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September  25, 2008

Kunstler: We need a plan, not wishful thinking

(Laura Anderson, who graduated from Augustana last May, wrote about Kunstler's speech for Radish magazine and The Dispatch and Rock Island Argus.)

The best thing you can do for America right now is to call your lawmakers and tell them to start rebuilding the passenger railroads, says writer James Howard Kunstler, speaker at Thursday's Convocation lecture at Augustana College.

That's because in his view, the depletion of oil reserves worldwide will lead to the collapse of U.S. airlines, the trucking industry, and the widespread use of personal automobiles. Some of his predictions loom in the near future: "In 36 months, we're not going to have an airline industry," he said.

Kunstler is well known for his 2005 book, The Long Emergency, about the challenges posed by the coming permanent global oil crisis, climate change, and other "converging catastrophes of the 21st Century." His talk on Thursday explored some of those ideas, but also connected with current events.

The $700 billion bailout of the financial system proposed by President Bush and under consider this week in Congress is evidence that the financial system is now coming apart, he said, as paper securities lose credibility. "This was a massive swindle on ourselves," he said. "Two trillion dollars is leaving the system and is never coming back again." The U.S. will not produce the same industrial wealth in the future as it has in the past, he said.

"This is a problem of being broke. It's not a problem of liquidity," he said later in answer to a question.

Where's the plan?

Kunstler began his lecture by decrying the lack of a "coherent consensus" in America about where we are and where we will be in the future. As far as oil goes, "We've entered the end zone," he said, adding, "It's not about running out of oil. It's about what happens after we enter the slippery slope of depletion."

Oil export rates are going down faster than oil depletion rates. "Oil nationalism" is changing the way markets behave as national petroleum companies sell oil on a political basis, rather than simply putting the oil into the futures market. The U.S. imports more than two-thirds of its oil.

Other large problems loom. Among them: global climate change (Al Gore covered that one, Kunstler said) and possible social unrest. Mexico's large Cantarell oil field will be depleted in just a few years, he predicted by way of example, and when it goes, Mexico will lose the "social safety net "of oil income.

In the face of the problems, Kunstler dislikes the word "solutions." "It tends to imply a packet of rescue remedies," he said, ,proposing instead the term and action of "intelligent response."

Two ways of thinking that get in the way of such a response are the American public's "Jiminy Cricket" belief that wishing will make things happen, and the "worship of unearned riches," or the idea that it is possible to get something for nothing. The spread of legalized gambling is proof of that thinking, Kunstler asserted, but in the near future he predicted that gambling will be illegal again as people begin to perceive the ideas associated with it as unhealthy.

Another common idea that Kunstler criticized is "They'll come up with something." In other words, he said, the belief technology can replace energy. "They are not the same," he said, standing before an image of a jet on a runway with the caption: "Fill 'er up with technology."

"All people want to talk about is how we're going to run the cars by other means," he said. "Cars are out."

Kunstler pulled no punches with his student audience during a later Q&A. "To my generation, you seem like you're in a bubble of 'American Idol' and iPods. Passive, clueless, tuned-out," he said. "Pay attention. Check all your assumptions at the door."

Among the things Kunstler sees as ending:

  • Suburbs. Calling them the "greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world," Kunstler said suburbs will empty out and their "accessories" -- the strip malls and big box stores -- will be abandoned.
  • New home construction. "The home builders are going down and they're not coming back."
  • Industrial agriculture. "We need to retrofit agricultural lands around our cities."
  • Globalization. Consolidated school systems that rely on fleets of buses. Phoenix and Las Vegas.

In short, "farewell to the reigning paradigm," he said.

If Americans don't plan to deal with the issues of the future, reality will force them to do so, he said. We should be planning now to drive less and consume less. To learn to make things and not import them. To live with "less stuff."

"The time is over for being crybabies," he said. "We can't waste a moment. We've got too much to do. Spread the idea that we need to get serious."

Q&A: timelines, predictions

In the afternoon, Kunstler spent an hour answering questions from students, faculty and community members who filled a classroom in Swenson Hall of Geosciences. Some of his answers/observations:

  • There are different timelines for different aspects of the overall problem: three to five years for the airlines, gasoline shortages this year, a home heating "fiasco" this winter, and currently, a financial crisis that will produce huge effects on income and standards of living. In five years, problems will begin to snowball.
  • Municipal budgets of the future will be severely reduced.
  • The entire pool of liquid fuels will be smaller, and that includes biofuels.
  • Trucking will be used as the last increment of shipping in shorter hauls, and not long distance as now.
  • Political leadership at many levels will be discredited, but citizens may invest more hope and confidence in leadership at the local level.
  • Instead of being entertained by celebrity excesses, the public will react negatively in future to the flaunting of wealth.
  • Among his favorite news sources are Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. He recommends theoildrum.com.
  • He is not a homeowner at present, but when he buys property he'll be looking for "gardening opportunities" and running water.
  • He does not give investment advice.

Although he admitted the publishing industry may be in danger of dramatic change along with everything else, Kunstler is at work on a sequel to his most recent book, The World Made by Hand. It tells the story of a small community's struggles in America's post-oil future when technology is dead.

Kunstler also is a painter and blogger: see Kunstler.com and read his recent contributions  to the Freakonomics blog on the future of suburbia.

In addition to his numerous books of fiction and non-fiction, Kunstler is a regular contributor to the New York Times Sunday Magazine and Op-Ed page. He graduated from the State University of New York at Brockport, worked as a reporter and feature writer for a number of newspapers, and finally as a staff writer for Rolling Stone Magazine. In 1975, he dropped out to write books on a full-time basis.

James Kunstler's visit was made possible by the Augustana Institute for Leadership and Service.