The Annotated Kunstler

In a post today, Treehugger lets us know about Bruce Sterling's annotated version of Kunstler's The Long Emergency that was published in Rolling Stone a few months ago. According to Treehugger:
Science fiction writer and "visionary in residence" at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Bruce Sterling is one interesting fellow and a major thinker (read his Viridian Manifesto) of the "new" environmental movement.
Regarding the annotations, Treehugger goes on to say:
The short notes are sometimes sarcastic, but they raise many good points (or counter-points, rather) to balance some parts of Kunstler's thesis, and to defuse some others.
Well, I disagree.

Sure, Kunstler is apocalyptic, and he may be exaggerating some of the data out there to make his points (e.g., about the "cruel hoax" that is the hydrogen economy, or that modernity is essentially going to be reversed when oil is scarce). But to reject Kunstler's hypothesis outright is, I think, even more dangerous than taking it at face value. Unlike Treehugger, I don't think Sterling's snarky comments are particularly useful, or even true, really. For example:
"Most immediately we face the end of the cheap fossil-fuel era. It is no exaggeration to state that reliable supplies of cheap oil and natural gas underlie everything we identify as the necessities of modern life – not to mention all of its comforts and luxuries: central heating, air conditioning, cars, airplanes, electric lights, inexpensive clothing, recorded music, movies, hip-replacement surgery, national defense – you name it. (((Okay, how about "clean air," "biodiversity," "a stable climate" and "potable water"? I just named four stark necessities of modern life that have nothing to do with cheap fossil fuel.)))
Indeed, there is an existing scenario in which all of those things have to do with cheap fossil fuels (including coal): if we didn't have it, we wouldn't be polluting the air or the water (as much), causing global warming, or destroying many species' habitats in order to make more room for our suburban lifestyles.

I could go on, but I'll let you do that yourselves. Take a read. Let us know what you think.

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It's hard, but try not to be frustrated about stupid attempts to debunk Kunstler. I went through the same thing myself -- I used to get angry about articles that mentioned the CPI like it was some sort of real inflation number.

All we can realistically hope for is that information on Peak Oil gets out to the general public in some form. Then it's up to people to think for themselves, critically read what's out there, and follow some leads and educate themselves.

I thought that San Francisco columnist Mark Morford did a "better" although somewhat sarcastic analysis of Kunstler -- "Peak Oil? Rural life? Can you pickle meat and eat bark?" at

I thought that THE LONG EMERGENCY was not apocalyptic enough, but I'm not prepared to eat squirrels, or even contemplate the day after my coffee supply runs out.

I found Sterling to be an incoherent moron, although I have to admit this is my first exposure to him. He is basically holding his hands over his ears and screaming "I can't hear you". This is not debunking, it is just noise.

This is not to say that one can write down everything Kunstler says and invest one's retirement funds accordingly. He is stimulating, which is very useful right now.

He's entertaining, but he is also sloppy with details and predicts the worst as a matter of reflex (e.g., he predicted a major clusterfuck following Y2k, and a firesale on residential real estate this year).

As an urban planner by profession and a part-time doctoral student in the same field, I enjoy his blog for its entertainment value and find it insightful from time to time, though he generally sheds a lot more heat than light. But, at the end of the day, we are all better off with engaging writers like Kunstler raising awareness about PO.

Sterling's smart-ass comments reveal lots more about him than about Kuntsler.

Kunstler comes in for a lot of criticism because he swings from the hip. He functiions like a "Peak Oil Prophet" and in that role you'll have to judge for yourself whether he does more harm than good.

Another key to understanding Kunstler is as radical cultural critic. In the past his main focus was on writing fiction and human-scale living designs. Spend some time at his homepage instead of his blog if you haven't already done so. As critic, whether you agree with him is a matter of perception -- and I do agree with him. Consider questions like the following:

Do you think...
(1) the world is built around people in motor vehicles and not people?
(2) modern buildings are uniformly ugly and wasteful (space, energy)?
(3) exurban/suburban sprawl is an awful way to live? isolating, ugly, wasteful (again)?
(4) traffic is noisy, polluting, prone to human aggression, isolating, wasteful (again)?

If yes, you perceive the world the way Kunstler does. I would rather live in the world he would make than the one we have now.

JLA: " urban planner by profession" -- you've been at his homepage and not just the blog? Have you read any of his books? e.g. The Geography of Nowhere

"more heat than light" -- sometimes, yes.

"we are all better off" -- on balance, I think so too.

Sterling has been doing yeoman's work raising awareness for global warming for the last 6 years and trying to provide useful alternatives to sticking our head in the sand and waiting for the world to melt.

I think he got of a few good critiques of Kunstler, but for the most part his sarcastic responses were palpably ignorant of our energy situation, thus he spent alot of time in marginalia attacking Kunstler ideas rather than providing his solution to peak oil.

I sent him an email with a few of the problems. Since it was far less snarky then anything he wrote about Kunstler, he might even read it.

Has anyone read "the Fourth Turning" by William Strauss and Neil Howe?

Their theory of (Anglo-American) history (which was published in the 1990s, and came about as close to predicting 9/11 as anything) tracks very well both with the current threat of Islamist terrorism, and the prospect of some very serious upheaval with the onset of peak oil.

It's a complicted theory, based on a repeating cycle of generational types (if you're a boomer, born between 1943 and 1960, you are according to them like the messianic, moralistic generations of FDR, Lincoln, and many of our founding fathers; if you're an xer, born between 1961 and 1980, you are according to them like the cynical, pragmatic "lost" generation of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, TS Eliot, Truman, and Eisenhower, the cynical, pragmatic generation that fought in the civil war, and the cynical, pragmatic generation of George Washington; if you're a millenial, born between 1982 and 2001, you're like the collectivist, scoutish greatest generation and the generation that fought in the revolutionary war).

So far it has been a nearly impeccable guide to understanding the events of our time (the rollback of civil liberties, the turn to the right on social issues, among other things), and what it suggests vis a vis peak oil is that the disruptive effect it will have could be as serious or more serious than the kind of dislocation America saw during the depression and second world war, the civil war and reconstruction, and the revolutionary war.

I read Geography of Nowhere many years ago, long before I learned about the peak oil issue. Most planners would consider it a classic. He may be more polemicist than scholar, but he reached a lot of people with this book.

I haven't read his subsequent books on suburbia (Home from Nowhere, City in Mind), but my general impression is that the sequals were not considered as good as the original.

I read The Long Emergency and was a little disappointed. I thought it was a little sloppy with the facts and jumped to conclusions that may be plausible, but are not necessarily predictable.

All that being said, I have a hard time finding anything more entertaining to read than his blog on Monday mornings. : )


Yeah, JLA, Kunstler's getting a bit more out there as time goes on.... The Clusterfuck blog is always entertaining.


I just heard that they flushed a copy of The Geography of Nowhere down the toilet at the White House. Anyone want to riot with me tomorrow?

Milo -

I have read it. I agree, and that is yet another reason why I live the way I do. Everything I research (sciences, economics, money theory, stocks, resources, etc.) seems to fit nicely into a picture of a massive social upheaval on the immediate horizon. What the trigger and the push issues will be remain to be seen. But the tide is surging, and it will eventuall come in and then turn....

Rumor -

I wish they had tried to flush it - then when it backed up, the whitehouse feet would have been covered in exactly what they have been feeding us.....

Sperling was not worth the time I spent reading it. Clearly, he doesn't know what he's talking about, but insists on spouting his "opinion" anyway. I wish I hadn't wasted my time.

Sorry, 'Sterling', not 'Sperling'.

Also, I'm not the same Dave you think.

Some have compared Kunstler and other peak oil theorists (or alarmists, depending on your point of view) to the boy who cried wolf, as if this somehow invalidates their warnings. I seem to remember, though, that the point of that old story was that the wolf *did* eventually arrive.

In general, I found Sterling's comments to be mostly adolescent sniping.

Funny. I think of Sterling and Kunstler as similar in intent, with incompatible styles of rhetoric; they're both trying to convert people who are much-like-them, partly by mocking people who aren't-like-them, which includes each other.