President Bush says Americans guzzle too much petroleum, and James Howard Kunstler would certainly agree. But the flamethrowing author of The Long Emergencya wickedly entertaining and terrifying look into a future without cheap fuelthinks the world isn't doing nearly enough to get ready, and nobody is safe from his wrath.
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“You’re not going to run Walt Disney World and the interstate highway system on ethanol or hemp! Or biodiesel! Or hydrogen! Or solar power, or all of them together,” booms the man at the podium in the conservative khaki suit. “That isn’t going to happen!” he continues in a staccato blast of invective. “We are going to have to make other ar-range-ments for how we live!”
James Howard Kunstler, a stout, bald 57-year-old author from Saratoga Springs, New York, is in the throes of his modern-day hydrocarbon jeremiad. He’s pacing. He’s yelling. He’s livid. And just in case you missed his point, he’s jabbing his fingers downward to show the direction of things to come.
America, Kunstler argues, is about to become one fantastically miserable place. Why? Because our entire standard of living is propped up by cheap oil, and the days of cheap oil are over. “No combination of alternative fuels is going to allow us to run the United States the way we’ve been used to running it,” he tells the Dallas crowd. And though tonight he’ll resist calls to pinpoint when the nightmare will begin, he’s told the online environmental magazine Grist.org that “we’re going to be feeling the pain” in as little as three years, and suburban collapse might start in ten.
Sounds preposterous, on the face of it. But Kunstler bases his predictions on a geoeconomic concept called “peak oil” that is gaining credibility even within the petroleum industry. The theory holds that humankind has nearly, if not already, tapped 50 percent of the world’s fossil-fuel reserves—the half that’s highest in quality and easiest to pump out of the ground. Once we hit “peak,” as the halfway mark is called, the global supply will decline and extraction costs and gas prices will skyrocket ($7 per gallon by 2010 is one ballpark figure that gets thrown around) while demand continues its inexorable climb. This doomsday scenario—along with what Kunstler calls the American propensity for “sleepwalking into the future”—is the basis for his hot-selling 2005 book The Long Emergency, now in its tenth printing.
Kunstler, meanwhile, has been on what might be called an “eve of destruction” speaking tour. Tonight’s stop is Dallas’s Southern Methodist University for an event called “The Unfolding Energy Crisis and Its Impact on Development Patterns.” Even with a stultifying title like that one, the auditorium is packed.
Hanging on Kunstler’s every caustic word are students, enviros, urban planners, and fans like Jeffrey Brown, 49, a native Texan and concerned independent oil producer who helped organize this peak-oil talk.
A clutch of buttoned-up oil-biz men sit in the front rows, among them the legendary tycoon-turned-hedge-fund-manager T. Boone Pickens, who invests in oil and gas futures and alternative-energy firms. Nearby are some execs from Oklahoma-based Chesapeake Energy, which, like Pickens’s firm, kicked in $5,000 to SMU to help pay for the event. The petro-professionals mainly showed up to hear the first speaker in this doubleheader, leading oil-industry investment banker Matthew Simmons, whose book Twilight in the Desert concludes that Saudi crude is running out. Stockbrokers, lawyers, traders, and Herbert Hunt, of the famous Texas oil clan, are all on hand. Although, at the moment, they probably wish they weren’t.
“We are going to have tremendous problems!” Kunstler is shouting. The crowd sits erect, at attention, looking somewhat wan. Without cheap crude, Kunstler declares, the earth can’t support six billion people, and so a lot of us aren’t going to make it. Modern-day agriculture, with its gas-guzzling infrastructure and natural-gas-based fertilizers, will collapse and be replaced by enraged waves of citizens forced into hardscrabble lives of subsistence farming. “The long emergency is going to make a new, large group of losers,” says Kunstler, holding his fingers up in the shape of a capital L. “And they will be very angry about that!”
Suburbs—which Kunstler believes have turned Americans into depressed, overweight blobs—will become ghost towns once exorbitant gas prices make commuting unaffordable. Wave goodbye to the swingin’ big-city life, too, Kunstler says—we’ll survive only in small towns where we can grow our own food. Wal-Mart? Big-box stores? Doomed. And say ciao to the U.S. as we know it: While the nation battles China (and others) for access to the remaining oil overseas, the states back home could likely Balkanize into fractious mini-regions.
Nuclear power can’t help—nobody wants a plant near them, and even if they did, it takes too many years to get one running. Fuel cells, biomass, whatever techno-fix you favor—nothing, says Kunstler, is ever going to be as plentiful, practical, and scalable as oil, and no amount of positive thinking and good ol’ Yankee ingenuity can save us.
“History is merciless,” he says, sounding like a Yale philosophy prof while he reloads the flamethrower. “History doesn’t care if we pound our society down a rat hole. It’s up to us to make more intelligent choices about how we live!”
The crowd starts clapping—resoundingly. As if to concur, Yes, most absolutely, we are screwed!
“We have created thousands and thousands of places in America that aren’t worth caring about,” Kunstler continues, “and when we have enough of them, we’re going to have a country that’s not worth defending.”
And if the audience was applauding before, now they’re really putting some muscle into it. Even the oilmen join in.
JIM KUNSTLER MIGHT BE the loudest and grouchiest person to talk about peak oil and social chaos, but he certainly isn’t the first. Today, end-of-oil mania is a cottage industry, including the 2005 book by Matthew Simmons and another, The Empty Tank, by Jeremy Leggett, plus two 2004 books—The End of Oil, by environmental writer Paul Roberts, and Powerdown, by Richard Heinberg. There’s also the influential 2003 opus Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage, by Princeton geologist Kenneth Deffeyes, who examines the peak-oil theories first floated by visionary Shell geologist M. King Hubbert in 1956.
There are Web sites and blogs devoted to the topic (EnergyBulletin.net, TheOilDrum.com, LifeAfterTheOilCrash.net, DieOff.org) and full-page oil-company ads in the nation’s dailies touting a bountiful future filled with their post-oil alternatives. There are concerns raised by President Bush himself, who touched on the nation’s oil addiction in his 2006 State of the Union address and traveled the nation this winter to promote fossil-fuel alternatives.
Against all that background noise, Kunstler has emerged as a leading voice—and a very unlikely one at that. He’s not an oilman or a geology expert. He’s not an economist, sociologist, architect, or even an urban planner. He’s a New York City–born former Rolling Stone writer, longtime journalist, and thrice-divorced autodidact who graduated from the State University of New York at Brockport with a major in theater. After an early career spent largely as a newspaper reporter, he became a full-time writer in 1975 and has since produced nine novels and four works of nonfiction.
He’s also been harping on his doom theme, in one way or another, since 1994, when he published The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape. It was his first assault on suburban living, and while it wasn’t a bestseller, it became something of a cult hit in college architecture and urban-planning departments. It also made him a guru of the burgeoning New Urbanism movement, with its emphasis on well-planned “walkable” communities where jobs, stores, schools, and other basic necessities are a bike ride or short jaunt away. Kunstler followed up with two other similarly themed takes—Home from Nowhere and The City in Mind.
By 2001 he also had his own Web site, Kunstler.com, where you can read everything from his movie and book reviews to a hysterically funny section called Clusterfuck Nation (clusterfuck being his word for the ugly amalgamations of modern life, chief among them the “chain stores, franchise fry-pits, muffler shops,” and other “nauseating furnishings” of the suburban landscape).
Through it all, Kunstler has been an equal-opportunity assailer of the left and right. He’s a registered Democrat but a highly aggrieved one. He received a flurry of hate mail after he took a jab last summer at lefty comic actor Harry Shearer (of This Is Spinal Tap and NPR’s Le Show) for his anti–Iraq war positions. “Has Harry Shearer seen any of his children join the army and go to Iraq to preserve his entitlement to drive all over Los Angeles in a spiffy car?” he asked on his Web site.
Last May, in the online magazine Salon.com, Kunstler also lit into green-energy sage Amory Lovins, of the Snowmass, Colorado–based Rocky Mountain Institute, after Lovins published a study about how practical alternatives can help us win “the oil endgame.” Among other things, Kunstler trashed one of Lovins’s projects—a 100-mile-per-gallon alternative-fuel car—as a “stupid distraction” from our problems. (“Serious students of this subject,” Lovins countered on Salon, “may be forgiven for preferring our well-documented analysis to his qualitative contentions.”)
The upside of Kunstler’s anger is that he’s getting people to sit up and take notice. “You could write about this in a very academic way, but then nobody would listen,” says David Ehrenfeld, the founding editor of Conservation Biology and a professor in the Rutgers University Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources. “If there’s a problem with Kunstler,” Ehrenfeld adds, “it’s that his breezy style belies the fact that there’s a very solid underpinning to his book and his ideas. But it’s a successful style.”
It’s an odd style, too. Kunstler doesn’t offer many solutions or think that anything will ultimately save us. He believes his mission is to sound the alarm bells, period: America’s love of magical fixes makes his skin crawl. “I call it the Jiminy Cricket syndrome,” he says. “It’s the idea that when you wish upon a star, your dreams can come true. It’s delusional.”
And yet the buzz about him and the speaking offers just won’t quit. Since the Lovins spat and the publication of The Long Emergency, there have been interviews on the BBC and NPR, appearances at tech-investor conferences and peak-oil gatherings, and speaking offers from universities nationwide.
In the December 2005 issue of Fortune, billionaire investor Richard Rainwater professed to being a fan and said he handed out copies of The Long Emergency in bulk to friends and colleagues. Rainwater told Fortune that Kunstler’s predictions probably weren’t totally right, but he was worried they weren’t totally wrong, either.
Even Google execs invited Kunstler to lecture last year at their Silicon Valley company headquarters, which Kunstler likens to a giant kindergarten. “They have these great snack stations deployed at 30-foot intervals so you can never be without a pineapple or malted milk ball,” he says. Worse, no one wanted to believe his prophecies. “One Googler after another,” he adds, “said, ‘Dude, but we’ve got technology!’ “
Techno-wizards aside, Kunstler appears to have tapped into something of a national anxiety complex about the American way of life. Drive-through-window living and endless commutes from the ‘burbs aren’t exactly what a lot of us aim for. The country is at war with an elusive enemy in a faraway part of the globe. A hurricane practically wiped New Orleans off the map and sent oil and gas prices skyrocketing. Recent rebel attacks on oil facilities in Nigeria and a thwarted terrorist assault on a Saudi oil plant had the same effect—for a time, at least. For those and lots of other reasons, some people aren’t in the mood to insist that the future looks bright. And if there’s any doubt, Kunstler is there to reassure you: Your way of life is kaput.
IT’S THE DAY BEFORE THE SMU TALK—a typical rush hour in the Dallas metro zone—and most of the region’s 5.7 million denizens are behind the wheel, nearly eight out of ten of them driving solo, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The Dallas North Tollway is a slow-moving six-lane river that weaves through 22 miles of suburbia, from the manicured lawns of Highland Park, through the mirror-image ‘burbs of Addison, Farmers Branch, and Plano, and finally into the exurban netherworld of Frisco—a 90-minute rush-hour commute that a few years ago took 35.
Today Kunstler is one of the prisoners of gridlock: Jeffrey Brown is squiring him to a few of Dallas’s New Urbanism developments, the compact, stroll-friendly communities designed to combat the hydrocarb habit. The ten-mile-per-hour idling past strip malls, chain restaurants, and office parks has put Kunstler in a funk. “I get so depressed when I come to these places,” he says. “I really wonder what these people are thinking.”
Brown nods. “All this has to go,” he says, sweeping his hands across the asphalt-and-steel horizon. “It’s unsustainable. The sooner it happens, the better.” Yes, despite the fact that he makes his money in oil, and despite the fact that he lives in a Dallas suburb, Brown is a Kunstlerian.
In the meantime, the problem with getting Kunstler to the New Urbanism sites is that you have to use the freeway to reach them. Brown has segued off the tollway and is now on I-75 heading toward the just-completed five-tier, $261 million highway interchange between U.S. 75 and I-635.
“This is one heroic motherfucker of an interchange,” says Kunstler, in the mock Texas twang he’s been using since his plane touched down a couple of hours ago.
“I thought you’d appreciate the majesty of it all,” Brown says.
Brown, for his part, believes he has seen the future in the vanishing black gold of Texas, and it has scared him. Last spring he picked up a copy of Hubbert’s Peak, in which Deffeyes expands on Hubbert’s classic theory. This winter, Deffeyes posted a stunning update on his Web site: The planet reached peak production in December 2005, he concluded. If that view frightened Brown, The Long Emergency terrified him.
“There are two camps,” Brown explains. “The peak-oil community believes there are roughly two trillion recoverable barrels of supply left.” In the other camp, he adds, are major oil companies, the Saudi government, and people like oil-industry analyst Daniel Yergin, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his 1991 book The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power. This crowd thinks there are about four to six trillion recoverable barrels in the ground, enough to satisfy demand for decades.
Yergin, one of Kunstler’s chief opponents, predicts that we might hit global peak in 15 years. But he doesn’t believe this would precipitate a remorseless decline into chaos. Instead, he says the oil supply would ebb and flow in undulating cycles while, in the backdrop, advanced new technologies would help boost production.
Figuring out who’s right, unfortunately, is a near-impossible task. The Saudis don’t disclose statistics about what’s left of the planet’s biggest oil fields, leaving peak-oil theorists like Simmons and Paul Roberts to tease out conclusions from mountains of technical papers and reports in oil-trade journals.
“We are in the minority opinion right now,” says Brown, as he navigates yet another traffic clot. “But we’re a growing minority.” Then his countenance brightens. He’s hosting a dinner for Kunstler this evening, along with faculty from SMU’s environmental-science program, but beforehand he wants to show off just one last New Urbanism project, and the place is finally within reach.
He winds through the suburb of Addison, finds the site, and drives through. Kunstler peers out the window at the supposedly walkable community. “I give Dallas credit for trying,” he sighs. “But just try and walk from one of these developments to another one—it would be a Bataan death march.”
IF YOU WERE IN A CAR with Kunstler or at his SMU speech or at his visit to Rice University, in Houston, two days later—in fact, if you were anyone facing his wrath—you might wonder just what makes the man happy. To answer that question, you’d probably have to visit Saratoga Springs, New York, where he’s lived since 1976.
It’s one of those classic upstate New York burgs, population 28,000, with a thriving downtown and cultural scene. Sure, it has its strip malls and sprawl. But it’s the home of Skidmore College and the leafy Yaddo Foundation for artists, as well as the summer venue of the New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra. If you live near the town center, as Kunstler does, you can almost avoid using a car.
Kunstler shops locally most of the time. He walks or rides his bike all the time. When he’s not forced to take airplanes to get to his speaking engagements, he works from his home office. There are farmlands nearby, so townsfolk aren’t completely beholden to the outside world for food.
But Kunstler hasn’t entirely forsaken modern life. He owns what he calls “a station-wagon type of thing” (it’s a new Toyota RAV4), which he bought recently after the frame of his 1992 Toyota pickup rotted out. “The American motoring program is mandatory,” he says. “I suppose people might say I’m a hypocrite, but I’m still a part of this world—I haven’t dropped out. And nobody has built a railroad system that can get me around, so what can I do?”
What can anyone do? What can a suburban family of four do? A family that has to commute every day in order to make their mortgage payment can’t exactly shelve it all and start “living locally” at the drop of a hat. The American motoring program is mandatory for them, too.
Kunstler understands this, but he says that he, along with everyone else, will soon be forced to live more locally. Even though he is in the process of signing a two-book deal with his publisher, Grove/Atlantic—one book is a novel about life in a post-oil world, and the other is a journalistic follow-up to The Long Emergency—he believes his future job prospects aren’t guaranteed. “I’m making other arrangements,” he says. “I’m prepared to start a local newspaper in my hometown if I have to.”
He’s not building a bomb shelter, or hoarding water and Spam, but he thinks he’s positioned himself in the right place to survive a long emergency. And living in the Kunstlerian future—though he doesn’t say it outright—might not be such a bad thing. Yes, there will be losers. But after all the social destruction, Kunstler’s new world is almost a gauzy-eyed take on Main Street America. It’s a return to locally owned stores and trades—and lending a hand to raise a barn. It’s about community, interdependence, and knowing your neighbors. It’s Mayberry R.F.D.
SUBURBAN TEXAS is not Mayberry, of course—far from it. And megalopolitan Houston, home of Rice University, is further from it still. That’s why, when Kunstler visits with optimistic-minded faculty members at Rice—where Nobel Prize winner Richard Smalley did his work in nanotechnology—he throws enough darts to pop all their balloons.
Whatever miserable suburban problems Dallas has, well, Houston’s got ’em double, he announces. “And don’t think anything’s going to change if there’s different political leadership,” he says. “Bill Clinton was as much of a cheerleader for the suburban economy as anybody.” And John Kerry? “He’s just a haircut in search of a brain.”
Kunstler rolls on like this until a young professor reminds him that he’s telling a “very bleak story about our future.”
“Uh-huh,” Kunstler agrees.
“What are we supposed to do?” the professor asks. “Go out behind the barn and shoot ourselves?”
“You have to think about what’s necessary,” Kunstler says. Rescale agriculture, reorganize local commerce networks, replace the box and chain stores . . . he goes down the list. And don’t forget to rebuild the railroads. “Nothing would have a greater impact on our petroleum use than a better train system, and the fact that we aren’t talking about it shows what a bunch of clowns we are. We are clowns! We aren’t paying any attention to what’s important in this country!”
The professor ponders this impossible to-do list. And then his survivalist instincts kick in. He’s got a second home in the rural Texas Hill Country! He’s got solar panels and he barely draws electricity from the grid, and he’s got crops under tillage. Isn’t that a decent survival plan?
“In times of significant upheaval, the countryside tends to be a really disorderly place,” Kunstler naysays. Texas would have extra trouble: Too many people with guns, he explains.
AT THE SMU EVENT, the mood is similarly funereal. At the evening’s end, Kunstler and Simmons, the Saudi oil expert, take the stage for a question-and-answer period. Kunstler doesn’t toss many lifelines.
“Aren’t there any solutions?” everyone asks him. “What can we do?” people want to know.
Kunstler replies with assorted variations of “nothing.” “There are no panaceas,” he says.
Most people seem willing to accept this assessment, perplexed as it might leave them, but one nondescript guy just refuses to take curtness for an answer.
“But what exactly can be done to reform the train system?” the man insists. “How do we convince transit authorities that they’re in the mobility business?”
“I really can’t answer that question,” Kunstler tells him.
When the event is finally over, the oilmen circle Simmons, asking him if the administration appreciates the seriousness of the situation. (He doesn’t know.) Clumps of others are busy trying to get face time with Kunstler when the train man breaks in, determined to nail him down. “What exactly can be done to fix the train system?” he says again.
After 20 minutes of being harangued about transit authorities and setting smarter train schedules, Kunstler makes a break for it. Jeffrey Brown is waiting near the exit, and Kunstler walks toward him briskly, taking frequent looks over his shoulder.
“Who the fuck is that guy?!” Kunstler asks, nearly in a frenzy of frustration. “He kept twanging on me, on and on, about the train system. Everybody always wants a remedy. I don’t think there is a remedy! I always get these people twanging on me for solutions. Hey, that’s not my job. I’m here to tell people that the problem is real!”
Brown chuckles. Kunstler almost smiles as the two men walk out of the auditorium into the emptying parking lot. He’s a magnet for wonks like the train guy, but after a 14-hour day listening to his own voice, Kunstler needs a break, and some food would be nice, too. There’s a late-night Japanese restaurant next to Kunstler’s hotel. “C’mon, Jim,” says Brown. “I’ll drive.”