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When cheap oil disappears, says James Kunstler, so will life as we know it

Published April 13, 2005 at 5:27 p.m.

Social critic James Howard Kunstler has railed for years against the twin evils of bad urban design and suburban sprawl. Based in Saratoga Springs, the author of The Geography of Nowhere and Home From Nowhere warns that our beloved cars -- and the subdivided landscapes they drive us to -- are leading American culture down a four-lane highway to destruction.

Kunstler's arguments have taken on new urgency in light of what scientists now agree is an impending, and permanent, global energy crisis. His new book, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century, imagines life -- and jobs, housing, architecture and transportation -- without access to cheap oil. An excerpt appears in a recent issue of Rolling Stone.

Kunstler got a rock-star reception last week at Middlebury College, where he entertained a standing-room-only audience with provocative predications about where our unbridled consumption is likely to land us. An eloquent, funny speaker who is not afraid to use strong language when ticked off, Kunstler agreed to a follow-up email interview with Seven Days.

SEVEN DAYS: You've long criticized the housing and transportation policies that drove people from the cities to suburbia after World War II. Now it turns out "Levittown" is not only ugly and soul-killing, but unsustainable. Explain your vision of the "Long Emergency."

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: We poured our national wealth into the construction of a living arrangement that has no future -- and the future is now here. The infrastructure of suburbia can be described as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. It was deficient and problematic as a human habitat even apart from the question of its sustainability. The way we live in America represents a tragic set of collective and individual choices we made at a particular point in history, the mid-to-late 20th century, when circumstances seemed to suggest there were no limits to our quest for comfort, convenience and leisure. These things turned out to be a poor basis for a value system and for an economy.

SD: So life without oil equals the apocalypse?

JHK: Your word, not mine. I rather resent being labeled "apocalyptic." It demonstrates how poorly even journalists understand what we face, which is an epochal discontinuity in the conditions of daily life, not the end of the world. In fact, we don't even face a life without oil, at least not imminently. We face a life without cheap oil, which is a big difference. Specifically, we are heading into a period of social, political and economic turbulence, which will probably include a lot of hardship. That's not the end of the world. That's something that the human race has been through many times before. For instance, the Europeans of 1913 would never have conceived the degree of destruction and vicissitude visited upon their societies by two 20th-century world wars. We're equally blind and clueless about what we are facing.

SD: Since the U.S. reached its peak oil production in 1970, what's happened in terms of geoeconomic power?

JHK: The U.S. controlled the oil industry and the markets from the late 1800s until 1970 because we could always pump more and goose up the global supply, moderating prices. We were also the world's leading consumers of oil, so we wanted low prices. After 1970, when U.S. production peaked, other people -- namely OPEC -- enjoyed the position as "swing producers." They controlled prices and markets, not us. They could always pump more, but we couldn't, because our total production was decreasing. The 1970s were therefore very turbulent economically and the U.S. suffered a lot. "Stagflation." Twenty-percent interest rates! High unemployment.

In the 1980s the world's last great oil discoveries, the North Sea and Alaska's North Slope, came into production, softening oil prices. These substantial non-OPEC sources tended to take pricing power away from OPEC. The result was a temporary glut and a decade and a half of still-cheap oil. I regard that period as the final blow-off of the cheap-oil era.

Now, there is reason to believe that the OPEC countries, including Saudi Arabia, may have peaked much earlier than expected, and nobody seems to have pricing control anymore -- no country can open up the valves and increase the supply enough to goose down world prices. Also, the North Sea and Alaska bonanzas are now officially over. Both areas are technically in depletion. In the years 2003 and 2004, there were no significant discoveries of any new oil.

SD: Scientists differ in opinion not on whether global oil production will peak and then fall, but when. Can you talk about this?

JHK: The difference of opinion has become nearly insignificant. Kenneth Deffeyes, the Princeton professor and former major oil company geologist, says 2005. Colin Campbell, who was chief geologist (now retired) for Shell, and the French company Total-Fina-Elf, says 2007. Some other guys say 2010. What matters is that the complex systems we depend upon -- especially world finance and the infrastructures of relative peace between nations -- will wobble in anticipation of the peak, and once that happens we're in deep shit.

SD: Did we set up a "police station" in Iraq to put off or delay the inevitable?

JKH: That's a fair statement. Our primary mission in Iraq has been to stabilize the region of the world where most of the remaining oil reserves exist. How long this might be possible is hard to say. Secondarily our mission was to moderate the behavior of Iraq's neighbors, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The perceived benefit in all of this was to be able to continue to enjoy a reliable stream of oil imports -- from people who don't like us very much.

I hasten to add that we did not go there to "steal" the oil, as some people imply, but to simply continue to obtain it at market price. In any case, we won't be able to occupy unfriendly nations indefinitely, nor will supplies of Middle East oil last indefinitely. The level of violence will probably rise and fall and rise again. There is a tremendous capacity for political mischief in that part of the world. We may exhaust and bankrupt ourselves engaging with it. The inevitable part of this is that, sooner or later, we will have to come to grips with our extreme dependency on imported oil and the way we live in America.

SD: Even the U.S. Department of Energy has released a report saying that "peak oil" is for real. So why doesn't the government support more initiatives for lessening dependence on fossil fuels?

JHK: This is hard for anyone to understand. I have personally not been a Bush-basher myself -- though I didn't vote for the sonofabitch. I tend to hold the American public as being complicit in the cluelessness that afflicts our society regarding the oil and gas issues and how they relate to our way of life. The dirty secret of the American economy for the last two decades is that it is all about the creation of suburban sprawl and accessorizing, furnishing and servicing it.

The public claims that this is what they want: the easy motoring life of the drive-in utopia. They also make a living off it. Subtract that and our economy is about little else besides medicine and hair-cutting. Consequently, our car dependency and oil addiction is a kind of economic racket, a self-reinforcing set of behaviors and habits that we dare not attempt to change -- because if we do, there will be no American economy.

Now, given all that it is still hard not to view the Bush leadership as extremely irresponsible or craven. There is no doubt that Bush and company understand the peak-oil issue and its implications for our economy and have chosen to not set the tone of a coherent national discussion about how we live. They have acted as enablers to a society that has tremendously self-destructive addictive habits. My own sense is that Bush and the Republican Party will be deeply discredited by their failure to confront the truth of our predicament until it was way too late. Unfortunately, the Democratic opposition has been, if anything, equally irresponsible and clueless. John Kerry said not a damn thing to really challenge the status quo.

SD: The Germans and Brits are paying $5.50 a gallon and their societies are not collapsing. If they can handle $6 gas, why can't we?

JHK: The Europeans have very different ways of life and standards of living. They have cars but are not car-dependent, certainly not to the degree we are. They did not destroy their towns and cities. We did. They did not destroy their public transit. We did. They did not destroy local agriculture or the value-added activities associated with it. We did. If Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia got bumped off by a Wahabi maniac tomorrow and the West was put under a new oil embargo, the Europeans would still be able to get around. We would not.

SD: You've been fairly pessimistic about "alternative" or "renewable" sources of energy, too. Is that because they're unfeasible, or that we can't get enough quickly enough?

JHK: I have been critical of these things. But mainly because the thinking about them has been so squishy and dumb. You've got Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute promoting what he calls a "hyper-car" for years and years, a car that gets super-great mileage -- say, 100 miles per gallon. Well, guess what the chief consequence of that stupid idea is: It promotes the belief that we can continue indefinitely being a car-dependent nation. Plus, it completely overlooks the tremendous damage that suburbia has done to our collective social lives, including the destruction of the public realm per se.

Mr. Lovins would have spent his time and money much more usefully on something like walkable communities, or being part of the New Urbanism movement. As a general rule, no combination of alt energy or systems to run it will allow us to continue running the U.S. as we have been running it. Virtually all of the bio-fuel schemes require more energy going in than they end up putting out. Hydrogen is essentially a hoax as it has been proposed. I believe the truth is that whatever so-called "renewables" we end up using will be at the extremely small, local scale -- perhaps the neighborhood or even household scale where solar is concerned.

SD: In your remarks at Middlebury you predicted Bush won't finish out his second term because of the "Long Emergency" that's about to begin. Were you joking?

JHK: I refer you to my answer a few questions back. I believe that Bush and company will prove to have been so stupendously irresponsible in failing to prepare the public for the hardships we face, that it might be considered an impeachable offense. Yeah, I know Cheney is lurking in the background. He can be impeached too, and so can that fat, useless prick Dennis Hastert [Speaker of the House, R-IL].

SD: In your book you talk about how declining oil reserves will change everything about how we live. What's the first crisis we'll see -- that is, other than oil-driven wars?

JHK: The oil markets will wobble well before oil becomes scarce. We're already seeing much more volatility in the price. The international financial markets will also prove to be extremely sensitive to the perception that all future industrial growth is at risk without expanding supply of oil and natural gas. The value of a currency -- say, the dollar -- depends on what people think the prospects are of the country that stands behind it.

People around the world will look at our futureless, suburban-sprawl way of life and the economy that goes with it, and they may conclude that America's prospects are not so hot. When that happens, the value of the dollar will tank. That will, of course, have a severe affect on the housing market and the sprawl-building industry. The conclusion is pretty self-evident, I think.

SD: The domino effect of changes in our way of life is staggering to think about. One thing that comes to mind is how our relatively recent reliance on computers and the Internet will be affected. Despite the advent of wireless technologies, most of us still depend on electricity for access. Any thoughts on this?

JHK: We have reason to believe that the electric grid is headed for trouble. Our natural-gas supply situation is actually quite a bit more ominous and immediate than even the oil situation, and a lot of our electricity is made with natural gas. Suffice it to say that the Internet is only as good as the electric grid that supports it.

SD: What would cities look like under an oil-crisis scenario?

JHK: We'll discover that our largest industrial cities will not work very well in an energy-scarce economy. New York and Chicago pose particular problems because they are so overburdened with skyscrapers, a building type that will soon be obsolete. As a general rule, our industrial cities have assumed a scale that is just unsustainable, and I believe will see a period of painful contraction. Many of these cities are already well advanced in that process: Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, et cetera -- the list is very long.

Los Angeles has special problems insofar as it is composed mainly of suburban fabric. The giant suburban metroplexes will also generally enter a state of failure. Phoenix and Las Vegas will be faced by additional problems with their water supply. Both will be substantially depopulated, in my opinion. In Las Vegas, the excitement will be over. The action in America will be in the smaller towns that are embedded in a surrounding countryside where agriculture is viable.

SD: So it's not a great time to invest in a $500,000 McMansion five miles out of town on Spear Street?

JHK: That would be a poor choice -- though a worse choice would be a McMansion in Tuscon.

SD: And all cash-strapped farmers and land owners should just try to hang on a little longer...

JHK: We can predict that life is going to become a lot more local, and that food production is going to occupy much more of the center of our economy. What we don't know is what kind of new social relations will form around land ownership. The Long Emergency, as I call this period ahead, will produce a lot of economic losers, people whose vocations are lost forever. Many of them will eventually find a place in food production, but exactly how that will shake out is a very interesting question. Will they sell their allegiance for food or physical security? That implies a kind of neo-feudalism. Will those who have land be subject to confiscations or assaults? During the disorders that accompanied the Black Plague in the 1300s, the countryside of Europe was beset by banditry. Will that happen in America? Hard to say.

SD: What do these coming changes imply for education and employment? Where are the jobs going to be?

JHK: I doubt that our centralized schools with their yellow bus fleets will remain in operation many years from now. I imagine that whatever education there is will go not much beyond the equivalent of the eighth grade. I tend to think that many colleges will simply close up, especially the land-grant diploma mills. College, if it continues to exist at all, will once again be an elite activity, not a consumer activity.

As I said above, the Long Emergency will produce a lot of economic losers. Many types of jobs will cease to exist: public relations executive, marketing directors, et cetera. I think work will be very hands-on, and a lot of it will revolve around food production. We will, of course, have to completely reorganize our trade infrastructures, since Wal-Mart and its imitators will not survive the end of the cheap-oil era. The consumerist frenzy will be over. We will have far fewer things to buy.

SD: You've envisioned the human reaction to the energy crisis as a sociological clusterfuck. What can individuals do to prepare for the coming changes? Find a friend, a nice little spread out in the Green Mountains, a well, a windmill, some solar panels and the right seeds. And plenty of guns, right?

JHK: The most important thing, in my opinion, is to find a community proximate to viable agriculture -- namely, a town -- and to become a useful member of it. To prepare to be a good neighbor. Not everybody will have the skill or the strength to work in agriculture, and we will certainly need a wide variety of other things to be done. The rural idyll that many people entertain is a highly sentimental one, I'm sorry to say, based on our experience of recent years with cheap oil, easy automobile loans and plenty of electricity. There will be a much clearer distinction between rural and civic lives. In the Long Emergency, those who chose country living had better be prepared to lead rural lives.

SD: Can you seriously foresee a path through the long emergency that will not involve violent social chaos? Will the suburbs be the new inner-city war zones?

JHK: I don't like the word chaos because it might tend to exaggerate what we actually face, which, in my opinion, is more properly described as turbulence, disorder, discontinuity and hardship. These things are bad enough, obviously, but they do not necessarily imply chaos and anarchy. I do believe that some places will be worse than other places. I think, for instance, that the Sunbelt will suffer in direct proportion to the degree that it prospered and benefited from the cheap-oil blowout of the past several decades.

Personally, I am a fairly cheerful person. The final question for anybody, whatever social and economic circumstances they find themselves in, is this: Am I leading a purposeful existence? I will be impertinent enough at this point to conclude by wishing us all good luck. We're going to need it.

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Paula Routly

Paula Routly

Paula Routly came to Vermont to attend Middlebury College. After graduation, she stayed and worked as a dance critic, arts writer, news reporter and editor before she started Seven Days newspaper with Pamela Polston in 1995. Routly covered arts news, then food, and, starting in 2008, focused her editorial energies on building the news side of the operation, for which she is a regular weekly editor. She conceptualized and managed the “Give and Take” special report on Vermont’s nonprofit sector, the “Our Towns” special issue and the yearlong “Hooked” series exploring Vermont’s opioid crisis. When she’s not editing stories, Routly runs the business side of Seven Days — overseeing finances, management and product development. She spearheaded the creation of the newspaper’s numerous ancillary publications and events such as Restaurant Week and the Vermont Tech Jam. In 2015, she was inducted into the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame.


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