Entropy Made Visible: An Interview with James Howard Kunstler

By Simmons B. Buntin

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About James Howard Kunstler

James Howard Kunstler
James Howard Kunstler.
Photo by Charlie Samuels.
James Howard Kunstler says he wrote The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape, “Because I believe a lot of people share my feelings about the tragic landscape of highway strips, parking lots, housing tracts, mega-malls, junked cities, and ravaged countryside that makes up the everyday environment where most Americans live and work.”

Home From Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World for the 21st Century was a continuation of that discussion with an emphasis on the remedies. A portion of it appeared as the cover story in the September 1996 Atlantic Monthly. His next book in the series, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, published by Simon & Schuster / Free Press, is a look a wide-ranging look at cities here and abroad, an inquiry into what makes them great (or miserable), and in particular what America is going to do with its mutilated cities.

This was followed by The Long Emergency, published by the Atlantic Monthly Press in 2005, which is about the challenges posed by the coming permanent global oil crisis, climate change, and other “converging catastrophes of the 21st Century.” His 2008 novel, World Made By Hand, was a fictional depiction of the post-oil American future. The sequel to that book, The Witch of Hebron, was published in fall of 2010.

The Geography of Nowhere, by James Howard KunstlerThe Atlantic Monthly Press also published his novel Maggie Darling in 2004.

Kunstler is also the author of eight other novels including The Halloween Ball and An Embarrassment of Riches. He is a regular contributor to the New York Times Sunday Magazine and Op-Ed page, where he has written on environmental and economic issues.

Kunstler was born in New York City in 1948. He moved to the Long Island suburbs in 1954 and returned to the city in 1957 where he spent most of his childhood. He graduated from the State University of New York, Brockport campus, worked as a reporter and feature writer for a number of newspapers, and finally as a staff writer for Rolling Stone. In 1975, he dropped out to write books on a full-time basis. He has no formal training in architecture or the related design fields.

He has lectured at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Dartmouth, Cornell, MIT, the University of Virginia, and many other colleges, and he has appeared before many professional organizations such as the American Institute of Architects, American Planning Association, and National Trust for Historic Preservation.


Terrain.org: Terrain.org readers were introduced to your fiction with a series of short stories beginning in our first issue. While your first eight books were fiction, your nonfiction—particularly The Geography of Nowhere and The Long Emergency—have garnered the most discussion. Many writers, however, believe that fiction can serve as the largest change agent. What do you think? What have been the responses to your post-oil novels The World Made by Hand and The Witch of Hebron and your 2010 play Big Slide? What should the responses be?

James Howard Kunstler: I am far less interested in serving as a change agent than in functioning as a prose artist, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. I won’t deny the polemical elements in my work, but they are less in the service of attempting to reform human behavior than the delighted exercise of my rather malicious sense of humor—especially vis-a-vis the horrifying everyday environment we have produced for ourselves. These mall-scapes, burb-scapes, urban wildernesses, starchitect stunts, and other toxic contexts for our daily lives express about every human vice, stupidity, and blunder that it is possible for a society to make. It all leads, really, to a psychological place where only comedy or despair make sense. They are, of course, two sides of the same coin. As Sam Beckett liked to say: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”

Eyesore of the Month
Kunstler’s “Eyesore of the Month” for November 2010: the Classroom Laboratory Administration Building on the campus of Cal Poly Pomona, which though built in 1993 is scheduled to be demolished. Click the image to read the full “review.”
Photo courtesy James Howard Kunstler.

Terrain.org: In the opening chapter of The Geography of Nowhere you write, “Eighty percent of everything ever built in America has been built in the last 50 years, and most of it is depressing, brutal, ugly, unhealthy, and spiritually degrading.” Your ongoing “Eyesore of the Month” photo series depicts just some of these “architectural abortions from around the world (and sometimes other miscellany infecting the landscape).” Is aesthetics of architecture, and let’s say streetscapes and skylines, a surface problem, or is something deeper and more problematic going on? Can we have an ugly streetscape that nonetheless succeeds from a “land use” perspective, or is beauty an essential element of any successful place?

James Howard Kunstler: It’s a huge mistake to suppose that these are merely aesthetic problems. The aggressive incoherence of our common surroundings can be described as entropy made visible. The way we have disposed things on the landscape leads us in the direction of disorder and death. They are categorically evil. These dispositions are destroying our only home-planet and other organisms that share it. They defeat our need to care about where we are and the things in place there. They prompt us to feel that civilization is not worth carrying on. They rob us of our identity and our will to live. These things are not about personal taste or style.

Terrain.org: The Long Emergency presents a compelling but alarming argument that oil and natural gas production have peaked and our oil-based society is accordingly headed for a freefall. Despite the book’s clarity, and prior substantiation in the critical 2005 report Peaking of World Oil Production by Robert Hirsch, Roger Bezdek, and Robert Wendling, there seems to be little governmental response, particularly by our federal government. Why? What kind of change will it take for a legitimate, nationwide response, and will that happen?

James Howard Kunstler: The feeble government response to these predicaments is probably due to the fact that there are no appetizing “solutions.” In fact, most of our proposed “solutions” are idiotic, for instance the Rocky Mountain Institute’s “hypercar” program to develop a car that gets supernaturally great gas mileage. All it really does is promote the idea that we can continue being car-dependent, which is insane. It’s pure techno-grandiosity. When even the highest-level environmentalists have their heads up their ass about these things, the situation is pretty grave.

Of course, anyone who studies the energy predicament understands its connection with the operations of capital—and by this I do not mean capitalism as an ideology, I mean the behavior of acquired wealth and its deployment for productive purpose. (A lot of educated idiots don’t understand this, and we waste a lot of time blathering about capitalism.) What we face is a comprehensive contraction of our activities, due to declining fossil fuel resources and other growing scarcities. Our failure is the failure to manage contraction. It requires a thoroughgoing reorganization of daily life. No political faction currently operating in the USA gets this. Hence, it is liable to be settled by a contest for dwindling resources and there are many ways in which this won’t be pretty.    

World Made by Hand, by James Howard KunstlerTerrain.org: In your November 2010 interview with Chris Martenson, you lay out your energy plan if “you were President and had free reign,” including the consideration of increased nuclear power, repairing the national passenger railroad system, and putting an emphasis on walkable communities. We’ll explore some of these in detail below, but let’s expand your presidential powers beyond the energy plan. What are some other critical directions you would set as president?  

James Howard Kunstler: The task we face is reorganizing the systems we depend on for daily life in a way that is consistent with the realities coming down at us. We have to grow our food differently because industrial farming will soon end. That means growing more food locally on smaller farms with more human attention. We have to do commerce differently because the WalMart system of big box chain retail will soon die. This means rebuilding local main street economies (networks of local economic interdependency). We have to make some things for ourselves because the conveyer belt from China is doomed (this process is known as import replacement). We have to do transportation differently, because mass motoring and even commercial aviation will soon be over. We have to inhabit the landscape differently because both suburbia and the metroplex mega-city will be obsolete, so we will have to return to a more traditional disposition of things in smaller urbanisms associated with productive agricultural hinterlands.

Now, it’s arguable how much you can legislate or even autocratically direct these changes. But you can prepare for them, both psychologically and practically. And we are doing nothing. For instance, we’re still promoting stupid wasteful behavior in agribusiness—everything from ethanol production for cars to genetically modified crops. In commerce just about everything we do politically is in the service of WalMart and the systems tied to it. In transportation, we could, for instance, have compelled General Motors to produce railroad rolling stock as a condition of their bail-out, but we didn’t do that. Instead, we’re chasing the phantom of electric cars—and, believe me, we are going to be mortally disappointed how that works out.

Most likely the changes that I’m outlining will happen emergently, with a great deal of “noise,” conflict, and suffering. In the meantime, government at all levels in the USA right now is engaged in a quixotic campaign to sustain the unsustainable. We’re determined to run WalMart, Disney World, the Interstate Highways, suburbia, and an imperial military by other means than oil. We’ll squander a lot of dwindling resources in the process.

Terrain.org: Alternative energy doesn’t seem to get much of a shake in The Long Emergency, in part because of its current dependency on the fossil fuel industry. Do you believe that the development of alternative energy resources such as solar, wind, geothermal, and tidal power should nevertheless be bolstered in the hopes that they can help offset the use of fossil fuels? Is nuclear power the most realistic “quick to market” possibility for the U.S.?

Peak oil projection by region, using geophysicist M. King Hubbert’s 1956 formula for projecting an approximation of the production rate of a resource over time.
Graphic courtesy Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas.

James Howard Kunstler: I believe we are deluded about alternative energy. The key is, whatever we do, we’re going to have to do on a very modest scale. It’s all about scale. We’re not going to build giant wind farms with Godzilla-sized turbines all over the place. That’s a fantasy. We could do some household and neighborhood or town wind energy. But even this will run up eventually against the problem of needing an underlying fossil fuel economy to fabricate the hardware. Same with photovoltaic (solar) energy. We’re going to be disappointed by what these things can do for us.

All these fantasies are symptomatic of our current techno-rapture and its constituent grandiosity and triumphalism, which is further exacerbated by the pernicious bullshit of business and advertising. Win-win! We’re number one! There’s a reason I titled my novel about the future World Made By Hand. By the way, I was not a hard-liner against nuclear, because I viewed that as perhaps the only way we might keep the lights on another 25 years. But lately I am on board with Nicole Foss’s argument that we will not have the capital or even the social cohesion to build anymore nuke plants.

Terrain.org: Several years ago I attended a lecture on the possibility of alien life forms contacting humans—part of the University of Arizona’s “Astrobiology and the Sacred” series. The presenter noted that if humans ever were contacted, we either wouldn’t have the intelligence to recognize it or the form of the contact would be technological in nature. That is, the contact would probably not be by an organic life form but by a machine of their making. Technology here at home is part of the problem of the long emergency, though, isn’t it—not just the confusion of technology as a substitute for energy, but also the byproduct of technology production as environmental devastator? How do we counteract our zealot-like yearning for and subordination to technology?

James Howard Kunstler: I’ve already described the psychological problems of our techno-rapture. As perhaps an aside, I do not believe we will get to Ray Kurzweil’s proposed “singularity” in which human minds meld with machines to produce, in effect, synthetic human evolution. Our basic problems with maintaining the electric grid argue against that fantasy. But to get back on track with your question, I believe our techno-zealotry will be moderated by sheer circumstance. We will do what reality compels us to do, not necessarily what our fantasies propose.

Of course, the toxic bullshit of incessant advertising and show biz for nearly a century has stripped us of cognitive abilities for dealing with reality that used to be part of the normal equipment of adulthood—for instance, knowing the difference between wishing for stuff and making stuff happen. We bamboozled ourselves with too much magic. The Long Emergency will be chiefly characterized as a “time out” from technology. It could plunge us into a dark age of superstition. My guess is that we will lose a lot of knowledge and skill. But I also believe the human race desperately needs this “time out.”

The Long Emergency by James Howard KunstlerTerrain.org: Your latest annual forecast calls “2011 as the turning point in the global growth of the middle class” because “[t]here just isn’t enough stuff left in the world.” Can you explain that a bit more? Is it possible that without more and more things to purchase, the middle class might instead invest in the places they live by building more walkable communities, planting gardens for local produce, and reinvigorating transit systems?

James Howard Kunstler: I think the eco-utopian picture you present is an unlikely outcome. I generally avoid over-population arguments. But there’s no question we’re in population overshoot. The catch is we’re not going to do anything about it. There will be no policy. The usual suspects: starvation, war, disease, will drive the population down. There’s little more to say about that really, and it’s certainly an unappetizing discussion, but it’s probably the truth. In any case, we’re in overshoot and we face vast resource scarcities. That’s it. The “usual suspects” are already doing their thing as worldwide food prices go up and peoples on the margin begin to suffer and starve.

This is not to say that we in the still-wealthier societies could not respond intelligently to the fact of contraction, as I stated earlier. I’m all for walkable communities, but few besides the New Urbanists in the USA want to even talk about. The “Green” community, the enviro people, are preoccupied with running all the cars differently. Our techno-grandiosity has us gibbering about high-speed rail—which we don’t have the capital for anymore—but nobody is interested in repairing the existing rail system, which would be far less costly and hugely beneficial for us. In short, we are acting cluelessly. And life is tragic. The clueless usually suffer.

Terrain.org: You’ve noted that repairing the national passenger rail system should be our highest priority. As Kate Johnson’s article in the current issue of Terrain.org details, people are just as resistant to having a regularly running passenger rail system adjacent to their homes and farms because of concerns over noise and the like as they are because of a disbelief in (or ignorance of) the decline of oil. Or perhaps those are related, subconsciously or otherwise. It seems that overarching federal policy is needed to fund the rail system resuscitation, but could you foresee a fix led by local communities or regional transit authorities? What otherwise will it take, from the perspective of governmental and economic initiatives, to bring back a thriving passenger rail system?

James Howard Kunstler: The situation Kate Johnson describes is just plain dumb NIMBYism. Well, societies get what they deserve, not what they expect (the Law of Perverse Outcomes). People don’t like railroad tracks near them? We’ll see how they feel when the percentage of U.S. citizens who can afford to drive a car goes way down, as it will. Believe me, there’s a tipping point for this kind of infantile nonsense. It is true that we need a consensus to go forward with restoring passenger rail in America, and often a consensus is formed by political action, via government. That is all true. But we have no such consensus, and no one in government or politics these days has the will or the force of personality or perhaps even the understanding of the situation to get on with job of forming a consensus supporting rail.

Terrain.org: You’ve long advocated for the New Urbanism. How far can that town and regional planning approach take us in our efforts to localize? Retrofitting suburbs and just repairing urban areas will take a lot of resources, diminishing resources—how do we braid the need for walkable communities with rapidly declining resources? What are our best North American models?

Holiday Neighborhood community garden
The Holiday Neighborhood in Boulder, Colorado, is a New Urbanist redevelopment that incorporates community gardens, recycled and energy-efficient building materials, and easy pedestrian access to the city’s extensive transit system.
Photo by Simmons B. Buntin.

James Howard Kunstler: In our current frame of mind, or paradigm, or whatever you want to call it, we like to think that marshalling government policy is the way to get things done. Look, we’re not going to reform our moronic land-use laws, which mandate suburban sprawl one way or another. They’re simply going to be ignored when it becomes self-evident that we cannot build stuff that way anymore. Also, your question implies an assumption that such a reform program would be carried out by creatures we call professional planners. I’m pretty sure we will be so short of capital, so broke, that we will no longer have any municipal planning offices of the kind we’re familiar with.

A resolution of these things will be a matter of a social consensus, too. We are currently in a period of gross confusion. But for now, perhaps indefinitely, very little is being built—in particular more strip malls or McHouse subdivisions.

My own opinion is that the suburban project is over. We are done. We don’t know it yet. For about five years or so the people who deliver all that crap—developers, realtors, various money people—have kicked back waiting for the system to get going again, to resume all their accustomed behavior. They wait in vain. They just haven’t figured out that we face a new disposition of things.

The New Urbanists understand that and they are a far more radical group in their leadership core than even their opponents realize. I don’t know if they will earn a living going forward, but our society ought to thank then for the work they did the past 20 years in retrieving lost skills and principles. The fortunate and successful New Urbanists will be the ones who can find local infill projects in small towns and small cities associated with farming, water transport, (perhaps rail too) and water power. I do not believe personally that we will retrofit much of suburbia in the way many people wish we might. The capital won’t be there, and I’m rather convinced that the population is headed down—though this will be a lagging effect, because even starving people have sex.

Most of suburbia will end up in three ways: ruins, slums, salvage yards for materials.

Terrain.org: While many people now look back on the Y2K scare as a kind of joke, I remember working in the electric industry then and it was anything but funny, not just because of the millions of dollars invested in fixing or replacing computers and related hardware, but because of the real possibility of whole-scale electric system failure. Rather than a joke, you have noted that it was indeed a “legitimate potential catastrophe that was averted.” Does the response to 2YK provide not just a lesson but a kind of blueprint for responding to the looming peak oil catastrophe? What are the essential lessons learned that we can apply now?

James Howard Kunstler: The Y2K situation was not a joke. I’ve had many conversations with programmers who worked their asses off to correct the problem. The thing is, it was a single discrete problem and they succeeded in fixing it. No, I don’t think it provides a blueprint for the peak oil problem because it’s a compound problem of overlapping complex systems and there is not a “fix” for it, no rescue remedy. At the heart of our misunderstanding and infantile behavior is the wish for a miracle cure. Y2K was a mechanical problem, really. Peak oil is already upon us. It is destroying our banking system, that is, our system for marshalling capital, and that is about to put us out of business-as-usual. So, we have to carry on with business-not-so-usual. This could mean anything from your children finding careers in farming (rather than show biz or plastic surgery) to reorganizing households differently to traveling from New York to Boston by boat.

A recent painting by James Howard Kunstler: “Dead Pontiac (Spring).” Click image to view full gallery.
Image by James Howard Kunstler

Terrain.org: Let us return to beauty and art: You are a prolific painter, and several of your landscape scenes reflect the atrophied places of our own making: a dead and overgrown Pontiac, factory ruins along a river, the ruins of a trolley bridge. Does painting even these scenes provide a kind of catharsis that writing cannot? If fiction, as the first question alluded to, can be perhaps the best literary change agent, what about visual art—whether paintings or photographs, or video perhaps? Have you worked in video as a medium and, given its widespread appeal—two billion videos are accessed on YouTube per day—is that another avenue you may use for reaching the masses? At what point does the art become the technology we caution against?

James Howard Kunstler: I’ve been painting since childhood and went to New York’s High School of Music and Art, so I got a little bit of training—though I became a theater major in college (go figure). Painting allows me to use other portions of my brain pleasurably. Irony plays no part in what or how I paint. I paint the particular subject matter not to make polemical points but because I am interested in the human imprint on the landscape. I paint the landscape of my time and place with the stuff in it. The upper Hudson Valley happens to contain a wealth of industrial ruins and wreckage, and a lot of it is embedded in very arresting topography. I am a sur le motif painter, always in-the-field, with a French easel that folds up into a box, with backpack straps on it. Many of the sites I haunt are desolately beautiful. Few other people go there. I am gloriously alone, unmolested, and absorbed in attempting to see what I am looking at. My skills are not of the highest caliber, but I know a thing or two, and I occasionally produce a painting that contains passages of truth and beauty.

Terrain.org: What’s next for James Howard Kunstler?

James Howard Kunstler: I’m finishing an original spec screenplay at the moment and I’m under contract to produce a nonfiction book about techno-grandiosity.  I intend to write two more installments of World Made By Hand—Winter and Spring—so the series covers all four seasons. I have a pretty sturdy to-do list, and it’s darn interesting to watch events play out as they are doing.



Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland’s Salmon Poetry. Catch up with him at SimmonsBuntin.com.

Header photo credit: Stuck in Customs via photopin cc

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