James Howard Kunstler, author of the freshman summer reading book World Made by Hand, defended his stance on environmental sustainability on Sept. 17 as part of the College’s Community Learning Day.
Themed Human Health and Environmental Sustainability, the day included a panel discussion on sustainability and a keynote address by Kunstler, a noted author and lecturer on environmental and economic issues.
World Made by Hand is Kunstler’s portrayal of the world “after things have fallen apart.” Lack of oil, a nuclear explosion and disease are all contributions in the collapse described in his book.
During a panel discussion, William Ball, chair of the political science department, introduced the lecture as a “brief view on sustainability to provide an alternate perspective.”
“During the last six or seven months, we have been focused on the local interface, on the community,” Ball said.
Donald Vandegrift, chair of the economics, finance and international business department, presented charts and graphs related to sustainability.
“The book seems to suppose that economic growth is fueled by one thing and one thing only, cheap gas,” Vandergrift said. “The prices of renewable resources continue to fall . alternative technologies (will) get cheaper and cheaper.”
Diane Bates, chair of the sociology and anthropology department, offered a personal perspective to the environmental controversy.
“I have lived in a small village in Ecuador without any transport and electricity,” Bates said. “It was similar to World Made by Hand.”
Martin Bierbaum, director of the Municipal Land Use Center, said Kunstler’s book “calls into question all of our institutional practices, our way of life and culture.”
He agreed with Kunstler’s emphasis on community. Bierbaum cited his personal experience as part of Free Acres, a utopia-like community in New Jersey.
Kunstler gave the 3panel a turn when he criticized each of the speakers’ premises.
“A list of the things you said that I disagree with would be very long,” Kunstler said.
“Compelling in its compassion but a little strange,” Kunstler said of Bates’ standpoint. “It raises the basic question: so what? My answer to that question, to all of the displays of compassion (is that we)are going to be overridden by our own problems.”
He emphasized the idea that people should focus on environmental problems as a nation and let other countries handle their own problems without U.S. assistance.
“Despite your best efforts you can’t get there and I’m sorry,” Kunstler said of Bierbaum’s attempts to live in an environmentally sound community. “I don’t want to be mistaken as a utopian.”
The panelists began to strike back, with Bates arguing that environmental assistance to other nations was “not just compassion,” but something humans are obliged to do.
When asked about how the book’s realistic tone contrasted with its fantastic elements, a concern among freshmen students who read the book as a summer assignment, Kunstler answered harshly.
“Poverty of imagination is something that higher education has to attend to,” he said.
Earlier that day, Kunstler gave a lecture about how he sees the future of America.
The College was the first place Kunstler lectured this semester. He spoke for almost two hours about his “feelings about 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.”
Kunstler challenged the audience to think about current and future situations, such as a coming oil export crisis and the possibility of America soon running into oil supply problems.
Kunstler also touched on “the suburban fiasco,” the idea that suburbia was built with no thought of the future, forcing the American people to get serious about recreating a productive rural landscape.
Kunstler’s solution to the time when resources dwindle and food sources become sparse is to “bring everything back locally to the way things were.”
Freshman Sarah Scholz said she found the book and lecture “very interesting.”
“The concept he spoke about and the plot line in the book were new and made you think,” she said.
The Committee for Cultural and Intellectual Community brought Kunstler to the College.
Kunstler’s lecture ended by encouraging the audience.
He said, “You in the audience are the generators of hope.”