From Suburban Sprawl to Peak Oil: Talking With James Howard Kunstler
This interview is excerpted from Duncan Crary's The Kunstler Cast: Conversations with James Howard Kunstler, from New Society Publishers, available here.
James Howard Kunstler is the author of The Geography of Nowhere, Home From Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, and The Long Emergency. His work addresses the suburban and urban environments, and the challenges posed by the coming permanent global oil crisis, climate change, and other "converging catastrophes of the 21st Century."
Duncan Crary: You have what you call a "Long Emergency" view of where civilization is heading. What is "The Long Emergency?"
James Howard Kunstler: I've labeled this situation we're heading into "The Long Emergency" because I think it's going to be a protracted experience for mankind and for us in the United States in particular. It's really about how we are heading into a period of resource scarcity and the disruption and depletion of our oil supplies. It's about the allocation of this crucial resource all around the world, and the geopolitical implications of those inequities. And how these problems are going to combine with climate change to cause problems with everything we do, from how we produce and distribute our food to how we're going to have trade and manufacturing when Walmart dies. And not least, the destiny of the suburban, car-dependent, happy motoring living arrangement. Which is probably, for me, the biggest part of the equation.
And you don't see good things in store for the suburbs in the Long Emergency?
Suburbia is going to fail a lot worse than it's already failing, because we're not going to have the energy to run it the way it's been designed to run. For that reason I refer to suburbia as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. We took all of our post-world war wealth -- and actually quite a bit of the wealth that we had accumulated for decades before that -- and we invested it in this living arrangement that had no future. And now we're stuck with it. And to make matters worse, we didn't build it very well in the first place. So as it begins to decay it decays very rapidly and becomes a very unrewarding place to live in.
Jim, it seems almost impossible to persuade suburbanites that there's anything wrong with suburbia or that it could ever "fail." I've tried, and it almost feels like arguing with someone about deeply held religious beliefs.
Again, one of the unfortunate repercussions of building suburbia is: now that we've built it, it provides a very powerful psychology of previous investment. Which means that you put so much of your wealth into this system already -- into this structure for daily life with no future -- and you've invested so much of your national identity in it, that you can't even imagine letting go of it or substantially changing it or reforming it. And that, I believe, is what's behind our inability to have a coherent discussion about what we're going to do about our problems in America. Because the psychology of previous investment has got us trapped in a box -- we will not allow ourselves to think about how we're going to do without this crap.
You give lots of reasons in The Long Emergency and in your other writings for why suburbia is going to fail. But the biggest one is that suburbia only works when you have a cheap fossil fuel supply, and you say that supply of cheap fuel is running out. How do you counter the "Drill, Baby, Drill" camp? The folks who believe there are "Saudi Arabias" of oil right here in the US just waiting to come out of the ground?
There's this general misunderstanding that there are huge amounts of oil reserves in and around North America that are waiting to be exploited. North America is one of the most thoroughly explored regions on the Earth for oil and we pretty much know what's down there. And when you hear people saying we gotta "drill, drill, drill" for ANWR -- well, I was never even against drilling in ANWR, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. My idea was that Obama should get behind it just to disarm the stupid Republicans so they wouldn't keep yakkin' about it, because there's such an insignificant amount of oil up there.
What about the tar sands, shale gas and shale oil?
A lot of people think we're going to compensate our losses elsewhere. But the tar sands will probably never produce more than three million barrels a day. And I think we will discover a lot of gas trapped in that tight rock. But that's very expensive and difficult to get out. There is also a lot of wishful thinking about switching our truck fleet over to natural gas, because we have "a hundred years" or "three hundred years" of natural gas. That's just not true. All of these ideas and programs aren't going to work out the way we wish they would, because so much of this is about wishful thinking and fantasy. Look, we use twenty million barrels of oil a day in the USA. And what we're talking about here are very expensive mining operations, which also happen to be fantastically environmentally destructive.
In the past few years, you've become increasingly focused on how our financial problems may be a more immediate catalyst for the Long Emergency than energy.
It was kind of a surprising thing. Many of us who were following the oil problem and the energy predicament over the last ten years, we thought the situation would come to a head over energy supplies and prices. And in a way they did. But really the salient effect of all that was that we destroyed the banking system. The net effect of that right now is that the USA is broke at all levels -- including the household level at the bottom, the corporate enterprise level in the middle and the government level at the top -- and that includes all levels of the government: federal, state, county and municipal. We're all broke at every level. We don't have money at our disposal any more so we're going to have to figure out some other strategies for creating a post-fossil fuel economy, for carrying our civilization forward, for enabling us to remain civilized.
Tell me how you got from The Geography of Nowhere to The Long Emergency. When did you first start thinking about the connection between oil depletion and the fate of suburban sprawl?
I guess we'd have to really go back to the 1970s. I had come from the hippie newspapers in Boston and I had just gotten a fulltime job on the evening paper in Albany, New York. The newspaper had just established itself in a brand new building on this heroic boulevard of strip shopping, about ten miles outside of Albany. It had moved from a building downtown out to the suburbs. I got there in August of 1973, and about three months later, we got into the OPEC oil embargo. It was a huge local story everywhere, but it was pretty severe in our region. A lot of the gas stations were not getting gas, and there were lines at the gasoline stations everywhere -- tempers were flaring, people were beating each other up, guns were brandished. The whole thing only lasted a couple of months. I think the worst of it only ran about three or four weeks. But for that time, there were very few people driving, if they could possibly avoid it. The highways were empty. The streets were empty.
It was like The Day the Earth Stood Still. It made a huge impression on me, because here I was a young reporter -- about twenty-five years old or so -- and I saw the world-as-we-had-known-it stop. It was especially peculiar seeing this happen in the new burgeoning suburbia, as it was being built out and elaborated. So it made a huge impression on me: "This is important -- how we live in America and what it's going to mean for how we get to where we're going in the future in America. I've seen a little glimpse of the future now and I wonder what's going to be happening." And then it was over. It came to an end. It did provoke a lot of changes and troubles for the rest of the decade.
We had an economy that was badly upset by oil prices that rose very quickly, very steeply. We had stagflation, which was a new phenomenon that nobody had ever seen before, where you have inflation plus a stagnating economy. You began to see the American manufacturing sector fall apart. The first manifestation was when the Japanese carmakers started to get the upper hand over Ford and General Motors. The American carmakers were all tooled up to build these giant cars the size of ferry boats, and in comes Nissan, and Honda, and Datsun, as it was called at the time - they're selling cars that are three feet shorter, and use one-third of the amount of gas, and all of a sudden the Americans are buying them like crazy.
You saw all kinds of other changes going on. I moved on in the meantime. I went to Rolling Stone for a while. Then came back to Saratoga to embark on my Bohemian adventure as a novel writer. I wrote a whole bunch of novels. They all got published by major trade publishers, although I wouldn't exactly call them successful. I would get advances. But it was just not enough money to live on. So I returned to nonfiction and journalism.
The New York Times Magazine sent me out on a bunch of stories about suburban development in New England, because a lot of the editors owned summer houses in Vermont and Massachusetts and they were getting hip to the idea that the countryside was getting "overdeveloped" as they would put it.
One article that I was writing was called "Why is America So Fucking Ugly?" That was sort of the working title between the editors and me. That wouldn't have been the title they published but that's how we understood the theme, because the most obvious manifestation of what we were doing and how we were building America was that it was ugly.
The story was killed, not because of the title but because they had instituted a new rule at the Times that the stories could not exceed 4,000 words. This one went way over that and there was no way of even touching on the subject in less. So I took that story that was killed and turned it into a book proposal which sold pretty rapidly.
It wasn't a huge contract but it was more money than I had made before. The working title of the book was going to be Scary Places because America was getting scary and to me it was inducing placeaphobia. Because all of a sudden there are all these places you don't want to be in anymore. They are just so horrifying.
So "Scary Places" was written. It took me about three years. They decided they didn't like the title because it sounded too much like a horror novel.
Or a book for three-year-olds . . .
Yeah, like Where the Wild Things Are or something. So I just switched around the title of the first chapter with the title of the book. The first chapter became "Scary Places" and the title became The Geography of Nowhere.
In that book, I was touching upon the idea that sooner or later we were going to run into problems with oil. I based that on this experience I'd had, as a young man, of the OPEC oil embargo, and knowing the proportion of oil we imported would only go up and become ever larger and it would become ever more of a threat and a problem for us. Here's one passage, for example:
Even after 1990, when the savings and loan catastrophe left the commercial real estate market in shambles, and the American economy began to slide into amalaise resembling the Great Depression, developers were still building some major projects in the same old foolish manner: single-family detached homes on half-acre lots out in the hills, mini malls along the connector roads, accountant's offices out in the old cornfields. But these are the mindless twitchings of a brain-dead culture, artificially sustained by the intravenous feeding of cheap oil. Indeed, the continuation of a cheap oil supply through the 1980s -- a temporary quirk of politics and history -- has been a disaster, allowing us to postpone the necessary redesign of America.
So you can sort of see the ways things were shaping up out there. What I didn't realize was that the North Sea discoveries and the Alaska Prudhoe Bay discoveries would extend that cheap oil interlude through the nineties. In fact, oil got just cheaper and cheaper. What happened was the North Sea and Alaska took the leverage away from OPEC and other oil-producing nations who didn't like us.
So peak oil was something you were thinking about even back when you were writing The Geography of Nowhere?
I wouldn't say that I was thinking of things with that term "peak oil." The way I thought of it at that time was we have an oil import problem that is just going to get worse and worse. Indeed it has. My understanding of peak oil came about a different way. I went on to write a sequel to The Geography of Nowhere called Home from Nowhere, published in 1996. That book was largely a result of my meeting the New Urbanists, the guys who were the real reformers out there in the urban design, architecture, town planning fields. I started hanging out with them a lot. They were so interesting and stimulating and intelligent. I just got such a bang out of seeing what they proposed as a remedy for this crazy way of life we developed. It was hugely stimulating to find these guys.
Home from Nowhere was concerned with the remedies to suburbia in terms of urban design and architecture. Really, how we were going to rebuild the human habitat in a way that would have a future that would be sustainable, that would be more rewarding to be in.
Around the same time that Home from Nowhere was published, in the mid-1990s, a group of senior geologists started retiring out of the oil industry. As soon as they established their pensions safely and retired into comfort, they started to publish their secret, dark thoughts about where the oil industry was headed. These were characters like Colin J. Campbell and Kenneth Deffeyes. Deffeyes had been a Texaco geologist who then went on to Princeton and became an academic. Colin J. Campbell worked for the European companies, Total and some others. What they were saying was: "Here we are in the mid 1990s. We know, from the models that our teachers in geology devised before us in the 1950s and '60s, that there is a certain profile to the oil story - that it has a beginning, a middle and an end. And we're going to call this the peak oil story."
The model was mostly devised by this one particular guy, Marion King Hubbert, who was an industry geologist and an academic. He was at Columbia. He was at the Colorado School of Mines. He worked for a number of the major oil companies. He devised what came to be called the Hubbert Curve, which is a bell curve that says: "The oil industry starts and you are producing very little. Then you are ramping it up. The curve goes up and you are producing a whole lot. Then you reach a certain point of maximum alltime production, and from there you enter the arc on the other side of the bell curve. That's the Arc of Depletion. That is how the oil story will play out. It will probably begin to peak in the late 1990s or early 2000s."
Hubbert lived until 1989. So his career spanned a very long time, from the infancy of the oil industry to near peak. He called it pretty well. One of the things he was famous for calling was that America had already gone through its peak in 1970. That was the year we produced the most oil that we will ever produce. It was something like ten million barrels a day. Now we're down to under five. Our production had peaked in 1970, which you could see through the rearview mirror by looking at the production figures from '71, '72 and '73.
It began to be evident that we could not produce more oil than we had in 1970. It not only became obvious to us and to our engineers and our military people, etc., it also became known internationally. We needed it so badly, we were getting it from the guys overseas. So all of a sudden we're deathly dependent on them. And when the OPEC nations figured it out, they seized the pricing control.
Mr. Hubbert had also gone on to model the global oil peak and the beginning of global depletion. He predicted 1995 would be the beginning of this. He was off by a few years. It now appears that we produced the most conventional crude oil ever in 2005 and haven't really exceeded it.
Do you think it's a widely accepted fact that 2005 was the global oil peak?
I think there's a general understanding from looking at the figures that -- at least since 2005 -- we have entered what we call the bumpy plateau period, which is how the peak looks close up. If you looked at the tip of a hypodermic needle under a strong microscope you would see that it is not exactly smooth. It has little imperfections in it. Well, the tippy top of the peak of oil is not totally smooth either. It's composed of little bumps and that's where we have been at for the last few years or so. But we are getting a lot of signals that we are now entering the robust period of depletion.
So these guys like Campbell and Deffeyes retired out of the system and started to publish their thoughts about where the oil industry was headed. That was about 1996. It was still a rather esoteric issue. It certainly wasn't being discussed in the mainstream media or even in the most esoteric journals, really. The intellectual places like The Atlantic Monthly and Harpers, they weren't really talking about it either.
But the Internet was starting to ramp up around that time. And peak oil was a subject that was coming up on the Internet, along with, by the way, Y2K. These are two interesting phenomena that the media weren't really paying much attention to. One of them, Y2K, turned out to be a problem that was solved because it was a very specific, limited problem. It was a large problem but it was limited and specific.
The peak oil problem, the more you looked at it, presented really horrendous implications for us. The biggest one being: how is an industrial society going to run itself when we run into a supply problem with oil? Hand-in-hand with that went the idea that oil is not distributed equitably around the world -- it tends to be in certain places and not in other places. Unfortunately, some of the places that have the most oil are the places that we don't get along with very well, namely the Islamic world and Russia.
So that problem stimulated the geopolitical issues of peak oil. A lot of these issues were self-explanatory. You didn't have to be a PhD to understand that if 75 percent of the oil in the world was controlled by people who didn't like the United States, and if you combine that with the idea that production is peaking in the whole world, then this doesn't bode very well for how we're going to get on -- especially in relation to a society that has completely been sucked into car dependence of the most extreme kind, that has created an entire living arrangement based on car dependency, which represents the investment of all of its post-World War II wealth in the strip malls and the housing tracts and all of the equipment of daily life. You can see in the swirl of all these issues a very disturbing picture beginning to present itself.
So the peak oil story came onto your radar in the mid-1990s. But you wouldn't really start writing about it extensively in The Long Emergency for a few years still. What about yourthird book, The City in Mind -- were you influenced by the idea of peak oil while you were writing that?
I published The City in Mind in 2002 while I was being exposed to the whole peak oil thing. I wrote quite a bit about the prospect of places like Atlanta and Las Vegas not being able to function. It became self-evident that these were tremendous problems. After that book came out I was dwelling more and more on the petroleum story and it seemed to me that it deserved a book.
In The Long Emergency, which was the result of that, the oil story and its implications for daily life in America is in the foreground. Then, in the train behind that thought, comes the issue of the way our life depends on this increasingly scarce resource, including suburbia. I had written about suburbia in detail and described its shortcomings, and now we're going to have to contend with the fact that it will fail.
So it's been a long haul for me with this issue. It is weird, to me, how the journey that I took from writing about the suburbs led me to writing about what is starting to be a comprehensive collapse of life as we've enjoyed it. I don't think this is the end of the world. I don't think life is over. I don't think American culture is over. But I do think that we are going to be living it very differently in the years ahead.
After The Long Emergency you returned to fiction to explore how Americans might be living very differently in the not-so-distant future.
I did write a post-oil novel, called World Made by Hand, that was published in the spring of 2008, and a sequel called The Witch of Hebron in 2010. So I'm trying to take another look at the post-oil American future. But I also have a contract to write another nonfiction book about the diminishing returns of technology. That's something that I think isone of the great underappreciated elements of the story of our time: how we are screwing ourselves with our grandiose over-investments in complexity and ignoring the blowback from them.
This whole energy story has never been about running out of oil, really. It's about the breakdown of the complex systems that we depend on for the activity of everyday life. Because we've reached such an elaborate state of complexity and relative luxury in our living standard, we're going to be going through a difficult transition that will require us to de-complexify the systems that we depend on. And we'll probably experience something like lower living standards, although it doesn"t necessarily mean that the quality of our life has to be worse.
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