CARS HOMES JOBS

James Kunstler insists suburbs are done for

Writer airs views on gas, housing during locally-produced podcast

Sunday, July 27, 2008
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James Kunstler during one of his "KunstlerCast" podcast."
James Kunstler during one of his "KunstlerCast" podcast."

James Howard Kunstler isn’t shy about sharing his worldview.

For years, the Saratoga County writer has been pounding out his message loud and clear: Suburbia doesn’t work.

In scores of books, magazine articles and public-speaking engagements, Kunstler has decried America’s love affair with its gas-guzzling SUVs and McMansions in the ’burbs and beyond. Along the way, the 59-year-old has steadily gained a national audience for his outspoken campaign against the “tragic comedy of suburban sprawl,” as he puts it.

For more info

Go to kunstlercast.com to hear James Kunstler’s podcast anytime.

This spring, Kunstler, who is probably best know for his 1993 book, “The Geography of Nowhere,” added a locally produced podcast to air his views. The KunstlerCast, as it’s been dubbed, lets him discuss everything from peak oil to “the end of suburbia.”

Kunstler and the podcast’s host and producer, Duncan Crary of Troy, record it weekly and post a fresh one every Thursday. The show is aired on three out-of-state radio stations, but it’s available online anytime at kunstlercast.com.

The Sunday Gazette caught up with Kunstler recently to discuss the podcast and the current state of Mother Earth.

Q: Oil has been trading in the range of $120 to $140 a barrel in the past month. Where do you see things going from here? $200?

A: I think it will ratchet up and down basically following an upward trend-line. It may fall sharply for a while if the global economic contraction is severe. But if it falls to lower price levels (say the $100 range) that will only re-start oil consumption again and the trend upward will resume. Another way of seeing this is the possibility that the current price situation will create such severe distortions in finance and certain industries, such as trucking and aviation, that will result in permanent damage to our way of life.

The aviation industry, for instance, will not get back up again if it goes down — at least not in the form we know it in.

Q: You’ve been talking for years about the need for America to rethink the car-based sprawl model. Now with gas prices going through the roof, it seems the rest America is starting to pay attention to the same things you’ve been preaching for years. Do you feel vindicated in any way?

A: Sure, I feel somewhat vindicated. I was keenly aware of the process described by [Søren Aabye] Kierkegaard regarding “new and disturbing ideas.” They are first greeted with ridicule, then violent opposition, and finally accepted as self-evident. So I didn’t expect my message in “The Long Emergency” to be warmly welcomed. And it wasn’t. Now, reality is catching up with it.

Q: Are you getting more requests for media interviews these days?

A: Yes. I get calls these days from Katie Couric’s producers and CNBC’s Larry Kudlow show. So far I haven’t been on them due to inconvenience issues — I live far from their studios. I have had a pretty steady stream of calls from radio stations and newspapers for many years.

Q: Where do you see things going in terms of the housing market? Will America abandon the suburbs in favor of the cities?

A: A lot of people (Realtors, builders, bankers) are waiting for the “bottom” of the housing crash, with the idea that we’ll re-enter an up-cycle. I see it differently. There won’t be a resumption of “growth” as we’ve known it, certainly not in suburban residential and commercial real estate. The suburban project is over. We’re done with that. (I know people find this unbelievable.) The existing stuff will represent a huge liability for us for decades to come as it loses value and utility and falls apart.

However, I also believe our big cities will contract. They are simply not scaled to the energy realities of the future. The successful places, in my opinion, will be the smaller cities and towns that 1.) have walkable neighborhoods, 2.) have proximity to water for power, transport and drinking, and 3.) have a meaningful relationship with a productive agricultural hinterland. Some places you can forget about completely: Phoenix . . . Las Vegas . . . they’re toast.

Q: In the age of McMansions, Americans have been building bigger and bigger homes. In your opinion, how many square feet are needed for a family of four to live comfortably?

A: I would tend to re-frame the question: what will the composition of a household be in the years ahead? I doubt that will be the simple “nuclear family” we think of as the standard household of today. So, your question will be mooted by new arrangements we can only guess at.

Q: I grew up in classic suburban neighborhood and I loved it. Summers were one long game: bike riding, fort building and games of “jail break” and “kick the can.” Do you see any good in these kinds of developments?

A: We have to be clear about something: just because we liked something, or we enjoyed certain arrangements, does not mean reality will allow you to continue living that way. I lived in a suburban subdivision on Long Island for three years between the ages of 5 and 8.

The suburban milieu had advantages for kids that age. But once you get beyond that, kids need more than a safe “nursery” setting (segregated from the normal activities of daily life). Luckily for me, I moved into Manhattan at age 8 and completed my upbringing there. On the whole, I think the disadvantages of suburbia for children above age 8 have become increasingly severe over the decades and that we will be fortunate to be done with it.

Q: What’s the most “walkable” city in the Northeast? What about in this area?

A: There are plenty of them. New York City, of course, is an astounding place — though I believe it will face enormous liabilities of scale in the decades ahead — especially with skyscrapers — that will be a huge drag on its ability to survive. Boston remains pretty walkable, but also faces scale issues. Providence, R.I., is a hidden gem and closer to the scale of a city that might have a plausible future. Northampton, Mass., Concord, N.H., Portsmouth, N.H., Portland, Maine, Hudson, N.Y, and Montpelier, Vt., are agreeable places scaled to a lower energy future. Albany, Schenectady, and Troy are, for the moment, at their nadir of disinvestment. All of them share an advantageous relationship to a major inland waterway, with all that implies.

Q: What will the Capital Region look like in 50 years? What will be the “must live” city or town?

A: I think the suburban “creamy nougat center” of the Capital District, the area centered on Wolf Road, will be mostly abandoned. As stated above, Troy, Schenectady and Albany all occupy important geographical sites. Some kind of town will exist where they are. It remains to be seen how we can resume any kind of manufacturing activity at a scale consistent with our energy reality, or say what it might consist of.

There is also the possibility that our civilization will be in for a harsher landing, so to speak. That was the scene I presented in my recent novel, “World Made By Hand.” In that book, Albany was depicted as having reverted to a small residue of a waterfront settlement, with all the grand stuff “up the hill” largely abandoned.

Q: When you drive, what are you driving? What kind of mileage does it get?

A: I drive a 2005 Toyota RAV. I don’t have to commute, of course, since I am a work-at-home author. I consider myself fortunate. I don’t know whether I will ever own another motor vehicle. This car gets about 25 mpg highway. I don’t go out “cruising for burgers” in it.

Q: Can America survive if everyone starts buying hybrids? Or do we need a more monumental shift?

A: In my opinion we are excessively preoccupied with how we’re going to keep all the cars running. We need to accept the fact that the “Happy Motoring” experience is drawing to a close for us. We have to make other arrangements for where we live and how we get around.

Unfortunately, our investments in motoring are so exorbitant that we are liable to exhaust and bankrupt our society in a futile effort to keep the motoring system going at all costs. I’d add that most of our alt-fuel ideas amount to dangerous fantasies — for instance the ethanol fiasco. We have to give our attention to many other vitally important projects besides propping up the car system.

Q: Who would you like to see win the presidency? What would you like to see them do in terms of the environment, gas prices etc.?

A: I voted for Mr. Obama in the New York primary and continue to support him. The Republican party will be hugely discredited by the circumstances we face. In fact, they will be regarded as the party that wrecked the nation. I feel sorry for whoever occupies the White House in January 2009. He’ll have to find a gentle way to tell the truth to the people who elected him, people who will be suffering mightily, and who will be very sore about their losses. He’ll have to tell them that the previous “release” of the American Dream software is obsolete, and the new version will require a whole lot more of them in the way of earnest effort, delayed gratification and revised expectations.

Q: Are you working on another book yet? Can you give us any details on what it’s about?

A: I’m writing a sequel to “World Made By Hand” set in the post-oil future. This one is set around Halloween.

 
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comments

July 27, 2008
7:30 a.m.
davidgiacalone says...

Thanks to the Gazette for this informative interview. I'm wondering whether the expected return to the cities will cause a new wave of "Gentrification" that is likely to push out the poor and non-rich (and, if so, where they will be able to live).

July 27, 2008
12:44 p.m.
pallen9254 says...

What Kunstler talks about re 'return to the cities' is part and parcel of what he sees as the inevitable massive re-ordering of social and economic relations that will result when the current order simply cannot function any longer. His book _The Long Emergency_ is a book-length essay on the oil-dependent character of the US and world economy and the implications of what will likely happen when cheap transportation is no longer possible.

While less the case in many parts of the Northeast, very large tracts of the US no longer have any really local economy. Most food and most manufactured goods are brought in from hundreds, thousands, and even tens of thousands of miles away. Oil scarcity means that eventually goods will not be worth the cost of transport (or, rather, that so few will be able to afford the prices necessitated by those costs that such trade cannot even pay for itself). The explosion of post-WWII suburban and exurban development surrounding many US cities have destroyed agricultural land that earlier had fed those populations.

People tend to believe that some nick-in-time super-science magic bullet will appear to salvage Life As We Know It. Kunster's view, with which I agree, is that this is magical thinking. In the very best possible scenario, it will take a couple of decades to reorder our economy and infrastructure to accommodate the realities on the horizon, and will require enormous effort, sacrifice and change of thinking at every level of society. As daunting as that is, waiting for changes to be imposed by catastrophic circumstances will be much harder and vastly uglier.

July 27, 2008
2 p.m.
dtschet says...

Kudos to Kunstler for seeing so far into the future years ago. Now the media seeking him out for in-depth brain-picking. Wonderful! Although being a visionary has it's rewards, the vision requires much adjustment in thinking by government officials and local citizens. Suburbia may be a perfect location for nuclear geriatric communities that do not require commuting on a daily basis and might survive with a minimum of local goods and service distribution within each area.

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