An Hour With Jim Kunstler

I got a chance to see Jim Kunstler speak at the Cleveland Public Library on Sunday as part of their Writers and Readers series. If you're not familiar with Kunstler, a good place to start would probably be with the TED Talk he gave in 2003. He is outspoken on a lot of topics, ranging from suburban sprawl to peak oil to banking - but it all boils down to the same basic thesis: the lifestyles we are living are not sustainable, and there isn't a magic technology or mysterious 3rd party that will come along and bail us out.

Below is a short recap of Kunstler's talk, organized by topic, for all those interested.

On Railroads
Kunstler is a vocal supporter of Ohio's 3C corridor project. He said, "its absolutely disgraceful that you can't take a train from Cleveland to Columbus that travels at 90 mph. We were doing that back in 1923!" Even so, he believes that 90 mph trains should be the goal, not an intermediate step, and "we're not going to build high-speed rail. Forget it. It ain't gonna happen. We're too broke." This is an interesting dichotomy because most rail supporters see high speed rail along the lines of what the Europeans and the Asians are building as the ultimate goal. Kunstler sees such a future as unrealistic; but he believes that a good railroad utilizing exist infrastructure, at least as good as what we have historically had in this country, should be the priority.

On "Happy Motoring"
Although driving a car was once reserved for only those wealthy enough to afford it, just about anyone in America can get a car these days, whether they can afford one or not. In this sense, motoring has become "democratized" - an activity that everyone can engage in; but Kunstler thinks the financial crisis will change that. "When people can't get car loans then motoring will no longer be democratic," he said; "and once motoring is no longer democratic, people will stop wanting their tax dollars going toward road construction and maintenance."

On Sprawl
"Sprawl is over," Kunstler said. "Most Americans just don't know it yet." This is a topic that Kunstler is particularly outspoken about, but it was only a small piece of his talk on Sunday. He argued that society has a tremendous wish to keep suburbia running precisely because we've poured so much wealth into something with no future. It's analogous to a person who keeps buying lottery tickets because he's already wasted so much of his wealth on losing tickets. He has a desperate wish to hit the jackpot, if for no reason other than to justify his years of poor spending decisions.

On Alternative Energy
Kunstler thinks alternative energies are admirable in principal, but will do little to allow us to live our lives in the way cheap oil has. "I'm not against alternative energy," he said, "but we're going to be disappointed by what it can do." I tend to agree with this point. It's also the reason I've lost almost all faith that electric vehicles will ever make any difference. Even if you converted every car in the world to something run by cleanly-produced electricity, you still have the exact same traffic, congestion, parking and sprawl problems that we have today.

On Suburban Environments
The worst part about the way we have designed suburbs isn't merely that we've made them places that are almost exclusively private, but that we've simultaneously destroyed the public spaces that used to be the centerpiece of society. To demonstrate this point, Kunstler said, "you end up with homes with more bathrooms per capita than anywhere else in the world; but the the only public space left is the berm between the Walmart and K-Mart. And the only people who go there are teenagers who torture kitty cats and shoot up on animal tranquilizers."