Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Chaos in the City. Architecture, Modernism and Peak Oil Production – James Kunstler in Interview

“The Segway is an admirable invention, but it will logically end up being an expensive prosthetic aid for economically well-off old people and cripples, not a means of mass transport, as promoted by its inventor, Dean Kamen. The reasons for this are manifold. 1.) We are going to be a far less affluent society in the post-cheap energy world and the Segway is precisely the kind of expensive toy that fewer people will be able to afford. 2.) The electric grid is going to be severely stressed by the coming natural gas crisis. Electricity is going to get a lot more expensive and we are likely to go through a period (at least) of chronic brownouts and blackouts. 3.) For normal healthy people, walking is a far more efficient, natural, pleasant, and economical way to get around. Like a lot of techno-boondoggles (e.g. Amory Lovins’s 'hyper-car') the notion of mass Segway use is a distraction from humanity's more important task of returning to the design of walkable communities”.

This bleak future seems to make persuading people to use public transport redundant: I asked Kunstler if people could be weaned off the private car. “People will be 'weaned' off the private car – he replied – only as circumstances compel them to be. They will not be 'persuaded' to live differently by political policy. In any case, the physical arrangement of life in America so overwhelmingly mandates car dependency that the living arrangement itself will be in jeopardy, not just motoring. One problem seldom considered is that driving will become increasingly privileged, less democratic than it has been. The middle class will be economically devastated by the global energy crisis. They will be incrementally less and less able to afford car ownership, estimated at an average of $6,000 a year. What happens when 14 percent of the public can no longer participate in the mandatory motoring system? Or 23 percent? Or 37 percent? Big political trouble. In any case, cars will be a diminished presence in our lives a decade or two from now”.

Finally I asked Kunstler if all this talk of urban and suburban planning is not academic in the face of the exhaustion of oil reserves. This is the subject of his forthcoming book. “Yes, a lot of this talk about urban planning and related issues is somewhat academic at this point, in the face of the socio-political tidal wave of the global peak oil crisis coming at us. These days, I often tell audiences that in the decades ahead, the New Urbanism [compact, pedestrian-friendly mixed-use neighbourhoods] will be the Only Urbanism. Suburban development will come to a shockingly abrupt end. The trouble is, we will be a much poorer society and we will not make an easy transition back to traditional living arrangements. The failure of suburbia will have turbulent political ramifications. There will be a fire-sale of distressed properties out there as the value of suburban real estate plummets. There will be a political fight over the table scraps of the 20th century. A lot of people will lose jobs. Vocational niches will disappear. A new social class of economic losers will emerge: the formerly middle class. They will be pissed off about the loss of their 'entitlement' to 'the American Dream'. They will create a lot of political mischief. They may vote for maniacs who promise to make all this trouble magically go away. There will be a tremendous need to produce more food locally, and a lot of trouble making that happen, from the reallocation of land to the technical problems of food production with much-reduced fossil fuel inputs. A lot of people may starve and certain parts of the US may become violent. Some places, such as Phoenix and Las Vegas, will literally dry up and blow away over the next one hundred years. The survivors elsewhere will be living in much more traditional environments, though they will be surrounded by many ruins and relics of a former age”.

Sources and Related Links

Peter Calthorpe, The Next American Metropolis: Ecology, Community and the American Dream, (Princeton Architectural Press) 1993 (New Urbanism)
Kenneth Deffeyes, Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage,(Princetown University Press) 2001
Andreas Duany, E. Plater-Zyberk & Jeff Speck, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, NY)2000
Joel Garreau, Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, (Doubleday, NY) 1991
E. Michael Jones, Living Machines: Bauhaus Architecture as Sexual Ideology, (Ignatius Press) 1995
James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-MadeLandscape, (Simon & Schuster, NY) 1993
James Howard Kunstler, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, (Free Press) 2001
James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency, (Atlantic Monthly Press, forthcoming)
The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream,
(documentary film) director: Gregory Greene

Smoking Gun: The CIA’s Interest in Peak Oil – an essay by Richard Heiderberg

Association for the study of peak oil and gas

The End of Suburbia – a documentary by Gregory Greene

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