Mohsen Abdelmoumen: What is an urban space for James Howard Kunstler?
James Howard Kunstler: I think we can agree that an urban space is a human settlement of buildings that can exist at any scale between a village and a mega-city. At their best, they share similar characteristics, though the scale might be different. For example, they tend to self-organize as tight-and-dense at the center and increasingly less so as you move from center to edge. Again, at its best, we can think of the urban condition as follows: one neighborhood can be a village; several neighborhoods and a business district (and / or industrial district) can be a town; many neighborhoods with many special districts comprise a big city. I say ”at its best” because in the United States we have evolved a bastard version of suburbanism which is very deficient in physical form and social organization compared to the best of world urbanism. Its evolution is a story in itself — which I have written whole books about. American life has suffered enormously from the way we have arranged things on the landscape, with compulsory motoring to tie it all together. I refer to it as “a living arrangement with no future.” Most of the other societies in the world have genuine cities with much more satisfactory physical form and better-integrated activities.
Is the “American way of life” exclusively linked to the oil market?
It’s fair to say that the suburban living arrangement depends absolutely on the oil industry. The oil industry has entered an historic predicament: there is no more oil that is cheap to produce. Unfortunately, industrial societies cannot bear the high production cost of the oil they are designed to run on. The exact nature of the quandary can be summarized in the following equation:
Oil over $75 a barrel crushes industrial economies. Oil under $75 a barrel destroys oil companies.
There is no just-right “Goldilocks” place on that gradient.
Hence, America is going broke trying to maintain its way of life in an infrastructure we can no longer afford to live in. To make matters worse, there is almost no awareness of the problem. The current low price of oil — $45 a barrel as I write — will wreck oil production in the USA. The vaunted “shale oil miracle” was a sort of parlor trick accomplished with extraordinary volumes of high-risk “junk bond” financing. The oil companies are producing like mad to service this debt. But at the same time they are losing money and going broke with the price at $45 a barrel. On the demand side, the middle class is also going broke from an economy that was hammered by several years of $100 a barrel oil. They may benefit temporarily from low gasoline prices, but before long they will be unable to afford to buy the cars to put it in. There is a shorter horizon on this story than most Americans realize.
You are a very interesting intellectual. You are disturbing, as we saw with Charles Bensinger of Renewable Energy Partners of New Mexico, and yet the US Department of Energy came to conclusions similar to yours. Why does the fact to be a visionary disturb so much?
It doesn’t disturb me to be an observer commenting publically. Of course, few people in America want to hear the message — that we must make new arrangements for daily life. You can attribute this to « the psychology of previous investment. » We have rolled generations of our national treasure into this suburban infrastructure of daily life that has no future. So, we can’t imagine letting go of it, or even reforming it. Too many vested interest will be harmed by the ominous developments on the oil scene, so they don’t want to hear about it.
You are a proponent of the New Urbanism movement. Can you explain us this concept?
The New Urbanism movement coalesced around 1993. It was dedicated to reforming the property development industry, to shake them out of their acquired habit of building “suburban sprawl,” and return to traditional modes of urban design, namely, compact, walkable mixed-use towns, neighborhoods, and cities, built with conscious attention to artistry. The movement was led by extremely capable people who devised a systematic approach to making places worthy of our affection, with some prospect for long-term sustainability. The public responded enthusiastically to the message because they had for too long suffered from living in places that punished them psychologically and economically… places that were, most of all, not worth caring about: the continental archipelago of parking lot wastelands, monotonous housing “estates,” and horrifying commercial highways. They yearned for something better.
You taught in Harvard, Yale, MIT, etc. And you are a member of several very important organizations. I see in you a man and an intellectual of synthesis who tackles several domains at the same time. You are an iconoclast. To reach your conclusions, isn’t loneliness a need?
I did not teach at those universities. I lecture at them occasionally. But I did not hold any position or appointment in them. I have functioned as an independent writer since I « dropped out” of corporate journalism in the 1970s — though I continued to publish freelance articles in mainstream papers and journals. For the past ten years I have written a popular weekly blog on the internet. Between my books of social commentary, I write novels. I am neither lonely nor isolated, though I write these books and articles alone in a room, as any writer must. My view of the general situation is not in line with the popular consensus. But we are living through a time here in America in which we don’t know what is happening to us and cannot construct a coherent consensus. Life is tragic sometimes and societies sometimes make bad choices, or develop foolish ideologies. This is such a period in my country. Consequently, we will probably suffer hardship when reality compels us to behave differently than we’re used to.
You know very well the world of the press for having worked in several media icons including Rolling StoneMagazine and The New York Times Sunday Magazine. Can the world of the press understand the themes developed by the intellectual that you are?
Well, I suppose in theory they could, but the press is not disposed to entertaining ideas like mine these days. Since the financial fiasco of 2008, America had entered an era of wishful thinking, trying to convince itself that the current mode of living here could continue by other means than fossil fuels. My view is that this is sheer folly, and so I wrote a whole book about it published in 2012: Too Much Magic; Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation. The book was ignored by the press, of course.
Your book The Geography of Nowhere is an observation of the American urban fabric decay. Personally, it makes me think of Detroit city. Is not this city the mirror of a country?
There was an entire chapter about Detroit in that book, which was published in 1993. Twenty-five years later there is almost nothing left of that city, at least of the center — I was just back there last June for several days. Actually, our cities around the country are all in very different conditions right now. Many of the old Mid-western cities — of which Detroit is one — are in states of advanced decrepitude and desolation, though they are surrounded by still-functioning suburban rings. Some of our western cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles are mostly composed of automobile-centered fabric. There is almost no traditional fabric in them. For the moment they are thriving, though I think they face a very bleak destiny having to do with their meager water supplies and inability to function without incessant motoring. New York is a special case because the financialization of the economy had the effect of concentrating immense wealth there, which was used to renovate many old neighborhoods — for instance Lower Manhattan and the immensity of Brooklyn. To some degree financialization has also been responsible for the favorable conditions in Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco. Washington, of course, enjoys vast amounts of gift from the racketeering operations associated with government, so it is now among the wealthiest places in the country. And then there are the “Sunbelt’ cities like Atlanta, Dallas, Miami, Houston, Orlando which have thrived largely because of cheap air-conditioning. When that is no longer available, they will wither.
How do you explain that humanity has regressed to the point where « all-rounder » intellectuals have almost disappeared?
The attention of even intelligent people is hopelessly fragmented and distracted with all the electronic media. And we lead increasingly frantic lives, especially the corporate slaves who work longer and harder than ever these days. Fewer people read books or have time to reflect, or participate in intellectual life outside the web. It is clearly the diminishing returns of technology at work. The jazzier the media gets, the more our intellectual life degrades. That is reflected, in turn, in our inane politics.
The long emergency is a very important book. Can it be regarded as an observation of the bankruptcy of consumerism and of the need to move on to something else?
I suppose that’s one angle in it. It’s a meditation on history and the workings of civilization, especially in its climactic stage. Thanks for the compliment.
You are published everywhere and you are an intellectual who aroused controversy. Are you satisfied to be a man of synthesis?
Ha! I just finished writing a book and I am not even confident that my publisher will want it. That’s how it goes in this line of work. It also gets harder and harder to make a living at it. I had a lively and pretty well-paid lecture career until the so-called Social Justice Warriors went crazy on the American college campuses. And now the people in charge there — the deans and department chairs — won’t hire lecturers like me because the students are so easily “offended” by uncomfortable ideas. There is a species of Maoism on the loose in these colleges now that is quickly destroying the intellectual life of the academy almost entirely. It is not a laughing matter. I have had several nasty encounters with this despotic idiots and now I am completely unwelcome. It reached the last limits of absurdity this year, and I think we may see a turn in the other direction before long.
Doesn’t the intellectual, the artist, and the prolific author you are exceed the current world entangled in its old codes? Should not one be a kind of alien to think « out of the box »?
I accept responsibility for my ideas and I refuse to be a crybaby about the position that I occupy in the arena. The world can make of me what it wants to. Or not. I’m not a best-seller. As far as I know, my audience is pretty modest. Nobody is awarding me prizes. But then, I’m not in jail, either. (At least not yet.) Anyway, I really enjoy the act of writing in and of itself. I like composing English prose. I get a kick out of it. My weekly blog allows me to come up with a lot of amusing gags. To some degree I consider myself an entertainer.
To broach the recent US elections, can we say that the election of Donald Trump avoided us a direct confrontation even a nuclear war with Russia, knowing that Hillary Clinton is an inveterate warmonger? Did not the American people avoid the worst to the humanity?
I’ve certainly been baffled by our belligerent attitude toward Russia the last several years. We run war games on their border, destabilize their former provinces (Ukraine), and then complain that they are aggressive? It’s mystifying. I have no idea why the Obama people acted this way, or why Hillary was so truculent. I did not vote for Hillary or Trump, and I don’t have a high regard for the winner of the election. He does not come off as a prudent fellow. Personally, I think Mr. Trump’s period in office will be marked by great financial tribulation that will go very hard on the nation.
How do you explain the fact that Hillary Clinton, after herself admitted her defeat, commissioned Jill Stein to conduct a campaign to recount votes in some states, including Wisconsin? Is she not showing a bad image of America to the whole world?
Hillary is just a sore loser, that’s all. I don’t think it will affect the outcome. I hope she will just return to her needlepoint and shut up. Or perhaps bake some cookies!
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Who is James Howard Kunstler?
James Howard Kunstler is an American author, social critic, public speaker, and blogger. He graduated from the State University of New York, Brockport campus, worked as a reporter and feature writer for a number of newspapers, and finally as a staff writer for Rolling Stone Magazine. In 1975, he dropped out to write books on a full-time basis. He lives in Washington County, upstate New York.
J. H. Kunstler gives lectures on topics related to suburbia, urban development, and the challenges of what he calls « the global oil predicament », and a resultant change in the « American Way of Life. » He has lectured at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, Dartmouth, Cornell, MIT, RPI, the University of Virginia and many other colleges, and he has appeared before many professional organizations such as the AIA, the APA, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
As a journalist, J. H. Kunstler continues to write for The Atlantic Monthly, Slate.com, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, and its op-ed page where he often covers environmental and economic issues. Kunstler is also a leading supporter of the movement known as « New Urbanism. »
Over the course of the first 14 years of his writing career (1979–1993), J. H. Kunstler wrote various novels including: The Halloween Ball, An Embarrassment of Riches and Maggie Darling, a Modern Romance. Since the mid-1990s, he has written non-fiction books about suburban development and diminishing global oil supplies.
Among his non-fiction books: Geography of Nowhere (1993): a history of American suburbia and urban development; Home from Nowhere (1996) is a continuation of that discussion with an emphasis on the remedies; The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition (2001) is a look a wide-ranging look at cities here and abroad, an inquiry into what makes them great (or miserable), and in particular what America is going to do with it’s mutilated cities; The Long Emergency (2005): is about the challenges posed by the coming permanent global oil crisis, climate change, and other « converging catastrophes of the 21st Century »; Too Much Magic (2012) which detailed the misplaced expectations that technological rescue remedies would fix the problems detailed in The Long Emergency.
His website: http://kunstler.com/
Published in American Herald Tribune, December 02, 2016: http://ahtribune.com/us/1369-james-howard-kunstler.html
In French in Palestine Solidarité: http://www.palestine-solidarite.org/analyses.mohsen_abdelmoumen.041216.htm