Peak Oil

Kunstler Crashes the Party

By Ryan McGreal
Published April 14, 2005

Paula Routly of Seven Days Magazine has just published an interview with James Howard Kunstler (see our interview with Kunstler) in which he discusses the thesis of his new book, The Long Emergency.

Kunstler was one of the first non-specialists to trumpet a permanent energy crisis triggered by peak oil production, having arrived there through his long and passionate exploration of post-war American archictecture. His new book is an attempt to assess how the end of cheap energy will impact a society that functions at its mercy.

This interview is vintage Kunstler. He gets his stock phrases ("greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world", "a living arrangement that has no future") out of the way at the outset, and then sinks his teeth into Routly's questions.

Calling the impending emergeny "an epochal discontinuity in the conditions of daily life", he takes pains to explain that the end of the American Way of Life is not the end of the world, casting aspersions on journalists who call his writing "apocalyptic".

Asked why the U.S. government hasn't done more to reduce fossil fuel dependence, Kunstler avoids the easy path of government-bashing, looking at the deeper issue of America's shaky economic fundamentals:

I tend to hold the American public as being complicit in the cluelessness that afflicts our society regarding the oil and gas issues and how they relate to our way of life. The dirty secret of the American economy for the last two decades is that it is all about the creation of suburban sprawl and accessorizing, furnishing and servicing it.

The public claims that this is what they want: the easy motoring life of the drive-in utopia. They also make a living off it. Subtract that and our economy is about little else besides medicine and hair-cutting. Consequently, our car dependency and oil addiction is a kind of economic racket, a self-reinforcing set of behaviors and habits that we dare not attempt to change -- because if we do, there will be no American economy. [emphasis added]

Asked how Europeans can survive $5 per gallon oil, Kunstler explains that the Europeans, unlike Americans, didn't destroy urban spaces, public transit, or local agriculture. "If Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia got bumped off by a Wahabi maniac tomorrow and the West was put under a new oil embargo, the Europeans would will be able to get around. We would not."

Kunstler punctures the claims of alternate-fuels and high-mileage technology enthusiasts, pointing out that it merely "promotes the belief that we can continue indefinitely being a car-dependent nation." Taking on research and advocacy groups like the Rocky Mountain Institute, Kunstler argues that RMI founder Amory Lovins "would have spent his time and money much more usefully on something like walkable communities."

Kunstler's summary of the alt energy movement:

As a general rule, no combination of alt energy or systems to run it will allow us to continue running the U.S. as we have been running it. Virtually all of the bio-fuel schemes require more energy going in than they end up putting out. Hydrogen is essentially a hoax as it has been proposed. I believe the truth is that whatever so-called "renewables" we end up using will be at the extremely small, local scale - perhaps the neighbourhood or even household scale where solar is concerned.

Asked what cities will look like after the end of cheap oil, Kunstler points out that super-dense cities full of skyscrapers cannot function without cheap energy. Places like New York and Chicago will have serious problems. He points to Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore as current examples of the contraction and decay that lies ahead.

On the opposite end of the density spectrum, cities like Los Angeles are too spread out to function efficiently in the absence of cheap energy. Factor in dependence on imported water, and cities like Las Vegas will dry up - literally.

Kunstler's most compelling vision of the future is small, semi-feudal agrarian townships around the periphery of decaying industrial cities. He predicts agriculture will be the primary industry of the twenty-first century.
I think work will be very hands-on, and a lot of it will revolve around food production. We will, of course, have to completely reorganize our trade infrastructures, since Wal-Mart and its imitators will not survive the end of the cheap-oil era. The consumerist frenzy will be over. We will have far fewer things to buy.

See also:

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By Bill Field (anonymous) | Posted March 25, 2008 at 16:13:13

It's a wonder that the Republicans allow this sort of truth to see the light of day! Until the last drop of oil has been sucked from the planet, the average American Republican will deny the obvious condition until their dying breath. Let's move 'em all to Vegas!

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