A couple of days ago, Freakonomics' Stephen Dubner hosted a round-table on the future of suburbia. As happens too often, James "sackcloth-and-ashes" Kunstler got a seat.
Kunstler doesn't like cities, suburbs, or any other large agglomeration of people so he fantasizes that high gas prices will extinguish them. He's a jumble of apocalyptic prophecies, loony economics, and . . . Well, I could tell you, but it is better just to show you.
Here is Kunstler's Freakonomics piece; my comments are in bold.
There are many ways of describing the fiasco of suburbia, but these days I refer to it as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.
Personally, I would have gone with World War II — trillions of dollars allocated to the slaughter of 50-60 million people. But, sure, I can see how building lots of tract housing would be a close second.
I say this because American suburbia requires an infinite supply of cheap energy —
I suspect that Kunstler actually hails from one of those isolated New Guinea tribes discovered in the 1960s who use the word “many” for any number greater than three. Kunstler doesn’t know any meaningful way to describe how much energy our suburbs actually use, so he just says “infinite,” which is the Kunstler tribe’s word for “too much” —
. . . in order to function and we have now entered a permanent global energy crisis that will change the whole equation of daily life. Having poured a half-century of our national wealth into a living arrangement with no future — and linked our very identity with it — we have provoked a powerful psychology of previous investment . . .
“provoked a powerful psychology of previous investment”? Jimmy’s been reading Derrida, or somebody. Maybe this person.
. . . that will make it difficult for us to let go, change our behavior, and make other arrangements.
Compounding the problem is the fact that we ditched our manufacturing economy . . .
We certainly wouldn't be in the mess we’re in if most of us were still employed manufacturing automobiles, refrigerators, and barbecue grills.
. . .. for a suburban sprawl building economy (a.k.a. “the housing bubble”), meaning we came to base our economy on building even more stuff with no future.
We now have cold, hard evidence that Kunstler doesn’t know what he's talking about. The “suburban sprawl building economy” is not “also known as” the “housing bubble”; the sprawl-building economy has been around for decades while the housing bubble is a phenomenon of the last few years. And the housing bubble was least pronounced in some of the places that have the most suburbs (Dallas, Houston). This man is deeply confused. And about suburbia, the only thing he writes about.
This is a hell of a problem, since it is at once economic, socio-political, and circumstantial.
“Circumstantial?” He's lost me.
Here’s what I think will happen: First, we are in great danger of mounting a futile campaign to sustain the unsustainable, that is, of defending suburbia at all costs.
In fact, it is already underway. One symptom of this is that the only subject under discussion about our energy predicament is how can we keep running all our cars by other means. Even the leading environmentalists talk of little else.
Kunstler’s not reading the same environmentalists I am. The environmentalists I read range from the sensible (impose a carbon tax) to the fringe who gleefully welcome the demise of the automobile. I guess they are talking about the automobile, but they’re certainly not mounting a campaign to save it, which is what he implies.
We don’t get it. The Happy Motoring era is over. No combination of “alt” fuels — solar, wind, nuclear, tar sands, oil-shale, offshore drilling, used French-fry oil — will allow us to keep running the interstate highway system, Wal-Marts, and Walt Disney World.
Of course no combination of alt fuels can save us. It takes an “infinite” amount of energy to run the highways, Wal-Marts and Walt Disney World, and we all know that the amount of energy in the universe is finite.
Does Disney World use that much energy, anyway? I figured Disney would be leading the parade of green-washing corporations. Anyway, it’s compact and walkable, which is what Kunstler wants. Sure the rides use energy, but roller coasters use energy for only half the ride; the other half is free, courtesy of gravity. We need more transportation that’s half free. (I know this is bogus, folks, but Kunstlerites will never be able to figure out why.)
The automobile will be a diminishing presence in our lives, whether we like it or not.
Really, I don’t see why Disney World is a big problem. Unless you believe that in the near-distant future, all interstate travel will be impossible, why would Disney World disappear?
Further proof of our obdurate cluelessness in these matters is the absence of any public discussion about restoring the passenger railroad system — even as the airline industry is also visibly dying. The campaign to sustain suburbia and all its entitlements will result in a tragic squandering of our dwindling resources and capital.
I admit I haven’t been to Disney World in twenty-five years, but I liked it OK. There’s supposed to be lots of cool new stuff, but I assume Epcot still sucks.
Usefulness and financial investment, surprisingly, are correlated.
Most of the fabric of suburbia will not be “fixed” or retrofitted, in particular the residential subdivisions. They were built badly in the wrong places. We will have to return to traditional modes of inhabiting the landscape — villages, towns, and cities, composed of walkable neighborhoods and business districts — and the successful ones will have to exist in relation to a productive agricultural hinterland, because petro-agriculture (as represented by the infamous 3000-mile Caesar salad) is also now coming to an end.
That particular salad’s notoriety was richly deserved. On its 3,000-mile joyride from Los Angeles to New York, it looted two banks, robbed three post offices, and terrorized the citizens of Topeka, all while burning 200,000 gallons of fuel and emitting 3.5 million metric tons of CO2. But I think Mr. Kunstler is unfairly implying that all Caesar salads are bad actors; I've known lots of salads who've gone about their business conscientiously, day-in and day-out, and never strayed more than 100 miles from home. Mr. Kunstler owes our produce an apology.
Fortunately, we have many under-activated small towns and small cities in favorable locations near waterways.
My home town in Mississippi was activated last year; it got stationed in Karbala.
This will be increasingly important as transport of goods by water regains importance.
We face an epochal demographic shift, but not the one that is commonly expected: from suburbs to big cities. Rather, we are in for a reversal of the 200-year-long trend of people moving from the farms and small towns to the big cities.
Right. Because the first thing people will do when the cost of transportation rises is move farther apart.
Oh, and I assume that’s a misprint in the second-to-last line; “200” should read “4000.”
People will be moving to the smaller towns and smaller cities because they are more appropriately scaled to the limited energy diet of the future.
Energy ultimately matters because people use it to generate something of value to themselves or to others. What we ought to care about is the amount of output one person can generate with one unit of energy, a concept I’m sure is totally out of Kunstler’s reach.
Big cities offer economies of scale that make people more productive. That’s a fundamental reason why people live in them. For example, Californians — large-city dwellers — have a per capita GDP about 50% higher than that of Mississippians, who mostly dwell in small towns. Californians are much more productive than Mississippians, and a lot of that edge comes from living in big cities.
Thus, for Mississippians to generate more output per unit of energy consumed, they have to use much less energy per capita than Californians. Now, there’s no reason to expect this to be true because there is no reason to expect small towns to be more energy-efficient than big cities: (1) small towns are less dense than big cities, and thus require more infrastructure — particularly roads – per inhabitant; (2) there’s no mass transit in small towns, and it’s not economical to install it; (3) there are fewer economies of scale in small towns — it doesn’t take 10 times as much energy to treat water for 10 times as many people. About the only thing you can say for small towns, from the “circumstantial of energy conservation psychology,” is that they’re less congested.
And, surprise, the data bear this out. In 2005, California had more than 12 times as many people as Mississippi, but California as a whole consumed only 8 times as much energy as Mississippi. This means that Mississippians used 50% more energy per capita than Californians. The city-dwelling Californians’ superior energy efficiency and their superior productivity combine to make them twice as productive, per unit of energy, than small-town-dwelling Mississippians.
When a resource like energy becomes more expensive, the market automatically directs it to more productive uses, not less productive. More productive uses outbid less productive uses. If Kunstler knew the first thing about economics or cities, he’d know that rising energy costs will encourage people to move from small towns to big cities, not the other way around.
I believe our big cities will contract substantially — even if they densify back around their old cores and waterfronts. They are products, largely, of the 20th-century cheap energy fiesta and they will be starved in the decades ahead.
No, suburbs may depend on cheap energy, but our cities are largely products of economies of scale. See above.
One popular current fantasy I hear often is that apartment towers are the “greenest” mode of human habitation.
Harvard urban economist Ed Glaeser is one of these fantasists. Glaeser is a lot smarter than me, and all evidence indicates that I’m a lot smarter than Kunstler. With a nod to the principle of transitivity, my money’s on Glaeser. (Glaeser at least knows what “infinite” means.)
On the contrary, we will discover that the skyscraper is an obsolete building type, and that cities overburdened with them will suffer a huge liability — Manhattan and Chicago being the primary examples. Cities composed mostly of suburban-type fabric — Houston, Atlanta, Orlando, et al — will also depreciate sharply.
Structures depreciate. Cities grow or shrink. “Fabric” doesn’t do either.
The process of urban contraction is likely to be complicated by ethnic tensions and social disorder.
Kunstler apparently views denser, better-integrated neighborhoods as apocalyptic.
As petro-agriculture implodes, we’ll have to raise our food differently, closer to home, and at a finer and smaller scale.
Speaking of fantasies, this one is popular among the peasant wing of the environmentalist movement. As energy becomes more expensive, it will become more important, not less, to take advantage of economies of scale in agriculture. Serfs with scythes and oxen aren’t very productive. There’s a reason urbanization has always been tied to agriculture productivity.
This new agricultural landscape will be inhabited differently, since farming will require more human attention. The places that are not able to grow enough food locally are not likely to make it. Phoenix and Las Vegas will be shadows of what they are now, if they exist at all.
I’ve explained before why the “local food” movement is misguided, at least when energy efficiency is the concern.
These days, an awful lot of people — the production builders, the realtors — are waiting for the “bottom” in the real-estate industry with hopes that the suburban house-building orgy will resume. They are waiting in vain. The project of suburbia is over. We will build no more of it.
If I can point him to a subdivision now under construction, do you think he’ll agree to go away?
Now we’re stuck with what’s there. Sometimes whole societies make unfortunate decisions or go down tragic pathways. Suburbia was ours.
I think I'm beginning to get this guy. Kunstler, I think, has turned himself into a cottage industry by making flamboyant, absurd predictions that he frankly has no interest in verifying. He’s less interested in his claims' veracity than their sound-bitedness. That sells more books.
People like Dubner should stop giving this guy a platform.
*See here for the reference.