Armageddon Time

April 16, 2005

The oft-discussed, much-maligned, and always controversial (at least in my circles) planning pundit James Howard Kunstler came to speak at The Knowlton School of Architecture here at OSU this week to share his not particularly uplifting, but yet still oddly compelling, point of view on the state of disrepair of our undeniably suburban nation. He’s also shilling for his new book The Long Emergency, which marries his New Urbanism-heavy message with The End of Oil. His presentation was not all that different than the one I heard five years ago, but he’s extended the life of his anti-suburban sprawl harangue by tacking on five minutes of the world is ending, capitalism is finished, cheap oil is over, etc. to the front and back of his slide show. So from a commercial standpoint (he can recycle the same material and sell another book) his message makes sense, and it is particularly well timed seeing that gas is now over $2 a gallon in just about every state in the country.

His basic message is this: the world is about to get a lot smaller. Globalization is done. Industrialization is finished. Say goodbye to mass retailers, mass consumption, large institutions, and cross country road trips. With the oil peak here or close-by, and cheap energy solutions nowhere to be found, we are going to have to downscale: life will be smaller, more local, and better. The Long Emergency, I take it, will be the turbulent and conflict ridden time (have we already started?) of transition between the cheap oil age and the downscaled, local age. There will be plenty of people in the newly created Former Middle Class who will be very pissed off that the American Dream of cheap beer, cheap houses, and cheap gasoline has been taken away from them. Combine this with the god-awful suburban architecture and land use patterns and we have a problem: how does one get around in a culture subservient to the cheap, ubiquitous automobile? Kunstler thinks we need to get started now in preparation for the inevitable, and build communities that can function on a smaller New Urbanist scale.

In sum, I agree with Kunstler’s ideals. We need to live in smaller, more locally focused, sustainable, intentional communities. We need better design that helps us get there. Unfortunately, our current culture is not one that appreciates these ideals or wants to adopt these values. The culture must change, and Kunstler believes the coming end of oil will force this painful reality upon us. While he doesn’t take into account the possibility that the costs associated with alternative energy sources will fall once production and demand ramp up, I do think there will be a rather lengthy transition period that will stifle economic growth and limit expansion. I also think energy prices will never be as cheap as they are today (either that or we have to embrace nuclear energy and accept the use of dirty coal). So, in that sense I think what he is predicting will happen to a certain degree, and we will need to alter our communities and invest in more sustainable models. The truth of the matter is that the mass consumption of suburbia cannot, and will not, continue at the same pace it is today. And we need to start thinking about the alternatives now. While Kunstler may be too nasty and arrogant to deliver this message to the masses effectively, it is a message that needs to be heard. It should have been the focus of the last presidential election season, but as a country we have our heads up our collective asses. If the shit really hits the fan like he says it will, we’ll only have ourselves to blame. As Kunstler said: “You don’t get what you expect, you get what you deserve.” He also said, “Life is tragic; history will not shed a tear for us if we shove ourselves down a rat hole,” but I thought that would be too dark a way to close this blog. But I just ended it that way anyway because it is such a juicy quote and I couldn't resist.

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