FIRST EARTH | Uncompromising Ecological Architecture

James Howard Kunstler

There a lot of problems with the way we've organized our occupation of the landscape. And some of them are logistical, social, even spiritual problems, and some of them are ecological and economic problems. The living arrangements that Americans think of as 'normal,' which is the suburbs, and all of the things that make it go, is a living arrangement with no future. It has very poor prospects for running 5 or 10 or 20 years from now, and largely because of the energy issues.

Now it happens that we've invested immense amounts of our late-20th century and early-21st century wealth in this living arrangement, in the infrastructure of it, in the furnishings and accessories of it: you know, the strip malls, the big-box pods, the housing subdivisions, the immense network of highways and superhighways, the parking lots, all of the stuff that we associate with this living arrangement.

So we've invested all of our social wealth, all of our capital, in this way of life, and it has no future, and so, you can then define this behaviour as a tremendous misallocation of resources. Perhaps the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world, just in sheer volume of wealth, and sheer volume of stuff that has been constructed that is not going to have a future.

So, having done that, we are now faced with an additional problem, which is the problem that can be stated as 'sunk costs,' or, 'the psychology of previous investment.' And the psychology of previous investment is a fancy way of saying that you put so much of your wealth and your spirit into something, that you can't imagine reforming it, or changing it, or letting go of it. And that's sort of the predicament that we're in.

Now the trouble is, if we don't want to negotiate it [the American Way of Life], we're going to find that we have a new negotiating partner: reality. Reality will negotiate it for us. In fact, it will be arbitrated, rather than mediated. Events and circumstances will compel us to change what we're doing, whether we like it or not, or whether it's our idea or not. So just saying that it's not a negotiable is just bluster, because, we're going to have to get in there and make some changes, whether we like it or not.

There are many other shortcomings and liabilities of the suburban way of life, the drive-in utopia, as I sometimes refer to it. And many of them are civic shortcomings.

Part of the whole project of suburbia has been an effort privatize things in our everyday world that were previously shared, or public. In other words, we have the most luxurious private living spaces in the world, and the most square feet per inhabitant than any other culture, and more bathrooms per resident than any other culture. And so we've made the private realm very luxurious. But we've impoverished the public realm.

In America, most of the public space comes in the form of the street. You know, it's really necessary to be rewarded by your surroundings, and on a fairly regular basis. It can't just be the one time a month you go into a particular building, and it's the one nice building in your town. Or the one day a year that you make a car trip to some theme park, where there's a place where you're not tyrannized by the automobile.

And this is one of the things that anybody who goes to Europe quickly discovers, is that, you're in these environments that are deeply and richly rewarding, all the time. And you discover how important that is, to your spirit. And what we get in America, generally, is nothing from our surroundings. We're just being assaulted by stuff, whether it's noise, or the squalor of the signage, or the squalor of the street itself, and the automobile infrastructure, or just the speed that you have to move through it in, because you're not moving through space at a human speed.

These places we've created are going to become greater liabilities, are going to have less usefulness, and really probably going to be either the ruins of tomorrow, or the slums or tomorrow, or both.

So, the trouble is that 3 generations have been living that way now. And what we're probably going to be faced with, is the need to downscale virtually everything we do. All the major systems that we depend on are going to become unstable, and are going to wobble, and have trouble, as we enter this period of energy scarcity, and a global contest over the remaining energy, specifically, oil and gas.

So, we're going to have to downscale, and rescale, and resize, and right-size, and reorganize all these systems: the way we do agriculture, the way we occupy the terrain, in terms of the types of habitats... So, let's talk about what the systems are. Agriculture: we're going to have to find a way to value the rural hinterlands differently.

We're going to have to reach a new understanding, that if you want to live in the rural landscape, you're going to have to follow a rural life-way, or a rural vocation. Because of the big selling points of the suburban experience for the last 60 years has been: you can lead an urban life in the rural setting. And the car enables that to happen. That's going to be over with. There are going to be far fewer opportunities for people to really practice that, so that distinction between town and country is going to be reestablished.

We're almost certainly going to have to rescale, reestablish, reorganize our networks of commerce and retail trade. We have essentially surrendered to national chain retail in North America. And by that, I mean WalMart and the things like it: gigantic chain stores moving immense amounts of merchandise, which, by the way, are coming in through a 12,000 mile-long pipeline from the manufacturers in Asia. That's not going to survive the global energy problems that we face.

So that whole system's going to wobble, and we're going to have to rebuild, reconstruct local, complex, fine-grained networks of economic interdependency -- the very things that we systematically allowed to be destroyed by the big box stores, because we wanted to save $9 on a hair dryer, and that's why that happened. Of course, we saved $9 on a hair dryer, and we threw $1 million worth of civic amenity out the window, and all of these social roles that accompanied the economic roles that people embodied on the local scale. So we're going to have to rebuild that.

You know, a lot of people have very high hopes, you might even call them wishes, that "technology" is going to come to the rescue and solve these energy problems we have, and actually allow us to continue running our stuff the way we're running it. Probably not. My own opinion: no combination of alternative energy systems is going to allow us to run North America the way we've been used to running it, or even a substantial fraction of it.

A lot of the Google guys got up, and they said, "Oh, dude! You're wrong, we've got technology!" And it was interesting to see at their level, which is the level of great accomplishment, and indeed, of great reward and wealth, that I think they're completely delusional about it. That just because they can move pixels around a screen means that they can run the inter-state highway system on bio-deisel, I don't really think that's going to pencil out.

So we're basically going to have to really reform and reorganize all of our daily activities, and it is not going to be a simple transition. A lot of people who talk about this stuff seem to assume that it's a given that there will be am easy transition, a gentle segueway from the state that we're at now to the state that we're entering, and I think, if anything, that's probably the most erroneous assumption that you can make. It's probably going to be very turbulent and fraught with hardship and loss, and there will be a lot of losers produced by this period of time.

That implies that we're going to need to know how to do engineering on the small scale, on the local scale., on a doable scale, using materials that are common and still available, and technologies that are not too high. And that kind of engineering, which is probably on the level of engineering in the U.S. circa 1879, that kind of mechanical knowledge in itself is going to be very valuable. I have no idea how much of it we may have lost.

The industrial experience was a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It was a narrative, it wasn't just something that is established and then goes on forever. And I think that's one of the great misunderstandings about what we're involved in.

The demoralization continues in the hyper-ironies of the early 21st century. The idea that all of these funny things that are happening to us are just 'cute.' Well, you know, it isn't really cute anymore. And one of the interesting things that we're going to see as we move into the 'long emergency,' as I call it, this era of hardship and turbulence, is that people are going to have to get very serious about stuff, and very earnest. They're going to have to take stuff really seriously and make shit happen.

You can't just sit back and say "Oh, isn't that cute." They're going to have to make buildings stand up, not look like they're falling down, just for the fun of making them look that way. Because we're not going to have access to things like computer-aided design and titanium cladding and spray-on styrofoam and all of the materials that we've been enjoying.

The whole housing bubble is going to be affected by the hurricanes, because the hurricanes knocked out a lot of natural gas production, and natural gas now costs a lot more, and all the builders out in Minneapolis and Denver are sitting there with 4000 square foot houses that they can't sell, because nobody wants to buy a 4000 square foot house with natural gas selling at $17 a unit.

And so those houses are going unsold, and the mortgages that would have been generated for those houses are not being generated, so there's less hallucinated credit being funneled into the global finance system. So all these things are ramifying with each other. The housing bubble will be over, and people will be crushed by their heating bills. And a lot of people are going to be selling 4000 square foot houses that they can't afford to heat anymore. Or at least they can't afford to pay the mortgage, and heat them, both.

And all of these houses are going to go on the market, and the whole housing bubble is going to be over. Well, that has other implications, you know. It also happens that we have created in the U.S. an economy that is now largely dependent on the activity of suburban sprawl itself. The favoured living arrangement of Americans has now become their economy, too!

If you subtract sprawl building, and the home builders, and the building of strip malls, and the building of big box stores, and all this stuff; if you subtract that from the economy, there isn't a whole lot left besides fried chicken and haircuts and open-heart surgery. So once that starts to wobble, maybe we're not going to have such a hot economy, when that happens. So you can see how all these things are starting to sort of affect each other.

I think we're going to see a change in the scale at which we inhabit the landscape, and we're going to return to much more traditional forms. The basic unit of the human habitation is really the neighbourhood. And one neighbourhood is a village. And several neighbourhoods is a town. And many neighbourhoods and some special-use districts are cities.

And one thing I think we will be seeing, along with this, is a reversal of the roughly 200-year-trend of masses of people moving from the country and the small towns to the big cities. I think we'll see that reverse and people will move from the big cities to the smaller towns and hamlets, and back into the rural landscape. We're going to need a lot more people working in agriculture, if we're going to feed ourselves, or even a fraction of ourselves. It's going to probably be necessary.

And the cities are probably going to contract. We're not going to have the mega-collossal cities of the 20th century. That's going to be over. The cities that are over-burdened with mega-structures are probably going to be in trouble, or more trouble than the others. Because we don't have reason to believe that we can run the Trump Tower or the Empire State Building on anything other than fossil fuels. We're not going to run them on solar panels, and we're not going to run them on turbines. So, what happens to those things is totally anybody's guess.

Where substantial towns are concerned, if we have any substantial towns and cities, I think that you'll see a limit on the height, not a legal limit, but, I think, a practical limit, of maybe 5 or 6 storeys, maybe 7 at the most. And I would actually be inclined to think that probably 3 and 4 would be more normal, because that's really what you get in a low-energy society. And we'll be lucky if we can relearn how to do that.

I do think that the cities, even as they contract, even as they contract severely, will probably redensify, at their centres, and maybe along the waterfronts. But at the same time, a lot of the fabric is going to be abandoned, I think. And they're going to be some cities in North America that are simply going to dry up and blow away. Phoenix, forget about it.

We have all these multi-layered building codes and zoning laws which rigorously mandate the outcome that we've been getting, which is the suburban pattern, and all the stuff that's in it. I think we're moving into a period of time where we're going to start ignoring the codes. I don't think that the laws and the codes are going to be reformed. They're not going to be rewritten, they're not going to be changed, but they'll be ignored.

I think what you'll see is a general recognition throughout the culture that we simply can't afford to follow these rules anymore. The fact of the matter is that a lot of the building codes are in place for fire and safety reasons. There were good reasons for doing them, although they've really gone overboard. Then there are other layers of things.

Since the initial fire and safety laws were created, there's been a whole other layer of laws that were created simply out of a fear of lawyers, a fear of people being sued. And we now do things that are so triple and quadruple what is needed to make something safe that it's gotten ridiculous. So I think we'll see that happening. And that will probably allow for a lot of, in some ways, maybe better work.

It always amazes me, when you go around your town, and you look at the buildings that were built in the early 20th century, in, like, 1911, the banks, the fire houses, they're all marvelously beautiful buildings. And they were all built without codes, without design review, without multi-layered permitting processes and approval processes.

And yet, if you look at the stuff that came out of the multi-layered approval processes, they all look like muffler shops or forensic pathology labs. You literally can't tell the difference between the motor vehicle bureau and an expensive hotel! Because the architecture is just so bad! And the vernacular wisdom about how to do it has been lost!

That's why it's been such a disaster for history to be thrown in the garbage bin by the modernists of the 20th century. Because we took a great deal of successful wisdom about how to construct a human habitat, and we just tossed it out, for the sake of following the New World Order of traffic engineering. And that's what our world has been built on since 1950. And the results are clear for anybody to see.

You know, ultimately, everything vanishes. Ultimately, the sun becomes a red giant, and the earth turns into a little fiery ball of lint. But it is very important that you know -- there are thousands and millions of years between now and then, and there are things worth preserving. It depends whether you think the project of civilization is worth carrying on.

I do. I'm among the people that think that it does have value. The whole question of human nature, and the savagery of human nature, is perhaps something that we also have to reflect on. Because despite the existence of civilization, the savagery of human nature has continued, and it's something that is very troubling.