what kunstler said

A few days ago, when Jim Kunstler was in town, I had the opportunity to hear him speak twice; once at the University of Michigan’s School of Art and Architecture, and once at a local indie bookstore. What follows is a really rough mash-up of the notes I jotted down during both events, as he spoke about the coming of “The Long Emergency” and interacted with urban planning students, ancient hippies and us Henny Penny-types in the audience. If you’ve followed any of my Kunstler-related links in the past, much of this probably isn’t new to you, but I think you might find a few new things of interest.

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• He starts both events by saying that we’re looking for “new ways to run the same old shit.” The only problem with that, he then says, is that we’ll never find them, because they don’t exist. No combination of alternative fuels, in his opinion, can replace oil. What we need are new solutions, and not just on the fuel side of the equation. We need to live differently.

• We think that suburbia is OK because our friends and neighbors want it. It’s not though. And, “it’s coming off the menu” regardless of whether we want it or not. Suburban living isn’t going to be an option for much longer. (A lot of stuff, it’s Kunstler’s belief, is going to be “coming off the menu” soon – like tuna.)

• Dick Cheney may say, “The American way of life is non-negotiable,” but it is. And, if we don’t negotiate it for ourselves, reality is going to step in and do our negotiating for us. Reality, he warns, is coming, and we cannot escape it.

• The suburban infrastructure has no future. We justify its existence with a “psychology of previous investment,” which maintains that because we’ve experienced it our entire lives, it has to remain, but that’s not the case. It was an aberration, a costly misallocation of resources.

• We have childlike, magical thinking when it comes to alternative energy. We need to look at the problem as adults. (The infantilism of the American people seems to be a strong thread running through his worldview.) We can’t just assume that since we put a man on the moon, we can produce enough energy to replace oil.

• People say, “What about biomass?” Those people don’t consider the fact that the space we’d need to grow soybeans for fuel will, in the near future, need to be used for the production of food. When we stop using petroleum-based chemicals to boost crop yield, he argues, our productivity per acre is going to drop considerably and we’re going to need all of our land for food to sustain the American population.

• In addition to childlike thinking, we also suffer from “the worship of unearned riches.” It’s the largest religion in the country, according to Kunstler, and its holy place is Las Vegas. We have this belief that we can get something for nothing, but that’s not the way it works.

• “Technology does not equal energy.” Yes, we have brilliant scientists, but technology itself won’t keep WalMart, Disney and the U.S. highway system moving at the same pace that they are now. They require massive amounts of energy… Kunstler claims to have pointed this out to the execs at Google, where he had recently been asked to speak. They responded to his talk, according to Kunstler, by saying, “But, Dude, we’ve got technology.” He says they didn’t get the difference between technology and energy. (His opinion, it’s pretty clear, is that they aren’t approaching the situation as responsible adults. At both events, he made it a point to tell this story and to focus on the fact that the Google offices had snack stations and gaming areas, and that the people he met with, the leaders of Google, were wearing baggy jeans “so that their ass cracks were showing,” and sideways baseball caps. They were, at least in his opinion, infantile.)

• There will be alternative energy, but it ultimately won’t be on a large scale. He predicts that there may be some large-scale tests done, but that solar, wind and hydro will ultimately reside at a neighborhood or home level.

• The worst municipal investment your city can make is a parking structure. If you ask people what they want, they’ll say more parking, but in five to ten years that won’t be the case.

• The most significant thing we could do right now is to make a significant investment in rebuilding America’s railroad infrastructure, which has been left to rot during these years of oil gluttony. Rail is not only more efficient than highway transport, but a large-scale project like this, in his opinion, would both put people to work, and give us the morale boost we’re going to need to get through the next few difficult decades. Kunstler believes it’s something that’s attainable, and it’s the first thing we should focus on. But, as he says, no one is talking about it.

• If we’re to survive, we’re also going to have to reclaim our waterfronts, which, over the years have given way to parks and condos. Harbors should be used for shipping, as they were intended, not for condos.

• We will be farming more and shopping less in the future. Recreational (or did he say “competitive”) shopping will be a distant memory.

• Land, farmable land, may be the only source of wealth in the future. Paper wealth will likely fade away and disappear.

• We’ll need to reevaluate our relationship with rural land. Its only value isn’t in housing development, as we’ve come to believe. It’s in agriculture.

• Quotable Kunstler: “History doesn’t care if you pound your country down a rat hole.” History is unforgiving, and, when things start to go bad, no one’s going to step in and stop it from happening.

• American cities will contract severely, while getting more dense at their cores, and along waterfront areas.

• People will leave cities and head toward agricultural areas. “This will not be an orderly process.”

• In 20 years, there will be no more zoning and land use codes. No one will be able to afford to build to code, and our municipalities won’t have the wherewithal to enforce codes, even if they wanted to.

• We have to come to terms with the fact that everyone cannot live an urban life in a rural setting.

• Detroit will be an important place, given its location between Great Lakes. Put simply, every place that was once important for reasons of commerce will be important once again.

• Electric power will not be dependable. It may be off a few hours a day, or there may be intermittent lapses in service. It will not be 24/7 though. This will, in his opinion, make apartments over 7 stories tall impractical (as elevators won’t be dependable) and telecommuting unlikely.

• Our culture of eating Cheese Doodles, downloading porn and watching NASCAR has not prepared us for being adults, and making the decisions that need to be made right now.

• Our lives will be profoundly local. There will be a reemergence and renewed appreciation for local public life and public space.

• If we have fascism in this country, it will be at the local level. It will not be at the federal level. You saw how the federal government responded to Katrina. It ws pathetic and ineffective. What he fears, however, is that at a local level people will long to be led. They’ll welcome powerful leaders who are ready to tell them what to do.

• During a discussion on the possibility of a gas tax, and whether or not one could be used to nudge people in the direction they’ll have to be moving anyway, he mentioned an idea that a friend of his, an oil man in Texas, had. He suggested that we look into replacing FICA (Social Security) taxes with a gas tax. (When I have the time I want to explore this more. On the surface it sounds like a great idea. People would welcome the repeal of the Social Security taxes, and the gas tax (which would go toward funding Social Security) would just apply to those who chose to drive. Sure, there would be problems that would need to be worked out, but this is the kind of bold, innovative approach that is probably called for.)

• There will be an “orgy of default” in suburban homes in the next 5 – 10 years, as people realize they can’t afford to commute from them, heat them, etc.

• He didn’t mention Ozymandias, but that’s what came to mind when he talked of the vacant suburban developments built 30+ miles outside of city centers.

• Local commerce was killed by big box retail. There existed in every town an intricate web of connections between merchants that will need to be rebuilt from the bottom up as big retail begins to falter and downtown regions begin once again to attract foot traffic.

• Electricity will be a problem too. Not just oil is peaking, but also natural gas. We’ve expended most of our North American supply, and we lack the infrastructure to ship large amounts from other countries. We will be relying primarily on coal.

• Thomas Friedman was wrong in his book “The World is Flat.” Globalization isn’t going to be with us forever. We won’t have Chinese and Indian manufacturing. The world will begin to look bigger again. Meanwhile, we’re tearing our factories down. We aren’t just childlike, we’re childlike and shortsighted.

• As for the Chinese, Kunstler wonders if we’ll step in to stop them when they begin marching into the former Soviet republics in search of petroleum. Will we, he asks, be willing to fly our much smaller army 12,000 mile (burning all that fuel), when they just have to march and roll their tanks over the border? He suspects that we probably won’t.

• He talks quite often of those he refers to as “the formerly middle class.” He suspects they will be angry and bewildered at their loss of entitlements. He says, “We are a nation of complacent, sleepwalking clowns engaged in delusional thinking.”

• Phoenix will, “dry up and blow away.” No one will live there without AC… He cautions graduating students, “Don’t move to Phoenix.” Instead, move somewhere that was viable before the oil boom, and forge a role for yourself in a cohesive community.

• The Democrats need to drop the “nonsense about gender identification” and focus on what really matters, like rail. Otherwise, the party may die.

• When asked for examples of other nations who have navigated such enormous shifts successfully, Kunstler mentioned the recent “soft landing” in Cuba, in the wake of having Russia cut their financial assistance. They had to adapt overnight, and they did it. They got oxen to replace tractors, they privatized farmland and they got everyone fed. (The people are only getting something like 2/3 of the calories they once did, but they’re getting fed.)

• An odd hip-hop tangent…. Hip-hop is not entertainment. It’s about a warrior culture seeping up in the black underclass. It’s destructive. (I must have skipped this part of his book, “The Long Emergency,” but I understand that he goes into this subject in some depth.)

• Europe may fare better than the US during the long emergency. They didn’t destroy local agriculture, mass transit or their local infrastructure. However, global warming might hit them harder?

• I don’t think I caught it all, but he briefly mentioned Jared Diamond in relation to genocide. I believe he said that Diamond had been wrong when suggesting that the genocide in Rwanda wasn’t tribal in nature. (Do I have that right?) He said that there will surely be more genocide in the future.

• After asking a women in the audience if she was a hippy (she was), Kunstler admits somewhat reluctantly that he was once one too. He said, however, that this woman’s romantic, utopian notion of a post-collapse world that was more tribal in nature, will not happen. The Hippy dream is just that.

• Along the same lines of what he was saying concerning the rail system, Kunstler was arguing that we should reactivate local hydro stations that had been taken off-line by the power companies in the 1960’s. And, in a related comment, he mentioned that we would need more mechanical engineers, people who could be able to work on such small facilities. (We will also have to start building nuclear facilities.)

• There are political parties talking about these issues. The British National Party is gaining popularity. Their pro-agriculture, pro-rail, pro-environment, anti-suburbia agenda is resonating with people. Too bad, he says, that they’re fascists… Their chairman, Nick Griffin, has made several trips to the U.S. hoping to start an allied organization, but it’s not taking hold so far.

• Oh yeah, and, in case it wasn’t obvious for everything else, life expectancy will be going down.

OK, that’s all I have. As I said at the beginning, I’m sure I’ve got some things wrong. If you were at either of the events and feel as though I misstated any of Kunstler’s views, or left anything significant out, just let me know and I will make the appropriate changes.

I don’t have the time to go much further now, but the three main take-aways for me were; 1) the necessity of a national rail system, 2) the idea that we might be able to pass a gas tax if it was presented as a replacement for an existing tax, and 3) that, since I have no skills that will be valued during the long emergency, I’d better learn how to grow my own food. More on each of these points will follow in the coming weeks.

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12 Comments

  1. murph
    Posted April 27, 2006 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    The Jared Diamond reference was in regards to Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, which is Diamond’s case for humanity having some choice about whether they adapt successfully to changing conditions or not. Some don’t, like the Vikings on Greenland, or Easter Island. So do, like Iceland – which implemented some of the strictest environmental regulations in the world when they began to realize that their topsoil was departing for the sea at an amazing clip.

    If I remember, he argues that Rwanda was about a period of feast – which caused a population explosion – followed by a combination of famine with warfare in adjacent countries that shoved Rwandans together. This pressure exploded along tribal lines, where there was already some friction from the past colonial period, which had placed one tribe on top, and the post-colonial period, in which the other tribe had taken the upper hand and oppressed the first one. So there was pressure, but Diamond thinks it wouldn’t have come to genocide if not for environmental conditions.

    Meanwhile, did you catch the author he mentioned as being “better than Diamond” for giving examples of this social change question? Something like Painter or Tainter? (One of your readers, perhaps?)

  2. ol' e cross
    Posted April 27, 2006 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    That was like a nice big fuzzy blanket for all of us who made the foresightful move to Ypsi. Thanks.

    I look forward to reading markmaynard finger painted with carrot juice on the sidewalk in front of your house in twenty years or so.

  3. ianb
    Posted April 27, 2006 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    Joseph Tainter’s “The Collapse of Complex Societies” is the title and author you’re thinking of, Murph.

    I’ve heard a few people recommend the book; I haven’t read it though.

  4. Tony Buttons Esq.
    Posted April 28, 2006 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    I suspect that, in the future, MM.com will be presented in the form of urine on snow. (Or blood on concrete. It depends on the season.)

  5. chris
    Posted April 28, 2006 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    I love the concept (blatant reality) of competitive/recreational shopping. Its true…it is a disease, of which I suffer. With the help of compact I hope to become better.

    I haven’t obsessed about the need to form a commune to protect myself from the coming apocolypse (back then it was nuclear) since late adolescence. I find myself doing it again.

    Kunstler, is probably right in many aspects. I beg to differ reg. hip hop. “Warrior culture”?!!! How ’bout exploitative capitalization of misery? At least the punk movement (of which I so fondly look back on) gave us independent record labels and a healthy disdain for fashion labels.

    OK, I’m off to purchase used books on animal husbandry and hydroponic farming. I knew the industrialization of farming was going to come back and bite us in the ass.

  6. mark
    Posted April 29, 2006 at 12:20 am | Permalink

    Malcolm X warned us about chickens coming home to roost.

  7. chris
    Posted April 29, 2006 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    OK, is this code or quotation?

  8. mark
    Posted April 30, 2006 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    It was a quote.

    December 4, 1963.

  9. DM
    Posted May 5, 2006 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    I think that Kunstler’s arguments about peak oil production are convincing, but some of his future scenarios are a little over the top. My favorite is the Pacific Northwest being attacked by Asian pirates.

    The idea that food production is critical is a no brainer. Although there will be big trouble with depleted aquifers and the ability to operate large scale farms, I don’t think that it is as dire as he makes it out to be. There is plenty of land in many states that has been quietly purchased by state governments to protect as agricultural and there are programs through state land grant universities to help anyone who wants to farm get started. Some programs actually will put you in touch with farmers who want to apprentice someone to take over their farms. I believe that Michigan State is the land grant univeristy there and that there is a Michigan Farmland Preservation Program that offers farmland with the condition that they maintain development rights to preserve it as farmland.

    If we just reduced meat in our diet, the land requirement for food production would drop significantly. Every pound of meat requires roughly ten pounds of grain to produce, so there is not only an enormous amount of arable land used for grain production but also land used for the grazing and corraling of livestock. It is a good thing that our primary meat sources are herbivores, because every pound of meat made by the flesh of another animal follows the same 10 to 1 ratio. That would mean that each pound of flesh of a carnivore would require 100 pounds of grain or other primary light capturing / sugar producing organism.

    As for the southwest cities like Vegas and Phoenix, they are already starting the mass exodus. The housing inventory in those two cities is through the roof. I am guessing that it is currently more about people their investment homes and putting the money into the stock market ( which the approaching 12,000 mark seems to support ) rather than energy costs or water shortages. There is a large population of retirees in that area and they will likely just ride it out on their cash piles.

    I agree with him about our land use codes being short sighted messes, but those codes were adjusted by municipalities that were being pressured to make zoning changes at council meetings by developers and chain store lawyers while everyone else (with the exception of farmers ) sat at home on their asses watching TV ( myself included.)

    I’m not so concerned about social unrest for two reasons: One is that many cities are increasing density to take advantage of the economy of scale, shared infrastructure, and better use of resources. I suspect that there will be a handful of cities that are prepared to double their population in the city while protecting surrounding arable land. As long as basic needs are met, there will be strength in numbers. The second reason is that ( as long as they continue operating ) the internet and the media help people to provide critical feedback that checks the actions of others and therefore provides a corrective mechanism for simple justice.

    And one last thought. After reading his book I have changed my mind about ANWAR. BP has worked hard to come up with a plan to extract the oil while minimizing the impact. I don’t have much faith that it is a bullet proof system, but my feeling is that we should allow oil extraction up there now and carefully monitor the installation of the equipment to make sure the risks are minimum. The truth is that the oil is there and that at some time in the future, most likely under more desperate circumstances, we will be going in to get it. When that time comes, it is unlikely that being delicate will be of concern to anyone.

  10. Dan from Austin
    Posted November 6, 2014 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    In 8th grade I had a social studies teacher that primed us on early ecology 101 and Barry Commoner’s 4 laws of ecology. The 4th one- No Such Thing as a Free Lunch has always stuck with me and seems to be reflective of Kunstler’s points about technology not being able to save us.
    “In ecology, as in economics, the law is intended to warn that every gain is won at some cost. In a way, this ecological law embodies the previous three laws. Because the global ecosystem is a connected whole, in which nothing can be gained or lost and which is not subject to overall improvement, anything extracted from it by human effort must be replaced. Payment of this price cannot be avoided; it can only be delayed. The present environmental crisis is a warning that we have delayed nearly too long.”

  11. Chris Taylor
    Posted November 6, 2014 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    Until there is a fundamental shift in the way humans think in regards to how to run a sustainable technologically advanced society, then yeah maybe we’re all screwed. I’d like to think we could figure it out without all the doom n gloom. Everything doesn’t have to end in a “Beyond Thunderdome” scenario. Saying there isn’t a new way to run the same old shit is a defeatist attitude and full of poop.

  12. Jay Steichmann
    Posted November 6, 2014 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    I’m not saying he’s right or wrong, but he confirms a few things for me personally. See, I’m over 60, and I figure that I’ve got somewhere between one day and 25 years left. I’m betting that his time frame will take that long (I’m figuring closer to 40-50 years, and I hope to god I don’t have 50 more years in me) and I’m actively putting things in place to make my, and my children and their children–should they ever have any–time on earth adapt to these shifting realities.

    In the five year plan, I’m moving to a third world country where my meager pension will go farther due to their lower cost of living–hell, the place I’m thinking about already sounds like it has achieved some of Kunstler’s predictions: zoning is already a joke. You can see partially built dwellings with rebar sticking out the top should they decide to add on; the coast is for fishing or shipping, very few McMansions, except in the former colonial areas; while there is hunger and poverty in this place, the farming they do has been done without petrochemicals for two reasons: the oldest reason is that they just could never afford the prices, and the other is that, by popular agreement that is codified into their constitution, they believe that global climate change is real and that as stewards of the earth, we have a responsibility to take care that we don’t fuck it up.

    They do see North Americans as somewhat whiny, entitled brats, and wonder why we, the people, don’t have the guts to tell our politicians that we HAVE to change.

    Maybe some of you already know where this is, and I’m not kidding myself that it is an utopia, because I’ve been there and I’ve seen the warts. But like I say, I’ve got maybe 20-25 years where my Amerkanski Dollar will afford me a new start where I never more have to hear the likes of Marco Rubio begin a climate denial with, “Well, I’m no scientist…”

    No shit, Sherlock.

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