The good news is that we are all going to learn new skills: gardening, weaving, carpentry. The bad news is that we won’t have any choice. So explained James Howard Kunstler at a recent cold shower of a lecture at NYCAMS attended by students, architects, artists, urbanists and those merely curious about their mid- to long-term futures. Kunstler peers three decades hence and sees the withering of everything we thought of as fundamental rights. Suburbia and the interstate highway system? A bizarre 200-year anomaly in a 30,000-year history of human settlement patterns. Air travel? A daydream of the Golden Age. The art world? Huh? The reason is simple and inescapable: cheap energy – namely petroleum – is over. The world reached peak oil production around 2003 and what is left in the ground will be gone in 30 to 40 years (Kunstler is careful to cull his data from a wide range of independent and industry sources). At a crucial tipping point the energy input of extracting the stuff will be greater than the energy output, and that will be the end of that. No currently conceivable configuration of viable ‘alternative’ energies will ever support the incalculable energy demands of a globalized economy, and the massive infrastructures that permit what Kunstler calls ‘the 12,000-mile caesar salad’ will prove not merely unsustainable but nearly unimaginable in their one-time folly. Globalism will evaporate; nations will contract and fragment; industrial food production, networked technologies of commerce and communication – all will implode. When Kunstler spoke to a group of 20-something geniuses at Google HQ in California recently, they all protested that technology will come to the rescue. But technology is only as good as the energy supplied to run it and when you have no economically feasible way to power factories to produce solar cells or wind turbines then you are in a bit of a pickle.
But Kunstler, who outlines his thesis in his book The Long Emergency (2005) is anything but a gloomy Jeremiah shrieking in the fossil fuel begrimed wilderness. While he admits that civilization – especially the American variety – is in deep trouble, he remains strangely chipper. If humans survive the epic strife he predicts, it will only be by embracing a Jeffersonian model of ‘localism’ in which the majority of the population lives in a re-agrarianized hinterland between reefs of abandoned urban sprawl or in small communities based upon pre-industrial models of production, consumption and reduced expectations. While Kunstler showed plans for hypothetical human-scaled, energy-efficient towns of the future I wondered not about the challenges awaiting the next generation of architects and planners, but also about whether any of them would bother calling themselves ‘architects’. Can you build an enlightened new society in the midst of a civil war between a new class of rural ‘haves’ in Vermont, say, and the disenfranchised ‘have-nots’ of rustbelt paved-over New Jersey? Not long before he went quail hunting, Dick Cheney recently stated that ‘the American way of life is non-negotiable’. As Kunstler points out, future circumstances will negotiate our way of life for us. Trying not to get morose, he has taken as his ironically fatalist motto the phrase, ‘it’s all good’. Right or wrong, he’s taking the really long view. In the meantime, you might want to reconsider all those periodic iPod upgrades and invest in a hand-cranked Victrola.