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Amory Lovins vs. James Kunstler
Jamais Cascio, 26 May 05

Opinions on James Howard Kunstler's latest tract, The Long Emergency, vary pretty widely here at WorldChanging. Alex disagrees pretty strongly with Kunstler's dystopic vision; JonL found it (at least its manifestation in an interview in Salon) to be a "breath of fresh air." Personally, I'm in Alex's camp -- I'm tired of Apocaphilia in its various manifestations, and Kunstler in particular seems to claim that we can do nothing to head off disaster. Moreover, any attempts to invent better, more efficient, less damaging tools are pointless, in Kunstler's view, and he calls out Amory Lovins' "hypercar" idea for particular ridicule.

Lovins didn't like that, and responded to Kunstler. Salon managed to get Lovins' response, as well as a second exchange between the two. I'd have to say that Lovins comes across as the clear winner of the debate, although that's undoubtedly my own biases talking, at least in part. Not just my bias for Lovins' perspective, though, my bias for research over accusation and thought over fear. Or, as Lovins puts it, "Facts are more mundane than fantasies, but a better basis for conclusions."

As with all Salon pieces, you either have to subscribe (a nominal sum, and well worth it in my view) or sit through a brief advertisement before getting access to the piece.

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Comments

It seems sad that these two vital people are taking potshots at each another instead of finding ways to collaborate. The fault is mostly Kuntsler's - he set up Amory as a straw man to bash the argument that sustainability can be done through technical fixes alone. Amory has never said that, although many people think he has, because his most compelling speaking and writing is about technical fixes. (And if you know Amory, you know that he really, really likes nifty new technology.)

This is a really important topic to me. I don't for a minute think the choice is either technical fixes or massive lifestyle changes. I think it's "both-and." But that reveals a bias: when I hear about a technological breakthrough, I'm happy and worried - happy for the breakthrough, worried that people will see it as a "reprieve" from the need to do some serious work on their own lives.

I'm probably wrong, but I often sense an odd unspoken assumption among the "Worldchanging" crew. It seems that seeing the promise in new technology is "optimistic." Seeing that as insufficient is "pessimistic." Seeing the power of new modes of communication, such as the Internet or the "Participatory Panopticon" is optimistic. Seeing the need for old-fashioned soul-searching and ethics is "pessimistic."

It seems that there's more "glitter" in the promise of "sonofusion" than in the idea that people might voluntarily choose to life simpler, less destructive lives. Or do I have that wrong?

Kunstler made an important point in an angry, strident, pessimistic, off-putting way. He unnecessarily attacked Amory. But if one can look past that for a minute, he makes an important point - our current patterns of land use, settlement, transport, consumption, agriculture, etc., have been subsidized by cheap hydrocarbons. There's no panacea on the horizon that gives us a new cheap subsidy. We don't have the choice to live just like we do now, except with fusion power and hypercars.

To be honest, my bias is to like that idea. It's okay with me if there's no Disneyland or cheap hamburgers 30 years from now. I think we can lead happy, meaningful lives without that. In fact, I often wonder how most people manage to find happiness and meaning in their current lives. So does that make me an Apocophilic pessimist? Or does my belief that people can find happiness while living more sustainably make me a naive optimist?

Sorry for the personal outpouring, this seems to be a recurring theme in the posts here, and one that we haven't addressed straight-on.


Posted by: David Foley on 26 May 05

David,

I understand your point of view here, even if I'm not in total agreement. I can't speak for the other WC writers, but I personally try to avoid the use of "optimistic" and "pessimistic" as ways of describing the various outlooks, in large measure because they're far too simplistic terms. Kunstler could argue that his view that the end of oil will force us to live closer, simpler lives is "optimistic," as those are the kinds of lives he'd prefer us to live regardless.

We try to walk a fine line here, and we're not always as successful as we'd like. The core argument at WorldChanging is that we're in a serious mess, but that there are ways to get out of that mess. Some of those will be changes to lifestyle; some of those will be changes to technology. The key word in both cases is changes -- we can't just assume that everything will turn out okay without action, just as we can't assume that there's nothing we can do.

I think one of the reasons I react so strongly to the statements of apocaphiles is their neo-Puritanism. The gleeful notion that the people in the suburban houses and big cars will be punished for their sins seems to bubble just under the surface. If my posts (and here I'll speak just for me, not for the rest of the WorldChanging crew) tend towards the technofix, it's because I don't think that wanting to live a comfortable life is sinful; approaches to change that let people live comfortable lives without feeling punished for their sins are going to be a helluva lot more appealing to society -- and therefore a helluva lot more readily used -- than approaches that intentionally demand less comfort and convenience.

That doesn't mean that lifestyle changes aren't needed, but that the lifestyle changes that will work aren't the ones that revert us back to a 19th century existence.

Would having a hypercar in every driveway and LEED-Gold homes powered by solar & sonofusion be enough to prevent disaster? Possibly not, but it would be a damn good start.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 26 May 05

Intriguing. Thanks to you both for the long and though-provoking comments. Good to address the underlying vision every now and then.


Posted by: Stephen A. Fuqua on 27 May 05

I heartily second David's comments - a good step-back view.

The optimism/pessimism axis I see as often verging on the fruitless. There is a sense in which favouring optimism by default is the rational way to go (to my mind best exemplified by Robert Anton Wilson and his take on Bucky Fuller).

But I think it has to be kept in perspective. What worries me in the debate being discussed here is that "pessimism" is frequently somewhat implicitly conflated with "wrong". When we're looking at hard facts about the real world - like patterns of energy usage and resource depletion - we need to keep to these facts. And past that, we need to be rigourously honest about what are actually grey areas, subject to opinion. It seems that most optimists see pessimism as a regrettable artifact of its proponent's personal psychology, distorting their views - and the pessimists think likewise of the optimists.

David hits the nail on the head with his "both/and". Maybe we should learn as much from Robert Anton Wilson & co's refutations of Aristotelian either/or logic as from their advocacy of optimism.

As to the alleged glee of people like Kunstler at the prospect of consumer capitalist lifestyles being wiped away, I'm not sure I care about their feelings - I care about whether their perspective on the near future is justified or not. And whether retreats from calls for lifestyle change are expedient or suicidal.

At the World Economic Forum recently, Tony Blair said, "If we were to put forward as a solution to climate change something which would involve drastic cuts in economic growth or standards of living, it would not matter how justified it was, it simply would not be agreed to." A friend of mind rightly never tires of pointing out the significance of the phrase "it would not matter how justified it was". Where is the line between being pragmatic about what people are likely or not to respond to, and coming to wilfully blind conclusions like Blair's?


Posted by: Gyrus on 28 May 05

Error in previous post: "A friend of mind" should be "A friend of mine"! (Or should it? :-)


Posted by: Gyrus on 28 May 05

Kunstler is just a grumpy old man and I'm being kind. Any alternative you give him - even some of his own - he eventually *tries* to put down. It's like he's making you stay where you are, there is no escape, and the only solution is to redo urban design to the way he thinks it should be done.
His book isn't a serious balanced look at the problems, it's more a look at Kunstlers psychology and thus very mundane read.


Posted by: Mark on 28 May 05

As a farmer and as a scholar who has travelled the globe in search of solutions to the problem of rising energy costs, I reluctantly ascribe to the pessimistic and apocalyptic lectures Kunstler offers. In this year alone, fertilizer prices have gone up 30% and just last week urea went up another $16/tonne! Kunstler is right to be extreme in his predictions. There are no technological advances available to man that are going to be able to allow us to produce the quantities of food globally required without fossil fuel based inputs. After all, food productions sytems in the last 50 years have evolved to the assumption that energy will remain cheap. We have programmed all crop plants to concentrate their internally produced energies into grains, nuts and fruits, whilst the energy needed to fight pests, weeds and diseases now comes from an oil/gas spigot in the Middle East.

The most dangerous man in the world is one who is hungry! There is no rocket science in looking at how dangerous the world will be when food security is severely compromised! It wasn't that long ago that the Western world ran out of food!


Posted by: Aaron Edmonds on 28 May 05

An interesting post and discussion! Jamais Cascio, something you said spurred some thoughts.

"I think one of the reasons I react so strongly to the statements of apocaphiles is their neo-Puritanism. The gleeful notion that the people in the suburban houses and big cars will be punished for their sins seems to bubble just under the surface"

Is it gleeful? And need you bring in the religious concept of sin and puritanism? Many of us have left the religion of our parents behind, anything that "smacks" of limits on behaviour then becomes a negative.

So ignore religion and look at it empirically: What if the "apocaphiles" are correct; lazy and unthinking use of cheap energy results in great human suffering when the cheap energy runs out.

jesus won't come back; the mahdi will be nowhere in site. It wouldn't be a real apocalypse; some people who would have died forty years in the future might die twenty years in the future.

I'm guessing the activities of worldchanging and other technofabulists will be unchanged whether Kunstler is right or wrong.

And this is just as it should be.

Maybe it is time, when discussing how something like energy depletion will affect the future, to look at what some scientists are saying, rather than opinionated curmudgeon historians like James Howard Kunstler.

Because it is so easy to ignore and label Kunstler, isn't it? He "believed" in Y2K.

So here are some geologists, physicists, and oil men to google, in lieu of the favored world changing whipping boy, JHK.

Colin Campbell
Kenneth S. Deffeyes
T. Boone Pickens
Matthew Simmons
David Goodstein

These cats are just the facts types, meaning there is less room for discussion about future scenarios and more empirical information about what is going on under our noses.


Posted by: Jon S. on 28 May 05

Jamais, thanks for your thoughtful reply. I hope you understand how much I respect you and appreciate your contributions.

We agree on a central idea: there's nothing gained from stories of helplessness. And there are folks who tell such stories with glee, wallowing in Schadenfreude, relishing the thought of the once-mighty brought low. That doesn't help the world get better - it's just a tantrum.

But I'm wary of technology as ultimate savior, if we trade the future's promise for today's work. That becomes a story of helplessness too. "Oh dear, I'm helpless to do anything now, but just wait until the tabletop fusion gets here - then everything will be fine."

Balderdash. There's so much we can do here, now. We have choices and opportunities. We may turn away from some things, yes, but that can be a choice made with love and joy, as in a marriage. A comfortable life does not have to be a gluttonous life. It can be a life in service to something, one looked back on in old age with satisfaction. I'm pretty sure that no one on their deathbed says, "Oh, I wish I had owned one of those new multi-tasking cell phones."


Posted by: David Foley on 31 May 05

Granted, there's no use in looking at how the future is gonna be or ought to be in terms of optimism or pessimism. But maybe we can look at the changes in what has become accepted as the lifestyle most Americans aspire to - the one that is advertised as the ideal all around the world. This is the lifestyle of unlimited choice, of expensive toys, of trends and fads and waste.

We're not talking comfort here, unless its some kind of psychological comfort in being able to buy whole new wardrobes every year, own more gas-guzzling vehicles than you actually use, and shop at stores with incredible, impractically huge inventories.

Maybe giving up such luxuries will cause a lot of discomfort and anguish and pain. Maybe we'll have to adjust our desires and expectations. I don't consider that to be gloomy, but many people will, I'm sure. Time to dial back the American Dream a bit.


Posted by: Cliff Figallo on 31 May 05

Much good conversation here. Thank you.

Jon S., my use of religious terminology was metaphorical -- I wasn't claiming that the statements from Kunstler, et al, had anything to do with traditional religious beliefs, but rather that they paralleled cultural patterns of seeing a small group of select as being on the right path, while everyone else was taking the world down. And I'm not trying to say that oil supplies are fine -- I've been writing about "peak oil" here since last September.

David, I'm right there with you in opposing the concept that "technology is the ultimate savior... [so] just wait... everything will be fine." Newer technologies will be part of the solution, but not without conscious action to bring solutions about. Simply waiting for someone else to fix the problem while continuing to eat up multiple planets' worth of resources won't work.

But neither will giving up -- which I know you're not calling for, but have seen sufficiently often recently to recognize as a larger trend.

Cliff, all I can say is that you'll get a lot more resistance to trying to make people "dial back the American Dream" than to trying to get people "make the American Dream better." Language matters.

I think the overriding point of my posts here on the subject of responses to radical climate shifts and resource limits is that the solutions don't have to be ones that lead to starvation, privation and misery, and don't have to be ones that lead to radical restrictions on our ability to communicate, to travel and to live in complex mutual-dependency communities (aka cities). It is possible for us to build much more sustainable lives that don't require a reversion to 19th century community models.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 31 May 05



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