One of the blogs that I can’t help but read each week is Clusterfuck Nation by James Kunstler, a journalist and one-time reporter with the Rolling Stone, the author of The Long Emergency, The Geography of Nowhere, and many other books and magazine articles. He's also a public speaker.
The name of his blog disturbs me, since I’m one of those people whose brain works best on images, and the image of a clusterfuck ... well. But Kunstler’s choice of a name for his rants is right on the money, even if it makes me grimace.
And so I read his weblog.
I read even though it hurts. When I read Kunstler’s words, there’s a part of me that gets a vicarious thrill, I have to admit. I feel like a rubbernecker at a particularly gruesome accident, or like someone who mindlessly eats hot buttered popcorn through the chainsaw scenes as blood spatters the walls. Yet Kunstler isn’t writing about serial killers or gory murders; he’s not writing about terrible industrial accidents or genocidal wars.
He’s writing about us. About you and me, and our America. About how tragically spoiled we are and how the whole thing is running headlong toward a cliff. He doesn’t leave himself out of the mix, either – he acknowledges that he’s just as spoiled as the rest of us and just as dependent on the very things he rants against. The difference is that he knows it. And he wants us to know it too, and to join him in trying to change it. His sincerity is so ferocious that it is sometimes almost off-putting.
Sometimes. Almost. Not enough to stop me reading his blog, though, or to stop me from pondering his arguments. Or to keep me from urging you to read what he has to say, too.
Here’s what Kunstler says, though he says it far better than I can: The world is approaching or has passed a period he calls “peak oil,” meaning that all the world’s oil that has been found and tapped over the last 40 years is on the downhill side of supply. New oil sources cannot make up for that shortfall. In the meantime, world demand for the oil continues to rise. Oil has now topped out at $80/barrel, and while at the moment most Americans are still paying just under $3 a gallon for gasoline, that cannot continue forever. The price of oil will never drop appreciably. The oil we use cannot really be replaced.
Kunstler argues that this means that for many Americans, the long daily commute from the wilderness of the suburbs to the job will soon become exceedingly expensive and eventually, impossible. It will also mean that the manufacturing and transport of goods – groceries, dry goods, electronics – will become more expensive, and that increased cost will show up in the prices we pay for them. Many Americans will find themselves in large, inefficient homes they cannot afford to heat with oil or natural gas, another energy source that is becoming more scarce and thus, more expensive.
The picture Kunstler draws is, like the name of his blog, disturbing on a fundamental level. Agree or disagree with him, what he writes compels the imagination. What do we do, one wonders, if we can’t afford gasoline for the commute to a job that earns our income? What do we do when we can’t afford to keep the heat on through the winter, or the air conditioning running during the hottest days of the summer? What do we do when we lose our jobs because we can’t afford to get to them? What will we do when we can no longer afford to buy groceries, or even the gas we need to take us the impossibly long 10 miles to the nearest grocery store? What will we do when we get there, only to find the shelves unstocked because the trucking company that delivers the goods has gone bankrupt?
It’s a frightening vision. Kunstler doesn’t leave us dangling over the abyss, however. He has some suggestions for ways around the problem. They won’t be easy, or cheap, and waiting only makes them harder and more expensive. But he’s right. His solutions? Rebuild the country’s network of rails and add to them, so that trains can replace cars. Use airlines only for very long distance travel.
That’s one part of the solution. It’s huge all by itself. There’s more. He suggests that all of us are going to have to find ways to earn our livings closer to home, within our own communities, and the sooner we do so, the better. This will also be very difficult. In my own community, I’d have to say that there isn’t enough industry of any kind to support everyone who lives here – at least, not to the standard of living we’ve all become accustomed to. We’d have to lower our expectations rather a lot. At the same time, the cost of living would need to drop, too, including the price of our rents and mortgages.
This is also huge. If our communities can’t employ us, we’ll have to move.
Kunstler says we’ll need to learn how to make our communities more self-sufficient, too, and we’ll need to become much closer to one another. We’ll have to work together. The young people coming up now need to learn how to do things in the old ways. Those of us who are older, who’ve learned how to do some of that out of nostalgia or as hobbies – the backyard veggie garden and keeping chickens comes to mind – will need to teach what we’ve learned, and even become better at it. We’ll have to come up with local work that can support us. We’ll have to help each other. We’ll have to get to know our neighbors.
It may well be impossible. Certainly, the end of our oil-driven lifestyle is almost inconceivable. And yet Kunstler argues compellingly that it’s coming. He doesn’t believe that any alternative energy we might come up with will help, at least not for long, as long as we continue to rely on our cars and roads for our way of life. He says the end of this cushy, comfy life that most of us in America live is coming to an end, and we can count the time it will last in drops of oil.
Kunstler pulls no punches. Sometimes he makes me wince with his acerbic comments. But his arguments are clear. He makes me think.
And so I’ve added Clusterfuck Nation to the blogroll on the right. Kunstler’s writing is sharp and pointy. It cuts and slices. You walk away licking your wounds, but you’re thinking about what you’ve read. If that’s all his writing accomplishes – that he makes us think enough to take action – then Kunstler may have achieved his objective. He may, with his needle-sharp pen, push us along into a better, and more sustainable world before it’s too late.
He’s also an accomplished artist and has a great eye for both beauty and ugliness. But for goodness sake, don’t pester him!
Update: The painting above is by James Kunstler, titled "Mobile and Mickey (small)". You can see more of his paintings at Clusterfuck Nation.