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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 [1], 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.” [2]

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’s [3] Crunchy Cons [4], 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 [5].

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 [6]. Find his articles at TAC about once per month.

37 Comments (Open | Close)

37 Comments To "An Interview With James Howard Kunstler"

#1 Comment By MEOW On November 21, 2017 @ 1:11 am

The oil predicament? What is he on about? When the OPEC nations momentarily stopped oil freighters the west went into an economic tailspin. Middle East oil producers suddenly realized they were being shafted in selling oil at a discount. Albeit subsidizing western economies. They jacked up the price and the consumers had to pay. As more supplies became available prices edged downwards. This was helped by the inherent instability of a cartel. Cheating there is the game. The 2003 war in Iraq had nothing to do with oil (I leave that to Buchanan et al to decipher). Saddam would have given us all the oil we wanted at a discount. Dictators “eat drink and be merry” – they can’t take it with them. Economists might call this a high planning discount rate. Once I read nonsense I start to question the entirety.

#2 Comment By Casimir Adler-Ivanbrook On November 21, 2017 @ 2:17 am

The problem that I have with Mr. Kuntsler’s views is that even though he talks about “the Long Emergency” he doesn’t speak as a man with patience. He has been proclaiming-year after year, that this year is going to be it. Ans so far it hasn’t. If one speaks about this problem happening for 30+ years, one is not a visionary. One is just pushing an idea whose time will eventually come. In the long run–how ever far out, it will be certain that one year, he will be right. And then, he can say in all seriousness that “I told you so.”

#3 Comment By SteveK9 On November 21, 2017 @ 7:18 am

There is a solution to ‘peak oil’ … it’s called uranium, and we are not going to run out as far into the future as we care to look.

#4 Comment By I Don’t Matter On November 21, 2017 @ 10:26 am

He is ignorant about more or less everything he mentions: oil economy (dude, can you even read a balance sheet), market history (has even heard of South Seas Company?), not to mention zero understanding of capitalism (excess wealth management? Where did the excess wealth come from, Mars?). If this guy is the best the “sky is falling” cohort can produce, we can all breathe a sigh of relief – the world as we know it is not ending anytime soon.

#5 Comment By Brad On November 21, 2017 @ 10:34 am

Gee! That was a fun read. 🙂

#6 Comment By dforce On November 21, 2017 @ 11:23 am

the preceding comments say a great deal about what is wrong with America;ignorance,arrogance & delusional belief that the entropic death machine of global crapitalism can stumble on indefinitely; it cannot and will not.
The American dream is really a nightmare,but all nightmares end.

#7 Comment By Greg Tew On November 21, 2017 @ 11:30 am

“I don’t Matter” wrote, he is ignorant about more or less everything he mentions. What? JHK is one of the most insightful guys questioning our cultural condition living today, which is pretty much why he was interviewed for the article.

Kunstler is 100% right when he asserts that essentially everything we have in our lives today is the result of inexpensive oil – without it, nothing works. Sure, we still have more oil today than we can use, but at what cost? One example of the cost is a large segment of the population that is essentially cut off from life because they can’t afford to participate in the oil economy or are depressed by the life the oil economy has produced (isolating sprawling wastelands). This has led to an increase in “death by despair” (suicides, drug overdosed, mass shootings, etc). So no, the crisis JHK has been predicting for years hasn’t reached the top-20% (the people reading this article) but it has reached the bottom 40% and is working its way up.

#8 Comment By Frank On November 21, 2017 @ 12:04 pm

I’d recommend everyone save their criticism of Kunstler until you’ve had a change to read “The Long Emergency” and “Too Much Magic”. If the facts and history he lays out doesn’t get your attention then you’re not paying attention.

#9 Comment By I Don’t Matter On November 21, 2017 @ 12:10 pm

@Greg Tew:
“He’s insightful which is why he was interviewed” is a circular argument, or are you saying everyone who’s ever been interviewed is insightful? Did the act of interviewing make him insightful? Don’t hang up, it’s a serious question.
“He’s 100% right” – no one is 100% right discussing matters as complex as these.

#10 Comment By Youknowho On November 21, 2017 @ 12:13 pm

The oil economy can be modified by switching to alternative fuels. Alas, the Right has been hijacked by climate change deniers who insist on going on as we are. That the religious Right aids and abets them adds to it.

I told one such denier that if he was seriously a distributist as he claimed, he would embrace wind and solar. I told him that not everyone can have an oil well, but anyone can have solar panels or a windmill. That they allow villages to have power – even if they do not connect to the grid, which is why they embrace solar in the Third World. That it is much easier to have a local community if they have a power source to maintain for themselves.

But they prefer to repeat Fox News…

#11 Comment By Rique On November 21, 2017 @ 1:09 pm

Oh, great, an interview with the prima intra pares of these perma-doom BS merchants.

I am not even saying he is wrong. He may or may not eventually be correct. But I think a simple rule is this: if someone is offering you their opinion and is in any way motivated by “buy my book/click my page link/video” he or she is almost certainly a BS vendor and utterly unworthy of being paid attention to.

Reminds me of the dimwit that used to write in Rolling Stone when i was quite young (Greider, i think?) Every year THIS was going to be when the US/world economy permanently collapses under the weight of its own contradictions/injustices.

Well I stopped paying attention to that crap roundabout the onset of the first Clinton administration. I’m sure that idiot claimed credit for LTCM in ’98 and the 07-09 crisis and will do so when the next one rolls up on us.

#12 Comment By b. On November 21, 2017 @ 1:22 pm

“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, like Greer and others in the “apocalypse lite” business, are not so much chronicling the decline of civilization as giving voice to those that “decline civilization”. That is not even a conservative position. Given their claim that civilization, government, science, engineering etc. cannot possibly improve the human condition, and haven’t, really, there is little left to conserve of the present.

Kunstler et.al. are in fact reactionaries, and that past that “no longer exists” is in fact a mirage that never existed.

There is a difference between using reason and common sense to take a skeptical view of where we are and where we are headed, and any attempt to “prove” that the Enlightenment has brought us nothing but trouble. Kunstler et.al. argue simultaneously that human beings cannot possibly transcend their cognitive limits, individually or collectively, and at the same time that human beings have, at some point or the other, lived in dignified, sustainable equilibrium. Greer proposes the same, yet also expects humanity to be subject to inevitable cycles of violence and greed ending ultimately in extinction.

These positions are as deterministic as they are undemocratic – not only do these men deny that human beings – in the process of wrecking an entire biosphere – have any actual agency, they even deny that human beings should strive for comprehension and agency.

That might have been a conservative position of sorts before the human species began to rely on irrigation and agriculture, ever since then this take has progressed from increasingly reactionary to terminally self-contradictory. To reason about the limits of reasoning is the first step towards transcending them, whether you succeed at that or now – whether you see that as desirable or possible, or not. This is what tools, language, drawing, writing, science, government etc. ultimately are – conventions, processes, procedures, rules, institutions we have collectively conceived, implemented, iterated and refined to be able to operate beyond the dynamic range of our neolithic brains.

That is why Kunstler et.al. end up with positions that reject not just science and government as flawed institutions created by fallible human beings, but that reject the very possibility of science or government being anything but an aberration. Practically speaking, this ends up to be an elitist rejection of even the possibility of collective consensus and democratic organization.

Furthermore, it takes a serious cognitive deficiency to reason about the limits of cognition, yet to claim certainty about how strict and known these limits are. The human brain might be beyond our understanding, it might even be beyond our capability to understand, but so are the consequences and limits resulting from that conundrum.

Corollary: to remove human agency from a limited planet, a drastic reduction in human population is required just by virtue of scale – even assuming that the sum of our agency is accidental.

Kunstler, Greer et.al. illustrate that each age gets the conservatives it deserves. Which raises the question as to how we can meaningfully define “conservatism” given how drastically the human condition has changed over the past millennia, let alone the last few decades. What exactly are the values and principles, the loop invariants and evolutionary stable strategies that have endured from the neolithic age onwards, which of these do we wish to conserve, and which of these do we, admittedly, still have to iterate and refine in the decades and centuries to come?

Is conservatism the equivalent of embracing “ideals” of an America that “no longer exists” which was marked by the frequent occasion of e.g. childbirth mortality and child mortality? Do conservatives willingly accept these blights of the human condition as inevitable or even necessary? God-given, perhaps?

What is “human-scale”? Perhaps a concept as self-defeating as “unnatural”?

#13 Comment By grumpy realist On November 21, 2017 @ 1:54 pm

Modern version of “The World is Coming To An End! Repent! Repent!” I guess.

I have a friend who is like that about global warming and how we’re ALL GOING TO DIIIEEEE!!!! in 15 years. Then I noticed he was very insistent on starting a college savings account for his toddler son. At which point I started tuning him out. Unless you have the belief in your own convictions enough to start living according to what they indicate, fugghetabahtit. You’re just someone who gets fun out of scaring yourself and other people.

#14 Comment By Charles On November 21, 2017 @ 3:00 pm

Kunstler began his near perfect losing streak of wrong predictions in 1999 when he convinced us that Y2K would be the end of the world. Nothing happened. Yet people still treat him like some oracle.

#15 Comment By Cas On November 21, 2017 @ 3:33 pm

Your astute comment on reactionary individuals who harken back to a “past that “no longer exists” [and] is in fact a mirage that never existed,” could equally be said of the current incumbent in the White House.

I really liked your post. The one place I thought you went a tad too far was at: “The human brain might be beyond our understanding, it might even be beyond our capability to understand, but so are the consequences and limits resulting from that conundrum.” Would you consider the possibility that though we may not know the limit, the optimal so to speak, we could be satisfied with something less, if not absolute knowledge, than good enough knowledge, which is always open to change as circumstances change? And it is in that grey area that Kunstler is bartering, even if in his blinding certainty (dogma?) he doesn’t seem to realize it …

#16 Comment By mrscracker On November 21, 2017 @ 3:46 pm

grumpy realist says:

I have a friend who is like that about global warming and how we’re ALL GOING TO DIIIEEEE!!!! in 15 years. Then I noticed he was very insistent on starting a college savings account for his toddler son. At which point I started tuning him out.”
That’s pretty funny. Thanks for sharing.

#17 Comment By mrscracker On November 21, 2017 @ 4:09 pm

“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.”
You know, it’s odd he doesn’t mention how many Amish folks have moved into his county.
One of my sons travels through NY state often for work & noted the large number of Amish buying up abandoned farmland & returning it to use.
If I was concerned about the future of rural life & communities I think I’d look at what was working in my backyard & why. But perhaps Mr. Kunstler’s already done that.

#18 Comment By EarlyBird On November 21, 2017 @ 4:44 pm

I like this fellow, Mr. Kunstler. I like his ideas and how he expresses himself. I like the way he lives. I like the cut of his jib.

#19 Comment By catbird On November 21, 2017 @ 9:27 pm

I love the suburbs. I’ve lived in suburban environments pretty much all my life.

I guess I must somehow enjoy anti-human nightmares, as I slide down the garbage chute of human history.

Or just maybe Kunstler and his acolytes are elevating their personal tastes into metaphysical laws.

Kind of like Shift telling Puzzle that if there aren’t enough of his particular favorite nuts in the market, that’s proof the world is screwed up and needs to be remade, pronto!

#20 Comment By Ben On November 21, 2017 @ 10:32 pm

Why all the hate for suburbs? I hate endless strip malls and generic places devoid of character as much as anybody else, but aren’t the suburbs what allowed so many Americans to accomplish the American Dream 60-70 years ago?

#21 Comment By Nelson On November 21, 2017 @ 10:54 pm

Suburbs are one of the worst living arangements we could have invented. You get none of the soul of small towns and none of the efficiencies of dense urban areas.

#22 Comment By Mark R. Yzaguirre On November 22, 2017 @ 12:02 am

Kunstler on the drop in oil prices and related collapse of peak oil theory: “I didn’t call it “the long emergency” for nothing. The oil predicament played out a little differently than I predicted in 2005”

In other words, as Pee-Wee Herman famously said, “I meant to do that”.

#23 Comment By Benjamin Glaser On November 22, 2017 @ 8:51 am

Bill Kauffman is a better, more coherent version of this kind of thinking.

#24 Comment By grumpy realist On November 22, 2017 @ 5:35 pm

Ben–I think a lot of the grumpiness we have for suburbs is because they’re neither fish nor fowl and almost impossible to live in without a car.

#25 Comment By Ben On November 22, 2017 @ 7:37 pm

The suburbs are pretty great in my opinion; not as busy and crowded as the city, and you can have some space to yourself. Also not as rural as living in the countryside.

But I guess my opinion of the suburbs is different, from living in New England, where the suburbs are just old towns with character that have grown over the years.

#26 Comment By Austin Leavitt On November 22, 2017 @ 9:10 pm

“Suburbs are one of the worst living arangements we could have invented. You get none of the soul of small towns and none of the efficiencies of dense urban areas.”


I don’t dispute the lack of soul and efficiency in many suburbs, but I don’t see it as a result of the suburbs themselves. It is instead a result of culture and people itself.

I grew up in a small town in New England, have lived worked in big cities on both coasts, and now live and work in the New England suburbs. People are just about as unfriendly and self-absorbed in all three places, and the truth is that places only contain the character they get from the people that inhabit them and make them so.

#27 Comment By catbird On November 22, 2017 @ 9:50 pm

Grumpy Realist, what you said makes about as much sense as saying “I think a lot of the grumpiness we have for apples is because their neither cherries nor oranges”. And when you say “almost impossible to live in without a car” — take away the “almost” word and you have the rural situation.

#28 Comment By Paul On November 23, 2017 @ 8:15 am

I prefer JHK’s novels.

#29 Comment By Lawrence Bottorff On November 23, 2017 @ 11:02 am

I’ve been a constant email bother to JHK for years now. Our back-and-forth is the stuff of legends … but I flatter myself. I appreciate his candor. He thinks clearer than most. He’s brewing up his own self-made conservatism. And so am I. Though I criticize his allegiance to modern realism in his writings, specifically his “World Made By Hand” series. If he had just taken a page or two from Louise May Alcott or, especially, Laura Ingalls Wilder, WMBH would have been an actual guidebook for a way back into the “natural” conservatism America knew in the 19th century. Technology may or may not fail us in the near or distant future. And yes, we’ll need to think about a massive scaling back. But I’d like it to be a formative, if not hopeful process, not a Mad Max death march.

Still, I doubt any sort of sane conservatism will ever reappear like we saw back in the glorious 19th century. So I pick up as many of babies as I can as they’ve been mercilessly pitched out with the bathwater in our “modern” times.

#30 Comment By Ross On November 23, 2017 @ 11:43 am

Kunstler’s critiques are worth thinking about with or without the peak oil prophecy. Basically it’s this: are you living a worthy life if it’s spent going from one box to another box, using a box for transportation two hours out of your day? How many celebrity names do you know, compared to the names of your neighbors? How many times this week did you use Netflix, and how many times did you go to the local arts theater? Are we better served bouncing the middle class from old subdivisions to new subdivisions, or hunkering down and investing in one or a handful of common spaces? Can you value the food on your table if all that’s required to obtain it is a supermarket and a paycheck? The point in all of this is that American life is culturally atrophied and alienated. We can’t live like this forever.

#31 Comment By Alison On November 24, 2017 @ 10:51 am

Ross, I really liked your line of questioning. And I would link it to Greg’s comment about the fact that our cultural, physical arrangement is not working for the 80%ers in this country — much less the 2/3rds world who dwell on the landfills of our unbridled consumerism, I would add.

There is a deep denialist mentality when “my life” is reasonably comfortable and the opioid crisis is outside my close-in gentrifying neighborhood, much less when it is identified with a different part of the country altogether.

Look, I live — and drive—in the American city most built around the car and the oil economy. Despite market flux it is still working well for the 5%ers (esp those who can afford to keep their kids out of the juvenile justice system for dealing drugs to their affluent classmates.) Yes that is sarcasm about how we measure “working well.”

At the same time, no one I know choses a life enslaved to 3 hrs plus a day of freeway driving — except out of economic necessity. It is revealing that even though Exxon most likely moved its corporate offices to a faux “town center” ex-urb north of my city for tax reasons, no doubt employee satisfaction for their (now no longer commuting) white collar employees was part of the calculus.

#32 Comment By Seth Largo On November 28, 2017 @ 2:12 pm

From L.A. to Denver to Detroit and NYC, most “suburbs” have populations as large as if not larger than the supposed urban core they surround. The urban/suburban distinction was relevant 50 years ago. It is irrelevant today.

#33 Comment By HH On December 6, 2017 @ 12:23 pm

However shaky Kunstler’s grasp of economics may be, his esthetic verdict on the gross ugliness of postwar suburban development is on target. It takes just a few minutes in a shopping mall parking garage to grasp the truth of his words: “We have built places that are not worth saving.”

#34 Comment By Bob Oldwyn On December 15, 2017 @ 4:18 pm

Hi, been a follower for about 10 years I guess and have really enjoyed your commentary and intellect. As you probably feel about a number of folks it would be great to sit and have a conversation. I am 71 and have traveled a fair amount and worked in the oilfield in Alaska for 15 years. mostly I agree with you but slip away on some of your positions. Thank you for being intelligent and cognizant. Keep up the good work and hopefully the numbers of folks that decide to want the truth will increase. All the best,

#35 Comment By Peabody Here On December 19, 2017 @ 11:58 pm

Your subtitle to this interview is “America’s foremost critic of suburbia talks strip malls, environmentalism, and Christianity.” A little bait and switch there I would say. What did he really say about Christianity of any import or with any intelligence? Nada. Atheist/Agnostics can’t talk about Christianity with any intelligence because it’s a subject they know nothing about except the most superficial and parodic. I’m glad he didn’t try to speak much about it. At least he follows the adage of Socrates on that subject. Has pretty much an opinion about everything else if you read his blog. The most accurate adjectives I’d use would have to be, curmudgeon and crank, but I like his turn of phrase and he is both eloquent and witty in his crankiness.

#36 Comment By Terence On March 15, 2018 @ 11:19 am

First I have heard of Kunstler. Hard to believe he’s a liberal. But it is good to hear someone with logic and cojones on the other side… especially a “secular” cranky Jew, with all that is going on in Israel today. Thanks for being you.

#37 Comment By The Junkster On June 4, 2019 @ 10:51 am

Opinions are just that, opinions, they feed you or they don’t, maybe they help you understand the world a little more, maybe they don’t. Don’t be a “knee jerk,”