By Madeline Kirsch
“Cars are the root of all evil, our environments are ugly and suburban sprawl is the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.”
James Howard Kunstler, to whom these statements can be attributed, is known for his somewhat controversial views. It’s probably why he’s a success. Kunstler, a Manhattan-born author and social critic, now lives in on the edge of small-town Greenwich, N.Y., and can walk from his house to Main Street in 10 minutes. Before his move there last November he resided in Saratoga Springs. In The Geography of Nowhere, he refers to it as “one big automobile storage depot that incidentally contains other things,” though he admitted he was fine when he had to walk in the winter instead of using his motorcycle.
I’m a student in Union’s first-ever Humanities Super Seminar, which encourages student engagement through combining different humanities disciplines. English Professor Hugh Jenkins’ segment of the class focuses on activism in the local community. We read most of The KunstlerCast: Conversations with James Howard Kunstler by Duncan Crary ‘00 to learn more about urban design and the energy crisis. Crary, who is now working to bring urban life back to Troy, edited and compiled his conversations with Kunstler to create The KunstlerCast.
These conversations were part of Kunstler and Crary’s podcast of the same name; a special edition of this podcast series was recorded from Union on Tuesday, April 17, with Kunstler, Crary, Jenkins and his class. The podcast is available on kunstlercast.com, but the conversation I had with him is a Concordiensis exclusive.
When I interviewed him by phone, Kunstler was much less caustic than his work had led me to believe he would be. That said, he does have a gloomier view than most when it comes to cars. He doesn’t believe a simple switch from fossil fuels to alternative energy will solve the problem, but said, “we’ll have to make major changes in our living arrangements that will probably be shocking to Americans.” Societies have historically broken down due to lack of resources, and Kunstler agreed that some kind of “reset or time-out from what we have come to think of as technological process” will happen when fossil fuels run out.
Though he agrees that much of our current infrastructure is built for cars, he pointed out that “[we] don’t have any entitlement to live this way. We’ve just been doing it because it seems like a good idea…when the old system fails to continue working well, you can wring your hands about it, or you can get with the new program, whatever is.”
Changes, Kunstler thinks, will be living in cities that are smaller than what we’re used to now, “the optimum size of something of which we can take care of.” He also believes people will travel shorter distances and be “serviced by smaller enterprises.” Sprawling metropolitan areas like Los Angeles won’t be feasible, and problems the banking industry has faced represent struggles other systems, like agriculture and transportation, will encounter.
In class, we debated the energy crisis in a discussion that stemmed from Kunstler’s thoughts, and as I write this, most of my classmates are likely gearing up to find out more of Kunstler’s opinions. After all, the point of the super seminar is to promote discourse, and that has certainly been accomplished.