James Kunstler in Portland, 25-Jan-2006

James Kunstler spoke last night as the opening lecture of the 2006 Illahee Series focusing on Oil + Water. Kunstler did not veer too far from his recent book The Long Emergency, and he also did not bother with a lot of graphs and slides on peak oil (or as he calls it, the ‘permanent global oil predicament’). Being a novelist as well, his lecture was more of a story about where America finds itself at this point in time. I’ll just try to touch on the main messages of his talk.

1. The idea that Technology is not equal to Energy. Technology depends on energy, and can leverage energy, but it is not energy itself, nor does it create energy.

2. He identified two ‘impediments to thinking’ about the energy situation.
– Belief in wishful thinking – that no real work needs to be done to address problems
– Worship of unearned riches – he called it ‘Las Vegasization’ – but I’d say the housing bubble has made plenty of true believers in this concept

3. A sense that Americans do not have a lot of confidence at this point, in our ability to create places that we care about (ie. non-suburbs), in our ability to pull off big projects successfully. He first introduced this idea when discussing China and its probably moves to secure more Central Asian energy resources, which could make one think about a Central Asian land war with China – as he put it, “not a project we can feel confident about.”

4. A distinct lack of ability in the media and power structure to question assumptions and think critically. For example, Robert Reich’s talk about 20-30 more years of China’s development on the current path, or David Brooks on the continuing growth of outer Phoenix, Arizona.

5. A slide of the formerly middle class into ‘economic loser’ status, as the ability to drive becomes less democratic (ie. more folks won’t be able to afford it), and they are stuck in houses that are losing value while being far from any jobs, schools, etc.

His vision is a gloomy one; that we’ll get what we deserve, not what we expect. I think he’s right on many points even if the timing is hard to pin down. In the meantime, local efforts at sustainability and community building seem to be the most worthwhile pursuits.

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