The Kunstler Schism


The best line from everyone’s favorite Bill Murray / Richard Dreyfus psycho-comdey What About Bob occurs when Murray’s character (Bob) first enters Dreyfus’ office, sits down, and begins answering the doctor’s questions:

Dr. Leo Marvin: Are you married?

Bob Wiley: I’m divorced.

Dr. Leo Marvin: Would you like to talk about that?

Bob Wiley: There are two types of people in this world: Those who like Neil Diamond, and those who don’t. My ex-wife loves him.

Dr. Leo Marvin: [pause] I see. So, what you’re saying is that even though you are an almost-paralyzed, multiphobic personality who is in a constant state of panic, your wife did not leave you, you left her because she… liked Neil Diamond?

After talking to urbanists over the years, the same thing can be said about Kunstler. People either love him or hate him. In some ways, Kunstler serves as an urban shibboleth. (Shibboleth refers to a “a secret word” or ritual that serves as a test to prove one’s membership of a group.) Next time you’re small-talking about urban planning, casually drop Kunstler’s name. You’ll get either a semi-scowl, or the beginnings of wide-eyed glee. (Spoiler alert: I’m one of the latter.)


Jim [in the pink] and I hanging out in West Palm Beach.

It’s difficult to imagine that anyone reading this hasn’t heard of him. He’s #12 on the Planetizen list of top 100 urban thinkers, an prolific writer and humorous polemecist who publishes a book a year, posts a diatribe on his blog every monday, and has been recording a popular podcast for years. (234 episodes and counting…) He started out as a rock and roll columnist for Rolling Stone, but like most people I first discovered him through The Geography of Nowhere, a funny, readable, and thorough critique of US architecture and urban design. (It’s still the best of his stuff. The working title was something like “Why does everything in America look like crap?”)

Kunstler then wrote a number of similar books on cities and urban design, before transitioning into books on peak oil and the global (US) financial system. He’s now a full fledged “doomer”, publishing books and blogs on the coming collapse of the global economy (any day now), “techno-narcissism” (aka. the conflation of energy and technology leading to the fantastical deification of electronic progress), and writing medicore post-apocalyptic novels. Today he’s part  public intelectual, part architectural court jester, and part Cassandra-esque pariah.


Urbanism v. Eschatology

Jacobs’ last book, too depressing for most people.

There are lots of reasons why Kunstler tends to divide in the urbanist community. His writing style is flagrant pugilistic, filled with pithy jokes and retorts. He gets obsessed with oddly narrow arguments and repeats them over and over, for example that skyscrapers are doomed because condo associations won’t survive, or that Japan will voluntarily give up fossil fuels and “go medieval.”

But the Kunstler schism runs deeper than simple rhetorical tastes. It points to more general disagreements about the connection between urban design and capitalism. Can you critique the built environment without re-thinking our economic system? To what degree is the US economy predicated on sprawl? Can you have growth without destroying the planet with fossil fuels?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kunstler’s intellectual trajectory is not unusual in critical urbansm. Jane Jacobs began writing about sidewalks, ended up obsessed with re-thinking the genesis of economic growth, before finishing her career with bleak prognostications on social collapse. Leon Krier, Lewis Mumford, or (today in Minnesota) Chuck Marohn take their critiques beyond design principles and into the realm of fundamental economics.

I’ve no doubt that Kunstler is happy to play the role of “a divider” (as GW Bush might say). He writes like a kid with a new toy, gleefully pushing as many buttons as he can find. But the Kunstler schism points to a deep tension  between design and economics within the conversation about rethinking our cities. While some people seem certain that today’s global economy is bound for disaster, others seem sanguine about its resilience. I imagine many sit somewhere in the middle, adopting varying degrees of confidence about the ability of capitalism to fend off collapse, perhaps keeping their doubts to themselves.

Love him or hate him, Kunster’s gloomy revelations force you to sharpen your opinion on this question: Can we fix our cities without changing our economy? You don’t have to be living off the grid sharpening your prophesy collection to have an opinion on the matter.

15 thoughts on “The Kunstler Schism

  1. Nathaniel

    Re: Techno-Narcissism

    Read Aerotropolis too … if you can []. I’ll give anyone my copy if they agree to toss it into a bonfire after reading.

    Good post Bill.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      I have an electronic version. It was entertaining, but reeked of the kind of optimism in future technology solving all our problems (and thus make no changes in how we live today).

      Although I did enjoy the parts about the cool-chain with the Dutch flower market. Interesting stuff.

      1. Nathaniel

        Alex – It is certainly a well-written book that does a good job of arguing its point. However, I’m with you in that their conclusion, that being many unique businesses with a comparative advantage for a particular good clump around air passenger and air freight travel, as OVERLY optimistic.

        I see air travel becoming increasingly more expensive in coming years, not less, and flying in fresh, organic bananas from Costa Rica or exotic flowers from South Africa as making no economic sense. Fresh bananas are great. Flowers are beautiful. What their conclusion is doing, if a particular city takes the Aerotropolis path, is to doom an economy on the price of gasoline and air travel (both of which are at the whim of elastic – and volatile – macroeconomic forces)

        1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

          And also require heavy public investment in a single form of transportation infrastructure. Airlines continue to not make money with relatively cheap fuel, the subsidies for airports (not just building/operating them but also the opportunity cost of the land) will continue to rise.

  2. R. John Anderson

    I think Jim is right about some really important stuff. It is important to change the way that we build and it is important to shift a lot of every day stuff like food, shelter and clothing to more local and regional production.

    He was quite prescient in predicting the collapse of Wall Street’s financial meringue, but how fast bad stuff is coming at us, the recognition that we are in a mess is more valuable than the specific timeline for when some important part of the mess is going to implode. Kunstler’s cataloging of the problems and limitations we face is really valuable.

    How far folks want to go in hedging their bet agains some of the gloom and doom Kunstler sees on the horizon usually has to do with schedule someone envisions for those troubles showing up on their door.

    In giving a name to Techno-Narcissism Jim does us a great service.

    The great suburban sprawl experiment brings us a world that is pretty fragile. The decline may be a glide path over a couple generations, or it could be more abrupt. Kunstler tells us to pay attention and make good choices. His conclusion that “it’s all good” comes from his belief that we can have a meaningful present and a hopeful future.
    That optimism comes through in writings like his review of Leon Krier’s book “Architecture Choice or Fate”.

  3. Jeff Klein

    Sometimes he’s a complete nut, but he is entertaining and is also probably right a lot more often than he’s wrong.

  4. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino

    While a lot of his underlying arguments are pretty good, his overall theme, “society will collapse tomorrow”, got pretty played out when society didn’t collapse in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, or the first half of 2013. And while I was way into him when I was angsty and 16 and newly living in an exurb, I’m now mostly an adult, and his extremely abrasive writing rubs me the wrong way.

  5. R. John Anderson

    The catchphrase “we are going to have to make other arrangements” is not the same as society is going to collapse. Some stuff is just going to become more and more circumstantially dumb and hard to keep doing.

    The guy coined the phrase the “Long Emergency”. That’s a pretty apt description in my view.

    1. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino

      Maybe he’s changed his tune in the past few years, but when I was reading the Clusterfuck Chronicle in 2007 or so, it was pretty relentless drum beating for the “any day now!” collapse of society.

  6. Nathaniel

    Kunstler’s arguments regarding different future living arrangements are often lumped together with his World Made By Hand series, which reflects a far extreme vision of what might occur. I would venture to say that Kunstler views the future of American society as one of austerity, but not necessarily full-blown societal collapse (that’s my take at least).

  7. jojo

    Back in the late 2000’s, I found his podcast to be initially refreshing commentary but after a few episodes, I realized he was simply “preaching to the choir” of people like me who don’t drive but do shop locally in dense areas (I realize that this is an oversimplification of the like-minded urbanist). Kunstler came off like a pessimist but he was quick to brag about how he likes travelling outside of our country. I don’t know, it just feels like he serves little purpose in actually making change happen on the ground for issues we all care about. This is a case of style over substance; he could be more polite in persuasion. I also feel bad for that guy who interviews him on the podcast. I hope the other guy finds his own identity one day and uses it for good.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      So, the guy who did the Kunstlercast, Duncan, has been really cool to me in email correspondence. His new project is pretty cool and very heartwarming:

      As for the preaching to the choir stuff, I guess so… but I think his podcast is actually fairly diverse overall. See this week’s episode, which I feel can speak to many different audiences ( the one with Jeffrey Brown). that conversation is very interesting, for many different kinds of people. its easy to pigeonhole Kunstler, but the reality often disrupts those assumptions.

  8. Ian Bicking

    When it comes to anything you can actually be “right” or “wrong” about, Kunstler seems to me to be consistently wrong. His predictions don’t come true, his analysis is often absurd. Specifically the focus on transportation energy costs just aren’t sensible – peak-oil-driven localism doesn’t make sense when you can save more oil centrally producing many goods and then transporting them. There’s an underlying moralist justification behind his arguments that just don’t match up with the world as we see it developing around us. His loathing of suburbanism clouds his judgement.

    But I’m consistently annoyed with how many people are so committed to him being “right” – not because they can point to something he’s right about *now*, but because they always imagine his opinions (and their own opinions) will be proven true in the future. And Kunstler makes them feel clever because he is clever. But he just enables tired platitudes about what we “must” do. These ideas of what “must” happen are based on identifiable tensions in society – often correct, though not comprehensive – and then a leap of faith about two ways in which those tensions will be resolved, the doomsday scenario and in the case of Kunstler an austerity scenario.

    But there’s never just two ways that the future might turn out, and there are literally millions of people more directly engaged in defining and directing the future than Kunstler, as builders instead of critics. Kunstler projects the limits of his imagination onto all those other people. And he projects his personal lifestyle preferences onto a populace whose majority most certainly does not share his preferences. This is why he can only speak in contemptuous terms about the modern developments, he can’t accept that many people made rational choices based on different values than his own – perhaps even dissatisfying choices on their own terms, but with certain virtues that still need to be understood. Whenever I hear conspiracy theories to justify How Things Are, it feels like invoking magic: i.e., “I don’t/won’t/can’t understand what caused things to be how they are, so I’ll blame it on something hard to disprove but largely invisible that will confirm all of my personal biases.”

    So this all is why Kunstler annoys me so much, he’s a pied piper of bad thinking.

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