Arbor Update

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Today: Kunstler in Ann Arbor

21. April 2006 • Brandon
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James Howard Kunstler, popular writer on issues such as peak oil and suburbia, will be speaking twice in Ann Arbor today: Noon in Room 1227 of the Art and Architecture Building on UM’s North Campus, and 7 p.m. at Shaman Drum Bookstore.

Edit: Ypsilanti’s Mark Maynard has posted a quick and colorful interview with JHK. -Murph.



  1. My opinion has been that Kunstler is profoundly wrong in his apocalyptic visions of the future. In particular, his idea that an oil-scarce future is going to magically smite all forms of modern culture he dislikes (suburbs and dense cities alike!) makes no sense whatsoever when you think about it for a minute. Transporting bulk foods by ship and rail is just NOT going to become prohibitively expensive (forget oil—ships and trains can run on coal if need be. Ships can even be powered by sail if it comes to that). Sure—it may become prohibitively expensive to fly fresh vegetables great distances from warm-weather countries during winter, but we’re not going to stop shipping other foods in bulk by ship and train across oceans and continents. New Yorkers aren’t going to starve because there’s not enough surrounding farm acreage.

    But after having reading a couple of recent entries in the “Clusterfuck Nation Chronicle” on his web site, I now think he’s not just wrong but also nuts.


       —mw    Apr. 21 '06 - 06:12PM    #
  2. Where are those “bulk foods” going to come from, mw, after the locales that produce them can’t afford to fertilize with petroleum-derived chemicals to boost production and they have to keep a greater proportion of the (smaller) crop for their own consumption?

    Did Kunstler say that transporting food by ship and rail would become prohibitively expensive, or is that a(n inadvertant) straw man?

    Rather than dismiss him as “nuts”, you might go tonight and challenge him with your skepticism.


       —Steve Bean    Apr. 21 '06 - 06:34PM    #
  3. Kunstler toned down the rhetoric in the noon talk. In response to the question “what will ships and trains run on?” he said “It’s not clear,” but said that their greater efficiency would make them far more appealing for transportation. However, his advocacy for an electric rail system left open the question of the source of electricity. He did say that we may have to move very carefully into nuclear energy.

    On the whole, his talk was much more responsible than I have seen from his blog. I think he jumped the shark after The Geography of Nowhere, though.


       —Dale    Apr. 21 '06 - 06:47PM    #
  4. Where are those “bulk foods” going to come from, mw, after the locales that produce them can’t afford to fertilize with petroleum-derived chemicals to boost production and they have to keep a greater proportion of the (smaller) crop for their own consumption?

    Human have been producing surpluses and shipping grain by sea since long before the age of steam, let alone the age of petroleum. Archeologists find ancient grain ships at the bottom of the Mediterranean.

    Did Kunstler say that transporting food by ship and rail would become prohibitively expensive, or is that a(n inadvertant) straw man?

    He has predicted doom in a variety of forms, but he has specifically said that cities aren’t sustainable and that Walmart will surely die because the global transportation network will be brought down by the end of cheap oil.

    Rather than dismiss him as “nuts”, you might go tonight and challenge him with your skepticism.

    No, the end-of-cheap oil doomsday predictions are what I consider profoundly wrong but not crazy. What I regard as nuts are his blog entries where his petroleum-fueled millenarianism leads him to favor military attacks on Iran.

    But the main reason I don’t see much point in arguing with Kunstler directly is that I don’t think his views are ones that he can be argued out of. His disdain of modern American culture seems to me to be driven more by aesthetics than economics. He’s not sorry at all to conclude that our current system is unsustainable—rather he seems to be hoping for the end of cheap oil to destroy globalization, Walmart, the suburbs, fast food, skyscrapers, and so on.

    Not to mention, of course, that there’s obviously a ready (global) market for his mashup of cultural criticism and environmental doom—from the perspective of his career as an author, he’d be “nuts” to moderate his views ;)


       —mw    Apr. 21 '06 - 08:06PM    #
  5. “Human have been producing surpluses and shipping grain by sea since long before the age of steam, let alone the age of petroleum. Archeologists find ancient grain ships at the bottom of the Mediterranean.”

    That was when the global population was in the hundreds of millions, not billions, and before the paving, erosion, and desertification of a great deal of formerly food-producing land, whether for agriculture, grazing, or hunting/gathering.

    An acre of land is enough space, organically and biointensively farmed, to feed about 10 people. I’ll leave it to you to do the math on the population of NYC and their agricultural land requirements.

    When Cuba’s oil supply was cut in half in the early 1990s after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the average Cuban lost 50 pounds. They now grow food on much of the available land in Havana, as well as on rooftops. The Russian tractors rust in the fields that they now plow with oxen.

    Our experience with oil decline won’t be so severe, yet we will have to also face the challenge of losing most of our natural gas (heating fuel) supply over a very short time period, perhaps as soon as 20 years from now.

    Kunstler aside, I’m concerned about how we’ll handle it all.

    I’m surprised he said anything about nuclear. Extracting and processing the uranium ore is very energy intensive, and the supply is limited. “Peak uranium” may be only a few years off. Our electricity will more likely come from wind and solar, but be limited in supply.

    I think we’ll manage that fine (not easily, but sanely), but a sufficient supply of locally grown food is a big question mark in my mind.


       —Steve Bean    Apr. 21 '06 - 09:45PM    #
  6. Steve- Check out www.fsepmichigan.org …there are alot of organizations on board with this and some smart and dedicated volunteers…They are just starting and promise to be major force in pushing a buy local mind set in consumers in a five county area, while faciltating farm, processing, and distibution efforts to meet those demands…

    The new mantra; Farmers rock.


       —WAP John    Apr. 22 '06 - 02:46PM    #
  7. Last summer I worked for the UM group that was going to be doing research for FSEP – looking at questions like, “What food do schools in SE Michigan buy; how much of it do they buy; what do they pay for it; and under what conditions would they buy local?”

    But then FSEP decided this kind of market research was unimportant, and they wanted to use their grant money on advocacy and marketing instead, with research now apparently directed at case studies and the like.

    I’m certainly a believer in the Cause, and there are a lot of awesome people attached to that group, but I kinda feel like they missed a chance there.


       —Murph    Apr. 22 '06 - 03:45PM    #
  8. From what I understand, certain grant seeking/management elements within the University wanted to manage that research and retain control over the data. All the five counties said “no way”, so the University “project manager” withdrew from participation in a spiteful manner.
    The FSEP folks were able to retain the funding sources and is now working with Michigan State to provide that market data…I’m amazed how the University fails to take a leadership role in such matters; it’s not only bad civics, it’s bad marketing.
    (...if shame won’t work, let’s talk to the guys in PR.)
    They’re missing bedrock opportunities to (further) gain the respect and gratitude of Michigan citizens (voters)...


       —WAP John    Apr. 22 '06 - 07:23PM    #
  9. Interesting. My title was “project manager”. I don’t remember any spite. I would suggest that at least some of what you understand is inaccurate.


       —Murph.    Apr. 23 '06 - 12:48AM    #
  10. I understood this to be a comphrensive five county survey tracking all the food consumed and it’s sources…are we talking about the same project? Please correct any misinformation that’s floating out there, I’ve heard this from multiple conversations…


       —WAP John    Apr. 23 '06 - 02:28AM    #