The Henry George Program Ep. 9 – James Howard Kunstler vs Sprawl

In this June 6, 2017, episode, we talk to James Howard Kunstler, who has long been a voice railing against the ugliness of modern sprawl and the psychic torment things brings on ourselves. How does a land tax offer a possible answer to this tragedy? TED called Kunstler “the world’s most outspoken critic of suburban sprawl”. He believes the end of the fossil fuels era will soon force a return to smaller-scale, agrarian communities, and an overhaul of the most destructive features of postwar society.

Kunstler was introduced to the ideas of Henry George when working on his book Geography of Nowhere, and subsequently discussed Georgism in the sequel Home from Nowhere.

“I began to get in in touch with people who were forming the ‘new urbanist’ movement, which was a reform movement among architects and developers and urban planners and public officials to do something about what has become a kind of mandated suburban sprawl. And when I say mandated I mean where we have been literally compelled to build all of our stuff that way because of the embedded codes and the tax laws in our system.”

Sprawl makes sense in a historical context, considering that the industrial revolution made cities into places that were not very attractive for a good and peaceful life, Kunstler said. The story of American development has been one of running with ideas that seemed good at the time.

“In the 1920s, there was very little thought that we would ever a problem with our oil supply; we thought that it would not only be there perpetually but that it would be incredibly cheap forever, and we never thought we would run out of cheap, exploitable real estate on the fringe of the city. It just seemed impossible, but now in the places like the Bay Area you’re there, so what seemed like a good idea at the time is not a good idea anymore.”

One good idea that is on its way out is the concept of megastructures, according to Kunstler, and any solution to affordable housing in urban cores is unlikely to stack thousands of people on top of each other. Moving into the future, the skyscraper is likely to become obsolete due to the cost and we will discover an optimal building height for an urban footprint. “My guess is that it’s probably not much more than five, six, seven stories — airy, and it may amount to as simple a proposition as the number of stories that you can ask people to walk up comfortably. But it’s simply not true that you know if you can just stack so many people in an urban spot that that’s the greatest solution.”

“We’re moving into a capital-scarce period of history where we just don’t have as much money as we thought we did and as we used to, and we’re going to have trouble with fabricated modular building materials of the type that you need to keep these buildings going. Even things as humble as sheetrock which require long manufacturing and mining chains, these materials may not be there for us.

“So if you ask the architects and the developers about the skyscraper they will never come around to that idea, because for them the prime mission is to maximize the floor-to-area ratio of any given building. So the whole question of what the city ends up being in scale is a major issue. We’re ready for a major debate on that and we’re not prepared to have it, because very few people have their head screwed on about this.”

Listen to the full conversation below:

Kunstler is perhaps best known for his nonfiction books, The Geography of Nowhere, The Long Emergency, and Too Much Magic. James has also written The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, World Made By Hand, a fictional depiction of “the post-oil American future”, which became a four-part series with the subsequent publication of The Witch of Hebron, A History of the Future, and The Harrows of Spring.

Kunstler is the author of eight other novels including The Halloween Ball and An Embarrassment of Riches. He is a contributor to the New York Times Sunday Magazine and Op-Ed page, where he has written on environmental and economic issues.

Kunstler was born in New York City. He worked as a reporter and feature writer for a number of newspapers, and finally as a staff writer for Rolling Stone Magazine. He has lectured at colleges across America and delivered one of the most watched TED talks.

Starting in 2017, EarthSharing.org has been collaborating with KZSU Stanford 90.1 FM to create a weekly hour-long radio show. The Henry George Program is a platform for interviews, roundtable discussions, and debates on economic justice and policy.

Tune in for challenging content on the housing crisis in the Bay Area and beyond, economic stagnation, widening wealth inequality, and environmental degradation ― can Henry George’s ideas offer a path forward that unfettered capitalism and incremental socialism lack?

An archive of the Henry George Program can be found here.

Featured photo: Charlie Samuels via Kunstler.com

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