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Posts from the "James Howard Kunstler" Category

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The Last Thing This Nation Needs

I hate to nitpick at an outstanding and historic speech but it's January 21 and time to start talking about the stimulus bill, so, well, I'll let James Howard Kunstler do the nitpicking...

“We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars…”
-- Barack Obama's inaugural address.

“The last thing this nation needs now is a stimulus plan aimed at the development of non-gasoline-powered automobiles married with extensive rehabilitation of the highway system.”
-- James Howard Kunstler

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Jim Kunstler on the Bail Out and What’s Next

Jim Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency, has been predicting today's financial catastrophe for a few years now so it's no surprise that his blog is loading slowly this morning. The people want to know: What's going to happen next?

What the mainstream is truly missing here en masse is that another tsunami is building right behind the finance fiasco, and that it will render moot the whole reeking cargo of schemes and wishes that comprises the Great Bail-out. I am speaking of the global oil problem. In fact, the problems in banking and money currently roaring in the center ring of the world circus, can be described categorically as a product of the oil problem -- since oil is the primary resource of industrial economies and therefore the motive force behind our ability to generate "wealth." Without reliable and ever-growing supplies of oil, there is no industrial growth, and without industrial growth things like capital investment instruments lose their legitimacy. That is why the Frankenstein family of Ponzi securities was invented in the first place -- to compensate for the demise of industrial growth by creating wealth out of... nothing!

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Today’s McMansions, Tomorrow’s Tenements

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This weekend's must-read article is "The Next Slum?" by Christopher B. Leinberger in the Atlantic Monthly. He posits that the suburban American dream that was launched at the 1939 New York City World's Fair appears to be running out of gas. Emerging in its place is the growing desire of many Americans to live in more walkable, urban neighborhoods and the catastrophic deterioration of Pleasantville, USA:

Strange days are upon the residents of many a suburban cul-de-sac. Once-tidy yards have become overgrown, as the houses they front have gone vacant. Signs of physical and social disorder are spreading.

At Windy Ridge, a recently built starter-home development seven miles northwest of Charlotte, North Carolina, 81 of the community's 132 small, vinyl-sided houses were in foreclosure as of late last year. Vandals have kicked in doors and stripped the copper wire from vacant houses; drug users and homeless people have furtively moved in. In December, after a stray bullet blasted through her son's bedroom and into her own, Laurie Talbot, who'd moved to Windy Ridge from New York in 2005, told The Charlotte Observer, "I thought I'd bought a home in Pleasantville. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that stuff like this would happen..."

...For 60 years, Americans have pushed steadily into the suburbs, transforming the landscape and (until recently) leaving cities behind. But today the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living, and there are many reasons to believe this swing will continue. As it does, many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and '70s-slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay.

This scenario will be familiar to readers of James Howard Kunstler:

If you really want to understand the U.S. public's penchant for wishful thinking, consider this: We invested most of our late twentieth-century wealth in a living arrangement with no future. American suburbia represents the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. The far-flung housing subdivisions, commercial highway strips, big-box stores, and all the other furnishings and accessories of extreme car dependence will function poorly, if at all, in an oil-scarce future. Period. This dilemma now entails a powerful psychology of previous investment, which is prompting us to defend our misinvestments desperately, or, at least, preventing us from letting go of our assumptions about their future value. Compounding the disaster is the unfortunate fact that the manic construction of ever more futureless suburbs (a.k.a. the "housing bubble") has insidiously replaced manufacturing as the basis of our economy.

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Wall Street Journal Declares Peak Oil No Longer a “Fringe” Idea

Realizing that it's generally considered passé if not altogether wacky to talk about New York City transportation policy and politics in the context of global energy business, a Wall Street Journal story this morning confirms that global fossil fuel production appears to be hitting a plateau. In other words, Peak Oil is no longer a crazy idea and the faster that New York City can reduce its dependence on gas-guzzling cars and trucks, the better off we'll likely be. From this morning's paper:

A growing number of oil-industry chieftains are endorsing an idea long deemed fringe: The world is approaching a practical limit to the number of barrels of crude oil that can be pumped every day.

Some predict that, despite the world's fast-growing thirst for oil, producers could hit that ceiling as soon as 2012. This rough limit -- which two senior industry officials recently pegged at about 100 million barrels a day -- is well short of global demand projections over the next few decades. Current production is about 85 million barrels a day.

The world certainly won't run out of oil any time soon. And plenty of energy experts expect sky-high prices to hasten the development of alternative fuels and improve energy efficiency. But evidence is mounting that crude-oil production may plateau before those innovations arrive on a large scale. That could set the stage for a period marked by energy shortages, high prices and bare-knuckled competition for fuel.

The outstanding Oil Drum blog also notes two related but extremely wonky studies by Stuart Staniford and Sam Foucher. The studies suggest that daily production from the world's biggest oil fields are declining at a much faster rate than previously projected.

And, as he does every Monday morning, author James Howard Kunstler puts the issue into perspective; this week, following a trip to the outer reaches of New York state exurbia:

Of course, I am aware that my ability to venture easily into the outlands of Washington County, New York, is not something that I can take for granted much longer. A year or so from now, I may have to plan ahead, even make sacrifices, to travel so distantly from where I live. In the meantime, I wonder with the keenest curiosity what is going through the minds of the people who dwell out there. Surely they've noticed that gasoline is $3.25. One can easily imagine the granite countertop in the kitchen where the bills are piling up, the frightening invoices from Master Card and Discovery, along with dunning letters from the company that "services" the mortgage. One can imagine the feelings of despondency creeping up the veins of the household lord and his lady as they contemplate the distress sale of their motorboat, jet skis, snowmobiles, and RV -- and the futility even of trying.

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The Horror

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Here is a horrifically entertaining way to kick off your Halloween day: James Howard Kunstler's "Eyesore of the Month." October's Eyesore is a drive-thru ATM machine in Caseyville, Illinois. Kunstler writes:

The Ionic columns are a nice touch. What I like best is that only two of them are required to hold up the massive roof of the structure. It's like a magic trick. Children love magic. . . and the American people are uniformly very childlike, so this is perfect for them. The mysterious green metallic object in the traffic circle is another nice touch, lending an appropriately ominous note to the scene.

Of course, for a real dose of terror, you've got to read his weekly column...

When historians glance back at 2007 through the haze of their coal-fired stoves, they will mark this year as the onset of the Long Emergency – or whatever they choose to call the unraveling of industrial economies and the complex systems that constituted them. And if they retain any sense of humor – which is very likely since, as wise Sam Beckett once averred, nothing is funnier than unhappiness – they will chuckle at the assumptions that drove the doings and mental operations of those in charge back then (i.e. now).

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Kunstler: Parking Plans Are Based on “Faulty Assumptions”

If you're the type of person who has been following the Yankee Stadium parking garage story, or the Hudson Yards zoning story or the story about the city block in Prospect Heights that's being leveled and turned into a gigantic surface parking lot, you may enjoy James Howard Kunstler's column this week. The author of The Geography of Nowhere and The Long Emergency, has lately noticed that many American towns "are obsessed to the point of mania with the issue of parking and more generally the management of cars, and much of their spending is directed to those ends." He writes:

Because I wrote a couple of books about the design of cities (and the shortcomings of suburbia), a lot of blather comes my way about what towns around the nation are planning for the future -- and, off course, I hear plenty on the subject in my own town, Saratoga Springs, New York, which is a classic "main street" type town. I also happen to travel a lot and actually see what's going on far from home. Almost everything I see and hear is inconsistent with what I think reality has in store for us.

Most American towns, including my own, are obsessed to the point of mania with the issue of parking and more generally the management of cars, and much of their spending is directed to those ends. Municipal leaders (and the public they serve) have no idea what kind of problems the nation faces with oil. Because life in the USA has worked a particular way all their lives, they assume that it will continue to operate that way. Not only will they be disappointed as happy motoring spirals into history, but they will create a lot mischief in the meantime in planning things based on faulty assumptions.

My own town, for instance, relies heavily on tourism, in particular tourism based on happy motoring. There is not the slightest apprehension among the people here, or our leaders in city hall, that automobile-based tourism may not be happening as soon as five years from now. All our political energy is being expended in fighting about what kind of parking structures we will build (with borrowed money) and where to put them, and how these things might incorporate some secondary uses, such as police offices. We have also been debating plans for the expansion of our modest convention center -- in connection with added parking structures. It seems to me that one of the first things to go as the US economy contracts, along with its energy supply, will be activities like boat shows and optometrist's conventions.

Now this town happens to be on a railroad line that connects New York City to Montreal. Before 1950, it was the main way that people came to this town. These days, we get one train a day in each direction. The trains are invariably late, and not just a little late, but hours late. The track bed is in miserable shape and, of course, Amtrak is a sort of soviet-style management organization. There is no awareness among the public here, or our leaders, that we would benefit from improving the passenger railroad service, and around the state of New York generally there is no conversation about fixing the railroads. (Governor Elliot Spitzer is preoccupied these days with arranging to give driver's licenses to people who are in the country illegally.) We are going to pay a large penalty for these failures of attention....

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The World’s First Sustainable Parking Structure

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James Howard Kunstler's Eyesore of the Month of July is the nation's first LEED-certified, "sustainable solar-powered parking structure." Yep. Only in California. Kunstler writes:

Apparently nobody informed these idiots that happy motoring is not a sustainable activity, and neither is the parking that necessarily attends it. This is apart from the sheer appalling monumental ugliness of the building. The official PR handout is a prime example of how America is blowing green smoke up its own ass:

The six-story, 882-space structure at the Civic Center features photovoltaic roof panels, a storm drain water treatment system, recycled construction materials and energy efficient mechanical systems.

The $29 million structure -- which sits near the entrance and exit ramps at the end of the 10 Freeway -- also features ground-floor retail, art works on every floor and sweeping city and ocean views.

City officials hope the 290,000-square-foot-garage will become the nation's first parking structure certified by the U.S. Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).

The structure's photovoltaic panels -- which cost $1.5 million -- will pay for themselves in 17 years by generating $90,000 a year in electricity," said Craig Perkins, director of Environmental and Public Works Management for the City.

Ground control to Santa Monica: in 17 years the automobile age will be over.

Photo: !architect4!/Flickr
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The Suburbanist Paradox

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The Atlantic Monthly's Matthew Yglesias argues that high-density living is a key strategy to fight climate change. Yglesias takes issue with fellow Atlantic Online blogger Ross Douthat and author Joel Kotkin, who defend suburban sprawl -- what James Kunstler has famously called "the most destructive development pattern the world has ever seen, and perhaps the greatest misallocation of resources the world has ever known." Reporting on a recent talk by Kotkin, Douthat writes:

The notion that Americans are moving back to downtowns in large numbers is a myth, Kotkin announced; instead, they're moving ever outward, into new exurbs and rural areas. The traditional unipolar urban downtown isn't going to make a comeback: Young couples with families can't afford to live there, and aging Baby Boomers don't want to. The American city of the future will be more of an archipelago of suburbs than the kind of one-downtown organism bred by the Industrial Revolution: "We aren't creating more New Yorks and Chicagos; we're creating more Los Angeleses."

Yglesias counters:

There's the paradox. The urbanist proposal isn't "hey, jerks, why don't you all move to dense downtowns." Rather, the proposal is something like "why don't we impose carbon taxes so that things like driving long distances and heating or cooling large detached structures are priced in accordance with their social cost? Why don't we stop having the federal government heavily subsidize driving cars as the preferred mode of transportation? Why don't we have more areas that allow for high-density zoning, thus reducing the cost of urban housing?" It's not that we urbanists are unaware that many people live in low density areas because its cheaper, it's precisely that we are aware of this fact that makes us believe that the "traditional unipolar downtown" could make a comeback.

Quite naturally, the combination of cars being invented, cars being massively subsidized, and governments being successfully lobbied by car companies to dismantle mass transit systems led to a massive shift in the direction of sprawl. But by that same token, if we step away from those policies to some extent we'll see a rebalancing in the direction of urbanism.

Photo: telesle17/Flickr
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Pseudo-Environmental Hummers

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A lone Hummer driver with a conscience? At first glance, it seems so. But this is actually becoming something of a trend: Everyone who is pitching an alternative fuel these days is using a Hummer to make his or her point. And the reason is obvious. Everyone knows that Hummers are the most gas guzzing private vehicles on the road, and are much despised by people who are concerned about the environment or America's addiction to foreign oil.

This one is carrying a sign saying that because it is run on hydrogen, it pollutes less than a hybrid vehicle well known as a choice of environmentally conscious drivers. It's evidently operated by a company pitching hydrogen fuel that has chosen a Hummer to draw attention to its statement on the cleanliness of hydrogen. There might not be emissions coming out of its tailpipe, but as James Howard Kunstler notes in his latest book, The Long Emergency, "It takes more energy to manufacture hydrogen than the hydrogen itself produces." Because of this, Kunstler calls hydrogen an energy carrier instead of a fuel, and notes that it is unlikely that hydrogen will ever amount to a significant fuel for our cars.

It would be nice, neat, and simple if all the powered infrastructure and equipment of our society could simply be switched to hydrogen, but it's not going to happen. A few things may run on hydrogen, but not America's automobile and trucking fleets. In the long run hydrogen will not replace our lost oil and gas endowments.

Matt Savinar, midway through the second page of Life After the Oil Crash, lays out a heavily sourced, methodical debunking of hydrogen that includes five reasons why hydrogen is going nowhere: the astronomical cost of fuel cells, the lack of adequate platinum supply, the inability to store massive quantities needed for hydrogen to function as a fuel, the incredibly massive cost of the needed hydrogen infrastructure, and as Kunstler noted above, hydrogen's nature as a net consumer of energy.

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Here's another Hummer on an enviro-tour, this one promoting ethanol. The Streetsblog tipster who e-mailed in the link above noted, "I can just see the bumper sticker now: 'I ate more grain today than a small African village does in a year.'"

Ouch! How true is that statement? For the most thoughtful discussions on energy resources, I turn to The Oil Drum, which has weighed in on ethanol frequently. In May, contributor Robert Rapier ran the numbers and determined that if the United States were to yank back all its corn exports and turn them into ethanol for our cars instead of food for foreign countries, the E85 produced would amount to 3.3% of our national gasoline pool. If we wanted to turn the entire corn crop into ethanol, it would satisfy 13.4% of our annual gasoline demand. That would leave zero corn for, you know, eating, and would devastate the meat industry, which uses that corn to feed livestock. Further, he noted that the corn is grown with massive amounts of fossil fuel "inputs," like fertilizers and pesticides derived from oil or natural gas, so the ethanol isn't feasible without oil anyway.

A better solution than ethanol or hydrogen would be to stop building Hummers and start conserving energy. The best way to do that is to promote environmentally friendly communities like New York City, which keeps development pressure away from farmland, houses millions of people in small, well-insulated apartments, and of course, promotes auto-free mobility.