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Know the West

The end of exurbia: An interview with James Howard Kunstler


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "How dense can we be?"

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 affected?

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 rescue?

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.

HCN: You 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 neighborhoods walkable.

HCN: But 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 gone?

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:

How dense can we be?

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.