The American Conservative, which normally publishes informative and thought-provoking articles and commentary, recently laid an egg. The magazine published a misanthropic, overwrought, pessimistic—OK, apocalyptic—aggressively Malthusian screed, written by James Howard Kunstler. Might there be equal time for optimists?
In “Why America’s Urban Dreams Went Wrong,” Kunstler attacks pretty much every urban amenity Americans have built since the invention of the automobile. And his reasoning, all of it, reflects a dismal lack of faith in human creativity and adaptability, paired with certainty that the 21st century will be one of declining fortunes and devastating scarcity.
Kunstler is pushing what he calls “The Long Emergency” (also the title of a book he wrote in 2005, and part of the title of a follow-up volume published just this week), a “general contraction,” whereby “the urban metroplexes of the U.S. have assumed a scale and complexity of operation that cannot be sustained in the coming disposition of things. They will contract substantially.”
And what is this “coming disposition of things”? According to Kunstler, they include “population overshoot, the fossil-fuel quandary, competition over dwindling resources, an unsound banking system, climate uncertainty, and much more.”
When it comes to human habitations, especially in America, Kunstler doesn’t have a lot of nice things to say. He doesn’t like high rises, writing: “Cities that are overburdened with skyscrapers and megastructures face an added degree of failure. These buildings will never be renovated in the coming era of resource and capital scarcity.” But he doesn’t spare the suburbs.
“Suburbia has poor prospects for adaptive re-purposing in the lean and stringent conditions ahead,” writes Kunstler, “Rather, it has three probable destinies: slums, salvage operations, and ruins, perhaps in that order. The suburbs will certainly lose their utility as mass motoring comes to an end. Their supporting infrastructures—great highways and road networks, water systems, electric distribution, waste disposal—will disintegrate from deferred maintenance.”
Why Are Malthusian Proto-Preppers Attractive to Conservatives?
It’s easy enough to pick apart additional snippets from Kunstler’s recent article in the American Conservative. But his perspective is transparent and easily grasped. He doesn’t believe American urban civilization is sustainable, and he believes we’d all better move to places where people have easy access to farmland and rivers; as he puts it, “small towns and small cities that are scaled to the capital and resource realities of the future.”
If you want to get more of an impression of James Howard Kunstler, have a look at his 2004 TED talk, or visit his website. He’s made a living as a survivalist masquerading as an urban geographer, but he could have just as easily earned success as a foul-mouthed stand-up comic.
Stepping back, Kunstler’s over-the-top act is sort of endearing, but the fact that doomsday merchants like him are gaining traction with some conservatives is not the least bit endearing. If you haven’t noticed the growing overlap between libertarian conservatives and environmentalist zealots, you aren’t paying attention.
In this one-sided alliance, as usual, libertarians are being used.
The prevailing ideology of environmentalist zealots is to reduce the human “footprint” by any means necessary. Among other things, this translates into a war on suburbia, based on its alleged unsustainability. And into that fray wades an increasing number of “woke” libertarians, attacking infrastructure proposals to the extent they receive any government funding.
Modern civilization, which Kunstler apparently believes is on the verge of collapse, requires airports, seaports, railroads, reservoirs, aqueducts, freeways, and other amenities ranging from universities to prisons. Usually, these amenities are not feasible without public funding. Libertarians, though small in numbers, object to public funding, and they help kill these projects, especially since approval often hangs by a thread. This hands victory to environmentalists who don’t want to build anything.
Yes, freeways “subsidize the automobile,” but the only people who have a problem with this are libertarians and environmentalist extremists. Yes, zoning laws protect the ambiance of well-established suburbs with spacious lots, but the only people who have a problem with that are libertarians and environmentalist extremists. And yes, most people prefer to pay their taxes and receive a broad array of government services, which includes enjoying roads and freeways, but the only people who want to make them pay by the mile are, you guessed it, libertarians and environmentalist extremists.
There is nothing wrong with most if not all of the core concepts of libertarians, or libertarian conservatives. And there’s nothing wrong with letting Malthusians like James Howard Kunstler have their say. But libertarians need to consider carefully the implications of finding common cause with environmentalist extremists, regardless of whether their tactical objectives sometimes align. After all, the reason libertarians are libertarians is that they have faith in the power of the individual to solve any challenge. Inherent in that faith ought to be optimism for the future.
Cities and Suburbs are Beautiful and It’s Just Begun
It is fashionable to insult the generic monotony of America’s suburbs, but the documented truth is that most families prefer living in them. Most American families want a single-family detached home with a yard big enough for a dog, a garden, some trees, a patch of grass and maybe even a swimming pool.
The principal arguments against suburbs, that there isn’t enough land or that they are ecologically unsustainable, are based on biased studies and are fundamentally flawed. And there is a beauty to suburbs that is obvious to the people living in them, even if it eludes the snobs.
As for the densely packed cities of America, it is preposterous to think a free society cannot innovate toward constructing even grander and more inspiring structures. Take a look at the skyline of Dubai or Shanghai to see what a confident culture that isn’t riven with Malthusian doubts and bureaucratic paralysis can accomplish.
For every question raised by the likes of Kunstler, there is an answer. If we run out of fossil fuel, which perhaps we will in a few centuries, we will still have nuclear fission including safe breeder reactors, and by then we will also have nuclear fusion. If we run out of precious minerals, we will mine the asteroids. If we run out of sand for cement, we’ll find new strata, perhaps extracted from the brine issuing from desalination plants. If we can’t accommodate all our traffic on roads, we will build passenger drones, and we will build transportation tunnels underneath our cities. If we can’t grow enough food on our arable land or wish to return some of that land to nature, we will engage in high rise indoor agriculture.
The biggest threat to global civilization is not resource scarcity, unless it is politically contrived. Examples of that can be found from California to Caracas. If environmentalist extremists and socialists (a lot of overlap there) succeed in destroying otherwise vibrant and resilient free-market economies, then the capacity to innovate and adapt to genuine raw material supply challenges could be lost, with all the catastrophic results that Kunstler’s made a career out of envisioning.
The 21st century can be defined by stability, abundance, enlightenment, and glorious, sprawling, glittering cities and suburbs. It can be remembered as the century when humans eradicated infectious disease, cured cancer, dramatically extended life expectancy, protected wildlife and wilderness, achieved universal literacy, brought freedom and opportunities to everyone on earth, and took the first bold steps towards becoming a multi-planet species.
There are plenty of difficult challenges facing mankind. But maybe, just maybe, we face a future that is dazzling beyond description.