James Howard Kunstler
[AUTHOR AND RACONTEUR]
Hide the Jerky
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.”
THE BELIEVER: 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?
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: 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.
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