Why Our Current Way of Living Has No Future

Today we are pleased to introduce James Howard Kunstler as a contributing editor for PeakProsperity.com. Jim has been been one of the earliest and most articulate voices warning of the impending collision between the modern world's unsustainable consumptive lifestyle and the growing scarcity of the key natural resources that enable it. His book The Long Emergency is cited as one of the most important works in the peak resources movement, and his subsequent writings have been equally influential. Jim is also a good friend of the site and we're thrilled to have him join the Peak Prosperity family. ~ Adam

All of the sordid and spellbinding rackets working their hoodoo on the financial scene have obscured a whole other dimension of the fiasco that America finds itself in, namely the way we have arranged the logistics of everyday life on our landscape – the tragedy of Suburbia.

I call it a tragedy because it represents a sequence of extremely unfortunate choices made by our society over several generations. History will not forgive the excuses we make for ourselves, nor will it shed a tear for the tribulations we will induce for ourselves by living this way. History may, however, draw attention to our remarkable lack of a sense of consequence in transforming this lovely, beckoning New World continent into a wilderness of free parking. In any case, we’re stuck with what we’ve done, and the question naturally arises: What will we do now?

A Confused Public

When you show a photo to any random audience of Americans of some ghastly boulevard of strip malls and big box stores, with the many layers of incoherent signage, and ask them what’s wrong with the picture, they always say every place is the same as every other place… it’s all the same! That is their chief complaint, and it is off the mark. They don’t get it, really.

There are many places and things in the built-by-humans world that are characterized by uniformity or sameness. To the casual observer, the ancient hill towns of Tuscany look virtually identical from 500 meters distance. Montepulciano and Pienza might be as hard to tell apart for the average American tourist as a WalMart in Hackensack from a WalMart in Oxnard. But you will hear very few complaints from tourists about the sameness of the design scheme in the Italian villages – the red tile rooftops on every building, the narrow, twisting streets, the stuccoed masonry walls, the casement windows with their functional shutters, etc. Few American tourists return from Paris grousing that the boulevards were monotonous and gave them a headache.

This is because the sameness observed in these foreign places is a uniformity of excellence. The problem in America is different – not just that it’s all the same, but the same miserably low quality. The parking lots are all equally dispiriting, whether in New Jersey or Santa Cruz. The tract housing subdivisions are all equally inauthentic and lacking in conviction. The big box stores are all equally pernicious. The public realm all over the USA is uniformly degraded (or non-existent).

Often these characteristics are summed up as “ugliness,” but it’s actually worse than that. The built environment is as immersive for people as water is for fish, and the immersive “ugliness” of most places around the USA is entropy made visible. It indicates not simple carelessness but a vivid drive toward destruction, decay, and death – the stage-set of a literal death trip of a society determined to commit suicide. Far from being a mere matter of esthetics, Suburbia represents a compound economic catastrophe, ecological debacle, political nightmare, and spiritual crisis for a nation of people conditioned to spend their lives in places not worth caring about.

Suburbia is also largely behind our current state of political paralysis because it represents a gigantic legacy of sunk costs, investments that have transformed themselves into liabilities. The unwillingness to acknowledge that transition makes it impossible for us to construct a coherent consensus about what is happening and what we might do about it. We ought to know, for instance, that we face a daunting predicament regarding our oil supply. It’s no longer cheap. Alas, our drive-in Utopia was designed to run on cheap oil. Hence the clear implication is that Suburbia has rather poor prospects going forward. I would actually go further and state categorically that it is a living arrangement with no future.

It is in the nature of sunk costs to provoke in people a psychology of previous investment. Having sunk much of our accumulated collective wealth (our capital) in this living arrangement with no future, we are afraid to let go of it, or even reform it substantially. Instead, The Fear of facing our gigantic losses prompts a retreat into denial and wishful thinking.

The higher the price of oil goes, the more the economy contracts, the more frightened people get – and the more determined to seek solace in magical rescue remedies. Thus, the recent cavalcade of nonsense and propaganda telling the public that shale oil and “drill, baby, drill” will soon turn America into “the next Saudi Arabia,” that we are about to become “energy independent,” that we have “a hundred years of shale gas.” These dishonest memes may be floated by mendacious PR spin doctors in the pay of oil and gas companies, but they wouldn’t be effective if the public itself wasn’t so desperate to hear the “good news” that we can continue living exactly the way we do. The mainstream media falls for it, too, not because they are necessarily paid stooges of the energy companies, but because The Fear affects them as well. 

The Fear, of course, especially affects American homeowners, most of whose homes exist in Suburbia, and who have already been battered by five years of lost equity, lost incomes, calls from collection agents, the scary visitations of re-po men, and all the other now-familiar manifestations of everyday financial terror.

The Money Problem

Now, it is coming to be understood that there is an additional deeper relationship between the end of cheap oil and the workings of banking and capital.

As energy “inputs” to an industrial economy decline, the ability to generate wealth declines, too – and contrary to conventional “wisdom,” it is not offset by “efficiencies,” high-tech or otherwise. In fact, the decline of true capital accumulation in the USA since the 1970s was offset only by the hypertrophic unnatural enlargement of the financial sector from about 5 percent of the economy to 40 percent today. The sector transformed its original mission of managing and deploying accumulated wealth for purposeful enterprise (a.k.a. investment) to sets of rackets designed to game financial mechanisms (markets, interests rates) in order to get something for nothing. It amounted to a sort of national economic self-vandalism.

Much of that putative “activity” was mere churn-for-fee hanky-panky, the wash-rinse-and-repeat cycles of institutional money managers creaming off profits from the pointless movements of money in and out of accounts. Perhaps even more of the financial sector growth was the “innovation” of new swindles and frauds, the biggest and most blatant being the housing bubble, a massive “control fraud” in which suburban houses were used to collateralize deliberately mispriced bonds (debt obligations) on the grand scale in order for giant firms to collect insurance on their failure, in addition to other fees and profits garnered for manufacturing and selling the damn things.

Much of that story remains shrouded in mystery because no prosecutions were mounted against the gigantic banks involved, there was no effort to pursue the truth or justice, and the statute of limitations clock is rapidly ticking down. What we can say about it is that the rule of law obviously got lost in shuffle, and that the continued absence of the rule of law in banking is a profound threat to civilized life. Computerization was certainly an enabler of these monumental shenanigans, and it produced one startling diminishing return: the inability of banks and governments to accurately report numbers on their balance sheets – hugely ironic given the phenomenal math abilities of computers. We find ourselves now in the unfortunate situation where accounting fraud has become the basic operating system of banking and government – not a very salutary prospect for managing civilized human affairs – while much of the nation’s business has been reduced to a sorry matrix of rackets.

More to the point, perhaps, is that the diminished accumulation of real wealth due to decreasing inputs of the master energy resource – cheap oil – has impaired the ability of interest to be repaid on the grand scale. There was a correlation between abundant cheap oil and the creation of abundant credit. That relationship is now broken. There are more paper (or computer) claims against wealth than there is wealth, which is no longer growing, to pay back the debt. Hence, the interventions of governments and central banks to offset this ruinous new dynamic and artificially prop up the price of assets; i.e., collateral subject to liquidation at bargain prices by insolvent debtors.

The unintended consequences of this monkey business beat a path straight to currency wars, inflation, loss of legitimacy, political uproar, and knock-on effects that are easily more disastrous.

The breakdown of debt repayment has in turn crippled the crucial and fundamental operations of compound interest in banking, while the dishonest work-arounds by central banks and governments in the form of interest-rate manipulations and bailouts have obscured the truth of what is happening: a general failure of capital formation.

So, What Is to Be Done?

The bottom line is that our future will be defined as much by capital scarcity as by energy scarcity. They synergize each other’s failures.

Politically, all this mischief has manifested as a campaign to sustain the unsustainable, to keep all the rackets running at all costs, including most particularly the suburban way of life. It is unlikely that we will succeed at that, though it does account for the desperation running through the national zeitgeist these days. Rather, the mandates of reality will compel us to comprehensively reform and re-order all the activities of civilized life, and I think how this will occur can be stated plainly and categorically.

In Part II: The Essential Elements for a Sustainable Future, we lay out the reforms that will be most needed in restructuring our way of life to fit the constraints of the natural world we live in. The good news is, it can be done - and done in such a way that we have great odds of enjoying more than our current blindly gluttonous modality of living. 

What you can count on is that we will return to the traditional mode of assembling human habitats -- that is, integral, walkable urban places on the variable scale of village-town-city, with work, commerce, housing, and culture woven tightly together in the recognizable form of a real civic organism, not a simulacrum or a cartoon of one — places that add up to more than the sum of their parts, places worthy of our affection that we can call “home” without irony or regret.

Click here to read Part II of this report (free executive summary; enrollment required for full access).

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://peakprosperity.com/why-our-current-way-of-living-has-no-future/

Thanks Jim.  This is an eloquent and pertinent sequel to your recent interview with Chris and "Scale Implosion" which appeared on your site and around the web.  Many of our small town business owners, residents, and elected officials need to hear this message - they have felt on the margin for quite a while and need to be assured of resurgence.  "Hanging on" through the transitition scares them, as does a different way of living, but hope springs eternal.
Thanks again.


I can't tell you how happy I am that Jim is a contributing editor.  He writes in a colorful manner and we have a number of things in common, not least of which is our jaundiced view of the disastrous development patterns of our cities and suburbs over the last 60 years or so.  We are beginning to pay the price of that profligate waste.
At any rate, glad to have you as a regular contributoer.


I wholeheartedly agree with Jim, suburbia was a get rich quick, without much forethought, process.  Unfortunately, many suburbs were built on very fertile land surrounding original city boundaries

Agreed.  My sister lives in a suburb of Minneapolis.  Every time I visit I marvel at how much prime agricultural land has been swallowed up by the latest developments.

Jim's impatience over the slow arrival of doom reminds me of the 70s. After the '73 Arab oil embargo there was fear in the air over a possible abrupt end of our free wheeling lifestyle. At one point I was one of several professors from my state who participated in a televised discussion of our future prospects.  I knew very good and well that there was no real shortage of world oil supply at that time, but no one agreed with me. The strong consensus view of the panel was that major forced changes of lifestyle were imminent due to energy shortages. That even lent some urgency to "zero population growth", the cause of the day in academia.
That was then. What is now is that my esteemed colleagues might have a point about lifestyle changes. But we don't really have an energy shortage and won't for some time. What we have is an impending shortage of a transportation fuel; namely crude oil.  When it arrives in full force, it will cause inconvenience, but will not necessarily bring impending doom, not even to suburbia. People will drive less and, heaven forfend, even car pool. Supply lines will shorten. The flow of chinese goods will slow and jobs manufacturing the essential ones will begin to appear here.

It is true that rising fuel prices can be a significant head wind for the economy. But between the effects of inflation and the better fuel economy of vehicles these days, fuel costs per passenger mile are not much higher than they were in the early 70s. To the extent that we can use locally produced goods, shorten supply lines and make better use of rail transport we will have a better future. But it isn't clear to me that more widely distributed retail outlets will offer any transportation advantages over the big box stores.

It is possible that the political and economic systems will become unstable enough for the whole economy to collapse while we adjust to higher transportation costs, but my bet is that we will still be muddling along ten years from now. We might then be surprised at both how much has changed and how little, but doom still seems to me to be an option, not a necessity.


I'm sorry to see that like Martenson, Kunstler has gone "soft" on the issue of anthropogenic global warming in response to the brainwashed deniers that swarm sites like this. For shame!
These guys have no ethics, in my opinion. They want audience and subscribers, and won't let trivial things like the truth get in the way. no

And for all the drones who think Financial Armageddon is THE thing we need to worry about, I ask you to listen to what Dr Paul Ehrlich says about it here:http://www.ecoshock.org/downloads/economy/ES_Ehrlich_Collapse_LoFi.mp3
As he says, matters of money are merely arrangements between people, debits and credits, and are amenable to negotiated solutions. You can even have a Debt Jubilee (as has happened countless time in history).
The climate is an altogether more intractable, more sinister problem, one with which we cannot negotiate.

I lived on Long Island, NY, from moving there as a toddler in the late 50s until four years ago. As I grew, and suburbia grew around me, I mourned the loss of farms: agricultural land got pushed further and further toward Long Island's East End, where it fought for space vacation homes for the rich in places like The Hamptons. Commutes got longer and more fuel-intensive. The truck vegetables from LI's East End are being suppleanted by vinyards; actual food now comes mostly from NJ - or CA. The cost of living skyrocketed. And, most tragically, the area is pretty much dependent on oil-fired electricity plants and homes are mostly heated with oil.
The NYC suburb on LI is part of the Northeast megalopolis and is incredibly unsustainable. And the cost of living leaves you trapped: I got out of there as soon as I could, which was not until I was 54.

But not all suburbs are created equal. The semirural area I now live in has lots of forested land in between the homes, and farms sprinkled throughout. We have a neighbor with an orchard, a neighbor with cage-fee eggs who also raises ducks and geese, a neighbor with a 200-hive apiary, three horse farms, one goat farm, and lots of gardening neighbors. Folks have family nearby with old people who do things the old way, and still have their farmland and tools. Every other house at least has a muscadine grape arbor, a pecan tree, or a black walnut tree. State-run Farmer's markets with free "local produce only" sections are provided. Local dairies provide my milk, the area is dotted with beef ranches, too.

Technically, I am in a subdivision, but it's a tiny subdivision with large, arable lots. We have a one-square mile forest to the west behind our house (with a big pond) and another square mile of forest to our south (two more ponds) and another to our west (with a lake), two blocks away. My subdivision is considered densely populated for our county - a county that has the entire population of the village I rew up in (part of a larger town) on LI.

Not all suburbs are created equal.

Good point Wendy. I would like to add when flying over the U.S. I have a difficulty seeing where suburbs begin and end. Much easier to see the lines when flying over countries in Europe. I'm not sure if I live in a suburb or a small town or both. Maybe all of Western MA will be seen as just a big suburb of Boston when push comes to shove. I have 4 acres now, but my frontage is on a state road, so who knows when they might want my land. 

First, I want to apologize if what I'm about to write next has already been discussed in Part II of this article - I can't afford the cost of the subscription, so I can only guess at the content therein…
Call me a dreamer, an optimist, a "pollyanna", but I honestly believe that the majority of people desperately crave authentic meaning and purpose in their life. Problem is that our culture has been brainwashed, for our entire lives, to think that a constant cycle of getting and spending money IS life. And the vast majority of people are so dang busy trying to keep their lives moving forward (ie surviving), that they don't have time for 'contemplating the universe.' I suspect that a great many of those struggling folks feel deep in their guts that something is wrong with the picture, their lives, our society - but they are so worn out from keeping up on the treadmill and so confused by the constant barrage of useless information, that the only choice they see is to just keep putting one foot in front of the other, day after day after day…

As to the question - what do we do next? - I believe what we have to do next is create viable, honest, authentic, and sustainable solutions in order to offer the 'walking dead' real alternatives for change. Masses of people can do amazing things when given a clear path, proper motivation and means, and supportive cultural ideology. However, because the masses are too busy trying to get through each day, they need to be offered actual, tested, in-place and already working solutions - not just a multitude of ideas for potential solutions. So, if we hope that the coming changes will end up positive and that most people will live through the changes, I think is is up to us - the visionaries, the dreamers, the folks who see further, and the folks who have already opted out - to dream up actual, sustainable solutions, and then to implement those solutions, and then to promote those solutions to the masses.

If we don't fully create a new reality, in the most literal interpretation of those words, then the vast majority of people will never see any viable alternative to the daily grind they live in now, and lacking any viable options for change, they will not change. And at some point the world will crumble - and it will take down not only the 'walking dead' but all of us - we are all in this together, like it or not…

Let's play "What do we know?"

1) We know that collapse is imminent. 2) We know that, right now, virtually no one in our respective locations is open to the idea of discussing this, let alone preparing for it. 3) We know that, no matter how much we stock up in the way of emergency supplies, those supplies won't last indefinitely and we will need to find new ways to sustain ourselves over the long haul. 4) Long-term survival in the aftermath of systemic collapse will require community.

So that brings us to the key question, "How can we foster community?" All of us reflecting upon the inevitable impending collapse of the global economy, peak oil, and climate change have similar concerns and many of us who have some experience and knowledge feel led to share our insights with like-minded folks. The problem, of course, is that we are widely dispersed and, in most cases, will never lay eyes upon each other, let alone plant potatoes or set up water filtration systems together. The folks who could potentially be there for you when your husband falls off a ladder and breaks his arm–or weevils have destroyed your stored grain–live within walking distance of your home.
Let's be honest about this. We don't trust our neighbors. This is true in the cities of Vietnam, as well as in America. Vietnam has a history of civil war and a more recent one of migration due to economic circumstances (i.e.; the dearth of economic opportunities in the countryside.) The media in both America and Vietnam harp on crime (be wary of the other) and individual success stories (lottery winners, movie stars and successful entrepreneurs). You'd be hard-pressed to find compelling stories in either Vietnamese or American media of unrelated individuals banding together to support one another. And yet that's exactly what tribes of traditional people do. Plains Indians both hunted and processed buffalo as a community. Hog butchering, likewise, was traditionally a communal activity in America. The Amish do not charge their neighbors by the hour when they participate in a barn-raising. And both Irish and Vietnamese traditional cultures dictate that neighbors step forward to help prepare the body of a deceased community member for the wake which is held at the family's home.
It's obvious to us that many of the trappings of "normal" modern life must fall by the wayside as we spiral into the collapse of our globalized, petroleum-dependent society. We stand ready to give up Hummers and Big Macs and maybe even Diet Coke. But I think that, if we have any hope of having a life worth living after all is said and done, that we need to examine carefully the baked-in assumptions we hold as a result of having spent our lives thus far in a corporate-produced culture. Your neighbors may have "incorrect" political views and some funky personal habits but, in the end, it won't be Dennis Kucinich or your sister in Poughkeepsie keeping a nightly look-out for chicken thieves with you. And none of your virtual friends at Peak Prosperity will be there to help you patch your roof–it will have to be those less-than-perfect neighbors. So here's my idea: consider investing in a BIG (restaurant/institution-sized) pot, a long-handled spoon and maybe a free-standing propane gas burner and a bunch of stackable plastic lawn chairs. Now go out and buy a LOT of soup bouillon and perhaps some dehydrated veggies, bulk rice, oatmeal, grits, or whatever seems right to you. Then, when times get tough, you'll be ready to serve up a hot daily bowl of fill-in-the-blank in your carport or garage or front yard to whomever shows up. Invite folks to bring their own bowls and to settle down to eat and talk. You'll have planted good seeds in what will certainly, at that point, be fertile soil. See what develops . . . maybe you'll grow a community!

I couldn't agree more from what I remember about local TV news.  When I am in my more conspiratorial modes I feel that it is all intentionally programmed that way.  There was a pretty intense youtube video that I ran across a while back. It was series of short clips showing what seemed like 20 or so different news stations reporting a national story. The smiling hosts seeming so local and folksy, using the exact (and I mean exact) words to report the stroy.  The visual impact was rather intense, the shifting sets and peolpe and the same words being repeated over and over again, my words can't do justice to it.
Then there was the story on NPR that caused me to turn that off. Small local village in China, starving. Why?  Because they were farming together as a community.  And we of course all know that cooperation is the root of all evil. When they began to compete against one another, when there was a possibillity of doing better than your neighbor, voila! Nirvana!  Everybody was happy, food was abundant, things could not have better.  All problems were gone.

Now why that story out of the blue about a theoretical series of events in China that were ten years old, completely out of context?  Cooperation with each other - bad.  Cooperation with natural system - worse. Cooperation with other nations - true evil.  Celebrate the self, celebrate the ego, celebrate power, individual sucess, celebrate material success.  Celebrate western culture and fear your neighbor, he is plotting against you!

There is another world that does not exist in the national media, join us!

All sounds like Agenda 21.

...short clips showing what seemed like 20 or so different news stations reporting a national story. The smiling hosts seeming so local and folksy, using the exact (and I mean exact) words to report the stroy.
What happens is that the Associated Press (AP) sends out news stories, and the local stations choose out of that what they want to report. If they quote it exactly, and it's wrong, they are not liable. So they read it stright off the wire. No conspiracy per se, just a sort of institutional laziness. Or maybe it's economics. I wonder how much the trend is based on how expenisve it is to have a non-local news bureau? If each of these stations or networks either sent a reporter or had a permament installation in each major city or country or even region, you can imagine the expense. Much cheaper as a local station to get your news off the AP newswire.

I think it's all a part of why people look less and less to brodcast journalism and more and more to the internet for news. Here at least, even if you're not sure of the source being accurate, "news" stories are at least different. We can exercise our brains here, trying to sift out the truth.


A very interesting article James. However you lost me at blaming suburbia for our "political paralysis" and the so called "liabilities."


Why is it that we do not have cheap oil? Could it have anything to do the "political paralysis" of elitists politicians and over-the-top eco fascists? Hell, we can't even agree to build a pipeline from Canada to Texas, let alone drill. And don't forget natural gas and coal. Both amazing energy resources.


With due respect Mr. Kunstler, we are an extremely energy rich nation… if we choose to be.


All in all, this article portrays elitism packaged as a nice little argument for just what the Illuminate want…

to cram all subjects into tiny urban boxes with the related low "carbon footprint," all while they live in the lap of luxury flying their private jets and sailing their private motor yachts around the world. Sorry, but it smacks of master-planned collectivism to me. Agenda 21 anyone?


No thanks Jim, I'll keep suburbia and hang around with real people thank you.


Cookcreative -Please provide support for your claim that we are an energy-rich nation. I see you're new to the site, so you may be unaware of yet as how we ask those who make bold claims to back up them up with hard proof.
Have you watched Chris' Crash Course, or read the thousands of posts on this site which explore our growing net energy plight as energy resources become increasingly costly to discover and extract?
Here are just a few of Chris's and other PP.com contributors' recent works on the subject:
James'  piece is certainly consistent with the data and analysis underlying this work.
That said, we are always watching the data to see if our framework needs calibration based on new evidence. If you have scientifitc, peer-reviewed data indicating energy – especially oil, which our transportation system is almost entirely dependent upon – will remain plentiful enough at low-enough cost given global demand to support the suburban style of living, we would welcome seeing it. 
Yes, the US has lots of gas and coal, but is increasingly busy shipping it off to other countries vs deploying it here at home. Besides, neither of these is a major fuel source for transport. Oil from shale deposits is, but while shale plays are increasing domestic production, production is at nowhere near the volumes or economics of our foreign imports – nor will be. 
So as we look to the future, we need to ask ourselves: how do we want to use the remaining energy stores this nation is blessed with? Sell them off to the highest bidder and consume the rest in maintaining the wasteful sprawl of suburbia? Or should we direct that energy towards creating a sustainable new infrastructure that puts our consumption in balance with our BTUs?

when they pulled stuff of the wire they would tell you, now the infomercials called news programs with few or no journalists on staff have all the real content of substance generated from a few limited sources.  The problem is that it is presented as if it is generated from a plurality of voices giving it the feeling of reality.  Bob McChesney has some great books on media consolidation, longer talks available on the tube (this is a quick one):

While I do agree with JHK on the underlying issues of energy depletion, I have to disagree with him on the economic system. What we can witness is the fraud that is now parading as an economy and the complete lack of regulation and the rule of law, but we need to understand the thinking process and reality of this system.
Global Neoliberalism has proved to be a type of reverse communist modus operendi where money is extracted from the nation state through privatization of the public sector and whisked away into private black bank accounts around the world. It is global financial war with the US/Anglo banking system as top hegemons. Of course there is a calculus of change and already we hear that the BRIC countries are considering creating their own central bank. They also have been garnering much gold in the past few years.

Although we can no longer count on big economic growth in the developed world and now the big growth area of China is beginning to suffer it's own bubble thanks to the supply side economics we push, we can't claim that there is no money for investment. Recently I read that private wealth in Hollywood is investing in cancer cures since the govt. isn't going fast enough in the areas of research and development.

The money exists, but is no longer available in main street economies or government economies. Money is printed, but goes to banks both nationally and internationally and in the meantime the whole political system and economic system is bent on screaming disaster while privatizing the social safety net where some in the right position can pay pennies on the dollar for the value and make huge money in the spanking new toll booth economy.

I have suggested JHK read Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine, the Rise of Disaster Capitalism to follow the history of how and why we are imploying this economic model around the world.