Transition has been the keyword of my semester. My internship with the Clean Energy Fund has served as my transition between being a student and being a graduate. My work has focused on promoting speakers who help others to understand how to transition – whether that transition is away from fossil fuels, into resilient communities, or towards our personal and collective futures. On March 14, 2012, author and social critic James Howard Kunstler came to the University of Vermont to talk about the transition our society will face from one revolving around suburban sprawl and urban development towards localized, more primitive communities.
As the keynote speaker for the Center for Research on Vermont’s Energy Future Seminar Series, there was a great deal of build-up and excitement around this event. Students across campus have read Kunstler’s work and know him for his radically critical stance on suburbia, urban development and America’s grand misuse of resources and oil. The amazing thing about an outspoken, controversial, and oftentimes offensive speaker is that they have the power to inspire a great deal of conversation at the University. As seen two years ago with Derrick Jensen, a good speaker can be the spark to ignite a flame of discourse around enormously important topics.
Earlier in the day a handful of students and I shared lunch with Mr. Kunstler and had the opportunity to pick his mind. I left the lunch feeling discouraged and markedly less excited for the night’s lecture. While he clearly demonstrated intelligence, charisma and character, his cynicism seemed to over-power everything he said. I wanted to better understand what he was hopeful about, which communities are resilient or impressive and where hope lies in this mess of sprawl and falsified “progress.” He couldn’t seem to tell me those things and instead struck me as an alarmist, devoid of hope.
Kunstler’s lecture in the Davis Center’s Silver Maple Ballroom ultimately surpassed each and every one of my expectations. The room was originally set up for less than 300 people with partitions before an extra one hundred chairs… just in case! Those partitions were immediately removed as community members and students alike flooded the ballroom and filled the sides and front of the space. Luckily, the Davis Center staff was able to open up the room behind the Silver Maple – ultimately allowing enough space for around 700 attendees.
Kunstler had the audience laughing from the get-go. He explained that the event would not be “G-rated;” he was nobody’s therapist nor a builder of self-esteem, but that every listener would hopefully leave a better person. In contrast to what I felt he had indicated earlier, he began his lecture by stating that, “there is awful lot to talk about. It is very important to be hopeful. However, one should have hope in the right things – not hope in sustaining the unsustainable.”
Kunstler masterfully and comically explained how our society has gotten to where it is today and where it failed along the way. The first major failure came when “we said goodbye to making things of value and sent them overseas.” We built a “financialized economy” with the purpose of raising capital and making wealth in a new way – to get something out of nothing. According to Kunstler, “we supported a lot of swindles and frauds upon which the banking system is now choking.” We stopped investing in creating communities and properties of value and instead invested in what we believed would be productive activities of the future. Our second major failure is that the American public is clueless to the Oil Export Crisis. Peak oil is real and we are in trouble; yet, somehow this isn’t commonly considered an issue. This failure comes hand-in-hand with our nations massive failure of leadership. Kunstler claims, “America is the most unbelievably misinformed country of this size the world has ever seen.” With this, we’ve all become a part of the campaign to sustain the unsustainable. This tacit campaign has lead to our biggest societal misconception: the eternally optimistic idea that “they will come up with something.” This idea is defined by Kunstler as “Techno-narcissism”: the idea that somebody, somewhere will develop a technology that will allow us to sustain our current way of life. The environmental elite is seeking ways to keep cars running and planes flying despite the fact that ultimately, there will not be the energy to keep those vehicles in motion.
Herein came the topic of transition and what that will mean for American society. According to Kunstler, it will be a terribly difficult transition – one he has described in The Long Emergency (2005). We are not going to transition in the way that we fantasize we are going to now, while we have the supportive backbone of oil. According to Kunstler, much of what we currently know and rely upon is in a state of peril. Instead, we’ll have to downscale everything including our ambitions for solar and other alternative energy sources. Whirling metropolises and big box stores will lose all of their importance. There will be a tremendous loss of wealth nationwide. Las Vegas will no longer be a city of excitement. The American Southwest will perish without air conditioning. Skyscrapers will become impractical and obsolete. In essence, each and every place and thing that relies upon cheap energy will no longer exist. Where will we live? Kunstler explained that resilient communities will be those that exist in a scale consistent with the resources available to them. These places will have meaningful relationships with waterways, rails and agriculture. There must be a comprehensive retraction of activity and energy use. This means that we, as a whole, must drastically change our ways and not rely on the eternal and improbable possibility of somebody figuring out how our status quo can possibly be sustained.
Members of our society must develop a sense of place and construct spaces that are worth occupying. Kunstler declared that we will have to “say goodbye to the reigning paradigm” and accept that suburbia is done and we put all of our resources into a system, structure, and place with no future. We must change how we live and inhabit terrain in North America by reverting to traditional living arrangements and agricultural models. As inspired by examples in Italy and France, a building should define the excellence of a space. There should be no need for the farce we call “green space;” instead, large parks should be aesthetically pleasing and promote tranquility. We must create a standard of excellence for all design and seize every opportunity to redefine public space. He concluded his lecture constructively; explaining that we can begin the process of downscaling, and relocalizing while rebuilding both the railway and agricultural economy.
The following day, Kunstler spoke in ENVS 151, a planning course mandatory for all Environmental Studies students, and fielded questions in response to his writings and his lecture the previous night. Presented with the rare opportunity to actually meet the author whom they had been reading, the class easily peppered Kunstler with enough questions to fill the hour. Thematically, a majority of their questions came back to this: Where will we, as students – as the burgeoning generation of movers, shakers, decision makers and leaders – stand during and after this massive societal transition. To the best of my understanding, Kunstler’s answer was as follows: our generation must respond “competently and correctly to reality,” demonstrate to ourselves that we can do it, and thus generate hope for our futures and ourselves. This reality means mentally preparing ourselves for what will be a difficult and discouraging transition and taking part in the process of downscaling, relocalizing and regenerating agricultural systems. Kunstler ultimately shared this undisputable belief that “the most valuable thing you can do for personal salvation is to be comfortable that you are leading a life with purpose.” If we dedicate ourselves to meaningful work and sustainable lifestyles than we can feel righteous in our hope.
"The End of Cheap Energy" with J.H. Kunstler was a Clean Energy Fund sponsored event.