James Howard Kunstler: It's All Going to Have to Get Smaller


I’m not a techno-narcissist. I don’t think there are technological rescue remedies that will allow us to keep doing what we’re doing...
— James Howard Kunstler

There is a prevailing fallacy, despite warning signs to the contrary (looming peak oil, fragile markets, and climate weirdness, among others), that we can continue in perpetuity the lifestyle to which we’ve become accustomed. All we need to do is to pump into The System more debt or more political insanity, or hope that alternative energies or some new techno-solution will bail us out.

But, at best, all debt-fueled growth, shale oil “miracles” and green fuels can do by themselves is to make the Long Emergency just “a little bit longer.”

“The Long Emergency” is a phrase coined by James Howard Kunstler to describe the economic, political and social upheavals that will dominate the first decades of the 21st-century as the honeymoon of affordable energy comes to a close. It is also the name of Kunstler’s seminal book on the topic. (The Long Emergency is one of fifteen books on our “Essential Reading List for the Strong Towns Thinker.”)

James Howard Kunstler is our very special guest on today’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast. He is the author of more than 20 books, including The Geography of Nowhere, Too Much Magic, and the World Made By Hand novel series.

In this episode, Strong Towns president Charles Marohn talks with Kunstler about what has changed—or perhaps what hasn’t changed—since The Long Emergency was first published in 2005. Kunstler explains why the “psychology of previous investment” (4:45) makes it so hard for most people to imagine living differently. Marohn and Kunstler also discuss (17:00) what’s wrong with the Green Revolution narrative that we can keep doing everything we’re doing now, if just “do it green”:

“America is going to be very disappointed how that works out,” says Kunstler. “It ain’t gonna happen. We’re not going to run the interstate highway system, Walt Disney World, suburbia, all the stuff we’re running now, the U.S. military, on any combination of green alternative fuels. It just isn’t going to happen. So the whole thing’s a fantasy. Really what we have to do is downscale all the activities in American life—including the distances we travel, the scale of our living places, the scale of our cities, the scale of the corporate activity that we do—it’s all going to have to get smaller.”

Other topics:

18:40 - Why people may be using “insane political behavior” as a substitute for the harder work of changing the way we live
24:00 - Why Seattle and other cities with absurdly high housing costs are signs of an irrational market and may not be fixable except by a “restart”
35:30 - Why modern monetary theory may end up being, in Chuck’s words, the “peak delusion of the Long Emergency”
36:40 - The fatal delusion that being able to measure something equates to being able to control it
41:10 - How to “change our living arrangements in a way that comports with the circumstances that are coming at us” (Kunstler)

By turns provocative, prescient, prophetic, and personal, this episode is just what we’ve come to expect from James Howard Kunstler.