Questions from Treehuggers for Jim Kunstler

We invited our readers to submit questions, with a prize for the person whose question was chosen. (read the original interview here) The bad news: no prize. The good news: Mr. Kunstler thoughtfully and thoroughly answered all of the questions.odograph: What do you think of the Hydrogen Highway, and should it have such a hold on public consciousness?

JHK: The Hydrogen economy as sold to the US public is essentially a hoax. There will not be any hydrogen economy. We may use it for a few things, but we are not going to run the interstate highways with it. Beyond the fact that hydrogen requires more energy to produce than you get from the hydrogen produced, there are huge obstacles involving the transport, storage, and infrastructure for any hydrogen system – particularly one aimed at the mass scale.

Mark Frazzini: What do you think is the most effective means of increasing the typical American consumer's understanding of their environmental responsibilities?JHK: I think the public will probably come to an enlarged awareness by shock and awe – that is, by feeling the pain of their own lives heading into trouble because of the choices we have made individually and collectively. I don’t think we will begin to make changes until we are compelled to.

How do we take a mass culture of blind consumers, almost completely devoid of any earthly connection, who treat the planet as if it were their personal garbage bin, and create one that understands the deep interconnected nature of all life on this peopling planet of ours and is willing to make the necessary personal sacrifices so that it might continue lifing into the distant future?

JHK: See above.

Conrad Nobert: Thank you for your latest book. I am a big fan.In "The Long Emergency", you state that you have not taken extreme measures to shield yourself from the upcoming oil shortages. You have identified learning a non-oil related trade and riding your bike as actions that you have already taken. If you were to identify, say, 5-10 more actions that an individual/community might take right now, what would they be?

JHK: Choosing a place to live close to viable agriculture. (Of course, obviously everybody can’t move to small town Ohio.) Paying off debt, if possible. Acquiring good quality hand tools. Acquiring solar battery chargers and batteries to go with them. Bailing out of college programs aimed at fields like public relations, marketing, and other activities that will become superfluous. To some extent we will probably have to assume that nobody can be fully prepared for the discontinuities we face. A lot of success will come from peoples’ ability to adapt.Anthony Carlucci: What is your view of Green Capitalism? The model for economic/ecological change proposed by people like Paul Hawken, and put into practice by companies like Interface.

JHK: I think it’s largely a delusion. There is just capitalism, which is not even an ‘ism’ in the sense that it is a belief system. Compound interest worked just as well for the Soviets as it did for Andrew Mellon and David Rockefeller. I’d substitute the words ‘trade’ or ‘commerce.’ And I’d use the term ‘banking’ for the financial activities associated with trade and the production of trade goods. Right now these things all operate on a plane so abstract that they are nearly hallucinatory – certainly the financial part of all this does. In a post-oil world we will do what we can. We’re not all going to become warm and fuzzy communitarians. Hawken’s ideas about corporate responsibility and recycling are admirable – except they presume that corporate organization as we know it will continue. My own opinion is that the large corporation – say, one that can manufacture and distribute cars or refrigerators – may not exist in the post-oil future. Manufacture may be a much more ‘cottage industry’ type thing a few decades from now.

Do you think that transformative cultural change can come from the free marketplace that largely created our current situation, or must political change precipitate economics?

JHK: I think cultural change will happen in an emergent, self-organizing way, in lockstep with social change. This notion we call ‘the market’ is just a way (based on conventional economic biases) to explain self-organizing behavior. I do think that many of the conventions of today’s thinking will seem preposterous in the years ahead, especially the idea that you can get something for nothing – which I call ‘the Las Vegas-i-zation of the American mind. It has been a very pernicious idea for us, and lies behind many of our delusional expectations for things like the ‘hydrogen economy.’

Paul Cataldo: In your article you were very pessimistic of the future of alternative fuels. I certainly do agree with you on the hydrogen front. I don't see the technology to effectively isolate the element without putting in more energy than is embodied in the final product. But, there are alternative that are currently successful or will become viable when petroleum goes to $100 a barrel - such as wind and bio diesel. Can you elaborate on the potential inhibitors you see to those technologies not being practical in the future? Thank you for your insight

JHK: I don’t accept your assumptions. I believe that wind and solar will be extremely limited and perhaps on a neighbourhood or household basis – and then their possession may only stir resentment of those who do not have it. We also don’t know if we can even fabricate the components for these things without an underlying oil economy. If we want to keep the lights on after 2020, we may have to resort to nuclear power. I hasten to add that that comes with an additional set of problems along with the question as to whether we can run the stuff without an underlying oil economy. There is also a question as to how much nuclear fuel of any kind we can actually get or make. I am not saying that we will not use these things – especially in the short term – but I do assert that we will not run North America with them the way we’re accustomed to running it, or even a substantial fraction of it.garth breaks: I'd just like to hear your two cents on tidal power. Could it be the "holy grail" of energy if we can solidify an efficient means of capturing it in the near future?

JHK: It is something that can be done, like wind and solar. The equipment necessary to run it will be subject to enormous stresses and probably have to be changed out a lot – which raises questions I addressed above. Again, we’re not going to run what we’re currently running on it.

Matt: In The Long Emergency, you write extensively about entropy. You write that things to do not fall apart "at once" because "the flow of entropy faces obstructions or constraints" and then conclude in the same paragraph that "Efficiency is the straightest path to hell". I agree completely, but also think that the entropy argument implies that America and the rest of the world will have a soft landing from the cheap oil fiesta instead of a hard crash. This follows because as our hyper-efficient society begins to break down, more "obstructions or constraints" will slow the flow of entropy. Similarly, the hot cup of coffee doesn't instantly get cold but slowly cools over time.JHK: That’s an optimistic view. I tend to think that as the complex systems we depend on (global finance, industrial agriculture, easy motoring) wobble and destabilize, they will tend to mutually reinforce one another in instability and that these ramifications will tear our society and economy apart.

However, in the last chapter of "The Long Emergency" and in interviews you imply that the crash will come fast and hard. Specifically, in an interview you stated that George W. Bush will be impeached before the end of his term due to anger over peak oil consequences. How do you resolve this apparent contradiction? Do you foresee a hard crash or soft landing from the cheap oil fiesta?

JHK: Did I say Bush would be impeached? Well, he has more than three years to go in office and I do think the public will be sorely disappointed in the failure of their leaders to prepare them for the troubles I call Long Emergency. Today, oil is verging on $60 a barrel. We haven’t begun to see public wrath turn on our elected leaders. I think it could get very nasty. Of course, if you get rid of Bush, there are Dick Cheney and Dennis Hastert waiting in the wings, and I don’t know that anyone will consider them an improvement over the current president. But I do think Mr. Bush will be ‘Hooverized.’ That is, he’ll end up like Herbert Hoover in the onset of the Great Depression: ridiculed, discredited, ineffective.

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