James Howard Kunstler, best known for his 1993 book The Geography of Nowhere, which condemns suburbia, may be the hardest urban policy analyst to pigeonhole ideologically. Anyhow, I revere Kunstler not for his supposed nonpartisanship but for his coinership of the word crudscape, and for his unrelenting Eyesore of the Month, a feature on his website that identifies the latest ultra-modernist ridiculosities.
He is considered liberal, as witness his irascible blog Clusterfuck Nation. It provides a running account of the slow but inexorable collapse of a society addicted to and addled by a drug, cheap oil, that has locked America into its unsustainable suburban lifestyle. Sounds liberal, even progressive, perhaps even radical. But then take his “World Made by Hand” novels. Sci-fi of a sort, they portray a future on the other side of peak-oil collapse, a tough, back-to-basics world where the absence of electricity, the internet, automobiles and computers forces survivors in small towns to embrace a natural lifestyle and society. Toward the end, readers draw close to envying, even coveting, that lifestyle. It’s an odd conservatism, both troglodytic and crunchy granolic.
Somehow, though, I am not convinced that Kunstler’s essay “The Infinite Suburbia Is an Academic Joke” appeared in The American Conservative recently because its editors read his novels. It was more likely because the magazine has embraced the New Urbanism – an updated version of the old urbanism – to the point of devoting a section to it.
As is often the case with posts on my blog, Kunstler’s article revolves around another article, “The Suburb of the Future Almost Here,” by Alan Berger of MIT – again as often the case, in a more vaunted publication, this time the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Kunstler debunks Berger’s rosy notion that a range of pie-in-the-sky ideas, from mass drone delivery to self-driving automobiles – will suddenly converge to pave the way to a gently reformed eco-sensitive suburbia. In his critique of that, Kunstler deploys virtually the entire armory of his skepticism.
Kunstler, it seems to me, combines the traits of the fox and the hedgehog. He wraps his view of the world around both one idea (peak oil) and many ideas. I have a hard time assessing the validity of his worldview, but his essay in TAC is certainly both amusing and enlightening, albeit essentially depressing, in line with his view of the world.
By the way, I enjoyed TAC’s or Kunstler’s popping the Jetsons image atop his essay. I have long been fond of associating modernism with the Jetsons, especially its fascination with what you might think would be the sacrosanct traditionalism of churches. When flouted by the modernists, I refer to it as the Church of St. George Jetson. The Jetsons reflect the inane optimism of Alan Berger, not its assailant Jim Kunstler.