A Brave Man Speaks His Highly Unflattering Truth

by | May 6, 2010

SEATTLE—Out-spoken and fearless urban planning expert, social critic, author and journalist James Howard Kunstler is a man on a mission. He wants to shake the American people awake with his special brand of righteous anger, and tonight he’s on stage in a grand ballroom at the Westin to do just that.

Kunstler is here to deliver the opening keynote at Living Future 2010, “the unconference for deep green professionals” put on by Cascadia Region Green Building Council, a chapter of the U.S.G.B.C. (and my wife’s employer). Kunstler is an interesting choice to open the unconference, for he is a rabble-rouser of epic proportions.

He says, “People call me a ‘doomer,’ but I call myself an actualist.” One of the things he’s being “actual” about is suburbia, which he says is “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.” Kunstler says, “We’ve invested our identity in this. Suburbia is part of the American dream.”

Kunster claims the suburban dream is over, despite our lingering dreams. He claims builders and others are waiting for the bottom, so they can resume building, but “no combination of alternative fuels will allow us to run suburbia.”

Americans are conditioned to want something for nothing, he says. Kunstler reminds the liberal audience that President Obama said, “We won’t apologize for the American way of life.” Building on that, Kunstler says he is sorely disappointed by the nation’s elite cadre of environmentalists who are more concerned about producing electric cars than they are about living in walkable communities. His word for it: techo-grandiosity.

“We are not a serious society, not at all,” he practically spits form the podium. He tells a story about speaking at the Googleplex in Mt. View, CA. “The whole place is like a kindergarten. It seems the whole idea in business today is to be as infantile as possible.” Worse yet, Kunstler says the Googleites don’t know the difference between energy and technology, which is his way of saying technology isn’t going to solve all our problems.

Lack of political will is another sore point. He says we’re spending stimulus money to fix highways, when “we have a train system that would embarrass the Bulgarians.” Sadly, “we can’t afford to be clowns.”

During the question and answer session, a psychologist in the audience asks Kunstler if he doesn’t have a more hopeful image he can share, one that will make an already paranoid people feel less paranoid. In true Kunstler fashion, he says, “we can’t fix everything with therapy.”

When the talk is done, people applaud, but not as vigorously as they might. It seems the air’s been sucked out of this vast ballroom.

One attendee tells me he found Kunstler’s talk depressing. And therein lies the crux of the matter. Kunstler paints a broad canvas where all sorts of American ugliness are put plainly in view. Yet, most people working on solutions—like creating green buildings—are busy addressing one small part of the problem, not the entirety of the matter, and they want to feel good about their contributions. But Kunstler doesn’t care about making people feel good. His thing is to sound the alarm and make it ring loudly in our ears.

[UPDATE] Here are two other takes on Kunstler’s Living Future speech, one from Sustainable Industries and another from Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce.