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Has the Long Peak-Oil Emergency Begun?

<b>Interview</b>: Writer and urbanist James Kunstler talks about America's auto-dependent culture, urban sprawl and what he sees beyond our dependence on oil.
(Eds. note: this article originally appeared on CampusProgress.org.)

The record high price of gasoline has been all over the news in recent weeks. While Americans were smart enough not to fall for the congressional Republicans' ham-handed effort to buy votes with a $100 rebate, polls show that Americans are worried about gas prices, and are beginning to think about changing their energy devouring ways. All of this makes novelist James Howard Kunstler look very prescient.

In 1993, James Kunstler revolutionized the way Americans think about their landscape when he released his first non-fiction book, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape. The New York Times described it as "an impassioned rant against suburbia, shopping malls, cheap disposable architecture and the fragmentation of communities fostered by an increasingly mobile, car-oriented culture." He has continued this crusade with articles in a wide range of publications and in his most recent book, The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century. (Check out excerpts in Rolling Stone here.)

In this book, Kunstler argues that the world will soon pass "peak oil," the point at which more than half the world's recoverable oil supplies have been used. According to Kunstler, America 's auto-dependent culture and landscape will make this transition to a post-oil economy extremely painful. He predicts potential wars over dwindling oil supplies, massive abandonment of suburban sprawl areas, and, ultimately, a return to the time when people ate locally grown produce and did not commute dozens of miles to work each day.

We caught up with Kunstler to chat about the intersection of urban planning and progressive politics, and what the future will look like if, as he predicts, oil prices just keep rising.

Ben Adler: In your new book, The Long Emergency, you lay out this very, very pessimistic vision of the near American future --

James Kunstler: Well, it's only pessimistic if you think that living in Plano, Texas, is the world's greatest thing, you know?

BA: Well -- okay, that's a fair point -- I guess some of us would say that if Las Vegas really becomes a ghost town as you predict, that would be a good thing.

JK: That would be good for us in many ways -- not least of which is because Las Vegas is the holy shrine of a very pernicious religion -- which is the religion of getting something for nothing; the religion of unearned riches -- which is an idea that is extremely destructive and insidious and has now spread throughout our culture and has given people the idea that earnest efforts are not required to have good outcomes.

BA: Nonetheless, you lay out a vision that is very stark and extreme in what is going to happen to vast swaths of the country -- the South; the Southwest in particular. How do you respond to people who say the laws of supply and demand will dictate that as oil prices go up, the market will move to new kinds of energy and that some market correction will make these circumstances much less dire than you predict?

JK: Well, I wouldn't try to denounce them or anything. There's no question that as a society we are going to be doing some things differently, including some things that will surprise us. And not all of them will be terrible. Some of them will be beneficial. But I think on the whole, that there's a great deal of wishful thinking involved in believing that both the "market" and "technology" will bring some rescue remedy to stave off the discontinuities that we face.

BA: Tell us about your seminal work The Geography of Nowhere, in which you laid out the history of suburban sprawl and its negative effects on the American economy, culture, and landscape. What compelled you to tackle this subject?

JK: I was a young newspaper reporter during the OPEC oil embargo of 1973, and I was working in this brand new building out on this heroic suburban boulevard of commerce -- filled with the big box stores, and all the new malls, and the muffler shops, and all the other accessories of the world's highest standard of living. And so we went through this energy crisis, and it made quite an impression on me. Especially how dysfunctional our suburban living arrangements could become if anything went wrong. And so, I went on to do other things: I worked for Rolling Stone magazine and then I quit that, and kind of retreated to upstate New York to write novels. And after a while, I got back into journalism, focused on our living arrangements in America and land development. Well, we're basically destroying our country and also probably destroying our economy and our future by developing this economy based on the never-ending construction of more and more suburban sprawl. And so I wanted to explore exactly what the nature of this problem was as well as its most visible manifestations -- you know, the endless vistas of nauseating crap that we've smeared all over the landscape.

BA: In the years since it's been published, would you say that you've seen an improvement in the way new communities are being planned, or is it continuing to get worse?

JK: Well, in general, it's continuing to get worse. I was associated over the past 12 years or so with the reform group called the Congress for the New Urbanism which is made up of architects, planners, and some developers, who were trying to do something better -- trying to really revive the idea of a town. However, their work represented a tiny fraction of one percent of all the development done in America, or redevelopment of existing neighborhoods and districts. We have still done incredible damage over the last decade or so to the landscape -- and what's probably worse is that in the absence of having an economy that really produces things of enduring value, we have shifted insidiously to an economy that is based almost solely now on the housing bubble, and all of the activities associated with it like, you know, the creation of more strip malls, and big box stores, and stuff like that. So, the damage out there continues, and is putting us in ever more of a hazardous position.

BA: There have been studies that show the exurbs (far-flung suburbs), where mega-churches often serve as the main source of community, are trending very conservative politically. Do you see any connection between the rise in Christianist Fundamentalism and suburbanization?

JK: I do think that the preoccupation with evangelical religion has, to some degree, been a substitute for the destruction of public life in general, which has followed the destruction of public space. And the thing that's ironic and sort of paradoxical about it is that the whole Christian Fundamentalist sector employs the methods of big box chain retail in order to do their thing -- it all takes place on a massive scale which is rather defeating to the idea of belonging to any kind of comprehensible unit of anything.

BA: For young progressives who want to slow the rate of global warming and want to strengthen American communities following the principles of new urbanism, it seems like such a colossal problem to tackle. What can our readers do on the local and national level to change this pattern of development?

JK: Okay, I will give you a very specific answer to that. And I preface it by saying that the political progressive wing of American politics really ought to be ashamed for being as feckless and foolish as it's been in the last several years by not paying attention to any of these issues. And, one of the signs of that is what I'm gonna say next. We have a railroad system in America that the Bolivians would be ashamed of. There isn't one thing we could do in this country that would have a greater impact on our oil use than restoring the American rail system to something like a European level of service. It's something that we know how to do, the infrastructure is laying out there waiting to be fixed and re-used, and the Democrats are not even talking about it -- and I'm a registered Democrat -- and it ticks me off. I would like to see the politically progressive kids out there start militating to restore the American railroad system. The fact that we're not even talking about that shows me how un-serious we are.
Ben Adler is the associate editor of Campus Progress.
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