James Howard Kunstler is the author of The Geography of Nowhere, Home From Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, and The Long Emergency. His work addresses the suburban and urban environments, and the challenges posed by the coming permanent global oil crisis, climate change, and other "converging catastrophes of the 21st Century."
Duncan Crary: You have what you call a "Long Emergency" view of where civilization is heading. What is "The Long Emergency?"
James Howard Kunstler: I've labeled this situation we're heading into "The Long Emergency" because I think it's going to be a protracted experience for mankind and for us in the United States in particular. It's really about how we are heading into a period of resource scarcity and the disruption and depletion of our oil supplies. It's about the allocation of this crucial resource all around the world, and the geopolitical implications of those inequities. And how these problems are going to combine with climate change to cause problems with everything we do, from how we produce and distribute our food to how we're going to have trade and manufacturing when Walmart dies. And not least, the destiny of the suburban, car-dependent, happy motoring living arrangement. Which is probably, for me, the biggest part of the equation.
And you don't see good things in store for the suburbs in the Long Emergency?
Suburbia is going to fail a lot worse than it's already failing, because we're not going to have the energy to run it the way it's been designed to run. For that reason I refer to suburbia as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. We took all of our post-world war wealth -- and actually quite a bit of the wealth that we had accumulated for decades before that -- and we invested it in this living arrangement that had no future. And now we're stuck with it. And to make matters worse, we didn't build it very well in the first place. So as it begins to decay it decays very rapidly and becomes a very unrewarding place to live in.
Jim, it seems almost impossible to persuade suburbanites that there's anything wrong with suburbia or that it could ever "fail." I've tried, and it almost feels like arguing with someone about deeply held religious beliefs.
Again, one of the unfortunate repercussions of building suburbia is: now that we've built it, it provides a very powerful psychology of previous investment. Which means that you put so much of your wealth into this system already -- into this structure for daily life with no future -- and you've invested so much of your national identity in it, that you can't even imagine letting go of it or substantially changing it or reforming it. And that, I believe, is what's behind our inability to have a coherent discussion about what we're going to do about our problems in America. Because the psychology of previous investment has got us trapped in a box -- we will not allow ourselves to think about how we're going to do without this crap.