Last fall, I asked environmentalist writer Paul Hawken (coauthor, most recently, of Natural Capitalism) what he thought of the doomsday post-peak oil scenarios painted by James Howard Kunstler in his book The Long Emergency. Hawken, who has a deep understanding of our global predicament, replied that Kunstler's underlying premise is "people are punks." His distaste for that point of view was palpable.
On Wednesday, I had the chance to speak with Kunstler one-on-one for 45 minutes, and then listened to his keynote address at the regional Living Future conference in Seattle, an "unconference" for "deep green professionals" put on by the U.S. Green Building Council. In conversation, Kunstler was toned down, but his talk, much like his book, was dominated by brutally depressing descriptions of---to put it succinctly---how completely fucked we are.
Hanging with James Howard Kunstler in the Westin lobby
Kunstler is often criticized for being too pessimistic, but I find myself going back and forth on that. The case he makes is strong and the evidence is piling up all around us, yet it is still hard for me to get my head around the idea that the big changes he predicts are imminent. For example, Kunstler "categorically" predicts that the airline industry will fall apart within five years, flying will become an elite activity, and the days of visiting granny in Arizona for the holidays will be over. Five years from now?
Regardless of where you stand regarding Kunstler's bleak prognosis, his ideas tend to be mind-bending. Here are some choice samples, paraphrased from my notes of our conversation.
Skyscrapers will become obsolete because they will be too expensive to renovate.
We need to focus on fixing what's out there rusting in the rain, such as abandoned railroads.
The green metropolis concept is a contradiction in terms, because mega-cities like New York are hypertrophic---they have become too big to operate efficiently in a post-carbon world.
The action will move to small cities, because the have appropriately scaled infrastructure waiting to be re-activated.
The demise of "happy motoring" is inevitable not only because of dwindling oil, but also because loans to purchase cars will become unavailable to all but the wealthy, and because governments won't have enough money to maintain the road network.
Oil production infrastructure is crumbling and the $1 trillion investment needed to fix it won't be justifiable given the diminishing returns.
Waterfronts directly adjacent to population centers (like Seattle's) will become increasingly valuable as we begin to rely more on smaller-scale, shorter haul shipping.
People don't know the difference between energy and technology, that is, technology cannot be substituted for energy.
The eco-elites jabbering about running all our cars on some other energy source are in denial.
Over the past two or three decades, ours has not been a post-industrial economy or an information economy, but a suburb-building economy.
The project of the American suburbs is the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.
Our dominant national personality has evolved into a toxic combination of the worship of something for nothing, and the belief that we can get whatever we want by wishing on a star.
James Howard Kunstler chatting with Mayor Mike McGinn
Before Kunstler's talk, Mayor Mike McGinn spoke briefly to the room of about 1,000, most of whom, it could be safely assumed, were "his people." McGinn didn't hesitate to get right into it regarding the deep-bore tunnel and the cost overrun issue, no coincidence given that earlier that day he had vowed to veto forthcoming tunnel legislation. Asserting that the people are out ahead of their leaders on progressive urbanism, McGinn encouraged the locals in the audience to contact their city council members if they don't think the tunnel is a smart investment in the future.
McGinn couldn't have asked for a better followup to support his anti-tunnel position than what Kunstler delivered. In fact, Kunstler specifically called out the "$4 billion tunnel" as an example of an investment that will have little future value (that may have had something to do with the pre-keynote conversation pictured above).
As Kunstler's talk neared its end, I was waiting for him to get to the hopeful part, especially given that he was speaking to a conference founded on the idea that "creating a living future is an act of faith, an act of hope."
But it never came. Kunstler merely told us that there we have a whole lot of work to do, and we better get to it fast, and even if we do that, we can expect to be dealing with some painful changes.
Everyone says that people won't be motivated by a negative story. But I submit that Kunstler's story must be heard nonetheless. As Kunstler said, at some point we have to grow up, accept what the planet is telling us and act, no matter how overwhelming it may seem.