not avoiding the long emergency, but living through it

A while ago, author Jim Kunstler and I exchanged words. My words, as I recall, were pleasant. His words, not so much… He told me to go fuck myself… (We later reconciled.) I can’t remember the specifics now, but I think things had taken a turn for the worse at the point in the interview when I pointed out that he, while making a terrific case for what a fucking mess we’ve made of America in his book, “The Long Emergency,” didn’t offer much in the way of hope.

I think he resented the suggestion that his analysis had to contain some kind of cheerful advice on how disaster could be averted when our oil-addicted nation begins to collapse. I, of course, wasn’t suggesting that. At least I didn’t mean to be suggesting that. I didn’t want for him to sugarcoat the truth. What I did want, however, was a glimmer of hope, even if it wasn’t really waranted. My argument was that people, if we really wanted for them to sacrifice and begin changing their lives radically, needed to be shown a vision of something better that we were headed toward. If we really wanted people to leave the suburbs and all the rest of it, I was arguing, we needed to paint a picture of a better world, and not just tell them that this one is shit… At any rate, I was catching up on his blog tonight and in a recent post he laid out some of the things, in his opinion, that we’d have to do if we hoped to survive what’s on the horizon. It’s not quite the vision of a better world that I’d asked for, but I think it’s a step in that direction. Here’s a clip in which he outlines a few things that we have to do if we intend to live.

…From time-to-time, I feel it’s necessary to remind readers what we can actually do in the face of this long emergency. Voters and candidates in the primary season have been hollering about “change” but I’m afraid the dirty secret of this campaign is that the American public doesn’t want to change its behavior at all. What it really wants is someone to promise them they can keep on doing what they’re used to doing: buying more stuff they can’t afford, eating more shitty food that will kill them, and driving more miles than circumstances will allow.

Here’s what we better start doing.

Stop all highway-building altogether. Instead, direct public money into repairing railroad rights-of-way. Put together public-private partnerships for running passenger rail between American cities and towns in between. If Amtrak is unacceptable, get rid of it and set up a new management system. At the same time, begin planning comprehensive regional light-rail and streetcar operations.

End subsidies to agribusiness and instead direct dollar support to small-scale farmers, using the existing regional networks of organic farming associations to target the aid. (This includes ending subsidies for the ethanol program.)

Begin planning and construction of waterfront and harbor facilities for commerce: piers, warehouses, ship-and-boatyards, and accommodations for sailors. This is especially important along the Ohio-Mississippi system and the Great Lakes.

In cities and towns, change regulations that mandate the accommodation of cars. Direct all new development to the finest grain, scaled to walkability. This essentially means making the individual building lot the basic increment of redevelopment, not multi-acre “projects.” Get rid of any parking requirements for property development. Institute “locational taxation” based on proximity to the center of town and not on the size, character, or putative value of the building itself. Put in effect a ban on buildings in excess of seven stories. Begin planning for district or neighborhood heating installations and solar, wind, and hydro-electric generation wherever possible on a small-scale network basis.

We’d better begin a public debate about whether it is feasible or desirable to construct any new nuclear power plants. If there are good reasons to go forward with nuclear, and a consensus about the risks and benefits, we need to establish it quickly. There may be no other way to keep the lights on in America after 2020.

We need to prepare for the end of the global economic relations that have characterized the final blow-off of the cheap energy era. The world is about to become wider again as nations get desperate over energy resources. This desperation is certain to generate conflict. We’ll have to make things in this country again, or we won’t have the most rudimentary household products.

We’d better prepare psychologically to downscale all institutions, including government, schools and colleges, corporations, and hospitals. All the centralizing tendencies and gigantification of the past half-century will have to be reversed. Government will be starved for revenue and impotent at the higher scale. The centralized high schools all over the nation will prove to be our most frustrating mis-investment. We will probably have to replace them with some form of home-schooling that is allowed to aggregate into neighborhood units. A lot of colleges, public and private, will fail as higher ed ceases to be a “consumer” activity. Corporations scaled to operate globally are not going to make it. This includes probably all national chain “big box” operations. It will have to be replaced by small local and regional business. We’ll have to reopen many of the small town hospitals that were shuttered in recent years, and open many new local clinic-style health-care operations as part of the greater reform of American medicine…

So, what do you think? Is he exaggerating the enormity of the situation we face? And, if not, what do we need to add to his list? I think that clearly rail infrastructure, for instance, needs to be addressed. What else?

For what it’s worth, I do not think that he’s overstating the enormity of the situation. Like him, I do not think that there’s an alternative energy solution around the corner that will allow us to keep consuming at the rate we’ve become used to. I thnk the shit is getting ready to hit the fan. I just think that what’s on the other side might be better. And that’s where we part ways. I think that the cause would be better served if we were to embrace re-localization. I think we need someone, like President John Edwards maybe, to take Kunstler’s ideas, remove the doom and gloom, and put them in front of the American people with the message that together we can build a stronger, more sustainable America.

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


  1. KT
    Posted January 18, 2008 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    Making Kunstler palatable. It’s an interesting puzzle.

    Politicians probably wouldn’t see the benefit in it. They don’t lead with the future in mind. They only care about election cycles.

  2. Suzie
    Posted January 18, 2008 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    I don’t know that Kunstler is overstating the problem. It’s just that all the doom & gloom may lead to a feeling of helplessness, which is the exact opposite of what I think he wants. “The Long Emergency” seemed to try to get people to act by instilling extreme fear – but fear often just leads to paralysis. I think it can be more effective to inspire people through hope, and a positive vision of how we can mitigate these dangers if we act today.

    I like the list of ideas – thank you for posting this here. It helps. And, it starts to sound *good* actually – walkable downtowns, public transportation, locally grown food, revitalized Michigan ports, …

  3. Ol' E Cross
    Posted January 18, 2008 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    I need a little help on this one. Isn’t Kunstler’s message essentially that we need to be proactive and change the way we’re doing things, or our present system will fail and we’ll be forced to be reactive and change the way we’re doing things?

  4. Posted January 18, 2008 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think (check that – I’m SURE) that creating a vision for the future isn’t Kunstler’s strong point. Which is fine, but he needs to form a strategic partnership with people who are visionary (good cop, bad cop?) so that he might actually have an impact on changing behavior/policy.

    For instance, describing how farms could work in harmony with the natural characteristics of the land and the animals to decrease their negative environmental and ethical impact is vaguely interesting. Describing how Polyface Farms works is much more interesting. It shows that it actually CAN be done – I find that many people have trouble imagining anything too different from our current system without experiencing it through seeing or reading about it.

  5. Posted January 18, 2008 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    I just can’t agree with this statement:

    We’d better prepare psychologically to downscale all institutions, including government, schools and colleges, corporations, and hospitals. All the centralizing tendencies and gigantification of the past half-century will have to be reversed.

    While government can’t grow forever, institutions can. You need look no farther than this very blog for an example. Through the internet (or through general technology actually), we are now plugged into inconceivably enormous systems.

    The point is that our organizations have changed, not the need or very human compulsion to organize. Organization (and not raw physical prowess) is the defining characteristic of human success. We can’t just un-organize now. Rather than panic and recede into the past, we should focus our efforts on where we go from here as we plug into gigantic systems. What are the advantages? How do we maximize them?

  6. Meta
    Posted January 18, 2008 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    He is not exaggerating.

  7. egpenet
    Posted January 18, 2008 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

    No, Mega, Kunstler is not exaggerating.

    And I like O’EC’s attitude.

    Vis’avis the Income Tax election of last November … what does NOT work is motivating an electorate out of fear.

    The way a real leader creates a vision of a better life for all is through a POSITIVE “spin” if you will. Nothing wrong about being positive.

    Less EMPHASIS on cars, more emphasis on rail, simpler transport, buses, light rail … makes good sense. (But not if you live in some development out in the boonies … like Pinckney!) At least, not until a light rail line runs down the middle of US23 … and I-275 … and I-94, etc.

    GM used to make trains and buses and will do so again if theree’s money to be made. Goverbnment can call for action in that regard and use “stimulus” to get the ball rolling. Gosh … JOBS!

    What we lack is not resources … we lack leadership … in Ypsilanti, in Washtenaw County, In Lansing and in Washington. The heads of government at all levels we have elected areee taking money from us and doing NOTHING. The leaders of business in this country are doing the same. The VP at Countrywide in the news recntly is getting $2million to stay on for two more months! And he’s one of the biggest culprits in the scams CFC has been running for years!

    If it isn’t money it’s power, local influence.

    And we complain when the plumber we call doesn’t show up or overcharges. The plumber is doing what GM, Ford, Chryysler, the IRS, the US government and the City and County have been doing for years … take the tax money and run.

    Kunstler is right on … but his solutions can be packaged better and are actually more desireable! All is NOT doom and gloom. Nor is it anywhere near some Luddite precipice. It’s back to basics. Back to neighborhoods. Back to family. Back to who is your neighbor!? And that’s GREAT!

    Makes for closer ties, more trust, safer streets, more civic pride, better food, local control … all of that.

    What it requires from each of us … is more participation. No hand-offs to teachers and school boards. Your kids are your issue, not to be handed off to the teachers. Your streets are your issue, you got funky neighbors, drugs, prostitution … you better get involved. You have civic issues with parking, crime, taxes, business development, HDC, building inspections, code, etc. … you’d better get involved and get to know what’s going on at city hall.

    We have been voting and forgetting. Worse yet, we then complain … like some abandoned clan of coyotes on the Huron … poor us! BS! Show up at your neighborhood association meetings! Get involved. Kunstler gives points for being at locaL meetings.

    I got a call from my Dad in Phoenix tonight. He asked me where does hee park his cash he has taken out of the stock market. He doesn’t trust the banks, since there have beeen runs in Great Britian, and he remembers runs on bankshere in the late 1930s. That is how scared our retirees are in America tonight.

    What I am concerned about is this … all of the above, plus … a consumer spending slowdown here in the US lasting through 2008. Just a slowdown … 10%, 20%, or so.
    If that persists, the world’s largest export partner, China, will suffer a tremndous hit, primarily because they are a 95% export economy as of today. The internal economy cannot as yet take up the slack. If China gets hit on the rebgound from our lack of spending, they will have no recourse but to call in their dollars and demand payment. This “shit” will hit the fan in 2009, most likely, and will provide a terrible inaugural welcome to our new President (McCain or Edwards, I hope) … but I wouldn’t wish this curse on either. We will be in a major depresssion if China calls in its debts.

    The announcers on BBC/NPR were talking about hyper-inflation in Zimbabwe this morning and comparing banknote collections they had put together over the years … 5,000,000 Deutchmarks from the 1930s … etc., that sort of thing. One new note from Zimbabwe was for $15,000,000 … and the story behind that was that some teacher got paid her wages and needed to shop that day but copul;dn’t get to the store until later in the day, at which point her needed product has increased ten fold. Barter is the rule in Zimbabwe as we write and the economic system is in total collapse.

    God save the Queen (each and every one!).


  8. John on Forest
    Posted January 19, 2008 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    I agree with some of Kunstler’s ideas and I’ll pontificate on that in a moment. I do not agree with the basic premise that a revolution is needed. Evolution can work. The picture he paints is very black (as in black and white). I think there’s a lot more room for gray (matter). As Ed said, there is no precipice that we will fall off of in 2020.

    I’m not sure I really even understand Kunstler’s underlying thesis. Is it that our energy use profile in the world is not sustainable? Is it that global warming is going to create catastrophe (as suggested by the reference to the Washington Post article that meta gave us)? Or, is it that big government and large corporations are antithetical to individual choice and living?

    I don’t buy into any of those theses. Not on a black and white basis.

    Yes to more mass transportation in our country. But not to the extent of a moratorium on highway building. A diversified transportation system is what is needed, not the replacement of our car/highway monopoly with a light-rail/bus monopoly.

    Yes to encouragement of smaller scale farming technologies. But not if it means abandoning any large scale agriculture technologies that are also viable.

    Yes to exploring the merits of nuclear energy. But as a cog in a multi-faceted diversified solution to our energy needs.

    Yes to localization. Although I think the real question to ask here is: What is most efficient. There are plenty of examples where large scale is more efficient than small scale. Again, it’s about exhaustive analysis of each problem…and some diversification. WHAT is the logic behind limiting the height of buildings to less than seven stories??

    We have thousands of higher education institutions in our country. If the trend was toward only one university in the whole nation, centered say in Arizona, I’d agree that ‘giantification’ might be a problem. The existence of some large (or even huge) universities, among smaller ones, doesn’t seem like a problem to me. Again, maybe I don’t understand the underlying thesis that lead Kunstler to his “solution.”

    It is true that we have lived in an era of extraordinarily cheap energy. But, even as the price of oil has now approached an all time inflation-adjusted high, it is still not all that expensive. Furthermore, coal is still very inexpensive. BUT, the real truth is that economics will drive the shift in our production and uses of energy. Wind, nuclear, geo-thermal, hydroelectric, and solar production (including biomass which is solar) of energy will become less expensive as technologies are advanced. The environmental impact of the use of coal will likewise be reduced as we invent new technology. My point: there will be growing pains as these shifts occur; but, no catastrophe is looming.

    Or am I just missing Kunstler’s point?

  9. Suzie
    Posted June 7, 2008 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    I’m cleaning up my bookshelves, and read this, appropos of feelings of helplessness from more recent Kunstler books:
    The final coda for “Home From Nowhere”(1996) is called “What I Live For”, and the final sentence is: “I want to remain grateful for having been born.”

  10. mark
    Posted June 8, 2008 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for bringing my attention back here, Susie. It’s good to be reminded of Kunstler every few months… Now I’m going to go and check out his site.

Leave a Reply

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


BUY LOCAL... or shop at Amazon through this link Banner Initiative Linnette Lao