An Interview With James Howard Kunstler
James Howard Kunstler, a novelist and journalist active since the early 1980s, burst onto the scene in 1993 with The Geography of Nowhere, perhaps the most famous post-war denunciation of suburbia. Written with the intensity of an Old Testament prophet, The Geography of Nowhere and much of Kunstler’s later work is chock full of obscure facts and illuminating anecdotes that all tell the same story: the way Americans live today is physically, environmentally, and spiritually unsustainable, with the “strip-mall wilderness” and the regime of “happy motoring” coming in for special criticism.
Kunstler is a Democrat, albeit an angry, disaffected one, and among his previous journalism gigs is a year as an editor at the liberal Rolling Stone magazine. Yet his rage at debt-driven consumerism is no less conservative than Russell Kirk’s denunciation of the automobile as a “mechanical jacobin.”
A cursory reading of Kunstler’s books or blogs might give the reader the impression that he is a cynic, or even anti-American. For example, he is fond of opining that “you can stick a fork” in the suburban experiment, “because it’s finished.” His blog—in reference to the United States—is pungently titled “Clusterfuck Nation.” And scarcely a week goes by without a reference to the crumbling Republic “taking its final slide down the garbage chute of history.”
Yet Kunstler is not anti-American, nor is he a standard-issue liberal. He is interesting and unorthodox enough to have appeared in Rod Dreher’sCrunchy Cons, which dubbed him a “prophetic crank.” A secular Jew, a fierce localist, a skeptic of left-wing cultural pieties and “techno-narcissistic” science-fiction schemes, Kunstler might best be described as a patriot for an America that no longer exists: a country of small towns, tight-knit communities, human-scale development, and local entrepreneurship. We were never perfect, but we certainly don’t come close to embodying these ideals today. Kunstler is trying to nudge us in that direction.
He was gracious enough to grant TAC an interview:
TAC: You lived in Saratoga Springs, a small town in upstate New York (north of Albany), for a long time. This is not a part of the country that is on the upswing. We hear a lot about a booming economy and full employment. What is your life like there and what economic and social trends have you observed over the years?
Kunstler: I moved 15 miles east across the Hudson River to an old factory village in Washington County in 2012, after more than 30 years in Saratoga. Saratoga went through a great boom while I lived there. It had “great bones” as a classic Main Street town. The oil crises of 1973 and 1979 held back its redevelopment (people were afraid of the 30-mile commute to jobs in Albany), but during the ‘80s and ‘90s it went through a turbo-charged Martha Stewart style rehab. Every great 19th century house was renovated and stuffed with furniture from Crate & Barrel. It has always had quite a mixed economy, and the shopfronts on the main drag, Broadway, were never vacant. It has Skidmore College, a horse racetrack renowned for its charm, and several small manufacturers. After 9/11, the hedge funders came up from the Big City seeking security and skewed the property market. The town remains very lively and prosperous—though I see a dangerous bubble in new apartment projects ramped up via the low-interest lending regime, and it will surely end in a real estate bloodbath. I still go into Saratoga at least once a week and I have a sturdy social network there.
I moved to the little town of Greenwich to put together a homestead with a large garden, an orchard, and chickens. I found an interesting property literally on the edge of the village—11 feet from the tax line. I can walk to Main Street in seven minutes. (The chickens stay put.) The village is in an advanced state of sclerosis. The storefronts on Main Street are half empty. Most of the rest are second-hand shops with a couple of eateries. The several factories along the Battenkill River (a tributary of the Hudson) all shut down in the 1970s. Many of the village denizens are on some kind of government support. There’s a heroin problem. Yet it is exactly the kind of place that I believe will have a future in the next economy. The county was too far away for the city weekenders to buy up and ruin.
There’s still plenty of farming, though it’s transitioning out of dairy (which is essentially an industrial enterprise) into new and more varied crops and methods. The Battenkill has tremendous potential for hydropower. You can see the ruins of old small-scale installations from the early 20th century in there; the big electric conglomerates didn’t want to care for them. When national chain retail completes its death cycle (currently underway) and the Amazon business model is recognized as a joke, Main Street will come back. Somebody recently bought five Main Street wrecks and has plans to renovate them.
The Washington County landscape is breathlessly beautiful, a terrain of tender hills and quiet dells leading into the Green Mountains to the east. There are a lot of arty folk in them thar hills and in the neighboring villages. There is something of a real American rural culture here still. I lead a purposeful, disciplined life—I have to, being self-employed—and I remain pretty cheerful because of it. I play fiddle in a local contradance band. I cultivate my garden. It’s the best of all possible worlds.
TAC: You are best known as an urbanist, an architectural critic, for this general cluster of issues. Why urbanism? Did you intend to become an urbanist when you wrote The Geography of Nowhere, or was that a path you found yourself on by accident?
Kunstler: My whole life I’ve been conscious of and sensitive to my surroundings. I was born in New York City, spent three years out in the Long island suburbs (age 5 to 8, the only years that suburbia is okay) and moved back to Manhattan for the rest of my childhood. I went to grammar school a block away from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the days before they shook you down for a donation to get in, and I got to know the place as well as the inside of our refrigerator. I took myself to Chinese restaurants and Yankee Stadium and Broadway plays, when they cost $7.50 for a decent seat. I went to summer camp in New Hampshire before the interstate highways existed and the state was still a Eugene O’Neill backwater of granitic old farmers and busy mill towns, with their leafy squares and opera houses, which seemed hugely charming to me. Being an indifferent student, and to avoid the Vietnam draft, I went to a third-rate SUNY college in a small town in the middle of nowhere—the ambiguous region between Rochester and Buffalo—and got to love the small town life (when it still had some life in it). I never returned to live in New York City, though; as a young newspaper writer I lived in Boston and San Francisco and half a year in D.C.
Through this experience I became fascinated, perhaps obsessed, with the shortcomings of American cities and especially the suburbs, and the way that scene was developing in the 1970s. It all amounted to a stupendous void of human reward. In fact, you can state categorically that the American automobile suburbs are positively punishing to the human spirit, and our cities hardly better. The majority of U.S. cities are decrepit, and the rest suffer one way or another from a thundering absence of artistry in the composition and assembly of what is supposed to be a human habitat.
Nobody had really written about this for quite a while—since Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford in the early 1960s—and the intellectual class of America seemed oblivious to the fiasco of daily life these ghastly environments presented. I looked around and saw a set of problems that was a menace to civilization. It’s awfulness was also an invitation to comedy, and I was developing into a comical writer. The Geography of Nowhere grew out of an assignment from the New York Times Sunday Magazine, where I was a regular freelancer. Being the fretful neurasthenic little gerbils they are, the editors killed my story (with the working title, “Why is America So Fucking Ugly?”), which I turned into a book proposal and sold to Simon & Schuster.
TAC: Change of topics. In one of your blogs, you wrote a bit about gay marriage; you were mostly skeptical of it because we don’t really know what side effects it could have, as a new social norm. Can you speak a little more about that?
Kunstler: I think gay marriage represents a certain kind of cultural mischief that derives from the misguided crypto-gnostic wish in liberal America to transform human nature in the name of “progress.” I was in favor of so-called civil unions that would regularize property issues for same-sex couples who formed households, but calling it “marriage” was a sentimental error that would further damage a struggling institution in a culture that can’t withstand much more institutional failure. For me, it’s not a religious issue; I don’t practice any so-called “faith.” I believe in behavioral boundaries and I regard the campaign to abolish sexual categories—or endlessly expand them into meaninglessness—as unhelpful to the human project.
TAC: In your earlier work, but especially in your more recent blogging, you don’t talk about technocratic issues or policy very much. It’s a very different idea of human flourishing than most people in academia or business or policy have; questioning the whole idea of economic growth and industrial society. You write about lots of other issues—political correctness, the “deep state,” finance, foreign policy—as if they are only epiphenomena of a decaying civilization.
Kunstler: I consider our techno-industrial economy a transient phenomenon, and many of the assumptions and ideas about it as erroneous, especially the sci-fi fantasies du jour, invoking a dazzling robotic nirvana to come. My book The Long Emergency detailed exactly the dead-end we find ourselves in. And the follow-up, titled Too Much Magic, describes the cargo cult of wishful thinking that arose after 2008, when the fragility of our phony-baloney banking system was exposed as the matrix of fraud that it is. Our pornified culture, with its overlayment of mass murder, drug abuse, gluttony, and celebrity idol worship is the epitome of decadence—anything goes and nothing matters. My view is that we’re heading into profound systems failure and the outcome will be a re-set to a far less complex human condition. We’ll be lucky, when the dust settles, if we can land back in an early 19th century level of activity, but we could go full medieval, or worse. At the moment, we can’t construct a coherent story about what is happening to us; and therefore we can’t make any coherent plans to act in the face of it. Our current politics reflect this sad state of affairs.
TAC: Would you say, then, that you’re a skeptic of techno-industrial capitalism but also of techno-industrial environmentalism?
Kunstler: I find a lot of the debate about capitalism these days to be rather specious. Capitalism is not a belief system, and I’d argue that it’s not really a concocted program for running an economy per se. It is a set of laws governing the behavior of surplus wealth, that’s all. There will always be people who have more than other people—unless we fall back into a stone age—and managing that extra wealth will always be a social necessity, whether it’s represented in surplus grain, oxen, gold coins, or paper certificates that purport to represent “wealth.” Probably what many of the complainers-against-capitalism really detest are the abstract financial games that we have developed only in the last century or so, and really refined in the past quarter-century—especially the shenanigans in the securities markets.
That’s not capitalism; it’s swindling, fraud, and racketeering, and there are statutes against these activities, even if they are not enforced these days. But that calls something different to question: whether we are abandoning the rule of law. As for the techno-utopians and their visions of our robotic nirvana-to-come: I regard most of this as a species of especially grandiose narcissism. Sheer innovation is not going to overcome the limits of living on the finite resources of this finite planetary ecosystem. And talk about colonizing Mars and other planets by the likes of Elon Musk amounts to a laughable fantasy in light of our current failure to inhabit this planet successfully, with all it has to offer. The most beneficial state of affairs right now would be a time-out from all the Frankenstein experiments we’re running.
TAC: How do you answer critics who say, “you’ve been talking about peak oil and motoring and strip malls for almost 30 years, and it hasn’t all collapsed yet”? To put it differently, let’s say that we really can escape the end of oil with some “magical” substitute. What would that mean for the arguments you have been making since 1993?
Kunstler: I didn’t call it “the long emergency” for nothing. The oil predicament played out a little differently than I predicted in 2005, but we are nonetheless in thrall to a terminal condition. The shale oil “miracle” has been hugely deceptive and the public broadly misunderstands what’s actually going on “out there.” We’ve generated enormous debts to compensate for the plummeting energy return on investment that the oil industry’s business model is based on. We’re so deeply in debt at every level because we can’t afford the energy required for running everyday life in America. Shale oil was financed by “junk” lending thanks to supernaturally low interest rate policy, and the shale producers haven’t made a net dime since they ramped up in 2005. It costs too much to get the stuff out of the ground, with all those horizontal bore lines, millions of tons of sand, and great gouts of water to flush it out.
They’re over-producing to generate cash-flow to only partially pay off their debts, and in so doing driving down the price. Plus, their depletion rates are frightful—three years and a shale well is toast. But if the price of oil were to rise above $100 a barrel again, it would only crush what remains of the industrial economy. Meanwhile, depletion continues apace in the old-fashioned conventional oil, and the industry as a whole has discovered next-to-zero new oil since 2015. There is widespread hope (and prayer) that we’ll cobble together some combo of alt-energy types to replace oil. Ain’t going to happen. You can do all these things at the science project scale now, with the supporting “platform” of a fossil fuel economy to hold it up, but these alt systems don’t scale up and we won’t be able to fabricate the hardware for them without that platform of oil underneath. In other words, we can’t run suburbia, the U.S. military, the Internet, the interstate highway system, Wal-Mart, and Walt Disney World by other means. But, we can simplify stringently and re-scale and re-localize economic life, and remain civilized. We’re going to be dragged kicking and screaming into that reality-based future.
TAC: What are your thoughts on religion, and its intersection with the problems you describe? Some environmentalists have blamed the Christian idea of the primacy of man for our hubris and arrogance towards the natural and even the built environment. Despite being non-religious you are certainly aware of a spiritual dimension to our maladies.
Kunstler: I think you are describing some cultural dynamics realistically, though I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to religious matters. Human beings benefit from a certain amount of humility before the mysteries of existence, and you’d think we’d be a bit more nervous about our recent insults to the planet. In my World Made By Hand series of novels, set in a post-economic-collapse American future, the church has regained community importance—as all the other armatures of daily life have fallen away (corporate employment, schools, the courts, government generally) and people need something to hang their lives on, especially what remains of the collective, civic life. They are not necessarily pious, though. I don’t think Christianity will be blamed for the systemic disruptions coming, and I’d be a bit concerned about its latent mojo for persecution and craziness.
TAC: Who would you say has inspired you or had an impact on you, and the way you think about the world and the problems we face?
Kunstler: I’ve been inspired in the business of writing by H.L. Mencken, Tom Wolfe, and the now somewhat forgotten Thomas McGuane, a fantastic prose stylist who made a big splash in the 1970s with a series of youthful novels and then just kind of faded like a nova in the night sky. (There’s a story there. I’d love to interview him, if I could. He’s nearly 80 and lives in Montana. Never met him). Wendell Berry is a figure like unto Moses in his understanding of our predicament. I have a lot of respect for several of my contemporaries as commentators who follow the same story-line of declining civilization: Dmitry Orlov, a great stylist with a wonderful mordant sense of humor; John Michael Greer, who has put out a ton of intelligent work with a wonderfully sensible, amiable, down-to-earth voice; Chris Martenson, who has a highly-trained scientist’s vision of these issues, along with a shrewd sense of American corporate behavior, since he was an executive in pharma before he chucked that life. Gail Tverberg has put together an admirably coherent narrative about the role of energy and debt in our economy. David Stockman has written eloquently about the evil marriage of Wall Street and government. Michael Lewis covers Wall Street racketeering better than anyone. Pam Martens and Yves Smith consistently dissect the ongoing financial swindle on their blogs Wall Street on Parade and Naked Capitalism. Alice Friedemann over in Berkeley is a brilliant analyst of energy and transportation. I could go on. There’s a lot of good thinking and writing out there—and it’s virtually all outside the institutional structures of mainstream media and government.
Addison Del Mastro is Assistant Editor for The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro.
James Howard Kunstler’s many books include The Geography of Nowhere, Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation, and the World Made by Hand novel series. He blogs on Mondays and Fridays at Kunstler.com. Find his articles at TAC about once per month.