Books mentioned in this post…
- The KunstlerCast: Conversations with James Howard Kunstler, by Duncan Crary
- Dark Age Ahead, by Jane Jacobs
- The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City, by Alen Ehrenhalt
- The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs
A few days ago…
As the airliner made its final decent into Raleigh-Durham International Airport today, I looked out the window to see the arrangements of cul-de-sacs, housing developments cut off from all commerce and accessed by one street/entry, and of course lots of big houses with fancy brick fronts but featureless sides, like big ugly barns.
I’d been reading the The KunstlerCast: Conversations with James Howard Kunstler
, by Duncan Crary, a written compilation/transcription/adaptation/whatever from the Kunstlercast.com podcast. If you don’t know who James Howard Kunstler is, I suggest you investigate. I’m not going to explain a lot here, except to say he is a critic of the development model this country has used for most of the 20th and thus far in the 21st century, an educator of the topic known as Peak Oil, writer, and charmingly acerbic man. Some people think he’s an asshole. I don’t.
I was flying out to North Carolina for a skateboarding event, expending a lot fossil fuel to move me and my equipment some hundreds of miles east for a couple of days. Such travel is common in these days — as Kunstler would call them — the last days of the cheap oil fiesta.
The irony of the situation was not lost on me.
the next day…
As I continue this post, I’m sitting in a Holiday Inn Express, off the highway in Wake Forest. The hotel is clean and affordable (at least I think it is clean – it seems clean), but of course lacks any sort of character. It’s exactly the kind of building that Kunstler rails against. Disposable. Not really worth caring about in the long run. When this building is inevitably torn down, no one will weep a single tear. Buildings like this are designed to be disposable. Build ’em cheap, make your money, move on. I am stoked about the free WiFi, however. That’s cool. Certainly though, to paraphrase Jello Biafra, “this could be anywhere.”
After an entire day of skateboarding, I also enjoyed the whirlpool tub I spent 30 minutes filling with hot water.
Anyway, the skateboarding today was fun. Great time with good friends I don’t get to see too often in person. You can say what you want about the internet and social media being fake, but you’ll be wrong at least some of the time. At its best social media allows real communities of real people to maintain connections despite great physical distance between them, and every so often they will get together for real and have a blast.
In the morning I will get up early, drive my rental car back to the airport, get on another plane and consume more fossil fuels to get home to Dallas, where I’ll drive out to my home in an inner-ring suburb in a quaint (I suppose) house built in 1960.
Perhaps because my suburb came into being in the 1960s, when things were a bit “smaller”, I feel unjustifiably justified that I’m living in a not so bad suburb. I can ride my bike to the store, or to work. My house isn’t a McMansion, etc.
Tonight there was a fight going on down the hall in the hotel. Hopefully it didn’t get physical. I just heard a lot of yelling and obscenities from a man and a woman. As I was about to call the desk it got quiet. That’s either really good, or really bad…or maybe the cops just showed up. Weird. “Honey, let’s check into the Holiday Inn Express and have us a fight!”. “Hell yeah, bitch! Let’s do it!”
A couple of days later…at home
The flight home was long (just what you don’t really want) and uneventful (exactly what you do want). I seem to have avoided illness after being on the plane with lot of children. The flight was long due to a plane change in St. Louis, and then a stop in Little Rock. Also, getting up at 5:30 am to go to the airport didn’t exactly fill me with joy and energy, but overall the trip was good.
It seems likely that trips like this will become more and more expensive over the coming years and decades, as fuel prices continue to rise. We really need high speed rail in this country. The energy required to lift a human and all his skateboard stuff up to 40,000 feet, fly 1000 miles at 600 mph, multiplied by however many people fit on an airliner, plus pay the flight crew and still make a profit, is just too high. I don’t see how trips like this will be able to continue. They certainly aren’t helping the planet at all, which does bother me, but hell, that plane was gonna fly with or without me, so might as well party while we can. I will look into buying some carbon offsets to ease my conscience.
Having finished the Kunstlercast book the last night of my stay in Wake Forest, I downloaded a book by an author mentioned in it — thank you Kindle Touch 3G — Dark Age Ahead, by Jane Jacobs. I managed to read about half of it on the flight home. Really interesting book. Jacobs is best known for her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I think that Jacobs has been accused of being unscholarly, but hell, she wasn’t a scholar! Her ideas and observations are quite fascinating.
A few more notes on my reading…
So yeah, this was kind of a rambling post. I forgot to mention that I forgot to charge my Kindle before I left home, so I had to stop reading the Jacobs book and switch to an actual, physical book I had with me — The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City. I read about half of that too! I’m trying to become a minor scholar in the area of urban design/planning, New Urbanism, sustainability, etc.
Regarding my reading: There seem to be two major ways that writers are looking at the future of cities. Actually there are more, but I’m not including those who think we will just go on as we are now. I am concerned only with those who recognize that change will be needed and will happen.
One group of writers, in which I would put Kunstler, thinks that due to Peak Oil and other factors, we are looking at a “lower energy future” — a future in which energy will be more scarce and more expensive, and society will thus have to adapt to those conditions. In the case of Kunstler, he thinks life will be much more local in every way, and we will need to “re-inhabit” the small cities that have largely gone unused over the last 50 years. Kunstler thinks that big cities, with skyscrapers and whatnot, will simply be too expensive or impossible to run. For Kunstler and those of like-mind, Peak Oil is really the defining factor in the future of life in the United States (and everywhere, really).
The other camp, which I would characterize as the “Richard Florida” camp, believe that big cities are the wave of the future, in that they contain the critical mass of people to be successful. Florida acknowledges that Peak Oil and overall resource depletion is a huge problem, but seems to think we will deal with it effectively through technological innovations, changes in our transportation infrastructure, and societal changes overall. I reviewed on of Florida’s books a couple of years ago — this might help you get a grip on his viewpoints.
To me, the wild card seems to be Climate Change. We know it is happening, but don’t seem to have a good predictive model. Or if we do, we’re ignoring it. It is hard, for instance, to see a great future for New York City or Boston in, say, 100 years, if sea levels rise (which they will) and flood a lot of those coastal cities. On the other hand, cities like Boston and New York City are of such national and global importance it is hard to imagine great efforts not be made to keep them intact and functional. It seems improbable that we will be able to build and maintain the kind of sea walls around all our coastal cities that are needed to keep them functioning as they are today. I suppose those cities might gradually grow inland…who knows. It looks like a lot of real estate is going to potentially be under water.
In addition to sea level rise, Climate Change combined with higher energy costs will affect the shear livability of many of cities in the South and Southwest. In these areas it is already damned hot in the summers. Imagine trying to keep your 5000 sf home cool in the summer if energy costs triple and the summers get hotter. Not fun.
Some of the cities built out in the desert seem destined for abandonment.
Probably, neither of these camps will be exactly right. What actually happens and how we actually deal with it will be unforeseen and mostly unplanned.
Personally, I would rather live in a big urban area. There’s just a lot more to do. But I admit I don’t know how we’re going to deal with the energy and climate issues, and fresh water is a big issue too, and likewise will be affected by climate change.