An interview with doomsaying author James Howard Kunstler
“Check all of your assumptions at the door,” James Howard Kunstler advises reporters before he commences an interview. “Don’t assume that anything you think about the way we live today is going to be the same 10, five, even three years from now.”
The author of the new book The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century, recently excerpted in Rolling Stone, Kunstler is an emphatic petro-pessimist who argues that civilization is about to enter a sustained period of economic, social, and environmental decrepitude triggered by the end of the cheap-oil era. He summarily rejects the possibility that renewable energy could forestall disaster, and predicts that spiking fossil-fuel prices will precipitate the collapse of the airline industry, the electricity grid, highway infrastructure, agribusiness, big-box retail stores, and suburbia itself. The majority of Americans, he says, will likely suffer bouts of violent upheaval and be forced to return to agrarian, small-town lifestyles. Understandably, his prognostications have raised some eyebrows.
A former journalist and sometime novelist, Kunstler in 1993 published The Geography of Nowhere, a much-praised jeremiad about the car-dependent suburbanization of America. Grist‘s Amanda Griscom Little sat down with him over lunch in New York City to get a first-hand account of his latest dark vision for the nation’s future.
Q. Tell us about the evolution of The Long Emergency. Where did these mind-boggling ideas originate?
A. I really got into this when I was a newspaper reporter 30 years ago in Albany covering the OPEC oil embargo. I was living in the middle of it — going through the gas lines and interviewing the people who were ticked off, motoring around a suburban metroplex where all the accessories of contemporary life were new. My office at the Hearst newspaper building was at the termination of a brand-new, heroic eight-lane boulevard of commerce with malls on either side and suburban sprawl in every direction. You couldn’t fail to notice that this was a catastrophe — a living arrangement that really had no future.
I’ve since been investigating suburban sprawl through works like The Geography of Nowhere. The Long Emergency is the logical sequel — addressing the question of what will happen to this way of life when we get in trouble with energy.
Q. Elaborate on how sprawl is inextricably connected to oil concerns.
A. Ever since the end of World War II, we’ve embarked on this project to build ourselves a drive-in utopia — an economy based on suburban land development, eight-lane freeways lined with fry pits and hamburger shacks and a national big-box chain retail system. It has flourished because of two things: extraordinarily cheap energy and reliable supplies of it, and relative world peace. That has enabled big-box stores to develop 12,000-mile manufacturing and supply chains with the cheap labor overseas. Wal-Mart can move 4,000 TV sets from China to Wilkinsburg, Penn., and keep this tremendous stream of products going around the country with truckers who operate their warehouses on wheels. The system works only because it’s cheap to transport stuff.
Q. You also point out that the mainstream American diet is essentially predicated on “eating oil.”
A. Yeah, industrial agriculture is another extremely problematical thing. We’ve now consolidated all of our food production into a very small fraction of the population and our agribusinesses rely on pouring oil byproducts — pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides — on the soil. We’ve got this cheese-doodle and Pepsi-Cola form of agriculture where large companies like Archer Daniels Midland and ConAgra are producing huge amounts of corn and byproducts like corn syrup to create junk food. It’s generally understood that most of the food we eat travels [about] 1,500 miles. So we’ve got all these 1,500-mile Caesar salads winging or wheeling around America to get to our dinner plates. That won’t be able to continue when the cheap-oil era ends.
Q. Your premise is that this end is nigh. Can you lay out this argument?
A. The main idea is that we don’t have to run out of oil or natural gas to have severe problems. All you have to do is head down the arc of depletion on the downside of world peak production. When that happens, the complex systems that we rely on for daily life are going to start destabilizing and wobbling. They will mutually amplify their instabilities and many will reach a state of dysfunction.
Q. What kind of a time frame are you looking at?
A. We have reason to believe that we are at or near the peak right now because oil markets are wobbling and prices are volatile, and there is no swing producer. In the next three years we are going to be feeling the pain. Our lives are going to be noticeably beginning to be disrupted. In the next 10 years, you will see the beginning of a major collapse of suburbia.
Q. Describe a day in the life of average citizens living in this post-cheap-oil epoch.
A. They are going to be living in a period of turbulence and political vicissitude. Industrial farming is going to fail by increments and we are going to have to grow more food closer to home. Agriculture is going to become much more central to the American way of life and economy and going to occupy a much larger percentage of jobs. The places that will be successful will be the smaller towns situated near viable agricultural land.
There is going to be this huge new class of people in America who I call the “formerly middle class” and they’re going to be really ticked off and bewildered about why they were deprived of their entitlements to the American Dream. The easy-motoring lifestyle will be unaffordable for the masses, so the 21st century is going to be much more about staying where you are and much less about being in motion all the time.
Q. Are you predicting that there will be an elite class that is still privy to all of the conveniences of the cheap-oil era?
A. There will be activities like flying that only the elite can participate in. You are going to see the aviation industry dramatically contract because it relies so heavily on fuel prices. You are going to start to see real political grievance over motoring becoming an increasingly elite activity. Let’s say a third of the public can’t participate in the motoring system at all. They may resent paying taxes to maintain this tremendous amount of highway infrastructure. The interstate highway system is actually very vulnerable — once cracks and potholes start, the whole thing starts to fall apart very rapidly. So that could inhibit the mobility of the elite as well.
Q. You argue that the promise of renewable-energy solutions evolving in time to save us from this crippling crisis is bogus.
A. No combination of alternative fuels is going to allow us to run the U.S. the way we’re running it or even a substantial fraction of it. We will see the use of some alternatives, but on a very local basis. We’re not going to be running biodiesel in Wal-Mart’s warehouses on wheels. And there are questions about where we’ll get the energy to build the wind turbines and solar arrays that require exotic metallurgy and complex manufacturing. As for biofuels, we are going to need a lot more land to grow food without the petrochemicals, so biofuel growers will have to compete for food-crop acreage.
Q. This argument all rests on the assumption that renewable markets won’t have time to evolve before the oil-production peak hits. You argue that peak production is happening now, but The Economistcited figures from the U.S. Geological Survey that the production peak is some two decades off. recently
A. The U.S. Geological Survey has been uniformly issuing bad statistics for years. It’s really a well-known fact that their statistics tend to not comport with reality.
Q. But many experts argue that technology innovations are making it cheaper and easier to extract oil from hard-to-reach places and recover the huge amounts of leftovers in existing wells.
A. All the new techniques that have been developed for oil extraction have only succeeded in making the oil wells deplete even faster or geologically corrupting them and destroying their structural integrity. I personally don’t believe the argument that the technology is going to produce large increases in recoverable oil.
Q. Let’s assume that we do have 20 to 30 years before peak oil — couldn’t that buy us time to get the alternatives up to snuff to transition out of the oil economy more smoothly?
A. Not without making really severe changes in the way we live.
Q. But let’s assume we do make changes. Basic energy-efficiency measures could radically reduce our oil demands. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the U.S. could cut its motor vehicle-related oil consumption in half by changing the way combustion engines are built, with today’s available technology.
A. I think we will find ways to be more efficient, but it’s not going to be enough. I do not believe for a moment that we will continue the way of life that we have in America now. I think that’s a central fallacy of the environmental movement. It’s part of a Jiminy Cricket syndrome that stems from our technological success — things like landing on the moon and inventing computers — that gives us this idea that if you wish hard enough for something, it will come true. But you know something? The bottom line is that life is tragic. Sometimes the things you wish for don’t come true. History doesn’t care whether we succeed or not, or meet our problems in an intelligent way, or behave decently, or pound our civilization down a rathole.
Q. A lot of critics have characterized your book as alarmist.
A. I actually don’t think I am being alarmist. I am spelling out in fairly unambiguous terms some scenarios that we’re likely to run into. It reflects the complacency of the American public that they find themselves so shocked that the normality of everyday life could be disrupted. We haven’t been challenged by anything serious in this country since World War II, and that generation is dying out. So America is composed of people who haven’t had these serious national or social challenges.
Q. If technology can’t dig us out of this problem, what will?
A. The things that will help us the most will be finding a new scale of living and a new way to rebuild local, cohesive communities and cottage industries around them. We will need a new infrastructure for daily life, a new place for the human spirit to dwell and rest in for a while.
Q. How long is long? Do you predict that the “long emergency” will last 100 years? 200?
A. I really can’t say.
Q. Can you speculate?
A. You can look to history for similar kinds of tribulations that the human race has gone through. The Black Plague was a tremendous discontinuity for European life. Populations had risen in the medieval period, life was modernizing, and then all the sudden in the 1300s this plague comes along that kills off a third of the European population. Then within 100 years you see the rise of a whole new urban commercial society, which shortly becomes the Renaissance. The human race is resilient, and I think life will go on after the long emergency, but there will be a substantial interval of trouble like nothing we have ever seen before in the United States.
Q. Tell us about your own life. Do you have a bunker?
A. No, I don’t have a bunker, and I’m not hoarding wheat berries, and I don’t have a gun collection. I moved to a classic, main-street American small town in upstate New York 30 years ago because I predicted that the quality of life would be good there for a long time. I figured that kind of town has better prospects than our biggest cities and suburban metroplexes. But I have enjoyed the luxuries of air conditioning, cable TV, computers, cheap air travel, advanced orthopedic surgery. I own a pickup truck that will probably be the last automobile I ever buy, but I get around town on my bike. I have a broad and deep social network, play in a band, and, generally speaking, am a cheerful, happy person.
Q. What advice would you give to parents — should they be teaching their kids survival skills aside from how to cooperate and live in a small-scale community?
A. Teach them how to be polite and fair, and teach them how to play a musical instrument — we’re going to have to keep our spirits up. Make yourself a part of a cohesive community. Be prepared to carry your weight and deal with a hands-on vocation. There will be far fewer public-relations executives and far more milkmaids.
Q. This sounds a bit like science fiction for back-to-the-landers. Are you a sci-fi junkie?
A. I read next to zero science fiction. And I don’t write it.