Ready to despair? 'Doomer' exhorts us to 'grow up'

Sunday News
Nov 12, 2011 23:56

Staff Writer


Prickly social critic James Howard Kunstler figures the steering wheel got away from America about the time he was born. Cheap, postwar gas had unleashed a vehicular Frankenstein by 1950.

Sprawl was consigning once-vibrant city centers to poverty and sharpening racial divides. Monolithic corporations and agribusinesses would soon shove aside farmer Joe and his ilk.

Six decades of this over-leveraged fossil fuel gorging, in Kunstler's gloomily humorous world view, have forced America to its economic knees, created a culturally adrift, "supersized" and liberally tattooed populace, invited imminent ecological collapse, and hatched a bumper crop of cheesy architecture.

On the upside, the trends sparked Kunstler's seminal 1993 critique of suburban sprawl, "The Geography of Nowhere."

They inspired his 2005 investigation of peak oil, "The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century."

Now, they have spawned "The KunstlerCast: Conversations with James Howard Kunstler."

The 320-page New Society Publishers offering was just released in paperback and is based on four years of weekly Kunstler riffs recorded by podcasting journalist Duncan Crary.

In his introduction to the book, Crary professes to be merely a host, and sometimes a Kunstler foil, but the two upstate New Yorkers really are kindred intellects.

Crary chooses to live in the small Hudson River town of Troy partly because he thinks it's the kind of place that will best weather the downward mobility of peak oil America.

Kunstler long ago settled in Saratoga Springs for similar reasons.

The nature of their Q & A interview is dystopian, but Kunstler's tone is often comedic.

"I consider my strong point to be prose composition" and particularly the exercising of "my malicious sense of humor," he informs Crary.

Hence Kunstler's take on the global consumer culture that he says has decimated job prospects and simultaneously emasculated and radicalized many young American men:

They reflect their desperation by wearing baggy "clown" clothing and carpet bombing their skin with tattooes, Kunstler says.

"I think we are trying to make ourselves scary-looking. What it tells me is that we are a very insecure people right now." And a confused people, Kunstler adds, taking a jab at environmentalists. "To an individual they are absolutely preoccupied with some snazzy new way to run their cars."

That's heresy to Kunstler, a rare voice arguing to ditch the energy-guzzling machines and resurrect more sustainable webs of rail and water transport.

"Let the car die," emphasizes Kunstler, and let towns pendulum back to their formerly walkable, agrarian selves. No cheap oil alternative or technologies exist in any case that could keep them running at their current scale.

That doesn't mean society will easily surrender the status quo, predicts Kunstler, citing current attempts to save trillions of dollars of presumed wealth based largely on creative accounting.

Kunstler, who is often branded a "doomer" by critics, remains philosophically sanguine about all this.

"I am not a hope dispenser," he tells Crary. "But I think I am a very cheerful, upbeat person."

In "The Kunstlercast" readers also learn that the polymathic thinker paints avidly and once acted in plays and took art classes.

He drives a pickup, jets to speaking engagements and sometimes even feeds guests the cheese-flavored party snacks he loves to skewer.

He sees no incongruities in this.

People are creatures of their Zeitgeist, Kunstler explains to Crary. But this one's slated for demolition and he's ready to move on.

He hopes that happens without dipping into "political despotism and total looniness," adds Kunstler, who believes the nation could use a ration of honesty and bootstrap tugging.

During the urgent days of the Blitz in World War II England, Kunstler says, people understood that Prime Minister Winston Churchill could offer them only "blood, sweat and tears."

"He didn't get up and say, 'You're going to have more salad shooters and marshmallows and ranch dressing next month.' So again, we really need to stop being softheaded softies and harden up a little bit, and grow up a little bit."

Contact Sunday News staff writer Jon Rutter at


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