James Howard Kunstler: The old American dream is a nightmare
Now our current round of layoffs and foreclosures has unceremoniously transferred millions of folks from the “affluent” to the “afflicted” category, exiling them from Brooks’s mythical exurban Eden.
But instead of setting up tents, these newly poor live in a perpetual state of nestlessness, couch-surfing, or flitting from one basement rec room to the next. And rather than revisiting Hooverville, they’ve given our national landscape the barely-lived in, already abandoned suburban ghost towns I call Kunstlervilles, in honor of my favorite peak oil prophet, James Howard Kunstler.
Less scrappy than crappy, the derelict condos and subdivisions of Kunstlerville were built for buyers who never materialized — erected with marginally better building materials than a Hooverville, but doomed to house pigeons before a decorator ever had the chance to breeze in and decree, “Put a bird on it!”
Kunstler has long warned of the horrendous hangover we’re going to wake up with after our “cheap oil fiesta,” but he’s not gloating as global instability and climate destabilization become the new not-so-normal. Unlike some dystopians, he’s motivated less by the desire to say “I told you so” than by the hope that we might still manage to reinvent the American dream on a scale that better suits our current circumstances.
I caught up with Kunstler recently when a conference took me to his hometown of Saratoga Springs, and afterward followed up via email. (Our conversation has been edited for space and style.)
Q. In your 2005 book The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, you gave high-rises low marks, and declared that you’re “not optimistic about our big cities.” You maintain that towns and small cities are far better equipped to adapt to the post-cheap-oil future.
Now, we’ve got economist Edward Glaeser talking up skyscrapers in The Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier. David Owen made a similar case with Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability.
Do you find yourself swayed, even a little, by these defenders of urban density?
A. I am completely on board with compact, dense urbanism. It’s a mistake, though, to think that’s the same as an urbanism of mega-structures — either skyscrapers or landscrapers.
A lot of this misunderstanding derived from David Owen’s 2004 New Yorker article, “Green Manhattan,” which declared that stacking people up in towers was the ultimate triumph of urban ecology. Owen is a very nice fellow, but this thesis was a crock.
And I’m confident that Ed Glaeser and his acolytes will be disappointed with how it all works out, too. We are entering a capital-scarce, energy-scarce future. The skyscraper is already obsolete and the architects and academic economists remain tragically clueless about it.
Oddly, the main reason we’re done with skyscrapers is not because of the electric issues or heating-cooling issues per se, but because they will never be renovated! They are one-generation buildings. We will not have the capital to renovate them — and all buildings eventually require renovation! We likely won’t have the fabricated modular materials they require, either — everything from the manufactured sheet-rock to the silicon gaskets and sealers needed to keep the glass curtain walls attached.
You cannot have a city of buildings unavailable for and unsuited for adaptive re-use. This final exuberant generation of skyscrapers built the past few decades — including the mis-named “green” skyscrapers — may be considered the architectural expression of the final cheap oil blow-off.
From now on, we need desperately to tone down our grandiosity. We will discover to our dismay that all these skyscrapers — amazing feats that they might be — are liabilities, not assets. Our cities are going to contract a lot and the process will be painful in terms of lost notional wealth (and probably other ways, too). They have attained a scale that is inconsistent with the economic and energy realities of the future. The optimum building height, we will re-discover, is the number of stories most healthy people can comfortably walk up.
Q. Is “smart growth” the antidote to sprawl, or just a developer’s disingenuous oxymoron?
A. “Smart growth” started as a polemical retort to the “dumb” growth of suburban sprawl. It happened that dumb growth was utterly entrenched in all our local land-use laws, and in the sectors that served them — especially the construction trades and our lending practices. The zoning laws mandated a car-dependent outcome, and the builders furnished it, exactly as specified.
By the way, it’s important to understand that suburbia was not dreamed up by the devil or any of his agents among us. It just seemed like a good idea in the America of the 20th century. We had the material and capital resources to build this empire of comfort and convenience, so we did. And all this implies a powerful cultural consensus — a broad agreement that this way of living is okay.
Eventually, of course, it became embedded in our national identity as a late incarnation of the American Dream. All well and good — and over! Because our circumstances have changed drastically now. We face the awful predicament of peak oil, and the global contest over the world’s remaining resources, and reality is telling us very loudly that we have to live differently — we have to get a new American Dream.
The resistance to this is ferocious, not because Americans are particularly dumb or wicked, but because of the massive investments we have already made in these suburban infrastructures for daily living. We can’t accept the scary mandates of reality, or begin the process of letting go.
Smart growth was a strategy undertaken by the New Urbanist reformers to offer an alternative template for land development in America — one based on the traditional walkable neighborhood. The New Urbanists were superbly skilled at drawing up clear graphical codes that might be used to replace the suburban codes around the country. The term “smart” growth was intended to be a selling point — though, unfortunately it often offended the very people it was aimed at by making their own codes look dumb.
Personally, I regret that this moniker was adopted, because it inadvertently provoked so much push-back. But by default the New Urbanists have basically won the argument, even if victory hasn’t been officially declared. The housing bubble bust has seen to that. It represents not just a transient economic fiasco; it is the end of the suburban project per se. We are finished with suburbia. We’re stuck with the residue of it. And now we’ll see how this all sorts itself out in the face of $100+ per barrel oil.
We will probably come to see a long era of little-to-no-growth. Whatever happens in terms of the human habitat from now on will involve the re-use of stuff that is already there, one way or another.
Personally, I believe the action is going to shift to small towns, small cities, and places that exist in a relationship with a productive agricultural landscape. The fate of suburbia is to become slums, salvage sites, and ruins. Human beings are very good at sorting out materials, and we’ll have to do a lot of that. I believe a great deal of all trade in the years ahead will be in material goods already made, re-purposed, as they say, and re-circulated.
Q. Walmart’s pulling out all the stops to set up shop in New York City, which has historically been far more hostile to mega retailers than most of the country. But you seem pretty confident that big box stores are destined to go the way of the dodo. Should we add mallrats to the endangered species list? Who’s in greater danger of extinction, walruses or Walmart?
A. The way we’ve come to do commerce in the USA the past 50 years — big box chain-store retail — is not a permanent fixture of the human condition, though for many it has been appended to the list of icons that make up our national identity: mother, apple pie, Walmart.
I maintain that any activity organized at the colossal scale will tend to fail in the face of the compound crises of energy, capital, and ecology (climate change). Giant governments, giant universities, giant retail operations — all these things will wobble and fail in the years ahead as reality compels us to downscale and re-localize.
The big box chain stores rely on economic formulas that have no chance of surviving under the new stresses loose in the world — procedures like Walmart’s vaunted “warehouse on wheels,” which relies on the incessant circulation of tractor-trailer trucks traveling vast distances on the interstate highway system (itself subject to failure in a capital-scarce economy).
Most truckers in America are independent contractors who have to cover their own costs, and as the price of diesel fuel rises, they will be battered. Likewise the conveyor belt of cheap plastic merchandise from Asia is also not a permanent arrangement, but rather a transient phenomenon of cheap oil and labor cost arbitrage. Consider, too, that the traumatic loss of jobs and incomes is impoverishing the very customers that the chain stores depend on. So the whole picture for these operations is rather grim.
Q. The news is filled with politicians and pundits hyperventilating over our apparent national debt crisis. But, as Time‘s ace environmental journalist Bryan Walsh reports in “The Natural Debt Crisis: Learning to Live Within Our Planet’s Means,” our heedless exploitation and despoiling of our natural resources poses at least as great a threat to our future.
The problem, as Walsh notes, is that many of the people who are now in charge of our energy and environmental policies not only reject the reality of climate destabilization, but actually insist that God would simply not allow our country to ever “run out of anything.” So, they’ve got a green light from God to put a stop to any efforts to conserve, innovate, or otherwise address our over-the-top energy consumption.
Leaving aside the question of whether God even exists, or is stockpiling an infinite supply of finite resources just for us, how do you think this creepy cabal of Koch-ed up climate change deniers and enRaptured Republicans will cope as the cost of oil goes up, scarcity becomes the new normal, and biblical floods and droughts continue to plague us here and abroad?
A. I’ve said many times that we can expect delusional beliefs to rise in proportion to the economic hardships we experience. That is exactly what’s happening.
So, it’s necessary to remind people that life is tragic and history won’t shed a tear for us if we make poor collective decisions, or adopt beliefs that are inconsistent with reality. We are proud of declaring ourselves to be a “free country.” Alas, this leaves us free to pound our civilization down a rat-hole, which is what we’re doing.
Or to be more precise about it, we are mounting a foolish campaign to sustain the unsustainable, to defend our previous investments in things like suburban living, instead of making new arrangements. That’s what we do when we invest half a trillion dollars of “stimulus” capital in building new circumferential highways around our hypertrophied metroplex cities instead of repairing the railroad system.
There is, sadly, much truth in the old saying that people get what they deserve, not what they expect. We are an extremely demoralized nation, unable to construct a coherent consensus about what is happening and what we might do about it, and floundering as a result. Even at the elite environmentalist level, the conversation is ridiculous. For two years in a row, I attended the Aspen Environmental forum, which attracts the cream of the green-and-enviro community. Whenever the subjects of peak oil and our extreme car dependency came up, all they wanted to talk about was running cars by other clever means: electricity, biodiesel, etc. They showed a total lack interest in walkable communities or public transit. They were blind to the fact that their own techno-grandiosity left them in a position that only promoted further car dependency — which is suicidal, of course.
Q. In your forecast for 2011, posted on Jan. 3, you mentioned the “eerie absence of major disruptive events on the world stage” and noted that the Middle East, which you described as a “sorry-ass corner of the world, a neighborhood of camel-herders turned lottery-winners” has “the most potential for blowing up than any other region except Korea.”
Now that the dung has duly hit the fan, what do you think the ripple effect will be?
A. The Middle East blew up very impressively a mere month after I predicted it. The situation gives every sign of spreading and getting worse. Despots ruling resource-rentier economies are falling like dominos. As I write, Mubarak in Egypt is gone, Gadhafi is under siege in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Oman are in an uproar.
Egypt does not produce much oil but Libya does and production is shut down, including a substantial amount of the world’s available export oil. Algeria is rumbling, too, and they are significant oil exporters. The price of crude has gone over $100, so it’s entered the zone where it tends to crush economies in the OECD nations.
We have reason to fear that these uprisings will infect Saudi Arabia, which is ruled by a physically ill 87-year-old king with an even sicker 86-year-old successor. Good luck with that.
One thing we also need to be concerned about is that a lot of the oil production infrastructure could end up getting smashed as these people settle their hashes. Gadhafi explicitly threatened to blow up his refineries and pipelines. The trouble could well spread to Iraq and even Iran. While many idealists are trumpeting the rise of popular movements in these places, it’s important to remember that the outcome is completely unsettled and may remain turbulent for as far ahead as we can see.
The oil industry will not operate well in a turbulent situation. I believe this will lead to a permanent energy crisis, which would include gasoline rationing here in the USA and much more extreme economic distress in more ways than you can imagine. At the same time, we’re seeing the situation aggravated by food shortages connected to climate change crop failures.
I suspect that we have left behind the supposed normality of the past decade and have now entered uncharted territory of the long emergency. We have also seen the first stirrings of American unrest in the battles over public employee bargaining rights. I’d maintain that this is only the start of a very rough political era in the USA. The buildup of tensions is fantastic. You have a dissolving middle class watching their futures whirl around the drain, and an obscenely rich Wall Street banking class (abetted by a disgustingly bought-off political class) that has been allowed to evade the rule of law in running a set of ruinous financial rackets, swindles, and frauds, and this alone is, to me, a recipe for civil disorder. I’m amazed that the Hamptons have not yet been torched.
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