Life After Cars

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James Howard Kunstler, the author of The Geography of Nowhere, a history of suburbia, and The Long Emergency, an exploration of what life will be like after oil ceases to be plentiful and cheap, spoke at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club yesterday. Kunstler, unlike the rest of the chorus chanting that Americans should drive less, actually provides specifics. He argues that Americans are so reluctant to give up driving—despite the hassles of parking, long commutes, expensive insurance, and the fact that cars are killing us and the planet—because of the perverse human tendency to throw good money after bad. In this case, the bad money is 50 years of building suburbs.

Kunstler also has some relatively sane ideas about how we might start preparing for the time when we will have to drive less. We will have to rethink our industrial agricultural system, which has been accurately described as “The Oil We Eat.” We should invest in rebuilding railroad and shipping infrastructures, to replace trucking.

The weird thing is, Kunstler’s view is rather utopian. Giving up oil will cure what ails us about modernity: Locally owned small family farms will replace industrial agriculture, small businesses will replace Wal-Mart, and home schooling will replace public schools to which students are brought in a fleet of buses.

But alongside these heart-warming predictions, Kunstler also tells us to brace ourselves for serious battles over remaining resources, which, in the absence of mega-productive oil-fed agriculture and our most common forms of transportation, will need to be redistributed one way or the other. As to how to ensure that the redistribution will be equitable, not a peep.

So: Brace for a revolution, after which things will be surprisingly pleasant because they just will. Sounds kinda like Marxism, doesn’t it? Even so, I think he’s onto something with smart growth and railroads (to which I would add mass transit).

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