Kunstler rants good

I always enjoy Jim Kunstler's rants (syndicated at cf_nation) and the latest one contains an especially entertaining description of his visit to Google:

I was invited to give a talk at Google headquarters down in Mountain View last Tuesday. They sent somebody to fetch me (in a hybrid car, zowee!) from my hotel in San Francisco -- as if I had any choice about catching a train down, right? Google HQ was a glass office park pod tucked into an inscrutable tangle of off-ramps, berms, manzanita clumps, and curb-cuts. But inside, it was all tricked out like a kindergarten. They had pool tables, and inflatable yoga balls, and $6000 electronic vibrating massage lounge chairs, and snack stations deployed at twenty-five step intervals, with lucite bins filled with chocolate raisins and granola. The employees dressed like children. There were two motifs: "skateboard rat" and "10th grade nerd." I suppose quite a few of them were millionaires. Many of the work cubicles were literally modular children's playhouses. I gave my spiel about the global oil problem and the unlikelihood that "alternative energy" would even fractionally replace it, and quite a few of the Googlers became incensed.

    "Yo, Dude, you're so, like, wrong! We've got, like, technology!"

Yeah, well, they weren't interested in making a distinction between energy and technology (or, more precisely where Google is concerned, a massive web-based advertising scheme -- because it is finally clear that all this talk about "connectivity" just leads to more commercial shilling, shucking, jiving, and generally fucking with your headspace in the interstices of whatever purposeful activity one may be struggling to enact on the internet).

The taxi-cab ride to Berkeley (on Google's tab) ran over $160 on the meter. In Berkeley a radical leftist grandmotherly lady interviewed me for a radio show and once that was over she began to tell me about the chemical contrails that Dick Cheney was cross-hatching across the Berkeley skies for the purpose of controlling the masses of earnest, whole-foods-loving, undyed-wool-wearing devotees of diversity and turning them into whorish Stepford sex robots. Everybody knew it was a cover-up, she said.

(Which motif are you, evan?)

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67 Responses:

  1. gwillen says:

    Does anyone besides me notice the fact that he talks about giving a spiel on Peak Oil, then two paragraphs later makes fun of someone by implying that they are a conspiracy theorist?

    • bdu says:

      Are you implying that Peak Oil = conspiracy?

    • 33mhz says:

      Doesn't "Peak Oil" just point out that fossil fuels are finite in supply? That strikes me as somehow less nutty than suggesting that the russians are after our precious bodily fluids.

      • deeptape says:

        Shows what you know, comrade.

      • bdu says:

        No, it says that fossil fuels are finite in supply and global oil production will follow a similar bell curve to that which is seen when producing a single oil field. So long before fossil fuels run out, production and supply will decline rather than continue increasing along with global demand. In short, the problem with fossil fuel civilizations comes not when fossil fuels run out, but when production begins a long inevitable decline in the face of increasing demand.

        Additionally, some would say that we are nearing, at, or just the other side of the peak of that curve. This last bit may or may not fall under the term "peak oil".

        • relaxing says:

          but dude, we do have, like, technology.

          I mean, in the past we could give a bunch of really bright people a bunch of money and *poof* we get atomic energy, semiconductors, biotech, nanotech, etc. and so, I assume, alternate energy sources as well.

          In any case I've read all the peak oil doomsday rants and I never really know what I'm supposed to take away from them, aside from a feeling of existential dread.

          • bdu says:

            but dude, we do have, like, technology.

            Sure do. Unfortunately there's a lot of very powerful people invested in and ensuring that we don't use that tech to get off the fossil fuel addiction.

            As for technology making fossil fuels easier to recover, yes it can do that, but

            A)it's unlikely to keep up with increasing demand, it'll be lucky if it can accomodate decreasing traditional yields.
            B)the various processing and other technologies involved in getting greater yields from fields costs money, and that will be reflected in the final $/gal. this factor is typically covered by most intelligent peak oil discussions.

            In any case I've read all the peak oil doomsday rants and I never really know what I'm supposed to take away from them, aside from a feeling of existential dread.

            Maybe so. I generally see it as a call to arms for individual conservation where possible, to rethink current urban (actually suburban) planning with less energy consumption in mind, and an attempt to get the average joe to be aware of where our energy policies are taking us.

            • relaxing says:

              Sure do. Unfortunately there's a lot of very powerful people invested in and ensuring that we don't use that tech to get off the fossil fuel addiction.

              they're the ones hoarding the 100 mpg carburetors, right?

              We've got Bush (he's ultimate oil glutton, right?) talking about a coming hydrogen economy, so I can't really believe there's a massive conspiracy to keep investors out of alternative energy.

              • bdu says:

                they're the ones hoarding the 100 mpg carburetors, right?

                Not nearly so curly mustachioed... simply talking up hydrogen innovation without funding it on the backend is enough. And when I say funding I mean moon shot type funding, I mean defense spending type funding, none of this puny lame domestic program type funding shit that they've been giving it, because that simply won't cut it on the timescale we need it.

                • darkengobot says:

                  Government funding of hydrogen power? This is a good idea because?

                  We don't need it now. We have oil, and the fact of the matter is even at $2-ish/gallon, it's extremely cheap energy for volume. You can move 4000-lbs of steel for 25 miles with a gallon of the stuff. Nothing else is there yet because nothing else has a century or so of gradual improvements. Kunstler makes fun of the Google "technology" quote, but the Google guy is right and Kunstler is wrong: technology does equal energy. Technology gave us more arable land by increasing crop densities. Technology gives us super-reliable cars with good gas mileage. Technology (in the form of efficiency) is just as important as being a professional complainer. More so, actually.

                  The other forms of energy production that are feasble in the short term--hydrogen and nuclear--are highly speculative (in the former case) and highly regulated (in the latter case). If you advocate heavy government funding of hydrogen energy production, all you're going to get is politicization of energy production, and before you know it, hydrogen fuel cells will be as regulated as nuke power. I know it's currently fashionable to blame all the ills of society on Bush and Republicans, but let's not forget this: it's not Republicans who prevent nuclear power stations from being built.

                  • I totally agree with your on your point vis-a-vis nuclear energy, first of all.

                    However, the sense I got from that excerpt is that he was talking about the "total amount of energy available" (which we may of course be nowhere near reaching), which is finite, and technology can't change that. It can get us a higher percentage, but the non-Nuclear low hanging fruit has long since been harvested. Also note the incredible not-shrinking-very-much-at-all battery. My cell phone and mp3 player are both about 30% battery, and the limiting factor in the case design.

                    And my opinion of Bush's hydrogen policy is that its just a way of inefficiently running cars off of coal.

              • cetan says:

                The hydrogen-economy is a complete smoke screen. See Scientific American from about a year ago for the reasons why.

          • exiledbear says:

            What if the bright people can't get to the lab, because they can't afford gas at $30/gal? Or if they're more busy trying to find food that the diesel trucks aren't delivering anymore? Lots of things are derived from petroleum. Those plastic coffee cups? That's pure oil. Your laundry detergent? Oil. Shampoo? Oil. Kinda hard to innovate, when you're sitting at home, dirty and greasy, in the dark, without any food. You sorta have to innovate before you get to that point.

            Hell, gasoline doesn't have to reach those heights to cause chaos, all it has to do is reach european levels. $5/gal isn't out of the question. $2000/month for commuting expenses isn't out of the question, depending on how far away you live. I know people who spend $500/mo on gas for commuting. 2-4x that is all too possible.

            But you touched on a flaw of Kunstler - he's real good at pointing out the problems without giving you any solutions.

            In general, if you want a list of concrete things to do, start with the old "reduce, reuse, recycle". If it's disposable, stop using it, and replace it with something that is reusable. Try to make do with less. Walk more. Take the trains when it's practical. Get a more efficient car. Learn to ride a motorcycle or scooter.

            I agree with him - the suburbs are dead, they just don't know it yet. If you can, divest yourself from any holdings you might have in the suburbs. You either want to go urban and close by a tram stop or a train station, or you want to get out in the country. The idea is you should be able to find resources within walking distance of where you live and reduce long distance trips to a minimum.

            Expect the economy to go through several shocks, as it tries to adapt to the shortages. Don't expect any help from your government. You're on your own, and whatever friends you have.

            • simmonmt says:

              And what makes you think we'll get to that point where there aren't any shampoo bottles, etc? As the price of oil goes up, three things will happen:

              1) Existing alternative fuel sources will become more economical, thus easing further increases.
              2) The payday to the guy who figures out the next big thing, whatever it is, becomes that much greater. While "Big Oil" may have an incentive to continue to use oil, there are equally large companies on the other side of the equation (think car companies) who could give a crap about what their cars use, and would happily convert to whatever if it gave them a competitive advantage.
              3) You'll start buying your shampoo from a dispenser, or in a giant glass/plastic jug, and refilling your existing container. Or paying more for the current sizes.

              Maybe I'm just an optimist, but I have a hard time believing that we're somehow not going to innovate our way out of this one. Consider Ehrlich and the millions of us who didn't die from famines because we innovated our way towards more efficient food production. And any number of similar examples where we were all doomed, but somehow ... uhm ... aren't.

              • exiledbear says:

                You really need to analyze the alternate energy sources to oil. There are replacements (like nuclear), but there's a tremendous lead time involved with some of them. And to give an example, those nuclear plants need to be built by machines powered by - wait for it - oil.

                Please tell me what we'll convert all our cars to using. Honest, let me know what the viable immediate alternative is. Please tell me why it is feasible, and how much more it will cost.

                Bingo. You'll pay more. Which means you'll have less to spend on other stuff. Kinda sucks having to spend all your money just on necessities.

                The world will go on, even with the problems. In time, solutions will be found to all of them, some of the solutions will be quite ingenious, I'm sure. But it will be a very different sort of world, and not everyone will live to see it. This new world may not care about the same things you and I care about.

                • simmonmt says:

                  If I knew what the solution was, I'd either be busy inventing it or counting my billions.

                  My point wasn't that prices won't go up -- of course they will. They'll go up until they hit the point where alternatives become economically viable. Among other things, that rise is necessary to encourage the development of alternatives, something which isn't nearly as attractive now, given the price point at which you need to compete. At the same time, the rising prices are going to erode resistance to drilling in places where we don't currently drill, either because they're pretty or because they're hard.

                  Yes, there will be changes in response to rising oil prices. Maybe people start to carpool more. Maybe we start building more coal-fired power plants.

                  I think we differ on the degree of expected impact. You obviously think the bump will be huge and painful. I don't.

            • relaxing says:

              sitting at home, dirty and greasy, in the dark, without any food.

              Funny, this describes most geeks I know already. I guess in the future, their pizzas will cooked from locally-grown ingrediants and delivered on foot.

            • harryh says:

              Talk is cheap.

              My question is, if all these people are so sure that we're peaking, why aren't they stockpiling oil that is sure to dramatically increase in value?

              • exiledbear says:

                You won't hear about it on the 5 o'clock news, however.

                As for the others, well I'm sure there's a few oil futures and gasoline futures speculators who have made some coin off the rise in price of both. I'm sure more people will pile onto the trend as we go along. Did I hear something about increased volatility?

                As for me? I drive a diesel, and will start using biodiesel soon. Stockpiling oil is pointless.

                • susano_otter says:

                  The SPR isn't an investment fund. It's a reserve.

                  The purpose of the SPR is to provide oil at a loss to the original "investors", in order to prevent economic and social collapse during an extended period of oil shortage.

            • autopope says:


              Over here in the UK it's around US $9/gallon. Has been for the past year. Doesn't stop people driving – or even buying stupid fucking SUVs.

              (A large chunk of that $9 is tax, but it means there's a buffer in place for when the peak oil crisis hits; we may have a bit more time to adapt than the US.)

            • wilecoyote says:

              Hell, gasoline doesn't have to reach those heights to cause chaos, all it has to do is reach european levels.

              Heh. I live in Europe, and I haven't noticed any riots in the streets yet. Methinks that it's you americans who live in an unsustainable model wrt oil.

            • mcfnord says:

              America, if she were wise, would tax the shit out of gasoline to artificially raise the price. The revenue would finance more fuel-efficient infrastructure and research. I have to toke another bowl now.

            • I gave up slashdot cold turkey months ago, but this level of rightness reminded of why the comments were (very occasionally) worth reading. Friended.

          • flipzagging says:

            Ever notice how our lifestyle in the 21st century is pretty much last century's science fiction, except for the stuff about transport? Thermodynamics is like, hard.

            Anyway, even if anti-gravity was discovered tomorrow, most of the world would probably still run on fossil fuels for the next fifty years.

            • relaxing says:

              Ever notice how our lifestyle in the 21st century is pretty much last century's science fiction, except for the stuff about transport?

              I agree, we need more modes of transportation that involve that Jetsons car noise.

              The future is hard. Let's go shopping!

  2. violentbloom says:

    Well at least it's not just me whining about the lack of oil, does that still make me a dirty hippy or do I qualify as a leftist now?

    • baconmonkey says:

      America Hating Libereal.

    • relaxing says:

      Seriously. Doesn't National Geographic magazine run a semiannual feature on the ways in which our diminshing natural resources will leave us fucked? I know I've been reading about it since the doctors' offices of my youth.

      • flipzagging says:

        Peak Oil looks like the real deal, but I have to sympathize with you. I was all set for the 1970s-style Malthusian warfare, and then I spent the 80s looking for post-nuclear-winter Mad Max anarchy, and finally the 90s were supposed to give us a complete meltdown of all traditional structures, including nation-states - all humbled before the World Wide Web.

  3. I went to his website and read a bunch of his rants. He's just another "let's go back to the pastoral life" doomsayer, like Paul Ehrlich.


    • jwz says:

      I don't think you're characterising him properly. He's not some "pastoral life" hippie who likes the Grateful Dead and hates concrete; he just believes that we're running out of oil and are well and truly fucked due to automobile addiction. Calling someone a "doomsayer" is inappropriately dismissive, given that there are strong science arguments that we are, in fact, doomed.

      But whatever, I don't care whether you agree with him, and I don't know whether he's right. I still enjoy his writing.

      I first encountered him when I read his article Home From Nowhere, which is a great flame about urban planning.

      • otterley says:

        Apparently the author apparently has never been to Houston, the last major city in the U.S. which still has no zoning ordinances. His argument that throwing out zoning laws will return American cities to quaintness flies in the face of Houston's exemplary evidence to the contrary.

        • gytterberg says:

          Heh, that's hilarious. I'm thinking of my grandmother, who has lived in her quite happily isolated residential zone of a subdevelopment in Houston for 30 years and still tries to disuade me from going downtown when I visit her, lest I be carjacked or something.

          If the freak show that is Farm Route 1960 is what no zoning ordinances will get you, then Kunstler just lost a bit of credibility with me.

      • I also saw his rant in Rolling Stone, and I think it's quite clear that he doesn't understand economics.

        Historical Price of Oil, adjusted for inflation. Yeah, it's going up. Guess what happens when the price of something increases? You use it more sparingly, you try to produce more (after all, you can make more money!), and you look for cheaper alternatives.

        We know how to build more fuel efficient cars, like Amory Lovins' hypercar ("... achieve 3 to 5-fold improvement in fuel economy"). You know and I know that pieces of the hypercar concept will likely be implemented over time, in a stepwise refinement process, rather than seeing the design concept on the showroom floor en toto in any given fall model introduction.

        Kunstler doesn't think that will help any, and he hates that anyone would even try to prove him wrong.

        He reminds me of the AI researcher Joseph Weizenbaum who got so freaked out at people's reactions to ELIZA that he went on a rant about how AI was impossible, and even if it were, we shouldn't even try, and, ooooh! those hackers who keep making things work!

        Don't get me wrong - I like walkable cities with decent, working public transit. I visit places like that with regularity. However, lots of people want their plot of land with a detached house on it, and so long as that's affordable, desireable, people will buy.

        • king_mob says:

          I also saw his rant in Rolling Stone, and I think it's quite clear that he doesn't understand economics.

          Your homework assignment is two thousand words on elasticity.

        • mcfnord says:

          hybrids are selling well, but china and india don't give a shit.

          The price of oil will continue to rise, and America will change to deal with it. America is in denial about our addiction to oil, and how our military has become an extension of this addiction.

      • kfringe says:

        Kunstler's rants on urban planning and the unsuitability of modern architecture to human habitation are one thing. His continuing peak oil diatribe, however, is beginning to get bothersome. It's not just a question of whether he's right; it's a question of style.

        Kunstler has committed the cardinal sin: he's started gloating too early.

        Is gloating the right word? Yes. Because in Kunstler's world, modern society's getting "well and truly fucked" will just prove that his rants about planning and architecture were in no way wrong.

        So here we have a man making extrapolations from the fact that we're running out of cheap and plentiful oil. Extrapolations are good, but his are all extrapolations of doom. He refuses to accept that we may be able to plan around much of it. We are, in fact, able to plan around most of problems that will come up. We can synthesize lubricants. We can use fuel cells to power our surface transportation. We can use nuclear power (of some vastly more expensive types than we have now) to provide electricity.

        Kunstler's argument is that humanity is too venal, too stupid, and too self destructive to do any of those things. Worse, he comes across as happy about that. He's looking forward to these venal, stupid, destructive pricks getting their punishment. I'm with him up to that point, but Kunstler seems to see the suffering of millions of other people as a reasonable price to pay.

        Okay, that may not be his argument, but it's damn sure his presentation. When you compare Kunstler's rants to the rants of another curmudgeon, the differences in style and argument become very clear.

        I've always liked Kunstler. Of all the people writing about the New Urbanism, he seemed the least soaked in that hellish, unquestioning self righteousness. Times have changed. Now he is obscuring, with a surprising amount of narcissism, the message that he could deliver. It's an important message, so this is a real loss.

        The other problem is that Kunstler has spent so long listening to people argue at him with idiotic gibberish that I don't think he's able to hear a reasonable argument anymore. I can't blame him, but it's a serious liability for an evangelist. It's still a liability even if he's not trying to evangelize. A guy who comes off as a tightly wound prick, a guy who insults his audience, is even worse at dinner theater than he is at evangelizing.

        The last problem is that this bitterness is making his writing worse. The CF Nation blog has been deteriorating in quality. I don't expect Kunstler's bloggish scribbling to be of the same quality as an edited essay, but I do expect that he might try to resist the easy path of judgment-by-caricature. Sure, some of those google boys my be ill-mannered, borderline autistic skate rats with no sense of reality, but I know for a fact that others aren't.

        That rant belongs in a bar, slurred out after the fifth double scotch. It's sure as hell not up to the level of his earlier stuff. And it sure as hell makes me just not care at all about what he has to say.

      • Ah, that's the guy from Eyesore of the Month. You are not scraping this anywhere, are you?

        Yeah, his rants are as good and probably better than yours. I must have missed the Atlantic Monthly this was in, I should really subscribe. I always meant to after reading "As We May Think".

  4. djwatson says:

    I went to college with him and he's definetly a skateboard rat minus the skateboard ;)

  5. evan says:

    1) From what I heard that guy is a nut (in the bad way -- people who agree with his thesis disagree with his presentation). But I see you're aware of this already. From what I can tell he was just miffed that some people challenged him at his talk, but that happens to most speakers.

    You collect a bunch of people who've been told their entire lives they're smarter than everyone else* and they tend to be eager to argue. I had dinner the other night with a guy who was trying to argue that having the company use water filters and reusable cups is harder on the environment than going through a few thousand (plastic) bottled waters a day.

    2) Skateboard rat, duh. I lost my skateboard my last year of college, but I used to use it to get around.

    * Which is true, though it's rarely an excuse for being an asshole.

    • cdibona says:

      Specifically that not much is an excuse for being such an asshole.

      Which, in case you are wondering, I absolutely think he is. And -not- because I think that oil is infinite and a bag of chips. There could not be one drop of oil left on planet earth, we can all be arming ourselves with machetes and creating pournellesque fiefdoms around nuclear power plants and he'll -still- be an asshole.

      But, just in case I wasn't completely clear: Kunstler...asshole.

      And Jamie, really, do you even need to guess which Evan is? 10th grade skate punk science nerd.

      • mark242 says:

        The problem is that these days, you almost need to be an asshole in order to get people to listen to you, viz Stern, Limbaugh, Cowell, Drudge, Calacanis, etc.

  6. myoldself says:

    Not only does Kunstler's blog have the best title ever, but the only time he stops saying "Guess what? We're running out of oil!" is when he makes fun of the people who come to his talks. It's great; he's got to be the most joyless person in America who doesn't still live with his parents. At least we also get the Eyesore of the Month feature.

    • zuvembi says:

      Oh! That's who we're talking about. I've seen his Eyesore stuff pop up a couple times on rec.bicycles.misc and browsed through it before. I guess I never made it out to the rest of his site for his rants about oil and what-not.

  7. allartburns says:

    They ended up at Google, didn't they?

  8. scosol says:

    i'm not even checking this wingnut out, based on the other comments-
    and well- how many years late is he here?
    is this news?
    google's been like that since day 1...
    i'm really waiting for some other outfit to develop some competitive search technologies though, because every other of google's offerings besides that is only semi-competent, and the fanboy-stroking culture surrounding them sickens me...

    re the oil "crisis"- find me a fault in the algae-pond->biodiesel formula besides initial capital!:
    http://www.unh.edu/p2/biodiesel/article_alge.html :)

    • cdibona says:

      Seriously, if you can do a better job, show us how its done.

      • scosol says:

        as if coming up with a better search-result ranking paradigm than google's is just a simple matter of "coding"...

        additionaly, whether or not i am the one who "can do a better job" is irrelevant to my ability to complain about their offerings-

        let me put it more simply-

        a) google's search has served me well since 1997-

        b) i have some major moral problems with google after seeing what it has done re the gmail, desktop search, video captioning etc- not to mention all the dark fiber you've got...

        c) since i don't use any of google's other offerings (because imo they are either dangerous or sub-par), i attempted to use yahoo to search-

        d) unfortunately, yahoo's search really suck, so i reluctantly must continue using google for this despite

        e) hence, i am waiting for someone besides google to offer simple search results that are on par with google so i may discontinue all use of them

        if it was a matter of "just start coding" i'd have already done it...

        • Actually, last time someone was going on about how great Google is, I tried AltaVista (now with new lean mean Google style interface) and found for the few searches I tried, the first page was, to my mind, better. For what it's worth.
          Now I just have to remember to type altavista instead of google.

          • scosol says:

            i was waiting until after a few days of usage to respond, but thanks!
            altavista does seem to work very well, i can't tell yet if it's better than google, but at first glance, certainly on-par-

            re typing, i've always just made my search engine my homepage :)

  9. strspn says:

    Every peak oil thread is required by law to have someone pointing out that the Nazis used coal to create synthfuel after their oil supply was cut off at the end of WWII.

    • sherbooke says:

      Shouldn't there be a peak coal graph as well?

      Run out of oil and a million things from lawnmowers to fleece jackets become that more expensive, if not impossible to produce. Fleece jackets will be the new antiques of the 21st century. Invest now.

      • strspn says:

        The problem with peak coal is that it's somewhere around 330 years at current extrapolations, but it needs to last 40,000 years if we would like to keep the cost of hurricanes down.

      • rodgerd says:

        I don't care about the lawnmowers, or the cars, and I can even live without my motorbike. What I will miss, likely in my lifetime, is the loss of cheap, rapid air travel. No more gee-gaws from overseas, and going to see the Louvre or the pyramids once more becomes the preserve of the wealthy.

    • king_mob says:

      Yeah, but didn't they, uh, lose and die?

    • They also had fighters powered by hydrogen peroxide. In the hands of an inexperienced pilot, a crappy battlefield bleach job was only one errant control movement away.

  10. ydna says:

    Kunstler vs. RMS

  11. mcfnord says:

    On the subject of oil resources:

      Oil tycoon Boone Pickens' bet that energy prices would rise made him more money in the past five years than he earned in the preceding half century hunting for riches in petroleum deposits and companies.

      And even as crude futures have doubled since 2000 to almost $60 a barrel, the 77-year-old Texan sees no reason to take his chips off the table. "I can't tell for sure where we're going, other than up," Pickens said in an interview with The Associated Press.

      His outlook stems from the belief that a world oil production peak is near and that, while the world won't soon run out, supplies will remain tight due to rising consumption and geopolitical uncertainty in the Middle East.

      Although he is philosophically opposed to government intervention in business, as a practical matter he said higher taxes on gasoline, and incentives for fuel-efficient cars and wind power may be necessary to smooth out the transition to the post-petroleum era.