Kunstler on Suburbia- Dang Sucka.

As part of my commitment to doubling down and getting real about rebuilding Suburbia into something that is livable I stumbled across this talk by James Kunstler of Long Emergency fame, which I am finally getting around to reading.  Well worth 20 minutes of your time. Though he spends the majority of the talk beating the shit out of Suburban and current Urban planning, he is a gifted speaker and refuses to pull punches.  The shit is real.  Get busy.

Be the Change.


19 Responses

  1. I like how he frames suburban sprawl as a failure of urban design, and that the cure for bad urban design is not “nature” but rather good urban design.

    • Oh, I think he is wrong on Suburbia – how the hell are we going to rebuild the malls into homes? With whose’s money and what energy? His truer colors seemed to come out with them being “salvage yards”. He is pretty dark.

      But I LOVE his passion and his willingness to talk real on our challenges. We have been served a giant bowl of shit soup. Luckily there are several dozen herb plants in my suburban permaculture orchards and it might just be enough to make it palatable.

      In his defense – he was giving a presentation on urban design and trying to fit Epic problems into a 20 minute talk. His books seem to be better thought out, but when the chips are down he appears to be more of an engineer/architect than ecologist. But I have too small a sample size to be making any judgements yet.

      • My appetite for/patience with Kunstler wanes ever more. It’s not that he’s wrong on his facts. It’s two things: 1) his gleefully arrogant contempt for his fellow human beings, and 2) his utter disinterest in connecting any of the big problems he identifies with meaningful personal action – especially his own. With people like Sharon Astyk, and you around, Rob, we have honorable models to follow and learn from, for which I’m grateful. Thank goodness for people who walk the walk, to counterbalance someone who is merely paid to very cleverly talk the doomerish talk. Kunstler makes his living off of spouting contempt and doom. I’ve yet to find a shred of compassion or personal responsibility in any of his writing or his talks, and I’ve seen him talk in person several times. He apparently sees no need to make any changes in his own jet-setting, 5,000-mile salad lifestyle. The moral disconnect is staggering in someone who obviously, on some level, sees what’s coming. But, as I said, he’s not wrong on his facts. I’d just rather listen to people who both get it, and feel the need to do something about it.

      • Kate – thanks for you words, and if I am an Honorable Model, then you *certainly* are; you’ve been kickin ass for years now and have taught and inspired me plenty.

        I am just getting acquainted with Kunstler, but will be looking out for more from him after your passionate comments. I think this is when Chris Martenson went up several notches with me- when he went from the Crash Course to his personal resiliency trainings, which are modeled after his own life. Heinberg has the ability to tell a similar story: he freaked the fuck out, then started getting busy being the change.

        I am still reading Kunstler’s stuff form 7-8 years ago, if he hasn’t moved to answers and personal solutions then that is disappointing.

        At this point I love his passion and unwillingess to be tactful in an era of political correctness; I get all fired up when I hear anyone stating the reality of our age in cold hard facts. But if he is not moving past that and is still beating the same Doomer Drum 7 years on, then he will have a limited place on my bookshelf.

      • I do think he has a point about the commercial strip of big box stores becoming wasteland (until we plow up the parking lots or find other uses), but you’re right; he doesn’t see the potential of the residential parts of suburbia.

        How ’bout if we turn a couple houses in the middle of each “Shady Meadow” subdivision into a “town center”? Marketplace, gathering place, communications center…if the big problem with suburbia is that it’s far from work and stores, all we have to do is say it’s ok to put work (and gardens) and stores there, convert a few existing buildings, and a lot of its problems are solved.

      • Emily – I *DO* think that will happen. I was re-reading some stories from my Great Aunt (born mid 1890’s) about growing up in central Wisconsin – where her grandparents had homesteaded.

        What struck me most of this town of 2-300 (then AND now), was her talking about which *house* the constable worked from, which *house* the cheese factory was in, which *house* the switchboard was run from, which *house* the old german was making the best beer in. The cheese factory is still there, but now is a real factory, and my dad knew exactly which house had the switchboard, and he was born 50 years later.

        If social order is maintained; if we can be civil about preserving civilization, we will find a way to make this happen. Holmgrens prediction of cottage businesses will be dead on.

        It may be crazy, but I am seeing POTENTIAL everywhere – the 50 yard wide bermed lawn strip around the outlet mall (which is already failing) that is begging to be swaled and coppiced with 18000 trees; the 4 retention ponds in the undeveloped hoped for industrial park 3 blocks from my house that will be aquaculture ponds, and it seems every time I talk to a group of people some form of resilience adaptation keeps coming up. So/So is starting a garden, another is considering a woodstove, another is taking up canning or hunting. These aren’t my “doomer” friends. These are yuppies – and they are waking up.

      • I like Kate’s statement that “I’d just rather listen to people who both get it, and feel the need to do something about it.” Indeed we need positive models, not gloom and doom!

        Like, I agree with you Rob that “Holmgrens prediction of cottage businesses will be dead on.” I like the phrase “relocalization”, we need to rebuild our communities so they are self supporting, and the skill relearning has indeed begun!

  2. Thanks for the link. Interesting especially for the uninitiated in sustainablity. It would be good to hear the rushed through ‘future’ prospects in their entirety. It seems to me that historically most ‘monumental’ architecture has started out with ‘look at me out here in the wide open space to be admired/feared etc’ and then has evolved into something else…a busy market place?…..over time. We are still evolving. It was interesting to think of David Holmgren’s take on Suburbia at the same time. It was good to go away with the admonition to be citizens rather than consumers.

    • Agreed – his closing statements were golden- and I appreciated being able to juxtapose him with Holmgren as well. I am keen to see if Kunstler goes into any details on his thought on retorfitting – most of his work that I am reading was from the mid 2000’s – when everyone was still trying to convince us of the problem. Well, Holmgren had moved on – his talk was 2006/7, but it feels like ages ago now that we are talking about the economic crashes and oil peaks in the past tense.

      “May you be born into interesting times” -Chinese blessing/curse

      • One of my favourite quotes to my children. One of the teenagers has gone along with my yard revamp and now does works in the industry. I have to look after his tomatoes and cucumbers now. …he is too busy. Hope I don’t kill them.

        Have been reading some George Monbiot http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/georgemonbiot
        via Permaculture Planet.

        When I was looking at the Malls on Kunstler I was thinking of the raised beds I have on all my asphalt (bitumen).

        Lovely glorious rain for the lst few days….russian comfrey and tamarillos love it.

  3. I have read all of Kunstler’s books (fiction ones as well) and read his weekly rant each Monday. I’ve also seen him interviewed on a doomer documentary or two. He is an amusing speaker (and blog writer) but as Kate pointed out, his endless ranting waxes old quickly without any suggestions for meaningful change where the rubber meets the road. He stops way short of saying what we should actually do and, to my knowledge, has done NOTHING to actually induce any sort of change where he lives. He posts pictures on his blog of the ugliness he encounters on his long bicycle rides, criticisms of the vast numbers of tatoo palors and pizza joints, but mentions nothing about helping to build the sense of community that he talks about so much. Perhaps he does engage in these activities, but I’ve not observed him write about them.

    I also disagree 100% with his view of suburbia – we are, by and large, stuck with it so we need to start dealing with it. What’s for certain is that we will likely all be living more local lives in the future (most certainly our childrens’ future) so we need to start now doing the things that you guys are documenting on your blogs. It would be great if we could do it in the quaint village environment that Kunstler imagines, but we’re mostly stuck with vinyl siding, 30 year shingles, and micro lots, so as Rob says, everybody needs to get busy!

  4. I think you guys are expecting Kunstler to answer for things he isn’t really knowledgeable about. He knows architecture and city planning. In none of his books does he detail what to do during the transition, in fact, I think he shys away from that on purpose. Maybe he doesn’t know, doesn’t want the responsibility, doesn’t care? I’m not sure, but the dude knows his city planning and architecture.

    Personally, I think he’s just zeroing in on what he is good at and leaving others to do the implementation models, assuming they will be the ones who can do it best because it’s what they do best. I think Kunstler is a stud at explaining why things don’t work as they are configured. I don’t hear a lot of other people explain why they don’t work and what about them makes us not appreciate them. He seems to be able to do that.

    I know I’ve used his planning and architecture models as I do my work and think about my neighborhood. I think that is where he is valuable.

    • “I think you guys are expecting Kunstler to answer for things he isn’t really knowledgeable about. ”

      So he offers no constructive advice because he’s clueless about anything other than architecture? This very much begs the question: Why doesn’t he know what to do? Show me the leader in post-oil adaptation who has professional credentials in this field. My degrees are in art history and Mesopotamian archaeology, neither of which remotely helped me figure out that a proficiency in growing food, and the ability/willingness to lead a more local life would be good things to have in an energy poor future. We’re figuring this stuff out as we go along because we have to. No one is a credentialed authority at this.

      Kunstler’s not an idiot. You can’t have the grasp of energy issues that he does and have *no clue* about what individuals could to do prepare for the future. He simply chooses not to do any of that. At first I suspected he refused to give constructive advice because he wanted people to challenge themselves to come up with the answers. But his columns demonstrate that he sees no problem with flying to South Africa to give talks, and that eating even somewhat seasonally is a genuinely novel event for him. No offense to your profession, but a future for the human race is not going to be singlehandedly won by architectural reform. If that’s all Kunstler’s got for constructive advice, his value is vanishingly marginal, at best.

  5. Per Kunstler not offering solutions, I thought after the 16 minute mark he did that a bit. Saying we need to design meaningful places, that we need vocations that are useful to our neighbors, I think that is helpful. But he wasted much of the beginning part getting laughs.

  6. Our collective frustration with Kunstler is probably due, in part, to personality types. I read his blog each Monday, mostly b/c he uses clever language in his political descriptions and is quite funny, which really just negative rants about the state of things. I agree 100% with his rants, but just can’t stand sitting around wallowing in doomer despair. Even if everything falls apart completely and a horde of zombies overruns my suburban homestead at least I will have tried something …

    No offense, but I don’t by Kunstler not being able to come up with solutions b/c of lack of formal expertise. His formal expertise is not in energy production, but he’s pretty darn knowledgable about peak oil.

  7. In some of the tiny towns we still have here in AUS, including where I have relatives, commerce is all done from homes…the only main buildings being a small hall, a tiny church,a tiny school if they are lucky and a pub. The rest is out of someone’s house: the post office, general store, police, dressmaker etc. While they still travel to the big box stores on occassion most is done by swapping or giving. Everyone has trees, gardens, vegie patches and old time skills.

    Now that I am thinking about it, I see potential everywhere, especially for the suburbs which could, depending on size, contract back to a version of earlier small towns. People will be grateful for thesuburban yard size for whatever they undertake, large homes wil provide refuge for the extended family, parks and malls/shopping centres will provide the village square if only because they are central. We have large Sunday Markets in the shopping centres now…there will be more need for those in the future. Perhaps those buildings and shops will become the centre for a suburban village….a place to meet, have entertainment, administer, provide shelter and support etc

    The hard thing will be the insecurity of accomodation for those who rent/pay off where they live. Where will they live?

    History gives us lots of examples of civilisations facing similar crisis and those that went on resorted to self sufficiency on a local level. Thinking about the people in my own neighbourhood finds various occupations, hobbies and interests that could be enhanced and prove useful fired by imagination.

  8. An observation: when Kunstler says “The Suburbs,” he’s generally talking about that hellacious strip of big box stores, fast food joints, etc. that I associate with major interstate off-ramps and the space between towns.

    When we (commenters here) say “The Suburbs,” we are generally speaking of residential areas.

  9. frazzled…. – you mentioned a most important aspect of whatever happens in the future – the pub. We absolutely most have those!!!!

    Emily – this is a great point. I technically live in the suburbs. Within an easy bike ride (if there were no traffic) there are 3 food stores, big box stores, wally world, and …. wait for it … can you guess …. star bucks! Yet, my township is filled with older neighborhoods where most folks have at least 1.5 acres. If we can work to convert the wasted lawn space to area doing something useful, use big yards to collectively raise livestock or rotate crops, I think we’d have a great shot at making meaningful change. All the while being within biking (or even walking) distance of what might become modified centers of local commerce.

    I just wish we had constructed things differently – here is where Kunstler has it right on the mark. Just look at the quaint towns of Europe. They are visually pleasing. Not so with typical American suburbia.

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