The end of exurbia: An interview with James Howard Kunstler
by Allen Best
James Howard Kunstler has made a reputation for himself as a critic of America's auto-dependent suburbs, first with his 1993 book, The Geography of Nowhere, and then his 1996 book, Home From Nowhere. Now, he is taking aim at the foundation for these dispersed settlement patterns — oil. In an essay in Rolling Stone called "The End of Oil," Kunstler argues that global oil production will peak sometime btween 2005 and 2010, and the decline in oil supplies will create what he calls "The Long Emergency." That is also the title of his latest book. In an interview with Allen Best for High Country News, Kunstler predicts sharply reduced population growth in the West, an end to Wal-Mart and other big-box retailers, and a return to smaller, inward-looking communities.
HIGH COUNTRY NEWS: With oil more scarce and
hence more expensive, how will our lives in the American West be
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER:
People have been moving into the Colorado, Montana, Idaho exurbs
for a few decades now. We’ll see that trend reverse. People
will find it harder to lead the rugged outdoor adventure exurban
life in a McMansion, connected to the civic world by long trips in
the SUV. Insofar as food production will become a huge problem in
the U.S., requiring much more local farming, the Rockies are at a
disadvantage in climate, soil, rainfall.
HCN: What happens to people living on the five-,
10- and 20-acre parcels located miles and miles from their jobs?
KUNSTLER: Why assume that a lot of
these jobs will still exist? The winding down of the cheap-oil era
will produce huge job losses and large new classes of economic
losers. I predict a lot of population movement. As for the five- or
10-acre ranchettes, the existing ones will be devalued, and many
may be abandoned.
HCN: Many names for
the recent generation of gas-thirsty SUVs are taken from geographic
features of the West — the Tahoe, the Sierra, the Yukon, and
the Denali, to name just a few. Any ideas on what might be suitable
names for the next generation of cars?
KUNSTLER: Well, I believe cars generally will be
a diminished presence in our lives. There may also be a lot of
political resentment of car owners among the former middle class
who are no longer affluent enough to own cars. The preoccupation
with keeping the easy motoring racket going is one of the obstacles
we’ll have to overcome if we want to remain civilized.
HCN: Many people have faith in a
hydrogen economy, or at least greater reliance on solar, wind and
other alternative fuels. You see none of the above riding to the
KUNSTLER: Hydrogen, as currently sold to the public, is a hoax. We’re not going to replace the U.S. car-and-truck fleet with hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles. Ain’t gonna happen. Hydrogen is the most plentiful element in our neighborhood of the universe, but it is always bound with other elements into compounds, such as water, H2O. It takes more energy to separate the hydrogen than you get from the hydrogen. Also, it presents extremely difficult problems where transport and storage are concerned.
Bottom line is: No combination of alternative fuels or systems will allow us to run the U.S. the way we’re used to running it, or even a substantial fraction of it. Wind and solar will probably be used at only an extremely local or even household level. We will need to get a whole lot of small hydro back in service.
Ultimately, I wonder if any of these alternative systems can run,
absent a supporting "platform" of cheap oil. How, for instance, do
we intend to manufacture the solar panels and wind turbines?
I’m not an advocate for nuclear power, but if we want to keep
the lights on after 2020, we may have no other choice.
HCN: Nevada led the nation in population growth
during the 1990s, followed by Arizona and other states of the
Intermountain West. Many demographers have predicted more of the
same during the next several decades. You do not: You’re the
worst imaginable spokesman for the Las Vegas or the Phoenix
chambers of commerce. But why?
KUNSTLER: I’m pessimistic about the cities
of the Southwest. In addition to problems with oil and natural gas,
they will have problems with water, with the inability to produce
much food locally, and (don’t be shocked) friction with
Mexico. I believe that parts of Arizona, New Mexico, West Texas,
and California may become contested territory for a while.
Ultimately, I believe, this region will be substantially
depopulated: Las Vegas will dry up and blow away inside of 50
years. Phoenix is hopeless. Denver might revert to what it was
before: a cattle rail-head.
say the main problem is that cities have become distanced from
their food supplies. Can’t railroads be pressed into service
to deliver the food now supplied by trucks?
KUNSTLER: It’s not hard to imagine a
rebuilt railroad system in America. The technology is fairly
simple, well-established and understood. I don’t see that we
have any choice but to do it. However, in places like Tucson and
Phoenix, the fabric of suburban sprawl is virtually unfixable. No
amount of railroad service will reform Phoenix, or make its
aren’t cities remarkable for their efficiency in delivering
goods and services? Won’t the more dense inner cities still
thrive, in a relative fashion, once the cheap energy supplies are
KUNSTLER: Cities are wonderful
things. But the scale of our late 20th century cities is badly
unsuited to what the future will require. They will all have to
contract, and the process is apt to be painful. Generally, anything
large-scale will be in trouble in this period ahead I call the Long
Emergency. Cities, corporations, governments, farms, schools
— all these things will have to become smaller.
HCN: You have said Wal-Mart will cease to exist
within a decade. Why?
KUNSTLER: The "warehouse-on-wheels" is already becoming a problem with the fluctuating price of gas. The one thing a giant company like Wal-Mart needs to do is rigorously rationalize its expenses, because the profit margins are so razor-thin. They have to move enormous volumes of plastic wading pools and other stuff in order to make any profit. If the price of diesel fuel is $2.23 one week and $2.57 a week later, they have a big problem. There is also the problem of their 12,000-mile manufacturing supply line from China.
A larger concern for them, however, is that a vanishing
middle class means vanishing customers and sales. There will be
fewer things to buy. We will be challenged to replace these
mega-systems with reconstructed local trade networks.
HCN: Among these grim or at least changed times
ahead, do you see silver linings?
KUNSTLER: Yes. We’ll return to smaller and more socially cohesive communities in which the work people do is more directly meaningful and connected to social roles. We will cease to be a nation of overfed clowns in perpetual need of entertainment to stave off boredom.
This story is a sidebar to the feature:
Living the good life in the ’exurbs’ is draining our tax coffers and devouring the West’s open spaces, but large-lot development continues to explode.
© High Country News