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Good-Bye, Cheap Oil. So Long, Suburbia?


Author James Kunstler says the Automotive Age is almost history and deconstructs McMansion living

The suburban landscape has been marred by foreclosures and half-built communities abandoned in the subprime aftermath. But James Howard Kunstler, author of a dozen books, including The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape, thinks there's a bigger threat to those far-flung neighborhoods: the scarcity of oil. As Kunstler sees it, oil wells are running dry and the era of cheap fuel is over. Given the supply constraints, he says the U.S. will have to rethink suburban sprawl, bringing an end to strip malls, big-box stores, and other trappings of the automotive era. Kunstler, 59, predicts a return to towns and cities centered around a retail hub—not unlike his hometown of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. But the shift to this new paradigm, he says, will be painful. (Kunstler could be off the mark; he predicted technological Armageddon after Y2K.) BusinessWeek writer Mara Der Hovanesian spoke with Kunstler about suburbia, which he calls "the greatest misallocation of resources the world has ever known."

Why has suburban life flourished?

The suburbs were largely products of industrialism. We had a huge supply of oil and cheap undeveloped land, and we decided to become a happy, motoring utopia. It had many practical benefits. The trouble is after a while it became a cartoon of country living.

Why is suburbia now threatened?

Cheap oil is what made suburbia possible. But we'll run into problems with spot shortages. As we get into trouble with these supplies, our economy will suffer. Major instabilities in the system will present themselves much sooner than we are led to believe. And by that I mean the way we produce food, the way we conduct commerce, and the way we move around.

When will all that happen?

The rise and fall of oil production is asymmetrical. In other words, it'll be a steeper, rockier tumble down than the steady increase going up. My own sense of things is that we will be in very serious trouble inside of five years.

Won't it help to cut back on gas?

I get people who come up to the podium after a speaking engagement to tell me they've just gotten a Prius, expecting brownie points. It's not that we're driving the wrong cars. It's that we're driving cars of any size, incessantly.

What about biofuels?

We will use all of them, probably. But we will be greatly disappointed by what they can do for us. We certainly aren't going to run Wal-Mart (WMT), Disney World (DIS), and the highway system on any combination of solar, wind, nuclear, ethanol, biodiesel, or used french-fry oil.

Isn't it a bit radical to declare game over for Wal-Mart?

It is part and parcel of the suburban predicament. How long can they maintain their warehouse-on-wheels as the price of motor fuels goes up?

How will the U.S. have to adapt?

Virtually anything organized on a grand scale is liable to fall into trouble—government, finance, corporate enterprise, agribusiness, schools. Our gigantic metroplex cities will prove to be inconsistent with the energy diet of our future. I think our smaller cities and towns will be reactivated. We are going to be a far less affluent society.

Does your lifestyle reflect all this?

I live in a classic Main Street town. I've always had a garden. It certainly doesn't provide for all my needs, but for all of my salad and salsa fresca needs, in season. I'm not a survival nut. I'm not squirreling away wheat berries in plastic tubs in the basement. I don't have an arsenal of firearms. I lead a pretty normal American small-town life. Of course, I'm a self-employed author and don't have to commute to work.

Links

Down on the Minifarm

Small vegetable and herb farms are sprouting in suburbia, reported The Wall Street Journal on Apr. 22. A one-eighth acre plot costs $5,500 to start plus $2,000 more each year, but it can yield $10,000 to $20,000 in annual sales. Environmentalists applaud the practice, which cuts the carbon cost of bringing food to consumers. But some neighbors of minifarms are complaining about bad smells from manure, the article notes.

Der Hovanesian is Banking editor for BusinessWeek in New York .

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