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The Small Cities at the End of the Tunnel 

James Howard Kunstler sees a future beyond peak oil. He calls it Newburgh and Kingston.

Last Updated: 02/07/2019 8:53 am
click to enlarge Customers shop for produce at the Food Project’s Farmer’s Market in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester. According to James Howard Kunstler, as we head into our low-energy future, we will rely more and more on local food and local businesses.
  • Customers shop for produce at the Food Project’s Farmer’s Market in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester. According to James Howard Kunstler, as we head into our low-energy future, we will rely more and more on local food and local businesses.

We all know there’s a conventional worldview out there—call it consensus reality. It’s football on Saturdays, Bud Light, Banks that Care, America the Greatest Country of All.

A lot of people—more and more every day, it seems—view consensus reality as bogus. You’ve got your conspiracy theorists (Mossad!!! The Trilateral Commission!!!), and then there are those who see the world through green-tinted glasses and decry a world in denial about things like peak oil, the environmental costs of consumerism, climate change and…the list goes on and on.

The Saratoga-based writer and social activist James Howard Kunstler belongs to the latter category, with an asterisk for originality. For decades he’s been a prophet in the wilderness, proclaiming that the king has no clothes. His 1994 book, The Geography of Nowhere , was an acidulous critique of what he called the “tragic landscape” of suburbia. In The Long Emergency (2006), Kunstler turned his attention to peak oil and forecast hard times followed by a low-energy future built around small towns and local produce. The author of many fiction as well as non-fiction works, Kunstler is hailed by some for the incisiveness of his vision and excoriated by others for being “overwrought” and “pessimistic”—characterizations, it must be added, that he rejects out of hand.

We recently talked with Kunstler about consensus reality, his quite alternate reality, and the gap between the two.

Jim, when I scanned the Web for responses to your books, I kept coming upon characterizations like “grim” and “apocalyptic.” Are these fair descriptions of your work?

No. My view of the future is realistic, not bleak.

I’ve written two novels set in the postapocalyptic future. Part of my agenda in writing those books was to depict a future world that would be much more austere than the one we’re used to, but would have all kinds of compensations such as making your own music, working alongside your neighbors, and eating real food. I had a conscious mission—to introduce readers to a world that wouldn’t be as bad as their nightmares depicted.

We have plenty to be concerned about, but there are also plenty of ways we can re-organize our world to make it a better place to live.

Please briefly describe your view of the challenges we face.

We are living in a world suffering from population overshoot, growing resource scarcity, and troubling hypercomplexity.

Are we equipped to deal with these challenges? I’m thinking of both our genetic and our cultural endowments.

As a species, there’s some question about our ability to address issues in anything but a short-term manner.

As for our cultural programming, that’s rather unfortunate these days. There are a lot of assumptions we seem unable to overcome. For instance, all our economic models are based on the idea of limitless expansion when the world isn’t actually limitless.

Are we screwed?

I wouldn’t leap to that conclusion. People will keep doing what they do until circumstances compel them to do otherwise. Eventually, the time will come when we have no choice but to do things differently. This will happen regardless of how we feel about it. Reality has mandates of its own.

We’ll have to grow food differently. We’ll have to inhabit the landscape differently. We’ll have to do commerce differently. We’ll have to do transportation differently.

We’ll have no choice but to change our ways.

Let’s look at each of these areas of activity in turn.

Food: We’ll need to grow more food locally and regionally on a smaller scale, probably in a way that requires more human attention, and in a way that’s better integrated into local towns and cities.

We’ll have to return to more traditional modes of habitation. Cities will be a lot smaller than the ones we live in now. Places like Kingston and Troy and Newburgh will have a future because inland waterways will be more important.

The contraction process will be painful. Big cities won’t be able to keep offering services the way they do currently. This is already expressing itself in municipal insolvencies, and in arguments about things like bargaining rights for public employees. We’ll see the loss of lots of what is perceived as wealth. A Manhattan office building valued at $500 million may turn out to be a liability. The success stories will be smaller towns scaled to the resources of the future.

Commerce: Big-box commerce isn’t a permanent institution in the human condition. Reality will tell us we can’t keep organizing commerce that way. No more endless 12,000-mile conveyor belts of merchandise from Asia to Walmart! Globalism is over, finished.

Things are already starting to shift. A lot of people in business and politics understand that we’re facing serious friction with people who’ve been our historical trading partners. Japan, for instance, may have to stop supporting our debt program. Another example: our relationship with Islamic oil countries is undergoing a severe test. If Saudi Arabia gets into serious turmoil, it’s basically game over for how we do things in the United States.

Our transportation system is also hitting some tipping points. I’m not only talking about the price of oil here. Because governments are so strapped, they’re starting to have trouble maintaining roads. Highway engineers will tell you that if you miss a single cycle of repair, roads deteriorate very quickly. Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin have already launched depaving programs, taking country roads back to dirt.

There’s another shift occurring here, too. Because we’re facing problems with available capital, Americans won’t be able to buy cars the way they’re accustomed to. They can’t get installment loans.

Few people will view this as a good thing. I view it as a necessary step for us to get to our destination.

Which is?

More local economies and downscaled activities. We were this society until 90 years ago. We can be that society again. In fact, I don’t see an alternative.

There’s a long way between here and there, isn’t there?

In terms of mental models, definitely. The fact is that we’re not prepared for any of these changes at any level or realm of society. This is partly due to techno-triumphalism—the notion that technological innovation will save the day. This is the attitude that keeps us from repairing the regular rail system because we’re obsessed with creating a high-speed system.

Another misbegotten attitude is what I call the psychology of previous investment. Once you’ve made massive investments in infrastructure, for instance in suburbia, there’s a natural tendency to want to defend those investments. We can see the results—campaign after campaign to sustain the unsustainable, and a national collective imagination that’s unable to construct a consensus that’s consistent with reality.

We have plenty of creativity and plenty of ability to innovate, but we’re fooling ourselves and the leadership is bad. We’re experiencing a comprehensive failure of leadership across all sectors—business, government, academia, the clergy.

Do you include Obama in this indictment?

Yes. I don’t know whether people have frightened him into not speaking about these issues, or if he just doesn’t get it. He clearly doesn’t understand the energy situation. In a recent speech on energy, much of what he said is pure fantasy—for instance, the claim that we have 100 years of shale gas.

I have a deeper critique of Obama as well, which also happens to be my critique of progressive politics generally. Democrats try to solve problems by adding complexity to systems that are already too complex. This is a tragic and unfortunate mistake. Obama’s health-care “reform” and financial “reform” were failures for this reason.

I say this, by the way, as a registered Democrat.

How abrupt and dramatic will the coming disruptions be?

They’re mostly an ongoing process. For instance, the airlines are clearly going to fail. They’ve been doing so incrementally for the last 10 years or so. They’ve already been through one round of bankruptcies.

There hasn’t been a huge implosion yet, though we risk getting to that point. There are tipping points that we can see and understand. For instance, the finance sector now has expanded from five percent of economic activity to over 40 percent. With the replacement of authentic investments with what I call something-for-nothing deals, we can confidently project traumatic failures, and in fact we’re already seeing them in the form of stock market crashes, currency problems, and so on.

Recently, we had a pretty bad crash and papered it over with accounting stunts and “quantitative easing.” This allowed us to artificially goose up the stock markets, with the result that people feel their banking system is okay when it actually isn’t. Eventually, we’ll reach a point when we have another financial crisis and we’ve run out of tricks that let us borrow against the future.

In what ways can we minimize the pains associated with these dislocations and accelerate the necessary transformations?

What happens next isn’t entirely up to us as individuals. Societies are emergent, self-organizing phenomena. You don’t sit back and plan how you’re going to change absolutely everything. Circumstances will prompt us to do things differently and we will make changes, but the process is likely to be less than linear. Sometimes these historic transitions are harsh and traumatic, and sometimes we manage them a bit better. The big challenge our society faces is managing contraction. Unfortunately, we’re not thinking about it very clearly. We have to scale down and get local, and we’ll be much happier when we get some clarity on that.

What will help is if more people decide to move to places like Kingston. If more people decide to move into agriculture instead of becoming marketing assistants in cubicles. If more people start the sort of businesses that will rebuild local economies.

If, in other words, more people choose to start doing the things we’ll all need to be doing eventually.

Carl Frankel has been writing about sustainability-related issues for over two decades.
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