The automobile ruined everything

When most people imagine what a city will look like in the future they often envision tall skyscrapers and huge buildings that dwarf the current skylines of today. People usually think each city will take up gigantic areas of space, and be interconnected with a series of complicated streets and highways that stretch for miles and miles. While everybody’s exact vision is different, most agree that there will be more of everything- more vehicles, more buildings, more machines, and especially more people. It’s not hard to see why most everyone believes this- after all, this type of growth is basically what has been happening since the industrial age began. With new technology things seem to be moving at a faster and faster pace, but will the growth trend really continue this way?If you were to sit down and talk with James Howard Kunstler, American author, blogger, and social critic, he would surely share the fact that he has a much different vision of how a typical city will look in the future. Best known for his books “The Geography of Nowhere,” and “The Long Emergency,” Kunstler is a leading supporter of the movement known as “New Urbanism.” This urban design movement incorporates standards that are geared much more towards pedestrians than automobiles, promoting walkable neighborhoods and smart growth.

James Howard Kunstler

James Howard Kunstler

Kunstler describes a city in the future having absolutely no skyscrapers, and being much smaller and denser than the cities in the United States today. In an article he wrote for Orion magazine back in 2011, he describes how our cities are not scaled to the energy realities of the future. He explains that cities today are the products of cheap energy, something he strongly believes is about to run out. Taken from the same article, Kunstler said, “The mandates of reality are telling us very clearly that the age of fossil fuel magic is drawing to a close, with huge implications for how we occupy the landscape.”

Kunstler believes that the world we have created since the invention of the automobile has been designed completely out of scale. He seems to have a particular hatred for the way cars have contributed to massive suburban sprawl in our country. As stated in his biography at, he says that he wrote one of his books,

“Because I believe a lot of people share my feelings about the tragic landscape of highway strips, parking lots, housing tracts, mega-malls, junked cities, and ravaged countryside that makes up the everyday environment where most Americans live and work.”

He is very vocal in his beliefs, and even shares his views on a weekly podcast titled, “the tragic comedy of suburban sprawl,” where you can listen to over 230 episodes of his rants about how stupid everybody is for building towns and cities that depend on scarce natural resources. Rather than actually designing anything, it seems Kunstler wants to contribute to changing our society for the better by complaining about how bad things are today.

Kunstler has stated many times over the years in speeches and in his writing that the fossil fuels everybody relies on are about to run out, and when that happens, people will be forced to live differently. Rarely does he talk about alternative energy sources or new technology becoming available to let the American people continue to live in their over scaled worlds, but when he does bring it up, he calls it wishful thinking.

As stated in his latest blog post in response to the idea that human ingenuity will overcome the limits of material resources, he says, “Maybe that’s a temporarily comforting thought for leaders in business, media, and politics, who don’t want to face the realities of peak resources and climate change, but it guarantees a harsher economic outcome since the wishful public will do nothing to prepare for the very different terms of daily living that are already shoving them into hardship and desperation.”

It’s difficult to know if Kunstler is really trying to warn people that we need to change the way we design our cities because we will be forced to do so anyway, or if he is simply using it as a scare tactic in an attempt to make people follow his vision of how people should be living. Either way, James Howard Kunstler is doing a good job of getting his message across.

On top of the five non-fiction books Kunstler has written that show his despise for the way people have crafted the world, he has also written nearly a dozen novels, including “World Made By Hand,” which follows a group of characters set in a fictional town ravaged with the economic upheaval of peak oil and global warming.


5 thoughts on “The automobile ruined everything

  1. Thanks for writing this about Jim. He certainly is a colorful character, one whose predictions about the future have proven more true than false. I especially love his Klusterfuck Nation podcasts 😉

  2. I have not read much about Kunstler, but how can you be against sprawl and also against skyscrapers? Perhaps with Kelly is asking is what is he for?

    • I don’t think it is so much the fact that he is against the idea of skyscrapers and people living closely together in a city. From the reading I have done, I think his point is that it will soon be impossible to build the type of skyscrapers and energy consuming buildings and cities we have today. At the same time when those cheap sources of fossil fuels do run out we may be ultimately doomed because nobody will even be able to afford to drive their cars back and forth to the suburbs. I remember watching a Ted talk he did awhile back where somebody asked the same question, if I can find it I’ll send you over the link on YouTube which may answer your question better.

      • Kunstler is not an advocate of elevators, and has publicly denounced the idea of buildings over eight stories in height — equating elevators with what he’s termed energy-dependent, techno-fetishism. But, a community can still achieve an incredible density even with 5- to 7-story walk-up, mixed-use buildings. Even discounting La Defense (which has few residents), the remainder of Paris is still predominantly this height or under. Here’s a relevant link to comparative densities — if the world’s entire population of 6.9 billion people were fit into one city, how big would that city be:

        So if we stuffed everyone alive on the planet into one megalopolis that looked like this:

        (I know, horrible — right?)…

        The city would be as large as the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas combined. Put another way; with a total size of 153,452 square miles — this megalopolis would occupy 0.2% of the world’s land mass.

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