With Friends Like These...
James Howard Kunstler is a well-known architectural critic, an analyst of what went wrong in how Americans manage and use their living spaces, and an eloquent spokesman for the "smart growth" or "new urbanist" movement. In a new book, however, which was recently excerpted in Rolling Stone, he takes on a much grander theme: The Long Emergency (that's the title) caused by the increasing cost and scarcity of energy.
Peak Oil, in other words. Kunstler's essay ably summarizes the standard argument of the peak-oil doomsayers. Kunstler's particular social-critic vantage point, however, is not a good fit for the apocalyptic predictions he makes. If things are really as terrible as he claims (and who knows, maybe they are), then why should anyone bother to read his other books on how to design life-affirming, human-scale urban spaces? No way, folks: it's gonna be about bomb shelters and road warriors from here on. Too bad we didn't listen to Kunstler when we had the chance.
Like other peak-oil theorists, Kunstler lists the various energy alternatives and delivers the painful truth of why none of them, by itself, is sufficient to solve the problem. (We probably won't have to depend on just one, of course, but will actually create a web of technologies appropriate to certain uses; the peak-oil guys never mention this, though.) Natural gas is hard to transport and the biggest reserves of it are in unstable regions. Fuel cells, wind power and biomass all require inputs of fossil-fuel energy to get going and are thus impractical. Kunstler doesn't actually mention conservation, the best "alternative energy source" of all -- but he implies that any significant cutback in Overall Barrels Burned would cause an unthinkable, and therefore impossible, change in the American Way of Life.
"No combination of alternative fuels will allow us to run American life the way we have been used to running it," writes Kunstler. Yet isn't he one of the most outspoken critics of how we have been "running American life"? Rather than wringing his hands about the coming dark age, shouldn't Kunstler see great opportunities in our being compelled to think a bit before we pump and burn?
The circumstances of the Long Emergency will require us to downscale and re-scale virtually everything we do and how we do it, from the kind of communities we physically inhabit to the way we grow our food to the way we work and trade the products of our work.... As industrial agriculture fails due to a scarcity of oil- and gas-based inputs, we will certainly have to grow more of our food closer to where we live, and do it on a smaller scale.... The way that commerce is currently organized in America will not survive far into the Long Emergency. Wal-Mart's "warehouse on wheels" won't be such a bargain in a non-cheap-oil economy.... The automobile will be a diminished presence in our lives...
Haven't James Howard Kunstler and his friends been calling for just these things?
Well ... Yes and no. Devotees of the Georgist philosophy are pleased with Mr. Kunstler because he affirmed, in Home from Nowhere, that our current property tax system is a major cause of the malaise of suburban sprawl, and that Land Value Taxation is a powerful tool for urban infilling, helping to create conditions conducive to the kinds of dynamic, multi-use, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods he wishes to create. Certainly that is true, and LVT-ers were happy for the vote of confidence. Yet it is also true that local Smart Growth -- even if it is facilitated by LVT -- arises out of the current backward tax and property regime. If New Urbanist policies make an area more desirable, it raises property values in that area. In other words, Smart Growth really just adds a bit of panache to the idea of Gentrification; it offers no plan for improving the neighborhoods of those who can't afford New Urbanist rents.
That will matter less and less, though, as Kunstler's Long Emergency starts to descend. Clearly the dark days to come will not afford us the luxury of inclusive thinking. Perhaps Kunstler mentions the Rest of the World somewhere in his new book, but in this excerpt he implies that even the United States is too big a tent; the Red States will probably have to be jettisoned:
I think [the Southeast] will be subject to substantial levels of violence as the grievances of the formerly middle class boil over and collide with the delusions of Pentecostal Christian extremism. The latent encoded behavior of Southern culture includes an outsized notion of individualism and the belief that firearms ought to be used in the defense of it. This is a poor recipe for civic cohesion.... The Pacific Northwest, New England and the Upper Midwest have somewhat better prospects. I regard them as less likely to fall into lawlessness, anarchy or despotism and more likely to salvage the bits and pieces of our best social traditions and keep them in operation at some level.
I do not mean to suggest that when Kunstler speaks of our national addiction to cheap oil, he isn't discussing a real problem -- or that he invests it with too much urgency. It's true: society cannot go on the way it is going. Yet despite the air of courageously presenting hard truths that he affects here, Kunstler is actually taking the easy way out. It is more challenging to present a hopeful view of the peak-oil situation, because that requires clear, sensible steps that, being possible, must therefore be taken.
Kunstler says that our national leaders are not blind to this problem. He reports that the Bush administration was briefed on the dangers of the peak-oil situation as early as 2000, and that the Department of Energy released a report this March, saying the problem "will be pervasive and will not be temporary", requiring a decade's worth of preparation. This may well be the case, but if the administration really believes this report, it has a funny way of showing it. Bush has aggressively pushed a program of ever-greater access to oil and natural gas for Americans to burn ever more quickly.
In 1961, John F. Kennedy challenged the United States to put human beings on the moon and return them safely to earth, within the decade. When he committed the nation to that program, the US had not yet successfully placed an astronaut in orbit. Most of the technologies needed to get to the moon, land on it and return to earth had yet to be invented. There was no certainty that the goal could be achieved. But, there was a strong national will to demonstrate American superiority over the USSR. A heroic effort was undertaken, which (compared, say, to the cost of the Vietnam War) wasn't even all that expensive.
What if a president (or, failing that, a writer of Mr. Kunstler's stature) were to make a similar challenge today, calling for America to live up to its responsibility to create a responsible, sustainable energy policy? We might start by affirming that the earth belongs to everyone -- not just to a few supercilious commentators holed up in New England, fearing the worst.
Lindy Davies is the Program Director of the Henry George Institute.
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Suburbonomics: Harnessing Land Values to Transform Sprawl
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