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Suburbia's Worst Enemy

Peak oil doomsayer James Howard Kunstler on the mega-impact here.

By Charles Montgomery 12 Jun 2006 |

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Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency.
  • The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century
  • James Howard Kunstler
  • Grove Press (2005)

Since the 1994 release of The Geography of Nowhere, author James Howard Kunstler has been among the most acerbic critics of North American urban design. Kunstler has argued that suburban sprawl has left citizens almost entirely dependent on cars, just as the world nears the historic peak of oil production. What happens after we pass that fossil fuel "tipping point"? That's the subject of Kunstler's latest book, The Long Emergency, in which the author describes the massive changes that Americans -- and their neighbours -- will experience as the age of cheap oil drips to a close. In what The Guardian describes as "a 300-page dirge to the doom that awaits us," Kunstler predicts the end of cheap aviation, the withering of the American southwest, the collapse of global trade and a shallow grave for suburbia, among other horrors.

Such predictions are now being taken seriously by some local governments, as a recent report to Burnaby city council shows. As we prepare for the World Urban Forum, writer Charles Montgomery tracked down the cantankerous Kunstler to discover what his Long Emergency might have in store for the Lower Mainland.

Charles Montgomery: You call suburbia the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. Why?

James Howard Kunstler: Because it was a living arrangement with no future, and we poured all the wealth of our post-Second World War society into the infrastructure of it.

But we are still planning and building suburbs. Why do you say there is no future in them?

Our suburban arrangements are entirely a product of, and utterly dependent on, reliable supplies of cheap petroleum. That is exactly what we will not have in the years ahead. And the notion that we can compensate for that loss with "renewables" or "alternate fuels" is, alas, a fantasy. Our suburban environments are going to lose both their monetary value and their usefulness.

We're producing more oil in Canada than ever before. We've barely touched the huge reserves in the Alberta oil sands. And you write in your book that we are never actually going to run out of oil. So what do you mean by peak oil, and why the alarm?

You're flattering yourself about the tar sands. And there is a great deal of misinformation flying around out there that is a great disservice to the public. For instance, the CBS Sixty Minutes TV program ran a segment this past winter saying the tar sands had the equivalent of two trillion barrels of oil. This was just flat-out untrue. The best real estimates are between 150 to 200 billion barrels, of which 50 to 70 might be recoverable -- and the US alone uses seven billion barrels a year. Do the math.

What's more, the Canadian ministry itself estimates that the tar sands will produce at maximum around three million barrels a day (the world uses over 80 million now) by 2010. Meanwhile, we will be losing between 20 to 40 million [barrels per day] in current depleting production. The peak argument, based on Hubbert's mathematical model, states that total world production will peak around the present time and that production will then commence an inexorable and remorseless arc of depletion.

I have argued further -- and others have, too -- that the very circumstance of passing the peak will severely disrupt the complex systems we rely on, including agriculture, electric power generation, international trade and finance. It will change everything. It will represent a significant historical discontinuity.

Skeptics say that as demand for energy rises, scientists will develop new technology and new fuels to keep us moving. For example, here in BC, the government is investing in a network of refuelling stations for hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars. Do you see any hope in such alternatives?

It would be nice if we developed alternative technologies on top of the ones we already know about, but it is a big mistake to think that technology and energy are identical and mutually substitutable. For instance, jet aircraft will either run on liquid hydrocarbon fuels or they won't be running. I have stated that no combination of alternative fuels will allow us to run the interstate highway system, Wal-Mart, and Walt Disney World, or even a substantial fraction of those things. I believe there is tremendous wishful thinking associated with these issues at the moment, and a great deal of unreality in the public discourse.

Let's imagine a typical family, say, the Smiths from Surrey. They've got a couple of kids, a dog, two cars, a detached house and a mortgage. How do you think life will change for them in the next few decades?

I think suburbia is going to lose its value and usefulness dramatically.

Urbanists say that Vancouver is outperforming American mid-sized cities when it comes to focusing growth into dense, walkable neighbourhoods and preserving agricultural land. With dozens of new high-rise condo towers, Vancouver's downtown will house more than 100,000 people by the end of the decade. This is a good thing, right?

I think we are going to be very surprised and disappointed by our decision to build so many high-rise structures. They are not going to run very well in an energy-scarce society, which may feature less-than-totally reliable electrical service. Skyscrapers -- which I define as any building over seven stories -- were a product of the cheap fossil fuel age, and they may cease to serve us very well as we leave that behind. My own sense of things is that our cities will contract severely in the decades ahead and that we will see a reversal of the 200-year-old trend of people leaving the rural areas and small towns for the big cities.

Right now our region is experiencing explosive growth. Trade with China is booming. The ports are bottlenecked. Roads are congested. Our governments are on the verge of investing $3 billion in new highways to prepare for more Chinese trade, and more people. Comment?

More highways equals an extremely bad investment.


We will not have the means to continue our fiesta of easy motoring -- including the portion of it that involves commercial trucking of goods. Again, "alternative fuels" will not make up for the loss of cheap and abundant petrol. We will have to return to a more multi-modal system for moving goods -- with an emphasis on rail plus ships and boats. In any case, commercial relations are apt to become a lot more local-regional and less global. The idea that "globalism" is a permanent institution is another fantasy. As the fossil fuel era draws to a close, the world will become a larger place again.

So what form of city is best suited to handle an oil-scarce future?

Something about the scale of the Gothic city, but with updated plumbing and electric lights, wherever possible.

Gothic? You mean a return to the medieval city?

Yes, I mean a dense, low-rise (seven story maximum) pattern that we would identify as similar to the medieval city. They may even require fortification. Now, how exactly we might manage the contraction of our hypertrophied mega-cities is a related matter. Our notions these days of what we can "manage" may be grandiose; in reality, circumstances will simply manage it for us, and in a disorderly process. In any case, we have to recognize that the super-gigantic city of the 20th century is an historical anomaly. New conditions will require different arrangements.

Real estate prices in Vancouver's dense downtown are going through the roof. Any advice for home buyers?

Buyers beware. In my opinion, the really big cities are going to become very disorderly places.

OK, give me your worst-case scenario for life on Canada's West Coast in 40 years. I do recall a warning of marauding bands of pirates.

Readers seem to have misunderstood what I said, which is that the Pacific Ocean is liable to become a much wilder place, especially as Asian nations melt down politically and their naval equipment falls into the hands of freelancers. There will be a lot of them, and they will be looking for easy pickings along the continental coasts.

Your book has been described as apocalyptic. Yet, as I read it, I got the distinct impression that you relish the idea of some of the changes you predict in The Long Emergency. What could possibly be good about an energy-scarce future?

In the U.S.A., immersive ugliness of car-dependent suburbia is a terrible generator of anxiety and depression. Even if we weren't entering a crisis of fossil fuels we would have to severely reform our living arrangements. Our treatment of public space, in particular, has had tragic consequences -- since the degradation of public space leads inevitably to the decay of civic life.

A lot about the way we live now is unhealthy, frightening and repulsive. It probably requires a correction, and boy are we going to get one.

James Howard Kunstler will give a public lecture at 7:30 p.m. on June 14 at the MacPherson Theatre in Victoria. He will also deliver a keynote address at Gaining Ground, The Sustainable Development Urban Leadership Summit at Victoria's Laurel Point Inn on June 15. For more information go here.

Charles Montgomery is the author of The Last Heathen and will be writing about the World Urban Forum for The Tyee.  [Tyee]