Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Kunstler – a stopped clock?

For some reason, maybe because his recent writings have penetrated the deepest into popular culture (Rolling Stone), James Howard Kunstler has lately taken on the aspect of peak oil raconteur, drawing criticism like a lightening rod because of the supposedly gloomy story he weaves.

Whether or not his biases are right or wrong is irrelevant. Here I am talking specifically of Kunstler's disdain for suburban and exurban America, and his voiced contempt for trying to prop up this wasteful and energy inefficient lifestyle in the face of cheap energy depletion.

Ah, peak petroleum.

See, the fact that we are on the cusp of hitting the production peak often gets obscured when critics can comfortably attack this Kunstler chap on a widely selected range of writings over a ten year period. (He believed in Y2K! For shame!) To these critics I would say, the egg on your face is already flying through the air.

With that as backround, it was with some amusement that I read the mini-debate between Kunstler and Amory Lovins at Salon. Former rock and roll writer and novelist takes on Lovins plus his gaggle of industry engineers, and the result, I submit, is a draw.

A draw? The Hypercar doesn’t yet exist as an option for commuters, though it was conceived in 1993. Suburbia does, and I believe Kunstler is right – suburbs are a waste of energy and unsustainable given the cars on the road today. I’m sure it will be a photo finish race from here until 2030 – and I’m guessing both gentlemen will be proven right to their own satisfaction in the end.

Sparks Fly - (click YES to view commercial if not a member)
Amory Lovins:
James Howard Kunstler criticizes me for supposedly suggesting superefficient cars at the expense of walkable neighborhoods. If he'll kindly look at my 1999 book "Natural Capitalism," he'll find that Chapter 2, "Hypercars and Neighborhoods," emphasizes the importance of both, and strongly supports New Urbanism

Here I suspect Kunstler criticized Lovins without having sufficient background on the man or his ideas, focusing instead on technology of the Hypercar, as a cipher for the hallucinated hydrogen economy. In fact, Amory Lovins desire to reduce the weight of vehicles is positive for conservation, irrespective of how vehicles are powered.

Kunstler:
I also stand by my assertion that we will not be able to run the Interstate Highway System, Disney World, the New Jersey suburbs, or any of the other furnishings and accessories of the American dream on any known alternatives to petroleum and its byproducts.

I’d wager with Kunstler on this one. But I would also bet that Hypercars in some form will start to appear on our highways at some point in the next ten years.


Lovins:
RMI's main building is among the world's most energy-efficient, saving 99 percent of space- and water-heating energy, 90 percent of household electricity (the rest is solar-generated), and 50 percent of water, all with a 10-month payback in 1984. It has received more than 70,000 visitors and produced 28 indoor banana crops with no conventional heating system, down to -47 outdoors. Other RMI buildings also use solar micropower, exceptionally energy- and water-efficient appliances and fixtures, daylighting, superwindows and other sustainability-enhancing features.

Point Lovins, except, RMI is ONE building complex out of the millions in America that suck energy like it were free.

Kunstler will be proven correct. We are facing a long, (inter)national emergency. And I for one am glad people like Amory Lovins are around to help us through it, even though I think the proposal in Winning the Oil Endgame suggesting we burn trees to power our cars is a clownish idea. Never give a chimp reason burn something; they will; right up until they physically can't.

Meanwhile, Kunstler is right more than twice a day.

Update:
Engineer Poet at the Ergosphere has an alternative take on Kunstler.

18 Comments:

At 6:10 AM, June 01, 2005, Anonymous Markos said...

Kunstler's maverick, tell-it-like-it-is persona is a good vehicle for getting the Peak Oil message out there. "The end of Suburbia" relied heavily on his commentery and insight.

Where I part company with him is the neroesque delight, the smug "apocalypsophilia" that he shares with Mike Ruppert. It appears enough for him that he delights in the fact that he's right and realised it before the vast majority of people. -- but that's where his analysis seems to end. Given the sitation, that seems supremely self-indulgent to me.

There's a lot more to be said about peak oil other than the fact that it's happening. There are real solutions out there which also need to be discussed. Permaculture would spring to mind immediately. Without the constructive discussion, Kunstlers brand of Peak Oil message is just a trendy, baby boomer doomsday cult.

 
At 7:45 AM, June 01, 2005, Blogger Big Gav said...

I tend to agree with Markos - my tolerance for Kunstler has worn thin as he received more and more publicity.

Yes - he's correctly identified the problem, and he does it in a fairly entertaining way. But so had lots of other people, a long time ago.

He doesn't seem to offer any real plan or guidance as to how to deal with PO (feel free to correct me if I'm wrong of course - I haven't actually read "The Long Emergency, just his blog and various interviews).

I doubt everyone moving to small towns is actually an option given the size of the population - so it seems his message is just a slightly more slickly marketed version of dieoff...

 
At 5:33 PM, June 01, 2005, Anonymous tstreet said...

Lovins is probably correct that we can solve a lot of our problems with better technology and more efficiency. He simply accepts projections of our rediculous, voracious lifestyle into the future and then shows us how we can get there. We will probably fail to follow his well reasoned advice and we will probably fail to make the lifestyle changes and land use changes that Kunstler would tend to emphasize.

Kunstler errs in belitting Lovins, who is a genius and has the engineering and scientific cred in the energy field that Kunstler will never have. We need to emprace the technology where it makes sense but also listen to Kunstler when he critiques our shameful lifestyle.

 
At 6:06 PM, June 01, 2005, Blogger monkeygrinder said...

I flatly do not accept that Kunstler is an apocylypse monger, or believes the die-off would be a glorious happy day. (I suppose there are such people, but I haven't met any. Seems to be a straw man.)

Actually, there are people out there who think that just believing in Peak Oil puts one in the camp of some big oil zionist de-population plot, so I am real careful when labeling people.

There is something that I think Kunstler is happy about; I think he is happy suburbia is doomed. There are worse things.

And in his excitment to attack anything that might prop up suburbia in the future, he took some ill advised pot shots at Amory Lovins.

The balance I was trying to strike is I think Kunstler is doing good work - and in fact simply because he is saying things that are unpopular, really on the leading edge in certain ways, he is soaking up a lot of negative bullshit, where ignorant commentators project their own fears of the future onto what they think he his saying.

But you know what? In 30 years, barring a miracle, pheonix and lost vegas will in fact dry up and blow away, and those people will need to be settled somewhere.

If history is any guide, something bad will happen to those people.

If people like Amory Lovins do enough to engineer our way out of disaster, maybe we'll come through ok.

whew! Why are we fighting, people? Can't we all just get along?

 
At 7:08 PM, June 01, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some of you criticize Kunstler for not offering up any solutions to the peak oil predicament. I've got news for you. There are no humane solutions. The only solution will be for 90% of the population to die off. You can call me a doom and gloomer or whatever you want but that's the way it is. We are well into overshoot and our selfish genes insure there will be no non-violent scaling back.

Wishing I was wrong about all this, of course.

 
At 7:09 PM, June 01, 2005, Anonymous Squiggy said...

Everyone has his role. Why expect Kunstler to be 100% right, unbiased, without character flaws, or politically correct? Why project upon him our own need to believe in a Moses who will lead us out of this wasteland? There isn't going to be one. So relax and (as The Band once sang) "take what you need and leave the rest."

To be sure, debate Kunstler's arguments, but debate them on their own merits... period. Vetting and ad hominem attacks should be reserved for those who are truly deserving (have we forgotten the evil lords of Corporate Earth who herded us cattle into this insane mess?).

Look at it this way: Do you really believe Kunstler wants human beings to suffer and die? Don't you share, at least a little, the annoyance and frustration many of us feel in the face of mass stupidity and selfish denial? Wouldn't you secretly love to see abandoned SUVs all over the place being stripped for parts?

The role of a prophet is not to make correct predictions or lead an exemplary life; it is to shock the citizenry into creating a positive future.

 
At 7:24 PM, June 01, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If only we could all just get along....

We tend to be a species that finds an argument where there is none. I haven't even read this critique between Kunstler and Lovins, but I can still identify both "sides". It's the techno-fix verses the engineering-fix. They both seem to agree that we will never be able to continue this vast waste of energy we call the "American Dream" so we are trying to re-discover it. It will obviously be a combination of both, so what are we discussing.

 
At 2:17 AM, June 02, 2005, Anonymous Markos said...

There's nothing wrong with criticising Kunstler and he was perfect for surfacing the issue of PO into the mainstream, where it's now gone, thanks to his help.

There's nobody here confusing him with moses, however. The point that I was trying to make is that he's not leading anyone anywhere except to the bathroom cabinet for a dose of pills.

The PO debate is growing up, having gone mainstream. With that, there's going to be differences of opinion and this should be welcomed and discussed, rather than being seen as "unpatriotic" to the issue. The labels are already flying.

Ultimately, being right or wrong about how, when and where PO occurrs is for trainspotters, and a side issue to what happens post-PO and that's where I'm calling Kunstler up. Other than being a good neighbour and moving to a small town, where are the solutions?

It seems that he and our Anonnymous friend who commented earlier have just given up, or couldn't be bothered thinking beyond the terrible beauty of mass collapse. This is a missed opportunity to suggest and focus on beneficial and appropriate culture changes -- i.e. the stragegies that will increase your chances of not just surviving, but thriving in the long term.

 
At 3:27 AM, June 02, 2005, Blogger frenchie said...

I would agree Kunstler may be a little short on solutions but he has researched his book well and, I think, concludes that there aren't any solutions that look anything like our modern-day society. We are leaving things too late to make a 'muddling-through' changeover. Yet I don't think it's up to Kunstler and Ruppert to advocate solutions...WE should be doing it i.e. real life people in concrete situations. We don't need to be told what to do.
As for those who talk of 'selfish genes', 'overshoot' and 'die-off'...they are simply Hanson-educated. Most of them don't understand and don't seem to have read Richard Dawkins'work which does NOT support their analysis..please read it again and think EXACTLY what he means by 'selfish' and what he says about darwinism and politics i.e. the management of societies. Catton's work is very interesting but there is a lot to be done organising communities. 90% die-off is very unlikely unless we change this percentage to 90% city depopulation.

 
At 6:30 AM, June 02, 2005, Anonymous Robert Sczech said...

In general, I like Kunstler's prosa and I do agree with his message. However, regarding the discussion with Lovins, I think Lovins got it right and Kunstler was unnecesserily aggresive (and wrong). Lovins is of course right in pointing out the tremendous potential we have by exploiting efficiency gains. For instance, houses can be build which do not require any heating (low energy or zero energy buildings). The technology is there and the costs are very moderate (it costs only 30% more to build such a house than traditional building methods). Regarding transportation, lowering the speed limits to 40 miles per hour and reducing the weight of our cars by 50% would increase the mileage of our cars to over 100 miles per hour. Such an efficiency gain is possible with traditional technology - no hypercars are necessary. Regarding electricity consumption in households, the most wasteful appliance is the refridgerator in the kitchen. To solve this problem we could get rid of kitchens altogether and either rely on takout food or community kitchens located in every neighbourhood. There is a huge potential in decreasing our energy consumption. Lovins is essentially saying, let's do it, while people like Kunstler do not like this idea for two reasons: 1) they do not understand engineering and 2) they develop a huge emotional satisfaction from painting the end of the world scenario which peak oil represents. Among the peak oil people, there are too many people like Kunstler and not enough people like Lovins. Perhaps because the majority of the people on the peak oil boards are either unemployed or retired. If they would be busy thinking about the solution to our problems, they would not have the time to spend so much time on these boards. Personally, I believe that we will be OK for the next 20 years. Efficiency gains will moderate the effects of declining oil production as long as oil production does not decline more than 30% below the present levels - something which will not happen during the next 20 years. Long term however, we could be in deep trouble. Robert

 
At 10:46 AM, June 02, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Robert - I am an employed chemical engineer working for a major chemical company, who unfortunately spends way to much time on peak oil boards. I agree with your 20 year statement with the following concerns - growth and financial systems.

In a rational world we should be able to conserve and adapt with relative ease for the first portion of oil depletion. We waste so much energy as it is.

However, our economy is based upon growth since we are a society addicted to debt. My fear is that our economy will not be able to grow fast enough to feed the ravenous beast of our debt based system in the event of a lasting energy crunch.

This coupled with our current levels of debt will lead to enough debt defaults and/or inflation to tip the economy into a major recession - the likes of which we haven't been seen in 70 years.

The chaos that would ensue would make rationally distributing resources difficult unless we went to a government enforced rationing system. Building new homes and cars will be difficult due to the prohibitive high cost of energy. Many people would not be able to afford to "upgrade" in a major economic downturn as they will likely be losing their existing property and much paper wealth would be worthless.

If the peak oil pessimists are correct regarding the level of ultimately recoverable oil, then I see no other path than serious economic meltdown within the next 10 years. We will survive for the time being but many dreams and fortunes will be forever changed. 30-50 years out - all hell could break lose in locations that don't seriously adapt. I have thought about this problem for 18 months and have been not able to convince myself that we are not in for troubling times.

 
At 1:58 PM, June 02, 2005, Blogger codiferous said...

Mr. Kunstler was the person responsible for bringing PO to my attention. My world was rocked, to say the least. As someone who would rather know and be able to deal, I shall be grateful forever for this one. I have begun to make positive changes in my life towards conservation, towards survival, towards community involvement. I have been able to enlighten others (although some of my friends characterize my zeal and his book as "The Protracted Annoyance"). As someone who has actually read the book, I take exception to the criticism that Kunstler is smug, apocalyptic and offers no solutions. At the most, he is an alarmist. I would wish for our government to be so courteous…

 
At 8:25 PM, June 02, 2005, Anonymous Robert Sczech said...

Anonymous employed engineer:

Do not worry too much about the debt problem. It is the nature of our fiat based monetary system that debts can not be repaid because money is always created by somebody taking out a loan. So if you succeed to pay all your debts, that is only possible if somebody else goes into even larger debt in order to create the money which you need to repay your loan. The people who have created this monetary system (roughly 90 years ago) understood very well that debts can not be repaid within this system. In fact, people running our financial systen today do not worry about debt repayment either. The purpose of a loan is to promote economic activity and employment. By taking out a loan and spending the money we create the cashflow which in turn leads to paychecks and taxes for the government. Everybody benefits. You are, of course, correct worrying about the end of economic growth after peak oil which could make it very difficult to service all these loans. I think our financial elites worry about that problem as well. However, in comparison to the energy crisis, the debt crisis can be solved easily by applying the following two measures:

1) refinance all loans at 0.1% interest rates (as it was done in Japan ten years ago).

2) If that does not help, create a hyperinflation by devaluing the currency to the point where all the debts can be paid easily. This last measure will benefit everybody in society except those who are holding bonds or large amounts of cash.

Of course, these measures will not be taken unless the system is in danger of collapse. As long as the economy is producing, the illusion that debts (=wealth for those who are the creditors of that debt) can be paid must be maintained.

Remember loans and fiat money were invented in order to promote economic growth. As long as the majority is in favor of growth (= full employment = no starvation), we will have lots of debt. In fact, the more debt the better. The illusion must be maintained at any price. There is simply no alternative. The majority of people needs a monthly check (paycheck or SScheck) in order to survive. That's the real problem.

Robert

P.S.: When asked how debts can ever be repaid in a fiat monetary system, Lord Keynes gave the famous answer "In the long run we are all dead".

 
At 5:33 AM, June 03, 2005, Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

I wondered why I was suddenly getting a heap of traffic...

This "crisis" would be easy to weather if we just did the right thing:  plug-in hybrid vehicles, cogeneration everywhere it makes sense, moderate incentives for wind and solar, research grants for the more speculative things like engineered algae to make hydrogen and artificial photosynthesis.  PNGV technology would have done a big part of it for us, if it was on the market.  Unfortunately, the 4 years we could have used to get PNGV to market were squandered by Bush, and the Republican Congress seems to want to push everything except the solutions.

 
At 3:54 PM, June 03, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is time now to re-discover Technocracy. Originally presented in 1933 as an alternative to the Great Depression, it is a radical re-organization of N.A. society on a 'functional' basis, using energy as both the measure and control of a high tech society. This is the Plan B that North America needs now in the face of the debacle that Peak Oil presages. Look us up.

 
At 7:08 PM, June 03, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Update:
Engineer Poet at the Ergosphere has an alternative take on Kunstler.


Yup. But his take is 'Hydrogen can be 'filtered'' Huh?

Main Entry: fil·ter
Pronunciation: 'fil-t&r
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English filtre, from Medieval Latin filtrum piece of felt used as a filter, of Germanic origin; akin to Old High German filz felt -- more at FELT
1 a : a porous article or mass (as of paper or sand) through which a gas or liquid is passed to separate out matter in suspension b : something that has the effect of a filter

I know of no technology where you can take a mixed Hydrogen and other gas and "filter" out the hydrogen. You can use pressure and temp changes and liquify/solidify the other gases - but that is hardly "economical". It takes alot of energy. Better off to liquify air and split water to make NH4 if you have excessive electrical current about.

The follow-up post is about fertilization. Engineer-Poet's conclusion: "Conclusion: .... All it requires is hydrogen."

He's down on Kunstler for 'not reading science fiction' - yet the Engineer-Poet's POV is less engineer and a whole lotta poet, because claiming 'all that's needed to address the peak-energy-crop problem is Hydrogen' *IS* reading way too much science fiction and using it as science fact.


Anyone who is a believer in the 'Hydrogen will solve it all' vision needs to read http://www.tinaja.com/h2gas01.asp then do the math.

 
At 7:21 PM, June 03, 2005, Blogger monkeygrinder said...

Thanks everyone who commented, feel free to keep going.

To the last anonymous post,

Actually, based on EP's writing I think he is aware that hydrogen is an energy carrier presently, and an inefficient one. At the same time, he has a tendancy to argue the hypothetical. (We could do X if Y)

That doesn't bother me. Progress is never achieved simply with pessimism. We need people with big ideas, like Amory Lovins, who also have the technical chops to see their ideas through.

At the same time, at the pathetic rate we are going as a civilization, Kunstlers so called "apocaphilia" or whatever he has been labeled will prove the mild end of the spectrum IMHO.

And I am as bored with the apocalypse as any of us who has been reading and thinking on peak oil for over a year.

My personal bias against a negative scenario doesn't mean the optimistic scenarios have the best odds.

 
At 9:08 PM, June 03, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At the same time, at the pathetic rate we are going as a civilization, Kunstlers so called "apocaphilia" or whatever he has been labeled will prove the mild end of the spectrum IMHO.

And I am as bored with the apocalypse as any of us who has been reading and thinking on peak oil for over a year.

My personal bias against a negative scenario doesn't mean the optimistic scenarios have the best odds.


There is nothing wrong with being a big thinker or being optimistic.

If someone else's 'optimism' and 'big thinking' is gonna be costing ME (be it my wallet, my life, or the planet biosphere), then I think I have a right to rain on said big-opto-thinker's parade.

The people who have been 'sold' the vision of 'growth without bounds' will feel betrayed, and betrayed masses will be dangerous. Hence, so many people groping for a way to find alternatives so others won't feel betrayed.

It used to be one had a labor to money and back again relationship, but when humans didn't price old-solar-energy-expressed as oil based on what it takes to make that solar-energy storage medium, that labor/money relationship was lost.

 

Post a Comment

<< Home