Interview with James Howard Kunstler
James Kunstler is the author of The Geography of Nowhere, The Long Emergency, and other works exploring issues of architecture, resource depletion, and the need for human-scaled living. His strikingly irreverent blog may be found at Kunstler.com.
1. Please describe for us your vision for a human-scaled economy.
I may have to answer this backwards by saying the current scale of our activities will prove to be inconsistent with our available resources in the future. That is, businesses like Wal-Mart based on 12,000-mile manufacturing supply chains; agriculture enterprises like ADM or Cargill based on the application of massive oil-and-gas based soil amendments and fuels on gigantic acreages; commercial aviation based on cheap liquid hydrocarbon fuels. These things, and a lot more, will simply go. They’re coming off the menu. We’re going to have to live a lot more locally and do things much differently. What this implies ought to be self-evident. We will probably have to return to many traditional arrangements and methods for doing things. We will stay where we are rather than travel incessantly. We are sure to be less affluent, in the sense that we understand affluence now—the ability to buy cheaply manufactured products, many of which are loaded with diminishing returns (like iPods that distract us, and plasma screen TVs that offer ersatz social experiences instead of authentic contact with real people we live among.) I do believe that food production (farming, and associated “value-added” activities) will be coming much closer to the center of our economic life. Connect the dots.
2. You have written a lot about our over consumption of oil, as well as what you have called the “geography of nowhere,” such as strip malls and featureless suburbs. How would you explain the connection, if any, between the two?
Suburbia can be described succinctly as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. Suburbia is an infrastructure for daily living that has no future, therefore, our investments in it will be lost. It has no future because it can only run on massive amounts of fossil fuels. Our quest to replace this with so-called “alternatives” will leave us very disappointed—and will only result in a further squandering of our remaining resources. The foregoing is apart from the inherent deficiencies of suburban living—for instance, the defeat of civic life, the immersive entropic ugliness of an environment designed to keep cars comfortable, the alienation, anxiety, and depression generated by the dissociation of activities (i.e. single-use zoning). The project of suburbia is an experiment that has failed. If we mount a campaign to keep it going at all costs, to save it, instead of making other arrangements, we will suffer hugely.
3. What is your opinion of the legacy of the baby boomers? Will they be remembered as a generation that brought idealism to public life again, or a generation that could not see beyond its own interests in light of the looming oil problem?
The boomers managed to degrade all the standards and norms of behavior necessary to keep our civilization going, and to respond to changing circumstances effectively. A simple example is Boomer finance. Boomer lending practices, especially in the realm of mortgages, has led to a credit fiasco so exorbitant that it may destroy the legitimacy of capital as a general proposition far into the future (the way the “Mississippi Bubble” discredited banking in France for more than a century). Boomer greed and narcissism has led us into an economy based on the expectation of unearned riches. I agree with the authors Strauss and Howe who say, in their excellent book, The Fourth Turning, that Boomers will be harshly punished in their old age by their children and grandchildren by the withdrawal of support. I hasten to add that the pre-Boomer generation (my parents’ generation) was just as bad, though in a different way—they thought they deserved to live in a technological heaven-on-earth as a reward for having fought and survived the Second World War.
4. Is there any political figure you see who recognizes or is addressing the natural resource problem?
Well, Al Gore is an obvious choice, but more for his very public campaign about climate change, which is the flip side of the resource problem. The rest of the scene is sort of like the 1850s—you have two major parties (back then, the Whigs and Democrats) losing legitimacy and credibility, and the whole nation paralyzed over the issue of slavery. Today it’s a paralysis over looming fossil fuel scarcities and the flip side of climate change. Both the Republicans and Democrats are preoccupied with idiotic distractions like the issues arising out of gender confusion. I’m a dissatisfied registered Democrat. I would like to see my party become less preoccupied with homosexual issues and more active on restoring the U.S. passenger rail system. The time has come for those suffering from gender confusion to take their problems out of the political arena and work them out in private. The Republicans, on the other hand, face even more acute problems regarding loss-of-legitimacy as a result of the Iraq war fiasco and the impressive body of scandal generated by its members the past decade. We’re in for some big political changes, in my opinion, but my crystal ball is pretty cloudy for the moment.
5. How did you come to your view of architecture, and do you see any architects now focusing on more traditional forms?
The so-called “cutting edge” of architecture, and the mandarins of architectural training in the universities, have cultivated an extremely damaging ethos based on narcissism and mystification. The result is thousands of buildings that confound our expectations for the operation of an urban organism—the civitas—and necessarily a resulting damaged civic life. The resource problems we face will probably signal the end of megastructures and skyscrapers—which will be a positive thing for us—and also probably compel a return to regional building materials found in nature, especially masonry. This will tend to force a return to traditional architectural practice. The slick surfaces of modularized titanium or glass will be replaced by stone, and in such a way that will almost certainly demand ornament. The scale will be smaller, more congenial to human neurology. We are likely to see, therefore, more effort expended in the deliberate creation of beauty.
6. You live now in upstate New York. Do you support any form of regionalism, that is, the protection and encouragement of distinctive architectural and cultural form that reflect particular localities?
Regionalism is not something that will require “support” in the years ahead. That is, it will not be voluntary. We’ll have to live more locally (and regionally) whether we like it or not. One natural result will be the cultivation of regional differences. That is inescapable.
7. In Home from Nowhere you wrote, “I believe that rhetoric is undervalued these days. My own generation had much to do with devaluing it back in the 60s, when all public talk seemed mendacious. Part of what I do these days is an attempt to resuscitate rhetoric as an honorable and worthy feature of public life in this country. I am sensible that rhetoric sometimes changes the world.” What elements of rhetoric do you see that serve that purpose of resuscitation?
I have made a conscious effort in my books to develop a polemical approach to writing about resource problems and about social behavior. Against the intellectual trend of my generation, I have refused to pussyfoot around the task of making value judgements. I am not a relativist. I don’t believe that all things or all people or all behaviors have equal value, and I am willing to state clearly what my preferences are. Where behavior is concerned, I think this is especially important, because not all behaviors will allow us to save our[selves] during the turbulent period ahead. I also do a lot of public speaking, which I regard as a performance requiring, most of all, conviction in one’s own message. History can decide if the message was truthful. Naturally, I think it is.