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Living Future 2010: James Howard Kunstler
Amanda Reed, 17 May 10

James Howard Kunstler was the Opening Keynote speaker at the 2010 Living Future unConference. For those of you not familiar with Kunstler's work (as I wasn't), he is an author and journalist who writes and speaks about urban design, energy issues and new economies in a post-oil future. He's a fierce critic of suburban sprawl and the high costs associated with an automobile-centric culture. In his book The Long Emergency he explores the sweeping economic, political and social changes that will result from the end of access to cheap fossil fuels and the impact this will have on the way we live, work, farm and build.

Despite his generally engaging, joking, and convivial flair as a speaker, much of Kunstler's talk had a pretty gloom and doom tone -- He presented various facts and figures, and scary outlooks of some of the disasters the United States (US) will face if nothing is done to prepare for the end of cheap oil.* At a conference where the theme was all about hope and creating action for a sustainable future, his general pessimism was a strange beginning. However, it seemed that Kunstler’s reputation as someone who doesn’t pull any punches was exactly what conference organizers were looking for as a strategy to push people beyond wishful thinking and into hopeful action. As Joel Sisolak said when introducing Kunstler: “His kind of honesty is the only way to prepare ourselves for a living future.” My impression of what Sisolak meant by this was that if we were courageous enough to look unflinchingly at all the difficult and scary aspects of reality facing us today (peak oil, climate change, water scarcity, etc.), and then appropriately apply our skills and intelligence to solutions, then we as citizens, architects, urban planners and builders could transform pessimism into optimism, hope into action, and build cities and communities that will thrive in a post-oil and warming world.

*Note: Kunstler’s talk was entirely ‘United States’ focused in its discussion, but his forecasts for the future and suggested framework for thinking about solutions are globally relevant, as is the larger message from the conference to face the challenges of those forecasts head-on and build a better future. In the rest of this post the use of “we” refers to an ‘American’ “we” unless otherwise noted.

What follows is a summary of the key insights I thought Kunstler made about what the barriers are to productive responses to a challenging future, and what actions we can take to build a livable future.

In order to respond to problems, we need to know what the problems are, but according to Kunstler, identifying problems is precisely what we’re not doing well; we’re having “trouble constructing a coherent consensus about where we’re at and how to move forward.”

For Kunstler our primary problem in America is that our social and political conversation is focused on “sustaining the unsustainable.” We’re doing all kinds of things to artificially sustain our current way of life, without accepting that the current way of life is itself the source of our larger problems. For example, instead of accepting that the era of what Kunstler called “happy motoring” is over, we’re talking about developing electric cars and opening up more places to drill for oil. Both of these approaches only serve to support, or sustain, an infrastructure and pattern of development that is based on cars, which is ultimately unsustainable.

The reason we can’t see, accept, or act on our primary problem of trying to sustain the unsustainable is because of what Kunstler called our “psychology of previous investment.” He described this psychology of previous investment as a psychological barrier to change that has been formed by our national financial and personal investment in cars and suburban development: “We invested all of our WWII income, savings and wealth in an infrastructure for daily life that has no future, and now we’re stuck with it. That in turn has provoked a psychology of previous investment; we are unable to even imagine letting go of these investments, regardless of their quality. We’ve even invested our identity in these places. Having made these investments, we can’t really imagine letting go of them.” This is the great rub. Our money and our identity are tied to an unsustainable model of life so intricately that we can’t see our way out. In order to start addressing our number one problem (cars and sprawl) we need to face this psychological barrier.
This is an urgent issue, because, as Kunstler pointed out, in a post-petroleum world we won’t “have the resources to continue to run suburbia [and] the psychology of previous investment is probably our biggest obstacle to doing anything about it.”

Once we understand our psychological barriers to change, we can see our problems and respond intelligently with workable solutions. Kunstler made an interesting distinction between “solutions” and “intelligent response.” He thinks that most people who talk about ‘solutions’ are really saying “give us a bunch of solutions so we can continue living the same way we’re living” now. In contrast, he said, intelligent responses are solutions that respond to “the circumstances we face” and come from an understanding of the underlying psychology of problems and the reality or limits of what solutions can do. For example, in Kunstler’s view, electric cars are a ‘solution’ to the end of “happy motoring,” but also a waste of time and resources; an ‘intelligent response’ would be to plan and invest in “walkable communities that exist in meaningful relation to productive agriculture.”

As part of his idea of an intelligent response, Kunstler stressed that we “get real” about what solutions can really do. He used alternative energy as an example. He said that alternative energy can’t be used to keep the current American life running as it is on into the future: “No combination of solar, wind, algae, or dark matter, will allow continued suburban development and commerce as usual to work.” That’s not to say that we shouldn’t invest in alternative energy, but the key is that “we’re going to be disappointed by what these things can do for us. We’re not going to maintain America by running on these things. We’ll have to make a new America.”

One other criticism Kunstler’s had of most ‘solutions’ was that they’re often based on what he called “techno triumphalism,” an ideology based on the grandiose idea that technology can fix any problem. He said this was a dangerous idea to have because a lot of problems don’t have technological solutions. Additionally, Kunstler criticized techno triumphalism for being enmeshed within a larger, overarching idea that there is some mythological “they” who will come up with something that will allow “us” to continue business as usual.

For Kunstler, any solution, technological or otherwise, that supports business as usual, or sustaining the unsustainable, is ineffective. Action must instead be generated through intelligent responses to the consequences of reality.

I agree with Kunstler that recognizing our psychological barriers to change and identifying our larger social and environmental problems are the first part of the process of building a livable future. Then, of course, we’ve got to get to work. Here are three key things Kunstler suggested we do as intelligent responses to the problems generated by past auto-centric development and a future of limited oil supplies.

*Downscale and Re-Localize
Kunstler stressed that we need to downscale and re-localize our housing, commerce, industry and food production. The most important piece of that agenda is to ditch suburban development, which he thinks will either become retrofitted towns, salvage yards, slums or ruins in the future. Instead of suburban sprawl, he said we need to design urban centers with edges that meet productive farmland. In commerce we need to say good-bye to big box stores and create integral economies and societies (although he said he didn’t know how we could do this yet). In industry he said we need to start making things locally again and stop relying on “plastic salad shooters from China.” In agriculture we need more human attention and less diesel fuel.

*Rediscover the Public Realm
This was the piece of advice that most resonated with me: Kunstler said it's time for Americans to rediscover the public realm and our sense of place, and take it back from the automobile. He criticized much past suburban and urban development as “places not worth caring about” (here he showed a picture of a typical street intersection) and inherently lacking value but masquerading as valuable (when describing America’s glut of retail, he pretended to speak as the store: “look at me I’m a clown. buy this shit that’s inside of me!”

He said that future urban development should look to Europe – human scale, finer details, smaller increments. These suggestions reminded me of the work of Gehl Architects. They have a similar set of criteria for designing pedestrian oriented, culturally vibrant, sustainable city spaces, which they promote to designers and cities around the world (for an example of how Gehl’s methods might be implemented in Seattle to create a more walkable and inviting downtown, see this article).

*Restore the National Railroad System
And finally, Kunstler recommended one immediate action we can take immediately that would have positive impact now and into future: restore the passenger railroad system. Psychologically this is an important undertaking, because, according to Kunstler, we need a project that we can do as a nation that will demonstrate to ourselves that we are competent. From a future planning perspective he argued that it’s necessary in order to ensure cross-country travel when cars and airplanes are no longer viable. Kunstler advocated for restoration of our existing railroad system rather than investment in a new high speed rail system because he doesn’t think we’ll have the capital to complete such a project, and it also makes sense to use what’s already in place. I like what he said about the comparatively slow speed of regular rail travel: “American’s would be deliriously happy to get from Seattle to Salt Lake City at 80mph, if it was on time.” True.

At the beginning of this recap I noted that Kunstler’s talk seemed a bit out of place at a conference about building hope for the future and learning about solutions based actions in the built environment. From a tone perspective that still seems true, but I think this quote from James Cascio’s article Peak Oil and the Curse of Cassandra, offers some perspective on what kind of value Kunstler’s “we’re all doomed” tone can offer. He wrote:

...the peak oil Cassandras -- Kunstler included -- are perfectly positioned to trigger the kind of anxiety-induced focus needed to accelerate a move away from petroleum dependence. What I hope to suggest to them, therefore, is that they need to keep in mind that there's another scenario besides global doom and blind optimism -- a scenario in which their warnings work.

This isn't a world where everything goes smoothly and everyone transitions to post-petroleum technologies without any issues; rather, it's a world in which lots of people are convinced that it's too late and are desperate to try anything, to do what's needed, to avoid the "collapse of civilization" scenario that seems all too likely -- and they succeed.

Here’s hoping the attendees of the 2010 Living Future unConference and other designers and builders around the world are so inspired. I hope we succeed. I think we will.

For more on Kunstler, see "Subdivided" an interview with Kunstler in the Sustainable Industries Journal.

Editor's Note: This post is part of our recap of the 2010 Living Future unConference. Click here for more.

Image Credits: Farm/garden courtesy of Flickr photographer emrank, pedestrian (go)light courtesy of Flickr photographer suziedepingu, and Amtrak train courtesy of Flickr photographer Roadsidepictures under the Creative Commons License.

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Kunstler is spot on, of course. How did we get here? Was it "personal choice" operating in a "free market?". The video "Taken for a Ride" shows how the car replaced not the horse, but the bus which replaced the streetcar -- by force. The car, thanks to brute force and massive subsidy, now has critical mass. Counter institutions cannot break critical mass. The Amish have survived car-free for many years and have not slowed sprawl one bit. The way back is to make the buses fare-free, and gradually replace them with streetcars. Re-urbanize and give the burbs to the organic farmers.

Posted by: free transit on 18 May 10


Thank you for such a well-written and thorough recap of Living Future, specifically Kunstler's Keynote. You've somehow managed to provide an incredibly balanced and, I think, at least, a spot-on response to his message. I was one of two standing ovations (my husband the other - go figure) and I wondered afterward how that might be perceived from some of our biggest supporters and peers who had less-than positive responses to Kunstler's message and delivery.

Basically, you took the words right out of my mind. I'm happy to know that there are others whose response is similar, because I believe this "reality check" is needed and in order.

Thanks for the thoughtful and professional coverage.

Darby Burn Strong
ILBI Program Coordinator

Posted by: Darby Burn Strong on 19 May 10

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