep them.  Some of them will suffer badly for it, but a surprising number of people will simply be ok in situations that until now, they would have imagined were impossible to survive.  We will endure, sometimes even find ways of loving our new lives.  There will be acts of remarkable courage and heroism, and acts of the most profound evil and selfishness.  There will be enormous losses - but we will also discover that most of us are more than we think we are - can tolerate more and have more courage and compassion than we believe of ourselves.   

An early Happy New Year, everyone.  May you know better than you deserve and see others at their best in these hard times.