Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Michael Manville On Kunstler

James Kunstler is probably my unfavorite star in the peak oil constellation, simply because he's a hack and a millennialist carnie, a circus operator who preaches on the side. Today (via, I found a useful review of Kunstler's recent book, The Long Emergency, by Michael Manville in the New York Press. Manville came to the same conclusion as I did about Kunstler a while back:
There are some sane and knowledgeable people who subscribe to [the idea that peak oil production is upon us]. One of them is Matthew Simmons, an energy advisor to George W. Bush. But there are also some silly people who subscribe to it. One of these is James Howard Kunstler. Simmons, in his book Twilight in the Desert, makes a persuasive case that Saudi Arabia has been overstating its oil reserves for years, and he offers policy recommendations for dealing with this reality. Kunstler, in his book The Long Emergency, skips the evidence and the policy and decides that the end times are upon us. The oil age will end, alternative fuels won't save us, and the planet will enter a period of strife and instability called the Long Emergency.


Kunstler made a name for himself in 1993 with The Geography of Nowhere, a well-written if overwrought jeremiad against suburbia. The book made him a celebrity among New Urbanists, perhaps because his unremitting hatred of big cars and ugly homes read like New Urbanism distilled into some poisonous byproduct of itself. In The Long Emergency his hatred has not subsided. Kunstler despises the way most Americans live, and his arguments are soaked in intolerance. The result is a book that disserves a worthy topic.

...[M]eticulousness and patience have never been Kunstler's strengths, and he doesn't engage, or even identify, anyone who is more sanguine than he about the world's energy future. He simply dismisses them all as "cornucopians" lost in something called the "consensus trance." The economists, the geologists, the energy experts—all are delusional. Kunstler's book, meanwhile, which makes sweeping and magnificently confident claims about geology, technology and geopolitics, has no bibliography and miserably few footnotes. None of its footnotes references scientific journals.

We soon see why. Kunstler isn't interested in the nuances of energy scarcity, nor in the various measures we might take to address it. The real business of The Long Emergency is to describe in lurid detail the forthcoming and well-deserved collapse of suburban America. Kunstler has been nursing a grudge against modernity for some time now, and despite his protestations to the contrary, he takes clear glee in imagining the punishments Americans will endure for their profligate ways.

These punishments include but are not limited to: famine; war; epidemics of deadly disease; governments releasing viruses into their own populations to cull the weak; the demise of the car culture; the bankruptcy of every big box retailer; a return to local, even pre-industrial, economies; and —- I'm not making this up -- Asian pirates plundering California.

California, of course, will collapse. The Long Emergency wouldn't be a disaster narrative if the Golden State didn't get some unholy comeuppance. On his blog, Kunstler imagines the day when "the reality of our oil predicament falls on the hapless public like a hammer of God and the people of California die for their fucking cars in their fucking cars and over their fucking cars." Spoken like a true humanist.

I part company with Manville on some of the specifics he suggests -- for reasons I have already discussed, I am hard against carbon taxes as just another excuse to raise taxes that sets the state on a precarious long-term path -- but his analysis of Kunstler is spot on, withering, and insightful.

Update 6/30: found the Kunstler quote on his blog, and applied some highlighting to the money quote, all my own.