Interview with James Howard Kunstler

James Howard Kunstler is the author of the provocative and controversial The Long Emergency,and graciously agreed to be interviewed by Treehugger. We post the interview here and apologise for asking such long questions, we do run on. We also asked him to pick one of our readers' questions and he answered all of them, which we will post tomorrow.Oscar Wilde said "all criticism is autobiography" and this has never been demonstrated better than by reading the criticism leveled at you and this book. You have taken the expected heat from the right, but I have been surprised by the vehemence of many environmentalists, particularly to your comments in Salon about Amory Lovins. What is your reaction to the criticism?

JHK: I was pretty harsh on Lovins myself, and on the "environmental community" in general, which I think has been narcissistic and fantasy-ridden — for instance my criticism of Lovins's "hyper-car" project, which I believe only encourages further car dependency. Their response is understandable. This is a pretty fierce debate.

I want to go right to the back of the book and say that I am really attracted to your vision of "Living in the Long Emergency"- we at treehugger constantly talk about the value of living with less, buying local, supporting local craftspeople, repairing instead of replacing, biking instead of driving. Its like John Ruskin's utopian vision from 150 years ago, except you are a better writer. It is also very much like the sustainable lifestyle in Edo Japan. Admittedly I also like my notebook computer and the MRI machine 10 minutes away. You are preaching to the converted at this blog, but is this all such a bad thing?

JHK: Even the "converted" are nurturing many delusions and fantasies about what will be possible in a post-oil world. Couple of months ago I butted heads with the bio-diesel enthusiasts at Middlebury, VT. They were full of consternation at my skeptical view that we would run the interstate highway system and DisneyWorld on bio-diesel. From my point of view, they were naïve not to realize how much more land would have to be devoted to human food production once the failure of industrial agriculture led to steeply reduced crop yields.

The lesson of James Surowiecki's "The Wisdom of Crowds" is that generally large crowds get it right. Yet, Americans elected a government that won't sign the Kyoto Accord and doesn't acknowledge the existence of global warming. What happened?

JHK: I think the deeper truth is that the Kyoto Protocols will not be followed by anyone really and that, in effect, nothing will be done to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse emissions. I'm not against Kyoto. I just think it's a fantasy, especially considering China's energy predicament and their coal supplies.

In Europe or Japan, because of high gas prices or tight land controls, people live in half the space, drive smaller and better cars, sit on well designed furniture and eat smaller and better meals. Is it not possible that this is all self-correcting- People will move downtown, live in smaller spaces, drive smaller cars or take transit, simply because it makes economic sense to do so?

JHK: I think a lot of things will be self-correcting, even in America. After all, human societies are essentially self-organizing emergent systems. The catch is, how much disorder will we have to endure while this re-self-organizing process occurs. It's the thesis of my book, The Long Emergency, that there will be quite a bit of disorder. So I am generally skeptical of people who think we're just going to have an easy transition.

In the Chapter Natures Bites Back you talk about Global Warming and water depletion. Again, talking about self-correcting systems, are these going to be significant problems if the fossil fuels are not burning or the suburban lawns are not being watered? If you deal with the cause of the problem do the effects take care of themselves?

JHK: Again, the problems themselves are one thing; the social response is something else. The faltering of our suburban living arrangement is probably certain. The response of suburbanites is not. Will they elect maniacs who promise to make America just like it was in 1997? Will there be a desperate attempt to sustain the unsustainable by authoritarian measures? Will the institutions or order and justice fail in the process. These are more compelling issues to me.

Last week Fortune Magazine's cover feature was about 22 year old speculators buying three and four houses each in Phoenix and Las Vegas- in a time when gas at the pumps is higher than it has been in years. What will it take for them to get the message?

JHK: These are people who have made very poor choices. Phoenix and Las Vegas have grim long-term prospects. On top of oil-and-gas problems they will have terrible problems with water and the ability to produce food locally. I suppose it shows how delusional the public is, and how our institutional controls have decayed — for instance, lending standards.

You talk about the doughnut that is Detroit. Yet when I drive through Detroit I see an existing infrastructure of marvelous old buildings and streets full of street related low buildings with retail at grade and residential above- all empty. Given that Barge transportation is still the most energy efficient going, should all of those 22 year old speculators be moving to Schenectady on the Erie Canal or St Louis on the Mississippi? Is there not a huge opportunity here for redevelopment and rebirth of the parts of America with temperate climates, great railways and canals? This could be bigger than Phoenix!

JHK: Cities like Detroit exist because the occupy important sites. In the case of Detroit, it sits on a river between two great lakes — very important and strategic. Yes, I think water transport will see a revival. However, we're not going to replay the 20th century. The industrial city of that era will not be revived. Our cities are going to contract. Many of them will contract as a whole but densify at their core. Detroit right now is virtually abandoned at its core to the degree that a lot of what had been slums thirty years ago are now wildflower meadows. The rebuilding of Detroit will occur a much smaller scale. It remains to be seen what will become of Detroit's vast suburbs.

There was an article in the Globe and Mail last week about how proud everyone was up in Nunavut on the Arctic Ocean that in this culture with few jobs, few doctors and few skills, a new school was just turning out its first crop of lawyers. What skills do you think will be most valuable in the long emergency?

JHK: In the Long Emergency hands-on type jobs will be much more important than the abstract manipulation of images or financial markers. We might hope that the law as a profession does not vanish, because justice may vanish with it — but we could probably do with far fewer lawyers. Since I think agriculture will come back closer to the center of life, I think there will be many vocational opportunities there — especially with the so-called 'value-added' activities associated with food production. That's a windy way to say more local wine and cheese-makers — and probably fewer giant factories producing cheez doodles and Pepsi Cola. I wouldn't go for a college degree in public relations right now.