|Kunstler and O'Toole meet for the first time. Source: Brown PTP|
Kunstler, with his characteristically vivid language ("Phoenix is going to dry up and blow away. We're done with that"), spells out the inevitable collapse of the entire American energy and financial system, while O'Toole compares charts of data for federal subsidies of various modes of transportation. The closest Kunstler gets to addressing O'Toole's (rather flamboyant) charts was simply to point out how easy it is to lie with statistics. That, and the fact that it's all coming to a crashing end. Case closed, I guess.
I have no interest in throwing Kunstler under the bus, but I want to stress that he has to be considered in the right context. He's a writer and provocateur. He's not at all a policy wonk nor a strategist. He's not even particularly interested in solutions. I like the way Eric Jacobsen characterized him a few years ago, as prophet, straight out of the Old Testament, proclaiming "repent for the kingdom of god is near." I would no more expect a detailed economic forecast from Kunstler than I would from the ancient itinerant Ezekial in sackcloth and ashes. A different mode of communication altogether.
Highway proponents like Randal O'Toole recognize Kunstler's eccentricities and are happy to characterize him as the face of smart growth. The fact that Kunstler is intensely critical of government planning and dismissive of larger cities doesn't seem to matter. In a recent blog post, O'Toole told his critics to "get their noses out of Kunstler’s biased diatribes," as if the writer himself were issuing marching orders to the hordes of planners and activists from his command post up in Saratoga Springs.
Suburban proponents have a lot to gain from casting Kunstler in this mastermind role, which helps explain why John Stossel keeps trying to get him to appear on his Fox Business show. A message of impending doom, whether true or not, is not particularly winsome to most Americans. Keep in mind that Kunstler's primary argument these days is not so much that compact, walkable neighborhoods are more desirable than sprawl, but that sprawl will be unavailable to us whether we prefer it or not. Telling an American they cannot have something makes us want it more, which is not necessarily a bad trait if it's coupled with hard work and ingenuity. This deep-rooted optimism does not work in Kunstler's favor.
Secondly, his writings are a veritable gold mine of quotable nuggets for anyone seeking to cast the central smart growth argument as aesthetic in nature, something opponents do all the time. Jarrett, from Human Transit, explains this tactic well,
"The standard move in these works is to treat environmental concerns as though they were aesthetic ones, and then take a long view in which these aesthetic arguments look narrow and culturally contingent, as aeshetic arguments always do. This move -- ridiculing environmental judgments as though they were aesthetic ones -- is sadly common these days."Find a quote calling all suburbanites clowns, or something equally unfair and derisive, and then earnestly defend these Americans' right to have their own housing preferences. Nevermind public health, social equity, environmental constraints, fiscal feasibility or any other reasoned arguments. The other side is only right-brained impressions and personal preferences, as O'Toole recently summarized the debate.
Finally, Kunstler's bluster, which is part of the show, doesn't always play well when it comes to actual policy debates. Calling his opponent a "rogue in the services of evil enterprises," as he did in a podcast prior to the debate, may get a laugh out of many of us but it also blurs the lines between entertainment and serious problem-solving. This comment also dives head first into the genetic fallacy. Even if O'Toole receives funding from highway interests, his arguments really need to be evaluated on their own merits. I know I'd be cool if someone wanted to pay me to say something I already believed.
For a truly fruitful critique of O'Toole, I would direct you to two places. Austin Bramwell, writing in the American Conservative, fires some posts back and forth with O'Toole. Bramwell's basic point is that the number of regulations and subsidies that mandate sprawl and motoring far outweigh those that encourage compact development and walking. He questions O'Toole's highly selective market approach. Or check out Matthew Yglesias's similar take. Although a progressive, he's fully willing to put on the libertarian shoes for the sake of debate. These are the kinds of responses that O'Toole's followers, at least those who are at liberty to have their own opinions, are likely to find more persuasive.
I still think Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere are classic polemics. Kunstler can turn a phrase wonderfully and boil down the essence of an observation into a pithy and humorous line. He's just as witty in his weekly podcast with Duncan Crary. He's a showman, who once wrote that "an audience doesn't hunger for the truth so much as authenticity. They know the truth can be slippery."
In the spirit of niceness, I'd like to end with a great passage from Home from Nowhere,
"I feel an obligation to paint the landscape of my time, so I often paint the highways with cars on them and even roadside monstrosities like McDonald's and Kmart. I especially like the contrast between the artificial light of the electric signs and the natural twilight in the background. The result on canvas is oddly beautiful, but of course what's left out is the roaring traffic and smell of exhaust fumes. A few years ago, I was painting a McDonald's with my easel set in the bark mulch bed of a Burger King parking lot across the highway. I was well underway when the manager bustled out and barked, "that ain't allowed here!" I dared him to call the police. I would have loved nothing better than to be arrested for painting."But this is not my bible. I don't think it was intended to be.