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An Interview with James Howard Kunstler

Novelist and nonfiction author James Howard Kunstler is perhaps best known as the preeminent critic of American suburbia. In his 1993 book The Geography of Nowhere, he combined moral outrage at the travesty of postwar development with incisive, specific explanations of what had gone wrong and why. Mindless zoning, separation of uses, cheap construction, watered-down modernism—but most of all, an environment built entirely to serve cars rather than people—all conspire to produce a landscape not only soulless but highly impractical in the long term. “More and more,” Kunstler wrote, “we appear to be a nation of overfed clowns living in a hostile cartoon environment… Eighty percent of everything ever built in America has been built in the last fifty years, and most of it is depressing, brutal, ugly, unhealthy, and spiritually degrading.” With The Geography of Nowhere (and its sequel, Home from Nowhere) Kunstler created a vocabulary for suburban dissent, and made a lot of people realize they were neither crazy nor alone in their unarticulated aversion to sprawl development.

With his latest book, The Long Emergency, Kunstler takes on a broader and even more vexing problem, joining a growing chorus of authors who warn that a rapidly approaching energy crisis is about to devastate the global economy and change everything about modern life. Basing their predictions on the work of the late oil geologist M. King Hubbert, these authors say that the world is at or nearing the ultimate global peak of oil production, after which oil supplies will slowly but inexorably deplete. The crisis will begin not when the final drop of oil is pumped, but at the moment production begins to decline and a combination of skyrocketing prices and chronic shortages throws the world economy into permanent recession.

Optimists may believe that high prices will spur investment in energy alternatives, but Kunstler makes a disturbing case that nothing on the horizon can replace oil (or natural gas, which has been depleting in the United States for some time). Instead, he envisions a series of brutal resource wars, followed by a general reversal of industrial progress leading eventually to a far more local, agrarian way of life. Anyone who believes (as most Americans do) that some miracle technology will arise just in time to save us is suffering from what Kunstler calls “the Jiminy Cricket syndrome”—a childish belief that any outcome we want can be had just by wishing for it.

Always witty, frequently caustic, Kunstler is not a writer who minces words or suffers fools gladly. At a time when political commentary either hews tightly to pre-scripted ideology or is so insubstantial as to practically evaporate upon close reading, Kunstler is a throwback to an earlier era of fiercely independent public intellectuals who spoke directly and had little use for polite qualifiers. Two weeks after September 11, he famously gave a speech to a booing Texas audience in which he suggested that there was little left in America worth defending. “We’re about to send soldiers to Afghanistan,” he said. “If one of them steps on a land mine over there, what will he remember, in his last moment, about the place he calls home? Will it be the curb-cut in front of Chuck E. Cheese’s? Will he pine for the stacking lanes at the traffic light in front of the mall?” In an email interview conducted in August and early September of 2005, Kunstler talked with the Believer about the coming energy crisis and whether anything could be done to save a culture bent on “suicidal socio-economic behavior.”

—Lakis Polycarpou


THE BELIEVER: In The Long Emergency, you argue that the end of cheap oil spells death for American-style suburbia. Given your long-standing hatred of the suburbs, is there an element of wishful thinking in that prediction?

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: This is not the first time someone has asked me that question. I don’t hate suburbia because I am hateful. I hate it because of what it has done to my country and because it represents such a terrible liability for our future. Though science people have carped at my use of the term “entropy,” I do believe that the suburban project is a manifestation of a deeply entropic economy, in the sense that it hastens us toward homeostasis and death. Of course it would be vain for me to try to separate my emotional response to it from my cognitive/critical/intellectual response. I will have to leave to others the question of whether my views on suburbia make sense or not. Certainly a lot of other people are troubled by suburbia for reasons similar to mine.

BLVR: Isn’t it possible, though, to take the basic energy facts you lay out and imagine a less dramatic outcome? For example, a situation where some combination of coal-based synthetic fuels, hybrid-electric and electric vehicles, and nuclear power allow American life to continue more or less as it has, albeit with significant economic pain? I’m not talking about a “Jiminy Cricket” outcome where everything turns out fine, just a scenario that’s less dire than what you imagine.

JHK: I rather imagine we will try to use everything we possibly can in energy resources. My position has been simply to say while that might indeed happen, don’t underestimate the potential for sociopolitical disorder attending this process—which is another way of saying people who expect a seamless transition or “soft landing” to a lower-energy way of life may be wishing too hard for too much. As someone in the thick of these debates, I have noticed a general tendency for commentators to absolutely ignore the potential for extremely disruptive behavior.

BLVR: In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Americans saw gas lines for the first time in twenty-five years. Is there any chance that high prices and sporadic shortages will wake people up to the coming energy crisis, or will Katrina be just an opportunity to blame a specific event while missing the larger problem?

JHK: I imagine it has made an impression on the public. While prices may retreat, I don’t think they will creep as far back as pre-Katrina prices. I also think that a fuller impact of all this will come a bit later this year, as high home heating prices combine with higher pump prices to stress out the middle class. As per what I have said before, I expect delusional thinking to increase, and that it will manifest mainly in finger-pointing, scapegoating, and blaming. The public is far from grasping the larger truth of the matter—that a car-dependent lifestyle is increasingly untenable.

BLVR: Even though Katrina affected both, the price of gasoline spiked much higher than that of crude oil after the storm. Experts blamed the shutdown of Gulf-Coast refineries, but no one explained why refining capacity was so low to begin with.What explains that fact that no refineries have been built in this country since the 1970s?

JHK: We’ve had no refineries built in the U.S. since around 1980. I think the reason is that the oil companies themselves realize that they are in a “twilight” industry and don’t see any rational purpose in making the huge investment necessary in this kind of new and expensive equipment.An additional problem is that the remaining oil in the world is increasingly composed of heavy, sour crudes, which require somewhat different refining procedures from those of the light sweet crude we’ve been getting up until now.

BLVR: Of energy alternatives, the only one you seem to be somewhat optimistic about is nuclear power. Do you think the U.S. will overcome the massive political resistance to nuclear energy and build more plants?

JHK: I think we’d better start having a public discussion about it because even under the best circumstances it will take years to ramp up some additional reactors, and in the meantime we could be facing extraordinary conditions of disorder in this country.

BLVR: In his book Powerdown, Richard Heinberg argues for a cooperative reduction of resource usage among wealthy nations as a response to imminent fossil fuel depletion. But you seem to have very little faith in political solutions. Is there anything we should be demanding of our leaders, or is the situation really hopeless at the national and international levels?

JHK: There are different brands of hubris operating out there. One is techno-hubris, the idea that human technical ingenuity will rescue us from an energy resource predicament. This position tends to be based on a misunderstanding of the difference between technology and energy. Then there is organizational hubris, the idea that we will be able to organize our way sociopolitically out of this predicament. Both of these positions—techno and organizational hubris—represent wishful thinking, in my opinion. For instance, I don’t believe that any consortium of nations will ever be able to enforce a set of Kyoto-style protocols to take action against CO2 production and climate change (and there is plenty of evidence that it is too late, anyway). Similarly, I don’t think there is a chance in hell that the advanced industrial nations will join in any “rationing” allocation system for oil and natural gas. What we will probably get is desperate competition of one kind or another. Anyway, I believe that sooner rather than later, the world is going to get larger— in the sense that global economic relations will wither and all nations will more or less retreat into their own geographic regions again. How much military mischief or hardship might attend that process is an open question.

BLVR: Are organizational solutions unlikely because of the nature of the problem, or because industrialized nations lack the necessary collective wisdom to deal with oil and gas depletion? To put it another way, if Americans were somehow to magically understand and accept reality, would there be time for effective political action to mitigate the crisis?

JHK: I just think it’s human nature. It is human nature for nations, tribes, clans, ethnic groups to look out for their own interests. The fact that diplomats of many nations have actually signed the Kyoto treaty doesn’t mean that its measures would be followed or enforced even by the signers. All it means is that many nations have joined in a public relations effort to cover their asses while they continue to pump CO2 into the atmosphere.

BLVR: In The Economy of Cities, Jane Jacobs makes the case that the economic health of cities is necessary for all other development, even agriculture. Do you agree? Is your pessimism about the future of city life related to the nature of American cities, or does it have to do with the scale of modern cities in general?

JHK: The first part of that question seems tautological to me. I’ll try to address the other part. The cities of the world have assumed a scale made possible by mature industrial economies based on fabulous supplies of wonderfully cheap energy (oil and natural gas really are miraculous mediums of power). In my opinion, all large cities will contract, probably severely, as our energy supplies dwindle. Cities based on megastructures and skyscrapers will have additional special problems.There are actually not so many of these. In the U.S., we are talking mainly about New York and Chicago. Skyscrapers and megastructures are still experimental building types. We have reason to worry about running them in an energy-scarce society. Insofar as modern plumbing is intimately associated with central heating, we have got big problems with these things. You cannot just run space heaters in a seventeen-story apartment building (not to mention the RCA Building, etc). But I stray from my point slightly, which is that all cities will contract. Something will still be in places like Detroit and St. Louis because they occupy important sites, but we are not going to replay the twentieth century. One reason I say this is because I believe we’ll see a reversal of the major population movement trend of the past two hundred years, which was about people leaving rural areas and small towns for the big cities.We’re going to see people leaving the big cities for places where local agriculture is viable, and the small towns associated with these places, perhaps even the smaller cities.Any way you look at it, the future will require a wholesale downscaling of all our activities, from the way we produce our food, to the way we organize business and commerce, to the way we make things we need. We really don’t know how much power will be available, but I doubt it will be anything close to what we have enjoyed over the past hundred years. Andres Duany, the architect and town planner, has observed that the optimum civic construct may be something akin to the gothic city or the medieval city—with updated plumbing and electric lights. We might be lucky if we can work toward an outcome like that. In any case, the future has plans for us, and events are really in the driver’s seat now.

BLVR: I see what you mean about cities based on megastructures. Still, I thought one of the advantages of New York, at least, was that it’s possible to live there without owning a car. Doesn’t that count for something?

JHK: There was a New Yorker article earlier this year trumpeting NYC as the “most ecological” place in America. I think it was very misleading. Yeah, in a cheap oil economy, where everybody from Hackensack to Oakland is driving like crazy, New York seems saner. The New Yorker article said, in effect, isn’t it wonderful that we can stack so many people on top of each other close to the food stores. That’s certainly a different arrangement from Dallas or Orlando right now. But in an energy-scarce society, Manhattan itself might not function too well. I reiterate that we are liable to have severe problems running any building over five stories or so. New Yorkers will not live closely to any plausible food supply—and no amount of community or rooftop gardens will compensate. Finally, New York (and Chicago, too) will be burdened and stressed by their enormous surrounding asteroid belts of failing suburban infrastructure. New York and cities of its class are simply too large to continue operating once the cheap energy orgy is over. Even smaller cities on the order of Worcester, Mass., and Tallahassee are going to have problems.

BLVR: I guess my point about Jacobs was that when many people hear about the coming energy crisis, they immediately think of heading for the countryside. But isn’t maintaining some kind of urban life—maybe on a much smaller scale—vital to preserving civilization and standards of living?

JHK: I am not saying there will be no urban life—only that it will exist at a much smaller scale. I’ve been to small towns in Europe of under 50,000 which have more urban amenity and culture than Detroit or Baltimore. Yes, I agree that preserving urban life is vital to the project of civilization—virtually synonymous with it. Just don’t expect it to come in the same package as it does today.

BLVR: Speaking of Europe, do you think it will do substantially better than the U.S.? In your book you make the point that Europeans still have traditions of small farms and local agriculture, and they don’t have nearly the problems we do with suburban development.

JHK: Yes, apart from issues of climate change—which are not insignificant—the Europeans enjoy some definite advantages, which I spell out in my book: they did not destroy their cities and towns (or the basic idea that city/town life has value); they did not destroy their public transit; and they did not obliterate local agriculture. The biggest cities will suffer some of the same problems as ours in terms of hypertrophy, but their city centers are generally scaled more appropriately, and their smaller towns are in much better shape than ours.

BLVR: Earlier you mentioned Andres Duany, a well-known New Urbanist town planner. It’s been twelve years since you talked about the promise of New Urbanism in The Geography of Nowhere. Do you think the movement has been at all successful, or has it, as some critics claim, just provided window dressing to more sprawl?

JHK: The great achievement of the New Urbanists is the least obvious aspect of their work—their dogged retrieval of lost principle and methodology, all the knowledge about the design and assembly of a civic habitat that Americans threw in the dumpster back in the 1950s. They have been operating otherwise against an overwhelming tide of inertia in our culture that favors suicidal socioeconomic behavior—e.g., the suburban sprawl economy.

BLVR: What do you think of the new “ecovillages” that are springing up, like Dancing Rabbit in Missouri (recently featured on Morgan Spurlock’s 30 Days)?

JHK: I don’t know anything about Dancing Rabbit. America has a long history of utopianism—the building of intentional communities from the ground up. They have invariably been failures, often dissolving in financial ownership or share issues. Most of them are predicated on some charismatic leadership or religious zeal. Frequently they implode when the charismatic leadership is found to have feet of clay in some way or other. That said, I would venture that the reorganization of American life will require so much change that a lot of experimentation is bound to happen.

BLVR: Katrina seems to have exposed the inability of government at all levels to deal with catastrophes. On the other hand, Americans across the country have donated millions to help the victims of the hurricane. Does the outpouring of generosity provide any hope that we will pull together as a country as we face the Long Emergency?

JHK: For all the problems we face, we are still a very affluent society, so it’s not hard to understand why the charitable impulse is still strong. Americans have historically been generous, open, brave, and earnest people. We became rather slovenly over the last couple of decades, but I think there is a residue of our old virtues remaining here and there. However, I wouldn’t get too sentimental about it.

BLVR: So if there’s little hope for political solutions and no clear map for individual action, what is to be done? I think a lot of people prefer not to think about the coming energy crisis because they feel there’s nothing productive they can do about it.

JHK: We could do a lot of things if we were a serious society, but we’re not. We could start tomorrow rebuilding the passenger rail system, or planning for future electric power generation with a safer, new reactor design. We could remove the political and economic incentives for creating suburban sprawl. We could reintroduce lending discipline in our banking and mortgage system. We could get serious about defending our borders and enforcing the immigration laws. The list of things we could do is very comprehensive. Personally, I doubt we will do anything. We will go with the flow until circumstances compel us to make other arrangements. And in that event we will suffer hardship and disorder. Life is tragic. Life is not a Bruce Willis movie. History doesn’t care whether we face it with courage and intelligence or complacent cluelessness.

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