Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Adirondacks and the Long Emergency

James Howard Kunstler will speak about The Long Emergency at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Paul Smith’s College. The event, in the auditorium of Freer Hall, is free and open to the public.

Kunstler’s 2005 book, subtitled “Surviving the converging catastrophes of the 21st Century,” has received international attention, but the Saratoga Springs resident has long had an Adirondack following. In 1987 he wrote one of the funniest things ever to appear in Adirondack Life: “The Man Who Would Be King,” a profile of Roger Jakubowski, in which he let the megalomaniacal then-owner of Great Camp Topridge bury himself under pronouncements about his plan to amass an Adirondack empire. (That empire has been whittled to a dormant water-bottling plant in Port Kent.)

The author’s humor is intact even though his subject now is sobering: the implosion of oil-based economies and a transformation of day-to-day life. Kunstler tells the Almanack that the Adirondacks will probably lose population under the new world order.

MT: Have you given any thought, in light of the system failures you foresee, to how well people in the Adirondacks will fare?

JHK: Well it seems to me the Adirondacks have always basically been a resource economy, with a recent overlay of mass tourism; before the Second World War it was mostly elite tourism. And that’s what your economy has been. It’s a pretty poor resource area for what it is. And my guess is that the Adirondack region will contract in population a lot.

MT: What do you think will cause that? The collapse of the tourism economy, the lack of a resource economy?

JHK: Not just tourism but motor-based tourism in particular. It’s conceivable that the Adirondacks would remain a retreat for wealthy people, if we continue to have wealthy people. If you don’t get trains running back into the region you’re gonna be in a lot of trouble.

MT: I’ve read a lot of your writing, and I know that you feel that people in the big cities won’t be able to turn to the land, just won’t have the resources that people in the country will have . . .

JHK: Well, I’m often misunderstood about that. I don’t see it quite that simply because there are many forces swirling around in that picture, some of them counterintuitive. For instance, people assume that when I say the big cities will be troubled places, that everyone would move to the country in one form or another, and let’s remember there are several very different kinds of rural landscapes. At the same time people assume when I say the suburbs will fail that I mean everybody will simply leave and move elsewhere. This is not what I mean at all. There will surely be big demographic shifts, but they will occur in ways we may not expect.

For instance, I see the probability that our small towns and smaller cities will be re-inhabited and reactivated because they are more appropriately scaled to the energy realities of the future. In the meantime our rural landscapes are likely to be inhabited quite differently than they are today. For one thing, in the places that can produce food, farming will almost certainly require more human attention. These are the broad outlines that I see. But we don’t know exactly how this might play out.

MT: I live in Saranac Lake, and I see this as a great small town but one with maybe a 90-day growing season and a seven-month heating season. How does that fit into your picture?

JHK: I think places like Saranac Lake will contract while they re-densify at their centers. One thing you’ve got going in all these places like Saranac or Lake Placid, despite the Adirondack Park Agency, is a suburban overlay that just isn’t going to work after a certain point. Despite the APA rules, the basic template of highway development and strip development that became normal all over the rest of the United States was not so different in the Adirondacks, [in terms of] where most of the new business after 1960 located. At the same time, the postwar car culture allowed people to spread their houses out in the landscape in a way that wouldn’t have been possible before the car and won’t be possible after the car.

To clarify, what you’re seeing really is almost nothing could defeat these habits and practices of suburbanization even in a place as rigorously controlled as the Adirondacks. All that stuff on the highway between Placid and Saranac, all the people living 14 miles out of town making a living running front-end loaders or whatever they do, they’re gonna run into trouble with these living arrangements. That’s apart from the issue of how the economy functions.

The guy running the front-end loader living in Rainbow Lake, he’s basically living a suburban life although he thinks he’s living in the country. The issue of how does he make a living now now that he isn’t doing site preparation for other people building houses in Rainbow Lake and places like it — an awful lot of the economy in the Adirondacks, just like the economy in the rest of the U.S. for the last 30 years, has been based on building more suburban sprawl. Up in the Adirondacks you guys have sort of put a sort of lifestyle dressing over it. But it’s still suburban, and it functions very differently from the pre–World-War II towns.

Now even if the population goes down in the Adirondacks it certainly doesn’t mean your towns will die; in fact they may be more lively as they re-densify. All the spread-out stuff is going to lose value and incrementally be abandoned, in my opinion.

MT: I’m actually encouraged because I was wondering whether you think the towns themselves were just too isolated?

JHK: Well they are isolated and that’s a big problem, and that’s why I say if you don’t get railroad service back there you’re going to have enormous problem. You’re basically going to be stuck in the same situation that you were in in 1840, where nothing really got past Lake George or Warrensburg and it was nothing but horse and wagons from there on.

It’s desperately important for the nation as a whole to rebuild the railroad system, but it’s particularly critical in a place like the Adirondacks. I think we fail to appreciate how swiftly the car system could collapse.

MT: Have you ever put a timeline on it?

JHK: It is really pretty hard to predict. But I would say within ten years we’re going to have serious problems, and probably within five.

MT: I love the “Eyesore of the Month” department on, and I wonder if you have any favorite Adirondack eyesores.

JHK: Like most of America, you could plunk down in any county in the USA except maybe the desert and you wouldn’t have to turn 60 degrees to see something really horrible.

MT: In the 1990s I went to a talk you gave at the Adirondack Park Agency — in your Geography of Nowhere days — and what you said about the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid really stuck with me.

JHK: It’s really f*****g horrible.

MT: You didn’t say that, you said something more like, “It says, ‘We don’t care about you.’ It’s a big wall facing the road.”

JHK: Actually that’s more succinct. Every time I go by I just marvel at it, that we’re a society that can’t even imagine putting up a building that has any generosity.

Probably 90 percent of the buildings anywhere in the USA now, including Saranac Lake, were either built with no thought or have been cobbed up so badly that they’ve destroyed their original value. We’re seeing in part the diminishing returns of technology. The more cheap crappy building materials you make available the more people will use them. The more easily they can be assembled the more universal they’ll become.

The good news is that we’ll have far fewer cheap synthetic modular building materials in the future. What we’ll see all across the nation is we’ll have to return to using regional materials. . . .

MT: Do you have a theme for your talk at Paul Smith’s College?

JHK: Generally addressing the themes of my 2005 book The Long Emergency, which is now under way. And I try to focus on intelligent responses to this predicament. I tend to be suspicious of the word “solutions.” I don’t use it myself because I notice when other people use it that they mean to suggest that there’s some way we can keep running American life the way we do, and I don’t subscribe to that. I think that we have to live a lot differently, and we’re pretty poorly prepared to think about that.

It’s not that surprising to me because the psychological investment in our current arrangement is so huge it’s just difficult for people to think about doing things differently — the investments we’ve made in everything, the automobile structure. Think of the Adirondacks: the fact that over the last 50 years the Adirondacks has based its economy on building houses and servicing the arrival of ever more people — that’s not going to be happening anymore. You’re going in the other direction now. And you’re not going to be building more houses in Rainbow Lake and other distant places.

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Mary Thill lives in Saranac Lake and has worked alternately in journalism and Adirondack conservation for three decades.

2 Responses

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