My Heroes Have Always Been (Petroleum) Cowboys 石油 , カウボーイ, 砂漠

Beijing, China, circa 2003: The Ferry Driver did good business, if only because of our small group of expat English teachers.  The bar sat in the middle of a strip mall on the dusty street running along the western perimeter of our university.  We’d meet 3 or 4 nights a week at eight o’clock and leave by 11:48, giving us time return to our building before the elevator shut off.  No matter who was there that night and no matter where the conversation started, by 10:30 we were discussing the differences between the US and the UK.  It struck me as a failing of our group that we kept rehashing this tired topic, but what else could we discuss, this collection of Yanks, Brits, Scotts, and Aussies, stranded in the smoggy confines of northwest Beijing?  The common thread that held us together was the English language and our shared cultural background.  Years later I’ve been struck by this phenomenon  – the repetitive sports talk at work, the tired gossip among friends.  There’s no invisible hand guiding our conversations to familiar ground, it’s the contours of the ground itself, gently suggesting a conversational path of least resistance.

“Pickin’ up hookers instead of my pen, I let the words of my years fade away. Old worn-out saddles, and ‘old worn-out memories, With no one and no place to stay.”

Conversations involving expats in Tokyo are subject to the same physics.  And since living in Japan is often the only common denominator, the topic of living in Japan, or simply Japan itself, can dominate a conversation.  Within this context, a certain breed expat relishes in pointing out the deficiencies of the Japanese economic, social, and/or political system.  It’s a common sentiment among these expats that Japan’s economy is in trouble – it lacks energy, it lacks growth, it lacks innovation.  They point to growth in China, India, Indonesia, to the entrepreneurial spirit in Silicon Valley, to Japan’s “lost decades” and projected population loss.  Listen to these voices long enough and you would think the sky is falling.  As I’ve said in a prior post, I consider claims of Japan’s demise to be a bit premature…

“Cowboys are special with their own brand of misery, From being alone too long.”

…but they also are right.  There are genuine areas of concern within the Japanese social, economic, and political framework.  The Japanese know this too.  From an economic perspective, what should be done?  The country’s balance of trade has not looked this bad in a long time.  Is the answer to produce more Playstations?  Or to regain its manufacturing edge over Korea?  Is the real problem that Japan doesn’t consume enough, as one expat told me?  I listen halfheartedly to these discussions because they are so 20th century.  Under the old economics, there was supply and demand, quantity and price.  But the old economics were built on the 19th and 20th century’s anomalous access to oil, minerals, and precious metals.  It’s quite possible that the extractive economics of the 19th and 20th century will no longer apply once we’ve pulled every last tooth from Earth’s mouth.

“I grew up a-dreamin’ of bein’ a cowboy, and Lovin’ the cowboy ways. Pursuin’ the life of my high-ridin’ heroes, I burned up my childhood days.”

Still, some are convinced that American-style free market capitalism is the answer to any country’s economic ills.  Give these people credit, though, as they believe in results; you need not bend truth far to construct a long, unwavering line of progress, both economic and social, from the start of Western capitalism to today.  True believers will not be swayed from this belief by anything other than the undeniable collapse of the system.  To them, suggesting that we conserve resources or plan our cities better is a large slippery step to Communism or UN-led totalitarianism.

Peak oil, peak everything, peak whatever you want…capitalism for years has benefited from the relative absence of limits in the natural world…limits that we are now running up against.  Joint-stock companies made their fortunes on the wilds of America, or on the backs of essentially free Indian labor.  The North American continent was essentially limitless when it came to the fur trade, or timber, or farmland.  If anything ever was scarce, you just looked a little further.  For most of its life the United States had access to an economic pressure release valve in the form of westward expansion – if you don’t like where you’re living, go west.  Over and over again Americans would find money buried in the ground, be it gold in California, crops grown on free land from the Homestead Act, or black gold from the nation’s first oil boom in Pennsylvania.  Without a doubt free market capitalism was a catalyst and an incubator for the nation’s growth, but the role of resource supply should not be ignored.  Free market capitalists don’t worry that resources are running out.  Motivated by scarcity, the assume “scientists” will find a way to replace oil with water, to replace zinc with soy, and turn lead into gold.  I would sleep more easily if this were true.

As Japan wrings its hands over its economic decline, a word of advice: don’t listen to the American-style free market capitalists, at least don’t listen to everything they say.  In the long term, our extractive economies will be in trouble, which is to say all advanced economies are in trouble.

Really, none of these work?…

“My heroes have always been cowboys. And they still are, it seems. Sadly, in search of, but one step in back of, Themselves and their slow-movin’ dreams.”

Now that China has already surpassed Japan as the world’s number two economy, the pressure is off and Japan should take the opportunity to try something different.  But how can a country that built much of its post-WWII success on manufacturing and exports learn to play a new game?  How can any country will itself away from oil…away from mineral and precious metal extraction?  The heroes of the economic world were all petroleum cowboys; some literally, and some by association, as their empires could not exist without cheap oil.  We need new heroes.

One project that has caught the world’s attention and which I am eager to keep tabs on, is the Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town project, led by Panasonic (Japanese: 藤沢Fujisawaサスティナブル・スマートタウン).  Whether this is greenwashing, only time will tell, but it’s the type of project that has the potential to energize Japan’s economic attitude and give us some hope for the post-peak world.

(Update: I visited the Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town and wrote about it in Metropilis Magazine.)

Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town サスティナブル 藤:

Walking directions from Fujisawa Station to Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town:

See also:



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