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An Interview with James Howard Kunstler

Kunstler.jpg If there's one thing we steer away from around here, it's doom and gloom and the sometimes-too-tempting sense of hopelessness that can come with thinking seriously about the world's problems. For this reason, there was no passive acceptance from the WC editorial team when James Howard Kunstler's "we're screwed" attititude gained attention around the release of his 2005 The Long Emergency.

Of course, the contention was a result of the fact that we are in agreement with Kunstler that the end of oil is inevitable, pivotal, and fast approaching. Most of us simply fall in the camp that all is not lost, and that in fact, as Alex argues in The Post-Oil Megacity, the oil crisis may trigger an opportunity for massive change in the way we orchestrate our lives and construct our surroundings.

To keep things lively, we've decided to post an interview with Kunstler conducted last week at the Renewable Energy & Sustainable Living Fair in Custer, Wisconsin. Kunstler's got some interesting things to say about urban planning, Wal-Mart, and living local. We may not all agree with him, but if part of our goal here is to change the debate, we've got to have one.

One of the interviewers, WC ally Paul Schmelzer, shared the transcript with us, which is included after the jump. Thanks again, Paul!

James Howard Kunstler, Interviewed by Paul Schmelzer, writer and founder of the blog Eyeteeth, and Nick Vander Puy of
Superior Broadcast Network, Saturday, June 24, 2006.

Nick Vander Puy: Last week on NPR, chief executive officer of British Petroleum says this business about peak oil is just a bunch of Nervous Nellies.

James Howard Kunstler: As I’m fond of saying, if we could harness the energy produced from guys like that blowing smoke up the public’s rear end, then we could probably run the interstate highway system, Wal-mart, and Walt Disney World.

NVP: When we were traveling here from northern Wisconsin, we had to go through this panorama of destruction and emptiness, which is all over America now. You’ve written some wonderful and some very critical books about surburbia, and what you call the “greatest misallocation of resources the world has known.” How did we get into this mess?

JHK: It’s not that difficult to understand. In America, we had this fantastic endowment of petroleum which was fairly easy to get. We knocked ourselves out in a couple of world wars and a depression, and after that we decided we needed to give ourselves a present. And the present we gave ourselves was an easy-motoring utopia, and then we commenced to spend the second half of the 20th century building it. And that’s what we did. The problem was, we didn’t figure how it was going to run when we had trouble with our oil supply. We started to in 1973 with the OPEC embargo, and at that time
American oil production had peaked and we were able to muddle through by importing oil from other countries. But now the world is reaching its oil production peak, and we’re not going to be able to go to another planet to import oil. So that’s sort of the nature of the problem.

NVP: How do people break through this collective trance? I was at a Wal-Mart hearing last
week. Lady comes in with a petition with 800 signatures in favor of Wal-Mart.

JHK: “We want Wal-Mart! We want Wal-Mart. We want bargain shopping.” We want to throw our community in the garbage. Well, it’s very hard, and I don’t know that there’s a great wish to break through the fog of misunderstanding and destruction. It may take a period of hardship for the American public to gird its loins and make some decisions about our behavior, and what our behavior is going to be like in the future, and what kind of behavior are we going to continue and promote and subsidize? Because the kind of behavior we’re promoting and subsidizing now—like, building more and more
suburbia so that we can keep the homebuilders busy—that’s not going to be working forever.

NVP: Why is local important?

JHK: Local’s important because you have some control over your economic and ecological destiny. And other people in distant places are not running your life and running your economy. As Wendell Berry pointed out, the word economy comes from the Greek word for home management. And managing your locality, your community, is something better left to someone living in your community. You certainly want commercial intercourse with people elsewhere, and you want to have trade and you want to have those kinds of things, but I don’t think you want people living 12,000 miles away running your life and destroying your community, which is what’s happening.

NVP: Some lyrics you closed The Long Emergency with: the Blue side of Gershwin, the
one that your father favored. What are those lyrics and what did you learn from them?

JHK: Oh, that was from “Our Love Is Here to Stay” by George Gershwin. “The Rockies may tumble, Gibraltar may crumble, but our love is here to stay.” Gershwin was writing kind of a tragic lyric there, recognizing that nothing lasts forever. That there’s a beginning and an end to most mortal things, including these big mountains we see. But, actually the idea that our love is here to stay is very profound. I don’t know if the human race is going to be around forever—probably not—but something was here and we were here and there was a lot about us that was pretty great. Our love is here is to stay, in a way. It’s there for an eternity.

Paul Schmelzer: One of the theses of science fiction writer Bruce Sterling’s book, Shaping Things, is that a lot of our current environmental problems come out of a failure to transcend our metahistory—the way we think about our history and our “progress” into the future. How do we transcend the metahistory of oil and of consumption?

JHK: We are kind of hostages to the time we live in and hostages to the customs and practices of our time. It certainly isn’t easy. I don’t know how you do it as a group. I suppose that you’d have to drag out that old word “paradigm.” Paradigm shifts tend to be rapid and tend to be disorderly and tend to be destabilizing. That’s probably the kind of situation we’re going to be headed into. Otherwise, everybody’s just going to keep on motoring down the freeway and have expectations that they’re going to go to the mall and their job is always going to be there, working for the Ramjack Corporiation. So,
yeah, it’s sort of the equivalent of a smack upside the head for the culture, as in, “Yo, wake up!”

PS: The founders of the Apollo Alliance, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger wrote a critique of the environmental movement called “The Death of the Environmentalism” in which they argue, if I’m characterizing it correctly, that the environmentalism has become a captured special interest. They’re fighting against labor and gender rights issues instead of working with related groups. What I found moving about your talk today is that you take a holistic approach: it’s about railroads and
surburbia and urban planning...

JHK: It’s certainly not just about focusing on the muskrats and the mud turtles. We really have to get our thinking beyond that. They’re important too. You see this a lot in the whole land-use discussion, too, where a lot of people who call themselves environmentalists seem to limit their interests to scenery and recreation. And when it really comes down to the matter of, how are human beings going to inhabit the landscape and what kind of human ecology are we going to have and what kind of human habitat are we going to have, they’re simply tuned out and not interested. These guys got to get interested in the design of the human habitat, and that’s essentially urban design. There’s also, of course, the agricultural landscape we have to maintain, and there’s also the wild and scenic landscape that has to be maintained. But they’ve got to pay attention to all those different parts of “the transect of conditions,” as we call it in the new urbanism. And they’re not. They don’t want to hear about urban design.

I remember I once went to Spokane, Washington, and the urban planning staff took me around for a tour. And the tour was weird because they took me from scenic overlook to another saying “Look at the view from here.” Then they’d drive ten miles. “Look at the view from here.” And at the end of the day I had to sort of clue them in and tell them: “It’s not about the scenery from the overlooks, it’s about that grid of streets and buildings that you’ve got ten miles away down there. That’s what you should be concerned about.”

Anybody can put a poster of the Rocky Mountains in their basement and go down there and sit and feel groovy about it, but meanwhile their town is crumbling around them. We need to have towns that are actually rewarding to live in, that people care about and are worth living in. Right now, everybody disdains urban America at any scale, whether it’s a town or a big city, because we’ve done such a bad job of constructing them and assembling them and detailing them. We’ve got to do a much better job with that stuff at a much finer scale.

PS: For a guy with a blog called “Clusterfuck Nation,” you’re certainly not a raving lunatic.

JHK: Well, that’s very kind of you. I try to employ a little bit of profanity to try to wake up the people who are nodding off when I’m speaking. But I’m not a raving maniac. I’m sort of a creature of my own generation, and we like to spice up the dialogue a little bit. I try not to overuse it. Some people still object to hearing it at all. After all, part of what I do is comedy. Nobody complains about George Carlin. They complain about me.

PS: Thanks for your time.

JHK: Thank you.
Shaping Things

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I have not read Kunstler's new book, but I have read "Geography of Nowhere" and it was a part of opening my eyes to my (rather than *the*) environment.

I think you guys (at WC, and Sterling as well) are too hard on Kunstler. You may see and hear things I don't, but this is what I hear and see:

Not doom and gloom, but a vision for a new America. One that is more local, more community-based, better designed, and more sustainble. So far, nothing we don't encourage ourselves.
Now, it's true that he believes this future will come because of crisis, will come suddenly and perhaps with attendant chaos. And I understand that this is what you at WC are seeking to avoid. You are trying to put forward a vision so compelling that people move toward it with excitement, while Kunstler puts forward a vision that arrives at the bottom of a cliff.

But that doesn't make him wrong. We hope it will not require crisis to awaken people, but it might. I know he also troubles some people because he seems excited about this new future, but hey - I am too. He makes no bones about disliking suburbia, WalMart, fuel-sucking designs, and why should he?
I don't believe he is excited about the crisis, but about the potential results. I think you are right to contrast his "dark green" future with your "bright green" one. But they're both green...

Posted by: justus on 30 Jun 06

I also have not read Kunstler's book, but I have considered the fine line we must walk between the happy sleep of ignorance (in the true sense of the word: ignoring things) and the paralyzing gloom-and-doom.

It is not a trivial thing. It is hard to take in the unfathomably large amount of suffering, destruction, hate, and ignorance in the world without feeling some sense that it is all too much, that we are doomed, etc. That is natural response of a caring heart to seeing the vast field of suffering.

We need to be careful, too, that the vision of the "bright green future" does not become more happy talk. WorldChanging does a nice job of avoiding this stance by focusing on very practical issues and real-world projects.

I find it inspiring and grounding to consider the possibility that our lives might actually get better if the oil-fed growth spurt we've been on comes to a halt.

I mean really, do you like the crazy pace of life many of us in the West and much of developed Asia live? The cell phone, Internet, rushed existence is hardly a recipe for true human happiness. That's not to say that massive energy shortages, infrastructure failures, trouble with food and fresh water, etc, are good things to be eagerly anticipated. But when I REALLY look with eyes open, I can feel OK about giving up much of this stuff and can touch the vision of something radically different but very livable, very human.

And the more of us who see that means the more of us to act as leaders through the transition.

The world does not need one more agitated mind-- they are in vast oversupply. I serve the world greatly by not having one. How about you?

Posted by: Kim on 30 Jun 06

I have read most of Kunstler's books, including The Long Emergency. He does us a service about warning about a probable future. He excels at telling us what we won't have, but is lacking in telling us what we will have or could have.

We need the doomsters to warn the world, but we need others to tell us how can cope and even flourish in that world. While Peak Oil can be somewhat disturbing, the absence of it is even more disturbing. The thing that is more disturbing than peak oil is that coal is not at its peak and won't be until it is too late. The use of coal is the doomsday scenario, not peak oil.

Posted by: tom on 30 Jun 06

Gloom is great for getting people's attention. The problem is that it doesn't hold people's attention. It doesn't matter if the prophet lays out a closely reasoned argument that the sky is falling heavily fortified with lots of evidence. People will eventually shut down in dispair and tune you out and nothing will get done.

The thing is you have to give people something that they can do. You've got to give them something that they, personally, can do to save the planet. Give them several things that the can do so they have some choice.

Kunstler is dead right. We are in a crisis. Kunstler's only problem is that he doesn't seem to give any concrete ideas about what we can do--as individuals, as groups, as businesses, as organizations, as governments.

Posted by: Pace Arko on 30 Jun 06

Once a doom and gloomer always a doom and gloomer... to see what Kunstler was saying about Y2K.

see -

Its almost as if you can remove "Y2K" and substitute "Peak Oil" .

Posted by: Joe Deely on 1 Jul 06

I first learned of the concept of 'peak oil' from reading Kunstler's piece in Rolling Stone, "The Long Emergency". That was about 2 years ago. Since then I've validated what Kunstler has to say through a lot of research online -- validated it for myself, validated it to the point of doing something about it.

Do you know how difficult it is to learn and to do vegetable gardening? I wouldn't be doing it if not for Kunstler and other peak oil writers.

It is neither here-nor-there with me if a writer is considered to be inappropriately doom-and-gloom. That just isn't an issue with me. The important thing is to keep on doing gardening, learning to live frugally, getting ready for whatever is to come. We don't know what is to come, but for sure it will not be like it is now. When you're getting ready for what is to come you're too busy to quibble over the presentation of the material that led you to make the changes in your life.

Posted by: Brenda on 2 Jul 06

I read "The Long Emergency" twice just to make sure I understood the enormous amount of information presented. After the second reading I realized why I had to read it that second time. While Mr. Kunstler throws ton of info, facts, history at the reader, I realized that I had to do some other reading and research just to follow along with any useful coherence. In short, this is but a part of a whole of knowledge we as a species have lost touch with over the past century or so. For instance, the part about the role of oil and the US in WWI & II can only be fully understood if you delve into the details of those conflicts from other sources. Dr. Klare's "Blood and Oil" is a good start. If you want solutions, read Dr. Heinberg's "Powerdown”.

I don't think it is fair or useful to expect Mr. Kunstler to address, in infinite detail, our dilemma as a species. It is simply to vast. He gives a fantastic outline with detail in his area of expetise. This should be enough. The rest is up to the readers whether they want to be bench warmers or get on their feet and take the next step.

So, I have found myself agreeing with Mr. Kunstler entirely. While I truly wish there was another way for us to "wake up" and "prepare" I don't think anything short of a major global crisis is going to do the trick. We are slaves to our way of life here in the USA and indeed around the world and there is no evidence in my opinion, to even suggest we can just change gears voluntarily.

So, I think Mr. Kunstler does a great job of bringing together many aspects of our predicament and putting them into a logical order so more people will understand where we are and how we got here. However, it should be understood that there is a world of hurt headed our way and it has several fronts.

Folks should learn how to garden, how to get involved in their local community, how to live on less energy, how to get politically active, how to address the population problem, how to educate ourselves about what it takes to run a complex, sustainable society and where we have failed in that regard. Learn how money really works. Learn how to put your assumptions about the world and our place in it into a realistic perspective. He said it best "We are not that special"

I hope we don't have to join the dinosaurs, but the distinct possibly is staring us in the face.

Posted by: Kamau Beno on 3 Jul 06

I'm wondering exactly what the comment about Kunstler and Y2k is supposed to mean. Should we only consider the views of people who have never made an erroneous judgment about the future? If so, then we should eliminate virtually every elected politician in the country and huge chunks of the economic elite, no?

Why don't you find something substantive that Kunstler has to say about Peak Oil and disprove it, which would count as an actual contribution to the discussion.

Posted by: JMG on 3 Jul 06

Joe, there was a substantial discussion here on Worldchanging about Y2K, and *why* it wasn't the crisis it might have been. Check out the archives.

Posted by: justus on 3 Jul 06

Seems like a lot of the questions here, and a lot of the comments, center on some American cultural traits that are maladaptive given the scope of today's problems, such as catastrophic climate change, resource depletion, and overpopulation. Enforced optimism (which so easily turns to depression), inability to accept one's fate, and irrational faith in technology and technological solutions are all weaknesses, personality flaws, personal as well as national. Nothing - no person, no country - can escape the cycle of death and decay. Perhaps a little perspective and a little humility might be helpful in mitigating against all this "doom and gloom" I keep reading about. Act your age, America! (Late middle age, that is.)

Posted by: dima on 5 Jul 06

I read James Kunstler's blogs each week on his internet site, and interviews such as this. Yes indeed, he a splendidly morose and irascable individual. I love it!! He's like a grumpy old uncle, a bit tedious at times, but you love him just the same. But what makes him worth reading, is the quality of his writing and the sharpness of his intellect and his observations. His blogs never fail to please as a worthy addition to the commentary on our present state. And hidden in his disdain for what our society has become, are snippets of genuine hope and love for his fellow men, and not a good deal of laugh-aloud ascerbic humour.

Kunstler does his best, with the knowledge of our times, to make some reasonable predictions as to the likely state of the future. Some of it could be seen as alarming, for instance, the predicted breakdown of the social fabric in many parts of the US, and other parts of the world no doubt. Maybe that won't happen. But isn't it equally possible it'll be much worse than even he has considered likely. But he is no seer. There will be many predictions that just won't happen, that circumstances that could not be foreseen, or technologies undreamt of that lie just around the corner, will make him seem, with the benefit of hindsight, as just another failed prophet.

All I can judge, sitting here in New Zealand at the start of the twenty-first century, is that his predictions are likely bear much more relationship to many of the realities of our future then the anodyne, complacent and smugly optimistic reassurances of the politicians, business leaders and the media, ostriches as they are, with their heads firmly stuck in the sands, as the howling winds of change threaten to deprive them of all their plumage and reveal them as the overgrown chickens they really are.

Posted by: John on 12 Jul 06

If you want to find out what some people are doing to prepare for the inevitable crises heading our way, go to the RunningOnEmpty2 group on The archives are full of ideas and practical advice for starting the lifestyle shifts necessary to ease the anxiety related to understanding the severity of the impacts of Peak Oil.
I plan to go rural and get as energy and food self-sufficient as possible.

Posted by: Doug on 12 Jul 06



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