10.20.2008

Wanted: Questions for Kunstler





I'll be going to a talk by James Howard Kunstler tomorrow afternoon (Tuesday, October 21).

If I get the opportunity, I want to ask him a penetrating question or make an astute observation about his work.

The trouble is, I haven't read much of him.

I've only skimmed The Geography of Nowhere, and dipped into a couple of the chapters in Home from Nowhere. Over the weekend, I've been plowing through his latest non-fiction book, The Long Emergency—a book that predicts cars, big cities, suburbs and many other parts of our everyday lives are about to start dying off as we run out of oil (which will happen a lot sooner than we think).

I need some help to look smart. What would you ask—or tell—Kunstler if you had the chance?

Let me know soon. Kunstler is scheduled to start talking at 4 pm tomorrow, so submit a comment with your suggestion before, say, 2 pm tomorrow.

Gleefully gloomy. Analytically dubious. Insistently optimistic. Sincerely sober. All tonalities of questions or comments are welcome. But I'm likely to find short questions that get to the point easier to ask. And I doubt I'll have the nerve to ask certain really rude questions in person.

(Photo from Flickr user Qole Pejorian. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)

7 comments:

duncan said...

Hi Dan,

>>>The trouble is, I haven't read much of him.<<<

I have a quick fix solution! You can listen to Kunstler on his weekly podcast, "The KunstlerCast." That's a fast, easy way to become familiar with a lot of his ideas and generate good ideas for questions you want to ask him

Visit: http://kunstlercast.com

(For a list of show topics, click the link for episodes.)

Rob said...

Excited about the new format here, Where-er’s. And, Dan, (as a former resident of Athens) to see Athens representing.

Don’t know that I exactly have a question for Kunstler to recommend, but I do have a couple suggestions for some reading material that might help with engaging Kunstler critically. I think I can group the criticisms I’ve encountered of Kunstler into three broad categories; myself, I probably agree with (1) and (3) the most, with an emphasis on (3) as I am a landscape architect, not an economist.

Basic criticisms:
1. His understanding of economic reality is flawed (i.e. peak oil will not result in the disastorous crash landing that Kunstler predicts):
Climate Progress
http://climateprogress.org/2007/10/28/why-i-dont-agree-with-james-kuntsler-about-peak-oil-and-the-end-of-suburbia/#more-1658
Freakonomics
http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2005/08/21/peak-oil-welcome-to-the-medias-new-version-of-shark-attacks/

2. Kunstler fails to evaluate the evidence fairly because he wants the crash-landing to occur, as righteous judgment on the American people for their sins of excess and suburban living. An example of this sort of criticism might be Reihan Salam's review of The Long Emergency:

"Leaving aside the half-baked geopolitico-cranko-economic analysis that "informs" Mr. Kunstler's vision of a Peak Oil Ragnarok, it's hard not to occasionally feel something like that same distaste for our dense, messy way of life. Say it happens when you're stuck in traffic, surrounded by honking imbeciles, or when you see a sea of unsightly bodies at a too-crowded beach littered in cigarette butts and candy wrappers. But eventually you appeal to your better self and take a deep breath, and think: It could be worse. The moment passes. But not if you are James Howard Kunstler: In that case, you take what are essentially aesthetic judgments — ungenerous ones at that — and allow them to collect and fester into a unified theory explaining why a near-apocalyptic thinning of the human herd might be just what the doctor ordered!"
http://www.nysun.com/arts/heralding-the-end-times/72335/

3. I've encountered this one or something like it in others, but I'm going to go ahead and couch it in my own terms. Kunstler is much more interesting as a critic than as an architect (that term being broadly construed) -- he is quite good, in my opinion, at providing humorous and trenchant criticism of the status quo; he is not nearly so artful at suggesting how we might escape from the traps we have built for ourselves, or how the disciplines of urban planning, architecture, and landscape architecture should respond to the constraints of a declining supply of oil. His answer tends to boil down to "by returning to the 19th century", which I find a rather unsatisfactory answer (social arrangements have changed, technological progress has occured, etc., and it seems reasonable to me to think that those things would have some impact on our urban/landscape/architecture arrangements).

Kunstler also ignores the real divisions in modern and post-modern landscape/architectural thought, between those who are rightly criticized as being unengaged with political/social/economic reality (say, Frank Gehry) and those who might have a similarly contemporary formal language, but are fully engaged in the project of reimagining suburbia (for instance, Paul Lukez). If I had a question for Kunstler, then, it might be something like: "Do you think that the broad criticism you offer of contemporary architects, in failing to distinguish between those who recognize the concerns you have -- the human scale, the value of pedestrianism, the virtues of density and so on -- perhaps has the unfortunate effect of keeping two sets of people (contemporary landscape/architects and proponents of traditional neighborhood design) apart, when they really share many common interests and goals?"

Rob said...

Sorry about not providing links there, wasn't sure when I was typing at first whether html would be allowed in the comments. The links should be:
Criticism #1:
Climate Progress
Freakonomics
Criticism #2:
Reihan Salam

Daniel Nairn said...

A few weeks ago on the podcast Duncan linked to, I asked him about a shift in his writing over the years from a tone of urgency and responsibility to something verging on despair. He took some time to wrestle with the balance between being a "actualist" and having enough hope to care. I thought it was a good discussion.

Dan Lorentz said...

Duncan: Thanks for the link to the KunstlerCast site. I'll be returning to it. Looks like there's a lot of interesting stuff to explore.

Rob: Your outline of the main criticisms against Kunstler has been helpful. If I have the chance, I think I may ask him a question about what he thinks is the most urgent thing city planners and other officials should or can do to start preparing for the coming chaos. Change zoning codes? Increase density? Invest in mass transit? Allow in-city chickens?

Kunstler is skeptical about the ability of the market and consumers to develop the technological or lifestyle changes to respond with reasonable speed and success to declining oil supplies and other challenges (fast-paced climate change, imploding financial and housing markets and emergent virulent diseases). Is that skepticism warranted? Right now—given my limited understanding of Kunstler's work—that's the key question I have about his "position."

Daniel: Despair vs. hope. That's definitely the see-saw ride I feel while reading The Long Emergency. Personally, as I read the book, I find I just can't not keep reaching for optimistic tomatoes with which to pelt some of gloomier passages. Similarly, when I read Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road—which is almost all stark, forlorn horror—I was really happy when, at the end, there's a ray of hope. I didn't care that it seemed misplaced. I wanted it.

Rob said...

Dan, suspect you're not too likely to get a fair answer from Kunstler about whether your skepticism is warranted (in that he's already rather firmly committed to answering that question 'no'), but I would be interested to hear what his response is to your question about a single thing to do, if you are able to ask it.

I'll add, for any Kunstler fans out there who think I'm being too harsh, that I do appreciate the work he has done in popularizing a critique of the flaws of suburbia, and find his books highly entertaining -- at least in part because they confirm my own biases. I do think, though, that he lacks (a) a healthy skepticism about his own claims (skepticism about our own claims is something we could all use) and (b) optimism (I tend towards the pessimistic myself, which is part of why I said that Kunstler tends to confirm my biases; but I think I have to be skeptical of that pessimism, if that makes sense). I think those two points are basically restating what Dan said in the above comment, though maybe he'll correct me.

Dan Lorentz said...

Rob:

Wasn't able to ask my question. Kunstler talked so long (albeit very entertainingly) that he left time for just two questions, both of which got asked by faster arm-raisers than I.

He didn't directly address any skepticism about his numbers, predictions or models, but he did insist that many people who object to what they regard as his pessimism are naively optimistic about the ability of technology to solve the coming problems fast enough. That's not an argument; it's more of a rhetorical eye-roll. But then again his book does contain arguments, does put forward evidence.

At one point Kunstler stopped the flow of his talk to urge the men in the audience to "man up" because the future will need men not boys to deal with its severe and manifold challenges. He made some cutting remarks about baggy pants and the kindergarten feel of some corporate offices, like Google's. He also said he had been to Lisbon, Portugal recently and noted how the men there dressed like men, not perpetual teenagers and took this as a clue that Europe is better positioned to weather the coming storms.

Comments like that are easy to poke fun at (and they deserve it), but many of Kunstler's points, I think, deserve serious attention, including his point that Americans might be too pollyannish.