The Wondrous, Magnificent Cities of the 21st Century


The American Conservative recently laid an egg. They published a misanthropic, pessimistically aggressive Malthusian screed, written by James Howard Kunstler.

Kunstler’s “Why America’s Urban Dreams Went Wrong” attacks pretty much every urban amenity Americans have built since the invention of the automobile. And his reasoning, all of it, reflects a dismal lack of faith in human creativity and adaptability, paired with a certainty that the 21st century will be one of declining fortunes and devastating scarcity.

Kunstler is pushing what he calls “The Long Emergency” (also the title of a book he wrote in 2005), a “general contraction,” whereby “The urban metroplexes of the U.S. have assumed a scale and complexity of operation that cannot be sustained in the coming disposition of things. They will contract substantially.”

And what is this “coming disposition of things?” According to Kunstler, they include “population overshoot, the fossil-fuel quandary, competition over dwindling resources, an unsound banking system, climate uncertainty, and much more.”

When it comes to human habitations, especially in America, Kunstler doesn’t have a lot of nice things to say. He doesn’t like high rises, writing “Cities that are overburdened with skyscrapers and megastructures face an added degree of failure. These buildings will never be renovated in the coming era of resource and capital scarcity.” But he doesn’t spare the suburbs.

“Suburbia has poor prospects for adaptive re-purposing in the lean and stringent conditions ahead,” writes Kunstler, “Rather, it has three probable destinies: slums, salvage operations, and ruins, perhaps in that order. The suburbs will certainly lose their utility as mass motoring comes to an end. Their supporting infrastructures—great highways and road networks, water systems, electric distribution, waste disposal—will disintegrate from deferred maintenance.”

Why Are Malthusian Proto-Preppers Attractive to Conservatives?

It’s easy enough to pick apart additional snippets from Kunstler’s recent article in the American Conservative. But his perspective is transparent and easily grasped. He doesn’t believe American urban civilization is sustainable, and he believes we’d all better move to places where there’s easy access to farmland and rivers; as he puts it, “small towns and small cities that are scaled to the capital and resource realities of the future.”

If you want to get more of an impression of James Howard Kunstler, have a look at his 2004 TED talk, or visit his homepage. He’s made a living as a survivalist masquerading as an urban geographer.

Stepping back, Kunstler’s over-the-top act is sort of appealing, but the fact that doomsday merchants like him are gaining traction with some conservatives is not the least bit endearing. If you haven’t noticed the growing overlap between libertarian conservatives and environmentalist zealots, you aren’t paying attention.

Read the rest of this piece at California Policy Center.

Edward Ring is a co-founder of the California Policy Center and served as its first president.

Photo credit: xPhantomhive via Wikimedia under CC 4.0 License.