Posted by: Doug Henwood | February 2, 2009

Comments on Kunstler

Here’s what I had to say about my interview with James Howard Kunstler after it aired:

I think Kunstler is a very interesting and entertaining fellow to listen to. I still have some serious problems with his perspective. I didn’t edit out the ums and pauses in his answer to my question about a population die-off because I wanted to make clear the anxiety that a lot of people of his persuasion feel on the topic; my guess is that a lot of them just don’t like large agglomerations of people very much, and would be, if not happy, then satisfied to see them culled. He didn’t really answer the question on nativism and the lack of diversity at all. And New York City is, despite his bleepable assertion to the contrary, highly energy efficient. We emit more than 70% less the U.S. average of greenhouse gasses, which are a good proxy for fossil fuel consumption—and almost 40% less than those eco-freaks in San Francisco. My own feeling is that the best approach to maintaining a comfortable material standard of living compatible with avoiding ecological catastrophe is to reurbanize the population and create greenbelts around our cities. I agree with Kunstler that suburbs are alienating and ecocidal, but his small towns are far less energy efficient than more densely populated regions, because density makes walking and mass transit possible. But our visions of the future often do embody our personal preferences, don’t they?

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Responses

  1. I enjoyed your interview with JH Kunstler, and your critical response to it. I think he has a right to his views, and is an entertaining guest, but that does not mean I have to subscribe to them.
    1. In your probing of whether there is enough “diversity” to his worldview, you might want to know, if you do not, that he was taken to task for his use of the word “faggotry” in an architecture review on his blog, to which he responded with derision that he would be questioned for its use. In selecting him as your guest, are you comfortable with that situation?
    2. The inked up gym users he scorns as “barbarians” are still welcome in my world to listen to your fine podcast and be considered among the family of humans. Personally, it’s the non-tattoed corporate barbarians currently feasting on the bones of working people and the poor who strike me as “barbarian.”
    3. In the world of prediction, let’s say I say tomorrow the moon is going to turn to cottage cheese. You check in your telescope, and tell me tomorrow – nope, no cottage cheese. What happened? Well, its an anomalous situation, I say. Nothing in this world is anomalous – it’s all natural, baby. If your predictions were off, they were off. Take the hit. Be a better sociologist next time.

  2. I loved the interview with JHK, and how you refuted him on the issues raised in the latter half of the interview.

    The Good: I agreed with what he said about the social cost of surburbia, as a person who grew up on the middle of Long Island I experienced the “lack of autonomy” first hand. My mother had to actually set up “playdates” (yes they really did use this humiliating and bizarre word) to be coordinated with the mothers of my friends whenever I wanted to hang out with anyone. I didn’t walk to school on my own until I was 14. It’s amazing more people don’t find these aspects of childhood bizarre and unnatural. Please do more stories and interviews on this topic!

    The Bad: I feel that a lot of his thinking is animated by a sort of Malthusian perspective – “The people I don’t like don’t deserve to live, and thus it is destiny that they die off.” He really didn’t explain why Russia’s capitalist mass death wasn’t an “apocalypse” – I think what he was trying to say is that the media didn’t *frame* it as such, but so what? Does that make their deaths any less abominable? Does he think that the corporate media will treat a 1st world white nation exactly the same as the Evil Empire?

    The Ugly: His answer to your question about mass die off on Earth. Yikes. I haven’t heard an interviewee fumble this badly since you asked Hitchens to explain what Orwell would think of “non-imperial occupation.” If he was trying to be funny or ironic, the humor and Irony was totally lost on me.

    I know I posted this before but since you made a whole new post about it I decided to re-post my thoughts a little more clearly. Sorry If this is too long.

  3. Forecasting, I once heard an oil forecaster admit, is not a respectable line of work. When commentators begin to hold forth on The Future, the greater the detail and the distance, the less my patience. I am less annoyed by the murk in Kunstler’s crystal ball than in his propensity to look into the damn thing. When he looks into the rear-view mirror, he has more compelling things to say.

    As for population, some concern is legitimate. It would be a better world if everyone spoke on the subject with the depth and grace of Amartya Sen, but he is rather distinct. Modern agriculture is vital for sustaining our population levels, yet it is no less a part of the fossil fuel fiesta.

    A previous guest, Robin Mills, merits comment here. Contrasting geologists and economists, Mills spoke solely of geological myopia: focusing on oil in the ground without taking account of changes in geopolitics, technology, and prices. Fair enough, but that only acknowledges one blind spot. Too many, economists in particular, assume that sustained high prices will magic up the technology to extrapolate forward from our recent past. But all the incentives in the world aren’t worth a damn without the capacity to respond.

  4. Oh Doug, why are you lending your street cred to Dennis Perrin that goofball, by linking to his blog???

    Liked your interview with Steve Perry and the Gloomy piece. Being well-read, I wasn’t that surprised when the crisis happened, but I’m cautiously optimistic that Obama will be able to pull the global economy out of the downtrun. Even if this first stimulus doesn’t go through, they’ll get it done. The big question for me is regulations going forward – Tobin tax? – and how well the US and other countries will cooperate.

  5. Peter K: I’m linking to Dennis Perrin because I like him personally and think he’s a smart and funny writer.

  6. Fair enough. You should republish you prescient Wall Street book with a new chapter and intro/forward for a quick buck. Easier said than done I guess.

  7. Doug:

    I too have long thought that we would do well to re-urbanize, and for exactly the reasons you cite.

    I’ve also thought that moving to a national popular vote (http://www.nationalpopularvote.com/) for the executive branch would be the single best way to create the preconditions whereby we might begin to realize such an outcome. Hertzberg’s posts (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/hendrikhertzberg/2008/01/npv-gets-more-p.html) are the most informative I’ve come across regarding progress on this front.

    Re-urbanization would go a long way towards filling what Martin Wolf, in your 1/31/08 interview with him, calls our “investment hole.” And I’ve only skimmed it, but one of the “pinheads” over at the NLR had a big piece (http://www.newleftreview.org/?view=2740) about how, at least since Haussmann, heavy urban investment is the way that we tend to get around these situations where the capitalists are just sort of sitting on their hands. Via urban infrastructure development, surplus labor can be matched with unemployed surplus capital.

    But, again, the political climate has to be favorable for such projects, and I simply don’t see that absent cities gaining the kind of pull on candidates that the N.P.V. would, it seems to me, create.

    Thank you for starting this blog; I look forward to spending time here again soon.

    Best,
    SKS

  8. Mr. Henwood,

    I’m very surprised that you take this misanthrope seriously enough to talk to him. Although I guess he’s important, since, unfortunately, he’s probably taken seriously by a lot of people.
    The truly sad thing is that Mr. Kunstler is thought of as “Left” or liberal. He should be seen as right-wing, hateful of people, and disdainful of workers and not in any way progressive!

    Very Sincerely,
    Ed Beaugard

  9. Re: some of the comments.

    I hadn’t known about Kunstler and the “faggotry” controversy. I do not approve of that sort of thing, except as used affectionately by same-sexers or their fans.

    Yes, Kunstler has obvious affinities with Malthusianism, a POV I have no sympathy for. I go into some of these issues at:

    http://www.leftbusinessobserver.com/Globalization.html

    Still, despite my disagreements, I like talking with interesting & provocative people I disagree with. I’m not into preaching only to the choir, or from the choir’s authorized prayerbook.

  10. Sure, your comments are OK. The problem with this sort of toleration is that you leave out the quality of your interview of him. Do you press the issue on his “faggotry” and “gender confusion” remarks, which could have been available to you with a few clicks, or do you let him have the floor? If you press the bigot, he gets mad, and does not come back on. If you let a lot ride, you risk having a milquetoast interview. Now, you’re not exactly facing the sell-out dilemma of, say David Gregory of “Meet the Press,” you are, in our alternative universe, subject to a little of that pressure. My advice? Since you can’t really debate that guy in your format, thank him for his service, wish him well at the health club, and choose the honorable thing to look elsewhere for “provocation.”

  11. Actually, I think Doug did a pretty good job of distilling what was really good about Kunstler’s analysis and also giving him enough rope to hang himself with on the mass die-off and efficiency issues. I don’t turn my critical thinking skills off when I listen to radio, it’s ok if people are allowed to say problematic or controversial things.

    Also, while tatoos are awesome, I think that Kunslter was *trying* to say that more and more young males are joining gangs. He’s wrong about that too, but it wasn’t clear to me that he literally though tatoos were a sign of desperation and terror in and of themselves.

  12. Very good, Richard, let them say whatever they want, eh? Nice and tolerant, you’ve got your “critical thinking skills,” and all the ships just pass in the night. What about debate? Principle? Whatever happened to an actual exchange between people of dissenting views? Where, in our televisual or audio culture, do you find that?
    Kunstler referenced seeing tattoos in his gym club. If our choicest inner city gangs are recruiting in Saratoga Springs, NY health clubs, then damn, you better watch your dentist or your accountant for gold teeth and pimping tendencies.


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