Michelle Nijhuis

A Peak Oil Prophet Imagines Life in America After Wal-Mart

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Author and social critic James Howard Kunstler, known for predicting our post-peak-oil future in nonfiction works such as The Long Emergency, has also brought his forecasts to life through fiction.

His newest novel, World Made By Hand, describes the near future in a small town in upstate New York -- not unlike the place Kunstler himself lives today -- where a chain of global crises has forced the community to fend for itself.

Despite the tragedy and violence that surround his characters, Kunstler says his vision of the future isn't nearly as grim as it might seem. "I resent the idea that I'm an apocalyptarian," he says. "I'm describing changes that we face, but I'm hardly proposing that it's the end of the world. It may be the end of the Wal-Mart experience, it may be the end of see-the-USA-in-your-Chevrolet -- but that ain't the end of the world." Grist recently spoke with Kunstler about prophesying -- and preparing for -- life after Wal-Mart.


Michelle Nijhuis: So you've wrestled with peak oil, climate change, and disease in nonfiction books. Why did you decide to address them in a novel?

James Howard Kunstler: I wanted to present a very vivid experience for readers, so they could feel what it might be like, sense what it might be like, to live in this post-oil world -- a world in which the tyranny of automobiles is over with, and people are living very directly with the planet and each other. The whole issue of farming and food production comes closer to the center of life, with all of its practical requirements and ceremonies. When you're living in that kind of economy, your society tends to follow the seasons, and a lot of the social content of everyday life is geared to planting, harvesting, and tending -- it's very different from the electronically mediated world of cubicle work.

Many of the characters have transitioned from the everyday world we know today -- so they certainly have a vivid memory of what they call the old times, and they're making the necessary adjustments to the new times.

MN: Did you have this world fully imagined from the start, or did it change in the process of writing?

JHK: There were a lot of things I knew about this world I was going to create, but I discovered a lot of things along the way. For example, it became apparent to me fairly early on that my characters would not all be riding bicycles as in some kind of ecotopia, because they would have trouble getting the materials necessary to make them.

I also realized in the first chapters that the fact that the pavement was so broken up on the roads would have a big effect on how people did things and moved around on the landscape. As far as characters, I'd originally thought that the evangelicals would be the bad guys, but they behaved rather valiantly. I also became very fond of their leader, Brother Job, who's kind of a combination of Boss Hogg and Captain Ahab. He's kind of a darkly comic buffoon, with a deep air of mystery about him. I like that.

MN: The world in World Made By Hand is very grim, but there's some beauty in it, too.

JHK: I'd contest the idea that I'm presenting a wholly grim world. It's a world that's very different, a world in which there are quite a few challenges and quite a few losses, but I'm not at all convinced that the people are necessarily more miserable. Their medical care has become much more primitive, and they work harder, but they're working very directly with their neighbors on things that matter to them. Their ceremonies are much more direct and social in nature -- in other words, they party a lot.

They're also continuing to go through a transition. Their way of life is not settled -- they've left behind the world of happy motoring and consumerism and cheese doodles and Pepsi-Cola, but they've entered a world in which the terrain of everyday life is once again very beautiful. Their best friends are no longer made-up characters on TV shows, they're eating food that they've raised themselves and requires some skill to process, and they're making their own music. So what I'm describing is a world of social riches that we've left behind -- left behind in our eagerness to become the slaves of our electronic gadgets.

MN: It sounds almost like you'd welcome this world.

JHK: Let's say there are elements that I'm not fearful about.

MN: You've described this book as funny, and complained that people don't notice the humor.

JHK: This drives me up the fucking wall! My books are always funny -- even The Long Emergency had some funny moments. Brother Job is a very funny character -- half the things that come out of his mouth are hilarious. A lot of the dialogue is funny, even in the places where there's a lot at stake. I don't know, maybe it's too subtle. In college I was a theater student, and I was very caught up in Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. Beckett was always chagrined that the critics didn't regard Waiting for Godot as a laugh riot, but it is -- it's a form of vaudeville.

MN: This novel is set in small-town America, and some of the characters are escaping from greater chaos in and around cities. You've written a lot about the unsustainability of suburbs. But do you see a future for urban life?

JHK: I see it differently from many commentators, who just assume that cities are going to get bigger and that people will flee the suburbs for the cities. I think we're going to see something completely different -- I think we'll see a reversal of the 200-year-long trend of people leaving rural places and small towns for big cities and metroplexes.

I think that the big cities of America -- Houston, Atlanta, Dallas, Washington, D.C., Boston -- these places have attained a scale that is simply not suited for the energy diet of the future, and in my opinion they are going to contract substantially, even while they densify at their centers and around their waterfronts, if they have them.

If there is a huge demographic movement -- and I think there will be -- out of suburbia, eventually it will resolve into people moving into smaller towns, smaller cities, that are scaled appropriately to our energy diet -- and to places that exist in a meaningful relationship with productive land. We're simply going to have to do agriculture differently, no question about it, and the places where this is impossible, like Tucson and Las Vegas, are really going to dry up and blow away. In the Northeast, where I live, many of the small towns and cities have about reached their nadir -- but they have many virtues that are going to become apparent in the years ahead, not least that they have a relationship with water, both for navigation and for drinking.

MN: Are you making changes in your own life to prepare for what you see coming?

JHK: The short answer is yes, I am, but not in any kind of peculiar way. I've been gardening for decades, so that's not new for me, though I might do it in a somewhat different way in the future. I don't work for "da man," so I don't have to escape a cubicle. I've had experience writing books in every method from scribbling in a notebook to composing on a Mac, so I'm confident I could continue to communicate one way or another. I've even put out a local newsletter at times over the past 10 years, so I have experience running a kind of local news bureau.

Most of all, I have a pretty rich and deep social network where I live. I've noticed that American life, for many people, is shockingly lonely. It certainly seems no wonder that people take so much Prozac and Xanax -- the American way of life seems to have become one of the greatest anxiety and depression generators in the history of the world.

MN: What effect do you hope to have on your readers? It doesn't sound like you want them to fight to head off this future.

JHK: I'm really rather worried that we're going to squander our remaining resources on a campaign to sustain the unsustainable. I'm inclined to think that we might be better off yielding to some of these realities that are going to assert themselves, whether we like it or not. That's why I get so annoyed when I go to environmental conferences and the only thing people talk about is how they're going to run cars on chicken fat or French fried potato oil. To me, maintaining the happy motoring system is a waste of our resources, and hugely destructive anyway. I want people to be prepared to accept the changes that really are unavoidable.

The Eternal Summer Reading List

Here at Grist, we tend to be good at detecting extremely subtle patterns. Like, say, the way certain politicians keep trying to drill in certain areas. Or the way love letters inevitably come after we publish a striking photo that might portray Umbra Fisk. Or the number of rainy days in a row outside our Seattle office.

Lately, we've noticed a whole mess of books emerging about climate change. If the whims of publishers are any indication, this climate thing might just be real. We hereby review a few of the shiniest tomes coming out this spring -- and if our keen insights on other matters are any indication, this won't be the last of them. Stay tuned.

Weather or not

Australian scientist Tim Flannery is on a mission. His new book "The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means For Life on Earth" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006), published in his home country this past fall, appears to have softened his government's longstanding skepticism about climate change. "If it has a similar effect in the U.S., I'll die a happy man," Flannery recently told an interviewer.

The renowned mammalogist and conservationist is a fine writer; he is the author of "The Future Eaters" and "The Eternal Frontier," among many other popular-science books. "The Weather Makers," released in the United States this month, translates and summarizes an enormous swath of climate research, covering dozens of disciplines and centuries of painstaking work. Flannery throws in enough asides and anecdotes to keep the science lively, but doesn't skimp on the meaty details: If you want to know why the zooxanthellae of the world are suffering, or what the acronym TRIFFID has to do with the forests of the future, this is the book for you.

Flannery opens with a primer on the general workings of the atmosphere -- "the great aerial ocean," in the words of Alfred Russel Wallace -- and the intricacies of the greenhouse effect, including a close look at when and how humanity started heating up the planet. He follows this introduction with an efficient tour of the thawing poles, the dying corals of the Great Barrier Reef, the cloud-deprived cloud forests of Costa Rica and the world's expanding deserts. He then describes the science of climate modeling -- a fearsome topic for any popular-science writer -- and expertly navigates a sea of acronyms, technicalities and frightening forecasts.

In his final chapters, Flannery sums up the solutions available to humanity. "If everyone who has the means to do so takes concerted action to rid atmospheric carbon emissions from their lives, I believe we can stabilize and then save the cryosphere," he writes. "We could save around nine out of every 10 species currently under threat, [and] limit the extent of extreme weather events so that losses of both human life and investments are a fraction of those being predicted." To accomplish this, he calls for a "linked lifeline to climate safety," with individual purchases of renewable energy by affluent consumers driving down overall costs, in turn making clean power affordable to the developing world. Only with the sustained effort of individuals and governments, he says, can we avoid what he calls "the full carbon catastrophe."

Flannery intends "The Weather Makers" to be a "manual on the use of the Earth's thermostat," and it is an extremely knowledgeable -- and sobering -- overview of our disruption of the global climate. Yet the view he provides is a somewhat distant one. Because of his broad scope, he skims across oceans and continents at breakneck speed, pausing for only a few descriptive paragraphs in any one place.

Perhaps the thing to do is to read "The Weather Makers," then get up off the couch and take a long walk outside. Global warming means something different for each of us, something very particular to our lives and our places, and it's worthwhile to ponder those varied implications. The more clearly we envision our own future, the more easily we can share Flannery's well-founded sense of urgency.

--Michelle Nijhuis

Not-so-great moments in global warming

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Roadside Help With a Smaller Footprint

It's not easy to knock AAA. The venerable organization has 45 million members who count on it for trip insurance, travel advice, and most of all, emergency services. It's no wonder that many members have sworn lifetime loyalty to Triple A: Rescuing drivers marooned on dark, lonely highways can do wonders for membership renewal rates.

But is there a seedier side to this respected organization? Environmental and smart-growth activists say AAA's small team of lobbyists uses the group's outsized membership and down-home image to promote an agenda that is ecologically irresponsible.

In recent years, AAA spokespeople have criticized open-space measures and opposed U.S. EPA restrictions on smog, soot, and tailpipe emissions. According to a 2001 article by Michael A. Rivlin in the Amicus Journal (now known as OnEarth), the AAA even bashed the 1990 Clean Air Act, saying the law served to "threaten the personal mobility of millions of Americans."

The group is also a member of the auto industry-dominated American Highway Users Alliance, a powerful pro-pavement lobby. Although AAA spokesperson Mantill Williams says his group doesn't support all AHUA positions, critics argue that the AAA's credibility often helps the highway alliance get what it wants.

Last year, the alliance, with the initial help of the Southern California AAA affiliate, crusaded (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) against the state's crackdown on carbon dioxide emissions from passenger cars and light trucks. The AAA affiliate in Washington state enthusiastically backed Referendum 51, a highway-dominated transportation-funding measure defeated by voters in the November election.

"Everyone loves the AAA, because it gets them out of jams," says Barbara McCann, director of information and research for Smart Growth America. "What isn't as well known is that AAA represents a very narrow viewpoint."

So far, the criticism hasn't made much of a dent; without AAA assistance, after all, stranded drivers would really be stranded. But now, the nation's favorite auto club is facing something even more dangerous than bad press: competition.

Getting Better All the Time

Enter Mitch Rofsky and Todd Silberman. Rofsky and Silberman, who grew up together in Columbus, Ohio, and were once part of the same Cub Scout troop, are both seasoned entrepreneurs -- and committed environmentalists.

In 1979, Silberman co-founded Lifeco, a $1.5 billion travel agency that he sold to American Express in the early 1990s. Rofsky, a former attorney for Ralph Nader's Public Citizen group, left the nonprofit world to become one of the nation's most successful green entrepreneurs: He was president of the Working Assets Mutual Funds, which later created the well-known long-distance telephone company and credit card service. Rofsky also founded the Massachusetts-based American Consumer Insurance Agency, a socially responsible insurance company.

In the mid-1990s, some environmental activists told Rofsky about their frequent run-ins with AAA lobbyists, and mentioned that an alternative travel club might find a following among environmentalists. Rofsky called up his childhood buddy Silberman, who was living in Portland, Ore., running a company called Elephant's Trunk Travel. Rofsky not only got some encouraging advice about opportunities in the travel industry; he also found an enthusiastic business partner. The pair merged their insurance and travel businesses to form a Portland-based company called TripleE, later renamed Better World Travelers Club. They soon acquired an Internet database of more than 50,000 vacation homes and bought and merged several Oregon travel agencies.

Last May, Rofsky and Silberman started selling memberships in the Better World Travelers Club to family and friends. The following month, the club officially opened for business, and it now has about 20 employees and 5,000 members.

Like AAA, Better World offers emergency assistance, trip insurance, and travel advice. Road America, a network of about 50,000 local towing companies, provides emergency services for the new club; the network successfully responded to its first call from a Better World member last summer. Members can also call Better World to get AAA-style road-trip advice (staffers encourage members to use electronic maps rather than the paper versions), and the company's travel consultants can make domestic and international plane, hotel, and rental car reservations.

Unlike AAA, though, Better World offers its clients travel service with a conscience. The feel-good perks of membership might sound familiar to anyone who's signed up for Working Assets Long Distance -- though Better World members don't get any ice cream. Better World gives 1 percent of its annual revenues to environmental causes and currently donates $11 to its "carbon offset fund" each time a club member makes a plane reservation. Money from this fund is now helping to replace outdated boilers in the Portland public schools, and Rofsky says it will eventually go toward environmental cleanup efforts in members' destinations: "If people are flying to Colorado to go skiing, we'll find a group in Colorado to donate to." Through discounts and promotions, Better World also encourages its members to rent hybrid vehicles, stay in environmentally responsible hotels, and sign up for eco-tours.

Jonathan Budner, a green-building consultant in Portland, joined Better World less than a month after it opened for business. Though he was "perfectly happy" with AAA's services, he says, he had read about AAA's questionable environmental record and was eager to switch. Budner's wife, Heather Helming, an AAA member "since she got her driver's license," was a tougher sell; only when she learned that Better World used an established network of emergency-service providers did she agree to sign up. So far, Budner and Helming have used Better World to make travel plans and plane reservations, and both are pleased with the club's services. They say they'd probably opt for hybrid vehicle rentals and green hotels even without the Better World discounts, but "it's nice to have a travel club that endorses those values," says Budner.

Yet at its core, critics say, Better World is still about internal combustion. "We get asked if people should really be traveling," says Rofsky. "But I think it's progressive to travel. The worst thing in the world would be for people to never leave home. We're trying to help them travel as lightly on the Earth as they possibly can."

Cool Travelers

Rofsky hopes Better World's travel services will work the same magic for his company as they have for AAA. "In a lot of ways, we want to be just like them," he acknowledges. Yet at the same time, Better World Travelers Club is pointedly criticizing its 100-year-old competitor. "We're the cooler, greener alternative to AAA," says the company brochure. "Do you want to affiliate yourself with those who are Antiquated and Actively Anti-Environment? Or do you want to Travel Cool!?"

"Yeah, they're okay," sighs AAA spokesperson Williams when I ask him about Better World Travelers Club. But, he says, the new company is "trying to create a false dichotomy -- the idea that you have to choose between roads and [mass] transit. ... But it's not all transit all the time, and it's not all roads all the time. We're for a balanced policy." AAA's lobbyists, he says, only try to make sure that all polluters, not just motorists, do their part to clean up the air.

Rofsky and Silberman are betting that the AAA's "balanced policy" is starting to rub some of its members the wrong way -- that a substantial number of people want a travel club that isn't in cahoots with anti-environmental lobbies. "I believe that the marketplace works, that it gives consumers what they want," says Rofsky. "We need to be persuading consumers that business can do a lot more for them."

AAA isn't going to be put out of business anytime soon, but Rofsky has big dreams. "I say, it took AAA 80 years to get to 20 million members," he says. "Let's see where we are in 80 years."

Michelle Nijhuis lives in Paonia, Colorado, and is a regular contributor to Grist Magazine.

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