Deconstructing the Human Habitat

In February of this year, author and social critic James Howard Kunstler, best known for his landmark anti-suburban sprawl book, The Geography of Nowhere, and Duncan Crary, director of communications at the Institute for Humanist Studies, launched the KunstlerCast, a weekly podcast to discuss, among other things, the coming end of both suburbia and cheap oil. The following is adapted from a collection of those programs.

Duncan Crary: Something horrible has happened to the human habitat over the past sixty years.

James Howard Kunstler: I’ll say.

DC: That’s one thing that struck me right away in The Geography of Nowhere, your use of the phrase “human habitat” to describe the built environment. We usually only use the word habitatto talk about wildlife. So I think there are many people out there who realize that suburbia has destroyed animal habitats but who don’t realize that suburbia has also destroyed the human habitat.

JHK: You’re making an interesting point. And I think it shows one of the real shortcomings of the environmental movement in our time. Environmentalists haven’t paid enough attention to the human habitat per se or the idea that it’s part of the larger ecology of the planet–that it’s justified in its existence.

This may reflect their horror at the poor job we’ve done in our time of industrial technology. We’ve taken the human habitat to a scale that’s terrible and destroyed an awful lot of other habitats along the way.

DC: So if we’d paid more attention to our own habitat, we wouldn’t need an environmental movement to protect the Ivory-billed Woodpecker habitat, because we wouldn’t have destroyed it in the first place.

JHK: Right. One of the big problems with the suburban venture is the idea that you’re living an urban life in a rural setting. What we need to do is encourage urban lives in urban settings by necessity, because of what we’re facing in terms of energy. And we’re going to have to get much more serious about growing food around where we live, so the rural landscape will need to be inhabited differently too.

In order to prompt people to make the choice to want to live in the city or the town, those places have to be wonderful. If the “green people” would become really active in urban design and get good at it, then it’s likely that fewer people would take the option of living in suburbia. But they have to reward us hugely. Right now, people in the United States aren’t getting rewards for living in urban settings–that’s really one of the great tragedies in all this.


JHK: For the 100 years preceding the end of World War II, the American city was the growing industrial city. And industrial cities weren’t that pleasant to be in.

The City Beautiful movement came along in the 1890s because of a recognition that our cities had become unappetizing places, and we needed to have cities that were worthy of our coming greatness. The City Beautiful movement combined with the Beaux Arts architectural movement to produce great museums and squares–like the Cleveland Civic Center, the San Francisco Civic Center, the New York Public Library, and the Copley Square library in Boston.

The movement went on for about twenty-five years and coincided with the golden age of the streetcar, which was a tremendous improvement for getting around. But it came to a screeching halt after World War I when the Ford Model T started being produced on the assembly line. The automobile was imposed on the city, making it more unpleasant than ever. Then came the Great Depression and World War II, adding another layer of neglect and decay to our cities.

So by the time soldiers return from World War II, American cities are pretty crummy. They’re overly scaled for industry, and the tenement habitations of the workers in industry are deteriorating. The single image that really becomes universal for the American city in the 1950s is Ralph Kramden’s apartment in The Honeymooners–this miserable dark little hole in a box looking out on this miserable light well and a fire escape. That becomes everyone’s idea of the city and it’s rejected completely, prompting the land rush into the agricultural hinterlands of the cities, otherwise known as the suburbs.

Coinciding with the further development of the automobile and all of its accessories and infrastructure is the continued growth of the world-dominant American oil industry, because we had the second largest oil endowment ever found in the world after Saudi Arabia, and we got it online 100 years earlier. So begins the happy motoring scene.

DC: What’s the happy motoring scene?

JHK: It’s the program. It’s what we’ve got in America for getting around.

And what happens is you get this huge demographic shift in the ’50s. The cities are being decanted into the suburbs. Meanwhile you’ve had other things in motion: the invention of the mechanical cotton picker in the South puts an end to sharecropper labor. So you get a lot of Southern peasants, many of them black, moving up into the industrial cities looking for opportunities.

In the 1950s and ’60s the factories were still humming. But beginning in the 1970s industries started to incrementally break down and close down or move away, and we started to develop a high level of unemployment, lack of education, and cultural dislocation in the American inner city. That’s pretty much what’s left in the heartland industrial cities of America. We give it another name. We call that “urban” because now everybody else is living in this cartoon of the country, known as suburbia.

DC: What is the fundamental difference between the way we do suburbia and the way we did things before?

JHK: One of the chief characteristics of suburbia is its disaggregation–the disassembly of the organs of civic life and then the consequent isolation of them, so that all the people live in one place, all the shopping occurs in another place, the offices are in a third place, the industrial stuff is in the fourth place, and all of it can only be accessed by cars.

DC: So what does a healthy city or town look like? How does it function?

JHK: A really successful town is made up of integral parts. You think of these as the organs of the larger organism of the city or town–the residential organs where the people live, the commercial organs where commerce and trade take place, the manufacturing organs, the civic organs where we have our meeting halls, courthouses, and the police station. The cultural organs are the museum and the school, the theater, and so forth.

In a successful city these organs are deployed so that most people can get to them without prosthetic assistance–namely the car–and in a way that allows them to enjoy the journey from one organ to the other.

Anybody who’s been to a European city understands this, because they didn’t throw their cities away the way we did. Rome, Florence, Paris, Munich. You go around these places and the journey from point A to point B is very rewarding. You’re seeing things that were created deliberately to be beautiful, to reward the human spirit. And you don’t have to cross an eight-lane freeway, generally, to get from one to the other.

The main characteristic of a healthy urban organism is that it is scaled to the energy diet that is available to it. Unfortunately, much of the twentieth century provided America with an energy diet that was really abnormal. It was the height of the cheap oil and cheap natural gas fiesta, and it allowed this sort of hypertrophic growth of our cities and the suburban asteroid belts that grew up around them.

In short, we created urban organisms that were scaled to something that can’t be sustained after the peak of the oil era, that arc of decline we’re now entering.


DC: Right now, good urban design is practically illegal in most of the United States because of zoning laws that basically mandate the suburban living arrangement. You can’t build alleys. Multistory retail is out of the question. Mixed-use isn’t allowed. When did America adopt this one-size-fits-all zoning mentality?

JHK: In the early twentieth century, the scale of industry was getting enormous and was all mixed in with the rest of the city. It was making things unpleasant and hurting property values. So we developed this idea that you had to rigorously segregate all the uses in the city. The residential neighborhoods had to be cordoned off from the places where industry was allowed to do its thing and be dirty, and noisy, and smelly. And that became the classic model for zoning.

It’s certainly understandable as a rational response to the emerging industrial city. It’s after World War II that the refinements of zoning enter this territory of the absurd where we decide that shopping should now be classified as an “obnoxious industrial activity” that nobody should be allowed to live anywhere near.

Not only does this create huge problems for traffic–basically mandating that everybody has to get in their car eleven times a day to make a trip for every little thing they need–you’ve also eliminated the most common kind of affordable housing found virtually everywhere else in the world: above retail establishments. In other words, normal urban typologies of buildings that had more than one story disappeared.

We’re now obliged to provide this artificial commodity called “affordable housing” because we were too stupid to provide it organically by allowing buildings to be multi-storied and mixed-use.

DC: When you point out the failures of urban planning today, it all seems pretty obvious. But you’re a journalist with a theater background, not an urban planner or architect. Some in the planning and design fields try to discredit you by saying that you’re an unqualified critic. How do you respond?

JHK: It’s certainly a fair question for people to wonder what my credentials are. I mean, I’m mouthing off about these things and here are all these planners who resent it. I understand that, but it’s pretty obvious that the kind of training so-called urban planners have gotten over the last fifty years has included almost nothing about real urban design. And certainly nothing about the real historical methodologies of how to construct and assemble a human habitat that’s worth being in.

Think of children who have to ride their bicycles on the shoulder of an eight-lane highway to get to Baskin-Robbins from their housing subdivision. Was that a great job of urban design? I don’t think so.


DC: Speaking of children, probably the number-one reason why people say they choose the suburbs over the city is that they want to raise children there. As a child of the ‘burbs myself, I don’t think it’s a great place to raise kids, at least not teenagers. It can be a dehumanizing, psychologically brutal place to grow up. I wonder if you might go so far as to say that raising children in suburbia is a form of child abuse?

JHK: Obviously, it isn’t intentional. I would hasten to say that I think we overdo the whole abuse angle a lot. We’ve become hysterical puritans in that sense. But it may be a response to the fact that we’re inflicting a lot of damage on ourselves and find that we can’t stop. I mean, we can’t vacate our suburban environments because we’ve invested so much of our national wealth in them.

And they are indeed very punishing for the development of children. Between the age of five and, let’s say, fourteen, children need to develop personal sovereignty, to learn the management of their own body in time and space. That means learning to make decisions about things–like how to get home from school in time for dinner, or how to get from school to the clarinet lesson and then back home again on their own. This is something that the average eight or nine year-old can learn to do successfully. I did it in Manhattan when I was a kid, after I moved from the suburbs of Long Island. I got on a Lexington Avenue bus, went up twenty blocks from my grammar school, went to my music lesson, and got home by myself.

The way that our suburbs are designed now, kids as old as fifteen or sixteen have to be ferried around by the family chauffeur (usually mom). The upshot is they don’t develop any ability to manage themselves in time and space! And that’s a very fundamental thing. Kids between the age of about seven and fifteen also have to learn a whole set of social skills, like how to spend money, how to order food in a restaurant, and how to behave in a public place.

But the whole key to understanding the suburbs, I think, has to do with the impoverishment of the public places and the glorification of the private realm. We have more bathrooms per inhabitant in our houses of any nation in the world, but we have extremely poor public places in most of suburban America, which is most of the country.

For kids, most of the public places are the leftover scraps: the berms and the parking lots where respectful behavior isn’t demanded. You put them in these places nobody cares about–a berm between the Wal-Mart and the K-Mart–and they’re going to torture cats and make homemade tattoos and smoke bongs and drink aftershave. It ends up being an environment that doesn’t successfully prepare kids to be successful, caring adults.

DC: And the cities?

JHK: The cities in the United States aren’t really adequate places for kids either. New York City has a lot of wonderful amenities and attractions and opportunities, but it’s really an overwhelming place. The scale of the streets and the buildings is huge. The traffic is overwhelming and frightening.

For me, the default solution would be small-town America, but a lot of people don’t have the ability to get there, and there isn’t that much of small-town America left that’s still OK. The town where I live, Saratoga Springs, New York, is fairly healthy but most of the other towns around here are in a kind of post-Soviet backwater haze of desolation and dereliction. Their school systems are suffering. Physically, the places are deteriorating.

DC: The silver lining to all this is that you see the impending financial and energy crises bringing about the end of suburbia in the near future, correct?

JHK: Yes, I happen to believe that the suburban project in the larger sense is coming to an end. The collapse of the housing bubble is viewed by a lot of people as just another part of a down cycle in an endless set of repeating cycles. But I think this is the end of all those cycles.


DC: Your latest nonfiction book, The Long Emergency, explores the consequences of peak oil, the point at which half of the world’s oil supplies have been used up. You and many others believe we’re heading over the peak now and that the remaining oil supply will rapidly disappear because demand keeps increasing. Is that why you believe the suburbs are on the way out?

JHK: It’s not about running out of oil. It’s about how the various systems that we depend on for everyday life getting into trouble as we go over the peak. When we have problems with motor fuels and transport, we’re also going to have trouble feeding ourselves.

DC: The end of the 3,000-mile-Caesar salad, as you say.

JHK: Yes. We’re also going to have trouble with capital finance, and retail trade, and medicine and education and all the other things that we have to do. These things are all going to affect each other.

DC: Why don’t you think alternative fuels will keep our motors going?

JHK: Unfortunately there’s a tremendous body of fantasy among the American public about how we’re going to keep on running our cars at all costs. Virtually all of these ideas are science projects on a small scale, but they don’t scale up to 200 million vehicles. You can run X number of vehicles on ethanol or biodiesel, but can you run the entire U.S. automobile fleet and Wal-Mart and the just-in-time inventory system that depends on the incessant circulation of tractor trailers around the country?

We’re already beginning to see all kinds of unanticipated consequences from the ethanol program that we put in place about two years ago. And it’s reverberating in parts of the system that people never expected, leading down the path of hunger and famine because gas tanks and hungry bellies are now competing for the grain supply.

DC: What about the new Honda hydrogen fuel cell car I keep hearing about?

JHK: I don’t think that the hydrogen car is ever going to really happen. You can’t stop the big car companies from producing these PR stunts, but just because they can produce twenty hydrogen cars doesn’t mean they can scale up to run 100 or 200 million of them.

It takes more energy to produce the hydrogen than you get from the hydrogen that you’re producing. It’s expensive and it’s very hard to transport. You can’t run hydrogen through the same kind of pipes that were designed for the natural gas network because it has strange physical properties. When you compress it, it still takes up so much room that you can only get the equivalent of roughly 800 kilograms of hydrogen on a truck that’s designed to carry forty-four tons of gasoline.

DC: How do you respond to the people who say, “OK. I know you can’t replace gasoline with one alternative fuel, but how about a cocktail? Let’s use many different types of alternative fuel. That’s the solution to this problem.”

JHK: It’s understandable that we would want to keep our happy motoring system going because we’ve invested so much into it. It’s almost inconceivable to most Americans, but I think the truth of the matter is that the automobile and all of the things associated with it are going to be a diminishing presence in our lives, whether we like it or not.

DC: I hope we don’t find some magic fuel–or even some combination of fuels–that keeps our SUVs going. Because I don’t want to live in this dystopian “Geography of Nowhere” anymore. I want to live in a walkable world.

JHK: It doesn’t require any heroic new technologies or new discoveries to do that. And when all is said and done, living in a walkable city is absolutely the most pleasant way to live and to get around.

Also, there is probably no project that would have a greater effect on our oil use right away than fixing the passenger railroad system in the United States. This would put thousands of people to work at meaningful jobs at all levels and would benefit people in all ranks of society. The fact that we’re not talking about it shows what a nation of clowns we really are.

DC: There are members of the “New Urbanism” movement out in the planning field now. Do you think they’re ready to rebuild this country?

JHK: The real achievement of the New Urbanists has been to dive into the garbage can of history and retrieve important principles and methodology for understanding how to design and assemble real towns and real cities. And I think they will be able to apply that knowledge to the existing small cities and towns as the suburban codes become self-evidently useless. They’ll basically be ignored because we won’t be able to pay for their enforcement.

DC: Do you have any advice to help us prepare for the future?

JHK: You bet. It’s the same thing that I tell college audiences who universally say, “Can’t you give us some hope?” I am not a “hope dispenser” to passive consumers of hope. But I tell them the main thing that distinguishes a successful adult from a child is that an adult knows the difference between wishing for stuff and making it happen.

We need to be out there actively fixing our civilization, reforming the way we do our farming, our commerce, our schooling, and our trade. And we need to change the way we build our cities and design our homes, civic centers, commercial structures, and all the things that are necessary to be part of a civilization. We’re going to have to put a lot more thought and lot a more work into that.

And as we do, I’m serenely convinced that we will become a much more hopeful people.

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