This is a transcript of a talk that James Howard Kunstler gave at the Agora Financial Wealth Symposium in Vancouver, B.C. My friend Richard was in attendance at the talk and sent me this transcript. Lots of grammar and other errors in an obviously rough transcript....but otherwise a very interesting and though provoking precis on Suburbistan......
The Fiasco of Suburbia, Its Implications, and Its Destiny By James Howard Kunstler
America's epical fiscal crisis that we are now seeing has everything to do with our living arrangement and the choices we have made about that in the last 60 years…
These choices were primarily a response to the circumstances of the time, mainly cheap land in a large continent and a lot of cheap energy. These choices were also a reaction against the great industrial cities of the 19th century. These enormous industrial worker slums had never been seen before…and it really scared people and it was full of all kinds of problems. You get the noise and the filth of the industry and the pollution and the health problems. You start to get these enormous sanitary problems and epidemics from bad water and bad living conditions with no light and no fresh air and terrible social behavior.
And then something comes along. In the 1890s…we decided that we were becoming a great nation, a great industrial power with great cities, but we had cities that were unworthy of our greatness. So a consensus formede that we had to do something about it. The architects, the municipal officials, the money people, the plutocrats all decided it was a very important project and the first great expression of it…was a period of robust and emphatic Greco Roman revival architecture because the idea there was.
There were a couple of ideas there: First, our society was coming out of the tradition of democracy from Greece and the tradition of being a republic from Rome and the other idea was classical architecture was one of the best ordering system for designing buildings…And so you saw this wonderful expression of exuberant new city planning. The great Civic center of San Francisco, the great Civic Center of Cleaveland, the Civic Center of NY public library, the list of great buildings and great civic center is very long, all produced in this period…Another one of the responses to the horrible industrial city was this idea that we have a heritage of settling the beautiful natural landscape…
And so for the people that are really well off, a new option comes on the menu and that is, you can live in the country villa and go into the city during the day to be a city person in business and then go back to the wonderful country villa at night. And remember at this time, when the first railroad suburb was forming, there was no Wal-mart, there were no highways. These people were really living in a country villa. Imagine how wonderfully appealing it was and imagine how everyone else in society began to aspire to this idea as a great goal in life. And it starts to be delivered as a commercial enterprise.
One of the first prototypes is Riverside, near Chicago - the great suburban project by Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of central park. They come to Chicago just before the Chicago fire breaks out and they plan this town…It must have been a wonderful thing, it was a 9 mile trip to Chicago.
The next incarnation comes along after about 1893 when you get the electric street car and you start to get the great street car suburb of America and they're very well known. The Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Myer Park, Charlotte, North Caroline, Hyde Park in Cincinnati. The list of these wonderful places is very long. They were some of the best neighborhoods built in America because they were grand and magnificent and they were green and wonderful. They were very close in and they used public transportation very well. In fact, some of you may realize they were places that have retained the most value in the last 100 years.
Something else comes along now. Henry Ford invents the Model A in 1907, but its got a little problem with it. It's handmade. You can only turn out so many of it. And it's relatively expensive at this point, more than $1000. But in 1913 he devices the Ford assembly line and then you can pump these things out in massive numbers and the price starts to come down, down, down – from $500 to $300. By the end of the First World War, the Model T cost about $280 and just about everyone that wants one can get one.
Something is happening in the mean time. This wonderful program of the "City Beautiful" that started in the 1890 has been going in full force throughout the 1910s. And all these great civic centers have been built, and the libraries and the city halls and the court houses. But the First World War is a real turning point because when that is over, we abandon the "City Beautiful moment" just like that. And we start to retrofit the American Industrial city for the car and in the process of doing that we make it worst than ever. Not only does it have all the industrial crap all through it and the huge slums are bigger than they were in 1890 cause we've let millions more worker into the country, now we're putting this overlay of noisy cars.
Now admittedly, there were a lot of horses there before, but there are still enormous problems and the expense of the signaling and paving the streets because the cobblestone aren't very friendly. So immense amounts of money go into the retrofit of the American city. And now another thing starts to happen, you start to see the massive development of the rural agricultural hinterland and the first real dedicated automobile suburb like Radburn in New Jersey starts to get built. These are the prototype to what is to follow.
However, only a certain amount of this stuff gets done before the economy implodes and after 1929 the industry that is hurt the most is the construction industry and very few of the motors suburb get built during the Great Depression. And it's a 10-year hiatus in which the city gets older and then you get another catastrophe, World War II. So the hiatus is prolonged for another five years.
Then the war is over and wonderful, interesting, strange new things happen in America…We take this great knowledge of war time production and expertise of producing massive amount of stuff to win the war – and all the confidence that went with it – and we turn that into the project of creating housing and housing subdivisions and that becomes the great competition now for city life.
And all of the advertising and public relations muscle of our culture is put to the task of proclaiming the wonderfulness of the American suburb. By the mid 50's you can take your choice, you can live in a lifeless, slummy apartment with a view of the air shaft, like Ralph Kramden, or you can move to the suburbs and live with Beaver Cleaver. And the choice becomes obvious. The interstate highway comes along in 1955, a lot of people said we built it because we had this idea that we had to evacuate the city from the nuclear holocaust and all that stuff. Forget it, that's not why we did it. We did it because we needed an economy of suburban land development and it was a wonderful opportunity to do it.
We were at our most confident in that period, we just won this tremendous war against manifest evil so we used our resources to build this great suburban project starting with the highways and, by and by, over the decade all the subdivisions were built and all the other stuff followed. For a while people would live in the suburb and go in the city during the daytime and do their job and maybe their wife would come into the city and do their shopping. I'm not making this up, my mom did this for a little awhile. But after a while they purged the cities of the shopping stuff and that went to the suburbs and some of the office stuff went to the suburbs until the suburbs began to elaborate as a self-organizing system into a kind of hypertrophic growth of their own. Kind of like a giant network of tumors around America.
And something else happened at the same time, the American mind starts to get cartoonified. We start to loose a lot of our sensibilities and our aesthetic and also our reasoning abilities and we become a cartoon nation with a collective cartoon imagination. One of the unintended consequences of this whole package is that for all of our blabber about the American Dream and suburbia, it ends up to be an unrewarding place to live in a lot of ways….
As suburbia morphed and mutated, it was not country living for everybody, but a cartoon of country living in a cartoon of a country house in a cartoon of a country and that's one of the great unexpressed agonies of the failure of suburbia and one of the reason why its ridiculed by some of the people that live there, because at some level, subconsciously we understand this.
You know, the common complaint is that the trouble with the suburbs is that they are all the same. When you ask a room full of people in a design studio what's wrong with the suburbs, they'll say, "Oh, they're all the same." But you know, there are a lot of places around the world that are all the same. The hill towns of Tuscany are hard to tell apart from 500 yards away. Have you been there? You know...you don't come back from Tuscany with a headache saying, "Oh, they were all the same, made me feel bad." The boulevards of Paris are hard to tell apart at first. But, you know...it doesn't ruin your vacation to go there.
The problem with the American suburban habitat is not that its all the same, its that it's the same miserable quality…
The American suburb was the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world….Why? Because it has no future, because we're not going to be able to run it….We don't have the resource base to run it.
A lot of the delusions that are now rampant in the country all focus on the alternative energy scene. I want to be very clear about this, I am in favor of alternative energy. I think we're going to do everything we possibly can. But the key to understanding alternative energy is this: First of all, we are going to be disappointed by what it can do for us, and second, it is not going to change the fact that we have to make other arrangements for all the important activities of daily life…..
We're having an incoherent conversation about that about in our society right now because of the psychology of previous investment. We've invested so much of our wealth and even our identity in the [existing American] way of life that we can't imagine letting go of it…But the "project of suburbia" is over as a period in our history and the home builders are going down and they will not be coming back. We're in the process now of losing somewhere between $1.5 and $3 trillion worth of capital. That capital is going to be lost. It went into a black hole and things don't come out of black holes. We're not going to have money to lend to people, least of all for mortgages. In fact, the whole idea of mortgage in America may be similar to what happened back in France after the Mississippi bubble. They didn't even use the word "bank" for 150 years, it was such a toxic word.
And apropos of what Kevin Kerr said earlier in the day, we are facing a huge problem with food. All of the systems of our daily life are going to have to be reformed, whether we like it or not….really. We're gonna have to grow more of our food closer to home. The age of the 3000-mile Cesar salad is over! We don't know how much food close to home we are going to have to grow, but at least more than we do now…. probably a lot more…This is going to change completely our idea of how we value our rural, so-called undeveloped, land. Right now, we're still in the frame of mind where undeveloped means undeveloped for suburban crap. But that's going to be over. From now on it's going to be land that has needs to be used for agriculture…
But let me step back for a moment, just to give you an idea of the differences between suburban development and urbanism. In suburbia, everything is rigorously and relentlessly segregated from everything else. You're not allowed to live near the shopping; the school cannot be anywhere near the business. Everything is separated and everybody has to get in the car and go out to the "collector boulevard" then go into the pod, whether it's the education pod, the business pod, the housing pod and we can't do that anymore. We can't afford it, especially from 38 miles outside of Dallas and Minneapolis. By contrast, traditional urbanism networks of interconnected streets mix use with people living close to the schools, the shopping and the business and it will become self-evident that very soon that that is superior way to live…
We don't know what the city of the future is going to be like, but I believe our large cities are going to contract substantially, even while they "densify" at their centers…And one of the things we're going to learn again, as the automobile begins to diminish its presence in our life is how wonderful the composition of the urban block can be, because the center of it is not gonna be for parking…We are going to re-learn the design and assembly of human habitat and that too will be a self-organizing process, as we're compelled to respond to the circumstances of the global energy emergency…
We need a self-image that informs us, that we're confident, and that we are competent and that we are capable people. And that's why one of the first things we have to do is rebuild the railroad systems in America, 'cause its the one thing we can do right away that will have the greatest impact on our oil use. It will put thousands and thousands of people to work in all layers and skills. The infrastructure for running it is lying out there rusting in the rain and it's the one project that we can do right away that will allow us to demonstrate the we can actually do something. We can do a collective project as a nation, as a society, as a people that can actually accomplish something important at this time.
You know… the kids in the college lectures are always asking me if I can give them hope. And the one thing that the college students don't understand is that they have to become the generators of the hope. They have to generate it themselves within themselves by demonstrating that they are capable people who understand the signals reality is sending to them about the kind of world they are going to be living in the next 20 – 30 years…
We gotta build a different world here in North America now and we don't have any time to waste. We don't have time to be crybabies about it. We don't have time to point fingers. We have too many things to do right away. We gotta reform the way we produce our food; we gotta change the way we do commerce and trade; we gotta change the way we get from point "A" to point "B," and we have to inhabit the landscape differently and, as far as this group is concerned, we gotta find a way to do finance that's not based on getting something for nothing, 'cause that is what has gotten us into this situation we're in now.
Thank you very much. It was a pleasure to talk to you this morning