...the tragic comedy of suburban sprawl.
© 2011 Duncan Crary, James Howard Kunstler
James Howard Kunstler is a journalist turned social critic and the author of numerous books, most prominently The Geography of Nowhere and The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century. These two books address the seemingly disparate topics of urban planning and the global oil economy, but to Kunstler and like-minded readers, they are troublesomely knit together, intensifying the problems that each causes. For the past three years, Kunstler has talked each week with on these and connected topics with his co-host, Duncan Crary, who has now produced a partial record of their discussions -- a collection which will no doubt please Kunstler's fans, while offering those unfamiliar with his work their first taste of it.
Although his modern work ties to his predictions for the post-oil future, most of Kunstler's nonfiction works fall within the realm of urban criticism. Americans who have never encountered his ire may be staggered by how much of their world he holds in scorn. Just what is it about the modern city and suburban sprawl that he finds so appalling? In a word, everything. The opening sentence of The Geography of Nowhere, in which Kunstler attempts to summarize why he wrote the book, is a paragraph long. The growth of American cities and later, the 'edge' cities that grew out of suburbian sprawl, has centered on the automobile, and the result is the decline of public transit like rail lines in favor of highways -- infrastructure built on the promise of cheap gasoline, and frightfully ugly to behold. Its decentralization destroys the integrity of human communities and is in part responsible for the rising obesity problem in the U.S: our automobile-fixated culture gives people few opportunities to incorporate activity like walking into their everyday life, for now every trip anywhere demands the car. The results are hideous: compare an eight-line commercial strip lined with box stores, oceans of pavement, and offensive, neon-colored signs the size of trucks to the charm of what once was, to the tree-lined American Main Street with its cozy stores and pedestrian focus. The good news, for Kunstler and those who sympathize, is that this horror cannot long remain: it is doomed by its dependency on oil.
The second half of Kunstler's legacy, originating in The Long Emergency and a source of constant chatter among the author and his co-host, is the idea of peak oil and its ramifications. The cancerous growth of urban sprawl has been enabled by the abundance of cheap oil, but that era is drawing to a close. The United States' oil reserves have already dwindled, and soon enough the oil wells of the middle east and Russia will dry, too. The consequences for a global economy built on oil -- oil to run the ships and trucks that connect manufacturing and distribution, oil to process food -- for food is an industrial, not an agricultural product these days -- are dire. Kunstler sees the fabric of globalization partially disintegrating, and local economies reviving. Everything, including the cities, will shrink to a smaller scale -- a human-sized scale. The unviable sprawl will die, and authentic human communities will prosper once more, while bemoaning the amount of resources that were wasted in the "cheap oil fiesta".
KunstlerCast's conversations tend to focus more on Kunstlers' urban critiques than the peak oil scenario, though the two are connected to the point that the whole of the book flows together well, aside from some small deviations wherein Kunstler takes time to grouch about tattoos. I found these breaks more amusing than anything, and the book as a whole a positive delight, one which prompted me to begin re-reading The Geography of Nowhere. While Kunstlers' arguments as a whole are more thoroughly presented in the two books previously mentioned, the format of KunstlerCast allows the author and his host to discuss contemporary, related, and specific issues not mentioned in the 1993 book, or only mentioned in passing, like the health consequences of an automobile-centered society or the work of other critics like Jane Jacobs. They also cover ground visited in its lesser-known books, like Home from Nowhere and The City in Mind. I especially enjoyed these sections, as I've not been able to get my hands on these books despite my interest in them. Thus, while covering familiar ground the conversations also introduce new material, making them of interest to Kunstler fans. Newcomers may appreciate a less formal introduction to these issues, especially given how easy it is to "listen" to the banter-filled conversation between these two intelligent and thoughtful men.
Given the present economics of the world, Kunstler's work has never been more relevant, and is now all the more accessible. This is a hit for old fans and the newly interested alike. The KunstlerCast may be found at KunstlerCast.com, with archives as far back as 2008. Duncan Crary was once co-host of The Humanist Network News (now known as The Humanist Hour) and in fact interviewed him there before the start of their mutual project together.