A few years ago, journalist Duncan Crary interviewed the author James Howard Kunstler; the two spoke for nearly three hours. Now, four years later, Crary and Kunstler are ready to release the two hundredth episode of the KunstlerCast, a weekly talk show about “the tragic comedy of suburban sprawl.” Many of these conversations are collected in Crary’s new book, The KunstlerCast: Conversations with James Howard Kunstler, out now from New Society Publishers. I spoke with the author last week about podcasting, urban design, the particular sadness of sidewalk shrubbery, and much else.
What interests you about the podcast format? Does it help you somehow talk about things you otherwise couldn’t?
Podcasting allows me to present a new voice to the world. A lot of people know Jim Kunstler as a book writer; that’s his most polished voice, his nonfiction book-writer voice. Some people have seen him give a formal lecture, but, in podcasting, I allow him to present something more casual to the world. The format has also allowed us to just keep talking and talking and talking about everything for years.
Humor is a real presence in this book. What’s the role of humor in these conversations?
Humor is vital. I don’t think people would listen to either one of us if we weren’t having fun and being funny. Jim is the resident comedian, but I crack a few jokes here and there. I’ve even had people approach me at conferences and stuff, saying, “You guys can be talking about the darkest subject, but it’ll still leave me laughing.”
The darker the show is, the funnier the sign off usually is. Jim’s trademark expression is “There’s nothing funnier than unhappiness,” which is a Samuel Beckett line. It’s a dark sense of humor.
You write that Kunstler is attempting to construct a vocabulary with which to talk about some of our big, tough issues. Can you explain, for example, what a “Nature Band-Aid” is?
Nature Band-Aid is how Jim refers to these pretty lame landscape efforts we undertake to cover up our ugly buildings. We’ll put juniper shrubs and bark-mulch beds in front of these places, just to obscure them. We have this idea that it’s “nature,” and therefore it’s good, but actually it’s not helping anyone; it’s making us miserable.
We’re also introducing a general audience to urban planning, design, and architectural terms. A lot of people, for instance, don’t know what the decorative feature above windows is called on urban buildings: it’s a “lintel.” A lot of people find it hard to even describe what they’re looking at, what they’re unhappy with in their built environment, because they don’t have words to describe these features.
I catch myself laughing at Nature Band-Aid, partly because it’s so sad. I suppose that term puts a label on the feeling of, say, moving through a mall parking lot.
And it’s an opinionated term, it’s a judgmental term. Kunstler’s telling it like it is. There’s a great deal of confusion about what belongs in the countryside and what belongs in an urban environment. Whenever there’s urban blight, especially in my city of Troy, New York, there’s a clamor in the public to “put a park there.”
But there are so many vacant lots in Troy, and so many trees, that we actually have huge, wild, rambling parks on hills that are right next to downtown. We don’t need any more big, giant nature parks. If you fill a city with all these nebulous green spaces, and if you keep introducing so-called nature into the city, you create unwalkable habitat. You’re creating a more automobile-dependent place.
Good intentions can go really awry when you don’t have a vocabulary for discussing this stuff.
Kunstler’s lack of patience for hyperbole in the design, architectural, and environmental communities is quite distinct. Has that practicality rubbed off on you?
I grew up on a cul-de-sac in the suburbs of Albany, New York—and I didn’t like it. I couldn’t express my displeasure with the suburban living arrangement until I read The Geography of Nowhere, and then I spent, maybe, four years in conversation with Jim, learning from him. I don’t have a master’s degree or anything, so I think of those four years as an informal education, an apprenticeship of sorts.
Now I’m out in my own city, speaking out about these issues. I do tend to get a little snarky; that may have rubbed off a little bit. But I’m also half Jim’s age, so give me another thirty years [laughter].
I’m also ready to explore my own voice as a writer and media producer. I’ll be starting another book soon, about the working commercial Erie Canal—I’ll be on a tugboat and barge, exploring the future of water transit in this country—and I’ll be starting a new podcast series called A Small American City. It’ll re-acquaint Americans with living in small industrial cities, which, given our energy situation, I think actually have a pretty bright future.
Duncan Crary has interviewed many notable personalities, including Sir Salman Rushdie, E. O. Wilson, and Christopher Hitchens. A newly appointed member of the Environmental Management Council for the Rensselaer County Legislature, he lives in Troy, New York.