by Tim Johnson
Cascadia Weekly, 6/07/06
"We're going to have to return to traditional living arrangements - towns, cities, rural productive countryside." - James Howard Kunstler
Author contemplates the 'end of the world as we know it'
The Age of the Auto is dead; long live the interregnum, argues author James Howard Kunstler.
America, he predicts, will soon regroup around walkable, human-scale towns; organic local economies of small farmers and tradesmen will replace corporate globalism; and our culture of wasteful consumerism will be transformed. Ifs an oddly idyllic consequence to spring from apocalypse and twilight.
Following indictments of suburbia and the car culture he presented in The Geography of Nowhere, Kunstler's latest book (The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty First Century) reports on the decline of global oil production that, he says, will produce a "dazed and crippled America" locked in a Dark Age where "the center does not hold" and "all bets are off about civilization's future."
CW: What are the converging catastrophes of the 21st century? How do they work together to intensify what you call "The Long Emergency?"
JHK: The global peak oil production problem and climate change. "Peak oil" means that the global oil supply will diminish remorselessly, which is likely to mean that most of the complex systems we depend on for daily life will fail. By complex systems I mean the way we produce our food, using massive oil-and-gas "inputs," the global manufacturing and trade chains, mass motoring, commercial aviation, even the electrical power supply. Climate change will create problems of its own while ramifying the problems with energy - we saw a good example of this last summer when two Category 5 hurricanes slammed the Gulf Coast and then proceeded to knock out about 23 percent of the Gulf's oil-and-gas infrastructure.
The bottom line for all this is a new era of hardship, declining standards of living and life expectancy, and probably a lot of international military mischief around the world's remaining energy resources.
CW: It seems clear many people do not exactly understand "peak oil," that we're not running out of oil so much as future production cannot meet consumption and thus our way of life and standard of living must change, inevitably, to adapt to a future of limited, expensive energy.
JHK: Well, you put it pretty clearly yourself. Yes, it's not about running out of oil all of a sudden. It's about the inability of these complex systems to withstand the relentless losses of several percents a year of oil supply and the market dislocations this will cause, most particularly skyrocketing energy prices. Wal-Mart, for instance, will have a lot of trouble surviving if it has to run the famous "Warehouse on Wheels" on $6 a gallon diesel fuel.
CW: How close is the peak? Or have we passed peak?
JHK: It seems to me that we are probably at peak now, based on what we know about the world's biggest oil fields, such as Ghawar in Saudi Arabia, Cantarell in Mexico, the North Sea fields between Britain and Norway, and Burgan in Kuwait. All of them are having significant production problems. Meanwhile, oil discovery peaked worldwide in the 1960s, and in recent years discovery has been nil.
CW: You've tied peak oil strongly to concepts of urban design and have argued that suburbia may be a relic of a world of cheap, plentiful oil. Why is suburbia, the dream of so many Americans, "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world?"
JHK: I refer to suburbia that way because it clearly has very poor prospects in a non-cheap-oil economy. We poured all our national wealth into the construction of an infrastructure for daily life with no future. Pretty tragic. Meanwhile, our wish to keep running the stuff by other means (alternative fuels) is unlikely to work out. My particular belief is that most of suburbia will just lose value, both monetary and practical, and very litttle of it will be changed, transformed or fixed. In fact, it lends itself poorly to being retrofitted. And perhaps most important, we will be a less affluent people in the decades ahead than we were when we built the stuff.
CW: What will replace suburbia?
JHK: We're going to have to return to traditional living arrangements in towns, cities, rural productive countryside. Farming is going to come a lot closer to the center of economic life as circumstances compel us to live more locally. We're going to see a reversal of the 200-year-old trend of people moving from the country to the big industrial cities. Our big cities will contract substantially, even as they densify at their centers and along their waterfronts. The action will be in the smaller towns and cities. And we will restore a much clearer distinction between the town and the country.
Places that cannot produce any food locally will simply be screwed. I am thinking of Phoenix and Las Vegas, which will have additional problems with water, on top of energy shortages (and trouble with air conditioning).
CW: You've argued in favor of planned urban development and centralized urban villages. What features are required for livable communities in an age of expensive, limited energy?
JHK: I've argued in favor of walkable communities and traditional urbanism - in essence, the pre-automobile town. We've become so excessively dependent on cars that we simply can't imagine living any other way. In the process, we've bartered away much of what makes urban life worth living. We've literally forgotten how to design and assemble a human habitat worth living in. What remains is what Mike Davis has aptly called "an ecology of fear." We'll be compelled to do better. The age of easy motoring is drawing to a close.
CW: How would you rank infill of existing neighborhoods as opposed to starting from scratch with a planned development? Is there anything of our old, urban infrastructure worth saving?
JHK: I urge readers to "check your assumptions at the door." For instance, the assumption that there will even be much development deeper into the 21st century. We will be strapped economically. We'll be lucky if we can redevelop a single building lot, let alone an assemblage of things on 50 acres. We'll have to work with what we have.
One thing you can say about the suburbs: the Jolly Green Giant ain't gonna move everything closer together. But we have plenty of existing towns and cities and they will be inhabited differently than they are now. Heck, an American of 1915 would never have dreamed that the cities of the 1970s would have been gutted wrecks. The people of 2006 probably can't imagine Seattle as anything but a car-choked mega-colossus. It will not remain so.
By the way, we haven't touched on this so far, but if we don't get started right away on repairing the U.S. railroad system, then nobody will go anywhere. It's crucial to our survival as a civilized society.
CW: How does the growing gap between the world's wealthiest and poorest factor into the Long Emergency?
JHK: There is going to be a lot of attrition in the years ahead via the usual suspects: famine, disease, war. It's happening already in the Third World. In the broadest sense, they have already embarked on protracted resource wars in places where the population overshoot has been most tragic. I think you can state categorically that the Third World will "feel the pain" first and hardest. But the pain will spread upward.
The Long Emergency isn't going to be easy for anybody. In the United States, I think you will see a tipping point where the poor and increasingly larger pool of the formerly middle class will quit their idolatry of the mega-wealthy -- and may start eating them, figuratively speaking. We will not be watching television shows about how much fun it is to be Donald Trump or Paris Hilton. They may be running for their lives.
CW: How do our standard measuring tools GDP, inflation, wages, standards of living, etc., reveal or conceal the coming crisis?
JHK: In my view, the government-issued economic statistics are now tweaked beyond meaningfulness. As advanced industrial societies no longer get the energy they require, all our conventional models about healthy economic "growth" will run into big trouble. So will the financial instruments - the tradable paper - based on the expectation of growth. The financial sector, in my opinion, is headed into chaos.
CW: You've commented that our immediate reaction to these coming challenges may be to turn to political maniacs who promise an easy return to the life of pre-peak. Do you think our current leadership recognizes these converging catastrophes? Can you detail any bright spots or hopeful trends that our leadership may be responsibly recognizing these concerns?
JHK: I do not consider Bush & Company "maniacs." Some of my friends do, but I don't.
I think the U.S. public has been so complacent, passive, and foolish in ignoring and denying the mounting problems we face that when the squeeze really comes on they will beg for someone to push them around - to direct them into purposeful activities aimed at saving their rear ends. This may be our particular brand of American fascism. In any case, we haven't seen it yet.
Bright spots? Well, we may soon see the end of political parties based on advertising, polling and related manipulations of public perception. Reality may soon overrun our ability to spin it.
CW: We've just experienced some 20 years of reactionary, feel-good politics and, if the polls are any indicator, people are getting tired of it. Are they getting tired of it?
JHK: I'm completely fed up with it. I'm not only disgusted with the behavior of my party, the Democrats, but I'm appalled at the ideology that informs it. It is utterly lacking in strength or conviction - just the desire to not hurt people's feelings. Progressives are going to have to learn what it means to be men again. The hard times ahead will not be kind to crybabies.
I do think the public is growing apprehensive, but I do not believe they know what they are in for, or what they'd better start doing. We remain passive hostages to infotainment, comfort, and convenience. We have made a lot of tragic collective choices and now, as Robert Louis Stevenson put it, we face the "banquet of consequence."
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Thank you for the great interview with James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency. When we wake up and begin facing the challenges of surviving the end of oil and climate change, we then ask "What can we do?" Kunstler wisely suggests that "we have to make other arrangements" to how we live our lives and organize our society. He warns us that "circumstances (will) compel us to live more locally."
Fortunately for our community we have a number of organizations in place that share a vision of sustainable living, and are working to make it happen. Two organizations in particular - Attraction Retreat and Sustainable Bellingham - are specifically committed to the concept of relocalization as a response to Peak Oil and climate change.
An important first step as we begin to think about relocalizing our lives and our economy is to find out what the assets are that our community has to work with, what's missing, and what the possible barriers are to becoming sustainable. Attraction Retreat is undertaking such a task with a project they call A Community Assesment and Sustainability Inventory (CASI) of Whatcom County. This is a very important project that can help guide our community's response to the local impacts of global crises, and one worthy of wide community support. Please visit http://www.attractionretreat.org and http://www.sustainablebellingham.org to find out how you can help be part of the solution. As Kunstler wrote as he signed my copy of his book, "there certainly IS hope."
David MacLeod, Bellingham
Suburbia is "the national automobile slum" and "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world."
Due to what he called "psychology of previous investment," all we seem to care about in most of the debates on Peak Oil is how we are going to be able to run the cars. The "Jiminy Cricket Syndrome" (when you wish upon a star your dream comes true), and the greatest religion now in the U.S. (not evangelical Christianity, but the worship of unearned riches and that you can get something from nothing), conspire to have us believe that we'll make this smooth transition from "an easy motoring drive-in utopia to running everything on french fry oil."
In order to survive "the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century", Kunstler says
"we will have to make OTHER ARRANGEMENTS" in:
* layers of local economies
* shopping and commerce
* schooling and business
* the way we inhabit the terrain
Nothing would have a greater impact than fixing our railroad system. Start talking about it politically. Right now Romania has a much better rail system than we do.
Life will become more local.
YOU have to generate the hope. Do what it takes to solve the problems.
It is important to retain a tragic sense of life. If you make bad choices you will "feast at the banquet of consequence." (Robert Louis Stevenson)
In answer to a question on Bellingham as a location for post-carbon living: Very pessimistic about places in the Southwest such as Phoenix and Las Vegas. There are some virtues about the Pacific NW, including a relatively temperate climate, but because our settlements are along the coast, we could be somewhat vulnerable to some kind of naval action. As he has said in another interview, "the Pacific Ocean is liable to become a much wilder place, especially as Asian nations melt down politically and their naval equipment falls into the hands of freelancers. There will be a lot of them, and they will be looking for easy pickings along the continental coasts." The other thing to worry about is that those living in the Southwest U.S. could all decide to move up here en masse.
The Pacific Northwest
My definition of this region is limited to coastal Oregon and Washington, northern California and lower coastal British Columbia (though currently it is part of Canada). Other commentators reflecting on America's post-cheap-oil future often view this region optimistically. The climate is certainly very favorable and it contains some of the very finest agricultural land in North America. Its landscape is beautiful and the coastal area is well-watered. Both Seattle and Vancouver are gateways to the ocean and might conceivably support downscaled sustainable fishing economies. In their current condition, however, they are typical urban hypertrophies with gigantic suburban appendages, and they will be subject to the same agonies of contraction as other less-picturesque North American cities. It remains to be seen how much of northern California might be infected by the socioeconomic meltdown of southern California. The Bay area will surely be troubled by the extent of its suburban sprawl, and the Central Valley as far north as Redding may be overwhelmed by refugees from Mexico and the additional problems they will create. Oregon and Washington are large states, but much of their terrain is high desert and will not support sizable settlements. Both states may be overwhelmed additionally by sheer numbers of Californians fleeing the disorders there.
The Northwest may find itself in a whole other strange kind of trouble. Exposed to the Pacific, the region may be molested by military or paramilitary seaborne adventurers originating from the far side of the Pacific rim. In the Long Emergency, Asia will find itself in turmoil at least as severe as anything happening in North America, and quite possibly a lot worse because of its swollen populations. China, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, and Malaysia are all populated by seafaring people. As resource scarcity intensifies, and international conflict with it, and America loses its ability to dominate every corner of the globe, Asian navies might reach as far as North America seeking the means of survival. If the Asian nation-states fail, or dissolve into anarchy, restive populations may circulate far beyond the crowded shores of these places in ships and boats. A new kind of piracy could make life in the Pacific Northwest of North America difficult for a long time to come.
More Kunstler: http://www.kunstler.com
See his July 12 and July 19 entries for his observations of Bellingham, Seattle, Vancouver, and Victoria:
"I took the Amtrak train from Bellingham, Washington, down to Seattle...The view out the (clean) windows was supernaturally beautiful. Loveliness everywhere. The tracks ran along Puget Sound most of the way. Dark fir-covered mountains spilled down to rocky bays where, here and there, people were digging -- for clams, I supposed. I saw three bald eagles along the way. Also scores of some kind of stately, long-necked wading bird with a vivid black-and-white blaze on its cheeks. At other times we passed through farm fields and orchards. White and pink foxgloves grew wild along tracks most of the way along with yellow broom and phlox.
As we got closer to Seattle, you saw more people in the bays, clamming, running their dogs, hugging their girlfriends. Almost all of them waved at the train as we passed, as if to say, "Notice how glad we are to be here!"
...This line along the Pacific Northwest corridor is one of very few extant passenger rail lines in the whole USA. There is only one train a day each way between Seattle and Vancouver, Canada and back -- on which Bellingham is a stop. The people in charge would probably just as soon not even run those trains.
But why Americans do not demand to have railroad service all over the nation is one of the abiding mysteries of these crack-up years. What a pleasure it was to travel on that train yesterday."
"...Seattle, which is trying to be a city, like a real twentieth century city -- did I say twentieth? Well, there's the problem, right there. They're lining the avenues with condo skyscrapers. Big mistake. Skyscrapers are not going to be cool in the twenty-first century as we run into problems with the electricity supply. Oh, well. The other problem with Seattle is this: the topography is really demoralizing. The hills are so steep that I got shin splints from walking around the place for one day. Now, if the people who lived there and run place had any sense, they would have cable cars or some damn thing traversing the hills every ten blocks. Then, you could walk the contours comfortably and get up the elevations okay.
But they don't do that. They probably had them ninety years ago (and, in fact, I saw framed photos of Seattle's cable cars in the Town Hall auditorium lobby where I gave a blab, so I know for a fact they did). But apparently they forgot how to do that. So now, obviously, everybody brings their car downtown because it's impossible to walk around comfortably, even if you're in shape, and Seattle has become one of the worst traffic clusterf*cks in the nation."
"...Vancouver is a very appealing site for a city, but it is in the process of being utterly pranged (as they like to say) by massive hyper-mega-overdevelopment. And anyway, circumstances had me more-or-less house-sitting an old college friend's home way up in the hills of suburban West Vancouver, where it required fifty dollars in cab fares to get something to eat. Enough said.
I took a spectacular ferry ride, on an extravagantly comfortable (and cheap: $8.50Ca) vessel over to little Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, on the big island out in the Pacific. Victoria, too, was on its way toward a good self-pranging, but there is a visible residue of the pre-pranged city that is scaled comfortably and possesses great natural beauty."
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