James Howard Kunstler lives in upstate New York and is the author of about 20 books, 14 novels and the rest are non-fiction. These include The Geography of Nowhere, about the suburbanisation of America, The Long Emergency, about the energy predicament and financial predicaments of our time, and the prospects for collapse, and Too Much Magic, an update of The Long Emergency about wishful thinking and technology. He also recently completed a four book series of novels set in the post-collapse American future under the rubric ‘World Made by Hand’. He also runs a great blog, which includes my personal favourite, ‘Eyesore of the Month’.
I wonder how you would evaluate the state of the collective imagination in the US in 2017?
That’s a very interesting question. I would say generally it is disorderly in a manner that we have not seen before in my lifetime. That the various places that used to be the touchstones of ideology and belief, the ideas that are circulating there are pretty much insane.
If you’re on the left, what we have in the USA is a new kind of Maoism. Mostly seen on campus, and it’s an anti-free speech despotic movement that used to be about identity politics – that’s how it started – and the ideology of victimisation, but it has really turned into something else now completely different. What it’s really about now is just the pleasure of coercing other people. I think the analogue to that is exactly what happened in the cultural revolution in China in the mid 1960s, which started out supposedly as an attempt to correct the thought of people who were not conforming, but ended up really just being a matter of young people enjoying pushing other people around. And that’s what’s happened in the USA on the left.
On the right you have Trumpism which is just a celebration of incompetence and buffoonery, all based on the idea that we’re going to make America like it used to be in 1962, and that’s not going to happen. What’s most amazing about the whole situation is that the places where people ought to do their thinking, places like the universities, and the thinking classes in general, are absolutely AWOL, as they say in the military. Absent without leave. They are not on the scene. They are not raising their voices. They are not making sense. We are living in a moment of unprecedented incoherence.
We always used to look to the future with optimism and hope and think the future is where we want to get to, but now people seem to want to go to the past. It seems to be the thing somehow that the 1950s was this golden age and we have to get back to the 1950s again. What’s changed? Why has our view reversed and we’re looking behind us rather than forwards?
We’re suffering from the disappointment about the promises of progress and technology, and it’s not much more complicated than that. We have reason to feel that way. In fact I don’t believe in the techno utopia that a lot of people are trying to sell.
I do believe that the direction of where civilisation is going in the not distant future is going to be a time out from what we have thought of as progress. And in fact that’s really what’s happening. There’s probably a very confused reaction to the dynamic tendencies in the on-going self-creation of history. Human societies being the emergent phenomena that they are. In other words, history is something that is a self-informing and self-creating phenomena, or dynamic. Where it’s taking us is for example the downscaling of a lot of the activities that we’re used to, like the way we do industry or techno industrial things, and the size and scale of the way we operate our stuff.
Namely nation states and gigantic corporations and the gigantic organisation of just about anything, whether it’s a college, university or anything. So the trend in all of that is to disaggregate, become smaller, for the world to become a larger place again, for our activities to become finer, smaller, less complex. The reaction to that emotionally and intellectually by people at all sides of the political spectrum has been to be fairly confused about it. That’s my analysis of it.
If what we’re seeing is a retreat of the imagination, or people being less imaginative than they used to be, what do you think are some of the causes of that?
I wouldn’t say that they’re being less imaginative. I would actually challenge you that that is not an accurate representation of what’s going on. In fact it’s very imaginative. The trouble is that a lot of the imaginative result of it is delusional thinking. That’s why I wrote the book Too Much Magic, because we had entered an era of wishful thinking in the United Sates, and probably in the West generally after the financial dislocations of 2008.
We adopted the idea that certainly a set of technologies was going to rescue us from the problems of techno industrial civilisation and the internal contradictions of it, and the place that it was leading us. We basically don’t want to let go of this stuff that we’ve got, and the way that we’re running it, and the universe doesn’t really want us to do that anymore. Doesn’t want us to run our stuff the way we’re running it, and it’s a very perplexing predicament for the human race.
So for you Donald Trump is somebody who is a very imaginative person?
No, I wouldn’t say that it’s a question of imagination. I consider Donald Trump to be a clown and a buffoon. And a product of an election process, and a society that cannot form a coherent idea of what’s happening to it, and as a result cannot make coherent plans for what to do about it.
So we elect a guy who has a lot of really empty promises and unrealistic plans for getting through the bottlenecks that we face. I don’t think it’s about imagination. Human imagination is always present. It really depends on its capacity for meeting the exigencies of our time with ideas that comport with reality.
You’ve written about the built environments that we have now, and suburbia. What happens to a culture when the world around it, that it interacts with on a daily basis, becomes boring? You said in your TED talk about when there are enough places that nobody cares about anymore, then just nobody cares.
The problem is not that they’re boring. They’re not boring. They’re not boring at all. In fact they’re punishing. They take all of the attention that you’re able to muster and punish you, and make you very self-conscious of your discomfort in these places.
It’s not a matter of boredom. These places punish your neurology. They punish really the way that you are designed to function as a human being in space. And I don’t mean outer space. I mean in the world around you.
If you give a talk about suburbia and say, “What’s the matter with this?” American audiences will always say, “Oh the trouble is it’s all the same”, and that’s not true of course because there are a lot of things in the world that are all the same. The hill towns of Tuscany are all the same. At least from 500 ft away. The boulevards of Paris all look the same to the casual observer. The problem with the American milieu is not that it’s all the same. The trouble is that it’s all the same lousy quality. It’s all the same bad design and bad idea.
I like to think of it this way, what people identify as the immersive ugliness of their surroundings. When you’re sitting in a car for example, on an 8 laner in the USA, one of those commercial boulevards where the street is lined with muffler shops and Taco stands and big box stores and parking lots and other furnishings and accessories of suburbia, people regard that as ugliness. But there’s more to it, because this immersive ugliness actually represents entropy.
It’s entropy made visible, and entropy in the physical universe is really the force behind things running down or dying or moving towards death and stasis. That’s really the quality that’s being reflected in the environments that we create in America. And it’s no surprise that it’s punishing to the human psyche.
You’ve been writing and speaking about this for some time. Do you see any change in direction?
No, there’s no change in direction. We’re doing what we’re doing here in the USA because we’ve developed an enormous matrix of behaviours and rackets that we don’t want to give up. We’ve learned how to do this stuff, we’ve learned how to build suburbia, we’ve learned how to live in it. We’re not going to give it up until reality compels us to because we can’t use it anymore, and then we won’t.
There was a guy who was an economic advisor to President Nixon back in the 1960s, and he made the observation that things go on until they can’t. And that’s really how it’s going to roll in America. There’s this wish, among all the other wishful things, for us to point to trends that are “hopeful”.
I must add or hasten to add that I am hardly without hope. I think there will be some very salubrious results of the reset that we face, the civilizational reset that we’re entering. It will put us in a place that will probably be better than where we are now. But it doesn’t involve, for me, a lot of techno narcissistic triumphant rescue remedies. I think the things that we’re going to be returning to are going to be pretty fundamental. Things like leading a purposeful life.
Things like knowing the people who you transact with, and being part of a real community, and making music with your friends and neighbours, and taking part in the ceremonies of human existence in a meaningful way. Those are the things that are going to matter. Not whether we can run our cars on batteries.
You were very high profile in the debates around Peak Oil, which people don’t seem to talk about so much now. I wondered what your views are now on that 10 years on, whether they’ve changed, or whether you still hold by everything that was in The Long Emergency, or whether events have overtaken that analysis in any way?
I would say that the analysis has changed because there were elements of the story that people like myself perhaps didn’t see coming, misinterpreted, but on the whole I think the story is still intact. We do face a predicament with our oil supply. What we got wrong was how the pricing mechanisms would affect the story.
What it turns out to be about is not running out of oil, it’s about not being able to afford to get the oil out of the ground. What we missed was the whole story of the energy return on investment and how important that was. The fact is that you can’t run an industrial society on less than a 3:1 oil energy return on investment.
We’re now at about 17:1 in the world wide aggregate, including everything, including tar sands, shale, deep water, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, everything. But the newer, unconventional oil has a terrible return on investment, which is running about 5:1 for shale oil. Once you’re at that ratio, you either have to drop certain activities in your daily life, or something else is going to happen. And the something else that happened is that we destroyed the middle class.
So instead of saying, “Oh well, at an energy return on investment of 17:1 you can’t really have commuting and suburbia, and theme park vacations and the trucking industry, and some of those have to go”, well, we didn’t actually do that, and that’s not how it worked out. How it worked out was we just destroyed the middle class, so that all of that aggregate demand coming from the middle class is dwindling because increasingly they have no money and no income.
That of course has led to massive political problems in the West. So it has played out differently, to answer your question. It has played out a little differently than we imagined, and that’s probably because history is not always strictly linear, and certainly not extrapolative.
How far do we have to go down Trump’s vision of how things want to be before it becomes blatantly obvious that it doesn’t work and we try something else?
Oh I don’t think we’ll have to go more than a year or so, maybe less. Actually I predicted in my blogs that he wouldn’t make it as President for more than a year. That he would be removed from office one way or another.
Clearly the guy’s a buffoon, doesn’t know what he’s doing. But the nation also doesn’t know where it’s going. He is in fact perfectly representing the incoherence of our politics. How we get out of that? I don’t know. As I said a moment ago, it’s really only a question of how disorderly our journey is going to be. In the US is it going to be a real political breakdown? We’ve seen them before in the USA. It can happen.
It’s not going to happen the same that it did in 1860, but it can be pretty bad. In my ‘World Made by Hand’ books, I was actually trying to present a fairly realistic picture of where I thought we might be going, and where we would end up. My idea is if we’re fortunate, we’ll land in a reset economy and civilisation that is not unlike the early to mid 19th century, if we’re lucky. If we’re not so lucky and we make some really terrible blunders we could either go full medieval, or worse.
By the way, I’ve written in my blog that I believe that Japan is going to be the first advanced nation that goes medieval voluntarily. And for the reason that they actually had a really lovely pre-industrial civilisation, the Edo period. It preceded the 1850s when Japan was “opened up” by Commodore Perry of the USA. That was a lovely civilisation.
Things don’t last for ever of course and history doesn’t repeat itself, but I think that the Japanese are very nostalgic for what they left behind and what they lost, and I think will be very glad to get back to it. I don’t think that modernity is working out for them. So they may be the canary in the coal mine, if Asia doesn’t go up in a vapour because of conflict with North Korea or something like that.
Heaven help us. Jim, thank you, thank you very much.
You’re quite welcome.