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Dropping the ball

This past decade? Not so great. But the next, according to social critic James Howard Kunstler, will be much worse.
By MIKE MILIARD  |  January 6, 2010


At last, the golden moment has arrived. The awful aughts have been swept ignominiously into the dustbin of history. It's an era that will be missed by few — least of all New York Times economic columnist Paul Krugman, who this past week dubbed it The Big Zero: "a decade in which nothing good happened, and none of the optimistic things we were supposed to believe turned out to be true." Incomes, home prices, stocks — all fell or stayed stagnant. Also, there was Jon and Kate.

And so, onward we march to 2010 and the teens thereafter! Heads held high, we look toward a brighter tomorrow. After all, it can scarcely get worse. Right? Er, well, actually it could. In fact, we should be so lucky as to have a decade where we only tread water — it's probably more likely that we'll sink ever deeper into this morass of our own making.

Or at least so says provocative social critic James Howard Kunstler, author of such books as The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape (Simon & Schuster, 1993) and The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005).

Kunstler is a controversial prognosticator. He's been dismissed as a "crank," a "gadfly," a "dystopian," a "luddite," and a "misanthrope." The mainstream media pay him little mind. Undaunted — whether in his books (fiction and non-) or on his widely read blog, Clusterfuck Nation ( — he's been sounding his clarion call for decades: the tab is coming due for the wasteful way of life we've taken for granted these past 50 years.

Soon, he says, fast-dwindling oil supplies, unsustainable suburban sprawl, destructive mechanized-food production, global warming, and ever-widening wage inequality will conspire to grind the gears of modernity to a halt, thrusting us into a drastically different future.

That desolate vision may seem alarmist. But it's hard not to see some undeniable truths underlying his prognosis. Kunstler freely admits that he's not a scientist or an academic. But sprawl and oil-addiction have been obsessions of his since his early days as a journalist, reporting on the gas lines after the 1973 OPEC embargo. He recognized then, he's said, that that temporary nationwide upheaval was "probably a dress rehearsal for a much bigger problem later on."

In recent years, that prediction has started to come to pass, Kunstler tells the Phoenix, as Americans have begun to learn "hard lessons about reaching limits" — be it via skyrocketing gas prices or plummeting home values. "We don't have a lot of experience with limits. We don't like them. So we're pretending that they don't exist."

But, he argues, they emphatically do. And as those limits grow more concrete, we'll soon be entering "a period of social, economic, and political tribulation. And it will go on for quite a while — as far into the future as we can see."

What does that mean? It means no more highways jam-packed with zooming cars. No more supermarkets stuffed to bursting with high-fructose junk. No more air conditioning. No more airlines. No more conspicuous consumption. No more wasting time on the Web.

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