I’m a big fan of James Howard Kunstler, author of “The Geography or Nowhere” among many other publications here. But we do occasionally disagree. Specifically, I cringe when Kunstler rolls his eyes and becomes impatient (even belligerent) with what he calls the “Diversity Cheerleaders”. Let’s just say he’s not a big fan of the whole touchy feely Kumbaya thing. Keep in mind, I’m entirely on board with his assumption that society needs to pull itself together in a coherent and unified fashion to address long festering problems. I have some sympathy for him when he rails against folks who wring their hands about redheaded Puerto Rican vegans not being properly respected. We all have bigger fish to fry. But he’s missing the point.
For those of you not familiar with Mr. Kunstler’s work here’s a quick primer. He believes that resource constraints will eventually bring about substantial changes in the way we organize our everyday affairs. Specifically, he states that energy, particularly oil, will become scarce and expensive which will cause suburbia to fail – first economically and then physically. No amount of solar, wind, or biofuels will allow all the far flung cul-de-sacs and strip malls to continue operating in their present form. America will have no choice but to reorganize everything in a more local fine grained manner as the 12,000 mile Walmart supply chains break down. Since this process will require discipline and focus we can’t be distracted by the irrelevant needs of esoteric fringe groups. But there are two problems here.
First, the Culture War that aging Baby Boomers like Kunstler love to indulge in is a massive distraction. If you’re a Boomer you came of age at a time when white Christian men truly ruled the world. If you were a liberal back in the heady days of the 1960’s and 70’s you felt a need to rebel against the oppressive patrimony and racial segregation. If you were a conservative you felt the need to defend decent society from the onslaught of malicious radicals. But both ends of the spectrum started from the same basic assumption: it’s a white male world with a handful of peripheral types like women, black people, Mexicans, and homosexuals that needed to either be accommodated or somehow contained. My guess is that Boomers, now well into retirement age, are going to spend the next twenty years arguing among themselves about these things until the actuarial table comes to its inevitable conclusion. In the meantime the demographic makeup of the country has changed substantially. I encourage people to stand on the sidewalk as school lets out and observe what the kids look like these days. Unless you’re in an isolated rural community in Idaho the kids aren’t likely to be entirely white. The Millennial generation is overwhelmingly sort of white, kind of Latino, a little Asian, a bit black… each child with parents from different backgrounds so it’s hard to know exactly what category to put any of them in. How exactly do you define a kid who has a Korean father and a Portuguese mother? And as these kids graduate from school and start to settle down and have kids of their own the lines will only get blurrier. Ask most of these kids how they feel about gays and they’ll shrug. “Whatever.” It’s just not something they’re bothered about.
Second, the people who are most likely to solve the coming problems and reinvent society are not going to be the same middle aged white guys who currently exist entirely within the confines of the existing system. If Kunstler’s “Long Emergency” arrives as he suspects those aggrieved men will exhaust themselves trying to hold on to their jobs, homes, pensions, and status and will be the primary obstacles to getting on with the business of building the new institutions that will be needed. In his “World Made by Hand” series of novels Kunstler’s women cling to big strong men for survival. In reality, it will be the mothers, wives, girlfriends, and sisters who pragmatically roll up their sleeves and start to figure out how to hold the family together and keep food on the table while the men bitch and moan as their positions as middle managers melt away. Ask anyone who lived through the steel mill closures at Youngstown or the collapse of the Soviet Union. The people who will be best suited to sort things out in a crisis will be the folks who were never properly integrated into the old institutions in the first place – immigrants foremost among them. A typical well paid fifty year old white guy knows how to “monetize synergies” and “facilitate dynamic optimizations” in a corporate environment. A typical Guatemalan or Vietnamese knows how to run a small business, grow food, and build things by hand. They already found ways to survive on the margins while the white guys ignored them.