Empire of the Stunned
Social critic James Howard Kunstler believes that what killed America’s economy could make society stronger
image of James Howard Kunstler
This article is part of a package on rethinking the economy and how to prosper in the wake of the recession. For more, read Get Rich Now, Work Plan, and We Are All Madoffs.
James Howard Kunstler is one madly engaging provocateur. For proof, all one needs to do is click over to his blog Clusterfuck Nation (www.kunstler.com), where the Rolling Stone editor-turned-full-time novelist and nonfiction author riffs on America’s operatic decline in fiery dispatches with titles like “Self-Jiving Nation” and “Marching Toward Zombieland.”
A proponent of the pedestrian-loving New Urbanism movement, Kunstler made an impression on the chattering classes in 1994 with his no-holds-barred history of suburbia, The Geography of Nowhere. The social critic made the talk show circuit rounds again in 2005 with The Long Emergency, where he linked peak oil to the need for localization and a more agrarian--friendly society.
Before conducting an extensive interview with Kunstler, writer Leslee Goodman admits that at one point she avoided reading The Long Emergency for fear that it would be incapacitating. What she found instead was that the book, while it is harsh, is both helpful and fortifying “in the ways that a weather report is helpful.”
“Kunstler isn’t an advocate for his forecast,” she says. “He’s just telling us to wear a raincoat. And maybe buy a boat.”
On the first page of The Long Emergency you speculate that the United States as a nation might not survive the converging crises we face. What brought you to this conclusion?
I came to write The Long Emergency after having written several books about the fiasco of suburban America as a development model. It was becoming increasingly obvious to me that we had made some tragic collective decisions about how we live, and that soon a permanent shortage in oil and natural gas would make those arrangements untenable.
I believe we have reached that point within the last few years, and the collapse of the financial system is more a result of peak oil than of overzealous mortgage lending, which is only part of the picture. Without cheap oil, we can no longer depend on our regular 3 to 7 percent annual economic growth. And without the expectation of growth, the paper wealth of the market loses its perceived value, because we can no longer service our debt. It’s really the end of a revolving-debt economy as we have known it.
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