Friday, January 05, 2007

James Howard Kunstler's Jeremiads

More picturesWe're told that a pessimistic attitude is bad for our health, and that we should aim for an optimistic viewpoint on the world, which on balance is probably best for longterm physiological and psychological well-being. Philosophically, routine pessimism without some leavening aspect, such as humor or a sense of hope, can degenerate into nihilism, but it's also the case that pessimistic critique that's edged with purpose and possibility, with a vision of a better world, that aims to serve as a corrective for absence of critical thought, is undeniably necessary. James Howard Kunstler is just such a critic.

I've read some of his provocative essays in the ever-alarmist Atlantic Monthly, and have often nodded in agreement with his perceptiveness, usually shorn of any of the many useful theoretical underpinnings that are common in academic writing, about our national state of affairs, though his nostalgia and Cassandraesque predictions occasionally go too far. Today, while netsurfing for images of MIT's post-post-modernist Simmons Hall (at right, Andy Ryan, the immense spongiform dormitory designed by Steven Holl that initially drew rapturous reviews but which has since turned out to be a maintenance nightmare, I happened upon his site,, which is a virtual warehouse of his acid assessments of the ravenously consumptive, house-of-cards society that the United States has become. (A few months ago I was telling C about how we were living in the "lottery" economy, and now Kurt Andersen, in New York Magazine, is saying that it's a "casino" economy, with revolutionary drumbeats beginning offstage.)

One of the highlights is Kunstler's Clusterfuck Nation column, apparently updated every Monday. It consists of acerbic jeremiads on some aspect of contemporary American life, though a recurrent theme involves our national pursuit of unsustainable modes of living, and our blindness to what's to come if we stay on the same paths. The most recent one, from this past Monday, assesses his gloomy forecasts for 2007, as America's suburbanization economy teeters and the world increasingly suffers from higher oil prices, global warming, and other problems. Other tart links include his Daily Grunt blog, the Eyesore of the Month (which is where an image of Simmons Hall turned up, along with a number of awful urban, suburban and exurban houses that bear the anti-aesthetic (and not anesthetic, unfortunately) marks of the dwelling that is being erected next to our home in New Jersey, as well as some architectural structures that I find quite beautiful, like the CalTrans headquarters), and links to his books, including The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century, and Cities in Mind (which talks about the "fiascos" of contemporary Atlanta and Las Vegas, among other things).

Here's a quote from his New Year's Day 2007 entry on the current state of things:

The inertia part of the story is that this collective hallucination (that jive-capital was real) was sustained through 2006 by the sheer massive weight and flow of jive capital and its ability to elude scrutiny by countless chimerical conversions from one abstruse form to another -- from loan, to bond, to bet, to position, to Christmas bonus. . . . The final result, though, was a nation with an increasingly impoverished middle class, a bankrupt public treasury, and all remaining wealth (notional or residual) creamed off by a racketeering upper crust of logrolling insiders who, for the moment, could convert their dollars into multiple mansions, private jet planes, and sky boxes at the gladiatorial combats du jour.

The rest of the US economy was increasingly composed of a suburban development hyper-boom that amounted to little more overall than a colossal misinvestment in a living arrangement with no future (and the irreparable destruction of the remaining US landscape). The building-and-selling of suburban houses and the ancillary accessorizing of them with collector highways, strip malls, and big box stores, fast food huts, and all the jobs associated with constructing, lending, evaluating, selling, servicing, and staffing these things, along with additional rackets like home equity withdrawal refinancing to keep the cash registers ringing in the Wal-Marts and Home Depots -- these were the activities supposedly keeping the "regular" (i.e. lumpenprole) economy chugging along. If you subtracted all this "housing bubble" activity from the rest of this economy since 2001 there was very little left besides, hair-styling, fried chicken, and open heart surgery.

Yet, marvelous to relate, the whole toxic, entropy-laden, creaking, reeking cargo of shit-and-deceit that comprised this system just managed to keep rolling along for another year without collapsing under its own stinking, fantastically stupid weight.

The luck part of the story came partly from the weather -- there was barely any hurricane activity in US territory last year and global warming was so advanced that the northern states set records for warm winter temperatures -- which redounded into the fossil fuel part of the 2006 story.