Apocaphilia  

Posted by Big Gav

James Kunstler certainly has the knack for getting publicity, with his recent comments in Salon (vigourously debated at WorldChanging last week) leading to an outbreak of hostilities with the Rocky Mountain Institute's Amory Lovins at Salon, who obviously didn't appreciate being dissed in Kunstler's original interview.

Opinions on James Howard Kunstler's latest tract, The Long Emergency, vary pretty widely here at WorldChanging. Alex disagrees pretty strongly with Kunstler's dystopic vision; JonL found it (at least its manifestation in an interview in Salon) to be a "breath of fresh air." Personally, I'm in Alex's camp -- I'm tired of Apocaphilia in its various manifestations, and Kunstler in particular seems to claim that we can do nothing to head off disaster. Moreover, any attempts to invent better, more efficient, less damaging tools are pointless, in Kunstler's view, and he calls out Amory Lovins' "hypercar" idea for particular ridicule.

Lovins didn't like that, and responded to Kunstler. Salon managed to get Lovins' response, as well as a second exchange between the two. I'd have to say that Lovins comes across as the clear winner of the debate, although that's undoubtedly my own biases talking, at least in part. Not just my bias for Lovins' perspective, though, my bias for research over accusation and thought over fear. Or, as Lovins puts it, "Facts are more mundane than fantasies, but a better basis for conclusions."
In his rebuttal, Lovins' description of RMI's campus makes it sound like a dream place to live and work (well, its a long way to the beach, but apart from that):
James Howard Kunstler criticizes me for supposedly suggesting superefficient cars at the expense of walkable neighborhoods. If he'll kindly look at my 1999 book "Natural Capitalism," he'll find that Chapter 2, "Hypercars and Neighborhoods," emphasizes the importance of both, and strongly supports New Urbanism. It suggests practical and profitable ways to build very efficient cars and not need to drive them much, so we can have communities worth living in and traveling to. I can't imagine why this approach should be deemed objectionable -- unless, of course, he simply didn't ascertain my actual views.

His claim that there is no practical alternative to current oil dependence, other than dramatic changes in settlement patterns and lifestyles, is also extensively rebutted in our peer-reviewed, independent study "Winning the Oil Endgame." If Mr. Kunstler thinks our study is wrong, he would do a public service by explaining how. Meanwhile, serious students of this subject may be forgiven for preferring our well-documented analysis to his qualitative contentions.

[...]

Calling RMI's main campus (at 7,100 feet in Old Snowmass, Colo.) "a hyper-suburban corporate campus masquerading as ... environmentally sensitive" seemed too bizarre to merit reply when David Owen, in the New Yorker (Oct. 2, 2004), said we'd promoted sprawl by not building in a city. But before this notion gains more currency by Mr. Kunstler's further embroidery, some facts should be noted.

RMI's main building is among the world's most energy-efficient, saving 99 percent of space- and water-heating energy, 90 percent of household electricity (the rest is solar-generated), and 50 percent of water, all with a 10-month payback in 1984. It has received more than 70,000 visitors and produced 28 indoor banana crops with no conventional heating system, down to -47 outdoors. Other RMI buildings also use solar micropower, exceptionally energy- and water-efficient appliances and fixtures, daylighting, superwindows and other sustainability-enhancing features.

RMI's organization-wide practices also include: On-site housing nearby (with high-speed wireless Internet) and bike parking for roughly half the staff and their families, with carpooling and free or discounted bus passes for the rest and a hybrid company car available to all employees; virtual and distributed offices (with similar car-displacing policies) linked by a high-speed virtual private network and Internet videoconferencing, which we also use worldwide to displace much travel; flextime, work-at-home, inclusive staff coordination, and community-building; buying 94 percent of electricity as certified-green, plus 100 percent solar-powered hosting of several Web sites; associate membership of the Chicago Climate Exchange, where we offset our small net carbon dioxide emissions, and of Climate Neutral Network; and comprehensive recycling.
I think its pretty clear that Kunstler shouldn't have picked on Amory and the Hypercar - as well as being inaccurate (as Amory isn't just saying lets build more efficient cars and all problems will be solved, and has spent a lot of time describing his vision of "green" urban planning design), it was both unnecessary and beside the point.

I quite like Jamais' critique of (and usage of the word) apocaphilia - though I'm not sure it really applies to most of us in the peak oil blogistan - we may be obsessed with various forms of possible apocalypse (be it oil depletion, financial meltdown, outbreak of war, global warming, or more recently, plague), but I don't think any of us (outside of the eco-anarchist world perhaps) regard this as a good (or deserved) thing - just something to be worried about, and hopefully, to avoid.
I think one of the reasons I react so strongly to the statements of apocaphiles is their neo-Puritanism. The gleeful notion that the people in the suburban houses and big cars will be punished for their sins seems to bubble just under the surface. If my posts (and here I'll speak just for me, not for the rest of the WorldChanging crew) tend towards the technofix, it's because I don't think that wanting to live a comfortable life is sinful; approaches to change that let people live comfortable lives without feeling punished for their sins are going to be a helluva lot more appealing to society -- and therefore a helluva lot more readily used -- than approaches that intentionally demand less comfort and convenience.

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11 comments

It is an increasingly interesting debate; we're getting past the "optimist / pessimist" foolishness (if only a little.)

Yes - progressing slowly though and I don't see much to be gained by disagreements between people whose views aren't that different (at least as far as identifying the problem goes).

Kunstler should pick on better victims though (there is no shortage of deserving ones) and Amory Lovins probably shouldn't waste his time arguing with someone who has given up...

I find the initial assumptions of the Lovins book be somewhat overly simplistic.
The first, that his recommendations will be carried out under the auspices of "business for profit" ignores the massive profits pouring into the oil sector now as a result of dwindling supply. If one assigned the profit motive to the oil situation it's easy to see that the greatest share of profits involve results from maintaining demand for oil to the point where supply remains tight. In this respect it must be kept in mind that Big Oil is in control of government as much or more than it ever has been right now.
Taking market share from Big Oil will not be a walk in the park...as if a well-intentioned industry could spring up and hit the ground running.
Serious efforts to do so will meet extreme resistance.
The oil game is not just your every day run-of-the-mill "business model".

I have to say that Kunstler really nails this one on Amery Lovins.

I found Lovins' reply to Kunstler's criticism of RMI's headquarters remote car dependent location as quite unsatisfactory. Lovins excuse is that there are alternatives to driving (including the laughable idea that someone can hanglide to work there someday), and that the existence of these alternatives somehow overcomes this fatal flaw. It would be interesting to see the numbers for how much fuel use in transport the average RMI employee really does in their daily lives as a result of their carefully constructed practices and habits. It's safe to assume that there must be quite a bit of both driving & fuel usage because Lovins would have easily shown otherwise if true. Lovins makes no attempt to quantify the effect of these "alternatives" he cites which one should expect from such an organization. This suggest that they ignore this is for good reason.

Kunstler is also correct in his criticism of the hypercar concept as a needless distraction to the overall cause of energy efficient culture. Lovins plays lip service to the idea the non-driving urban construct but devotes most of his time focusing on car technology. Actually, the promise of the hypercar is more of a reinforcement for continued urban sprawl development. Lovins takes the position that both fuel efficient auto technologies and new urbanism are valid concepts to be pursued in tandem toward the same goal. But in reality they are competing strategies.

If we were to have much greater access-by-proximity as antidote to energy wasting transport, then there would be no need for hypercars or any other fuel efficient car technology. The current fleet of autos, including SUVs, would be sufficient in a driving-reduced urban lifestyle that runs on far less oil than today's model. That is because urban conditions that marginalize daily driving also marginalize the benefits of high MPG cars.

But beyond the competitive nature of hypercar vs reduced auto use, one is clearly more effective as a means to achieving reduced fuel consumption in society. Access-by-proximity is the clear winner.

Unlike Lovins & the employees of Rocky Mountain institute, I can cite myself as an example reinforcing my and Kunstler's aproach. While RMI are still waiting for their under-the-hood ideas to take form, I have personally taken on the strategy of drasticly reduced fuel consumption in my own daily life. A year ago I relocated my job from a 25 mile driving distance to a 3 block walking distance. I also am fortunate to live near many goods & services within a short walking distance. Now I go weeks without ever driving, where the net effect is that my mileage has been reduced from about 14,000 per year to below 1,000. This type of habitual change blows the doors off anything the yet to be realized hypercar could even dream of. If I were to trade in my 1985 Honda Civic for either a Hybrid or an Escalade, the fuel savings or cost would be almost irrelevant. But even worse than that in the interest of efficiency, the energy to build any replacement vehicle would waste more fuel than what is used driving my remaining 1,000 miles per year. If I were to really try to further the reduction in my transport fuel consumption, then It would make more sense to get rid of my car and completely end my driving altogether. Once that would be done, the usefulness of Lovins' hypercar would be zero.

The pursuit of the elusive fuel efficient hypercar is a waste of time and energy. Kunstler is right that our attention needs to be placed elsewhere.

Chris - thanks for the comment, but I'm not sure what you say about RMI is true in terms of being car dependent. To quote Lovins again:

RMI's organization-wide practices also include: On-site housing nearby (with high-speed wireless Internet) and bike parking for roughly half the staff and their families, with carpooling and free or discounted bus passes for the rest and a hybrid company car available to all employees; virtual and distributed offices (with similar car-displacing policies) linked by a high-speed virtual private network and Internet videoconferencing, which we also use worldwide to displace much travel; flextime, work-at-home...

How much better does it get than on-site housing and the ability to telecommute for those who prefer to live elsewhere ?

While the hypercar may not be a step towards a car-less society, its much better than where we are now.

What I'm saying is that there are a lot better targets for Kunstler to vent his spleen on than Amory Lovins and the RMI. They may not be perfect, but they are well ahead of 99% of the population...

Doug - you're right up to a point - but I believe that thinking becomes less correct as we pass over the peak.

Once demand exceeds supply, the need for oil companies to subdue competitors becomes much less obvious. In fact, they may be happy to see what alternatives succeed then use their massive excess cachslows to buy up the winners (such as we're seeing with BP and the solar industry).

big_gav wrote:
"What I'm saying is that there are a lot better targets for Kunstler to vent his spleen on than Amory Lovins and the RMI. They may not be perfect, but they are well ahead of 99% of the population"

RMI are ahead of the population, and unfortunately they are leading that population down a blind alley with their hypercar hype. Kunstler is right about the fact that they are doing more harm than good. Much of the justification for continued car dependency and urban sprawl, with the uncertainty of future oil supplies, is based on the "they'll think of something" justification. The majority of the public is putting off the process of down-scaling the role of the auto because they have been promised by Lovins and others that hydrogen or ethanol or something will come to the rescue. This is a delusion. No effort we put forth will preserve our monday morning traffic jams of single occupied cars. Its time to let go of this needless article complexity and move on, but Lovins' efforts are in effect delaying this.

Anyway, even if "they" were to achieve super efficient cars, the dream of a fleet replacement will cost huge amounts of resources. Those resources could and should be devoted toward other things. Lovins somehow has missed this little point about the need to prioritize when building sustainability. RMI are big advocates of wind turbine electricity generation. Don't they see that for every energy sink hypercar not built there could be an electrical generating wind turbine added to the system. The idea that we should pursue both must be a product of the cheap oil era, and that era is just about over.

The hypercar delusion is a destructive public relations stunt that is worthy of criticism.

Chris - it doesn't seem realistic to assume that humanity is going to abandon cars in the near future. Its going to have to be forced on them, and the way that will happen is by it becoming unaffordable to drive around in a one person car.

The hypercar may not be the solution to the problems posed by peak oil, but I really can't see how it can be viewed as part of the problem - Lovins is raising awareness of oil depletion, he's raising awareness of the need for more energy efficient transport and he seems to be practicing what he preaches by living at his place of work and making it an energy efficient place to work.

Even in a world with 50% less oil available than today, there will still be cars around - they will just get driven a lot less, have more occupants on each trip and be more energy efficient.

Can you really not think of better targets for Kunstler's (and your) derision ? Whats the point of denigrating someone who is probably making more of a difference than you or I are (and I don't drive to work either, just for the record)...

big_gav wrote: "it doesn't seem realistic to assume that humanity is going to abandon cars in the near future. Its going to have to be forced on them, and the way that will happen is by it becoming unaffordable to drive around in a one person car."

Lovin's work seems to be dedicated toward preserving our economy of traffic jambs, deadly car crashes, smog shops, collision shops and ambulance chasing lawyers for as long as possible. I'm confident and hopeful that the high efficiency energy sink cars will take off like a lead blimp. If we're lucky enough not to get the hypercar, or anything like it, then we will be compelled to dump this piece of shit sooner rather than later.

big_gav: "The hypercar may not be the solution to the problems posed by peak oil, but I really can't see how it can be viewed as part of the problem."

You obviously do not agree that the public is being kept sleeping because they have been promised that the hydrogen economy is just around the corner.

Also enemies of new urbanism, mass transit, pedestrian access & rail all cite Lovin's & RMI when justifying continued sprawl, car dependent policy. Lovins is an unwilling ally to these pigs. (see ti.org)


big_gav: "Even in a world with 50% less oil available than today, there will still be cars around - they will just get driven a lot less, have more occupants on each trip and be more energy efficient."

If we were to see a steady decline in vehicle miles traveled-- a point that we both agree on-- then why in the hell do we need another car built again. If anything we are in a huge car glut (est. 200 million vehicles in the US). If this civilization were to get serious about peak oil today we would shut down auto sales and production tomorrow, indefinitely.

big_gav: "Can you really not think of better targets for Kunstler's (and your) derision ?"

No I can't. Can you please give me some?

big_gav: "(and I don't drive to work either, just for the record)..."

Then you probably need a hypercar like a fish needs a bicycle.

I'm not saying I want a world full of hypercars, or even that I particularly want one myself. And I don't know anyone who thinks that the hydrogen economy is real - but maybe I'm out of touch.

My suggestions for people to beat up instead of the harmless and relatively friendly Amory Lovins include:

- lunatic senators who want to ban wind power

- people who hand out billions of dollars of pork to the oil, coal, and nuclear industries while starving renewable energy industries

- media moguls who endlessly push right wing ideology while ignoring (or denying) issues like global warming and peak oil

- car companies that manufacture large SUVs (and Hummers !)

- whichever idiot(s) designed the fuel hog Abrams tanks that your (and our) army drives around in

I could go on forever - anyone or anything who has a vested interest in the fossil fuel industry...

Gaelriad   says 4:26 PM

Bravo to Lovins! I've rarely heard such a rational, well-spoken advocate of energy and resource conservation. The concept of retooling our society's industrial systems holistically and economically is one that captures the imagination and makes the future of climate change and humanity's role in restoring the planet positive and optimistic - and above all, possible. A dream worth aspiring to and working toward.

Yes, personally I would rather see a badass mass transit system (similar to Europe) rather than everyone buying a hypercar. But I'd rather everyone have a hypercar than the gas guzzlers we have out there now.

I agree that resources could be spent more efficiently if the top levels of government were able to objectively allocate such resources, but I don't see that as being anywhere near realistic.

Lovins seems to take a practical approach to promoting what the public could actually get behind.

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