Sunday, December 11, 2011

Interview: James Howard Kunstler

It probably hasn't been hard to notice and be directly affected by these turbulent times we live in, and to wonder if the luxuries and resources we've become accustomed to voraciously consuming for the last few decades won't always be ours to take for granted.

Although a good number of modern thinkers offer analyses of how we got to this point, of what exactly it means to live in a society where men "wear baseball caps designed to make their heads look flat" and have flames tattooed on their necks, and where all of this might be headed, one of my favorites is James Howard Kunstler.

Jim's not vegan, but his ongoing and pointed criticism of how we squander our vast resources in this society in "retail" establishments, on junk food, and with electronic gadgetry is extremely challenging to vegans who seek a deeper understanding of how we can be better stewards of our beautiful earth.

In fact, on more than one occasion, Jim's writing has exposed me as a hypocrite, and in many ways he's challenged me to stop buying plastic junk and start planning for a future where we are productive, responsible citizens instead of mindless consumers.

New Vegan Age: Thanks for answering a few questions today. How are you? And how's the reception been of Duncan Crary's new book of conversations with you, The KunstlerCast?

James Howard Kunstler: Well, it’s Duncan’s project, though I am the featured blabber in it. He will receive the royalties, if there are any. We’ve gotten some very cordial reviews and I know some people who bought it as a stocking stuffer. I never check my sales figures, though. I just don’t.

NVA: In your work, you describe in detail (often, with biting humor) the ways our modern civilization has become unsustainable, as well as what our lives are likely to look like in the next few years and decades: Radically simpler, more local, and reliant on actual skill and human relationships. Who introduced you to some of these ideas, and when? Did you arrive at some of these conclusions on your own?

JHK: I don’t live in a vacuum but there was no particular mentor or authority who propelled me in this direction. I hugely admire Wendell Berry’s books but I encountered him when I was already well into writing The Geography of Nowhere, my first book about the fiasco of suburbia. My career trajectory and place in the literature of human ecology goes something like this: I was a young newspaper reporter in the 1970s. I covered the OPEC oil crisis of 1973. It made a big impression on me. My newspaper had just relocated its offices to a new building on a giant suburban commercial strip outside the state capital, Albany (which had very effectively killed the city’s old downtown, by the way); and as the crisis proceeded you could see how hopelessly fragile the suburban pattern really was. For a few weeks there, nothing worked. The whole system shuddered.

Unfortunately, it didn't last long – if it had, we might have adapted earlier to the changes that are going to crush us now. Anyway, after that, I spent a decade writing novels, indifferently received. An opportunity to write some pieces for The New York Times Sunday Magazine eventually turned into a series of books about the suburban fiasco, the New Urbanism, and city planning. This led to the recognition that we were pretty screwed in terms of our primary energy resources – oil especially – which led to me write The Long Emergency. After that, I wanted to depict the post-oil future dramatically, so I wrote two novels in that vein, World Made By Hand and The Witch of Hebron. I’ve just finished another non-fiction book that will come out in July, Too Much Magic, which is about wishful thinking and technology.

NVA: In your 2005 book, The Long Emergency, before you get into some advice on how we might be able to eventually flourish in a new reality that is not based on fossil fuels, you assert that you "retain confidence in human resilience, courage, ingenuity, and even fairness." What events and observations in your life have helped you to maintain that confidence?

JHK: The 20th century was a long cavalcade of gigantic geopolitical disasters and the resilience of people all over the world was manifest, self-evident. Berlin was reduced to gravel in 1945; you go back there today and it’s in much better shape than Cleveland or St. Louis. Japan was back on its feet 15 years after Hiroshima – I remember vividly their pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair, with all its sparkling electronic marvels, the ranks of the SONY color television sets and big stereo systems. Vietnam has become a leading tourist destination after we trashed the place. Ditto the coastal nations of the former Yugoslavia after their self-inflicted terrors of the 1990s.

This set of predicaments I call the long emergency will require us to live differently and re-set our economy. There will be plenty of losses and hardships – nobody can predict the geopolitical fall-out – but I think the human race will endure quite a while longer. However, I do think we’re heading into a “time-out” from what we call “technological progress.” It may be a very long time-out, and I’m not sure we’ll ever get back again to the level we’re at now.

NVA: In a recent podcast, you mentioned that you're "basically vegetarian, with occasional lapses." If society reorganizes on a much more local scale—meaning that people are living in towns, engaging in meaningful work, and reliant on local agriculture—are there any ways in which vegetarianism might benefit such a society?

JHK: Well, the current American industrial diet of things like pepperoni jerky, Doritos, Buffalo wings, Pepsi Cola, and Little Debbie Snack Cakes is obviously a catastrophe. Any visit to a public place in America will show you the effects of that, for instance the galumphing brutes I see waddling down the airport concourses. Even in a post-oil future, though (at least as I imagined it in my novels) the American diet is still based on a lot of animal products besides meat itself.

I like to cook and I enjoyed creating their cuisine which, given the setting in upstate New York, contained a lot of milk, cheese, sausage and other things that I personally don’t eat much anymore. That said, I doubt we are culturally disposed to turn to a more Asian-like plant based, non-dairy, diet. It’s just not there in our heritage. The characters in my novels work hard, because they have to – the future economy I describe revolves around farming – but I imagine they’re laying on the arterial plaques with all the cream and butter they eat, too.

NVA: Are the reasons for being vegetarian strictly economic and otherwise practical? Or, do you also believe that we maintain an ethical obligation to the proper treatment of farm, companion, and wild animals?

JHK: The abuse of animals is an issue that drives me nuts, and if we have to live with more working animals in the future I’m sure that there will be plenty of cruelty. However, we are capable of constructing an ethic, social conventions, and a body of law to mitigate some of that.

My own food behavior evolved from the point where I learned my cholesterol was too high—the doctor read me the riot act—and I just veered sharply down another path. I read the Ornish and Esselstyn books about diet and disease, and especially The China Study by Colin Campbell, which made the interesting argument that many of our cancer and heart disease problems could be attributed to over-consumption of animal protein, not just fat. I don’t know the exact molecular mechanism (I’m not sure Campbell does, either), but the statistics indicate that human beings do better without animal protein. Casein found in dairy products is a particular trouble-maker. Campbell therefore promotes Asian-style non-dairy vegetarian practice, in essence, a vegan diet.

As I said, I’m a capable cook (having worked in many a restaurant kitchen during my bohemian years), and I don’t feel deprived. I’ve lost thirty pounds the past four years, since giving up butter, roast duck, and most cheese (except the scant spoonful of Parma on my whole-grain rigatoni). I’m the same size I was in high school these days.

NVA: Could you give us a sneak peek at some of the ideas and projects we might see coming from you in the next few months?

JHK: Too Much Magic will soon be out. I intend to write two more World Made By Hand novels so that the series eventually covers all four seasons of the year. (I’ve done summer and fall so far). I have some chapters of a book about the troubles of adolescence, sort of an advice-to-young-men book, which I think is useful and entertaining. On the other hand, the publishing industry itself is in a state of deep perturbation. While I believe that electronic media will prove to be ephemeral (Kindles and iPads basically run on coal), I begin to think that the book as a cultural format may be in danger. I don’t know what the hell we’re going to do, but for some reason I keep thinking that puppet shows are coming back big-time. It’s inexpensive to mount that kind of theater, and enchanting when done well.

NVA: In addition to your refreshingly blunt views and the extensive subject matter expertise you share, you're pretty forthcoming with the public about your life, including where you've chosen to live and why. Is there anything many of your readers and listeners might not yet know about you?

JHK: I’m licensed by the State of New York to carry a handgun.

NVA: Aha. Well, we'll trust you'll never need to use it! But please keep shooting your searing social commentary our way. Anything else you'd like to mention, promote, or describe?

JHK: My weekly blog, Clusterfuck Nation, is published without fail every Monday morning. The KunstlerCast podcast generally comes out every Friday.

NVA: Excellent. Well, many thanks for your time and your important work, Jim. All the best to you.

August 2012 UPDATE: A few months after this interview, in March 2012, Jim spoke at length with Duncan Crary about his (at the time) mostly vegan diet. In a blog post a few weeks later, Jim explained that he was abandoning veganism due to health concerns. Last month, Jim revealed that his health concerns were related to cobalt poisoning from a hip replacement, and he successful underwent surgery to have it replaced with a safer one earlier this month. We wish Jim a full return to abundant health in the very near future!