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No problemo? Rochester and the decline of cheap oil


When James Howard Kunstler's first book, "The Geography of Nowhere," came out in 1994, talk about running out of oil was akin to talk about that fake moon landing. Crackpots, oil executives, and every undergraduate geology student in the county knew we were approaching the peak of worldwide oil production, but most people had better things to worry about. Most still do.

James Howard Kunstler: "We won't run the interstate highway - system on bio diesel or second-hand French-fry potato oil. That's wishful - thinking." - CLARKE COND
  • Clarke Cond
  • James Howard Kunstler: "We won't run the interstate highway system on bio diesel or second-hand French-fry potato oil. That's wishful thinking."

Almost immediately after his book was published, Kunstler become the go-to guy for biting criticism of America's built environment. His four non-fiction books and popular blog (The Clusterfuck Nation Chronicle) have focused on the unsustainable aspects of our culture. Like a revival preacher, he has railed against what he sees as our asinine insistence on constructing car-dependent sprawl and our blindness toward our impending energy problems. His message is to repent while there is still time.

Extreme, maybe. Wrong, maybe not. Increasingly, the concept of an end of the cheap oil era has been percolating into the mainstream culture on the wings of Iraqi war critics. Major media outlets including Time, National Geographic, and "60 Minutes" have weighed in, but none have taken Kunstler's view that the results will be an end to globalism, suburbs, and easy motoring. Kunstler sees a wholesale change in every aspect of our lives.

Kunstler has become the kind of lecturer that groups bring in when they want to stir up debate about planning for our collective future. Locally, the RochesterRegionalCommunityDesignCenter and the Rochester chapter of the American Institute of Architects will host a lecture by Kunstler at the German House on April 11.

Kunstler went to college at SUNY Brockport in the late 60's, and while not a civic planner by trade, he has a familiarity with Rochester that many of the out-of-town consultants the city has brought in do not. To find out why he, and many others, feel we could be facing what he calls "a long dark age," I sat down with him in his Saratoga Springs home to get his take on the future of Rochester post cheap oil. The following is an edited version of that interview.

City: What do you say to people who believe someone will find a technological solution to our energy problems?

Kunstler: I say that is a faith-based idea. We haven't always come up with something in the past. If anything, history tends to show that major complex civilizations tend to collapse, and they tend to collapse in the same way. As far as industrial civilization goes, this is only a 200-year experiment. We've had two or three turnovers in fuel. We've gone from wood to coal to oil to natural gas and to some degree to uranium.

There is a prevailing idea now that some mythical "they" will come up with a rescue remedy to the problem we have, which is, namely, an over-reliance on a particular finite resource. When societies meet big stress points, the delusional thinking tends to increase. All the wishing in the world is not going to alter the fact that no combination of the alternative fuels that are known about right now will enable us to run the interstate highway system, Wal-Mart, Walt Disney World, and all the other furnishings of our society the way we have been running them. We are going to have to scale down a lot.

It's the psychology of previous investment, which means you've put so much of your culture's resources and wealth into a certain way of life that you can't imagine letting go of it, or reforming it. This is the unfortunate and tragic situation that we are in with suburbia. It is a very deep set of investments we have made.

What about finding a replacement fuel?

We can say this: the amount of disinformation that is coming out of the major media is shocking and disgraceful. "60 Minutes" has run two segments this winter that are just basically false. The first one was about the Alberta tar sands, in which they said in essence that the Alberta tar sands would solve all our problems. The second one said that coal liquefaction would solve all our problems. Both of those things are completely untrue.

Here comes CBS at 7 o'clock on Sunday night telling the American people that their troubles are over. This does such an amazing disservice to our country. This supports exactly the kind of delusional thinking that we don't need. Now the American public is going to be sitting around saying, "I don't need to change my behavior. I just have to kick back and wait until someone solves this problem for me."

Upstate New York has been looking into wind power. Do you see these technologies playing a role in our future?

I see them playing a role, but not the role that people expect. I don't think we will do it on the mass Niagara-Mohawk basis. I think that mostly what we will see is these things being used on a household basis, or the extremely local basis, if at all.

One thing that many of the people in this discussion have not reckoned with is that we are going to have trouble manufacturing components for these things as the bottom falls out of our cheap fossil-fuel economy. It is one thing to say, "Oh yeah, we can do wind power. No problemo." It is another thing to factor in that you need exotic ores, you need very high-tech metallurgy and high-energy fabrication techniques to make these things.

With windmills in particular, you have to change out the turbines and parts now and again, so you're talking about exotic replacement parts. I am not sure if we are going to be able to make these things if we just have a wind-power or solar-power economy. We can kick back now while we are still basically immersed in the oil and gas economy, but 30 years from now it may be a lot more difficult.

When I said that no combination of alternative fuels will allow us to run our shit the way we have --- there will be provisional technologies. We are not going to run the interstate highway system on bio diesel or second-hand French-fry potato oil or switch-grass byproduct. That is all wishful thinking.

I think we are going to run into big trouble with natural gas for home heating within the next two years. We should have had trouble this year, but we had a supernaturally warm winter in the northeast. That is going to change the way people regard the 3000 or 4000-square-foot house and their ability to live in it.

The major change we are going to see is this: a reversal of the 200-year-old trend of people moving from the rural areas to the big cities. For one thing, we are going to get in big trouble with agriculture. I mean the Archer Daniels Midland Cheese Doodle and Pepsi Cola model of agriculture. We're going to have to grow food closer to home. Agriculture is going to come closer to the center of American life and the American economy.

Do you think the urban core is going to be restored?

You can already see this in places like Baltimore. The waterfront is going to become a locus of activity again, and not just a place for trails, and parks, and recreation, and condos. It will become important again in a way that it hasn't been important in 60 or 70 years.

I think the big cities are going to contract rather severely at the same time as they densify. At the same time, we are going to have to deal with the failure of the suburbs around the cities. The small towns and the smaller cities will become viable in a way that they haven't been for 70 years. Small cities we have in New York could see their futures reversed.

What happens to the places that are over-burdened with large buildings? Places like Manhattan and Chicago are going to be in a lot of trouble, because I don't think we can run those buildings without cheap fossil fuels and in particular, natural gas. The 60-story condo building is not a typology that came along until we had cheap natural gas for heating. I don't really see that we are going to put coal furnaces in the bottom of the Sears Tower in Chicago and have shifts of 20 guys apiece to keep the building warm.

Most of our cities are where they are because they occupy important sites. They may contract and they may wither, but most of them are not going to disappear. Some of them will. I think that Phoenix and Las Vegas, these highly artificial places that have only been able to survive because of cheap fossil fuels, they will dry up and blow away. Places like Rochester and Buffalo and Boston: these places are not going to disappear, but they are not going to be the same kind of cities that we had in the 20th century.

New YorkState and the communities along the canal have put forth a great effort to revitalize the canal as a recreational resource. Do you think that the canal system will be restored as a shipping channel?

It's hard to say. That kind of water transport is fairly cheap, and we may need it again. We are very fortunate that we didn't allow that system to deteriorate.

I did an internet search the other day and came up with 398 houses for sale in the city of Rochester for under $50,000. Do you think it would be a smart idea to buy one?

That's hard to say. They might represent a good investment in the long run. A lot of the neighborhoods in central cities may come back in ways that we can now not imagine.

Do you think that the decline of the manufacturing base in places like Rochester has an environmental upside?

I think we can get a little neurotic about it. We are certainly neurotic about the brownfields. We have a lot of industrial brownfields where industrial processes occurred, but it doesn't mean that we can't build on them or live on them successfully. Obviously you would have to take it on a case-by-case basis, but right now I think we are hyper-super-ultra-excessively sensitive about it. It is one thing to garden on a place; it is another thing to build masonry buildings on sites that are basically capped.

Part of the reason that you can't easily predict exactly what is going to happen has to do with the nature of how human societies change. You can describe it as emergent self-organizing behavior, just as the suburbs represented a kind of emergent self-organizing behavior in response to super-abundant cheap fossil fuels. There wasn't a malign intelligence behind it. The devil didn't make Greece and Henrietta. The pattern replicates itself all over America. It is not like the suburbs of Rochester are that special.

It is clear that humans are pretty good at organizing themselves into whatever seems to work best right now. People are resourceful, and it's true that there is such a thing as true human ingenuity. People do these things in the face of necessity and desperation. You'll have a situation where you have a society that no longer has cheap energy, but things still need to get done. People still need to be fed. People still need to be clothed. People still need to move from point A to point B.

One of the biggest complaints about Rochester is the weather.

I'm not sure I would make plans for the city of Rochester based on what the weather will be in 10 years. There are plenty of places in the world where the weather ain't that wonderful. Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Edinburgh, Dublin. These are places that don't have nice weather, but they have among other things a beautiful public realm that people care about. There are plenty of ways to live in cold weather and be rewarded on a daily basis, to have beautiful places to pass through on your way from home to work.

The weather in Paris isn't even that wonderful, though it's a little bit better than Oslo. Yet it is not as if the people in Paris are miserable. Why? Because they have a beautiful city that was consciously created to be beautiful.

In Rochester you are completely unrewarded, because the streetscape sucks. The public realm has been given no thought whatsoever and no care. We're so much in the habit of not caring and not thinking about it that the result is that we have exactly what we deserve. We have a human habitat that is not worth living in.

That is another thing that is not so special about Rochester. The public realm in Albany sucks, too. It also sucks in Worcester, Mass, and in Wilmington, Delaware, and in Charlotte, North Carolina, and in Austin, Texas, and in Albuquerque.

I'd like to think Rochester has a few advantages that other cities don't. Rochester has a pre-car infrastructure.

That is quite true, but you can say that about a lot of Eastern cities. They have what I would call a basic civic armature that you could build on, but you have to follow the pattern. You have to return to the pattern, and we have not been accustomed to that for a long, long time.

It starts with something as fundamental as the increment of development. Now, if you're going to do a redevelopment in downtown Rochester, you'll do a whole block. That's bullshit. We have to return to the idea of the normal building lot as the normal increment of redevelopment. And we are going to, because we are going to be a less affluent society. You have to go back and actually look at the older pattern and see how the pattern was originally imagined and then really start to emulate it.

My youngest daughter will turn 16 in 2018. Do you think I will need to teach her how to drive?

I think the car is going to be a very diminished presence in our lives in a way that most ordinary people cannot imagine. I think driving is going to be an enormous problem for us and it will take on tragic overtones for the younger generation.

There is this idea from Fredrick Jackson Turner that it is the frontier experience that makes America exceptional. Do you see converging catastrophes being a new frontier? Do you think that this sort of challenge will bring out the best in Americans?

The guys who wrote a very interesting book called the "Forth Turning," William Strauss and Neil Howe, made the point that we are entering a time when the younger generation is going to be so severely challenged that they will have no choice but to be heroic. Now that is a very interesting idea, because were not seeing a whole lot of evidence of that right now.

I think we are going to be forced, and I think we are going to hit a wall. We are doing absolutely nothing right now to change our behavior in the face of circumstances that are obviously mounting before our eyes. When that happens, there are simply going to be a lot of 20-year-old kids that find that their colleges are closing down. The public diploma mills are not going to be able to keep on going. What are they going to do in 2011? They are going to have to be very resourceful.

I don't think we are going to be able to run those fleets of yellow school buses. The investment in all that infrastructure is so enormous we will probably see an enormous effort to keep it going against all odds, and the effort will fail. In the meantime, what I think we will see is a private-school movement growing out of something like home schooling. At the same time I wouldn't make any plans for the state university systems.

What are we going to wish that we had done?

We are going to wish that we had rebuilt the American railroad system. We are going to wish that we had not built so many of our institutions on the edge of town. Were going to be sorry we paved over some of the best agricultural land close to our towns. We are going to be sorry that we burned as much of our own oil and gas as we did. These are the kind of things we are going to regret.

Is there a tipping point?

There is a point with gasoline and oil beyond which things are not going to work in America. That may be $4 a gallon, let's say hypothetically. We haven't quite reached it, but it's out there.

Will history judge us as fools?

I think history will judge us very harshly if history is still there to do any judging.

James Howard Kunstler will speak at the German House, 315 Gregory Street, at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 11. His topic: "How Will Our Cities Respond to the Coming Energy Crisis?" The program is sponsored by the RochesterRegionalCommunityDesignCenter and the Rochester chapter, American Institute of Architects, as part of their series, "Reshaping Rochester! Planning for the Public Realm." Tickets: $10 in advance, $15 at the door; $5 students, available at Wegmans, Parkleigh, AIA Rochester (232-7650), and RRCDC (271-0520).

Predicting tomorrow

Kunstler sees a future with unreliable, expensive energy, and a resulting change in every aspect of our lives. His view is that anything that relies on a long supply chain or a reliably cheap energy source will wither and die. I asked him for a thumbs up/thumbs down assessment of the prospects of Rochester institutions post cheap oil. (Thumbs up means more, thumbs down means less.)