Empire of the Stunned

article image
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, readGet Rich NowWork Plan, andWe 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.”

The Editors

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.

It’s no exaggeration to say that every benefit of modern life–from airplanes and air-conditioning to supermarkets and hip-replacement surgery–owes its existence in one way or another to cheap fossil fuel.

In particular, the American way of life, which is virtually synonymous with suburbia, can run only on reliable supplies of cheap oil and gas. The media promote the idea that we are waiting for the market to hit bottom, and then everyone will resume their normal habits and practices, but it isn’t going to happen.

President Obama isn’t saying the things that you are saying. Why do you think that is?

I voted for Obama and regard him as a person of high quality as far as politicians go, but I’m a little appalled at his actions thus far. He’s trying to revive a credit economy that very likely cannot be revived. America is lent out. Too many households are up to their eyeballs in debt and can’t assume any more to buy cars or houses at the moment. And that’s only part of the broad spectrum of complex systems that will be affected by the end of cheap oil, including business, agriculture, transportation, construction of all kinds, and the way we do commerce.

Thomas Friedman sold the idea, which has become conventional thinking, that the global economy is now a permanent feature of the human condition. This is false. Globalism came into being because of special circumstances at a unique time in history–about a half century of relative peace among the great powers and many decades of relatively cheap energy.

The 12,000-mile supply line from Chinese factories to the American chain stores is a special condition, not a permanent arrangement. I think the developed nations are going to retreat back into their respective corners of the world, and life is going to become a lot more local again.

But our leaders keep saying that we’ve got to keep our borders open or we’re going to exacerbate the financial crisis.

There’s a great fear that we can’t undo the economic relations we’ve built up over the last 30 years, and it’s understandable. There’s a phenomenon called the “psychology of previous investment,” which means it’s difficult for us to consider the possibility that something we’ve invested heavily in won’t work. But eventually it becomes obvious that we’re desperately trying to sustain the unsustainable.

What about alternative energy sources?

There’s a lot of wishful thinking that somehow we’ll replace fossil fuels with alternative energy sources, but they remain far from reality. We’re not going to run Wal-Mart, Disney World, and the interstate highway system on any combination of alternative or renewable energy–solar, wind, algae oils, ethanol, used french-fry grease, you name it.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not against alternative energy. I just think we’re going to be disappointed by how much it can do for us, especially in terms of running things in the United States as it is currently set up.

What about energy conservation?

You can pay lip service to conservation in the suburbs, but the suburbs are what they are. They are designed to work on oil and gas. The Jolly Green Giant isn’t going to move shoddily built, energy-inefficient houses closer together. Our choice is either to fight the failure of these places or to get serious about reinhabiting the older parts of existing towns and cities.

I think people could get excited about devoting their energy to some meaningful purpose if only they had leadership that pointed them in the right direction.

I basically believe that, too. But first I think we need a coherent consensus on what is actually happening to us and what we might do about it. Right now we don’t have that. What we have instead is agreement about wishes and fantasies. There’s agreement that we ought to run the interstate highway system with electric cars. That isn’t going to happen. There’s agreement that we could run our current commercial model on a combination of solar and wind and biodiesel energy. That isn’t going to happen, either. There’s no agreement that we ought to rebuild Hudson Falls, New York, and Muncie, Indiana. There’s no agreement on the need to change the way we do agriculture.

What else can people do to minimize the suffering they might otherwise have to endure?

If you live in the suburbs, you could sell your house, even at a loss, and relocate to a place that has a future. If you’re a mortgage broker or work in the financial industry, you might consider whether there’s something else you’d rather do with your life. You won’t make as much money doing it, but maybe it will be rewarding in other ways. You might buy 10 acres of land and start growing table greens, become a paramedic, or find some other focus for your energy that would make you useful to your fellow human beings during the coming crisis.

In nature, after some catastrophe, new organisms emerge to take the place of the old ones. Our systems may fail, as they have in other civilizations before ours, and we’ll go through a period of disorder, but we’ll reorganize and live differently.

Excerpted from The Sun (Oct. 2009), which for more than 30 years has used personal essays, short stories, interviews, poetry, and photographs “to invoke the splendor and heartache of being human.”

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.