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James Howard Kunstler: The Long Emergency



James Howard Kunstler is a former writer for Rolling Stone and the author of nine novels and four non-fiction books, including his most recent, The Long Emergency. In it, Mr. Kunstler portrays a 21st century in which the southwest United States is largely reclaimed by desert; the interstate highway system has crumbled; the industrial and high-tech economy has gone into a terminal tailspin and the main economic activity of the United States is food production, with food grown and consumed locally, through hard physical labor.

The suburbs are slums, the big cities have contracted severely and people are forced to live locally, in small towns and without most of the amenities to which we have grown accustomed. The United States itself might break up into autonomous regions as big government, like everything else that is big, withers and gets small. It is a world in which the Industrial Revolution seems to have been repealed.

What accounts for this dystopian view, and why should we take it seriously? The answer lies with two interlocking propositions: The first is that we have good grounds to believe that we are at, or near, the peak of global oil production. When the peak is passed, oil production will decline relentlessly, at a time when oil demand will be greater than ever. And the second proposition is that the complacent assumption that something, anything, will replace oil - nuclear, wind, solar, geothermal, what have you - is false. For a variety of reasons, Kunstler and others argue, these alternative energy sources will not scale to meet even a fraction of the needs of our current industrial, high-tech civilization. If this is right, globalization, thought to be the wave of the future, is already a thing of the past. Mr. Kunstler agreed to an interview with the Galilean Library, and we appreciate his time.

- Interviewed by David Misialowski (2006).

DM: In your book, you speak of attending a conference in which the depressing long-range prospects of the earth were discussed, and said that the experience made you feel like "gargling with razor blades". This was the same feeling I got reading your book, which, after all, deals with prospects not in some unimaginable future but right around the corner. Given these twin theses - that we are at or near peak oil production, and that no alternative energy source or strategy can plausibly replace an economy built on fossil fuels - why shouldn't anyone who believes this gargle with razor blades?

JHK: I'm describing some pretty sharp discontinuities in our way-of-life, but not the end-of-the-world, or even the end of civilization. The circumstances that I present imply that we have to make other arrangements for daily life. I think we can accomplish quite a bit toward that end, but we have to be willing to let go of some enormous previous investments. We are not going to run WalMart, Disney World, and Northwest Airlines on wind-power, switch-grass, uranium, or used french-fry oil. We will be foolish to invest our remaining resources in a defense of suburbia, since it would amount to a defense of the unsustainable. But there's an awful lot we can do to change the way we occupy the landscape, and the activities we bring to that. Forgive me for complaining, but I am often misunderstood on these grounds. I suspect readers are projecting their anxieties on my argument and coming to somewhat different conclusions than I do.

DM: Last August, The New York Times Sunday magazine featured peak oil as its cover story. Early in the article, the author said that the impact of peak oil "on the American way of life would be profound: cars cannot be propelled by roof-borne windmills. The suburban and exurban lifestyles, hinged to two-car families and constant trips to work, school and Wal-Mart, might become unaffordable or, if gas rationing is imposed, impossible. Carpools would be the least imposing of many inconveniences; the cost of home heating would soar -- assuming, of course, that climate-controlled habitats do not become just a fond memory." After that, though, the author abruptly dropped the matter of future prospects, and devoted the bulk of his article to assessing Saudi oil capacity claims while talking about how Americans would need to practice conservation and pursue alternative energy sources, as if these options were solutions. Is the failure of the mainstream media to seriously examine the possibility that there are no solutions that will rescue our way of life in the face of fossil-fuel depletion an example of the "consensus trance" concerning our prospects that you speak of in your book? And if peak oil as a topic is nearly invisible in the mainstream media, why is it so dominant on the Web?

JHK: The failure of the mainstream media is pretty impressive. The author of that NY Times article, Peter Maass, was on NPR's "Fresh Air" show the day after his piece came out in the Sunday Magazine. Terri Gross asked him the inevitable question -- "what can we do" -- and Maass answered, pretty lamely in my opinion, that we should work on making cars that get better mileage. This is typical of the collective failure of imagination. There are, in fact, many intelligent things we could do, from restoring the US railroad system -- which would have the greatest impact on our oil consumption, and quickly, than any project we could do right away -- to reforming our planning-and-zoning codes comprehensively, to commencing a high level public debate on the need to re-launch a nuclear power program. We could promote walkable communities and public transit on the fine-grained scale. Unfortunately, we are talking about none of these things. Another example: a few weeks ago the NY Times Sunday book Review ran a cover story on Francis Fukuyama's new book concerning his disappointment with the Neo-cons and their foreign policy in particular. The review was by Paul Berman who has written extensively about Islamic terrorism. The word "oil" was never mentioned in the essay. Weird. Just in the past two months CBS's "Sixty Minutes" show has run two major pieces filled with gross misstatements about the extent of the Canadian tar sands and the value of coal liquifaction. CNN ran an equally misleading piece about ethanol on a recent Sunday night. All three shows declared that these various "alternative" resources would rescue us from the problems of the global oil predicament. They were a terrible disservice to the public, and will only promote more delusional thinking.

DM: A typical "green" website, or book, or organization, paints a rosy scenario of renewable energy powering a pollution-free civilization. An example is this page, in which it is asserted that "Solar energy is presently being used on a smaller scale in furnaces for homes and to heat up swimming pools. On a larger scale use, solar energy could be used to run cars, power plants, and space ships." Yet in your book, you lay out, in some detail, why solar energy, and none of the other anticipated replacements for fossil fuels, will work. Could you summarize your position on this?

JHK: Solar energy just isn't powerful enough to accomplish all those things we are wishing and hoping it would do. It can do many things, but on a very modest scale. The problems I discussed in the book had to do with whether we could manufacture the components for these technologies without an underlying cheap oil economy to enable all the advanced metallurgy and fabrication processes necessary to make photovoltaics, batteries, wind turbines, et cetera. I don't think we know the answer to that, but I am inclined to think it will be extremely difficult, especially if we don't get going on a new generation of nuke plants.

DM: You spend of good deal of time in our writings stressing the difference between energy and technology, to show why we should not expect a quick fix from the latter to solve our problems. Could you elaborate on this?

JHK: One of the principal delusions coming out of all this is the belief that energy and technology are identical, mutually substitutable. This is just not true. The Boeing 757s (and all the rest of the jet fleets) are either going to run on liquid hydrocarbon fuels or they ain't gonna run. No "technology" is going to fix that. And we are not going to change out the world fleets of the Boeing and Airbus jetliners, either. This is typical of the extreme wishful thinking we see out there.

DM: A number of places in your book, you speak of the necessity of keeping "the project of civilization" going. Yet given the dire scenarios you outline, how is this going to even be possible? And if it were possible, what would civilization look like, say 50 years hence? It what ways might it even be better than what we have now, something you also suggest is possible?

JHK: I think civilization will continue, but at a more modest scale. It is not absolutely necessary to have 6.5 billion human beings on this planet, or for them to be deployed in super-mega-giant hyper-cities. Industrial technology has brought out a streak of grandiosity in us that is very unfortunate, perhaps tragic. We are going to learn a harsh lesson.

DM: In your book, you say that the war in Iraq was justified for a number of reasons, and that it could be the first in an increasing series of "resource wars" that might involve us in a confrontation with China. Recently on your blog, you also defended the idea, as reported by Seymour Hersh, that the United States was making plans to use bunker-busting tactical nuclear weapons against Iran's suspected uranium enrichment sites. Ultimately, you suggest, our real reasons for the confrontations first with Iraq, and now seemingly with Iran, are about access to oil. But, if we are at or past peak oil, what would be the point of endless confrontations and wars over dwindling resources? Instead of fighting for the remnants of stuff that is going to vanish anyway, wouldn't it make more sense to spend our time, money and energy retrofitting our economy for the new conditions?

JHK: I've basically said that the American public has gotten the war they require. A lot of self-congratulatory "progressives" such as Harry Shearer on NPR complain about the war, but they're still enjoying the motoring fiesta. There's a lady in my town who drives a Ford Expedition with a "War Is NOT the Answer" bumper sticker on her car. At every opportunity I tell her that war IS the answer -- if you want to live like that. Progressives have been demonizing political leaders who are merely defending a way of life that people at all points on the political spectrum still expect to maintain. I take the position that we'd better start thinking of making those "other arrangements." The political left is just as AWOL on the railroad question as the right wing is. I think it would indeed make a lot more sense retrofitting our economy and changing our behavior, but the fact is that nobody
wants to do that. So, we have a resource war instead.

DM: In The Long Emergency, you emphasize your view that the creation of suburbia represented the greatest misallocation of resources in human history, because it depends on a car culture that will be unsustainable in an energy-poor world. Is there anyone or anything to blame, though, for this state of affairs, should the suburban (and urban) collapse you foresee come to pass? Looking back, would we say that capitalism, with its manic mantra for growth, was to blame? Or is blaming an economic system
too simplistic?

JHK: The suburban way of life IS going to collapse, in the sense that it will lose its usefulness and its monetary value. While there were some bad actors in the story -- like the General Motors and Firestone Tire conspiracy of the 1930s to systematically destroy the streetcar systems all over America -- in general one can say that suburbia was an "emergent" and "self-organizing" phenomenon like countless other social systems. It was a response, in America, to cheap oil, cheap and abundant rural land, and to the inadequacy and artlessness of our cities. It also represented a kind of indulgence we granted ourselves for winning World War Two. It turns out to have been a rather tragic enterprise. I certainly don't blame "capitalism," which I do not regard as either a belief system or a form of politics, but simply a set of laws governing the behavior of surplus wealth.

DM: In your book, you talk about the fantasy of unending growth, writing, "If we project 'housing starts' ninety-nine years forward at current rates, there wouldn t be a single buildable quarter-acre lot left in the world." The foregoing suggests to me a couple of things: first, that even without peak oil, the growth fixation is a dangerous one; and second, that perhaps there was something inevitable about the plight of civilization, as you suggest it will play out. Populations of all species grow exponentially in the presence of abundant resources and in the absence of serious predators or competitors. But frequently, they use up their resources and their populations crash. In using and then exhausting our fossil fuel endowment and growing from a population of one billion in 1800 to six and a half billion today, do you think it is possible that we are simply replicating on a grand scale the experience of the reindeer on St. Matthew Island?

JHK: Well, I think Malthus was essentially right. And I think Joseph Tainter has described the mechanisms of cyclical human failure very accurately in his phrase "over-investments in complexity with diminishing returns." The oil age was very special. Malthus wrote his famous essay about fifty years before the oil extravaganza started. His basic idea is sound. Oil postponed the Malthusian reckoning with our numbers. It's coming around again at a far greater scale, now, and it is liable to be a gnarly spectacle.

DM: I sometimes personally think that we'd actually be better off without most of the things that we take for granted: TV, cars, computers, mega chain stores, processed food and on and on. The reason is that all these wonders of what you call "the drive-in utopia" seem to have a great many unintended adverse side effects. What do you think?

JHK: I certainly agree. I don't write better because I have a computer (I composed my first five novels on typewriters or by handwriting.) Computers have not made me more efficient; they only waste my time -- for instance seducing me to submit to interviews out of sheer vanity. In my experience, I've had better times drinking and playing guitars with my friends than watching TV or driving on I-87. I think we way under-appreciate the negative consequences of our technofied experiences.

DM: You have said that one concrete step we can take now to prepare for the future that you describe is to rebuild the national railroad system. If you were given unlimited power to "get things done", what other steps would you take?

JHK: I would follow my friend Jeff Brown's excellent suggestion and replace the federal payroll tax (FICA) with a stiff gasoline tax. I'd legislate comprehensively against further suburban expanasion. I would do everything possible to reactivate our watefronts for shipping -- most of them have been dedicated to parks and condo development. I would re-direct all agricultural subsidies to small-scale, local farmers. I would begin at once a debate at the highest level about whether to go forward with investments in nuclear power. Many other things will tend to take care of themselves. For instance, increased energy prices will eventually put an end to pernicious activities like WalMart.

DM: In your book you write: "The circumstances of the Long Emergency will be the opposite of what we currently experience. There will be hunger instead of plenty, cold where there was once warmth, effort where there was once leisure, sickness where there was health, and violence where there was peace." This is a very bleak prospect to hold out to young people. How do they typically react when you present this prospect to them in your lectures? And what do you say to their responses?

JHK: I have to remind them that sometimes it is necessary for individuals and groups of people to show some heroism and fortitude. The time for being crybabies is over.

DM: I notice that you have an interest in the visual arts: that you paint, and that you discuss architecture a good deal, and at your website you maintain an "Eyesore of the Month" inventory of what you regard as architectural blunders, including works by some of the most famous names in modernity. You described David Childs' revised plans for the Freedom Tower as Ground Zero as lacking "the common dignity of a bowling trophy". I get the feeling that you think much of what we take as being "great" in architecture and the arts is a kind of tumor-like outgrowth, or overgrowth, of the one-shot bonanza of our fossil-fuel blowout, and that much of what the elites today believe to be significant accomplishments in the visual arts and architecture might seem, to our descendants, as grotesque or even insane. Is that a fair assessment of your views, and does it apply as much to canvas art as to modern architecture? What kind of art -- visual, literary, musical -- do you think will arise during the Long Emergency that you foresee?

JHK: Well, that is a fair assessment. I think Modernism in the arts was a fiasco -- but I hasten to add that Modernism only expressed the various guises of entropy at work in our culture during this period. The high-energy industrial experience has left us quite crazy, afflicted, demoralized, and injured. I very emphatically believe that our spirits will automatically respond to the vicissitudes ahead by restoring true notions of beauty and truth to the arts and to architecture.

DM: This website is primarily devoted to issues in philosophy. Does philosophy have anything to say -- even if only by way of consolation -- for what we face, if it comes to pass? I notice that you repeatedly stress, in your book and other writings, your view that "life is tragic". Is that a key part of your philosophy, and does it inform your response to the long emergency that you predict? Who are your favorite philosophers and thinkers, and what relevance, if any, do you think their views might have to the conditions that you think we face?

JHK: Yes, I believe we lost our recognition of the tragic element in life, and that this loss has made us foolish and ridiculous. My education had a lot of holes in it. I flunked philosophy 101 and never took another course in the field again.

DM: What are you currently working on? Your blog is amazingly busy, so I gather that takes up a lot of time. Are you writing, or planning to write, another book?

JHK: I am in the middle of a post-oil novel -- since that is a world that can only be imagined, not reported upon directly. I think people will be interested to receive a detailed, imagined picture of this future. The job of fiction is to create a plausible world. My blog connects me to my readership, but it, too, has diminishing returns. My email load as become a tremendous burden and an obstacle to getting things done. For the moment, I have accepted these consequences, but I can imagine a time ahead when I just "go tune my fiddle".

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