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- How To Thrive? An Interview With James Howard Kunstler
- Be compelled to make yourself useful to others
- Modern Monetary Theory is an adventure in complete unreality
James Howard Kunstler is the author of The Long Emergency, Too Much Magic, The Geography of Nowhere, the World Made By Hand novels, and more than a dozen other books.
He graduated from the State University of New York, Brockport campus, worked as a reporter and feature writer for a number of newspapers, and finally as a staff writer forRolling Stone Magazine. In 1975, he dropped out to write books on a full-time basis. He has no formal training in architecture or the related design fields.
He has lectured at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, Dartmouth, Cornell, MIT, RPI, the University of Virginia and many other colleges, and he has appeared before many professional organizations such as the AIA , the APA., and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The McAlvany Weekly Commentary
with David McAlvany and Kevin Orrick
Living In The Long Emergency
April 15, 2020
“I learned at a certain point in my life that there really is a difference between thinking about stuff and doing it, and making it happen, and acting. It is just tremendously important. And that if you actually take care of your business and take care of the things that you need to accomplish moment by moment and day by day, you will tend to be both a psychologically and probably economically effective person.”
James Howard Kunstler
Kevin: Dave, before we go to our guest today, James Howard Kunstler, I just want to say, you and I talked last night, as we always do before we record a program, about Kunstler’s work. Some of the things we were talking about are, how do you adapt to a completely new norm, because James Kunstler has written specifically about a long crisis, or a long emergency. How do you adapt to that? I was lying in bed this morning – I woke up at 4:00 – and I thought, one man’s emergency is another man’s norm. It’s just how you look at it.
David: Right. One of the things that you have brought out is how when you decided to learn to fly a plane, you wanted to actually learn how to fly a glider first. And when you transitioned from flying a glider with no power to a plane with power, it was a different experience for you than it was for most people who had grown up and knew only the dependency of the power generated from the plane.
Kevin: Yes, it was amazing. When the instructor said, “Now, we’re going to practice power-off emergencies, I remember when the power was pulled off, just how relaxed I was because my norm was flying gliders, in which you are always, if you want to say, in an emergency situation, so my heart rate actually probably dropped. It wasn’t because I was a better pilot, it was because I had started with a different presupposition. I’m just wondering, as we listen to your interview with James Kunstler today, Dave, if we don’t try to frame this and say, “How do we learn to adapt? This is a man who has been thinking of a different frame of reference, easily, for two decades with the books that he has written.
David: My little brother is quite a guy, a bit of a scrappy fellow, and he has often told me you fight like you train. And what you describe with the power outs is really just a question of procedure. There is no terror for you when the power goes out because it is something you are used to. You have already gone through the procedures. You know what happens next, and you have run the trap such that there really is no point of chaos for you, personally. I think one of the things that Jim brings out in Living in The Long Emergency is that there are different kinds of people who engage with change on the horizon and because they are thoughtful, because they are perceptive, because they are action-oriented, because they are anticipatory, these are people who really don’t have to be upset or disturbed by changes on the horizon. But for most people, if they are not willing to adapt, then crisis is something that will be acute.
Kevin: Dave, last night you said after reading his book there were four characteristics of an adapter that he seems to bring out in his books. The first characteristic is that they are sentient, or they are aware of their reality, and willing to adapt to it. The second is, they are responsible for their actions. For many people, there is a fork in the road with our lives. We can either become a victim or responsible for our actions. The third thing that you mentioned was that these are people who understand that they are free to decide and they make a decision, even if it is not necessarily the popular one. And of course, being the author of Legacy, which is your book, you saw the forward-looking, the person who is an adaptor, is looking down at a different type of horizon than a person who is just looking at the crisis in the face.
David: The 21st century offers us both challenges and opportunities. There is always the opportunity to reflect and to learn and to make a different set of decisions for how we as individuals engage with the world around us. That is unique for each person, for each family – where to live, what to engage with for work and for play, and how to continue to develop who we are, and then out of that, something to contribute from the value of who we are.
The challenges, in some respects, tie to the assumptions about what is normal, and about how that status quo is likely to confront non-accommodative factors. We have had cheap oil, we have cheap credit, and those factors have created the backdrop for easy economic circumstances and allowed a generation to take for granted that our nation has structured many of the facets of everyday life around those inputs being constant, being continuous. And they are not. So a friend of ours has spent several decades thinking and writing about a life without cheap oil and cheap credit, a world changed, and in some respects challenged and thrown into turmoil by variables that we assume to be a part of a sustainable backdrop.
So our conversation today includes a series of what ifs, a number of narrative accounts of how some people have engaged with, and have begun to adapt and change to things that are on the horizon. And the bottom line, really, to me anyway, is, who is the person that sees events on the horizon and is willing to take action today? And what has James Howard Kunstler found to be the common aspects of people who are flexible and adaptable and engaged.
* * *
Jim, you have written a bunch of books, over 20 books between your fiction and non-fiction, and certainly imagination is a part of the creative process, part of anticipation, connecting the dots of the known present and the dots to the yet experienced future. Of course, there is some probability there. There is some guesswork included. Not that you or I as we have sort of looked at the horizon will ever get 100% right, but I appreciate you putting an opinion out there.
Our topic today derives from your most recent book. You put it out just in the last month or so – Living in the Long Emergency. You bring a series of narratives on how adaptation is being brought into daily life as a long emergency unfolds. I am going to launch you with a quote from your book. It is Stein’s law. “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”
Jim: (laughs) That’s right. And that pretty fairly well describes the economy that we have been in for quite a while. I think what many of our fellow citizens fail to appreciate is that there is a beginning, a middle, and an end to everything, including the techno-industrial adventure that we have been on in Western civilization for the last 200 years. And we are closer to the end of that than to the middle. It doesn’t mean the end of the human project, and it doesn’t mean the end of being able to lead a purposeful life, but it does mean it is a discontinuity.
So when we make assumptions about all the things that we are familiar with and comfortable with continuing, I think we are making a big mistake. And it has been my observation that we have been living in an increasingly reality-averse society for quite a while, and it has created a condition of almost universal and pervasive and immersive cognitive dissonance, which you can just call something akin to the fog of war. It is the fog of economy, and the fog of culture, and the fog of society.
David: You say in your book there are new ways to thrive in the discontinuities to come, so there is not only the cultural critic which you bring out in both of the first couple of chapters and in the last couple of chapters, and in many of your other works, as well. That role of critic is also engaged with something of a creative solution, new ways to thrive. We are not talking about sort of giving up the ghost here and going home with our marbles and just quitting the world as we know it, but there are discontinuities on the horizon and the ways you thrive, you have decided to focus this book on individual narratives. How did you decide to engage with these particular people, and take this route to express the ideas?
Jim: Well, that wasn’t terribly complicated. I’ve written a bunch of books, and I do write a twice-weekly blog, and I have readers, and I have correspondence with a lot of people. And these are people who, all of them, I think, had been corresponding with me for a while, and I knew a bit about them. And when I embarked on this book, which was a follow-up to ideas that I had put out in the original long emergency book, and a follow-up to that in 2012, which was a book called Too Much Magic: Technology, Wishful Thinking, and the Fate of the Nation. So these people had followed along with me and I decided they were leading interesting lives that were off the reservation, shall we say, and I just wanted to use that as kind of an illustrative point about where we are going and what kinds of things we might expect.
David: Your first story is of a man interested in restorative agriculture as a means of production and wealth creation outside of the oil and debt economy. It was one of my favorite chapters, and one of my favorite quotes from it was, “Mortality is important for finding out what doesn’t die.” Can you expand on that? Because I think there is more to it than just discovering the hardiness of chestnut trees.
Jim: Yes, that was a man named Mark Shepherd who likes out in the driftless region of Wisconsin, an area that was not affected by glaciation. It has a very weird and interesting topography, and kind of a weird social profile out there, too. And Mark, through a lifelong series of adventures in alternative living, shall we say, got himself 100 acres in Viola, Wisconsin and decided to plant them in a particular way with chestnut trees and filbert trees and an understory of fruit, and running hogs on the property in a particular way, engineered to take advantage of all that. And also, a way of engineering the topography in a set of swales for managing the water.
One of Mark’s principles was, he just plants the trees and the ones that survive are the ones that he is going to go with, so he doesn’t despair when he loses some of is crops, and some of his trees. But now he has tens of thousands of these things, and he is going all over America like Johnny Appleseed and setting up farms, basically, for tree crops. In fact, he did that for another friend of mine who lives all the way over here in upstate New York just a few miles from the Vermont border. So Mark is in Wisconsin, he comes over here, plants 10,000 trees, and we’re going to have another experiment with that.
It is definitely an unorthodox way of farming and producing food and producing value, but the basic idea is that it doesn’t depend on vast inputs of capital and fossil fuel, herbicides, fertilizers and pesticides. It is really more of a reflection on where we are with industrial agriculture, as well as so many other industrial activities that are kind of running into a wall, and it probably won’t be able to continue in that old Herb Stein way.
David: When I think about the economy today, so much of it has been driven by cheap credit, and by central bank interventions, to kind of keep things growing. And this idea, this obsession, this religion of perpetual growth, where we must have it, a part of it is because without it, if we get off the growth trend at all, we find that the debts that we have accrued through the decades, quite frankly, aren’t serviceable, so that there is a basic unreality underlying everything that we do in our economy, and it is only revealed when things slow down, when something changes.
So we’re talking about the cost of energy, which happens to be, today, in terms of prices, at a low ebb. But with the end of cheap fossil fuels being a future reality, there is an adjustment that needs to take place. How do we adjust to these things which have become a part of our lives. Cheap credit drives the business cycle. In fact, today, we don’t even have a business cycle. It is always up and forever. So what is the adaptation process when the things that you have assumed for decades are the foundations that you are building on, all of a sudden shift?
Jim: Well, we have to remember, the primary thing is that reality has mandates of its own, and reality will instruct us what to do, and in some cases compel us what to do. Societies and economies are basically emergent organisms. They respond to the circumstances that reality presents and then they self-organize. Unfortunately, what we have been doing for the last 10-20 years is attempting to thwart that process and work around it, and it is not working.
So we have a monetary system that has become based on obligations and promises that will not be kept, and that is not working, and now we are pretending that we can just create more obligations and more promises to cover up the promises that aren’t being kept. And sooner or later, as the old expression goes from Robert Louis Stevenson, we are going to feast at the banquet of consequences for all that.
But the other element of this is that the discussion of all this has become completely detached from what is happening on the ground in terms of the production of wealth, getting food out of the ground, producing things that have value, extracting things from the earth that have value, and using them in a purposeful way.
I read a long interview with Richard Vague, the Philadelphia financier, banker/economist this morning, and it was all about the virtues of Modern Monetary Theory, which, to me, seemed to be just an adventure in complete unreality. There was absolutely nothing in the conversation – it was an interview – that had anything to do with what is going on, on the ground, with the work that people do and the things that they produce. Instead, we are relying simply on introducing new price distortions into the indexes that are supposed to reflect the value of things, and we are mistaking the identity of those mispriced things as having some meaning in terms of what our capital and wealth truly is. So I think what we are seeing, in point of fact, is the vaporization of a lot of capital, and it is simply not going to be there for us to do many of the things that we expected to do.
My book about wishful thinking from 2012 – unfortunately it came out during a period of history when America had ramped up this tremendous wishful thinking narrative, that we were going to solve all of our problems, like the problem of suburbia. We were going to solve that by electrifying the car system. And it was interesting the way that has actually played out, and the way it is failing, by the way. The whole automobile thing is not failing on the basis of the fuel that powers the vehicle, it is failing on the basis of the fact that people can no longer buy the cars on installment loans. Every day there are fewer and fewer people who are credit-worthy as the middle class gets crushed. And the car industry has tried every trick they can to extend the terms of the loans. In fact, late in 2019 the car companies were encouraging people who had defaulted on earlier car loans to come in and get new ones. That’s how desperate they were to move the merch off the lot. So that’s how that system is failing. The customers can longer buy the cars, it is not a matter of whether you put gasoline in them or run them on batteries. So that is not going to happen. We’re not going to rescue suburbia by electrifying the car fleet. Suburbia is a living arrangement with no future. And it is a tremendous liability for American life, and yet we have absolutely no intention right now of doing anything about it because we’re stuck in this thing that I call the psychology of previous investment. I didn’t name it – it has been out there for a while.
The psychology of previous investment basically states that you put so much of your wealth and your treasure into a certain set of infrastructures and arrangements that you can’t even imagine letting go of them. And if you marry that up with some other ideas that have been developed in recent American culture, like the idea that it is possible to get something for nothing, you end up in a culture that believes when you wish upon a star your dreams come true. And that’s the kind of culture we have become.
David: There is a resonance with what you have written in a variety of books. For me, living with a dad whose interests were, more often than not, on the horizon line, I gained respect for conclusions which seemed distant, remote, sometimes even implausible, but with the passage of time, develop as anticipated. And if there is no immediate need for triage, it would seem that some people prefer to leave tomorrow for tomorrow, carry on with the opinion that timing is everything.
So if you are thinking about something that is only really an issue one year from now, or ten years from now, or decades from now, why engage with actions of an anticipatory nature? It seems unnecessary. It is a waste of time, and maybe even going back to the old reference of a broken clock, right twice a day. What have you decided is the most important point of influence? Macro-level policy and thinking, or micro-determination for the individual?
Jim: I think it is absolutely clear that the macro trend – I think reality is telling us that we have to get local, and that we have to down-scale all of our activities, and make them less complex. We have become a society that is choking on hyper-complexity and in over-investments in additional hyper-complexity. That is exactly what we are seeing in schemes like the electric car system. The oil fracking endeavor was a matter of over-investments in hyper-complexity, and it is failing.
We can talk about that for a minute, too, because it is really central to the whole story. The United States was in a very difficult position by 2008 when we producing only about 4.5 or 4.7 million barrels a day and using about 20 million barrels a day and making up the rest with imports. And the price of oil shot up to $140 a barrel, roughly, in 2008, and that coincided with the great financial disaster of 2008, and probably had a lot to do with it.
So by and by, over a couple of years, we embarked on the fracking adventure, and that was based on this new technology of drilling horizontally and going in there and blasting the impervious rock with water and opening up the cracks with sand particles and getting the oil out. Well, let’s understand the difference between the old oil and the new oil. The old oil, like the old Texas oil of the 1950s, each well cost about $400,000 in today’s money, and it produced thousands of barrels a day for decades, so it was like a cash register.
In contrast with that, shale oil wells in today’s money cost between 6 and 12 million dollars per well, they produce about 100 barrels a day, average, for the first year, and then they fall down by 60%, and then after three years they are gone. And so this whole enterprise was a great financial stunt. It was really a marvelous stunt. They produced a whale of a lot of oil – real petroleum. They got it out of the ground. We went from 4.5 million barrels a day to 13 million barrels a day today, or at least, late in 2019.
The trouble is that it was all done on janky borrowed money, on janky loans, and the bottom line was they couldn’t make a red cent producing shale oil. So they got all this investment, and a lot of that investment came in there because it was seeking some kind of yield because the things they depended on traditionally, like bonds, were not paying any yield any more. So they flooded into shale oil with the expectation that they would make a ton of money. They didn’t make any money.
And now the problem is, the shale oil producers are not going to get new money, new loans, to continue these operations, to maintain that production with the kind of oil that really falls off a cliff after the first year of production. So my guess is that shale oil is going to go down as swiftly as it rose, and it is going to come as a great shock to America that we are not energy independent and that we can’t depend on this and the whole thing was really just an unfortunate stunt. We did it, and it is just too darn bad. We played ourselves.
David: We have the IMF, which projects a global economic decline of 3% for this year. That is far worse than the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 which was -0.7% on a global basis. And this puts on pace, actually, to join the Great Depression in terms of severity. Maybe the duration isn’t going to be that big of a deal, maybe this whole thing with Covid-19 is in the rear view within weeks. We don’t know. We do know that the lockdown recession of 2020 is here. It was voluntary, we asked for it.
What you are describing in your book is a longer-term dislocation which doesn’t have a quick V-shaped resolution. Everybody is hoping that even if we go into a recession in 2020 we are going to bounce back really quick. But of course, we are accustomed to interventionism – top-down monetary policy, fiscal policy, all kinds of things. You mentioned high-yield debt and interest rates being so low and that changing investor behavior and the traffic of capital. I just wonder how you think a long emergency plays out where the Fed and the Treasury – we assume they can fix what is broken. Only, they can’t.
Jim: That is because it is not really a monetary problem per se, it is a problem of making real on-the-ground rearrangements of the things that we do in this country. For example, we are going to have to grow our food differently. The current model for agribusiness is going to fail, and the implications are clear. We are going to have to grow food on smaller farms, at a smaller scale, more equitably distributed, and probably requiring more human attention and human labor. That’s just a fact.
We are going to have to find another way to get around this large country of ours. The happy motoring system is probably coming to an end. The car companies cannot really operate unless they sell 17 or 18 million units a year. They can’t get buy on just 1.3 million units or 800,000 units. That’s going to be over with. The oil industry, as I just said, is going to be on the rocks again.
This has certain clear implications for us. One is, unfortunately, that we have failed to think about rebuilding the railroad system in America. We’re going to need it, desperately, if we are going to get around this continental-sized country of ours. We have a railroad system that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of. Americans would be delighted to get from New York to Chicago at 100 mph. We don’t need high-speed rail. We would be well-served if we could rehabilitate the conventional railroad system, but there is no public will to do it, and there is no political will to do it. And by the way, the public doesn’t want to do it any more or less than the politicians that they elect do. Nobody wants to do it. No one has been interested in that. But it is going to be tremendously important.
The trucking industry is going to get into an awful lot of trouble. It may not really be able to operate the way we have been doing it. We are going to need, probably, the inland waterway system of America. There are tremendous opportunities, by the way, in all this. We have this fantastic inland waterway system – the Ohio River, the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Hudson River estuary and the canals that lead to the Great Lakes, the Great Lakes, themselves, the connection to the St. Lawrence River up the Champlain canal. A lot of the towns and cities along those waterways are among the most disinvested places in America, and they are places with tremendous potential for the future, but I think few people realize that.
The way that we do commerce in big box chain stores with enormous, lengthy 10,000-mile supply chains from Chinese factories to the Walmart in Philadelphia – that has to change. What that implies is that the next mall is going to be Main Street, because I think you can state categorically that anything that is scaled at the giant scale is going to get into trouble, and a lot of it is going to fail, whether it is a giant government, or a giant university, or a giant retail cooperation, or anything gigantic. We have come to the end of that, and we are going to have to build on a finer grain and a lower scale. We are going to have to rebuild local networks of commerce and the production and distribution of goods.
We have no idea how we are going to make things. We are probably not going to be able to rebuild the factories of 1963 or 1955. We’re done with that. We do have a lot of water power in this country and a lot of hydro-electric and we can accomplish a lot with that, but it may be at quite a lower scale.
So I think there are many dimensions to the ways that we are going to need to reorganize life on the ground in America. We’re just not willing to think about these things or take that step. There is the whole question of the cities and the suburbs. As I have already said, the suburbs are future-less. They are going to fail. It is a living arrangement that is over with. And by the way, I might as well mention, my new theory of history, which states that things happen because they seem like a good idea at the time. Building suburbia seemed like a good idea at the time. Now times have changed, it’s not such a good idea anymore, and we’re stuck with it.
The cities are a whole other matter. Their failures will come from rather different reasons. They simply are not scaled to the capital and resource realities of the future. We’re not going to be able to pay for their services and their maintenance. We have problems with mega-structures and skyscrapers. There are buildings that are going to turn overnight from assets to liabilities. And that, by the way, is already happening with the latest generation of super-gigantic residential skyscrapers in Manhattan. They have already instantly become liabilities, not assets.
So the cities are going to contract, the process is going to be unappetizing, and probably will involve conflict over who gets to inhabit the parts of the cities that retain their value, like the waterfronts and the old cores, and a lot of parts of the cities won’t have any value anymore, so they will get smaller. And where are people going to go? Well, I think a lot of the action is going to have to return to the smaller towns, the smaller cities, and in particular, the places that have a meaningful relationship with agriculture and food production. And these are ideas that are so off the charts and so off the reservation in the normal discourse of American economics that we don’t even hear about it, and we’re going to have to start thinking about these things.
David: When I was a teenager, there was a book that someone passed along to our family called The Land Remembers. It was, if I remember correctly, a story about a family who grew up in rural America without electricity, and the kids aspired to get off the farm as fast as they could, move to the big city, and through this life cycle of the family there is this realization that, actually, they had it really good, and the desire to buy back the family farm at some point and come back to something that was more basic.
Now, our modification, or tendency, in terms of adaptation, has been to not go back to the basics, but as you said, explore the more complex. Let’s look at alternative energy sources.
Jim: Yes, let’s look at that, because it’s a real freak show.
David: Right. There has been a massive investment in alternative energy and it really hasn’t changed our dependence on fossil fuels globally. Talk to us a little bit about what this has been because it sure seems like we have made a lot of progress, at least by the hype and the advertising, and certainly the amount of money that is being invested. But have we really shifted at all, meaningfully, in the direction of wind, solar, things that might be considered natural and endless.
Jim: A lot of these are very impressive technologies. Solar and wind have developed into impressive things. But the real story here is, we’re not going to run Walmart, the interstate highway system, the suburbs, the U.S. military, Walt Disney World, all that stuff, on any combination of wind or solar or dark power, dark energy or used French fried potato oil or any of that. We’re only going to be able to run a fraction of stuff on it, and there is a possibility that without an underlying platform of a fossil fuel economy to support that activity, it is not going to go for more than a few decades in any case.
You can say something similar about nuclear power. I myself, in the long emergency book of 2005, said that if we want to keep the lights on we are going to have to think seriously about ramping up the nuclear power. I’m not so sure about that anymore. I kind of believe that we can’t really run the nuclear stuff without that underlying support from a fossil fuel economy to make it work. And that is apart from the question of the hazards of nuclear energy, and it is also, frankly, apart from the question of if the capital will even be there to do that. I’m not sure that it will. I think that we are, as I said, in a moment in history of great evaporation of notional wealth and notional capital that we expected to be there, and we are going to be just astonished to discover that it is not there.
Of course, a lot of it is represented in financial instruments of very dubious value, and that we know about, and we can say a lot about that. But the bottom line is, the capital won’t be there to do these things that we wish that we could do. And a lot of it is, of course, just wishful. We wish that we could run all of our stuff by other means. Can we do it? Um, I don’t think so. And it really leads back to the question of, we’re going to have to make our stuff smaller and more local.
David: One of the statistics you had in your book is that 30 years ago 89% of our energy was tied to dependence on fossil fuels globally. Now 30 years later it is 85%, and most of the 15% comes from nuclear, a little bit of hydro. I toured an area in Arizona a couple of weeks ago where a coal plant was being decommissioned, shutting down, and to replace the output from this one coal plant – I was actually with a guy who had worked at that plant for 25 years, and he said the math works like this. We need 150 square miles of solar panels to replace the output of this coal plant. The locals were very interested in pursuing that, and the question was, back to your point, is that realistic? Isn’t that just wishful thinking? 150 square miles?
Jim: Think about this. In the places where the sun shines most of the time, like the Arizona desert, or West Texas, or down in your corner of Colorado, you put solar arrays out there and guess what? You need a lot of people to go around and clean the dust off of those solar arrays because those arid parts of the country there is dust blowing all of the time and it is blowing all over the solar panels. People never think of this. If you put even 10 square miles of stuff up you need to have guys in 100 jeeps running up and down the arrays all day long with dust mops. It’s insane.
David: There is, then, this sort of fallback position. If it is not going to be alternative energy, which is sort of the solution, or the place we go in search of the solution, it’s innovation, it’s technological change that will provide solutions to our major structural problems. There are a couple of instances where you describe that as techno-narcissism. If you could, expand on that.
Jim: Yes. Techno-narcissism is kind of the adult equivalent of the belief in Santa Claus, that “somebody” will “come up with” a rescue remedy for the technical problems that we are having running our society. It really boils down to simply an excessive belief in our own cleverness. Human beings are quite clever and we are very good innovators, but we are not magicians, and there are some things that we come across in history where things happen and they are difficult and they produce hardships.
I think what the current situation is telling us is that we are in for a time out on technological progress as we have known it. It doesn’t mean the end of civilization or the end of the world, or even the end of human aspiration. But it does mean, I think, that we are going to have to kick back for a while and reflect on what it is that we have done, and think about a new way to go forward that is not so destructive to the ecology of the planet, and is not so abstract, economically and financially, that it ends up making no sense and flying up our own rear ends with theory. So we are going to have a lot of time to think about this. I wouldn’t call it a new dark age, but I think it will be the equivalent of kind of going medieval for a while.
David: Jim, I know how much you love the idea of autonomous flying vehicles …
David: And I’m wondering if, with that great love, you could sort of help us write a letter of request to Apple, Google and Amazon. If we will surrender ourselves to their greatness, will they help us with the technology to improve workplace productivity, something that will radically improve our daily lives, maybe even improve our calorie counts? Can’t we just surrender to big tech as a solution and just avoid the whole problem of going medieval?
Jim: I would leave that to other people who have different ambitions. I am much more interested in what I can do to keep my plum trees from getting one of those fruit tree diseases that they got in the last three years. I’m much more concerned with how we are going to live in my county, and my corner of upstate New York, and how we are going to rebuild the economic networks that we allowed to be destroyed, the economic networks that employed so many of our neighbors. How are we going to restore that kind of hierarchical, local economic relations that are necessary to run a society, and to do it with the kind of authority that people can actually believe in? These are tremendous social problems along with the economic quandaries that we face, because we have been living in a state of such pervasive dishonesty for so long that authority has lost all of its credibility. It is one of the reasons that we are facing an election between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. So, one of the big questions is, how are we going to even restore authority in this society so that we can believe in what we are doing, and act purposefully, and do it honestly, and be upright and plain and straightforward?
One of the things that astonishes me is that of all the remedies available for our economic quandary of the moment and our financial problems, the one you almost never hear about is straightforward, honest bankruptcy, where an enterprise just reaches the end of its functional life under a certain management and has to be sold off for dimes on the dollar to other people who may run it differently with the assets that remain. I don’t see why we don’t talk about that more, but apparently it is just too painful.
David: When I wrote my book, The Intentional Legacy, one of my core assumptions was – and this is one of the areas where I sense real resonance with you – the macro level problems that we have emerge from an aggregation of micro level mistakes. So the idea of creating top-down macro policy solutions doesn’t resolve issues in the way in which they were, in fact, created. And I find something similar in your book. There is not a grand solution or technological fix or silver bullet that resolves 21st century political and economic turmoil. Everything boils down to the agent, what the individual chooses to put in motion at the micro level. Did I understand that correctly?
Jim: Yes, I think that is very true, and I am a big believer in personal agency, and I understand exactly what you mean by the small decisions that are made by so many small actors that end up adding up to a society and an economy. If you have so many millions of people who buy pickup trucks knowing that they can’t afford to make the payments, you have a pretty good aggregate of bad individual micro decisions that have been made. That is one of the unfortunate consequences of living in a society of pervasive dishonesty.
David: As I read through the narratives that you have in this book, I found there are some common themes among the people that you interview. All of them have varied backgrounds but the commonalities to me were that they were thoughtful, sentient. These were people who were perceptive and feeling, in complement to their thoughtfulness. That is the first thing that stood out. They also took responsibility for their actions.
David: And I think they also were – what is the best way to say it? – free to decide. They weren’t victims of circumstance, but they were action-oriented. They were problem solving in their own way.
Jim: Yes, some of them were really quite strange characters. One of them was a guy I corresponded with. He was a commenter on my blog for a couple of years. He was a kind of black intellectual living in the Baltimore ghetto, and he had had a strange and interesting life, and probably the most unusual thing about it was that he was a black man who had been raised in a military setting. His father was a colonel in the army. He was not inculcated with any real kind of ghetto ideology at all, but he was living in Baltimore in a place that was sort of like an end-of-the-world escape from New York bunker.
He had, at the age of 54, developed into a completely self-made person, into his own man. He didn’t accept the ideologies of the moment, and he was struggling to keep his life together, but he was doing it very honorably and very straightforwardly, and he was honest with himself. And he worked hard at what he did. What he did was, he was employed to take care of some run-down properties in the city of Baltimore. I just found him fascinating.
A couple of the people I talked to were homesteaders. One guy was a dropout from corporate life. He had been in historic preservation first for non-profit, and then worked for the newspaper in Montpelier, Vermont. He dropped out, bought himself a farm, learned from the ground up how to do this stuff. This guy was like a walking science project. He started growing his own grain, a particular kind of antique grain that had been developed for the region 150 years ago, and he started distilling whiskey. And that has become his vocation now. He is a small distiller, making whiskey off of his own grain.
I was up there at his distillery in Cabot, Vermont, and he was very adamant about only being open certain hours, like Sunday, for retail sales. And these two guys came by in a very expensive SUV. They were probably trout fishermen – it was spring – and they were wearing the LL Bean country casuals. And they wanted some whiskey. And he actually refused to sell it to them, and he kept on pointing to the sign on the edge of his distillery barn, saying, “No, we’re only open on Sundays between 12 and 3,” or whatever it was. And these guys couldn’t believe it. They said, “No, don’t you want to make a couple of hundred dollars?” And he said, “No, I made $2500 at the farmer’s market last week and I don’t need that, so sorry.”
But anyway, these are very interesting characters. Another one was a lady who had struggled for like 25 years to be an artisan baker, and for the last 8 or 10 years she has been doing it in Vermont up near the Mad River ski area in the town of Waitsfield. She runs the Green Rabbit Bakery, and she has faced just about every kind of business and personal adversity you can imagine and I just admire her pluck so much. She just stuck in there and hung in there and built this bakery operation. She put up a bake house, she has a beautiful property where she is growing her own fruits that she can put into the bread that she makes. I just admired her bravery so much.
These are the kinds of characters who appeal to me and all that material was kind of apart from the arguments I was making about why a lot of the things that we are doing really just probably can’t go on.
David: I love that they were all in some way anticipating the future, looking forward. And as you just described, these are hard-working people, they are lifelong learners, they don’t quit, they think for themselves. What would you add to that, sort of the essential qualities required in the decades ahead, to be an adaptor? If the world changes and it is not necessarily for the good, what kind of a person does thrive?
Jim: A person who can endure, a person who understands that hardship is difficult, but it is not necessarily the end of everything. It’s not the end of your life, it’s not the end of civilization or the end of the story. That there are things that we are called upon to endure. Nietzsche, I think, was probably correct when he said, “Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” We have become a very soft people who are not interested in meeting adversity, and that is going to have to change. We are going to have to brave up somehow.
David: There is a reference in your book to a gentleman I have had many conversations with, The Fourth Turning, by Strauss and Howe. There is a demographic cycle they propose where you end up with a soft generation – not a lot of hardship, not a lot of pain, not a lot of frustration or challenge in life, and really kind of soft. Pathetic might be too strong a word.
Jim: Years ago that was kind of identified in another way. I think somebody explained it to me as the “victory disease” and that was a result of our tremendous victory over manifest evil in the Second World War. It was a tremendous achievement and something that we deserved to be very proud of, but it kind of sowed the seeds of a long period of several generations where we just became complacent, took things for granted, tried to paper over our problems, tried to ignore them, developed the idea that being dishonest was okay. And that has led us to the predicament that we are in.
I think being truthful is going to be our big ally, and facing our problems. One of the unfortunate phrases that comes up for me that people really don’t want to hear about is that we are going to have to man up. It’s such an odious phrase these days that I feel a little spooked about even bringing it up, but I think it is partly at the core of the problem.
David: You have a series of novels – The World Made by Hand series, the gist of which is, you need to think about what tools and trades are appropriate in a world without social safety nets. That might be an over-simplification but I think the only time I hear about the lack of social safety net is from a generation somewhat cynical about getting Social Security. I have no confidence that it will be there. But erase all of your social safety nets and then do a sort of a thought process – what is needed? How do you care for yourself and others?
Jim: I wrote that series of four novels after I wrote the long emergency book because I really wanted to give people a tactile sense of what it would feel like to live in a post-industrial collapse world. One of the hidden agendas in that series of books was to depict for people a world that actually had many amenities, and many virtues, a place that would actually be kind of pleasant to live in in some ways, although there would be an awful lot of losses of things that made us comfortable earlier, like the Internet, movies, canned entertainment, etc.
So the people who lived in my little town in those novels are people who were compelled to find a way to make themselves useful to other people. That is ultimately, really, the way that you get on in the world. You take the responsibility to find a way to be useful to others, and then you actually act, and do it. You don’t just sit around and think about it. You don’t wring your hands and feel sorry for yourself. You go and you make it happen.
I’m writing another book now called Young Man Blues about the development of boys into men, and the problems of adolescent anxiety. I learned at a certain point in my life that there really is a difference between thinking about stuff and doing it, and making it happen, and acting. And it is just tremendously important. And that if you actually take care of your business, and take care of the things that you need to accomplish moment by moment, and day by day, that you will tend to be both a psychologically and probably economically effective person.
David: This goes back a long ways. I will look forward to your contribution to the conversation. Aristotle said human flourishing is found in action, and it is not just flourishing in the context of wealth creation, but as you said, there is also a psychological, emotional dimension, which is absolutely important. Yet, there is a point in your book where, again, you are referencing something similar to where we started – feasting at the banquet of consequences. You say, “We live in a strange moment in history where we pretend to have banished consequences because they are too terrible to dwell on. Ours is a culture in which anything goes and nothing matters until things change, and then they do matter. And you have to deal with it. History is a prankster and the joke is on us. Samuel Becket was right, with the nature of comedy. ‘Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,’ he said.”
David: As we sort of plan for the years ahead, again I come back to, really, what you are saying is, the individual is very powerful. The individual has a series of choices to make and this is not going to be a top-down solution. Help us understand that mindset, that disposition, and maybe overlap that with the current moment of crisis – Covid-19. We are in a weird place where governments are saying we will solve the problem. I don’t know if there is any evidence to that effect yet.
But in a moment of crisis we also have an end-justifies-the-means acceptance of authoritarianism. That has been, certainly, a part of our past. I don’t know if it is going to be a part of our future globally. What does Covid-19 foreshadow, and is this a triumph of the individual and autonomous decision-making empowerment, or is this the triumph of the leviathan one more time?
Jim: I don’t think the leviathan can triumph. One of the central ideas in the long emergency book was that, as I said earlier, anything organized at the grand scale is probably going to get into trouble and fail, and so one of the central ideas in that book was that the federal government would probably become incrementally more impotent and ineffectual until the ability to even do governance just has to devolve downward.
There is a concept that the people at the Automatic Earth website, Raul Meijer and his partner introduced called the Trust Horizon. That states that when you are in a crisis like this, and the more distant authorities do not deliver on their promises to take care of things and to take care of you, then the trust horizon shrinks, and that horizon comes closer and closer until, really, the horizon is in your community – if you’re lucky, if you have a community that has enough cohesiveness to even hang together.
And of course, you know the last bastion is the family, but you can’t live in an anarchic society where only the family has any credibility. So we’re going to have to find a way to get that trust horizon firmed up at the community and local, regional level, maybe the county, maybe the corner of the country that you are in. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the United States is going to go away as an entity, but it really means a redistribution of the things that we put our faith in, and the operations of our lives that are credible operations. And papering over financial crises with money from nowhere is just another way of saying that anything goes and nothing matters, and that’s not going to work anymore.
David: So we have the story that you mentioned, the black intellectual living in the Baltimore ghetto. He is looking to his father at one point. His father retires early and the family watches, and there are a number of things that start to deteriorate, dominoes that fall as a consequence of what the children watch and do not see. There is something of a failure of leadership in the family, if I read that correctly.
Jim: What happened was, his dad was a colonel, and for one reason or another he had kind of reached the end of the line for promotions, and when that happens when you are at the colonel level your career is over. And it devastated his father, and appears to have turned him into a kind of depressive personality. And it thundered through the family. It was a large family, I think he had five or six siblings. The boys did not finish school, and they were left floundering because, really, the signal authority figure in their lives was left floundering. And that was his story.
But you asked a moment ago about how we are disposed on the broader scale in our culture. And obviously, we are living in a period of our history were so many people are expecting large institutions and governments and entities to take care of them in one way or another, and to make real important life decisions. There are things that we are going to have to decide for ourselves, and they are going to be very compelling for young people. For example, where am I going live? If you are a young person in Phoenix, or Tucson, I would say, you know, that might not be a good choice. You might have to make some other plans. And you might have to take personal responsibility to figure out a part of your country or a part of North America that you can actually make it in because that’s probably not going to be one of them. Things like that.
What kind of decisions are we going to make about learning a trade, learning a skill, learning how to do anything that is going to make ourselves useful to other people somewhere down the line? No one is going to hand that to you and the young people out there who may have been depending on Facebook and large corporations and the U.S. government for guidance are going to be thrown back on their own resources. We’ll see how they do. My guess is that they will have to do well because the only other choice is just to lie back and perish.
David: It seems like, in many respects, whether it is agribusiness, or we talked about energy, choosing where to live, talking about our monetary system and our debt-oriented growth, if you abuse a system long enough there are going to be consequences. That seems to be one of the big take-aways. So you can abuse a monetary system, and ultimately, that system may end up abusing you. You can abuse the agricultural system, and ultimately you may find that you are no longer producing quality food, and it is now abusing you. If you abuse a system long enough, the consequences come back around in a sort of circular fashion and take a vengeance, it would seem.
You are just suggesting here in this book that a thoughtful appraisal of how to engage, where to engage, is what is necessary. The early adaptors are the ones who might find themselves less damaged by a system which is no longer functional, but is in rapid deterioration.
Jim: Yes. I think you summed it up very well, David (laughs).
David: (laughs) When you write a new book, and this is the one that you have just published, where would you prefer people to find it, and how would you like for people to stay engaged with you?
Jim: That’s a tough one because of the Covid sequestering, people aren’t going out, people have lost their jobs, people don’t have money to buy books, perhaps. The bookstores, the few that are left, are closed. But you can go to my website, which is Kunstler.com and find the picture of the book cover and it will send you to Battenkill Books in my corner of the country, an independent bookstore that will send you an autographed copy if you would like one. That’s one way of getting it. And then there are the other ways. I’m not going to mention them, but they are pretty obvious.
David: (laughs) Well, I appreciate your commentary, and look at it routinely. I also love going to your website. On a monthly basis you post a picture of some absurd design element, whether it is a traffic crossing…
Jim: It is usually an architectural monstrosity because my earlier books, in fact, the books that really kind of made my career, were about A) the fiasco of suburbia, and B) about the fiasco of contemporary architecture. So I run this feature every month for some architectural monstrosity, and guess what? There is no end of them. If I lived to be 100,000 years old I would never run out of them.
David: I think what I love about going there, Jim, is that I am reminded a little bit of who you are, what the problems are that you are trying to solve, and the fact that in your heart of hearts you are an aesthete. You care about beauty, you care about things of substance and quality, you care about things that last. And when you see the opposite, there is an offense taken – maybe I’m overstating that, but there is something in you that is stirred to say, “That’s not right. That won’t work. That’s just flat ugly.”
Jim: You know, it’s interesting, because we’re quite different in many ways. You are an explicitly religious man, and I am a person who was raised in a religion-free household and has been kind of detached from it. But I think what we are talking about there is the presence of grace notes in the things that we surround ourselves with. And they are there to inform us that we are human, and to remind us that it is important to remember that we are human, and that we have obligations and duties and responsibilities to just the fact of being human. And their absence in our contemporary world has been deeply destructive to us, I think, as a spiritual matter, and that is something that I think both of us can understand.
David: I think we have a lot in common. Thanks for joining the conversation today and I would encourage our listeners to look at Living the Long Emergency, Global Crisis, The Failure of the Futurists and The Early Adaptors, for showing us the way forward. It is a great process to go through, and I love the engagement with the individual narratives to sort of unlock some of the things that work, don’t work, and just a different mindset approach for the years and decades ahead, as we try to figure out what it means to thrive in the current environment, and what may be on the horizon as well. Thanks so much for joining us, Jim.
Jim: It’s been a pleasure, David.
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Kevin: That was a fascinating interview. Oftentimes when people are thinking about surviving a situation they are thinking very individualistic, or they are thinking, “Oh, well, he’s just a prepper.” But actually, Jim brought something out that I think is really worth remembering. The survivor, or the adaptor, the person who thrives during situations that are changing, is compelled to make himself useful to others. We are really not islands unto ourselves, are we Dave?
David: Not at all.