Interview: James Howard Kunstler
In the peak oil community, converts to the predicament tend to gravitate toward a figure who tells the story in a way that makes sense for them. Whether it's the measured and scholarly caution of Richard Heinberg, the "I've been there" stories of a Dmitry Orlov, the hopeful glean of Rob Hopkins, or the addled sense of a lax government pointed out by Michael Ruppert, followers have their faves.
In that vein, I have to admit that I'm firmly a Kunstlerite.
I first really heard about peak oil as peak oil when I worked as a washingtonpost.com discussion moderator. I covered business and political discussions, and energy came up from time to time, especially after Bush took office.
Peak oil made sense to me right away. But it was when I read James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency that I had the equivalent of a conversion moment. Though I had already read Heinberg's Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines, and got the straight ahead gist of things, there was something about Kunstler's clear elucidation mixed with his uniquely vigorous prose that brought the story off the page and into my rapidly beating heart.
It was beating that way because he terrified me.
It was comforting then to get to the end of the book and discover an odd turn he took.
Telling the story of "My Long Emergency," Kunstler proceeded to essentially wax philosophical about the whole crazy American matrix he was born into, its fantastic creations and flagrant excesses, and how he recognizes that he's been a most fortunate individual to have lived in relative comfort and opportunity.
He confesses in that closing section that while he takes the energy situation seriously, he's not become a ready survivalist and is overall rather content. Essentially he betrays his optimism as the capper to 300 pages spent dissecting a society, culture and economy in gross negligence and decline.
That small counterpoint to his exhaustive coverage and analysis of the oil situation and its implications for humanity provided both a window into the man and a direction for me to follow as I took my own steps forward into peak oil related activities.
And because he made me feel like I didn't have to buy a shoulder-launched missile and stockpile freeze-dried peaches, I wanted to know what other wisdom he had to offer.
I watched The End of Suburbia, read Home from Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World for the 21st Century, devoured his Monday morning blog and cleared my Thursday nights to tune into kunstlercast.com, his weekly musing on the built environment. I checked his touring schedule to see if he'd be down in our neck of the woods, hoping to bring him to speak to our Transition group. Essentially I perused almost every inch of his website to learn more about him.
And what I learned was surprising. Shocking even.
In the End of Suburbia you get a pretty good feel for Kunstler's take on things, and his tone. At first glance he's impatient, urgent, acerbic, and makes clear if not in words then in his vibe that he's not one to suffer fools gladly.
On his blog, which is nothing like reading his informed yet measured and accessible non-fiction works, there are no holds barred. Instead, every Monday he thrashes to pieces the pretenses and vanities of a society gone mad in most entertaining prose. It's damn funny. If you didn't know he was half joking in his phrasing you might think this guy is really agitated and extreme. But he writes that column like watching Jon Luc Godard's Alphaville; dark comedy over an exposé of truth.
In short, I'm a fan, which I confess makes me kind of biased. But it doesn't make me entirely uncritical of some of his work. I've asked him some challenging questions to clarify his meaning and even to rebuff his assumptions. Regardless, seeing his overall strengths amidst an initially bracing style has lent a certain sympathy to wanting to understand his nature. It makes me want to see the whole Kunstler if you will, and not just the cutting and impatient thrasher who's judging the whole world, deeming it unfit for his aesthetic pleasure.
I'd actually go so far as to call Jim Kunstler a modern day Renaissance man. He writes non-fiction, fiction and plays (I had the pleasure to produce his amazing play Big Slide with our local Transition group); offers a Simmelian analysis of the signs of our times in his musings on architecture and urban development; has tried his hand at small architecture projects; and he paints. Beautifully. If he seems like nothing but an edgy, curmudgeonly killjoy its because you haven't yet seen his "Lilac Tree Off Franklin Square." And that's the gotcha from his website.
The jig is up, Kunstler. Clearly you have a heart of gold. Even his lamentations on a degraded world accompanied by his plaudits for its many beauties reveal not so much his need to express uncensored disgust as it does his need to protect and defend beauty, truth, and goodness against daily assaults of indignity.
Sometimes you have to dig around to get the full story.
And now, the numbers
In addition to the many other things he does (including releasing another novel this year), Kunstler has increasingly taken up the role of economic observer, bringing his particular brand of intellectual justice to the hoard of Wall Street white-collar criminals and the entire government and business apparatus that supports them—whether by collusion, apathy, or negligence. And its on that subject that he agreed to take some questions from Transition Voice.
If only I had been able to see him on one of his many appearances this year I would have really picked his brain. But I caught up with him in between his recent trips to Australia (yes, Kunstler has the world's biggest carbon footprint and his personal garden can't possibly offset it), via email to ask him what he thinks of the economic horror show plaguing our times. Does he agree with Jeff Rubin that high oil prices will bring on inflation? Or with Nicole Foss, that a crippling deflation and a dried up money supply is just around the corner?
"I agree with Nicole Foss. The oil predicament doesn’t help, but the frauds and swindles of 'innovative' finance – and the fantastic layers of criminal misbehavior within it – have been enough to demolish the banking system."
But he also blames, "...the absence of the rule-of-law, the failure of regulators to regulate, enforcers to enforce, and now prosecutors to prosecute. As Nicole and her co-blogger at The Automatic Earth, 'Ilargi,' have often reminded us, this financial fiasco has morphed into a political crisis calling into question the very legitimacy of current governance."
A journalist himself before chucking corporate wage-slavery long ago to take up independent writing and small-town living, Kunstler picked his subjects based on what moved him. "When I was a full-time newspaper reporter I was what they used to call a 'feature writer.' I wrote non-hard-news stuff, and I generally followed my own nose on stories. I took an interest for a while in investigating religious cults, which were plentiful in the 70s. They sucked in a lot of lost young people when the hippie era ran out of steam and I was fascinated by the power dynamics in these groups and how people surrendered their autonomy to charismatic self-appointed gurus -- who were often sinister opportunists out for a buck."
For Kunstler, marginal characters also held a special fascination. He wrote about, "... hired killers, con men, loan sharks, transvestites, traveling tent-show evangelists, various colorful crazy people," preferring it to the dull stuff. "I hated beat reporting. I couldn't sit through city council meetings and the usual routine venues for news-gathering. Luckily, there were other reporters who seemed to thrive on that, so I could go my own way."
The playwright in Kunstler loves a good character, and memorable criminal hucksters and outcasts from society continue to show up throughout his work. His observations take in the business cabal unloading suburbia's excesses onto a cartoon happy people, and he creates charming but ruthless con men like Billy Bones, the balladeer bandit in his latest novel, The Witch of Hebron. (In Witch, he also renders the young Jasper with startlingly sensitive insight, a tremendously hued portrayal of a child.)
But what inspires him to turn his mind to our failing economy? "I read The New York Times online. Even though it's a piece of crap these days with vapid, pusillanimous writers-of-opinion like Krugman, Friedman, and Brooks, it’s still (unfortunately) the so-called newspaper of record." But he also reads The Automatic Earth, Naked Capitalism, Zero Hedge, and Charles Hugh Smith.
And he has plenty of ideas of his own on Wall Street and finance.
"The role of finance up until a decade or so ago was to deploy capital, surplus wealth gained from productive activities, for new productive activities," he explains. But then we off-shored and outsourced manufacturing. After that, Kunstler says Wall Street needed, "...to find ways to make money in the absence of productive activity."
The devil's workshop
Kunstler says Wall Street, "...turned to rackets based on getting something for nothing," explaining that this, "...coincided with the computer revolution, which enabled financial folk to make their operations incomprehensibly complex and abstruse, destroying 'transparency' and the ability of markets to perform their chief function of 'price discovery.'"
This had serious consequences, Kunstler explained. "Eventually, nobody knew the value of things being sold as investments, such as mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations made out of mortgage-backed securities. Meanwhile, the mortgage mills like Countrywide, Ditech, and others connived with Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac (the so-called GSEs), and the big banks to blow up the housing bubble by giving mortgage loans away to anyone with a pulse and then unload them onto the chumps at the end of the chain – pension funds, insurance companies, et cetera. That’s what pumped up house prices."
After it blew up, Kunstler observes that, "...nobody could establish the value of all those securities backed by mortgages and the derivatives of these things, which were hopelessly recondite, including credit default swaps. Around 2008, all this mischief was joined by new rules issued by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) allowing the banks and other institutions to evade reporting the real value of the securities they had created – quite a bit of which resided in their own vaults (another loss of 'transparency')."
"All this malfeasance and hugger-mugger is the biggest and most hopeless financial mess in the history of the human race."
Kunstler views the Federal Reserve as part of the problem, not the solution. The Fed has, "...only made things worse with its incessant interventions aimed at concealing the massive losses, propping up insolvent banks, and preventing all the swindles and rackets from unwinding," he says.
He bemoans the impact the whole mess creates, calling it "rampant financial criminality" and arguing that, "it will bankrupt everything in its path, provoke a world-wide political crisis, and perhaps thrust us into something like a dark age."
Strong words, but is he so far off?
When Wall Street was bailed out, many Americans expressed outrage, but that outrage changed nothing. In fact banking scandals where the perpetrators are rewarded have become so commonplace that Americans seem able to do little more than grouse about them, helpless to effect change and too tired to express any truly unified movement for financial reform. We're not seeing something like the French Revolution, after all.
But are there circumstances that might change this?
"Just because the public has not reacted so far doesn’t mean they’ll sit still indefinitely," Kunstler says. "It wouldn’t necessarily take a crisis, either, to set them off. That’s the magic of tipping points and phase change. Sometimes nobody even notices the incendiary event. I’m kind of surprised the Hamptons have not been burned down so far, but I believe we’ll see very vivid expressions of public wrath sooner or later."
It may be another bailout that would precipitate a populist blowback. Bank bailouts were a real touchstone issue for many voters, especially those who favored Tea Party candidates. Yet if the bailout money had been given to individuals, a share for every adult American say, the Right would have deemed it socialism. I wondered why, when business is bailed out, we don't hear an equivalent analysis of the managed economy as enabling, care taking, nannyish?
In Kunstler's view, it's "because we are a politically puerile nation composed of people who understand little, routinely vote against their own real interests, and believe in things that are inconsistent with reality."
Ouch. So what will break through to people to get them to deal with reality and address their own needs?
Kunstler doesn't think for the present moment that it's going to be oil. That's been displaced, he says, by financial markets that "are coming apart at the seams...due to sequential national bankruptcies in Europe. This contagious political crisis underway looks like it will soon destroy the Euro and it has shoved the oil predicament to the sidelines."
The problems he lists haven't been dealt with because, as Kunstler says, there's been, "A failure of leadership plain and simple. Nobody has been held accountable for demolishing the banking system."
Kunstler voted for Barack Obama but has since become deeply disillusioned. "I feel that his failure to uphold the federal statutes against systematic racketeering ought to be an impeachable offense. Of course those in the legislative branch who might bring such a proceeding are themselves bought and paid for by the very racketeers in question. I agree with those who say this is now a political crisis of the basic legitimacy of governance."
"We’re not entitled to a happy ending," he says.
But that's the big picture. Kunstler has some hope for localities, as he illustrated in both of his recent novels. And of Transition efforts he thinks the people are, "earnest and fairly realistic by and large. Most of them seem to understand the losses we face. They want to continue some semblance of civilized living in the face of all that. I wouldn’t discount them."
But he's less patient with pie-in-the-sky visions that have no basis in resource reality. "I have a bigger beef with the bigtime professional enviro-greenies like Amory Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute, who promote techno-fantasies about running all the cars by other means – as if car dependency itself were not a problem."
Car-dependency is a huge problem for Kunstler. When he's not bemoaning the attitude behind "happy motoring" he's railing against cars and roads as a dying paradigm. "Anyone who is interested in how I see things working out can read my 'post-oil' novels: World Made By Hand and The Witch of Hebron. I think we’ll lose a lot and gain a lot at the same time."
But Kunstler doesn't think that much advance talk on peak oil will move the needle in public perception. He thinks the general public wont pay attention until they're "marooned in their driveways."
He puts it bluntly. "We are unable to construct a coherent consensus about what is happening to us and what we ought to do about it. Life is tragic. Sometimes societies make terrible mistakes. Just because you collectively lose your sense of consequences doesn’t mean that you don’t have to live with consequences."
Fortunately for him he can paint, tell a story, build things.
And he's basically cheery.