so, i guess i’ll be busy “fucking myself” through the long emergency

Ok, so late last night, at about 1:30, I got my questions off to James Howard Kunstler, the author of the book “The Long Emergency.” In retrospect, I guess I should have worked a bit harder on them, but I was tired. Anyway, here are my questions and Mr. Kunstler’s responses…. I don’t want to give anything away, but if you make it to the very end, there’s a little surprise.

MM: Would it be safe to say that you consider suburbia is the most significant strategic miscalculation in American history?

JHK: I have referred to it as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world — which is perhaps a little different. I say that because it was an infrastructure for daily living with no future. Having poured our national wealth into it, and damaged the terrain of America so badly, we are now stuck with enormous liabilities.

MM: Recently a sustainability group came out with their list of the ten areas in the U.S. most likely to survive in an era of oil scarcity. They claimed that New York City was the best positioned, given the current mass-transit infrastructure, etc. Having just read “The Long Emergency,” however, the first thing to cross my mind was, “But what will these people be eating?” Given the fact that the populations within cities like New York have grown considerably while proximate farmland has all but disappeared, is it safe to say that you don’t think NYC is the best place to find yourself when the long emergency comes?

JHK: There has been more than one article touting the sustainability of New York City — including a famous one in the New Yorker magazine a year or so ago. They are incorrect in my opinion. They lacked dimensional thinking. As I recall, the New Yorker article argued that NYC was the “greenest” city because you could stack so many inhabitants in tall buildings that occupied a modest footprint of land. This is a very limited way of understand our predicament. I maintain that cities overburdened with mega-structures and skyscrapers will suffer. And I regard a skyscraper as anything over seven stories high. I agree with you that proximity to viable agriculture is a matter of surpassing importance in the years ahead, and I said rather explicitly in my book, “The Long Emergency,” that the overgrown urban organism of New York would suffer from the suburban destruction of its formerly rural hinterlands. Anyway, I’m convinced that all our mega-cities will contract severely — possibly while densifying at their cores ands along their waterfronts. I predict we’ll see an emphatic reversal of the 200-year-old trend of people moving from the rural places and small towns to the big cities.

MM: If you don’t mind my asking, where do you plan to be as we enter this period of converging catastrophes? What factors entered into your decision?

JHK: Somewhere in the immediate vicinity of Saratoga Springs, NY, where I’ve been for exactly thirty years.

MM: It seems, from what I’ve read of your work, that you feel as though areas of the upper Midwest, relatively speaking, may come through it OK. Commenting on these areas in Rolling Stone, you say, “I regard them as less likely to fall into lawlessness, anarchy or despotism and more likely to salvage the bits and pieces of our best social traditions and keep them in operation at some level.” As someone who moved to a small town in Michigan for this very reason, I’m wondering what makes you think that we’ll be able to protect ourselves from what’s going on around us. How, in other words, can any region avoid anarchy, when the regions surrounding it are boiling over?

JHK: I don’t think any part of the nation will be immune to social disorder, but I do think the center may hold somewhat better north of the Mason-Dixon line and East of the Mississippi. I think the social contract has a better chance of remaining at least partly in force — more so than, say, Alabama, where the romance of firearms combines with notions of hyper-individualism to produce a pretty scary ethos.

MM: Word is that Al Gore may be preparing for another run at the presidency. Given the fact that he seems to be the politician most dedicated to the issues which you’re discussing, is that something you’d support? What advice would you give him if he asked for your thoughts on how to win, and how to get Americans to make the sacrifices necessary to make substantial change?

JHK: Well, Gore finked out on the New Urbanists in 2000 and instead pandered to the homebuilding industry and their customers. But I might forgive him that performance. I do believe he correctly senses the trouble we’re in. But the Democratic party itself is in terrible trouble, intellectually and in every other way. They’ve got to drop their silly-ass preoccupations with things like gender confusion and get on with some serious things, like a comprehensive effort to restore the US railroad system.

MM: Is there anything that can be done, in your opinion, to lessen the impact of what you’re calling “the long emergency” – the converging catastrophes that await us when cheap oil is no longer easy to come by? Putting global warming aside, isn’t it conceivable that we could, through conservation, a renewed dedication to mass-transit, and the implementation of significant gas taxes (with proceeds going toward sustainable alternatives), avoid some of the terrible things you’re predicting in the book?

JHK: Yeah, plenty. Get started pronto on the railroads. Get our harbors outfitted for boats instead of just parks and picnics, because we’re going to need these things for moving stuff if we are going to continue to have commerce. Young people can chose carefully where they are going to live (I support small towns and small cities, unless you want to be a farmer.) Many people may find they are interested in agriculture. That will be very important line of work in the years ahead as industrial agriculture flops. Another important field will be small-scale, hands-on engineering — repairing small hydro installations and the equipment in them, etc.

MM: I can appreciate your pessimism, and, generally speaking, I share it, but do you think that yours is a message that will motivate people to change their behaviors? Are you so convinced that efforts to stop what is coming will be futile that you don’t feel as though we should even try? Might it not be better to offer a chance for success, rally people together, and go out swinging?

JHK: I resent the hell out of being labeled a “pessimist.” In my writings, I offer a comprehensive view of how we can respond intelligently to these new circumstances. That’s neither pessimistic nor cynical. So fuck you.

OK, maybe I wasn’t clear. Maybe he got the impression that I was saying that his vision of the future is unnecessarily pessimistic. (I happen to find his scenario more likely than any of the others I’ve heard over the past few years, and I do not think that he’s hyperbolizing.) What I was trying to say is that, if the objective is to get people to change their ways, might there not be a way to present the material in such a way that it presents at least the glimmer of hope. And, I wasn’t suggesting that his book should have been written any differently. When I asked the question, I was thinking more about the 2008 election and the fact (and yes, I said “fact”) that Al Gore will not be elected if he runs on a platform of fear, regardless of how justified that fear is.

So, another person I respect has told me to fuck myself. (How many times do I have to hear that before it begins to sink in?) I personally think that it was a bit uncalled for this time, but I guess that’s his right… Judging from his writing, though, I was expecting that he might, if he felt so strongly about what I’d asked, come back with something a little less confrontational. After all, he’s the guy that when recently asked what advice he would give to parents raising children who would be growing up during the long emergency, before anything else, said, “Teach them how to be polite.”

In Kunstler’s defense, he did soften up a bit in his next email to me. After thanking him for answering my questions, and then mentioning that I was off to “fuck myself,” he responded that I should, “At least be gentle with (myself).” That, I thought, was quite polite.

In spite of everything, I do highly recommend his book, “The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century.” (A somewhat adapted excerpt can be found at Rolling Stone dotcom.) And, if you’re in the area, come out and hear him speak at Shaman Drum tomorrow night at 7:00… Just don’t say the “P” word.

This entry was posted in Art and Culture. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

25 Comments

  1. ChelseaL
    Posted April 21, 2006 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    Mark,

    Am I reading this right? You go to work every morning, at least five days a week. You’re not paid to write your blog. You have a family and numerous other interests and projects. On your own time, at 1:30 in the morning, you’re awake and conducting an interview just because you think it’s important, with someone whose work you know well…

    This man should have sent you roses. Instead of feeling honored that someone cared enough about his ideas to stay up late and discuss them for the benefit of others, he chose to get temperamental. I’ll refrain from clever vulgarities. “Pessimist” should be the worst thing anybody ever calls him.

  2. be OH be
    Posted April 21, 2006 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    My guess is that you’re just the latest in a long line of people who’ve invoked that word in regard to his philosophies. It was late and he was probably taking advantage of the fact that he was, no offense, only speaking with a blogger from a small Michigan town. He’s probably wanted to say that for a long time and he knew his outburst wouldn’t likely reach a very big audience.

    Having said that, he still owes you an apology for all the reasons ChelseaL mentioned.

  3. sstrudeau
    Posted April 21, 2006 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    LOL. Kunstler is a curmudgeon. His attitude is exactly why people perceive him as pessimistic even if he technically isn’t, as he claims. IMO, getting told to fuck off by Kunstler is pretty fuckin’ punk. :)

  4. murph
    Posted April 21, 2006 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    I’m with Scott on this. JHK told you to fuck off – after, I’m guessing, reading through the list of questions and writing all of the prior responses. That’s not bad. If he were _really_ pissed, he probably would have just told you to fuck off right up front.

    Unfortunately, there’s not much of a better word for it – cold hard factsism? Harsh caustic realism? Bleak letsgetdowntoworkism?

    But, yeah. You going to either of his talks today? (He’s also speaking at UM’s Architecture & Planning school, on North Campus, at noon.)

  5. It's Skinner Again
    Posted April 21, 2006 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    According to his site, many of his readers posted “fuck you” notes after a recent post; so maybe he’s just spreading the joy.

  6. UBU
    Posted April 21, 2006 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    If I told you to fuck yourself would you still respect me in the morning?

  7. UncleWendy
    Posted April 21, 2006 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    Kunstler,Kunstler,Kunstler!

    I love saying that. It’s almost a swear word on its own.

  8. be OH be
    Posted April 21, 2006 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    it sounds a lot like Once-ler from The Lorax, who was basically trying to caution some kids against using up natural resources.
    Mr Kunstler didn’t mention anything about Truffula trees did he?

  9. Grandma
    Posted April 21, 2006 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    I sometimes wish Kunstler would either contribute to the solution or shut up. His “sky is falling” lecturing isn’t going to inspire people to innovate an alternative to suburbia and fuel dependency. (I wrote about my problems with The Long Emergency a couple of months ago on my blog:
    http://grandmahates.blogspot.com/2005/07/im-slow-reader.html )

  10. chris
    Posted April 21, 2006 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    Um, please do not go fuck yourself. Unless you want to. Yes, his writing is pessimistic AND hopeful. Fuck, I don’t want to move. But the irony here is that his theory regarding hypercontraction of the city is absolutely correct. It is happening here in Brooklyn with increasingly ugly results.

    The homes in our neighborhood are approaching the 2+ million dollar range with the surrounding neighborhood housing prices paralleling these ridiculous prices. Many of the people buying at this price come w/ a mind boggling sense of entitlement that are making us natives restless. And the thing is is that suburbanites moving back to the city bring a suburban mentality with them that just does not jive.

    So lately I have dreamt of moving to a semi-rural community and starting a boutique ag business. You know…organic beef and hydroponic pot.

    BUT I WILL TELL YOU THIS MUCH…IT SURE WON’T BE IN SARAFUCKINGTOGA SPRINGS!

    Jesus…has he no shame as this is the epicenter of east coast polo playing easter bonnet wearing forearm dog loving teeth talking scum bag bluebloods…or so I’ve heard. SO SO…FUCK HIM!

    BTW..what other people you have respected told you to fuck yourself?

  11. dorothy
    Posted April 21, 2006 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    yeah, FUCK HIM!! that was the rudest thing i’ve ever witnessed. he should kiss your ass for deigning to interview him! i’m with dhelseal on that one.

  12. mark
    Posted April 21, 2006 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    He and I talked tonight. If I get a chance, I’ll write about it tomorrow. For now, though, I just wanted to let you know that he’s not bad guy. He didn’t tell me to fuck myself once.

  13. chris
    Posted April 21, 2006 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    Dear Mark,

    good friend of mine just became director of rs.com, so do you have any cool articles written i can slip him? Though must warn in advance, he gave a producer of this american life a copy of CW in the hope the Dan’s seafaring article could become a piece on the show and they passed. But hey you never know…a much better connection than the Daily show? And he’s never asked me to walk his dog.

    Ta!

    PS. never said Kunstler was a bad dude, just that i question his choice of geography.

  14. mark
    Posted April 21, 2006 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

    What’s RS.com? Does it stand for something?

    Rat Science? Rock Salt? Religious Saps?

    As for This American Life, they’ve contacted me and I even talked for a long time with one of their producers, but nothing came of it. (They were interested in a piece that I’d written with Jeff Kay called “Race for the Gore”, but they ended up using a story about senior citizen shoplifters instead.) I guess it would be fun to be on it. It’s a pretty good show.

    As for Kuntsler, he yelled something at me as I was leaving tonight. It sounded like, “We’ll ride again, Mr. Maynard.” I’m not sure though.

  15. danandkitty
    Posted April 22, 2006 at 12:10 am | Permalink

    Now, I’m not sayin’ I wanna see it, BUT If you did take Kunstler’s advice and started fucking yourself AND you did it on a web-cam AND charged money for it, this site would become a very different place and you could probably quit your day job.

    So… maybe Kunstler really was just giving you a web-site overhaul suggestion.

    You should consider it… not that I want to see it, as I said before, though.

  16. mark
    Posted April 22, 2006 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    I have no response for that, Dan & Kitty.

    It did occur to me last night, however, that Mr. Kunstler might have said, “We’ll write again” though. Or, perhaps, “We’ll rise again.”

  17. murph
    Posted April 22, 2006 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    I’m betting that webcam pr0n is one of the professions that JHK would say is going to be phased out of our society during the post-peak adjustment…

    I was trying to think of a question that I could start with, “While I really wish that I could make a living traveling the country and ranting pessimistically, …” but, sitting in the front row, was within kicking/spittle range.

  18. chris
    Posted April 22, 2006 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    rolling stone

    bizarre, “we’ll ride again”? Is it code?

  19. be OH be
    Posted April 22, 2006 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Phil MacKracken?

  20. mark
    Posted April 22, 2006 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    It’s been confirmed by others in the audience that it was “We’ll ride again.” I’ll ask him about it the next time we speak.

    And I think you were probably right to keep your mouth shut, Murph.

    And I don’t know Phi McKracken, bOb, but he seems like a nice enough fellow.

    http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendid=301695

  21. Tony Buttons Esq.
    Posted April 24, 2006 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Not to be confused with “Phil the Kraken.”

    http://www.unmuseum.org/kraken.htm

  22. Suzie
    Posted January 16, 2008 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    I’m finally reading The Long Emergency right now, and I have to say, Kunstler may not be a pessimist himself, but the book really does not sound like a wake-up-call so much as just-kill-yourself-now-because-there-is-no-hope-and-hey-there’s-nothing-for-you-to-eat-to-survive-anyway.

    I’m in the last chapter. I’m looking for the glimmer of hope. Is his view the likely future? If so, I think Jung’s quote in this book’s first sentence may sum up my views on the subject: “People cannot stand too much reality”.

    But, I also wanted to share this Ypsi-pertinent gem:

    “I daresay we will still be debating zoning issues, such as the right to keep chickens in residential subdivisions, while many Americans starve.”

  23. Cole Haan
    Posted August 8, 2011 at 3:25 am | Permalink

    I think we’ll all be doing that to stay warm.

  24. Erika Nelson
    Posted February 15, 2015 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t read the whole interview, but it started me thinking about pessimism, realism and optimism. It seems that many people find pessimism somehow offensive, but I wish it wasn’t viewed that way. I suppose true pessimism, as in cynical hopelessness, is hard to know what to do with, which makes people uncomfortable. I find some levels of optimism just as uncomfortable, however, because it often strikes me as ignorant, blissful naivety. I’d rather contemplate reality, even if it is grim, than put my head in the sand. I am especially annoyed by the folks who are so aggressively supportive of optimism that they create these self-help / religious schemes like “The Secret” where bad things only happen when we aren’t optimistic enough to prevent them with our positivity. No. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

  25. Erika Nelson
    Posted February 15, 2015 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    “I resent the hell out of being labeled a ‘pessimist.'” That’s only because “pessimist” is basically a derogatory label in our society – there are 1,000 “positivity” Facebook memes with daisies and bright colors to prove it. If anyone admits that the Emperor has no clothes, they are seen as the problem, and no one wants to be the problem. Maybe a label like “realist” is easier to stomach, but much of what it takes to be realistic involves acknowledging painful feelings and undesirable predicted outcomes. When it comes to environmental disasters, or medical diagnosis, or emotional situations like grief, having false hope or denying feelings is far worse, in my opinion, than realistically acknowledging harsh reality.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Connect

Sidetrack ad Aubree’s ad BUY LOCAL... or shop at Amazon through this link Banner Initiative Poop Modrak