|James Howard Kunstler’s provocative words, combined with his journalism credentials, have positioned him as a popular source for journalists covering energy, climate, the “peak oil” theory, and how average Americans perceive these issues. He regularly writes for – or is interviewed by – major media outlets.Kunstler has become the engine behind a national dialogue that essentially decries too little attention to getting beyond the oil age – even though, because of Kunstler, many people are now at least talking about this very issue. Rolling Stone excerpted The Long Emergency before its publication three years ago.
He writes for The Atlantic Monthly, Slate.com, Orion, and The New York Time Magazine. He blogs, goes on stage, and appears on television and radio.
Ever since he published his 1994 slam of the American suburbs, The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler has remained an unapologetic critic of the American way of life for its dependence on fossil fuels.
It’s not a stretch to suggest that he has evolved into a cynic in the years since.
He blasted modern architecture, suburban zoning laws, and our sense of community in Home From Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World for the 21st Century (1998).
He rejected many cities’ efforts to modernize as damaging to the human spirit in The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition (2002).
But it is his 2005 volume, The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century (2005) that brought his discourse strongly into the environmental arena. Here, he connects ordinary Americans’ habits and greed with climate change and its associated problems, like disease and droughts.
A News Junkie and Critic, with the Attitudes of a Cynic
Kunstler spoke by telephone to The Yale Forum about his opinions of how the media have handled climate change. A news junkie, he says that newspapers, television, the Web, and radio, plus many authorities in government, are not adequately informing people of the dwindling fossil fuel supplies in the world and of implications of burning them in such quantities.
In sharp, engaging prose, whether he’s writing or talking by phone, Kunstler remains foremost a critic. He rails against what he sees as the media’s failure to clearly explain energy supplies and consumption. He condemns American citizens for failing to see what he is certain lays ahead – the end of American life as most of us know it.
And he exhibits the attitude of a cynic, believing fervently that self-interest motivates Americans, particularly in their reliance mainly on automobiles for transportation. He believes that it’s unlikely that this can happen when the time comes that petroleum is not running them. (For instance, he holds little hope for fuel cells because currently most of them rely on fuels like natural gas or methane to make the chemical reaction.)
‘Cheerless Scolding’ … but no Pessimist
For all this cheerless scolding, Kunstler is not a pessimist. He believes in the future. The future he sketches, though, includes poverty, less mobility, isolation for many people, and even the breakup of the United States. But it also includes closer communities and a stronger understanding of the land.
A resident of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Kunstler was born in New York City in 1948 and spent three years of his childhood in the Long Island suburbs before moving back to the city. He graduated from the Brockport campus of the State University of New York and then went on to several newspaper reporting jobs. He also was a staff writer for Rolling Stone, and since 1975 a freelance book author and author of several novels in addition to his nonfiction books.
“I don’t think people think about how much energy they’re using. I don’t think they’re going to think,” Kunstler told The Yale Forum. “What I believe is that the public will do what they’re compelled to do, and that they’ll pay attention to a couple of things, probably their heat bill and the amount of money they’re putting into their cars. They’re already coming to the wrong conclusions about things, and the media and other authorities – not just the media (but) a range of authorities – are misinforming them, anyway.”
Climate Thinking: One Dimensional Focus on Cars
Energy and the climate have caught people’s consciousnesses, he goes on, but he claims that they are dealing with it one-dimensionally. “My big beef these days is that the only conversation that is going on – including at the highest levels of environmentalism – the only conversation that’s going on is how can we keep running cars by other means,” he said. “I think it’s incredibly stupid, and it’s unworthy of this particular group of people.”
He faults the public for, in his view, clinging to automobiles as the main transportation method. Among those he blasts for focusing on the car is Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute, which has promoted the Hypercar, “which is meant to be a car that gets such supernaturally wonderful mileage that it will solve all the problems.” Kunstler calls this approach “completely idiotic” because while many who think about this problem understand that the future includes using less energy, they don’t understand that we can’t continue to run the same machines on different energy.
“And the environmental community is saying, ‘We’ll just do it by solar and wind …. they are not really seriously interested in changing behavior; they’re just interested in changing the fuel.” He says his pleas for reviving the passenger rail industry usually fall on deaf ears whether his audience is the public at large or its political leaders.
“What we are seeing is a comprehensive failure to generate a coherent public discussion about what we face,” he said.
No Shrinking Violet on Media Criticisms
Kunstler is quick to offer specifics of media outlets he thinks are making light of energy as a widespread American problem. “The people who should be leading this public discussion and leading the generation of it are AWOL,” he says, Absent Without Official Leave. “They’re not covering this intelligently. I speak to the mainstream media all the time. I was on CBS news last night [on August 7]. I recorded 45 minutes with them. They included what I might describe as two single trenchant sentences.” [By no means an uncommon complaint, in fact more the rule than the exception, among broadcast outlet interviewees.]
What about his comments that did make it onto the air? In a piece titled “The Decline of Suburbia,” CBS reporter Ben Tracy connected high gas prices to people selling their houses in the suburbs. “Author James Howard Kunstler has been predicting the decline of the suburbs for more than 15 years.” Kunstler comes onto the screen: “I think the project of suburbia is over.” The reporter adds, “Kunstler says housing far away from job centers won’t survive.” Then Kunstler says: “We’ve put so much of our national wealth and even identity into the idea of suburbia that we can’t imagine having to let go of it or substantially change it.”
“It hardly amounted to something that will generate a whole lot of discussion or argument and will not affect the consensus we have, and it was just very disappointing,” Kunstler says of the CBS coverage. “When I started discussions with their producers a few weeks ago I realized this was a lifestyle story.”
He went on: “The key to understanding this is: what has to happen is we have to generate a coherent consensus.” A consensus in public discourse would include the need to revive passenger and freight trains, he says. With air travel and the trucking industry suffering so much, “it’s a huge problem and we’re not facing it. All we are thinking about is: how to run our … cars.”
Kunstler wants us to think about how we will deal with food shortages, how to rethink commerce and trade, and even consider that “we probably aren’t going to be able to depend on the 12,000-mile supply line to Asia anymore.”
He is convinced that much of the reticence to change the system, in preparation for the end of cheap oil and the sapping of world oil supplies he sees in coming decades, lies in money and investments. But he predicts more financial instability in the coming months.
“We are not going to be living in the same blue light special retail fiesta that has been the norm. We are going to be a far less affluent culture,” he said.
Kunstler said he regularly watches the CNBC nightly show, “Kudlow and Company,” with Larry Kudlow, and he is convinced the program is misinforming the public. Kudlow “has been trying to put over the story for the past few months: If you gave permission to drill off Louisiana that the price of oil would go down by October,” Kunstler said. He added that a progressive like himself must be sure to say, in response to such views, “Knock yourself out. Drill anywhere you want,” because he believes the results would make so little difference to the world supply that the futility of it all would soon be clear. (More on world oil supplies and government energy statistics and predictions.)
Kunstler doesn’t spare leading U.S. newspapers from his sharp critiques. Neither The New York Times nor The Wall Street Journal covers energy and oil to his satisfaction, he says. He said that the Times does not understand nuances of the oil industry, particularly exports, or the geology of oil although the newspaper does often cover oil supplies and prices (see one recent story by Times energy reporter Jad Mouawad).
Meanwhile, the Journal, Kunstler says, does not want to “draw the obvious conclusion, which is: we have a problem, we have a big problem, and it won’t be solved by ‘Drill, drill, drill.’”
Captives of ‘Previous Investments’
“The whole story is being determined by what I call the psychology of previous investments, and it affects everybody,” he said. “What it really means is that when you face a paradigm change like this, your instinct is to defend everything you already understand – the status quo. What you see is a massive and thoroughgoing attempt to prop up the old paradigm, and it is defended as much by people in the media as by Joe Sixpack, who wants to continue commuting 70 miles a day.
“It’s not an evil conspiracy on the part of these people,” Kunstler adds. “It’s just a natural human tendency to remain in the system that you understand and are comfortable with and have been enjoying and benefiting from. So much of what we face implies the loss of things that have been important to us, like mobility, a broad kind of affluence that has allowed even laboring people to live better than King Louis XIV did. A lot of these benefits are going to disappear.”