Interview: James Howard Kunstler


“When everybody is a zombie, whose brains are left to eat?” asks James Howard Kunstler, acclaimed author of The Long Emergency and The Geography of Nowhere. In his new Colors guest blog series, "A History of the Future", Kunstler breaks down the "convergent catastrophes of the 21st century" and explains why apocalypse is imminent.

To start things off right, we picked his brain.


How did you start worrying about the apocalypse?
Back in the late '80s, I was engaged by the New York Times Sunday Magazine to write a bunch of pieces about suburbia. Even back then, you couldn’t fail to notice that we were facing some sort of reckoning over energy resources, that we were not going to be able to keep elaborating the suburban pattern for very many more decades without getting into trouble.

At the same time, something happened. A bunch of senior geologists started to retire out of the oil industry. They started publishing their dark and secret thoughts about the destiny of the oil industry.

A whole movement grew out of that, which might be called the Peak Oil movement. People who were trying to convince the public that we were facing a very serious and large problem that would change everything about the way we live.

Most of the wishful thinking around alternative energy is going to end up disappointing people, and so the net result will be an enormous economic contraction, a lowering of standards of living all over the world and a great deal of political trouble.


When will the contraction happen?
The contraction is already under way. What we used to understand as normal economic growth is no longer occurring. I don’t think people have any conception of how disordered the economic and the financial system really is.

We’re talking about the inevitable failure of life-support systems that people depend on: Industrial agriculture, major transport systems, and major social safety nets that depend on the generation and the formation of capital.


Why call it a contraction, rather than a new system?
Because we’re only pretending that there is a new economic system waiting in the wings.  There is none. Just as there’s no energy system waiting in the wings to replace the petroleum system. There’s just a wish that there would be.  This is not reality.


Are you personally preparing for the apocalypse?
I bought a property on the edge of a small village of about 2000 people. It is on a river with a lot of water-power; it’s a tributary of the Hudson river. I got a three-acre property that I’m now developing into a very large garden. I just planted 20 fruit trees and will probably put 30 more in.

I’ve also put up a substantial deer fence to keep the deer out of the property although I don’t know how long the deer are going to last in the future. You know, if the poor people around here get hungry…  


Is your village a survivalist community? 
There are plenty of people here who share my views about where things are headed, and there’s a pretty large cohort of educated, intelligent, activist type people here. I went to this former industrial wasteland on the north end of Indiana near the shore of lake Michigan. The desolation there was just out of this world. The people living there were clearly unprepared for anything that’s coming along.


When you speak to people about the future, how much do they already know?
There is an apprehension that the things that I present to them are really happening, but they’re not getting much validation or reinforcement from the media or from their political leaders.

When Barack Obama comes out and tells the American people that we have 100 years of shale gas, he’s lying to them. There is just an enormous wish to keep our society running in the way that it has been designed and evolved to run, including all the investments made in it. We can’t bear the idea that we’re not going to continue living that way.


What should we read to prepare for the end of the world as we know it?
I think World Made by Hand would be good– it vividly depicts what the future will be like and gives some ideas other than depressing. It’s a world in which life has become very local, the electricity is no longer running, most of the economic activity is centered on agriculture, and people have to work with their neighbors


Any tips for the future?
In The Long Emergency, I said that we would see something that resembles feudal relations between people as people became displaced from the economy and from their actual physical homes, that they would have to sell their allegiance to more powerful people for food and security. I don’t think it will be the same terminology, we’re not going to call people serfs, but I think the relations will be tantamount to that.

Also, some people were indignant that I didn’t show bicycles in my books. But we won’t be riding bikes in the future – we will be riding horses. Unless asphalt roads are meticulously repaired, they fall apart pretty quickly. Between that and a lack of materials like rubber and metal alloys, bicycles won’t be useful for very long.


James Howard Kunstler is the author of eleven books. His next work of nonfiction, Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation (forthcoming July 2012, Atlantic Monthly Press), discusses “techno-narcissism”: “the exorbitant faith that technological miracles will get us through the long emergency”.