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The Infinite Suburb Is an Academic Joke

The elite graduate schools of urban planning have yet another new vision of the future. Lately, they see a new-and-improved suburbia—based on self-driving electric cars, “drone deliveries at your doorstep,” and “teardrop-shaped one-way roads” (otherwise known as cul-de-sacs)—as the coming sure thing. It sounds suspiciously like yesterday’s tomorrow, the George Jetson utopia that has been the stock-in-trade of half-baked futurism for decades. It may be obvious that for some time now we have lived in a reality-optional culture, and it’s vividly on display in the cavalcade of techno-narcissism that passes for thinking these days in academia.

Exhibit A is an essay that appeared last month in The New York Times Magazine titled “The Suburb of the Future is Almost Here [1],” by Alan M. Berger of the MIT urban design faculty and author of the book Infinite Suburbia—on the face of it a perfectly inane notion. The subtitle of his Times Magazine piece argued that “Millennials want a different kind of suburban development that is smart, efficient, and sustainable.”

Note the trio of clichés at the end, borrowed from the lexicon of the advertising industry. “Smart” is a meaningless anodyne that replaces the worn out tropes “deluxe,” “super,” “limited edition,” and so on. It’s simply meant to tweak the reader’s status consciousness. Who wants to be dumb?

“Efficient” and “sustainable” are actually at odds. The combo ought to ring an alarm bell for anyone tasked with designing human habitats. Do you know what “efficient” gets you in terms of ecology? Monocultures, such as GMO corn grown on sterile soil mediums jacked with petroleum-based fertilizers, herbicides, and fast-depleting fossil aquifer water. It’s a method that is very efficient for producing corn flakes and Cheez Doodles, but has poor prospects for continuing further into this century—as does conventional suburban sprawl, as we’ve known it. Efficiency in ecological terms beats a path straight to entropy and death.

Real successful ecologies, on the other hand, are the opposite of efficient. They are deeply redundant. They are rich in diverse species and functions, many of which overlap and duplicate, so that a problem with one failed part or one function doesn’t defeat the whole system. This redundancy is what makes them resilient and sustainable. Swamps, prairies, and hardwood forests are rich and sustainable ecologies. Monocultures, such as agri-biz style corn crops and “big box” retail monopolies are not sustainable and they’re certainly not even ecologies, just temporary artifacts of finance and engineering. What would America do if Walmart went out of business? (And don’t underestimate the possibility as geopolitical tension and conflict undermine global supply lines.)

Suburbia of the American type is composed of monocultures: residential, commercial, industrial, connected by the circulatory system of cars. Suburbia is not a sustainable human ecology. Among other weaknesses, it is fatally prone to Liebig’s “law of the minimum,” which states that the overall health of a system depends on the amount of the scarcest of the essential resources that is available to it. This ought to be self-evident to an urbanist, who must ipso facto be a kind of ecologist.

Yet techno-narcissists such as MIT’s Berger take it as axiomatic that innovation of-and-by itself can overcome all natural limits on a planet with finite resources. They assume the new-and-improved suburbs will continue to run on cars, only now they will be driverless and electric, and everything in their paradigm follows from that.

I don’t think so. Like it or not, the human race has not yet found a replacement for fossil fuels, especially oil, which has been the foundation of techno-industrial economies for a hundred years, and it is getting a little late in the game to imagine an orderly segue to some as-yet-undiscovered energy regime.

By the way, electricity is not an energy source. It is just a carrier of energy generated in power plants. We have produced large quantities of it at the grand scale using fossil fuels, hydropower, and nuclear fission (which is dependent on fossil fuels to operate). And, by the way, all of our nuclear power plants are nearing the end of their design life, with no plans or prospects for them to be replaced by new ones. We have maxed out on potential hydroelectric sites and the existing big ones are silting up, which will take them out of service inside of this century.

Electricity can also be produced by solar cells and wind turbines, but at nowhere near the scale necessary, on their own, for running contemporary American life. The conceit that we can power suburbia, the interstate highway system, truck-based distribution networks, commercial aviation, the U.S. military, and Walt Disney World on anything besides fossil fuels is going to leave a lot of people very disappointed.

The truth is that we have been running all this stuff on an extravagant ramp-up of debt for at least a decade to compensate for the troubles that exist in the oil industry, oil being the primary and indispensable resource for our way of life. These troubles are often lumped under the rubric peak oil, but the core of the trouble must be seen a little differently: namely, a steep decline in the Energy Return on Investment (EROI) across the oil industry. The phrase might seem abstruse on the face of it. It means simply that it is becoming uneconomical to extract oil from the ground, even with the so-called miracle of “fracking” shale oil deposits. It doesn’t pay for itself, and the EROI is still headed further down.

In the 1930s, the oil industry could get 100 barrels of oil for every barrel of oil in energy they put into production. Drilling on the Texas prairie was like slipping a straw in a milkshake and the oil gushed out of the ground under its own pressure. Today, those old wells are far into depletion and we’re left with unconventional oil. Horizontal drilling and fracking into shale is enormously more expensive to carry out, and offshore deepwater drilling that requires a $100 million floating oil platform is nothing like slipping a straw into a milkshake. They have to go down a mile or more beneath the surface and then another mile into the undersea rock. It’s very expensive and dangerous. (Remember the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout of 2010?)

The aggregate ratio of oil-out-for-energy-in these days is 17 to 1, and for shale oil it’s more like 5 to 1. You cannot run industrial civilizations at those EROI ratios. Thirty to one is probably the minimum. And you can’t run renewable alternative energy systems without an underlying support platform of fossil fuels. The implacable reality of this dynamic has yet to sink in at the graduate-school fantasy factories.

The world’s major oil companies are cannibalizing themselves to stay in business, with balance sheets cratering, and next-to-zero new oil fields being discovered. The shale oil producers haven’t made a net dime since the project got ramped up around 2005. Their activities have been financed on junk lending made possible by arbitrages on the near-zero Fed fund rate, itself an historical abnormality. The shale-oil drillers are producing all out to service their loans, and have thus driven down oil prices, negating their profit. Low oil prices are not the sign of a healthy industry but of a failing industrial economy, the latter currently expressing itself in a sinking middle class and the election of Donald Trump.

All the techno-grandiose wishful thinking in the world does not alter this reality. The intelligent conclusion from all this ought to be obvious: Restructuring the American living arrangement to something other than “infinite” suburban sprawl based on limitless car dependency.

As it happens, the New Urbanist movement recognized this dynamic beginning in the early 1990s and proposed a return to traditional walkable neighborhoods, towns, and cities as the remedy. It has been a fairly successful reform effort, with hundreds of municipal land-use codes rewritten to avert the inevitable suburban sprawl mandates of the old codes. The movement also produced hundreds of new town projects all over the country to demonstrate that good urbanism was possible in new construction, as well as downtown makeovers in places earlier left for dead like Providence, Rhode Island, and Newburgh, New York.

When the elite graduate schools finally noticed the New Urbanism movement, it provoked extreme jealousy and hostility because they hadn’t thought of it themselves—it was a product of the property-development industry. Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, in particular, had been lost for decades in raptures of Buck Rogers modernism, concerned solely with “cutting edge” aesthetics—that is, architectural fashion statements aimed at status seeking. They affected to be offended by the retrograde front porches and picket fences of the New Urbanists, but they were unable to develop any coherent alternative vision of a plausible future urbanism—because there really wasn’t one.

Instead, around 2002 Harvard came up with a loopy program they called “Landscape Urbanism,” which was a half-baked revision of Ian McHarg’s old Design with Nature idea from the 1970s. Design with Nature had spawned hundreds of PUDs (Planned Unit Developments) of single-family houses nestled in bosky, natural settings and sheathed in environmental-looking cedar, and scores of university housing “complexes” bermed into the terrain (with plenty of free parking). Mostly, McHarg’s methodology was concerned with managing water runoff. It did not result in holistic towns, neighborhoods, or cities.

The projects of so-called Landscape Urbanism were not about buildings, and especially the relationship between buildings, other buildings, and the street. They viewed suburbia as a nirvana that simply required better storm-water drainage and the magic elixir of “edginess” to improve its long-term prospects.

Apparently MIT, down the street from Harvard, got jealous. They had snootily ignored the New Urbanism movement too, and done next to nothing on their own to rethink the next phase of the urban condition, besides the usual stale fantasies derived from the Radiant City playbook of Le Corbusier, the Swiss modernist who tried to destroy Paris in the 1920s with a skyscrapers-in-a-park scheme (which ended up being appropriated for the notorious American housing projects for the poor of the 1950s).

That’s where MIT’s Berger came in, having previously been at Harvard during the birth pangs of Landscape Urbanism. He brought over to MIT the P-Rex Lab (The Project for Reclamation Excellence) which put a “cutting edge” super high-tech veneer on what was still just environmental mitigation on previously used landscapes—pushing polluted soil around with front-end loaders.

Berger’s P-Rex lab showed absolutely no interest in the particulars of traditional urban design: street-and-block grids, street and building typologies, code-writing for standards and norms in construction, et cetera. They showed no interest in the human habitat per se. Berger and his gang were simply promoting a fantasy they called the “global suburbia.” Their fascination with the suburbs rested on three pillars: 1) the fact that suburbia was already there; 2) the presumption that mass car use would continue to enable that settlement pattern; and 3) a religious faith in technological deliverance from the resource and capital limits that boded darkly for the continuation of suburban sprawl.

I will tell you without ceremony what the future actually holds for the inhabited terrain of North America. The big cities will have to contract severely and the process will be fraught and disorderly. The action will move to the small cities and small towns, especially the places that have a meaningful relationship with farming, food production, and the continent’s inland waterways. The suburbs have three destinies, none of them mutually exclusive: slums, salvage, and ruins. The future has mandates of its own. If we want to remain civilized, we will be compelled to return to a landscape composed of relationships between town and country, at a scale that comports with the resource realities of the future.

These days the failure of American imagination, especially at the university level, is epic.

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 [2].

36 Comments (Open | Close)

36 Comments To "The Infinite Suburb Is an Academic Joke"

#1 Comment By JonF On October 27, 2017 @ 6:10 am

Re: The big cities will have to contract severely and the process will be fraught and disorderly

Most people looking for a sustainable future suggest the opposite as lots of people concentrated in cities are more ecologically sound (in principle) than having lots of people spread out all over the place.

#2 Comment By E.J. Worthing On October 27, 2017 @ 9:06 am

I’m also curious about the comment about big cities. Two uneducated guesses:

1) Some big American cities, like L.A. and Houston, are as dependent on car transportation as the suburbs are. They are going to be in trouble as the price of oil goes up.

2) Cities with a lot of tall buildings are highly dependent on elevators and thus on electricity. They could be in trouble as the price of oil goes up.

What’s the problem for cities like Paris? Paris has an excellent public transportation system, it is on a river, and it is a railroad hub. It is dense, but there are relatively few skyscrapers. A lot of the buildings are five-to-six story walk-ups.

Yes, it is necessary to fuel the subways and the buses. But we have to move people and goods somehow. Is it more energy-efficient to disperse people to small cities, or to follow the Paris model?

#3 Comment By Dan Green On October 27, 2017 @ 9:35 am

In this era of the so called digital age the big boys now nearing monopolies are flocking to big cities as their labor pool want’s to work live and play without the hassle of a car and that horrible commute.

#4 Comment By Wilfred On October 27, 2017 @ 10:19 am

Mr Worthing, Houston is not going to be “in trouble” when the price of oil goes up. So much of the city is tied to the petroleum industry, it’s going to be boom time there again.

#5 Comment By Ruffhewn On October 27, 2017 @ 10:32 am

I love James Howard Kuntsler but this piece is full of unsupported assertions about what is and isn’t profitable for the oil industry in terms of energy inputs and outputs. Does Exxon/Mobil really have a “cratering balance sheet?”

I remember too that Kuntsler insisted Peak Oil was upon us in 2007-08 when oil prices surged over $140 a barrel. This would be the end of suburbia, he insisted.

I really do hope we one day get to the kind of sustainable urban development that Kunstler favors. But if we ever do, I’m afraid it won’t be because of the collapse of the oil industry.

#6 Comment By PrairieDog On October 27, 2017 @ 11:11 am

“Monocultures, such as GMO corn grown on sterile soil mediums jacked with petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides….”

Sorry, you’re just parrotting someone else’s talking points attacking “conventional” agriculture. Monocultures can be grown “organically”, which was how crops have been traditionally grown; few “chemical” fertilizers are derived from petroleum.

If you arre that poorly informed about agricultural issues, but still feel the need to pontificate about them, I have to wonder about how well your other points are informed.

#7 Comment By JonF On October 27, 2017 @ 11:37 am

There are ways tio generate electricity that do not require oil/coal/natural gas. The article skips right by that by stating it won’t work. But we are getting better at that all the time and some countries already do get the majority of their electric power from non-fossil fuel sources.
The issue with oil is not electrical generation where we will do just fine, but transportation fuel where we do not not have a good substitute– yet.

#8 Comment By KD On October 27, 2017 @ 12:26 pm

I don’t know, you have thorium:


Then there is flammable “ice”:



The estimated global reserves of flammable ice are more than double the reserves of coal, oil and natural gas taken together. Deposits of combustible ice discovered as on land (in the permafrost) and on the seabed, at depths of 500-2000 meters. It is worth noting that the largest land and sea deposits are located on China’s territory.

The sky isn’t falling.

#9 Comment By E.J. Worthing On October 27, 2017 @ 12:32 pm

@Wilfred: Fair point about Houston, in particular!

#10 Comment By Eric Miller On October 27, 2017 @ 2:12 pm

If we were running out of oil, the price wouldn’t be going down. It’s down in part because alternative sources of energy have become competitive.

One thing will shape the future of place, however. People have fewer and fewer reasons to accidentally find themselves in a third place. When people leave the home they want a place to be.

#11 Comment By TimH On October 27, 2017 @ 4:24 pm

The “City” itself is an anachronism, as is Centralization. Cities came about in the ancient world as a defensible place where commerce could take place. Walls and armies protected merchants and their goods from bands of bandits. This of course made necessary taxes and bureaucracy. Eventually we had built cities of high density stack-n-pack housing, crime, pollution and work places in buildings which essentially were massive filing cabinets in which people who file papers were filed. (and the security factor of these cities is now a major liability, as we saw on 9/11!) Today, mobility, telecommunication and internet have rendered centralized commerce unnecessary, although the political class is doing all it can to retain and “nudge” us all into tightly controlled “centers”. To solve the commute problem, how about mini satellite offices in the suburbs and exurbs for shorter commutes? More teleconferencing, instead of unnecessary travel? These things are technologically and possible and financially beneficial. They just need to be accepted as desirable!

#12 Comment By Matt On October 27, 2017 @ 5:14 pm

@PrairieDog: What are you talking about?

First of all, most monocultures are not grown “organically” (whatever that term means to you). The GMO corn crops Kunstler writes about are typically grown on enormous (thousands of acres) industrial ag complexes.

Much of that corn is typically grown for other uses besides direct human consumption, e.g., animal feed, corn syrup, ethanol, etc. These monocultures are inherently bad for many reasons, not least of which is the requirement of high fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide inputs. And yes, these are mainly derived from fossil fuels and petrochemicals. This is to say nothing of the fuels required to power the farm machinery, transport the crops to market, etc, etc.

The Haber-Bosch process, which is a crucial step in producing the ammonia most nitrogen-based fertilizers rely on, is a ridiculously energy intensive process and this accounts for 5% of the world’s natural gas consumption.

Have a look:



This is really Kunstler’s point. I could argue many of your other complaints too, but why all the hate when clearly you don’t know what you’re talking about?

#13 Comment By Mark R. Yzaguirre On October 27, 2017 @ 6:39 pm

So James Howard Kunstler is still pushing his peak oil apocalypse theory (with some convenient redefinition) years after oil prices have plummeted, with little evidence of a coming price rise. Well, I guess you have to stay on message when you have only one gig, facts notwithstanding.

#14 Comment By pepi On October 27, 2017 @ 7:40 pm

Actually “smart” these days, in contexts such as this, has a specific meaning – programmable and connected – as in “smart appliances”.

#15 Comment By EngineerScotty On October 27, 2017 @ 10:01 pm

By the way, electricity is not an energy source. It is just a carrier of energy generated in power plants. We have produced large quantities of it at the grand scale using fossil fuels, hydropower, and nuclear fission (which is dependent on fossil fuels to operate). And, by the way, all of our nuclear power plants are nearing the end of their design life, with no plans or prospects for them to be replaced by new ones. We have maxed out on potential hydroelectric sites and the existing big ones are silting up, which will take them out of service inside of this century.

But this is also true of fossil fuels; particularly anything that, rather than being burned in a stationary powerplant, is instead burned in an internal combustion engine.

Gasoline (and similar), having a high energy density, is refined largely for mobile applications–devices ranging from chainsaws and leafblowers to trucks and cars to planes to ships that cannot connect to the grid. Such refined fuels act as a carrier of energy as well–one that weighs far more than electricity (which weighs nothing), is far less efficiently converted either to electricity or to mechanical power, and which imposes significant pollution and safety hazards. There’s a reason that now that battery technology has gotten “good enough” that many countries are planning the obsolescence of cars with internal combustion engines. Gasoline requires a lot of energy to refine, to distribute to filling stations, to pump into vehicles and gas cans, and to transport as dead weight while the vehicle moves. And that’s in addition to the lower conversion efficiency of a gas or diesel engine compared to an electric motor.

Even conceding that electricity has got to come from somewhere–it’s not something that we can pump out of the ground–for pretty much any application other than heat generation (burning fuels is a more effective way at making things hot than the electric heating coil), it’s far more efficient energy delivery medium than refined fossil fuels. (To say nothing of coal, which was obsoleted as an energy source for machinery decades ago).

#16 Comment By MR On October 28, 2017 @ 7:46 am

All the claims of oil being unavailable are based on economies making absolutely no greater report to obtain them. To the contrary, the Earth’s crust is stuffed full of these kinds of fuels. The only reason we don’t make the effort to extract them if because regular crude oil is still very abundant.

#17 Comment By Lllurker On October 28, 2017 @ 5:55 pm

What sort of crazy nonsense is this? Kunstler do you live in a cave somewhere? We now have wind turbines going up that are so advanced that a single windmill can power *thousands* of homes. And some of them are being built so far offshore you can’t even see them. And costs are plummeting so fast that in some areas they are already producing electricity cheaper than coal can.

Meanwhile the energy storage field is exploding and prices there are dropping as never before. And concurrent to that it has now become apparent that some countries will be able to surpass 50% renewables before they even need very much storage.

And solar energy is now setting new low planet-wide cost records almost every few months, low cost records for *all* types of energy.

This article contains absolute nonsense. Anyone who is reading these comments and doubts this needs to venture outside the right-wing media bubble once in awhile. It’s not as if any of this is being kept secret.

A good site that follows these developments is: cleantechnica.com.

#18 Comment By Fernando Centeno, CED On October 28, 2017 @ 6:50 pm

“Urban planning” still dominates the so-called planning profession, who measure success in business transactional terms, rather than a better alternative, which is in socioeconomic terms, represented best by CED practitioners (Community Economic Devel.)

Urban planners focus on the built environment, in concert with the commercial real estate industry, favored by the political class, whereupon they receive their “legal” campaign funds, in revolving door fashion, joined by the Chamber crowd. Using this model for 30 yrs, we have a continuing spiral of “economic segregation”, an agenda of winners & losers, greatly subsidized by the public dollar.

Where is the discussion/debate around these realities?

#19 Comment By Thrice A Viking On October 29, 2017 @ 4:05 pm

Tim H, I’d like to believe you on decentralization, I really would. I favor that myself. But all the reading matter on the subject that I’ve found says that the meeting of creative minds in big cities is what drives progress. Do you have evidence that this is a self-serving myth, or something of that nature?

#20 Comment By Mike Ford On October 30, 2017 @ 7:34 am

For Kunstler, I guess it’s just convenient to pretend Germany doesn’t exist. After all, the 4th largest economy in the world is running on 35% renewables so in 2017, and they’ll probably double that in a few years. But, yeah, that’s impossible.

#21 Comment By Rick On October 30, 2017 @ 7:57 am

Academia itself is a joke.

#22 Comment By c1ue On October 30, 2017 @ 10:13 am

I don’t disagree with the inanity of elitist conservationists.
However, EROEI is a doom porn idol with very little impact. Whale oil had continuously declining EROEI – the the point where whalers would sail months and cross literally half the globe to shoot whales in the Pacific Ocean, but that didn’t matter since the market could easily bear the price.
In the Netherland, peat was so prized for fuel that there are still fields where the then-equivalent of deep sea drilling – the harvesting of peat literally still underwater – has left significant areas of former land as water.
Even now, the price of a gallon of gasoline is roughly the price of a gallon of milk. The price of a gallon of oil is far less.
As we’ve seen in just the past few years, the price of oil approaching the price of milk didn’t stop civilization.
Electric cars are still brutally expensive, natural gas and hydrogen cars are a pure fantasy. For that matter, the “average” driver only consumes 500 gallons of gas per year – which means the depreciation of the car is more than the fuel by multiples.

#23 Comment By CapitalistRoader On October 30, 2017 @ 10:32 am

Were we caught in a time warp and get transported back to 1970?

“Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make. The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.”
• Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University biologist, Earth Day 1970

“Scientists have solid experimental and theoretical evidence to support…the following predictions: In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution…by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half….”
• Life Magazine, Earth Day 1970

“By the year 2000, if present trends continue, we will be using up crude oil at such a rate…that there won’t be any more crude oil. You’ll drive up to the pump and say, `Fill ‘er up, buddy,’ and he’ll say, `I am very sorry, there isn’t any.’”
• Kenneth Watt, Ecologist, Earth Day 1970

#24 Comment By Phil On November 1, 2017 @ 11:38 am

@Ruffhewn, about two minutes with Google was all that was necessary to answer your question. ExxonMobil’s debt to equity ratio nearly quadrupled between 2012 and 2016 (from .07 to .28). Debt to capital nearly tripled (from .07 to .2). Interest coverage declined from 241.75 to 18.59. Return on invested capital declined from 18.46% to 3.20%. Market cap has declined nearly $10 billion. Maybe you wouldn’t call that “cratering,” but it doesn’t look good to me.

Worth bearing in mind that ExxonMobil is doing much better than most of the sector.

You’re welcome.

#25 Comment By brent gary On November 2, 2017 @ 1:25 pm

@MR – Kunstler isn’t saying the energy isn’t there. he’s saying the energy left over, after you spend the energy getting it out, is what’s getting very small. yes, there’s lot of energy left in the earth. but it will require an enormous amount of energy to get it to a usable state. this is why its not sustainable. the industrial age was a blip of total human history and only enabled due to vast amounts of energy available for little energy invested. that blip has ended.

#26 Comment By An Optimist On November 8, 2017 @ 9:39 pm

I have a different take on the future from Mr. Kunstler. I see solar energy and battery storage becoming so cheap and abundant that energy costs are no longer a consideration in investment. At that point, we can do basically whatever we want. Need to grow food in the desert? Desalinate sea water using basically free energy from the sun and then transport it to wherever you need it via electric vehicle that runs on free energy, again from the sun. I could go on, but you get the point. I guess Mr. Kunstler and I will just have to agree to disagree, as I don’t see him changing his mind at this point.

#27 Comment By Seth Largo On November 10, 2017 @ 5:45 pm

Just seconding what someone said up-thread. Most major urban areas—particularly L.A. and NYC—are essentially giant, 50+ sq. mile biomes. Unless you want to explain how, e.g., Staten Island and Queens or North Hollywood and Long beach are just “suburbs” of Manhattan and Downtown L.A., respectively, then I don’t understand the point of this post. itself.

#28 Comment By Chris Koncz On November 10, 2017 @ 6:01 pm

I think some of Jim’s predictions will come to pass, in fact if you read some of his earlier books, most of which are from more than a decade ago, he did predict quite a few of the disruptions happening today. He is right that suburbia and car dependency are finished. However, this is mostly because young people don’t want to live in the suburbs and don’t want the burden of car ownership. Electric self-driving cars powered by the sun will take over much of our transportation needs, along with railways and hyperloops. The fossil fuel industry will implode well before oil becomes too expensive to extract, simply because demand will disappear much faster than people can imagine.

#29 Comment By Marlin Williams On November 13, 2017 @ 12:17 am

Indeed, this Sunday’s NYT Magazine, cover to cover, was about self propelled, autonomous, electric automobiles which apparently, sometime in the near future, will transform not only transportation, but human life itself on the face of the earth. Evidently the technology is there and its only a matter of time.

Myself, I seriously doubt it. Just on the face of it the whole concept is absurd. A few might be deployed (with much fanfare) but wait ’til one of these pieces of electronic junk with its complicated, fragile radar system runs down the first little kid and the whole industry, top to bottom, gets sued into insolvency.

#30 Comment By Chip Thomas On November 13, 2017 @ 5:57 am

Seems to me most of the above posts make JHK’s point about the abundance of techno-wishful thinking.

#31 Comment By miasmo On November 13, 2017 @ 2:50 pm

Nice to see Mr. Kunstler’s critique of conventional wisdom published in a semi-mainstream publication like this. I’m amused but sadly not surprised to see the many heads exploding in the comment section over the sacrilege of challenging the conventional “wisdom” by people unfamiliar with the vast data and analysis that backs up Kunstler’s assertions.

#32 Comment By Turbine guy On November 14, 2017 @ 11:18 pm

Time will tell what the real challenge is for the big cities of the world. The biggie will likely be trying to deal with rising sea levels and intensifying storms. Other cities will find themselves struggling with their energy budget as they cope with intense heat waves. Poverty, crime, corruption will test others.

#33 Comment By BackwoodsEE On November 20, 2017 @ 11:59 am

The comment above about energy storage reflects the kind of uninformed wishful thinking we see so much of when it comes to “renewable” energy. I’m an electrical engineer who spent this past summer installing 6 kW PV solar at my rural home that connects to the grid to sell excess power but also has a couple days’ worth of battery storage. I wanted to be able to power essentials like the freezer and fridge, lights, well pump, sump pump, etc. when the grid goes down, as it does occasionally out here. The kitchen range, water heater, washer and dryer, and entire basement are not critical and not backed up.

To get enough energy storage for that modest goal, I had to spend $4000 on a thousand pounds of lead-acid batteries, a century-old technology only slightly improved by some glass mat stuff about thirty years ago. The whole pile of plastic and lead and sulphuric acid will turn into an inert lump in about 5-7 years, even if it’s barely used, and will need to be replaced. I carefully research lithium alternatives and was not convinced they were ready for prime time. Maybe one of them will be when I have to do the battery replacement, but I’m far from certain about that.

There are hard physical limits to how much energy can be stored via an electrochemical process, as firmly bounded as the speed of light or the pull of gravity. Batteries will never approach the concentration of convenient energy we get from a gallon of petroleum distillate. To bad burning the stuff is causing us such climate problems and will only go on so long as we can justify the increasingly heroic efforts to extract it.

#34 Comment By Shane On November 27, 2017 @ 2:59 am

You only have to compare the energy density of high tech lithium batteries (about 0.9 MJ/kg) with plain old fire wood (16 MJ/kg) to really appreciate how little useful energy batteries can hold. It is OK in applications that can be streamlined to consume little energy like electronics, but apply it to a problem like moving a car and you can’t get away from the basic energy requirement (then again it is pretty absurd to move a 500 kg of metal to transport a 50 kg person, who is driving to get a 1 kg carton of milk). Batteries lose lots of energy during transmission and charging as well and the world lithium supply is pretty limited. As oil becomes more unprofitable to extract we will hit limits to industrialism. A crunch is coming but who can say exactly when…..

#35 Comment By Nelson On December 8, 2017 @ 8:42 pm

I’ve seen the future. It is South Korea. Cities like Seoul are great at bringing people together in an efficient maner and at the same time leaving more open space (in the rural areas) for farming and preserving nature.

#36 Comment By Ike On December 9, 2017 @ 1:38 am

When this generation of new Republican tax breaks take affect, no doubt some if not many of these theorist urban design schools will fade away out of existence. Are there any schools of urban design that are seriously studying the creation of place in a world of severely diminished resources?

Of the 3 inevitable conclusions of Suburbia(ruins,salvage,or slums), it seems that “salvage” will become the future “gold standard”. What will “Salvage” look like? Certainly MIT or Harvard have no idea. Personally, I am intrigued with two ideas of resiliency that may become parts of what may someday define what “salvage” means.(out of what I imagine, or hope, are many.)

First is the idea of ‘stay in place’ design. The term is applied today, as one example, of a home in a rural area that is designed to “not burn up” when a wildfire runs through it. As a metaphor, a wildfire is an apt metaphor that describes the horror of an impending city collapse. (A kinder more gentler metaphor than the real horrrs that are playing out in many towns in the Middle East for example.) What would it take for a single family residence in a suburb to design and build a “stay-in-place” abode that aids a family to survive a disaster, or collpse, and post collapse environment? Many of Mr. Kunstler’s essays alludse to this aand it is a shame that higher education hs not developed a modern version of a “Pattern Language” or “Urban Cookbook” that could be used by municipalities to prepare their constituents for the coming close of one chapter and beginning of another.

The second is perhaps harder yet more important. And that is instilling a sense of and experience in a permaculture lifestyle. Here too Mr. Kunstler ahs waxed poetic. What will it take for suburbanites to create a resiliient self sustaining garen with its own clean soil, water source, AND independent ecosystem for a “collective” to survive?

As with everything these days, anbd to the chagrin of us that used to believe in the rewards and system of higher learning, urban planning has become captured by financial markets; =where nothing matters anymore other than making, or pursuing the idea of making, more money.