Questions for Kunstler

James Howard Kunstler came through Sacramento in the summer of 2004, when he was invited to be the keynote speaker at the Sacramento Old City Association’s annual architectural awards. With some local architects and a couple of SN&R reporters in tow, he checked out some of the redevelopment that was beginning downtown and in West Sacramento and said he was impressed with Midtown. SN&R caught up with Kunstler again recently to talk about the ideas in The Long Emergency and how peak oil might affect our city.

Kel Munger: What are some of the things that will help Sacramento in a world after oil?

James Howard Kunstler: The redevelopment that you guys are doing now that stresses infill over sprawl is really a good thing. And the way you’re starting to stress mixed-use development. You’ve got some parts of Sacramento that are already becoming pretty livable without cars, and that’s good. That emphasis on a livable design is an extremely good idea, one that will pay huge dividends in the future.

You’ve made a very nice start with the light-rail, but you definitely need to build it up more. The access to rail transport is a big plus, but the rail system as a whole is in abominable shape, and Sacramento will suffer the consequences of that, too. Having a usable port is a big plus, if it’s in good shape and accessible. That’s going to become a much more important means of transport, particularly for goods.

The best thing, though, is that you’ve got water. Los Angeles is going to be hurting on that one. The whole south state is going to be in agony. And they may just decide to come up and take what you’ve got.

You’ve mentioned how many problems we’ll have with no cheap fuel and so much sprawl …

“Problems” is too kind a word. Suburbs are both unlivable and unsustainable. They rely on an abundance of cheap fuel for their very existence. Imagine what it’s going to cost to heat a 4,000-square-foot McMansion and commute to a downtown job when oil is at $200 a barrel. It will be impossible.

The suburbs have the worst of the cities and the worst of the country and lack the advantages of either. But some people will insist on freezing to death in their unsustainable home. Not that they’ll freeze to death in Sacramento, though you do have to consider climate change as a very real factor in the long emergency. But you have got a lot of older suburbs that are going to be a problem, and the new ones are even worse.

There’s also the reliance on the car commute. Some people will move closer to work or find alternative means of transport, but a lot of people would rather change jobs than give up their cars.

What other problems will Sacramento face when the oil runs out?

In addition to the suburbs and the reliance on car commuting, you’ve been paving over farmland. Now, you’ve got a lot of it, so it could be worse, but you’ve been paving over it, and you’re going to need it.

The other big problem in Sacramento is the economy’s reliance on government jobs. A successful, sustainable economy is one that makes things. Necessary things.

But, like everyone else, the people in Sacramento are going to have to adjust to large-scale changes. The idea that “the American way of life is non-negotiable,” as Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley said, that we just won’t give up our cars and our suburbs, will have to be challenged. There’s a great deal of pain associated with the sort of shift that’s coming. People will be frustrated when they find that the way of life they’ve come to expect and depend on no longer works.