James Howard Kunstler first came to my attention a couple of years ago with his publication of The Long Emergency, a look at the problems of suburbanization and the coming economic shocks that were likely to come as oil production peaked globally and started to decline.
For several years, Kunstler, a writer for such publications as Rolling Stone magazine, the New York Times Op-Ed and Sunday Magazine as well as a syndicated columnist for a number of economic newsletters, has been looking at the increasingly unsustainable creation of far-flung bedroom communities and strip malls that have arisen in the wake of the American car culture, and the more he dug into the issues, the more he realized just how deep the problem was and how significantly it would change the way that we live once oil becomes increasingly scarce.
Kunstler's most recent book, World Made By Hand, is a novel set in the near future, after such a collapse has taken place. It is a somber and sobering tale, brilliantly told, about a small town in upstate New York and how the people there are adapting to a radically altered way of life.
Mr. Kunstler graciously granted me an interview (postponed a couple of times as both he and I battled snowstorms this winter) and had a lot to say about the state of the world and his interpretations about what is happening:
KC: You came to national prominence with the publication of The Long Emergency, a book that looked at the unsustainability of our present lifestyle as we enter an era where oil production will be declining and our current form of hyper-capitalism failing due to its own inherent contradictions. What started you on the path toward The Long Emergency?
JHK: Actually, my 1993 book, "The Geography of Nowhere" got some attention and became kind of a campus cult favorite, especially among urban design and architecture students -- I think because there were few books written for a popular audience on the subject of how badly the built environment of the USA sucked. The sheer appalling ridiculousness of all our suburban crapola made for great polemical sport. I wrote two other books along the same lines -- "Home From Nowhere" (1996) and "The City in Mind (2002)," which allowed me to elaborate these themes.
In the meantime I had hooked up with the New Urbanist movement, which had a zesty reformist spirit and was full of wonderful characters like Andres Duany and Leon Krier. They were the only gang in our culture who were really promoting an intelligent alternative to the Happy Motoring template. Anyway, a comprehensive consideration of our suburban fiasco naturally led to study of the fossil fuel predicament. In the mid 1990s (around the time I was writing "Home From Nowhere") a cohort of senior geologists retired out of the oil industry and began publishing their dark, secret thoughts about the destiny of the oil industry -- and indeed, of economies hyper-dependent on oil.
The consensus was pretty grim. It implied, among other things, that the suburban fiasco was even worse than I had said in my earlier books, that we were heading into a pretty stark crisis of advanced civilization. Way back in the 1970s, I'd covered the OPEC oil embargo story as a newspaper reporter and it made a big impression on me -- for a few weeks you could see all our suburban arrangements unravel. So, I'd actually been stewing about all this for some time. Out of all this came "The Long Emergency."
KC: What is Peak Oil, and how is it (and how soon is it) going to affect the national and global economy? Do you see energy alternatives on the horizon that can minimize the effect of the decline of oil?
JHK: There are lots of ways to describe Peak Oil -- different angles. For instance, you can say it means the year in which we'll produce the most oil (and after which we will enter remorseless depletion). You can say it's the point where demand for oil permanently exceeds supply. You can say it's a liquid fuels problem for a society addicted to driving and trucking. You can say it implies the end of industrial growth as-we've-known-it (with further implications in capital finance). You can say it threatens the complex systems we depend on for everyday life (petro-agriculture, chain store retail, Happy Motoring, suburban settlement patterns, centralized school districts, etc etc). In all these ways it is a challenge to the life-ways were are accustomed to.
KC: The role of urban planning plays a large part in your writings. What's wrong with our current urban planning models, and how can we readjust the way that we build (and connect) cities to work better in a world of changing resources?
JHK: Omigod! What's wrong. We'll, let's just start by saying we've constructed an infrastructure for daily life with no future. That's pretty disturbing, isn't it? I customarily refer to this as the greatest misallocation off resources in the history of the world. Having poured all our post-WW2 wealth in it, we've made ourselves hostage to the psychology of previous investment -- meaning we will desperately try anything to keep it all going, to sustain the unsustainable, at all costs. Thus, we'll be squandering our dwindling resources in a gigantic act of futility. That's the Big Picture end of the story.
The more micro view is that we've constructed a daily living arrangement that is depressing, demoralizing, unrewarding, unfair to children and old people, grossly wasteful, ecologically unsound to-the-max, and profoundly unhealthy. It is a bad human habitat. It's toxic in every sense. It punishes us intensely, despite the number of bathrooms per inhabitant and the air conditioning. And for most people in the USA, it is absolutely normal -- it's all they know.
Now, the reason we can't get past it (stemming from the psychology of previous investment) is that we've encoded the template for building all this crap in our laws, and trained our municipal officials and politicians to administer the template rigorously (and outlaw most of the remedies in traditional urban design), and trained the architects to be grandstanding narcissists, and conditioned the public to expect to drive everywhere for everything, and empowered the developers and bankers to deliver only the "products" (say, houses and strip malls) that comport with the template. It will take a shock to induce the necessary paradigm shift away from all this foolishness -- and we're in for one. In fact, we've entered it. How do you like the Long Emergency so far?
KC: How much of the current economic crisis that we're facing is caused by (or is a reaction to) peak oil? How do you see the economic situation playing out in the next decade?
JHK: Peak oil has a lot to do with it, since it implies the inability to continue conventional "growth" in the context of industrial economies. This in turn implies that the conventional investment vehicles that have worked in capital finance under the industrial regime stand to lose their legitimacy, their meaning, their value. That is, stocks, bonds, debentures, etc. Well, whaddaya know. Just as this has occurred, Wall Street (i.e. the financial "industry") went on a binge of experimental engineering in "innovative" new financial instruments -- the whole alphabet soup of CDOs and MBSs and CDS's and SIVs and other "structured finance" novelties intended to produce wealth by other means than industrial productivity.
In other words, the finance sector found a way to generate profits by getting something-for-nothing. Naturally it all turned out to be a fraud and a swindle, and the "work-out" of bad debt and mis-investment is now destroying the finance sector comprehensively. There is a broad expectation that we will come through this "bottleneck" and resume our habits of credit-based "consumerism."
Fuggeddabowdit. That way of life is toast. We're moving into a very stringent and austere economy in which credit will be sparse at best, and rigorously allocated. We face enormous changes in our behavior and in our living arrangements. They can be described very precisely. We have to grow our food differently, perform commerce differently, inhabit the landscape differently, move about the landscape differently, and so on. On the whole, we're likely to be a less affluent society -- as affluence as been understood in recent decades (having lots of stuff and leisure). We will also be shedding the diminishing returns of complexity, and all the unintended consequences of it, which I believe will have many benefits for the human race. For instance, we may not be driving in air-conditioned comfort all the time, but we'll stop being a nation of overfed, diabetic slobs, too.
KC: Where does climate change fit into all of this?
JHK: It will ramify and complicate and amplify all the problems of peak oil and foundering complex systems.
KC: What role can technologists - programmers, scientists, engineers and inventors - play in helping to ameliorate the changes that you foresee happening?
JHK: Personally, I think one of our biggest ailments now is the techno-grandiosity displayed by people in the tech sector. There's some notion that just because we can move pixels around a screen with a mouse, that all the woes of mankind will yield to a set of techno tricks. This is dangerous fucking nonsense. It's especially appalling in those who are desperately trying to rescue the Happy Motoring system by seeking to engineer cars that run on something other than fossil fuels.
For instance, the Rocky Mountain Institute, supposedly an "environmental" organization, has put its cred and muscle behind the development of a "hypercar." What fucking idiocy. It only promotes the idea that we ought to continue being car dependent! This kind of thing drives me nuts. Of course, I'm not anti tech or anti science -- I just think we've lost ourselves in fantasies of omnipotence that are very pernicious. What tech has to do now is re-engineer local, small-scaled living -- the systems we depend on -- so we can live in a manner consistent with our ecology, with the reality-based energy diet of the decades-to-come. The techies for the most part are not so interested in this. Just look at the assholes in NASA who are still fantasizing about space travel when we need to teach tens of millions of Americans how to garden!
KC: We have a new administration coming in. What policy changes would you recommend to Barrack Obama in order to smooth the transition to a more sustainable economic model?
JHK: I'll be very brief (and risk repeating something I've said a hundred times). We need to start rebuilding the American passenger railroad system -- and ancillary light rail public transit -- immediately. The buzz these days ( a couple of weeks before the inauguration) is that the Obama administration wants to ramp up a "stimulus package" focused on rebuilding our highway infrastructure. This would be the epitome of a campaign to sustain the unsustainable, an act of futility.
Look, the airlines are dying. The next time oil goes up in price, or becomes scarce here-and-there, the industry will tank. Unless we rebuild the railroad system, we're not going anywhere in this large, continent-sized nation. How will people get from Chicago to St. Louis? Atlanta to Baltimore? How are we going to move stuff when the trucking industry gets into trouble? We're not paying attention. The lack of any discussion about rebuilding the railroad system shows how un-serious we are, what a nation of clowns we've become. Rebuilding the railroads is of tremendous importance. It will put scores of thousands of people to work on a meaningful project; the basic infrastructure is already there, rusting in the rain, waiting to be fixed; it requires no new technology, and getting it done would boost our confidence to address the other systems that we need to reform and rebuild -- namely agriculture, local-and-regional commerce, appropriately-scaled urban development, etc.
KC: In your latest novel, World Made By Hand, you describe the view of the world as seen from upstate New York a decade or so into the long emergency, a world where religion has made a big comeback, where government has effectively ceased to exist much beyond the local level, and where the population has declined rapidly. How did you come to the model of what that culture would look like? And is there a sequel in the works?
JHK: Constructing a novel means setting into motion an "emergent,"self-organizing process. You have to trust it, and that generally comes from experience in doing it. "World Made By Hand" followed a particular trajectory. There are infinite scenarios you might spin from the conditions at hand, but this was how mine worked out. Elements of story sort of surprised me -- for instance, I realized fairly early on that people were not riding bicycles. They couldn't get rubber tires anymore, nor parts made from exotic metal alloys, plus the pavements were all broken up from years of neglect and disinvestment. Trade had fallen off to nearly zero.
The people of my fictional small town, Union Grove, were living locally to-the-max. The electric grid sputtered out in the beginning of the story. Telecommute? Forget it. Basically, they were thrust back into an agriculture-centered society. Plenty of other side effects in there too -- some of which confounded my readers. For example, the Enlightenment mental model had failed these people and was being challenged in the book by a world-view that might be described as neo-medieval, magical, supernatural. (Not realty itself, mind you, but the group's perception of it.)