James Howard Kunstler: The old American dream is a nightmare

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

From an article by Kerry Trueman on Grist:

The Great Depression gave rise to hobos and Hoovervilles. The Roaring Nineties brought us what New York Times columnist David Brooks termed "bobos in paradise."

Now our current round of layoffs and foreclosures has unceremoniously transferred millions of folks from the "affluent" to the "afflicted" category, exiling them from Brooks's mythical exurban Eden.

But instead of setting up tents, these newly poor live in a perpetual state of nestlessness, couch-surfing, or flitting from one basement rec room to the next. And rather than revisiting Hooverville, they've given our national landscape the barely-lived in, already abandoned suburban ghost towns I call Kunstlervilles, in honor of my favorite peak oil prophet, James Howard Kunstler.

Less scrappy than crappy, the derelict condos and subdivisions of Kunstlerville were built for buyers who never materialized -- erected with marginally better building materials than a Hooverville, but doomed to house pigeons before a decorator ever had the chance to breeze in and decree, "Put a bird on it!"

Kunstler has long warned of the horrendous hangover we're going to wake up with after our "cheap oil fiesta," but he's not gloating as global instability and climate destabilization become the new not-so-normal. Unlike some dystopians, he's motivated less by the desire to say "I told you so" than by the hope that we might still manage to reinvent the American dream on a scale that better suits our current circumstances.

I caught up with Kunstler recently when a conference took me to his hometown of Saratoga Springs, and afterward followed up via email. (Our conversation has been edited for space and style.)

Q. In your 2005 book The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, you gave high-rises low marks, and declared that you're "not optimistic about our big cities." You maintain that towns and small cities are far better equipped to adapt to the post-cheap-oil future.

Now, we've got economist Edward Glaeser talking up skyscrapers in The Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier. David Owen made a similar case with Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability.

Do you find yourself swayed, even a little, by these defenders of urban density?