For James Howard Kunstler, an author and journalist known for his criticism of American urban and suburban development, the city of Boston is not set to an appropriate urban scale. In Kunstler’s ideal urban landscape, buildings would be no more than five to six stories high, in order to meet the appropriate demands of urban scale and distribution.
In his talk on Wednesday evening as part of the Lowell Humanities Series, Kunstler conveyed the harsh reality of America’s economy and environment, and heeded to the American public to make significant changes to their lifestyle.
“The outstanding feature of the current situation is we’re doing a poor job of constructing a coherent narrative of what’s happening to us and therefore constructing a plan for what we’re going to do about the predicaments and quandaries that we face,” Kunstler said.
Kunstler attributed this to the problematic nature of how our nation’s energy, finance, and urban design sectors interact with each other, and in turn, impact the environment.
Kunstler, a successful novelist and journalist, is known for his op-ed columns on current environmental and economic issues, and has been published in The Atlantic Monthly, Slate.com, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times.
Among his canon of published work, he has published a trilogy of novels in response to the current urban planning dilemma: The Geography of Nowhere, Home from Nowhere, and The City in Mind. His bestselling novel, The Long Emergency, provides an in-depth discussion of the impact of the current oil crisis and its ramifications for American society.
“The basic problem is this…we’re stuck between crushing economies and crushing oil companies’ ability to get the oil,” Kunstler said.
Kunstler stressed that although gas and oil prices have recently decreased, it is still difficult for the public to understand that the energy industry is in peril.
People believe that as long as there is money, the oil supply will be infinite, and that energy and technology are interchangeable, but this is simply not the case, Kunstler said.
“Today’s wealth is going into a black hole and will never be seen again”
As oil becomes more expensive and hazardous to pursue, prices go down. This ultimately harms the oil companies, which are taking on a tremendous amount of debt that cannot be paid back, as well as the economy, whose growth is consequently stunted.
Kunstler argued that the American public clamors for superficial solutions to these issues, so that they can continue living and consuming in the same way they are now, without making necessary changes to their behavior.
“We want to keep driving to Walmart forever?” Kunstler said.
As the global economy shifted in the 1970s—moving from an industrially-oriented economy to an becomes increasingly financially-innovative economy—the public must reexamine their lifestyles, Kunstler said. It is no longer feasible to push for expansion and globalization, which is why it is necessary to consider re-localizing and downscaling activities that comprise the economy. Kunstler noted that this contraction is key to maintaining a more sustainable economy.
“Today’s wealth is going into a black hole and will never be seen again,” Kunstler said.
Kunstler argued that money necessary to build the next economy is no longer there, as it’s being wasted on “techno-narcissistic fantasies,” citing the nation’s investment in travel to Mars or self-driving cars. This gross misallocation of resources is hurting the nation’s impoverished middle class, which will no longer be credit-worthy in the future, because America’s infrastructure for daily life cannot be sustained, Kunstler said.
Beyond financialization, Kunstler criticized the American economy’s shift to elaborating suburban development. An outspoken critic of suburban development, Kunstler believes that, in coming years, urban life will naturally relocate to places that are scaled down to meet the appropriate resources and capital realities.
“Suburbia is going to fail,” Kunstler said. “There are three destinies: ruins, salvage, and slums.”
Much like the economy, Kunstler heeded American cities to contract, as they are too large and complex to be properly renovated. He noted the importance of urban design in reviving the country’s landscape, citing abandoned malls, dreary marketplaces, and obsolete skyscrapers as unnecessary products of over-development.
“If we have enough places that aren’t worth caring about, we have a country that’s not worth living in,” Kunstler said.
For Kunstler, contraction is a viable option because it will help America achieve a more appropriate urban scale, a better distribution of wealth, and a better use of public space. With the current energy, financial, and urbanization crises at hand, he said it’s important to recognize the long emergency that will continue to affect us in the near future. Kunstler stressed that if we, as a society, continue to ignore the necessary changes that lie ahead, we won’t be able to fix them before it’s too late.
“We can’t afford to be a nation of clowns anymore,” Kunstler said.
Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Staff