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A Friendly Chat with James Kunstler About the Collapse of Western Society

We talked writer James Howard Kunstler about the impending collapse of industrialized society as we know it and why failing airlines will be the canary in the coalmine.

by Nathan Curry
Oct 25 2013, 3:45pm

James Kunstler and his cat Scooter. Illustration by Dan Buller

If you’re getting increasingly stressed about the impending collapse of industrial society and spend a lot of time reading about it (like I do), you’re bound to come across James Howard Kunstler’s blog: Clusterfuck Nation. This happily titled web diary chronicles the decline of American society in all its glory – from the collapse of modern transportation systems, to the death of suburbia, to the end of life as we know it via catastrophic climate change.

Starting out as a newspaper reporter and staff writer for Rolling Stone in the 70s, Kunstler has since written and spoken extensively about suburban development, peak oil, and societal collapse. If you’ve taken an architecture or urban planning course since the 90s you’ve probably read his book The Geography of Nowhere. If you’re not the book-learny type, then perhaps you’ve caught one of his TED talks or seen his delightfully snarky, monthly feature on modern architectural monstrosities, Eyesore of the Month.

James’s latest two non-fiction books The Long Emergency and Too Much Magic do a nice job of laying out the current catastrophes converging around us, while also envisioning what our post-oil future and the coming Dark Age could entail. If you want a clear-eyed picture of what a “dazed and crippled America” could look like moving forward, these books are a great place to start.

Somehow, James is able to make the terrifying prospect of our complete demise being right around the corner palatable and amusing. A friend of mine even referred to him as “the Louis CK of Collapse” after watching a lecture he gave at the University of Waterloo.

Anyway, I spoke to James over email about the collapse of Western society, a future without cheap oil, and how often he pets his cat. Here’s how that went.

VICE: The common refrain among conversations about the impending energy and economic crises, and subsequent societal collapse is something like “Well… technology will save us,” or “Scientists will think of something…” You don’t agree with that, though. In fact, you wrote a book about why you don’t agree with that called Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation. Why won’t technology be our savior?
JHK: Because the biggest factor leading us toward a collapse of our current system is excessive complexity, and piling on more complexity will just add greater stress to the system. It's that simple. People make many erroneous assumptions about the value of adding more complexity. A very common one is the notion that it will improve "efficiency." Improvements in efficiency almost always produce the effect of decreasing redundancy and therefore resilience. Resilient systems are full of redundancy.

I see. You’ve said before that airlines are the giant “canaries in the coalmine.” How much longer do you think North Americans will be able to fly in the air at 600 miles per hour via distilled, combusted hydrocarbons?
They're already in an advanced state of erosion, system-wise. They have done all they can do to merge companies, fire “redundant” employees, get rid of pension obligations, etc. They have also reduced routes and flights and that is one trend that can continue. At the same time, the affluence of their customer base is eroding—the vanishing middle class. I think you will see a continuing erosion of service, corporate viability, and service contraction. Flying will, once again, be an activity for elites, at least for a while. Eventually, the airlines will shut down and you'll see charter services for another while. Then air travel won't exist for anybody. I think the whole process will run no more than 25 years and probably sooner.

Damn, I better spend my Air Miles soon then. How much responsibility does the baby boomer generation hold for our current predicament?
Well, they just happened to come into their power at the climax of the industrial adventure. It seems to me they just couldn't believe that the culture they spent their whole life in—the 'normal' high-tech society—could possibly fail. Well, shit happens, and shit un-happens.

Existential dread is not as simple and clear as a nuclear bomb scare anymore. It’s a confluence of everything all at once—the end of cheap oil, economic collapse, food shortages, drought, flooding, mass extinctions, ocean acidification, wet bulb temperatures, spent nuclear fuel rods, giant killer wasps, not to mention the 5,000 nuclear bombs still around on this planet. How do we deal with this? How do you?
Yeah, fear of nuclear war was so straightforward and simple compared to what we face now. I deal with it by 1) being keenly aware that I am in the late innings of a limited lifetime; 2) doing what I can to lead a purposeful life; and 3) relying on my essentially cheerful disposition with its bent for antic comedy. I've taken pains to construct a broad social network. I live in a place that it is worth caring about. I get a lot of exercise. I garden. I pet my cat several times a day.

I’m sure your cat appreciates that. A lot of people still seem to be inflicted with an infinite growth paradigm—the idea that growth can continue forever, despite our finite resources—when it comes to something like oil. How would you address that?
Here's the best way to explain our oil predicament: Texas oil circa 1930 was based on wells that cost $400,000 to drill (in today's dollars) and produced thousands of barrels a day for upwards of 20, 30 years. Shale oil wells cost $6-to-$12 million to drill and produce on average 80 barrels a day. They begin to deplete by more than 50 percent after the first year and more than 20 percent after the second year. 

Yikes. Two years ago I was in Detroit and I saw some squatter laundry hanging out of a window of an abandoned skyscraper. Is that where we’re headed? How do you picture skyscrapers holding up over the next few decades?
I've said many times that the skyscraper is obsolete. Because there is a direct relationship between available cheap energy and capital formation, we can expect that the capital will not be there to maintain or renovate them. After a point (that point is probably now, already) they will never be renovated. I also doubt that many of the modular, fabricated materials will be available.

Even things as seemingly simple as sheet-rock actually entail long manufacturing chains and a lot of embedded energy. The architects will be the last people to tell you this because they benefit hugely from being able to 'maximize the floor-to-area ratio' of a given building lot. That is, they get paid a much bigger commission if they can stack sixty stories of rentable/saleable units on a 100-square-foot lot. Obviously, developers also benefit. So that is what they do. For the moment. Another moment will arrive when they can't do that anymore (lack of capital). And then yet another moment will come when all of society will view skyscrapers as liabilities, not assets.

You call the suburbs “futureless.” What do you mean by that? 
We have no prospect of running them in a non-cheap energy economy. “End of story,” as Tony Soprano liked to say.

What do you see for the future of railways? There is a lot of hype over high speed rail, or even evacuated tube transport via Elon Musk’s 1860s Jules Verne sci-fi plan—is it more likely that regular rail will return to prominence?
For the moment, its future seems dim because hardly anyone in the USA is interested in rail, and there are massive commercial forces arrayed against it—as well as the “sunk costs” of automobiles (the freeways, the strip malls, etc.).  However, if we don't renovate the US passenger rail system we will be screwed because this is a big country and both the airline industry and the “Happy Motoring” system will be dwindling soon.

What further complicates the picture is our hang-up on high-speed rail. At this point, we need to forget about that and concentrate on fixing the existing conventional rail. We will be facing too many capital constraints, and high-speed rail will require new rights-of-way because of grade and curve limitations, and the legal battles over eminent domain would be politically difficult to resolve, perhaps impossible. So, forget high speed. We just missed the window of opportunity for getting that done. But rebuilding the conventional rail and electrifying it ought to be among our highest priorities. 

Let’s talk about money. The revolving credit business model seems to be over. All the cheap money is gone along with the cheap oil. How do you see this playing out?
First, in a very bad financial train wreck, as promises to repay debt are broken and the enormous chain of obligations is destroyed, then so are the institutions involved, namely banks and governments. We'll have to rebuild a financial system and chances are it will be much simpler than today's, perhaps even primitive in terms of the complexity of tradable instruments.

Enterprise will have to work with real saved capital, whatever form that takes, not jive credit, created out of thin air. I can see our situation getting extreme to the degree that circulating silver becomes the dominant "money" for a while—gold would be hoarded. This would presume we enter what most people would consider a “dark age.” That would go hand-in-hand with a significant drop in human population, which will surely also occur over time. 

You say in Too Much Magic that, “the most conspicuous feature of these times is our inability to construct a coherent consensus about what is happening to us and what we’re going to do about it.” You say that this has led to a rise in conspiracy theorists, apocalyptic occultists, and wishful thinking. How do we bolster a coherent consensus—or is one even possible?
It's increasingly difficult to forge a reality-based consensus, because the more desperate people become and the deeper the socio-economic hardship, the more people turn to delusional beliefs, wishful thinking, scapegoating, and the supernatural. Once that happens, it probably requires an exogenous shock or a war or a great calamity to clear the collective imagination. That's what happened to Germany around 1945. They got their heads back on straight after the horrendous Hitler interlude. Millions killed, of course, and much of the capital infrastructure of the nation wrecked.

Can you envision the type of global event that would be necessary (something "un-spinnable" media-wise) to shake people and governments radically enough to change lifestyles and policies?
There are many such events underway now—weird weather, rising energy prices, regime melt-downs, ethnic conflicts, banking fiascos—but apparently none of them have reached the necessary point of criticality… certainly not yet in the USA. My guess is that the most likely early “event” will be a financial blow-up, because finance is the most abstract of all our major support systems, and hence probably the most fragile.

What do you think of the decade-or-so long trend in apocalyptic TV and moviemaking; is it preparing us or anesthetizing us?
It probably signifies an awareness that current conditions cannot last and are precarious. Unfortunately, the narratives focus on elements of unreality—zombies, creatures-from-space, supernatural forces—rather than the real dangers we face. My guess is they have a somewhat anesthetizing effect rather than a mobilizing one, but I can't prove it. 

Want to read more insanely depressing material about the realistic apocalypse? Ok:

Some Credible Scientists Believe Humanity Is Irreparably Close to Destruction

The First World Is Destroying the Third World Through Climate Change

Vice Blog