Friday, June 16, 2006

The Long Emergency

James Howard Kunstler has been in town, to attend a conference on urban planning and to talk about the coming Long Emergency, as he calls it. Kunstler is a witty and engaging public speaker, who can make his audience roar with laughter as he describes (and illustrates with slides) the ugliness of North American urban sprawl and the hideousness of much modern architecture. If we didn’t laugh, we’d have to cry. The problem with our urban environment, as he points out, isn’t that “it’s all the same” (no one complains of Tuscan hill towns or of Parisian streets that “it’s all the same”); the problem is that so much of it is inhuman and alienating, lacking in the proportions and appropriate design that make for a welcoming sense of public space.

Kunstler argues that the end of cheap oil will soon force radical changes in our lives. The suburbs and the suburban way of life will be toast. Cities will of necessity become smaller, and will rely more on waterways and ports for the delivery of goods. The rail networks will have to be rebuilt and upgraded. Overall, however, life will become intensely local, and urban centres that do not have access to locally produced food will be in trouble. It’s madness, says Kunstler, to construct buildings more than seven stories high. With power outages likely to be fairly common, living on the 18th floor of a building will not be a good idea.

Kunstler rejects the idea that technological innovation will enable us to overcome the crisis with little disruption of our comfortable way of life. Technology ≠ Power, he says. A jumbo jet can’t be fuelled with software. (He says that the young millionaire nerds at Google headquarters to whom he talked just didn’t grasp this elementary fact.) He doesn’t believe that alternative energy sources like wind or solar power – or even nuclear power – can be adequate replacements for oil and gas. And he utterly rejects claims that the Alberta Tar Sands and its ilk can provide enough recoverable oil to significantly postpone the arrival of the Long Emergency. He says that people often ask him whether he can give them any hope, but he can’t do that. The only hope there can be is what comes from getting up off your rear end and doing something about the current state of affairs.

Footnote: Useful action must be guided by an intelligent analysis of the problem. And that includes understanding the capitalist economic system. It is interesting that a survey of some prominent British politicians and commentators finds many of them claiming that Marx’s analysis of capitalism is still relevant today. How many of their North American counterparts would dare say such a thing, even if they believed it? How many have the educational background to have a credible opinion on the matter?

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