Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Looking at a Very Different Future

James Howard Kunstler, who seems to have an answer to just about every question that is stumping us these days, rolled out his traveling show at Hollins University tonight and wowed a packed house of mostly granola-latte environmentalists.

Kunstler (who calls himself an "actualist") is an urbanist, thinker and writer whose books (like The Geography of Nowhere, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency and others) have developed a loyal following among people as diverse as architects, engineers, road-builders, developers and environmentalists, spoke for more than two hours in plain English, laying out a list of what felt like insoluble problems even as he proposed solutions.

Here's some of what he said, in no particular order and some of it, frankly, for effect:
  • The United States is "comprehensively broke at all levels." Ideas of a new economy, based on new ideals won't work "because the money is not there. It's gone." The "middle class will disappear" shortly and people will not be happy about it.
  • "We are not going to save 'happy motoring'" because "we have been using far more oil than we are finding since the 1980s." To maintain our current levels of use "we'd have to find a Saudia Arabia a year and we're not going to do that."
  • Mexico, our No. 3 oil supplier, is running out quickly. "Oil is done" as a base for our transportation and, frankly, our culture.
  • Suburbs represent "the greatest mis-allocation of resources in he history of the world." During "the last 20 years, suburban sprawl was the economy. We're done with tract houses, roads--building and repairing them--sprawl, homebuilders, Realtors, Wall Street mortgage traders. They're waiting for the bottom to be hit in real estate so they can start again. It won't and they won't. We're going to have to make other arrangements for everyday life in America."
  • "Forget cars."
  • "Here's a prediction: In five years there will be no airlines."
  • "We're going to have to re-localize and downscale. We're moving away from 'solutions' to 'intelligent responses.'"
  • "Agriculture will change to something local, smaller. We're going to have to reorganize the way we do commerce. Wal-Mart will fail and stores like Wal-Mart--the boxes--will fail. Our whole network will have to be rebuilt."
  • "Schools are too centralized and will fail." He sees a system of homeschools becoming a system of neighborhood schools, which will supplant the central school concept."
  • "Globalism has had its brief period." It, too, will die soon.
  • "We will learn to inhabit the terrain differently in villages, towns, cities that have a relationship with rural areas."
  • "I fear we're putting in too much energy to sustain the unsustainable."
  • "Rebuilding the railroad system is vital. It is a fact we're not even talking about right now, but it can be done and should be done. We need a project we can do right now and this is it. It needs to start right away."
  • "When you have enough places that aren't worth caring about, you wind up with a country that's not worth defending." (This quote was originally incorrect, saying "a country worth caring about.")
Kunstler's wit and gift of the precise one-liner kept the crowd on the edge of its collective seat throughout the long presentation and questions flew at him after he'd finished his initial presentation.

Kunstler gave a view of America that may once have been as the scenario for its best shot at a future: small towns, local products made by local craftspeople, a system of commerce that has little use for money traders. It is an idyllic view and one that may work only because we are forced by our own excess into doing it--sort of a post-apocalyptic scenario--sans a major war.

This one could have easily slipped into a depressing evening, but Kunstler--for all his gloomy predictions--is upbeat and surprisingly hopeful that we can remake ourselves, even as we show absolutely no sign of doing that. Still, it's a nice mental exercise.


  1. Sorry I missed this event. I haven't read his books, but they've been on my "to read" list for a long time. About his predictions: No airlines in five years? I don't trust that one. However, the idea that the economy we have now is "here to stay" is one I've heard from other sources. If that's true, we all need to adjust our expectations and lifestyles. It might not entirely be a bad thing. It seems a credible idea to me that the expansion of the suburbs fueled the economy for decades and that era is over. My house will never sell.

  2. Jill: Your house is not in the 'burbs. It'll sell.

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  4. He may have said it several different ways (I don't recall) but I recall his "places not worth caring about" statement going: "When you have enough places that aren't worth caring about, you wind up with a country that's not worth defending." That word "defending," resonated given the foreign policy direction of the country the last few years.

    I thought the presentation was great, I appreciated his honesty and, when it revealed itself, his anger. The only quibble I had was his attitude towards the South, which seemed particularly harsh. One particular statement he made was about how Southerners love their cars and the problems with sprawl that has caused. Yeah, OK, Atlanta is probably the single worst example in the U.S. of poor planning and "misallocation of resources." However, coming from Southern California, I can say that no one, *no one*, in the south loves their cars and sprawl more than those on the west coast. I have a feeling that the the entirety of the South does not use resources at the rate California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico do. To be fair, he did single out Phoenix and Vegas and particularly egregious examples.

    It may just be that he was playing to his audience in an effort to engage us. I found it a little off-putting, but it was easily overcome by all the excellent points he made.

  5. Pyranoir: You're right about "not worth defending." I simply mis-typed my own notes in my enthusiasm to get this posted. One of the real attractions with this guy is that he was so thoroughly predictable. I've seen people I agreed with more and enjoyed less. It was fun to hear him argue with himself. As to his view of the south: forgive him. There's a gene in Yankees that allows that view of us and they can't help it.