We Must Imagine a Future Without Cars

no_cars.jpgFrom Alternet, the following is an excerpted version of James Howard Kunstler‘s recent speech to the Commonwealth Club of California, well worth reading in its entirety. An audio stream of the speech is also available:

Two years ago in my book The Long Emergency I wrote that our nation was sleepwalking into an era of unprecedented hardship and disorder — largely due to the end of reliably cheap and abundant oil. We’re still blindly following that path into a dangerous future, lost in dark raptures of infotainment, diverted by inane preoccupations with sex and celebrity, made frantic by incessant motoring.

The coming age of energy scarcity will change everything about how we live in this country. It will ignite more desperate contests between nations for the remaining oil and natural gas around the world. It will alter the fundamental terms of industrial economies. It will ramify and amplify many of the problems presented by climate change. It will require us to behave differently. But we are not paying attention.

As the American public continues sleepwalking into a future of energy scarcity, climate change, and geopolitical turmoil, we have also continued dreaming. Our collective dream is one of those super-vivid ones people have just before awakening, as the fantastic transports of the unconscious begin to merge with the demands of waking reality. The dream is a particularly American dream on an American theme: how to keep all the cars running by some other means than gasoline. We’ll run them on ethanol! We’ll run them on biodiesel, on synthesized coal liquids, on hydrogen, on methane gas, on electricity, on used French-fry oil… !

That’s the background on our energy predicament. Against this background is the whole question of how we live in the United States. I wrote three books previously about the fiasco of suburbia. There are many ways of describing it, but lately I refer to it as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. Why? Because it is a living arrangement with no future. Why doesn’t it have a future? Because it was designed to run on cheap oil and gas, and in just a few years we won’t have those things anymore.

Having made these choices, we are now hobbled by a tragic psychology of previous investment — that is, having poured so much of our late-20th century wealth into this living arrangement — this Happy Motoring utopia — we can’t imagine letting go of it, or substantially reforming it.

We have compounded the problem lately by making the building of suburban sprawl the basis of our economy. Insidiously, we have replaced America’s manufacturing capacity with an economy based on building evermore suburban houses and the accessories and furnishings that go with them — the highway strips, the big-box shopping pods, et cetera — meaning that our economy is now largely based on building more and more stuff with no future — on a continued misallocation of resources.

There’s a widespread wish across America these days that some combination of alternative fuels will rescue us; will allow us to continue enjoying by some other means what has been called "the non-negotiable American way of life." The wish is perhaps understandable given the psychology of previous investment.

But the truth is that no combination of alternative fuels or systems for using them will allow us to continue running America the way we have been, or even a substantial fraction of it. We are not going to run Wal-Mart, Walt Disney World, Monsanto, and the interstate highway system on any combination of solar or wind energy, hydrogen, nuclear, ethanol, tar sands, oil shale, methane hydrates, thermal depolymerization, zero-point energy, used french-fry oil, or anything else you can name. We will desperately use many of these things in many ways, but we are likely to be disappointed by what they can actually do for us, particularly in terms of scale — apart from the fact that most or all of them are probably net energy losers in economic terms.

We will find out the hard way that we can’t afford to dedicate our crop lands to growing grains and soybeans for ethanol and biodiesel. A Pennsylvania farmer put it this way to me last month: "It looks like we’re going to take the last six inches of Midwest topsoil and burn it in our gas tanks." The disruptions to world grain supplies by the ethanol mania are just beginning to thunder through the system. Last months there were riots in Mexico City because so much Mexican corn is now being already being diverted to American ethanol production that poor people living on the economic margins cannot afford to pay for their food staples.

We’re going to have to move people and things from place to place differently. It is imperative that we restore the US passenger railroad system. No other project we could do right away would have such a positive impact on our oil consumption. We used to have a railroad system that was the envy of the world. Now we have a system that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of.

The infrastructure for this great task is lying out there rusting in the rain. This project would put scores of thousands of people to work at meaningful jobs, at every level, from labor to management. It would benefit all ranks of society. Fixing the US passenger rail system doesn’t require any great technological leaps into the unknown. The technology is thoroughly understood. The fact that from end-to-end of the political spectrum there is no public discussion about fixing the US passenger rail system shows how un-serious we are.

We are probably in the twilight of Happy Motoring — as we have known it. The automobile will be a diminished presence in our lives. I’m not saying that cars will disappear, but it will become self-evident that our extreme dependency will have to end. It is possible, but not likely, that affordable electric cars will come on the market before we get into serious trouble with oil. More likely, we’ll be facing an entirely new political problem with cars as motoring becomes increasingly only something that the economic elite can enjoy.

For decades, motoring has been absolutely democratic. Everybody from the lowliest hamburger flipper to the richest Microsoft millionaire could participate in the American motoring program. Right now, let’s say six percent of adults in this nation can’t drive, for one reason or another: They’re blind, too old, too poor, et cetera. What if that number rose to 13 percent, or 26 percent of Americans because either the price of fuel or the cost of a vehicle rose beyond their means. Do you suppose that a whole new mood of grievance and resentment might arise against those who were still driving cars? And how would the large new class of non-drivers feel about paying taxes to maintain the very expensive interstate highway systems?

Our hyper-gigantic cities and so-called metroplexes are a pure product of the 200-year-long upward arc of cheap energy. Like other things of gigantic scale, our cities will get into trouble. They are going to contract substantially. The cities that are composed overwhelmingly of suburban fabric will be most susceptible to failure. Orlando, Houston, Atlanta. The cities that are overburdened with skyscrapers will face an additional layer of trouble — the skyscraper, like the mega-city, was a product of cheap energy, and we are going to have trouble running them, especially heating them without cheap natural gas.

As our cities contract, I think they will re-densify at their centers and around their waterfronts, if they are located favorably on water, and depending on how (or if) rising ocean levels might affect them. The process of contraction in our cities is likely to be difficult, disorderly and unequal. Some cities will do better than others.

I hope we can overcome our tendencies to try to get something for nothing and to engage in wishful thinking. The subject of hope itself is an interesting one. College
kids on the lecture circuit always ask me if I can give them some hope. Apparently, they find this view of the future to be discouraging. It may mean fewer hours playing Grand Theft Auto with a side order of Domino’s pepperoni pizza, but there are many positive implications for our lives in the future. We may once again live in places worth caring about, where beauty and grace are considered everybody’s birthright. We may work side-by-side with our neighbors, on things that are meaningful. Instead of canned entertainments, we may hear the sounds of our own voices making music, see the works of our own dramatists and dancers.

Hope is something we really have to supply for ourselves. We are our own generators of hope, and we do it by demonstrating to ourselves that we are capable of facing the circumstances of our time, of working competently to meet these challenges, and of learning the difference between wishing and doing. In fact, what we need is not so much hope, but confidence in our inherent abilities and the will to act.

Photo: JI Stark via Flickr 

  • Gizler

    Good article on commuting this week in the New Yorker. It reports that the Midas Muffler Award for longest daily commute went to a guy in California who spends 7 hours in his car every weekday.

  • P

    Jeeze- why would Midas want to be associated with that kind of misery?!?

    Can we expect to see the California Grapes Award for the most consecutive days spent working in the fields as a migrant farmer?

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    It is a good article in general; thanks for posting it, Aaron. I’ve been meaning to read The Long Emergency for a while.

    I do have a couple of quibbles with Kunstler, though. I wouldn’t say that motoring has ever been “absolutely democratic.” Is the figure really only six percent for the number of adults who are unable to drive? And why only include adults, and not twelve-year-olds who can safely walk to the corner store in my neighborhood, but not in Scottsdale?

    People have said to me, “you’re not going to get Americans to give up their cars.” No, I’m not; the banks are when they can’t pay the mortgage on their McMansion in the exurbs, or else the Road Warrior-style gangs with sawed-off shotguns are, if they don’t give them up on their own. I just want to live my car-free life in peace without subsidizing anyone’s highway, parking lot or gasoline.

    If I think about the future, the thing I’m worried about is this: what if I build a nice car-free life for myself and my family, and then twenty years from now everyone in the Atlanta suburbs stops gloating at us and realizes that the cost of gas makes Western Queens a much nicer place to live? Could they have enough power to come kick me out of my co-op on some flimsy pretext and send me to homestead in the wilds of Levittown?

  • Gizler

    I’m afraid Kunstler has damaged his credibility with his constantly revised predictions of when oil will peak), his mischaracterization of process of gasifying coal, his dismissal of the progress being made with battery technology, and a number of other things. Its not that I don’t want to see a much less automobile dependent America in the future, because i do. But there seems to be a lot of wishful thinking involved in his jeremiads. If the sprawl-based order does prove more economically sustainable than he believes it will, we have to be prepared to continue to make the case on other grounds.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Good point, Gizler. Cars are bad for such a large number of reasons (Asphalt Nation is a good compilation of these reasons) that anyone who puts their eggs in one basket is asking for trouble. They use up scarce oil (and now drive up the price of corn); they cause wars; they pollute; they are used to discriminate against the young, the elderly, the poor and the disabled; they destroy downtowns; they cause obesity; they contribute to a general disconnect between people, their neighbors and their environments; and they kill people. Any one of these is reason enough to stop feeding the cycle of car dependence, even if someone disproves one or two of the others.

  • Gizler

    I am generally a Kunstler fan, I should add. Geography of Nowhere was brilliant. The next two were pretty good too. But Long Emergency has a crackpot quality to it, despite the legitimate issues raised. He indulges some of his worst tendencies – his near-racist musings about urban blacks, wild generalizations about southerners and other population groups, his predicted global die-off of billions and return to feudalism. And this is his singular focus these days, unfortunately.

  • Gizler

    Also, his “Eyesore of the Month,” usually top notch, this month is kind of just . . . mean-spirited.



To Address Demand for Oil, We Must Focus on Transportation

The consequences of our transportation policy. (Photo: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency via Flickr) Editor’s note: Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) sent us this commentary on the the BP oil spill, climate change and the need for transportation reform. Last week, President Obama delivered his first speech from the Oval Office on the single greatest challenge our […]

State Of The Union 2012: “An America That’s Built to Last”

8:37pm – Good evening and welcome to Streetsblog Capitol Hill’s live-blogging coverage of President Obama’s State of the Union address. Previews of the speech indicate that transportation policy won’t be much of a centerpiece, but we’ll be here to pick up on any passages that might be of special interest to our readers. Scroll down to the […]

An Old Car Interred

Bud & Walter Brewer Collection/Tulsa Historical Society, via The New York Times. Fifty years ago last Friday, the people of Tulsa, Oklahoma, assembled downtown and buried a brand new Plymouth Belvedere hardtop as a time capsule to be opened in 2007. The car, and $100 plus 50 years worth of accrued compound interest (a bit more than $700), would […]

Ten Years After 9/11, American Oil Addiction Persists

Yesterday America reflected. We collectively remembered the terrorist attacks of September 11, and examined the country we’ve become. There’s no denying that 10 years later, our country has irreversibly changed. We’ve been through a decade of costly and humbling warfare. We’ve suffered economic upheaval and stagnation. But in many ways, we’re still the same country […]

Obama’s Energy Security Speech Misses the Mark

Yesterday, President Obama unveiled his “Blueprint for Energy Security,” the highlight of which was a plan to cut oil imports by one-third over the coming decade. In the plan’s introduction, the President hit all the right notes with characteristic flair. “The United States of America cannot afford to bet our long-term prosperity, our long-term security […]