James Howard Kunstler
Urban Planning Advocate, Novelist, Social Critic, Journalist
James Howard Kunstler had already built a successful career as a novelist and journalist when the scene outside his window, on his street—on most of the cities and streets in America—caught his attention. He calls it “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.”
Stunned by the pervasiveness of this all-fronts assault, he wrote his first critique of American architecture and urban planning, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape, published in 1993. The book launched him into the spotlight as a commentator on America’s man-made landscape—a topic that he treats with great urgency. “A land full of places that are not worth caring about will soon be a nation and a way of life that is not worth defending,” says Kunstler. Reminding us that we are where we live, he writes, “The future will require us to build better places, or the future will belong to other people in other societies.”
He followed Geography with Home from Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World for the Twenty-First Century. Mike Weilbacher of The Philadelphia Inquirer described it as a “deliciously wicked over-the-top nonfiction romp across the tortured terrain of suburban America. This book is a wonderful whack-on-the-side-of-the-head to an increasingly complacent country bent on turning everywhere into Nowhere.”
The City in Mind: Meditations on the Urban Condition is Kunstler’s third book in this urban-planning trilogy. In it he examines eight cities—Paris, Atlanta, Mexico City, Berlin, Las Vegas, Rome, Boston, and London—and discusses how their architecture and design have shaped their cultures and successes.
For his next work, Kunstler turned to the oil crisis. The bestselling The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century, expands on his past work on sprawl and automobile culture by exploring the sweeping economic, political, and social changes that will result from the end of access to cheap fossil fuels.
“What sets The Long Emergency apart from numerous other books on this theme is its comprehensive sweep—its powerful integration of science, technology, economics, finance, international politics, and social change—along with a fascinating attempt to peer into a chaotic future. And Kunstler is such a compelling, fast-paced, and sometimes eloquent writer that the book is hard to put down… Kunstler, like George Orwell, understands that being honest about the past and present is the only way to prepare ourselves for an uncertain future.”
Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation (2012) expands on The Long Emergency. Kunstler evaluates what has changed in the last seven years, scrutinizing and questioning the various technologies being heralded as “magic bullet” solutions to the energy crisis, including vertical farms, fracking, and corn ethanol, but finds nothing to sustain a society fundamentally unwilling to significantly alter its energy-dependent lifestyle.
Many of Kunstler’s ideas are also explored in his fiction, particularly his thrilling World Made by Hand series. This “visionary series of novels” (Library Journal) is set in the quaint upstate New York town of Union Grove, where a post-oil America has been thrown into a future that in many ways resembles the nineteenth century. In his newest book, A Safe and Happy Place, Kunstler tells the story of a 19-year-old girl from Long Island who settles into life in a Vermont commune during the turbulent 1960s.
A seasoned journalist, Kunstler writes for The Atlantic, Slate, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, and op-ed pages, where he often covers environmental and economic issues. He has lectured extensively about urban design, energy issues, and new economies for the TED Conference, the American Institute of Architects, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the International Council of Shopping Centers, and the National Association of Science and Technology, as well as at numerous colleges and universities, including Yale, MIT, Harvard, Cornell, University of Illinois, DePaul, Texas A&M, West Point, and Rutgers University. Kunstler aptly describes his lectures as “stand-up comedy with some dark moments.” His audience knows he is dependably acerbic, witty, well-read, and exceedingly alert, drawing from a tremendous store of hard facts and idealism that ends on a good note: well-earned and reasoned hope.