I LOVE THOSE CITIES-of-the-future illustrations from the old pop-culture bin. In “yesterday’s tomorrow,” they always get things so wonderfully wrong. One of my favorites, from the August 1925 issue of Popular Science Monthly, depicts a heroic cross section of New York’s Park Avenue looking to the south from around 47th Street in the far-off sci-fi future of 1950. “Airport landing fields” are denoted on the roof of a building that has replaced the familiar Grand Central Station tower at the end of the vista. A zeppelin hovers over a row of quaint little “aeroplanes” stashed up there. Park Avenue itself has become a pedestrian mall, not a honking Checker Cab in sight. They’re all down in a three-level underground tunnel system: one level for slow motor traffic, one for fast, and the lowest for trains and subways. “Spiral escalators” connect all the levels to the street above, and turntable-equipped parking garages occupy the basements of the “half a mile high” skyscrapers that line the avenue.
The illustration is a beautifully rendered black-and-white lithograph, and the layout of this future New York is impeccably rational down to the pneumatic “freight tubes” in the lowest subbasement of the buildings. It expresses every wish of its day about optimal city life to absolute perfection, the engineered efficiency breathtaking. Of course, this vision didn’t come to pass. Among other things, it failed to anticipate the effects of the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the massive shift to suburbia afterward, which decanted so much wealth (and so many well-off citizens) out of the cities. About the only thing it got right was that the buildings lining Park Avenue would eventually be a lot bigger.
Another favorite of mine in this genre, done in the mid-1950s to portray the far-off year 2000, depicts a city of towers cut through with swooping super-duper highways. So far, so good. It could be Houston or Atlanta today. The amusing part is that the cars depicted all have giant tail fins — because people were cuckoo for tail fins that year. So, naturally, the future would be all about tail fins.
In other words, most visions of the future are really less about the future and more about what’s happening now. Extrapolation tends toward exaggeration. Today, there are two basic cities-of-the-future themes competing in the collective imagination: the dazzling megacity of megastructures (Dubai’s steroid-induced construction) versus something I call Thanatopolis, the city of the dead (Blade Runner, Children of Men, The Book of Eli, etc.). All this said, it should be obvious that planning for the city of the future is tied into the urgent issues of our time — climate change, peak oil, ecological destruction, the crisis of banking and money, population overshoot, and war — familiar themes to readers of this journal. Add to this the virtual certainty of the nonlinear playing out of events, and you’re soon in the realm of pure conceit. But assuming the human race will carry on (and I do), we’ll have to live somewhere, and in some manner, and lots of plans are being made now anyway.
I depart from a lot of current thinking on the subject. For instance, many people seem to think that there will be more of everything — more people, taller skyscrapers, greater suburbs, bigger airplanes, larger metro regions, or even super-gigantic slums. I don’t go along with this bundle of bull, except for the slums, which I think will be short-lived, contrary to the vision of popular author Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums. Of course, trends won’t proceed with the same timing everywhere in the world. But I think the general theme going forward, certainly in the U.S., will be the comprehensive contraction of just about everything.
I see our cities getting smaller and denser, with fewer people. Skyscrapers will be obsolete, travel greatly reduced, and the rural edge more distinct. The energy inputs to our economies will decrease a lot, and probably in ways that prove destabilizing. The first manifestations of climate change will be food shortages, one of the reasons I think super slum cities will be short-lived. The growth of urban megaslums in the past one hundred years has been predicated on turning oil into food, and the failure of that equation is aggravating weather-related crop failures around the world. Food shortages will quickly bend the arc of world population growth downward from the poorer margins and inward to the “developed” center — with stark implications for politics and even civil order. The crisis of money is already hampering the operation of cities and will soon critically impede the repair of water systems, paved streets, electric service, and other vital infrastructure. We are heading into a major reset of daily life, a phase of history I call The Long Emergency. Tomorrow will be a lot more like a distant yesteryear in terms of reduced comforts, commerce, and the scale of things.
Bye Bye Beaver
A major theme of mine over the years has been the fiasco of suburbia, where more than half of the U.S. population now lives. It was not produced by a conspiracy, but because it seemed like a good idea at the time, given the confluences of history. Its time is over; the global oil predicament will finish it off, probably sooner rather than later. Laying aside the fine points of its design shortcomings, the logistical drawbacks will leave suburbia harshly devalued. That process is already under way in the aftermath of the housing “bubble.” In the past decade, homebuyers were told to “drive till you qualify” — meaning, far enough into the exurban asteroid belts to where housing was still reasonably affordable. As long-term prospects for motoring dim, these are precisely the houses that are sinking the fastest.
All suburbs have a problematic destiny. Some will do better than others, based on idiosyncrasies of politics and geography. A few will be retrofitted into towns, though a shortage of capital will be a big obstacle when it comes to money for police and other services. Suburbia’s characteristic lack of civic armature suggests an absence of community cohesion. I expect many suburbs will become squats, ruins, and salvage yards. Out of necessity, we will have to forage and reuse all kinds of materials that were energy-intensive to make, from aluminum trusses to concrete blocks.
A lot of young people already have no use or affection for suburbia, and have begun moving into big cities. But when our energy supply problems get worse, there will be wholesale demographic shifts to smaller cities and small towns, especially places that have some relationship with local food production, water power, and water transport. Our smaller cities and towns are intrinsically better scaled for future energy realities. Most of these places are in sad shape after decades of neglect, but they can be repopulated and reactivated.
Farming will require far more human attention than it did during the heyday of industrial agriculture, when roughly 2 percent of the population could produce food for everyone. This agricultural landscape will be organized differently with smaller farms and more people living on or near them. With reduced access to liquid fossil fuels, we’ll run fewer big machines. We may need to revert to draft horses, oxen, and mules as well, which will require care and feeding, with a significant amount of acreage devoted to growing animal feed. Food production will come closer to the center of our economy than it has for generations.
Shuttering the Metroplexes
Meanwhile, our big “metroplex” cities will run into as much trouble as the suburbs, but for different reasons. Categorically, they are not scaled to the energy realities of the future. Our giant cities are products of the cheap energy era; the arc of their explosive growth since 1945 is self-evident. They’re simply too large and too complex. Everything about them is designed to run on endless supplies of cheap fossil fuels and the resources and byproducts made possible by them: steel, copper, cement, plastic, and asphalt. To support daily life, they require far-flung supply chains dependent on complex transport systems. Like it or not, we are entering an era of reduced complexity, and a lot of the systems we now depend on — from factory livestock to “warehouses on wheels” — simply won’t exist anymore.
These giant cities will contract and densify around their old centers and waterfronts, if they are fortunate to have them. Remember: cities traditionally exist where they do because they occupy sites of geographical and strategic importance, such as Detroit’s position on a short stretch of river between two great lakes. Some kind of settlement will continue to exist in most of these places, but not in the form we’re familiar with. They will be urban in the traditional sense of the word: compact, dense, mixed-use, and composed of neighborhoods based on the quarter-mile walk from center to edge — the so-called five-minute walk, which is a transcultural norm found everywhere in pre-automobile urban communities. The pattern is scalable: one neighborhood is the equivalent of a village; several neighborhoods and a commercial district make a town; and many neighborhoods comprise an average-sized city.
The decline of cheap fuels will lead to the demise of the trucking system and commercial aviation. Forget about biodiesel, algae oil, and similar fantasies. They don’t scale up beyond the science-project level. We’ll have to move more stuff (and people) by rail and boat. Waterfronts and harbors will once again become important in daily life. In North America, this applies especially to our inland waterways, including the linked Mississippi-Missouri-Ohio Rivers (one of the most extensive such networks in the world), the St. Lawrence River, the Hudson–Erie Canal system, and the Great Lakes. In terms of climate change, the inland waterways will be less threatened by changes in sea level than our saltwater ports. As the global economy withers, economic activity is likely to become more internally focused anyway.
It remains to be seen what rising sea levels will do to the great harbor cities of New York, San Francisco, Boston, and Baltimore. They have some topography to protect them, but they could lose a lot of real estate. The picture is a lot swampier for Miami, Jacksonville, Charleston, Norfolk, New Orleans, and Houston. For decades, we’ve been redeveloping America’s decrepit waterfronts with condo towers, festival marketplaces, concert stages, and bikeways. Whoops. We’ll have to go back and restore the infrastructure we demolished for waterborne trade: the landings, warehouses, dry docks, and even the sleazy accommodations for sailors.
Some newer U.S. cities occupy unfavorable sites, and they will simply go out of business. Phoenix’s fate is sealed: without mass motoring and cheap air conditioning, it will collapse. You can’t grow food in the desert without heroic irrigation, and all their water comes from elsewhere and at great expense. In Las Vegas, the excitement will be over for the same reasons. Both of these cities will become small, remote outposts. Given its likely isolation, whatever happens in Vegas will likely remain in Vegas in the future as well. Denver exists in the first place because of the logistics of cattle ranching and railroads. If the Southwest gets drier, as predicted, that city may wither, too.
Other cities composed largely of suburban sprawl also face unfortunate futures, particularly in the Sun Belt — that part of the U.S. that grew explosively after the Second World War. Atlanta, Orlando, Dallas, Houston, Charlotte, and other sprawl cities are hugely disadvantaged. On top of a bad development pattern, recent construction quality is atrocious — chipboard, vinyl, and “innovative” spray-on finishes. In the humid Southeast, air conditioning vies with heat on exterior walls to condense moisture in the framing, causing buildings to rot from the inside out and become uninhabitable. In Florida, foreclosed houses often decay in months as humidity infiltrates the drywall and mold grows. People who seek refuge in the Sun Belt states as our energy problems worsen may be disappointed by how things work out there.
Since the wealth of these newer cities is largely represented by sprawl, a tragic amount of political and financial capital will likely be squandered to prop it up. This will amount to a futile campaign to sustain the unsustainable. It’s already happening via enormous government life-support of the housing industry and stimulus dollars poured into highway projects. We should instead concentrate efforts on fixing our passenger rail network and developing local public transit.
Southern California is in a category of its own, with dire water politics exacerbating the liabilities of suburban sprawl. Much has been made of the relatively high population density of Los Angeles. But on the whole, the city is just too big, too spread out, too car-addicted, too thirsty, too primed for ethnic friction, and too dependent on imported supplies of everything. A favorable outcome for Los Angeles might be a network of much smaller towns connected by public transit, much like the original City of Angels — except that history is not symmetrical and the sheer inertia of disintegration might drag LA beyond any desirable reset point.
Towers of Babel
One big surprise awaiting us is how quickly the skyscraper will become obsolete. Even the architecture profession does not yet recognize the problem. It’s not primarily because of issues of heating and air conditioning, or running so many elevators, though electric service may be less reliable in the U.S. a decade from now. Rather, it’s because these buildings will never be renovated. Reduced energy resources means proportionately reduced capital in the system. We’ll be painfully short of financial resources and fabricated materials — everything from steel to the silicon gaskets needed to seal glass “curtain walls.” Cities overburdened with skyscrapers will soon discover that these structures are liabilities, not assets. The skyscrapers deemed most “innovative” by today’s standards — the ones most dependent on high-tech materials and complex internal systems — will be the greatest failures. This includes many of the new “green buildings.” We have no idea what we’re going to do about this dilemma. There’s no public awareness about it whatsoever.
In 2004, The New Yorker published a hugely influential piece called “Green Manhattan.” Reporter David Owen wrote: “New York is the greenest community in the United States, and one of the greenest in the world.” This was due, he said, to the efficiencies of apartment towers and the ability to get around on foot — a notion that Harvard economist Edward Glaeser seconded in his recent book Triumph of the City.
While I’d agree that tight, dense, and walkable urbanism is crucial for our future happiness, it’s a tragic error to suppose that stacking people in skyscrapers is necessary to achieve this. Most of central Paris is under six stories and nobody complains about a lack of cosmopolitan verve there. The infatuation with skyscrapers is just another facet of the technological grandiosity that pervades American culture these days — the dangerous idea that we are unbounded by limits. It is this sort of mentality that’s gotten us into deep trouble with extreme car dependency and massive oil imports.
All this points back to the issue of scale. New York is already too big and too tall. Central Chicago has similar problems. The temptation to maximize investment returns on the floor-to-area ratio of buildings — the number of stories you can stack on, say, a one-acre building lot — had the unintended consequence of producing too many tall buildings with an unsound future. As with suburbia, we built skyscraper cities because it seemed like a good idea at the time, and for a while it penciled out economically. This is no longer the case. All our big cities will contract, but for cities full of skyscrapers this contraction will be especially painful.
As in 1925, today’s cities-of-the-future are also preposterous fantasies. Take for example the proposed “Aerotropolis” described in a book by the same title. Two decades ago, business professor John Kasarda noticed that the Federal Express company revitalized the dying economy of Memphis, Tennessee. His conclusion? Successful cities of the future must be organized around airports. Aerotropolis is once again yesterday’s tomorrow. It assumes that cheap transport is a reliable constant as far ahead as we can see, which I doubt. The author is apparently oblivious to today’s irreversible global oil predicament and the effect it is already having on commercial aviation. Airlines in the U.S. have been contracting for a decade by merging, dropping routes, and firing so many employees that it is nearly impossible to find a live one nowadays in an airport concourse.
I can’t see how this situation will improve. I’d say there’s a fair chance that commercial aviation won’t even exist in twenty years. Airplanes require oil. We have fantasies about running them on substitutes like distilled coal liquids — because, people say, Germany powered the Luftwaffe with coal liquids toward the end of the Second World War. Again, it’s a matter of scale. Running the Luftwaffe through all of 1944/45 probably required less fuel than does running trucks in and out of Providence, Rhode Island, on any given week. American cities will be lucky if they can organize their future activities around railroads and waterways.
Feeding the Future
Speaking of technofantasies, another popular proposal is for skyscraper farms. The fiasco of suburbia sowed a lot of confusion in how we think about our human habitat. It hopelessly muddled the distinction between urban and rural. A manifestation of this confusion is the notion that we should focus our resources on growing food in “vertical farms” in the midst of our cities.
The problems we face with skyscrapers in terms of capital resources argue against this idea in the first place. Add to that the need to provide either artificial lighting for plants stacked under many layers of ceilings, or the energy to mechanically rotate them around the outer walls to expose them to sunlight. It is a particularly dumb idea when you consider that there is a practical relationship between cities and their agricultural hinterlands, where crops can be grown horizontally on the earth itself, without elaborate structures, artificial lighting, or high-tech gadgetry. The vertical farming idea is a demonstration of how extreme our technograndiosity has become, and how far we’ve strayed from centuries of accumulated wisdom.
Growing food on city rooftop gardens is fine but limited. Urban kitchen and dooryard gardens are historically quite customary. Community gardens on empty lots are a swell idea. But we better get our heads straight about where most of the food will have to come from, especially when a lot more of it will have to be grown locally. The appropriate place for that is outside of town. There’s a big difference between gardening and farming. Some activities are essentially rural and some urban, and we need to reestablish this distinction.
Our confusion about this distinction is visible in proposals to turn Detroit into farmland. Detroit is so far gone, the argument goes, that the only conceivable use for all that abandoned real estate is to re-ruralize it. This speaks to our lack of confidence in architecture and urbanism per se, and leads to the current default remedy whenever our cities fail: tear things down in favor of green space.
Such thinking is the result of architecture’s decades-long inability to provide buildings worthy of our affection; municipal planners’ design ignorance and extreme reliance on traffic engineers; the environmental movement’s focus on wilderness, wildlife, and disdain for human activities; and, of course, suburbia itself, which prompts most of us to despise any human imprint on the landscape. Detroit is rotting from the inside out. The inside, the old city center, the part closest to the river, is destined to be the urban site of highest value in the future. Although it may never resemble the Detroit of 1960, we have the skills and knowledge to rebuild something of appropriate urban quality there again. And there’s plenty of adequate farmland outside Detroit in rural Michigan to serve it.
The Congress for the New Urbanism coalesced as a formal organization in 1993 to offer an alternative to suburban sprawl. As a battle of ideas, the New Urbanists eventually won by default when the housing bust put an end to further suburbanization. The New Urbanism is now simply urbanism. There is no other body of coherent principle that can produce human habitats that have a plausible future. Still, sheer human perversity manages to generate opposition from predictable interest groups.
Harvard has been battling the New Urbanists for two decades on the grounds that traditional urban design is insufficiently avant-garde, intellectually unadventurous, politically retrograde, technologically naive, lacking in sex appeal, square. Harvard’s Graduate School of Design is now pushing a dubious new practice they call “Landscape Urbanism.” Don’t be fooled. So-called Landscape Urbanism incorporates lots of high-tech “magic” infrastructure for directing water flows and requires massive, costly, complex site interventions. It’s explicitly against density and vehemently pro-automobile. It’s just super-high-tech suburbia in the guise of environmentally avant-garde high art. Naturally it comes with heaps of opaque theory, designed to mystify and impress the nonelect.
But the USA doesn’t need more architectural fashion statements, moral status posturing, or art stunts. It needs places to live that are worth caring about and compatible with the capital and material resources that we can expect to retain going forward, which are liable to be scarcer than what we’re accustomed to.
I don’t think there’s any question that we have to return to traditional ways of occupying the landscape: walkable cities, towns, and villages, located on waterways and, if we are fortunate, connected by rail lines. These urban places will exist on a much smaller scale than what is familiar to us now, built on a much finer grain. They will have to be connected to farming and food-growing places. A return to human scale will surely lead to a restored regard for artistry in building, since the streetscape will be experienced at walking speed.
The requirements for this will be pretty straightforward. It doesn’t call for “critical theory,” as the grad schools refer to metaphysical thinking these days, but rather practical skill and common sense. The mandates of reality are telling us very clearly that the age of fossil fuel magic is drawing to a close, with huge implications for how we occupy the landscape. It also implies a timeout for the kind of rapid technological change that has come to seem normal for us. This necessary timeout is probably the only thing that will prevent us from destroying the planet we call home. We’re suffering profoundly from too much magic.
The infatuation with technomagic in our visions of the future city has paradoxically produced places with no magic, no power to enchant the human spirit. The city of slick glass skyscrapers may inspire a certain crude awe, as anything gigantic might. But go to the tower districts of Houston, Minneapolis, Dallas, Atlanta, and Los Angeles, and I guarantee you will not find anything like enchantment. What you’ll find is sterility, a vacuum, a fiasco of unintended consequences. It turns out that the human spirit needs texture, not sleekness in its dwelling place, and it needs things human-sized to feel truly human, and despite all the striving to escape that, it is exactly what we’re going to get.
Tell it brother.
I’ve been in the habit of reading most everything JHK has published in the last 10 years or so. (His comedic timing alone is worth that effort, BTW) I think he suffers unduly from a lack of appreciation for Southern resiliency and coping skills, but that is a small quibble.
In this article he nails it, again. If there is one thing I’ve learned in my 25+ years of courtroom advocacy it is that you should deliver your message, relentlessly, until it gets through. Mssr. Kunstler certainly gets that too. Each year a few thousand more wake up, and before too long you have an accepted wisdom that can foment change. Not that our immediate future will require our agreement. We had that chance.
You managed to spell out in this essay what hundreds of pages of scientific research has revealed about architectural and urban trends. That goes for proposed practical solutions that will be forced upon us by circumstances, while our leaders unfortunately cling to outdated utopian practices.
It especially holds true for the dangerously seductive pie-in-the-sky phony solutions that are all in fashion today. But I’m afraid that far too many academics and critics have their careers at stake, so those silly typologies will have to play out and waste even more energy for decades. In the end they will only hasten urban collapse.
Had dinner this evening overlooking the skyline of Rome, where centuries of civilization endure. What existing civil works in America will remain for even a few decades, much less centuries? Probably just the earthworks of the largest boondoggle in the history of the planet: the Great American freeway system. Paul Crabtree, PE
Even if one disagrees with Jim’s predictions, can we really afford to believe that the massive forces we face – deminishing oil supplies, climate change, natural resource depletion, economic malaise – will be overcome through technology, over the long term? We’ll need every drop of petro just to repair, replace, and build the infrastructure necessary to make a partial transition to renewable energy – but we apparently intend to consume what’s left in fuel tanks or to generate power to fuel our electric cars and air conditioners, and pump water. As a New Urbanist, living simply, but productively and graciously – with a light footprint seems – like a “best practice” or the only viable practice, necessary for more than 15% of the planet. As a combat veteran, I also know that things can turn ugly, quickly, so I’m hoping for a a bit of grace, a “reality intervention”, an event or circumstance that will awaken the dreamers, alarm the deniers, and denude the deluded with the least harm rendered in the process.
I love eve4rything Kunstler has written and this article is no exception. Nonetheless I find it interesting that he observes how future cities are invariably less about the future and more about what is happening now. This holds true for his cities of the future as well. The difference is that his vision of future cities is based on the present reality, not on techno-optimistic fantasies. I do not know what sustainable cities will actually look like, but Kunstler has a rock solid good idea what they likely will look like and I can tell you they will little resemble our contemporary cities and suburbs (good riddance!).
That was a really brilliant, thoughtful, well articulated essay.
I’m just grateful that there are a few people out there that really get the big picture regarding our past history, our current dilemmas, and the future that is unfolding before our eyes.
We need more people like Mr. Kunstler.
Kunstler basically does exactly what he blames the futurists of the past for- he extrapolates the current situation into the future. We’re running out of oil so of course society will grind to a halt. This completely ignores all advances into solar power, alternative fuels, electric vehicles and massive improvements in building performance evidenced by the growing Passivhaus movement. His vision of the future neatly fits with his own vision of what is wrong with the world today and he’d secretly love it for society to collapse so he could prove himself correct. I don’t buy it. This isn’t to say that there aren’t MANY things wrong with the world today but this vision of the future ignores the amazing human ability to innovate. I hope that innovation starts sooner rather than later though, it’s more important now than ever before to get the government behind forward-looking energy policies that realize fossil-fuels need to be phased out as soon as possible.
The skyscrapers deemed most â€œinnovativeâ€ by todayâ€™s standardsâ€”the ones most dependent on high-tech materials and complex internal systemsâ€”will be the greatest failures. This includes many of the new â€œgreen buildings.â€ What does he mean re “green buildings”
I think that if there is one perception that Kunstler and others want to get across to their readers it is that technology is not energy. Many of the protestations about his predictions you’ll hear will tend to confuse the two. Most of the ideas you’ll hear for a “sustainable” future suffer from a real lack of appreciation for the laws of thermodynamics. The fantasy du jour seems to be electric vehicles. If you want to have an electric car, you might just as well admit that (for about half of the U.S. population) you want to burn coal. From my experience, if you try to have a discussion with the average citizen on energy-returned-on-energy-invested, you’ll either get a reaction of open hostility, or a stare like a cow looking at a passing train. It is a really large failure of imagination we suffer from. We just can’t imagine a world without personal, private on demand transportation. But, like I said, we don’t have to imagine it for it to come to pass.
Plowboy you assume jhk supports electric cars. He does not. He supports livable, walkabl cities as being sustainable.
No Fattigmann, I don’t. I make that point in emphasis of what he’s written.
Wildly brilliant piece! People by the millions go to Las Vegas and don’t notice it is in a desert. Same for PHoenix. How do we educate people in infrastructure literacy?
It’s interesting that Kunstler starts out by criticizing grandiose visions of the future and then sets out to depict a grandiose vision of his own. I think there is certainly a trend toward walkable, compact development (and none too soon!) but I don’t buy the notion that we’re headed toward a post-oil dystopia where we have to use draft mules again. Seriously?
People will still be driving private cars 50 years from now; they may be electric vehicles supplied by coal, nuclear, and alternative energy sources, but they’ll still be around. Hopefully we’ll all be walking and riding bikes more, too.
In San Francisco, CA, where I live, we are dependent on massive and unitary infrastructure such as water and electrical systems. San Francisco, in its natural state, is mostly sand dunes. Without large infrastructure and transport fuel, the place would be abandoned (despite its beauty). If this entire massive infrastructure that was created was somehow destroyed tomorrow, most of the population of California would not survive for very long. There are communities in the far north who would probably survive given small populations and still existing natural resources. The new world that JHK talks about would not exist here, especially given the lack of river transport. People who lived here once were hunter-gatherers who managed the natural abundance with primitive methods (such as fire). I believe that in order to continue governance in a decline here, we need geospatial technologies with use of aerial imagery (such as satellite) in order to see conditions over large areas (as long as that is possible). But, in the end, the population needs to decline quite a bit. It is not a pretty picture and I am not optimistic.
I would add that it is not an infrastructure’s size (or scale) that determines its susceptibility to collapse – but its dependence on non-renewable resources. Cities have always (for thousands of years before humanity began using fossil fuels) been the most efficient way for people to live and enjoy the highest possible standard or living. Cities have also been the locus of innovation, the very kind of innovation we desperately need now to ween ourselves off the fossil fuel gravy train. Unfortunately, we (all of us) too easily forget that the building-block of any successful community is the “neighborhood”. When we strive to re-imagine a sustainable future (a la JHK) many of us forget that unless the core of these communities are built upon amazing and self-sufficient neighborhoods then they will be dystopic.
A great essay, and a valuable discussion. In JHK’s essay, I would have liked to see more elaboration of his remark about “the nonlinear playing out of events.” That caveat, if I understand it correctly, undercuts broad and visionary generalizations about “tomorrow’s cities.” For decades, the broad trend has been toward making all the world’s cities more and more alike, and also to blur differences between urban and suburban places. In the future, with less long-range mobility and access to energy and grandiose technology made more difficult, perhaps urban population centers will become much less alike than they are now. Whether they will all be different versions of hell on earth remains to be seen.
Many futurists predict a collapse in the world’s populations, but nobody I’ve read lingers long on how that will play out, and what will happen to economic and governmental institutions in the process. It won’t be pretty, and authoritarian cultures may be better prepared to survive the “bottleneck” in the Long Emergency than democracies as we know them.
Jonâ€¦.I donâ€™t want to presume to know what Kunstler means in the context of his essay, but judging from what else heâ€™s written over the years, he might be referring to what he often describes as a â€œdiscontinuity.â€ That is, the reality that weâ€™ve all been schooled in is that technical progress, like time itself, only moves in one direction. We might just be facing the fact that tomorrow will look a whole lot more like yesterday than today.
title should read ‘ forward to the past ‘
The times they are a-changing. Having squandered our legacy of precious fossil fuels in an orgy of addictive excess, we are left with what will prove to be an agonizing era of forced withdrawal. A paradox of our situation is that the wealthiest among us are likely to become the most desperate to hold on to their perks, and may destroy what is left of our sickening planetary ecosystem in a frenzy of denial, hubris, and uncaring selfishness, striking out viciously at anyone perceived to threaten their supplies of money and power. No one can predict the exact forms that the madness already upon us will take as this out of control scenario unfolds; the only certainty is that it will be ugly beyond imagining.
Building future utopias in oneâ€™s mind, however practical seeming they may be, is a pointless diversion in an empire undergoing catastrophic collapse. The world we are heading into will bear more resemblance to Cormac McCarthyâ€™s The Road than the middle class fantasy Kuntsler envisions.
Lucid presentation of the big picture. Compare this with Critic at Large in the June 27 New Yorker discussing some of the same books. Lots to discuss from both pieces, but Jim gets to the heart of it here – long live the ped shed! Regarding skyscrapers, Jim supported Land Value Taxation (LVT) in The Geography of Nowhere, which would tax the improvements (buildings) rather than the land. That incentivizes “highest and best use” of land, encouraging more compact and denser cities. But it incentivizes skyscrapers, so it seems we can’t advocate for LVT without also advocating for a serious height cap (which I favor).
Are you serious? You support height caps and LVT? Despite the ill-informed idea that tall buildings have to be energy hogs, the elevator is (by far) the most efficient transport vehicle available. Height caps lead to an over-regulated mess with extremely high real estate prices due to an artificial limit on development. Carbon use per person is already far lower in New York than anywhere else in America, making it (in my judgement) the most environmentally-friendly city in the country. It is also by far the easiest place to not own a car, which is borne out by census figures- it is one of the few places in America where even the rich choose to be pedestrians. We can’t turn back the clock to the 1700s and I have no idea why we would want to. If you care about “ped sheds” we need more places like New York or Chicago where public transportation can be provided efficiently and amenities can be located within a walking distance of nearly every residence.
I appreciate that Kunstler is looking at the bright side of what might otherwise strike us as a dystopic future, and I understand the glee that some people may feel about the impending correction of 20th century imbalances, but I wonder if everybody is still underestimating what this will entail. Techno-triumphalism has made a number of unpleasant developments possible, but it has probably made a lot of things that we take for granted and would not want to lose possible, too. For example, racial and gender equality. Could we have jumped from segregation to having a black president in a matter of decades without the dynamism brought about by these developments, and will this equality persist in the collapse of an unsustainable economy? Isn’t the world likely to become more feudal and pious?
@Mark Hogan, did you read Jim’s article or just the comments? I’m as serious as he is. Zoning already mandates height limits in almost every American city. Some of them should be lower, not only for the reasons Jim stated, but for firefighting and egress/entry when the power is out. It always amazes me to hear post-9/11 rationales for the opportunity to jump out of flaming towers or be trapped in them.
There is no turning back….that is for sure. The future is always in front of us, is it not? Whatsoever is is, is it not?
It is as if each of us wants everyone else to make necessary changes, but not one of us is willing to do what is required. So many times I thought myself and heard from others, ” I would be willing to do A, B and C, things I would not do otherwise, but I will not be the first to do these right things.” As a consequence, everyone waits for everyone else. Nothing happens. This leads me to believe that our best hope resides in an idea many have already reported: shared sacrifice. But we cannot get to shared sacrifice if we refuse to speak out about why the sacrifices are required of us.This is why the silence of so many experts in the field of human population dynamics and overpopulation is so pernicious. We have scientific research regarding the human population, but experts have consciously ‘engineered’ a virtual blackout of the evidence. The vehicle for the blackout is their elective mutism. Silence is destroying the world.
Early this morning I was reading about “the end of population growth.” I have seen similar statements broadcast everywhere for years. In light of extant evidence from science, statements of this kind appear to be elements of a ruse. Where is the science to support the idea that absolute global human population numbers will automatically and benignly stabilize a mere four decades from now? There is plenty of preternatural thinking and pseudoscientific theorizing about population stabilization and the end of population growth soon. But not science. Science regarding human population numbers is being ‘blacked out’ by too many experts who are ignoring the science on one hand, and refusing to refute what is unscientific on the other. This situation is tragic.
Just over 50% of the world’s human population is 30 years of age or younger. What do you suppose billions of fertile young people, who are expected to be capable of reproducing in the middle of this century, will be doing with their sexual instincts and drives other than what human beings have been doing during the past several thousand years? Please, kindly take a moment to explain what you expect will occur that results in the consensually validated forecast indicating stabilization of absolute population numbers of the human species on Earth in the year 2050, given the fully anticipated young age distribution of a global population of 9+/-billion people at that time.
I am firmly convinced that we can help our children escape the dark future that could await them should they be directed much longer down the “primrose path” marked by seemingly endless economic globalization and unbridled overpopulation, but their elders have got to begin speaking out now here about what is true and, in so doing, foster the requisite sharing of sacrifices. Perhaps necessary changes toward sustainability are in the offing.
@SandySorlien I certainly did read the article and I am very familiar with the author’s writing in general. Very, very few people have died in tall building fires in the United States due to the extremely high level of emergency preparedness built into these structures. Compare these figures to the number of people killed in traffic accidents each year, both as pedestrians and drivers/passengers. I would take my chances any day living in a tall building over living in a low-density area where it is necessary to drive for basic necessities. Tall buildings are vital if we are going to have functioning cities. Note that when I say “tall” I don’t necessarily mean 1,000 foot World Trade Center style complexes, but we definitely need to have buildings that are dependent on elevators. I do not see how lower height limits are going to help anyone. If energy is in short supply in the future, we will want our cities to be as compact as possible to make power distribution and distribution of basic goods and services more efficient. We are not going back to mule power, despite the bizarre historicist fantasies JK relies on in his vision of the future where everyone will be living in small wood cottages next to farms as if it was the Middle Ages. As an architect I have no idea why he thinks skycrapers can’t be renovated or upgraded- they are constantly being upgraded and renovated today, and we are using skyscrapers now that are already over 100 years old. Obtaining materials like steel and glass by recycling is not difficult and almost all steel used in construction today is partially if not fully recycled. It is also possible to build 9 story buildings out of renewable timber as is being done in Europe, which is probably the most sustainable possible way to house large number of people at low cost to the environment.
Good to hear from you Steve. Your comments are sobering. So many prefer to indulge unrealistic fantasies about our world and where it is heading. I wonder if they absorbed this ludicrous worldview from the media and bought and paid for pundits and assorted cultural spin doctors? Just keep dreaming and consuming and a better future is guaranteedâ€¦. Pie in the sky optimism is so much more palatable than the harsh realities of a dying world. Besides, there is money to be made in churning out these charming scenarios of a middle class green utopia.
“It is also possible to build 9 story buildings out of renewable timber as is being done in Europe, which is probably the most sustainable possible way to house large number of people at low cost to the environment.”
Mark, exactly. We pretty much agree on the best height. In the model SmartCode we have the T-6 (most urban) zone capped at 8 stories. This gets locally calibrated (obviously it didn’t fly in Miami), but some of the reasons for the normative model are contained in Jim’s piece. The best parts of Paris and London are 6 stories, very high density, very transit-connected, and if the power goes down, they can still get in and out.
@SandySorlien I agree that these parts of London and Paris do work very well in the 6-9 story range (I recently moved back to San Francisco from London). You still need to have parts of the city for much taller buildings (as you have in most European cities) so that employment can be concentrated and function with the transit network. La Defense in Paris and Canary Wharf along with recent high-rise development in the City of London are similar to the significant relaxation of height limits around transit hubs in San Francisco and New York. This combination of tall business districts with shorter districts of dense residential development is hopefully a model we will see more of as urban living grows in popularity in the US.
1. No mention here of the effects of war and epidemic. I expect both.
2. Energy isn’t going to disappear. Peak oil does not mean oil vanishes. It becomes more expensive. There will be enough to meet demand — but demand will be regulated by price. The same with some other commodities. When things with high energy inputs become more expensive, people will make other choices.
3. Yes, capital investment with high energy input will be constrained, but we still have labor and we have what we’ve already built. Trains are superior, but we have a lot more available capacity on the interstate system than on rails and buses are comparably efficient. Likewise McMansions will become group homes, multi-family housing or housing for several generations that live together. We could make auto travel twice as efficient simply by traveling together; web based rideshare will make that possible. Suburbs will sprout gardens.
4. Not everything is determined by technological possibility and resource availability. Our cultural vitality matters too — or is cause for concern. Here LA has something going for itself which many places do not.
5. There are season for things. Ohio, Michigan and Indiana is already in big trouble. This will eventually create a vacuum for new life to flourish.
People will invent the most unlikely scenarios to assure themselves that their precious addictive lifestyles — which are destroying our world — can be preserved. Anything but changing themselves to fit a more modest level of consumption. We are fat, lazy, and corrupt. We nurse dreams of techno salvation as our planet burns, and millions suffer and are destroyed by our sacred â€œway of lifeâ€. Bush even wrote it into our official national policy that no nation would be allowed to threaten our way of life. Iraq was an early victim of his egoistic edict. That way of life is criminally insane, and is threatening the very existence of human life on this fragile planet. When addictive madness runs amok, nothing is safe or sacred. Greed, power lust, and indulgence define our national ethos.
Dear Mike k,
Pehaps you will choose to join me in the process of naming what is so difficult to acknowledge regarding ‘the placement’ of our all-too-human species within a biological and evolutionary order of living things as well as the “rules of the house” in a finite and frangible planetary home such as the one we are blessed to inhabit. That is to say, I would like you to collaboratively engage in an examination of such large and vital issues as the miracle of human creatureliness and the marvel of the Creation where so splendid a creature as Homo sapiens has been able to accomplish so much, especially in recent times.
Is it possible that the standard for determining what is real and true in our culture today is primarily this: whatsoever is widely shared, consensually validated and judged to be economically expedient, politically convenient, socially agreeable and religiously tolerated is true and real? Certain unwelcome scientific knowledge that does not conform to these standards is generally ignored. At least to me, it seems that good science is being summarily dismissed, welcome distractions presented ubiquitously, controversy unjustifiably manufactured, or else silence allowed to prevail when reasonable and sensible research comes into conflict with what culture prescribes as real and true. Perhaps science does present culture with evidence of inconvenient truths. Is our noticeable failure to communicate adequately enough about whatsoever could somehow real, as well as to widely share understandings regarding both how the family of humanity â€œfitsâ€ within the natural order of living things and what are the limitations of the planet we inhabit, in evidence here and now?
It appears that the human community is indeed in a serious multifaceted global predicament, but only in part because of the objective biological and physical parameters defining our distinctly human-induced predicament. The global challenges in the offing, some already visible on the horizon, are further complicated by our failure to communicate effectively about the potentially pernicious results that could be derived from having recklessly grown a soon to become patently unsustainable, colossal global economy, the one which we have artificially designed, conveniently constructed, and relentlessly expanded without enough conscious, intelligent regard for the biophysical requirements of practical reality. As examples of these requirements, please note that Earth is finite and its environs are frangible. Could it be the current gigantic scale and unchecked growth rate of the global economy are driving unsustainable increases both in per human over-consumption and absolute human population numbers toward a point in the foreseeable future when the rampant and unregulated growth of consumption, production and propagation activities by the human species, that are occurring synergistically and at an accelerating pace in our time, precipitates the collapse of Earthâ€™s ecology……..even in these early years of Century XXI?
Perhaps it is not only our fate as elders to confront certain obviously emerging and rapidly converging global challenges, it may also be that we elders are the last best chance for humankind to save itself and life as we know it from itself by choosing to change our ways and go in a different direction — along a path less traveled by — before it is too late for human action of whatever kind to protect and preserve what really matters most. There can be no excuse given, no logic contrived, no false promise made and no hopes deceitfully raised that can hide for long the willful blindness, hysterical deafness and elective mutism of those elders who see the human-driven global predicament that is present before our eyes and choose to do nothing but the unsustainable things we are doing now. Elders of my generation have responsibilities to science and duties to humanity that are being left unattended. Many too many leaders and experts are shrinking from the task at hand by playing the role of Nero, who fiddled while â€˜his homeâ€™ was ruined. To have taken so much from this world, as my greed-mongering generation has taken, and to be ready and willing to leave so little to its children, come what may for coming generations, that my friends is beyond the pale.
The silence of so many elders is pernicious because our elective mutism serves primarily to promote the narrow and private interests of self-proclaimed masters of the universe among us. It is precisely this arrogant, foolhardy, outrageous minority who human beings with feet of clay have unknowingly permitted to rule the world so absolutely in our time. What if these masters of the universe have taken the wrong road to the future, and have selfishly chosen to direct humankind down a â€œprimrose pathâ€ to some sort of unimaginable global ecological wreckage? What if their ‘guidance’ is mainly self-serving and leads to the extirpation of global biodiversity, the irreversible degradation of Earth’s environment, the wanton dissipation of its limited natural resources and the ruination of our planetary home as a place fit for children everywhere to inhabit?
If we keep following the masters of the universe down the road they have so adamantly advocated and relentlessly pursued, at some future moment in space-time leaders and experts are not, definitely not going to like what they are seeing occur on the surface of Earth. At such a time those human beings with responsibilities to assume and duties to perform will look back in anger and utter disbelief at what the leading elders in my greed-mongering generation did so stupidly and failed to do so magnificently.
Never in the course of human history have so few acted in ways that are detrimental to so many. Never has a tiny minority in a single generation consumed so ravenously and hoarded so avariciously, come what may. It does not have to be this way. Yes, we can change and if we choose necessary change, then the future is open. There is much to do, much that can be done.
As things stand now here and in many other time-spaces, the silence of human beings with knowledge of what is somehow real could not be more deafening, nor the dark clouds gathering before us more forbidding. Elective mutism by the knowledgeable has vanquished ‘the light’ and real hope for the future that science can provide to the human family. At the very same time, the mainstream media employs overly educated sycophants and absurdly enriched minions to broadcast support for all human activities that return profits and promote seemingly endless, but soon to become patently unsustainable economic growth.
If the global overproduction, overconsumption and overpopulation activities of the human species have indeed precipitated the global predicament looming ominously before the family of humanity now, then the capability and power to do things differently resides within us, too. The opportunity presented now here is not one to be missed. Who knows, perhaps the children with thank us if we at least try to stop the greed-mongering; start doing the right thing; stop doing what is patently unsustainable and start moving in a new direction toward sustainable lifestyles and right-sizing “too big to fail”corporate leviathans before the world is ruined. After all is said and done, it appears beyond any questioning or reasonable doubt that our earthly home is not too big to fail; that the gigantic scale and worldwide growth rate of human overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities cannot be sustained much longer by planet with the size, composition and ecology of Earth.
A book that came out last year â€˜Merchants of Doubtâ€ goes a long way to elucidate the methods employed by huge economic interests to confuse the public about scientific findings that they perceive might adversely impact their corporate interests. I was fascinated to discover that the same PR firm that waged the disinformation campaign about the dangers of tobacco, thereby causing many thousands of unnecessary deaths, has been hired by Exxon and others to spread lies about global warming and climate change, and their relation to industrial fossil fuels use. Part of their strategy is to sow doubt in the public mind about the validity of scientific evidence in general as a guide to public policy. Polls have validated the success of their campaign against carbon reduction initiatives. The majority of the American public that believed climate change to be a real threat, has reversed so that most now believe it is a non-issue. Propaganda now trumps scientific evidence.
Absurdly enriched minions, overly educated sycophants and other “merchants of doubt”, who have had their dishonorable propaganda broadcast everywhere in the corporate-owned mainstream media by self-proclaimed masters of the universe among us, are commissioners of crimes against humanity, life as we know it and the Creation.
What greater shame is there than the sham that is being perpetrated now here by a tiny arrogant minority of extremely foolhardy greed-mongers, who can be seen leading humankind down a “primrose path” and turning the planetary home we are blessed to inhabit into a shambles, even in these early years of Century XXI?
Correction on an earlier comment. I wrote:
“Regarding skyscrapers, Jim supported Land Value Taxation (LVT) in The Geography of Nowhere, which would tax the improvements (buildings) rather than the land. That incentivizes â€œhighest and best useâ€ of land, encouraging more compact and denser cities.”
Of course I had that backwards- LVT taxes the land rather than improvements, or at least more heavily than improvements. Sorry for the senior moment. (I do know about LVT, having worked with the Georgists promoting it in Philadelphia for a time.)
As frequently happens, Providence or Rhode Island pops up as a metric in one of these deals. But let’s consider this metro vis a vis the author’s listed qualities for the livable city:
– small, compact multi-neighborhood metro — check
– walkable neighborhoods — check, widely admired by travelers, BTW
– water transit — check, plus marine trades cluster
– rail links — check, and on the #1 US rail line
– access to nearby farm land — surprisingly, check
– “worth caring about” — there’s only about a million reasons to care, for example, this <a href="http://thewooled.com/"
Sloppy code, my bad.
completely independent, completely awesome annual arts party
On that building height issue..
Energy efficiencies aside (I am no civil engineer, and I’ll pass on that analysis),I wonder sometimes why, exactly, we’ll need people in such densities in the future? I mean, what will the thousands of people, stacked up in multiple stories actually be doing all day? If they are living full time in these towers, will we be able to get enough calories out of our land and seas, and have enough juice to deliver them to these hive people? If they are working, what will they be doing, actually? Trading debentures and credit default swaps all day?
I think the idea that our solution lies in congregating in ever larger cities is somewhat deluded. There is real case to be made that these folks will need to be involved in food production at almost every level, just to keep body and soul together, or providing manufactured goods…both not activities you can do very well while 20 stories above the ground, no?
Then there are the purely aesthetic considerations, that Kunstler has touched on. If you stand on a street corner in midtown Atlanta,on a cold winter night, as I did not so long ago, and watch the streams of auto pods schooling amongst the towers, you’ll know why Lexapro was invented. (As for me though, I prefer something a tad more, ummm, organic….)
Personally, I don’t see a wholesale collapse of larger cities, although Mr. Kuntsler makes a raft of valid points. I think a triage process will take place (not by political will, but by brute economic force) wherein we will be forced to prioritize and allocate limited funds and resources based on which urban area: 1) has the clout; 2) can use them most efficiently; and 3) where the ever-nebulous “market” wants them to go.
That said, I don’t think a New York, Chicago, San Francisco, or Seattle has anything to worry about long-term — just some seriously difficult adjustments. Alas, there are a lot of prodigal “metros” out there (read: suburbs with pituitary problems — examples Austin, Orlando, Raleigh/Durham) that may have been media darlings over the last twenty years, but have not even tried to get with any kind of sustainability program. They may not die, but they will certainly suffer a great deal of atrophy.
As for urban farming, it would be the priority destination for electricity or whatever energy resource, so don’t sweat the details on it. Rural, field-based argriculture is way too unpredictable to rely on in the “modern age”. Witness mass flooding of fields all the way down the breadbasket the last ten years, and weather-related crop damage everywhere. I see urban farming as the only way to avoid civil disruption, or even social carnage. And the sooner we begin to embrace it wholly, the better off we will be.
What we need is Village Towns: http://permaliv.blogspot.com/2011/03/village-towns.html
What about renewables? Can they mitigate the effects of fossil fuel dependency reduction ot a degree that Kunstler is not anticipating or at least not discussing?
Bora…having read enough of Mr. Kunstler’s work and interviews over the years, I could pretty well predict what his response would be: “We’re not going to run Walt Disney World, Walmart and the interstate highway system on solar, wind, used french fry oil or any combination thereof.” As he mentioned in this essay, his belief is that these technologies do not “scale.” So far, I think he’s been right. Could something come along and be a game changer? Absolutely, and if you asked most people they’d tell you that they are not concerned… that “something” will come along. What they mean to say is that they hope something will come along, because, gee, we really need it. Not too great a strategy, huh?
I am a big fan of JHK and I both respect and agree with most of his opinions about the future of our society. However, I must admonish Kunstler for his lack of appreciation in the skills of Southerners.
We survived the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the one hundred years of extreme agricultural poverty that was its consequence. Southerners will survive this coming storm too.
Another compelling piece by James Howard Kunstler, who manages to persuade, scare, and make me laugh all at the same time.
We’ve become so consumption oriented that it’s easy to forget that the *productive* green economy will have to be grounded in the smaller industrial cities in which the “grandiose” of all stripes stopped investing long ago. So I argue in my forthcoming book “Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World.” Deep bow to Mr. Kunstler.
@David….I hear ya. I think he spends too much time in cities like Raleigh and Atlanta, and thinks the South is a bubba nation of stock car fans. Well….maybe we do have that demographic over represented in our population…but, one thing you can’t overlook is the agrarian traditions of the region. Rural Southerners have long supplemented their diets with, and often survived solely on, small scale agriculture, as well as on native game and fish. Not that this is unique in the U.S, but you have concentrations of knowledge, experience and traditions here like few other areas that I’ve seen. Yeah, there are some scary folks, with guns and bibles, but if you scratch the surface you’ll find that most carry around a template for ad hoc survival that is downright non-denominational and non-violent too. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to ride out a crisis in any other place.
Wow. I think this is Kunstler’s best piece, and one of the best things on this topic I have ever read.
Great News! The party goes on! We’re saved! See the attached:
Happy Motoring y’all!!!!
It would seem that the problem is too many people–sadly, and I’m not volunteering to go first, but there simply needs to be less people on this planet, and quickly. Barring some sort of technological miracle, or off-world voyage, what will solve this problem is grisly, one I’m reluctant to even point out.
The greatest supply of potential energy remaining is the one that helped build Western civilization in the first place–slavery. The abundance of people is only matched by the cruelty they will suffer cruelly until the human population returns to balance. I guess I’m a cynic, but human history has a recurring theme of evil when it comes to dealing with surplus manpower (Nazism, Stalinism, American slavery, the Conquistadors) and desperate times.
Michael from Baltimore
Though he somewhat dismisses it we will be going through Thanatopolis to reach his end-state, which he makes sound maybe more desirable than it will be.
He is forcasting a new Dark Ages after the collapse of our energy-intensive civilization. Combine a mass die-off due to a mix of starvation, disease, and war (perhaps even thermonuclear war) and the degree of technological specialization and complexity our fall will be hard and far.
Our time will be the stuff of legend to the descendents of the survivors.
Reply to Plowboy,
While I agree that all cars, electric or otherwise are obsolete and with Kunstler that most adequate public trans to replace them will be beyond our constrained financial means, I know that widespread private, on demand, personal transport is not beyond our means. We just need to embrace very light weight electric propelled vehicles, read, ebikes/trikes/quads and the like. You can move about as before on a vehicle that weighs half what you and/or your passengers do (rather than 15x your bulk), perhaps a bit slower, but still having 90% of the personal transport flexibility you have come to expect. This uses 20x less energy, is a whole heck of a lot cheaper/unit traveled and resources used than public trans or cars. And…, it’s something that you can do right now as I have done, right down to constructing and maintaining your own from standard components. Liberate yourself from the box, or in this case the car and stay well within the bounds of thermodynamics. Who ever determined that your personal transportation had to weigh 15-25x what you do? Many of the auto and air pioneers of the early last century started out with bicycles and those of this early century are returning, with a whole lot better list of materials and electronics to work with. A home photovoltaic system just hasn’t the omph to support both your home and a car, but e-bikes are another story because they are an order of magnitude less energy dependent.
I really do not understand why JHK, generally a proponent of mixed use, has such a bias against urban food production. He also seems to have a blind spot when it comes to other methods of retooling our environment than the European model. I even listened to one of his podcasts where he lambasts ‘pigs in the city’.
Historically speaking, many people had pigs in the city, just for instance. Along with chickens, rabbits, goats, and cattle. It doesn’t necessarily add up to disgusting filth and smell; it’s how you house the livestock and what it’s fed and how you dispose of waste that makes the difference. Remember too that in Europe, as well as the rest of the world (still) who made a living from removing manure from the urban environment.
European society was not exactly sustainable. They stripped their forests, their soil, and had to forcibly remove citizens to other lands as traditional lands and occupations were destroyed. If I were going to look for sustainability it would not be Paris I would be looking toward, it would be somewhere in India or China. I think JHK should consider this as well.
Ron, well said, I think. We’ve sure got a long way to go though.
Recently, I was biking through my local “lifestyle” mall. I was approached by a mall cop on a Segway while I was coasting on the edge of the sidewalk, window shopping at idle speed. When I saw him, I figured I’d been busted for being on the sidewalk. Fair enough, I knew better and I started apologizing before he even started talking. He then told me that bikes were not “allowed.” Huh? That’s right, no place on this wide open 40+ acres of concrete and asphalt was biking permitted. I told him , you know, that I had money and actually had planned on buying something. No difference he explained. I was laughing so hard by the time he was done that I believe he would have tazed if he’d had one.
I am a fan of Kunstler. The good news about our greenhouse earth, extreme climate change/disruption and peak oil/natural gas civilization ending dilemma is that they have a common solution in a postcarbon society that Lester Brown draft budgets in Plan B. v.4.0 Mobilizing the save civilization. & this year presents mostly answers in World on the Edge: How to prevent environmental and economic collapse.
There are many points Kunstler missed, understandably, in this short piece. Why do cities still exist beyond services, if not to be diverse, creative and supporting manufacturing and efficient, healthy labor centers for such productivity?
Kunstler also seems to ignore how cities encourage extreme gas depletion measures like high volume, high pressure, toxic slicking, deep shale hydrofracking, which is now threatening water, soil and food resources for both rural and urban people. The NYS DEC is releasing their hydrofracking plan on July 1st, and is likely to ignore the irreversible water pollution and cumulative effects of hazardous waste and toxic/radiologic poisoning of hundreds of millions of gallons of fresh water in a way that ‘cannot be â€˜cleaned up’. Also, Kunstler missed how our cities design encourage disasters of oil depletion as in the high risk methods used, as deep water oil drilling leading to the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster last year. The proposed plan for an Alberta Tar Sands pipeline to refineries in Texas is another extremely bad for climate change/greenhouse gases choice. Current undemocratic takeovers of local governments by corporations reads like some fascist nightmare fictional future depicted in Blade Runner and often described daily by alternative media as The Thom Hartman Show and Democracy Now.
Cities depend on both purpose and energy, so sustainable design including â€˜complete streetsâ€™ to allow business creativity and labor for local manufacturing and energy conservation/ alternative sources are most essential. I hope the rest of society, especially the media, would catch up with him and a Rob Hopkins transition movement in a democratic discussion of a future that would work.
Brush up on your Greek, Jim. Thanatopolis is properly a city of Death (personified). A city of the dead is a necropolis, which just so happens to be a well established word that far more people would recognize and comprehend. Or was exotic vocabulary the real purpose there?
Sure…you can’t cover ALL the ways the wheels have gone wobbly in one short piece. He’s also not one who concentrates on possible solutions to the energy deficits that fast approach, although he does offer some of those. (For more of that, I’d recommend a guy like John Michael Greer.) Kunstler is more like the town crier, and he’s been cranking up the volume of the message each year since I started reading his blog, the aptly named “Charlie Foxtrot” Chronicles. Some have tuned him out as being somewhat of a Cassandra, although I think their only justification is that some of his most dire predictions have not panned out, which overlooks the events he was prescient about. The first time I ever read or heard the phrase “sub-prime mortgage?” That would be on his blog, a good two years before that phrase popped up in daily news feeds like CNN and the BBC.
When you deliver a message that is akin to “everything you think you know about the way you occupy the land is based on a faulty assumption”, you’re bound to get some push back. It takes some real intellectual courage to accept that message. You do have to work your way through the Helen Kubler Ross grief stages to get there, for sure. Mostly, we’re stuck in the denial stage, although that zeitgeist seems to be loosening somewhat, thanks to writers like JHK. Politicians? Not so much.
Besides, as he likes to say, there is nothing more funny than tragedy.
I enjoyed seeing this article highlighting what so many planners like myself have been promoting for so many years. We all seem to share a vision, but there are differences in the details. The over-riding goals remain, though. It also seems that we have created a “faith-based” vision of emerging future technologies to fill in the voids of what we see as future needs: Solar panels will drop in price; someone will develop super-efficient batteries that will power a vehicle for 500 miles; clean power generation technology will eliminate the need to consume coal; etc.
There’s no reason to think, in this time of rapid innovation and implementation, that the answers won’t come as rapidly.
So, technically, we’re still developing visions of the future and depicting them without fins.
The New York Times last sunday had a very good article regarding European cities reclaiming the spaces that were once safe and public from automobiles. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/27/science/earth/27traffic.html?_r=1&src=me&ref=general
Here in San Francisco we have been advocating for similar more civilized urban land uses which would convert many of our “traffic sewers” back into neighborhood streets.
The most outstanding thing for me, though, was how the article was framed “Urking Drivers is Urban Policy.” Why frame reverting to a pedestrian-bike-transit-friendly way of life as “anti-car?”
The push-back against automobile culture is certainly there, but so is the phenomena of humans re-discovering their neighborhoods, growing healthier from walking, allowing their children to play outside, and maybe not wasting precious resources building parking, especially when so many people need homes.
I see “anti-car” as a really good thing, but many Americans don’t. They see their cars as a key to freedom rather than a ball and chain. They will continue to rail against such policies here at home while complaining about traffic and their inability to lose weight. In the summer they will travel to San Francisco, Paris, London, or Rome and spend their days walking and exhilerated, wondering what about these cities makes them so damned wonderful.
You have made critical points regarding the human population. The vital discussion you are encouraging always remains marginalized, ever outside the lines of mainstream discussions. This exchange of views is virtually impossible to maintain, even within a group of people who share a common perspective, in the most general sense, and who are capable of thinking globally. How do we bring this conversation to the ‘center stage’ of public discourse? What are the factors that prevent this crucial step from occurring? Whatever they are, they must be overcome. Challenges people refuse to see cannot be accepted. Threats we are unwilling to acknowledge cannot be addressed and overcome. Changes toward sustainability will not occur as needed.
This brings me to the work of Royal Society and the “People and the Planet Working Group”. For whatsoever it is worth, I have long regarded the Royal Society as ‘Jerusalem’ within the world of science. When experts around the world refuse even to so much as look at scientific evidence, much less rigorously examine what at least some scientists acknowledge as the best available research, the Royal Society is the one place where anyone can turn for an objective review of research. Think of the number of professional societies who have rejected opportunities to have a discussion like the one you are inviting now here. Consider how many opportunities have been missed to make reports of extant science on human population dynamics. This is a tragedy in the making. Time after time population experts, in particular, have rejected overtures to discuss certain scientific research and report findings.
Sir Paul Nurse, Sir John Sulston and other members of the Royal Society can be counted on to do the hard work that has thus far been left undone. I believe the RS will help us bring “the human population and its unsustainable overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities” to the center stage for open discussion.
Salingaros On Tall Buildings: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=6684105233625614737&ei=lSuvSqXvBYW0qwL92vm3Aw&q=salingaros&hl=en&client=firefox-a#
@ Steven Earl Salmony, maybe this article can give you some answers: http://www.planetizen.com/node/49772
I felt compelled to read Kunstler’s “Back to the Future” piece, not because of what was insightful or complicit with my own beliefs, but because of what wasn’t there: a refreshing absence of economic salvation plans.
What is envisioned for the future but speaks to the likely outcome of running out of most resources needed to operate the present paradigm. Of course large urban centers will change without well managed treasury and resources. To say we must live sustainably is patent; envisioning how it might unfold, though there have been model civilizations to draw upon, is difficult at either current or future population levels.
Physically and psychologically, both urban and rural planners have been trying to separate people from nature, wildlife, and their source of food, but ironically, with expanding development and global warming, they’re again merging just as our minds and bodies are almost stagnating from the disconnect. A restoration of city green space more generous for dwelling and garden size, and restoration of light, water or woodland views would realize an invigorated psyche, and a renewed desire to use our legs and experience our real home. Beautiful, manageable structures, rather than homogeneous boxes, would encourage pride. Without unnecessary, ever-speculating financial sectors, such quality of life can transpire in future cities due to more affordable land.
We will soon learn how cities like New York cope without Wall Street and commercial structures, once concrete skyscapes figuratively melt down to just street level and basic needs. New Yorkers will wake up to the primary reason for living in a big city: the arts and culture. They’ll find that to keep it, taxes will have to support it. New York will survive, just with less people and a few more museums, till the rising waters slowly force everyone out into smaller communities. How that will evolve is also hard to predict.
Collectively, we’ll get to contribute toward a more responsible world without fiat funds and their effects. A little disorienting at first, a little scary, and lots of order to restore, but perhaps without all related far-scarier concerns like war, polluted and radioactive air, soil and waters, we can get back to our innate capacity for living and working to enjoy, and on to achievements that don’t depend on exploitation or deprivation of others. At the very least what shall remain are the brilliant minds we censored in favour of corporate/military gratification. The stinging reminder that what we do to nature and to others, we do to ourselves will hopefully steer deeds and governance towards a future with clear conscience.
I’m grateful for Jim Kunstler’s thoughts, and the many excellent comments that followed.
Generally when empires of the past have collapsed, as they always do, there has been a very terrible aftermath including widespread destruction and erosion of basic human values. The fall of the American Empire that we are witnessing now will be the mother of all collapses, due to the powerful weapons and widespread environmental devolution already well underway. The total failure of all the sick dreams of western culture will unleash a conscienceless war of each against each that will leave any remnants of morality in a shambles.
The idle daydreams of Kuntsler and his ilk will be quickly forgotten in the grim realities of the post collapse world. These foolish fantasies of a not-too-bad future will then be seen as the whistling in the dark that they represented. Foolishness like this only deludes people to waste precious time that would be better spent preparing for the disaster that is now unfolding every day. The devotees of middle class illusions are in for a tremendous shock, and bitter awakening. Those who have been thrown out of their homes are only the beginning. Those with no hope of employment are not interested in cities of the future that they will never inhabit, and indeed will never be built.
Although I don’t agree with many of his subsidiary projections, I think James Kunstler’s “Back to the Future” essay is a brilliant general statement about a future (at least for a century or more) that’s not going to be a great deal different from what we already have in the advanced countries. It parallels much of my own thinking in recent years that the industrial revolution is largely played out now. We are becoming increasingly locked into a particular way of life in which economic growth and consumer expectations are not at all what most economists presently assume (if they think about the future at all). The recent credit-crunch — by no means fully played out yet — is not so much an indictment of our present currency/financial system but as a warning that consumer-led growth has come to an end.
However, this doesn’t preclude our continuing innovative abilities. Whatever took place in the genetic hard-wiring of our brain in the past that caused homo sapiens to be super-charged with curiosity above any other species, scientific research will continue apace. I foresee continuing production and distribution automation that will, as a byproduct, cause even more jobs than now to fall into the make-work category — like the mythical Irish village in which they all make a living by doing each other’s laundry. Also, Kunstler’s essay doesn’t include considering what may be the longer-term byproducts of the extraordinary burst in evolutionary biology research, particularly since the first draft of the Human Genome Project in 2003.
As the failure of our â€˜civilizationâ€™ becomes increasingly evident, those who are wedded to it scramble to find any argument to hold on to it, even if it means supporting palpable lies and monstrous injustices. Like illusionists, they call us to indulge in imagined futures that maintain our precious lifestyles, the very lifestyles that are destroying the world and every real human value. Anything rather than awaking to our errors and correcting them. As the avalanche of our collapsing culture crashes over us, they will still be encouraging us to dream of a future world of plenty, miraculously delivered to us by science and technology. Cold comfort for those without food or shelter.
Mike….maybe true, but my experience in this life is people are far more predisposed to cooperation than conflict. I don’t expect that to change. Jim Kunstler predicts a revolution once a week, maybe led by some Spec Ops Colonel currently posted in a far off FB. He predicts dire outcomes especially in the American South. As I said, that is probably the only point on which I disagree with him. Small matter though. He just lacks the experience of living in the rural South, or familial relationships that would make some things clear to him. Me, I’ve lived in the N.E., and I can tell you that he’s missed the mark by a long shot
Bravo to Kuntsler for putting together a fine essay that covers so many dimensions of the urban challenge. If he seems overly strident, I don’t have a problem with that – whether it ends up being as extreme as he suggests, we are still not facing up to the fact that our future reality will likely be much different from our present one.
I would have liked to have seen him bring in some of the policy dimensions that his analysis suggests. Will it be a process of simple migration, as people leave the cities for small towns until the cities are small towns themselves. And will it be so gradual that the requisite public works expenditures will likely be small and manageable?
At any rate, the cities of the future that Kuntsler describes were already written about at the turn of the century by Ebenezer Howard. His “garden cities” are an essential part of the legacy of urban planning in the U.S. and are precisely the same vision portrayed in this essay.
Unfortunately, for all of the reasons mentioned by Kuntsler, this vision lost out to Courbusier’s vision of mega-everything.
I too am a little (not a lot) troubled by Kunstler’s too strict separation of urban and rural. It rests, I assume, in a mono understanding of farming. Richard Heinberg makes a good distinction between horticulture (vegetable gardening and small animals) and agriculture (grain and grasses row farming and large animals.) Although they may co-exist they are not the same and the former can be highly appropriate and productive to outlying urban and suburban existence.
When Cuba experienced their own artificial peak oil crises upon the collapse of the Soviet Union and its oil subsidies, within 5 years they were getting some 40% of their food calories from urban horticulture. They almost starved until they got it together, but it did and does work.
I grew up on a small (160 acre) farm. Visualize it as 1/4 of a square mile. Visualize an acre as 90 yards of a 100 yard football field minus the end zones and sidelines. Our garden was about a 3rd of an acre and supplied probably 70% of the veggies and a lesser amount of fruits (berries) that our family of 6 ate during the year.
The point that I’m making is that it is possible to supply a lot of human food in relatively small solar spaces if the need and will is there to do it, particularly with what we have learned about permaculture in the last century. The need will certainly be there, sooner rather than later, which is what Kunstler is talking about.
A lot of the comments and critiques on this article arise out of the limitations of what can be dealt with in a short article. I would heartily recommend Kunstlers, “The Long Emergency,” for a far more comprehensive picture of the future in the light of diminishing resources.
Couple it with Richard Heinberg’s, “Peak Everything,” and you’ll be ready to make life decisions based on reality rather than wishfull thinking.
I very much enjoy the pod casts of the Kunstlercast an tend to agree with most everything JHK says . Everything in life has an exception tho. I am a very rural person MOT a Suburban person. I was born in NYC,However raised in a little town Cornwall NY an now live in a small city a tad west of Chicago. I am not happy in this place either I cant stand cities wen in them the places is close in on me I actually start freaking out.Yes there r people like me we are called FARMERS,Orchard-ists Rural folks. try growing apples to feed a city in the ciy…
In a world ruled by spin doctors and greed-mongers science occasionally appears as a clear and present danger.
Ron…you make a good point, I think, to delineate horticulture from agriculture.
I’ve got only about 1,000 sq’ in garden space, and 1/2 of that is so marginal that I can’t grow intensively on much of it..but I’m improving it all the time. What humbles you though is the sheer volume of calories we’ve come to expect, and how dissapointing the realization is that you’d be very hard pressed to meet your own quota, fuggedabout a family’s!
I think the common mistake most gardeners make is treating their kitchen garden like an Iowa cornfield….using all the extractive practices, and replacement inputs that make large scale agriculture such a doomed enterprise. That was how I was raised to think of it…same plow/ disc, fertilize, spray..row upon row, year after year. A good garden was an orderly garden and weeds were heresy. I’ve got a lot of agricultural baggage to unpack before I think I’ll be the food producer I want to be. It starts by understanding why you never will be, nor would you want to be, a large scale producer of that kind, and all that it means. In the ‘burbs, and in the city, that realization just might get you fed.
I love JHK.
I just wish he would get off the climate kick.
A super solar minimum will starve and freeze billons of humans.
I don’t care how much CO2 is in the atomasphere.
Secondly if he is close to correct about our energy issues then CO2 will not be an issue anyway.
After skimming thru 10 pages of comments, I am amazed that very few readers had a similar first impression to mine–that this article was a late April Fools joke. I kept looking for the disclaimer not to take the article seriously. JHK certainly has some good points-our car addicted, “taker” culture is leading to our downfall and we need to rely more on rail and river freight/transport. However, the premise that cities (ok-Phoenix and Las Vegas may crash and burn) are unsustainable, that our culture cannot successfully transition to renewable energy sources, and that most of us in the future will be farming with draft horses and oxen (say what?)…….am I one of the very few readers that think this is nuts?
I work in the electric utility industry. JHK’s statement that “…though electric service may be less reliable in the U.S. a decade from now.” is incorrect. His statement that Detroit–because it is located on a strategic river–will re-attain urban quality (how can one re-attain what one never had?) is incorrect. Just look at Cairo Illinois–located at the Ohio and Mississippi River junction. Urban quality is based on a lot more than location. His statement that “….there is a fair chance that commercial aviation won’t even exist in twenty years.” is a real stretch.
While I expect many will disagree with me, we are not going to solve anything unless we look at the REAL problems (overpopulation, immigration, government leadership towards a sustainable future–automobile fuel efficiency requirements, renewable energy, mass transportation, etc…rather than the majority agree with an unrealistic forecast of the future as JHK laid out in this article.
It is revealing to me how those addicted to the American lifestyle are so much like alcoholics in their manifestations of denial. Its not really that bad. Things will get better soon. Anything to avoid the unpleasant reality of a failed culture heading for disaster. How heavy do the shocks need to become in order to wake us up? When will the need to curb our addictions become unavoidable? When will we realize that the soothing voices of supporters of industry are lying to us and leading us into the abyss?
Rob Bregoff said:
“It also seems that we have created a â€œfaith-basedâ€ vision of emerging future technologies to fill in the voids of what we see as future needs: Solar panels will drop in price; someone will develop super-efficient batteries that will power a vehicle for 500 miles; clean power generation technology will eliminate the need to consume coal; etc. ”
I am constantly trying to persuade my politically progressive siblings that solar energy is far too primitive and limited in its capabilities to be a “drop in replacement” for fossil fuels as much of the scientifically-illiterate progressive media try to imply.
That being said, it can’t be ruled out that some of those grandiose techno hopes may actuallly come to pass. A low-cost method for the mass storage of electricity would be a total game changer.
This raises the question, what is the right strategy for trying to steer mankind to a post fossil fuel world? Clearly it is dubious to build a society based on the expectation of technological breakthroughs that may or may not happen. Should we build the future based on the assumption of zero technological advance, however? That might also be inadvisable.
Hopefully a goodly number of the choices we need to make have a sound answer that holds up under a considerable range of scenarios regarding technology development.
Gregory….who knows, for sure? You can pays your moneys and takes your chances, like all of us will, hopefully. My marker will probably be laid on the number somewhere between Kunstler’s vision, and yours. I’m leaning towards his side though. If this is your first exposure to peak oil theory, you’ve got a choice: You can turn away, content that “something” will come along that will replace petroleum and be unprepared in all regards, or, you can become a wide-awake. Choice is yours.
Think of it this way. Most everyone you know lives in the equivelant of a 3-D universe, when it comes to energy awareness. You have a much keener awareness of what keeps the lights on, but let’s face it, most of our fellow citizen’s awareness of that begins and ends when they flip a light switch, or turn the ignition key. To them, is it just baked into the cake, end of story. Thing is, we’ve be reassured for so long that this something is there when we need it that we’ve lost the imagination to see that it might not be, and soon. We need to appreciate that we may be entering a 4-D universe, one that does not include limitless sources of energy, and won’t be changed because, ummm, we really, really want it.
To crib an aphorism from Kunstler: I’m sure that Benjamin Franklin could not ever have imagined Adobe Printshop. There may be some super energy source in this world,in this universe that is yet undiscovered, and will be discovered just in the nick o’ time. Truly though, we are not owed this. And, I want to emphasize, it ain’t here yet.
So, do you wait patiently for it, or do you plan otherwise? Myself, I always try to be mindful of what an old friend of mine likes to say: Trust Jesus, but always tie your pony.
Plowboy — Have you thought through what might happen if we did discover a limitless source of energy? What have we done with increases of energy so far? Would more energy help us destroy our home planet more quickly? Maybe it would help the power crazy dominators among us to achieve the total control of everyone and everything more quickly?
We donâ€™t need more energy. We need less and more compassionate people who are learning to help each other, and create a world worth living in.
Why yes Mike, I have. Personally, I’m not rooting for it. It will come, or not, despite anything I might feel about it.
What bothers me is that most who are sharing — and I welcome all, and celebrate your interest and input — most of you are thinking in terms of externals: how can we change the government or industry, can I put up some solar panels, could I recycle more efficiently, etc. etc.
My focus is on how can we become different people? Who are we now, why are we here on Earth, what kind of life should we endorse and work for, how are my most basic attitudes contributing to the decline of real culture and the destruction of the earth? And what kind of person do I need to become in order to help give birth to a new world for all? Is there a higher spiritual reality that can help me evolve — I am not speaking of religion as we now mostly practice it now.
My feeling is that unless we develop into much better people than we are now, there will be now real answers through all our external fixes. The paths to such deep going change in ourselves have been developed over the centuries. Main stream religions are not following these paths. We need movements dedicated to deep awakening and personal transformation. That may sound a bit crazy to you. Frankly speaking, to continue to follow the failed external paths our civilization is set on seems totally insane to me.
Join the author for a live discussion of this topic on July 12! J.H. Kunstler will expand on his thoughts about cities of the future and take listener questions beginning at 7 PM Eastern, 4 PM Pacific. More info here,
It’s free and open to all, but registration is required. Do so at the link above, and I hope you can join us.
This is, in some ways, a bleak vision. But I share much of it. I urge everyone to start growing as much of your own food as possible. Not so much because I think the world economy is destined to collapse (although I do) but because even if it survives, it will be a decentralized economy where food production is particularly localized. And besides, home grown food tastes better and is better for you.
TO Bill above from Bill here. I totally agree with the food bit.I tore up my lawn this spring we gopt veggies now (ORGANIC).Grapes Apples,plums , I went nutz with fruit trees . What i don’t grow i have friends do Its called BARTER SYSTEM get used to it BARTER