TRANSCRIPT: KUNSTLERCAST #71: DOOMERS
Waiting for the Storm After the Fossil Fuel Fiesta
The following is a transcript of KunstlerCast #71, released July 16, 2009.
Note: This is a nearly verbatim transcript with only the slightest edits to remove verbal ticks and redundant utterances.
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DUNCAN CRARY (as host): You’re listening to the KunstlerCast, a weekly conversation about the tragic comedy of suburban sprawl, featuring James Howard Kunstler, author of “The Geography of Nowhere,” “The Long Emergency,” and “World Made by Hand.”
I’m Duncan Crary, and on today’s show, I’m going to be talking with Jim about the Doomers. Sometimes the media and other critics call Jim and other writers Doomers for their seemingly bleak outlook on the end of the fossil fuel era, and the implications that will have on society. And although Jim has said previously on this show that he resists the term Doomer, I really wanted to explore the topic in more depth, so that’s what we have for you today.
DUNCAN CRARY: First of all, let’s just define the term. What is a Doomer?
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Well, let’s start defining it by me saying I don’t like the term applied to me because I don’t consider myself a Doomer. I consider myself to be a fairly cheerful guy with a certain point of view about where we’re heading, but I’m not an Apocalyptarian, I just think that our way of life is a limited experience that is going to be changing, so I don’t consider that doom.
But there’s a group of people who have been speaking and writing along these lines, and I think the accusation really comes from a fear that theses familiar comforts and ceremonies and amenities and benefits that we’ve enjoyed, from the final blow-out of the industrial experience and the final fiesta of cheap oil, that people regard the loss of theses things as a catastrophe, and as a collapse, and as Armageddon, and an apocalypse, and that human life can’t possibly go on without cheese doodles, cable TV, and SUVs.
I sort of understand where they’re coming from, and have a certain sympathy for it, but it’s not my point of view. My point of view is a bit different. Now, there’s some guys out there who are often lumped in with me. One of them is, let’s say, Dmitry Orlov, who is the author of Reinventing Collapse, a wonderfully witty and intelligent book, by the way.
Dmitry was a guy who had been a child in the old Soviet Union. His parents moved to America when he was a teenager. He went to high school and college in the USA, returned to Russia as a computer jock to do work just after the collapse of the Soviet Union. So, he knew it as a child when it was still Soviet Russia, this big awkward, lumbering failure of a system, and he knew it as a young man when he went back to work in the early years of post-Soviet Russia when he saw what had been the consequences. So, he writes from a very distinctive point of view and experience.
His Reinventing Collapse, hypothesized that the USA would go through a parallel kind of fall as the Soviet Union. It wouldn’t be identical. It wouldn’t be exactly the same. In fact, there would be features of it that would be very different, but indeed that it would occur. And now he has become a major commentator, and sort of color commentator on the ongoing situation, because it is underway, this thing that I call the Long Emergency, which he calls Collapse.
DUNCAN CRARY: Does Orlov refer to himself— does he, sort of, proudly identify as a Doomer? Or does he deny — do you know?
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Frankly, I don’t know. I’ve corresponded with him, and I certainly follow his stuff a lot, the stuff that has been written about him, that he writes, and even the interviews and stuff. Obviously, Dmitry has been lumped in with the likes of me.
That’s what this New Yorker story that came out in June, called “The Dystopians” by Ben McGrath, was. It affected to be about people who think the world’s coming to an end. Now, neither Dmitry nor I think that the world is coming to an end. We do have a view that may be dark in relation to cheer leading for the consumer culture. We’re not doing that. But anyway, we were lumped together in that with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of The Black Swan, who, really, hasn’t even gone to theses places where Dmitry and I are talking about how does a society function logistically and physically as this process occurs. Taleb is concerned mostly with just how markets operate and how economies respond to financial markets.
DUNCAN CRARY: Well, Jim, it seems to me that this label Doomer, it’s — yes, there are people who would put it upon you in a negative way, but there are also some people who wear the badge pretty proudly. There’s people who are into doom and gloom, right? You go on these blogs about Peak Oil, even on your blog you find people with names like Dr. Doom.
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Yes. Just as there are people who are cheer leading for the consumer economy to get back on it’s feet and continue, there is also a coder y of people who are cheer leading for the consumer economy to fall on it’s ass and for us to get away from it.
I would actually put myself in that group. I would like to see the consumer economy be discontinued as we’ve known it. It doesn’t mean I don’t want people to buy things again, but we obviously got this thing going at a level that was so destructive that it can’t possibly continue without us destroying the Earth, destroying all the other beings that we share it with, and destroying, perhaps, even life itself. Who could possibly want this to continue the way it has? So yes, I’m in favor of taking a different path.
I certainly enjoy a lot of the benefits of modern life, and I wonder how we’re going to get along without some of these things, but I’m prepared to go in that direction, and I think we’re going there anyway, whether we like it of not, so that it would be useful for people to prepare.
Now there are a couple of other figures out there. There is a guy called John Michael Greer, who is a wonderful writer. He’s a bit of a strange bird. He affects to be a Druid, or an Arch-Druid, meaning, I suppose, that he has some primitivistic religion that he subscribes to that is some kind of a nature worship thing. I don’t really know very much about it and I don’t pretend to be able to talk about it. But apart from that, he’s got a very coherent view about how this dissent occurs and in fact he wrote a book which I believe is titled The Long Dissent. Compare it with my title, The Long Emergency. Both of us, I think, have a long view of this.
His Long Dissent is something that he calls “catabolic collapse,” and the idea is that there’s a kind of sequence of cascading effects and feedback loops that you can to some extent expect or predict or see happening or forecast in the way that we move from ultra destructive, hyper-complexity to lower levels, to re-simplification and to more of — not stasis, really — but something close. Something less than the hypertrophy, the hyper-growth type, future shock kind of condition that we’ve been in for 50 years.
I don’t remember how far he takes it in terms of his expectations for where we’re headed. But I think it’s a fairly severe view of the world. On the other hand, he presents it pretty reasonably and cheerfully and he’s not weird about it.
Probably the biggest doom figure out there is Jay Hanson who came along pretty early in the game. He was actually around already in the late ’90s when the Y2K situation was developing and there was a great deal of fear that these hyper complex computer systems that we had gotten going would betray us in terms of hyper complexity and create enormous problems for our systems for banking, for the electric grid, for business, for all the things that we depend upon for modern life.
Hanson had already been there. I forget even what field he came out of. But he developed a theory that he called the Olduvai Theory and he named it after Olduvai Gorge in Africa – the place where the first humans were discovered. His theory said that the fall off from our energy resources would be severe and so swift that within 100 years we’d be back in the stone age, pretty much, or maybe even something worse.
He started a website called dieoff.com, which was something that a lot of people referred to as “Doomer porn” because it was so juicy with doom.
DUNCAN CRARY: [laughs] Yeah.
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: The idea that this whole system of everything that was familiar to us would be swept away. And I mean frankly I don’t know that I would even be able to mount a valid argument against his theory. My own sense of things is maybe it’s not going to be quite that severe. Although I can certainly see a die off in population.
That is, going from where we’re at now between six and seven billion people in the world to somewhere more like one billion people in the world, which if you go back to the point where we basically exited the solar economy, where human life was sustained by whatever the sun could do for you in terms of producing crops and firewood and energy; before it was augmented by fossil fuels and all that stored sunlight from millions of years of plants and algae collecting sunlight in the chlorophyll, etc.
So the idea is that you go back to about the year 1800 which is sort of where we exited the solar economy and got on the expressway of a hyper-coal, oil, natural gas economy – eventually nuclear. So the number of persons that the maximum that could be supported by solar activity was about a billion.
There’s an even darker view which is from James Lovelock over in England who was a scientist who formulated the Gaia Theory, which states that the planet Earth is itself a kind of a living organism of which the human race and everything else is a sort of subsystem of the whole ecology of this organism of the Earth, a meta-organism. And that it’s sort of a self-stabilizing thing.
And that we can insult it with our activity — the human race can insult it — but we can’t defeat it. Gaia is in some ways just a synonym for nature, the old fashioned definition of nature, and that we can’t really defeat nature.
Now, Lovelock is a very old man at this point, well over 80 years old. Judging from his writings, he seems very, very depressed about the prospects for life on Earth and for humanity. He sees the human species dying off to just a couple of hundred million people down from where we’re at now at about 6.7 billion. And maybe even going extinct.
I don’t remember enough about what he said. Reading his stuff is so dark that you almost don’t want to go there. It’s like the worst horror movie that you can see in relation to these problems of climate change and peek oil.
DUNCAN CRARY: Well I wonder sometimes, I enjoy a good zombie movie.
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Yeah.
DUNCAN CRARY: Or an apocalypse movie. And I wonder how many people are turning to these authors and these websites, for what you call Doomer porn, just for entertainment. Even though they’re acting really serious about it, how can you be taking this stuff seriously and clacking away on your keyboard posting comments to a blog if you believe all this stuff?
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Well everybody has a slightly different worldview and sense of where destiny is taking us. I myself do tend to be fairly cheerful as just an individual going about my life. I’m almost constitutionally incapable of becoming depressed for a long time about this or in kind of a constant way.
There are a couple of things that you might apply to this and one comes out of the other. One is I think a general sense that may be hard wired into our human sensibilities that we like fresh starts. We like the idea. There’s something appealing to us, and I know I’m really generalizing but just bear with me, I think there’s a certain appeal in wiping the slate clean and being able to get a fresh start. It comes up constantly in popular culture, even if it’s just an interview with some pop star in Vanity Fair who says oh yeah I was a junkie then but I went through rehab and now I’m a successfully high-functioning individual.
Or someone who goes bankrupt and gets out from under their mountain of debt and is able to resume their life. I do think that that’s a big theme in human affairs from time and memorial and the more complex life has become for us, the more there is to sweep away, the more dross and the more junk that we need to clean out. So I think that that’s a human wish which is expressed at its most extreme in some of the Doomer sensibilities.
DUNCAN CRARY: Take a drive down the worst … Central Avenue in Albany, and look at all the crap there. What would it take to get rid of that stuff?
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Right.
DUNCAN CRARY: [laughs] A meteor?
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Well, exactly. You have the same sense when you go to Florida when you see all the crap on the landscape out there and you say, wow it would really be great for a category five hurricane to hit Vero Beach.
Which brings me to another thing, which is for me … I have a vision from childhood which persists in my memory for what it’s worth to the listening audience. It came from my memory of being a 9-year-old boy in New York City and waiting for a big blizzard to hit the city. And sort of the thrill of waiting for that storm to occur and then the joy of having the whole city just stand still for half a day after when the storm had hit.
It was just so wonderful for that silence to take over the huge bustle of Manhattan and for all the buses and the cars to stop. And for people … And for the avenues to be free of cars and noise and for everything to just be still for a while.
One of the things as human beings that we’re probably most attune to and perhaps the least conscious to as an ongoing psychological theme apart from just the practicality of the day is the weather. I think there are many of us who actually don’t necessarily get bummed out by an approaching storm. There’s something wonderfully exciting about it. There’s the idea that you’re going to retreat into your shelter. You’re going to view this interesting spectacle in safety and then you will emerge in a clean, fresh smelling rain-drenched, rain-cleansed world afterwards.
So I do think that there’s something in our human nature that very basically vibrates to these narratives and these patterns. And finally, there’s obviously a condition in the world itself that we’re very attuned to of creation and destruction and life and birth and decline and death. As awful as these cycles may seem, we are completely attuned to them.
We may affect to fight them, like I’m going to fight death. I’ll live until I’m 130 years old. I’ll follow this diet that I’ll never age and I’ll be in great shape when I’m 97 years old. I’ll still be running marathons. But when all is said and done, everybody has to succumb the over arching cycles of reality.
I think that we all suspect that even at the greatest scale, out of death comes rebirth. Now, we’re involved in a human system right now that’s reached a point that many people probably think needs to die. I think it needs to die back some. I’d maybe give myself the pruning shears. I don’t necessarily want to go and pull it out by the roots and toss it in the garbage heap of history. But I would like to prune it pretty severely.
Cause I like the idea … For me one of the most appealing things about the human race is what we do with nature, especially with gardening, with cultivating our gardens. There’s almost nothing to me as beautiful as a wonderfully well-tended garden that in which some kind of intelligent order has been imposed. It’s one of the reasons I like geometry and gardens. One of the reasons I admire French baroque landscape practice because it likes imposing order on nature.
I mean ultimately nature is going to have its way with us. We don’t want to impose order on nature to the extent that we plasticize it and decoupage it and kill it and turn it into something horribly unnatural. But I think that we want to exist with it and be part of it and feel at home in our place within it and to do it in a graceful way.
So from my point of view, my brand of Doomerism isn’t about putting an end to human activity or the human race or civilization or route canal or any of these things really. It’s just about pruning out the plastic and the garbage. Letting the storm come and letting the rain come down and cleaning out the system and going on.
Resurrection is a great theme and redemption are great themes in the human story. I think we got a few more cycles of it to go.
DUNCAN CRARY: Doesn’t getting really obsessed with the doom side of things also absolve us of some personal responsibility?
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Yeah. I think you’re quite right and that’s one of the reasons that I don’t even want to be really grouped with them. I don’t want to be the camp of the people who say well it’s all hopeless, I give up. I don’t care about the human race and I don’t care about where we go from here. It’s just all screwed up and hopeless and forget about it cause I don’t feel that way.
I’m very interested in the project of civilization and I’m interested in the things – the good things – that the human race has created. I would like these things to go forward.
DUNCAN CRARY: So Jim, am I to take that you’re planning on being around after the year 2012?
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Oh I would sure like to be. I don’t subscribe to the Mayan calendar doom story. I don’t stay up nights worrying about that. I do think that where we are heading for trouble and it’s certainly plausible that by 2012 that could be really the epicenter of a pretty gnarly situation as far as the losses that we incur and losing the things that have been keeping us comfortable. But I don’t really think that that’s when the meteor hits the Earth. I’m not into that whole kind of story.
DUNCAN CRARY: I got an email from a listener not too long ago after those programs we recorded talking about the amateur artwork in the streets of Troy. And I’m not saying this listener was a Doomer, but this listener was very concerned about how can you be talking about amateur artwork and drawing New York when the economy is collapsing and we’re running out of oil and there’s global warming and all these huge problems.
How can you guys be taking 25 minutes of your podcast to talk about this? And I think that because of all those reasons maybe it’s important to talk about the public artwork. How do you respond to that?
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Well pretty much the same. I think we’re mutually interested in many of the things that just go on in our everyday life and how the world works because we expect it to continue in one form or another.
DUNCAN CRARY: Yeah.
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: And probably in a fairly civilized form or another. I don’t think that either of us think that we’re gonna be living in a Hobbsian wilderness of life being brutish, nasty, solitary, short and whatever else Hobbs said it was.
DUNCAN CRARY: [laughs]
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: In order to stay alive, you really have to maintain an ability to be interested in your world and what’s happening in it. If you don’t do that, you’re just on the path to deadness. As Bob Dylan once said, “He that’s not busy being born is busy dying.”
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Well that’s funny you should mention that because I’m in the thick of writing this book and I’m probably about three-quarters of the way through. I’m actually at the point now where a lot of the climactic things are coming together. I’ve got about three or four subplots going on [clears throat] simultaneously.
I take a lot of comfort in going into that world every day and operating in it and making things happen in it and working within the confines of that world. And when I’m there, I’ve pretty much shut out the modern world and I accept all of the limitations of that new world that I’m in.
DUNCAN CRARY: Yeah.
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Of course, having set it up originally in the first book “World Made By Hand” now pretty much I’m not involved with explaining how it works so much as following the characters who I’ve let loose in it and what happens to them. There are things about it that are uncomfortable but they’re not all that painful. I mean not being clean as much as you’d like to be or being hungry more than you’re used to. These are things that my characters are dealing with.
A lot of the pain for them comes from the simple fact that science and the enlightenment has failed them. A new sort of neo-Medieval, supernatural worldview is competing for their attention with all the old comforts and certainties of science and cause and effect and logical positivism and all the other things that have been part of the modern experience.
And so mentally they are challenged with a world that no longer functions the way that it was set up for them. But I like going into that world.
DUNCAN CRARY: Do you have a hard time stepping out of it fully? Do you feel like you have one foot in that world?
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Yeah I do feel like I have one foot in it and one foot back in the normal world. But I’m not at all uncomfortable going back and forth.
DUNCAN CRARY: Yeah.
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: And I’m not psychotic about it. It’s not like a Twilight Zone episode where I’m getting lost in my own creation. But it is after all a creation. To be perfectly honest with you, it is the act of creation itself which is so rewarding – to be engaged so completely in that task and in that world. I think it’s in the nature of the human condition that we are at our best and feel our best when we are completely engaged in something that is an absorbing thing for us.
So for me it’s composition in prose English. For somebody else it would be manipulating notes and making music or manipulating paint on a canvas or sculpture or getting back to the art on the street that we started talking about. Art is really vital to our daily experience and it’s not something that you… You may create it in a vacuum and it may come out seemingly from nothing, but it really, no matter how you rationalize it, it ends up not just being for you.
It’s for your collective humanity. It’s really meaningless unless somebody outside of yourself experiences it. As a character in one of my own books once said something like, “Solipsism is a rough philosophy, especially for the other fellow.”
DUNCAN CRARY: Well, Jim, I’ve really enjoyed this talk about Doomers but it’s time to call it quits for today.
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Yeah and I’m gonna cheerfully go off and roll my hoop.
DUNCAN CRARY: Alright. I’ll see you next week.
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER: Bye. Bye.
[Recording: Listener Caller Line]
FRANK BAILEY: Hi Jim. Hi Duncan. This is Frank Bailey in Ann Arbor. I wanted to comment on the latest show about commercial and corporate art. In Ann Arbor someone decided there was an old feed store building that’s now kind of a high-end gardening store but some guerrilla artist decided to restore the faded image of whatever, something out of Garrison Keillor’s life, biscuit or something.
Then other ones started to appear as well. Then at a certain point the building owners could have either taken the stuff off or left it on and it seemed to become quite popular. And so almost all of them got restored, at least in Ann Arbor.
We do have a lot of lousy abstract art. But with regard to at least these old ads, they’ve been lovingly restored on every building that had them. It makes everything look quite attractive.
DUNCAN CRARY (as host): You’ve been listening to the KunstlerCast, featuring James Howard Kunstler. To leave a listener comment, call toll-free at 866-924-9499. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can listen to all of our past programs, join our email list, find out how to book Jim to speak in your area, and talk about the show with other listeners at kunstlercast.com. I’m your host, Duncan Crary. Thanks for listening.