Today on the show I aired an interview I recorded two weeks ago with James Howard Kunstler, author, social commentator, and general snark-about-town. He has quite a cult following among certain sects of society, but he is most well known for two works of non-fiction, The Geography of Nowhere, which is about the inherent problems of suburban sprawl and was, in 1993, one of the first non-geological texts talking about an impending energy crisis. The second is The Long Emergency, about the now-imminent energy crisis and what will come after it. Lately he has released two works of fiction about the immediate post-carbon future, World Made By Hand and The Witch of Hebron. He is often accused of being a bit doomy, as he tends to deal in worst-case scenarios, but the longer we wait to address the effects of energy depletion on modern civilization the more likely his scenario becomes.
It’s quite long, this interview, so rather than play the whole thing I ran it in bits, and played some songs and gave some commentary along the way. He is very well-respected in a lot of areas, but he also tends to stray outside those issues pretty regularly, and so a lot of what he has to say is not without its problems. I don’t address them all, but I do my best to offer an alternate perspective where I think one is required. Press play now!
"You look at them [the suburbs] and you see all these houses that have large lawns and places where you could theoretically grow stuff. But, ah, I think that's a schematic impression because it remains to be seen whether those places will be socially cohesive, [...] whether or not they will be orderly, lawful places."
So while that may be a valid point, I think it’s pretty clear that he’s actually not familiar with Jeff Vail’s conception of Resilient Suburbs, which surprises me – there aren’t vast amounts of writing on post-fossil fuel suburbia, and it is kind of his bag. What Vail is talking about is the idea that the suburbs can potentially help reduce economic disparity by helping to redistribute wealth, in the form of land. A quarter acre is not insignificant, and the farther flung from the city centre, the larger those plots are going to be. As the price of oil and therefore gasoline increases, many people living in those places on the outer edges of town will no longer be able to afford the mobility to hold jobs in the city, get groceries from a large supermarket, or any of the other personal-transportation-based activities that undergird modern suburbia. Gradually those suburbs will turn to slums as housing values close to the city centres rise, pushing poor people to the outer edges – but slums in which each building has enough land to sustain the family that lives within in. In this way the building pattern of suburbia, which has been nothing but destructive so far, may end up being the factor that mitigates the spread of poverty, at least to some degree. Though his point about the shoddiness of building materials is certainly relevant, and I’m not sure what Vail has to say about that. I imagine it will be a piecemeal solution to a constant problem - patch a little here, a little there, until you've rebuilt completely.
Dunedin is lucky, as far as our built environment goes: we’re about the right size, not to big not too small, and, though we’ve been getting away from this in the last couple decades, we’re constructed in the right way. Dunedin is a town with a fairly small, centrally-located population with a cohesive and distinct main street, lined with shops that come right out to the sidewalk and have apartments above them. That may not seem like it matters, but it positions us to be able to contract fairly gracefully, as opposed to a place like LA, where there isn’t even really a centre to contract around, the whole place is nothing but freeways. Auckland might be in a bit of trouble, as it, like Toronto, grew hugely in the 60s and 70s, when city planning was essentially traffic planning, and all new developments were suburban and spread for miles. I don’t know about Auckland - though this assessment doesn't bode well - but Toronto at least is doing all the wrong things and basically guaranteeing that it turns itself into Detroit. We all bought into this very American notion that equates physical mobility with prosperity, and it has been hurting Dunedin a bit to be left out of that, but it’s going to save us, in the end.
"I'm not against the idea that people should be treated well, or politically fairly, but I'm not quite sure these things are going to dispose themselves the way political idealists of our time would want it to."
He says that it’s a “baby boomer fantasy that life gets progressively more egalitarian” in response to my suggestion that our future might prove to be more meritocratic: I was suggesting that if the skills required for success in a post-carbon society will be different, more useful, more directly productive, so the definition of strength, and who qualifies as a ‘strong person’, is also likely to change – maybe to mean ‘can build a house’ or ‘can grow a garden’ or ‘can tan a hide’. That strength could come to be defined as the mastery of a productive skill, rather than as the ability to accumulate imaginary capital.
He also claims that inequality will rise. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I got home and thought about that, and realized that we’re already more unequal than we’ve ever, ever been, ever. The disparity between the poorest and the richest now is orders of magnitude bigger than the disparity between kings and serfs. Inequality is actually going to fall, quite dramatically. What he means is that poverty will rise – and in that he’s most certainly correct; we are already starting to see it with the disappearance of the middle class, the increase in child poverty – the states saw an 18% increase in child poverty last year alone, and there isn’t an OECD nation that doesn’t have corresponding statistics. And those numbers are generated by an accounting system that defines the statistical poverty line well below the actual poverty line – that is, you can be making more than the official poverty line and still not be making enough to live on, especially if you have children.
As for what he says about the coming inequality as far as race and gender goes – it’s pretty clear from statements like “women feel like they’re getting a raw deal” that he thinks of the women’s rights movement as just a bunch of whiny bitches who want to have everything their own way, who keep making demands, I mean Angela Merkel’s in charge of Germany, how unequal can it really be?
And then he goes on to dismiss the present-day fact of women’s ongoing involvement in community projects and initiatives as though it were irrelevant to either the struggle for equal rights or the growing importance of community in the absolute sense.
In fact, I think, that the way he sees our societies being constructed in the near future – higher emphasis on food production and preparation, increasing importance of community interdependency – means that in some very real ways we are looking at re-situating discursive power back into the home. So that means that roles traditionally performed by women, which still are, in very large part, performed by women, will become more highly valued as their necessity increases. And the occupations in which we situate that cultural power now – in politics, in finance, in business – will no longer occupy the same privileged position. Perhaps this is how we re-address the way we assign value, and in the process address the gender power imbalance that underlies it.After all, culture is just a bunch of stuff that lots of people think and do, so we do have some control over what kind of society we end up with. His response – “i just don’t think it’s going to work out that way” – implies a certain amount of determinism, based on the implied belief in the basic selfishness of human nature, that we will all be fighting, and we only have the luxury of not fighting because we have so much stuff. And that may be true in part, but we are also social, communal, cooperative beings, possessed of free will, and we can choose which of those aspects we valorize, and which ones we denigrate.
This is something that’s been troubling me for a while, the usefulness of satire, and by extension the usefulness of what I’m trying to do here. And I think that I’ve come to the conclusion that satire is great and relevant, but it can also be harmful. I share his bleak sense of humour, and for sure quite often I find that I have no other response but to laugh. I’m not suggesting that there’s no place for satire, just that satire alone, without some actual serious thought about the issues being parodied, can get in our way. If we’re all just telling jokes, that can undermine our ability to critically engage with the subject matter – there’s a philosopher, Henri Bergson, who says we must have a degree of distance from the joke for us to think it’s funny, that humour relies specifically on that distance; the moment we begin to empathize, feel personally connected to the subject of the joke, the humour disappears. Like Homer Simpson falling off a cliff – it’s funny because there’s no genuine terror, and he gets up again at the bottom. It becomes horrible fairly easily, the more realistic it is. And it’s the job of comic writers to create that distance in order to make the joke funny – which for most things is fine, but it becomes problematic when the subject of the joke is something that has real effect on the lives of the people, or something that requires critical engagement, like politics, especially when that joke is all that’s being said. And Kunstler in particular uses such elaborate prose, such dramatic, fantastical imagery to skewer political and social topics, that the distance between the absurd thing that Michele Bachmann said and the real life implications of her dangerous politics is almost insurmountable.
Maybe he’s right about teaching people lessons, that people don’t want to be lectured to; I just don’t know what else to do. You’ve probably noticed that I’m not funny, so satire isn’t necessarily an option for me. What I am is frightened and outraged, and so that’s where I have to speak from. If satire’s what you’re looking for, though, Kunstler is certainly your man.
You’d be forgiven for not believing his view of the future – that is, this sort of decentralized, pastoral model in which populations are greatly reduced and we all work much harder at keeping ourselves alive, and less at minimum wage service jobs. Certainly that narrative has not made it into the mainstream, but it does seem to be at least the direction we’re most likely to go. There are varying degrees of severity being predicted by various people; for example, Mckibben hopes for the internet where Kunstler does not, some see public transit or trains still operating where Kunstler does not; he mentions that there may not be school, or books. I don’t know how likely his version is compared to some of the others – but I do know that the sooner we start talking about it openly, the more we can salvage from the civilization we have now, and the better chance we have of creating a new society that has learned from its past mistakes and that consciously values cooperation, honesty, and ability.