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Peak Tyranny

Jul 12


Someone once told me that loyal opponent Todd Litman, of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, thinks of himself as my nemesis. But I don’t want to be a nemesis to Todd. First of all, he is a nice guy. Second, he is pretty analytical; even if I disagree with his conclusions, I appreciate that he knows his way around a spreadsheet.

If I were to have a nemesis, I would want it to be someone who is really my opposite, someone who relies on exaggeration and over-the-top rhetoric to make his case. Someone like James Howard Kunstler.

Kunstler may be, like Todd, a nice guy. The only evidence I have one way or the other is that he once called me a “complete f**king idiot” on an urban listserv and described one of my papers as being full of “self-evidently silly ideas.”

Nice guy or not, Kunstler can’t be accused of being high on analytical skills (for example, he blames the housing bubble on peak oil). Instead, he bases his opinions on visceral emotion and mythology. He thinks the suburbs are ugly, so they can’t possibly continue for long.

In a recent post on his blog, he reassures his followers that we have reached peak suburbia. “It’s over,” he says. “The remaining things under construction are the last twitchings of a dying organism.”

He bases this, of course, on the peak oil theory, about which he was written an entire book. I’ve already responded to this book, but (as Kunstler’s self-declared nemesis) I have to add a few words in response to his blog.

The key part of his post comes in the third to the last paragraph: “We had better prepare to make other arrangements for living in this country, by which I mean specifically re-localizing, de-globalizing, with an emphasis on local agriculture wherever possible, the emergency restoration of passenger railroad service and related modes of public transit, the rebuilding of local commercial infrastructures, and a radical rethinking of how we inhabit the landscape under New Urbanist lines.”

In other words, energy might get expensive some time in the future. So we should spend billions of dollars now building rail transit, our agricultural system, and other infrastructure, plus heavily regulate everyone’s property to force people to live in high-density housing.

This policy is insane. No one, especially not Kunstler, has a crystal ball to see into the future. There are so many other possibilities that we would be stupid to put a huge amount of our resources into this one limited (and in fact unlikely) scenario.

Here are just a few of the other possibilities:

1. Oil doesn’t peak for a century or more. Kunstler and the other peak-oil fearmongers only count 1 trillion barrels of liquid oil in the ground. Yet there are another 4 trillion or more barrels of tar sand oil and oil shales. These are more costly to extract, but those costs are declining. Moreover, the cost of the raw material is only a small portion of the cost of gasoline and other finished products.

2. Oil gets more expensive, but we find substitutes. Kunstler claims “No combination of alternative fuels will allow us to run American life the way we have been used to running it.” His case utterly falls apart if fuel cells, solar, or some other energy source becomes feasible. GM already has a car that can go 200 miles on a fuel cell. Ford says it is about to start making hydrogen-powered shuttle buses.

3. Gasoline gets expensive, but we keep driving anyway. As I’ve previously noted here, most Americans have enough discretionary income that we simply absorb higher gas prices and cut back a little on something else.

4. Gasoline gets expensive, we drive less, but move to the exurbs and telecommute. Kunstler might be right: the suburbs are peaking. But instead of moving from the suburbs back to the cities, lots of people might move further out and rely on UPS and FedEx to deliver the stuff we need. There might not be enough people left in the cities to use the trains we build now, so they’ll scrap them out and turn them into bike paths.

5. Something else. The above four are just the things I can think of, but my crystal ball is no better than Kunstler’s. The most likely outcome will be something that none of us can predict today. But the least likely outcome will be that Americans meekly allow themselves to be herded back to dense cities to ride around on trains that go where someone else allows them to go when someone else allows them to go there.

6. Kunstler is right. Let’s say worse comes to worse and people do stop driving and move back to the cities. Do you think they will want to be stuck with our moderate-capacity rail lines and inefficient housing construction techniques? No, they’ll probably tear everything out and start over anyway. If we worry about solving today’s problems today, and people do decide to drive less and rebuild the cities tomorrow, they’ll have plenty of old highway rights-of-way to build on, so the billions we spend today on rail rights-of-way and primitive transit and housing systems will be wasted anyway.

For the last 50 years, the planners and other authoritarians have taken an increasingly tight grip on America. We can only hope that Americans see through Kunstler’s rants and that this grip is peaking.


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Reprinted from The Antiplanner