To Maine on the train

Jim Kunstler is famous, or perhaps infamous is a better word, in the “peak oil” community for his prophecies of gloom and doom to be set upon the USA due to our profligacy and oil dependency.

Kuntstler is a controversial figure, in part because he constantly predicts doom to beset us, and in part because of his rather loudmouth style that includes lots of swear words to make his point. While some of what Kunstler says may hit some underlying truths about whether our lifestyles are sustainable (or not), his message is weakened by a few problems. First, the constant prophecies of doom don’t come true. And second, he is a hypocrite.

In his most recent blog post, titled “The First Die-Off” he talks about driving his car back from a vacation on Cape Cod, and being stuck in traffic. He claims there is “no train service” and uses that as his excuse for having driven the car.


I just came back from a trip to Maine on the train, with 3 small kids in tow. We stayed on the beach in a town not all that far north of Cape Cod (south of Portland, Maine). The train was comfortable, relatively convenient, and relatively cost effective. We rented a bike once we were there, and used it for most of our errands.

Kid walking on beach of Biddeford Pool
Nina on the beach by Biddington Pool

Kid on the beach in Maine

It annoys me to no end to have someone like Kunstler constantly harping on “the end of the world as we know it,” and then in the very same essay, to be so blatantly participating in the very activities he laments as leading us to The End.

In fact, from the comments section by user “signalfire” after his blog post:

Isn’t the problem that EVERYone thinks THEY are the ones who are ‘special’?? THEY deserve a holiday at the beach. THEY deserve cheap energy. THEY deserve big houses. THEY deserve their Escalades, Hummers and Jet Skiis..

This hits the nail on the head. Why does Kunstler preach that we’re going to have a massive die-off on the one hand, and yet so blithely participate in the very same activities, such as driving to and from the beach? People pay attention to him. If he had taken the bus, or ridden his bike, or taken the train, then his diatribes might not have seemed quite so silly.

I noticed something in the small town of Biddeford Pool that we stayed in. It was an excellent place for getting around by bike or foot – except that there was so much tourist-related automobile traffic, that it wasn’t that great. One of my friends there, who likes to bike, remarked that it would be great if there were less traffic. The very same person was the one out driving the car nearly every day to run this errand or that, such as to pick up morning newspapers.

Sunset view from Maine Cottage
Biddington Pool in Maine, Sunset

Biddeford Pool, ME

The main difference between my friend and Kunstler is that one might expect Kunstler to know better, given that talking about Peak Oil is the main focus of his life. His efforts to educate people on the topic are greatly diluted by such obvious hypocrisy.

I don’t claim to be perfect – I consume some oil, too. But I make efforts to minimize it, and set an example as to how life can be enjoyed with a minimum of oil. Aside from taking the train as frequently as possible for trips – which I’ve come to really enjoy – I like to show that bikes can be used for tasks that people often think of as requiring a car. The most recent example is the move of several heavy server systems from my Lab from an old location in an out of date server room to a much more modern facility. The computers are 8-core Apple Xserves, each weighing about 40 lbs. I readily carried two of them together, totaling about 80 lbs, on my bike, and the errand was far quicker than it would have been by car, because parking on campus is a nightmare. With the bike, I rode right up to the door at both the starting point and the destination. Later, when we have to move 40 of them, I’ll enlist the Yuba Mundo, a bike that can carry up to 400lbs or so of cargo. By moving 8 of them at a time, with each trip taking only 5 minutes, we can have the moving part done in under an hour.

Moving an Xserve by bicycle
Morgan Transporting Cluster Node

Moving 2 Apple Xserve servers on the electrified Surly Big Dummy bicycle

So I challenge James Kunstler: if you’re serious about all this gloom and doom, then go out and set an example of how to avoid it. Show us the alternative. Don’t just whine about how bad it is going to get. Help provide an alternative.

That’s what I’m doing in my “spare time” – helping customers of Cycle 9 find oil-free alternatives for every day errands and tasks. Really, I don’t have any spare time – with small kids at home and a more than full time faculty job, my life is often seen by others as “insane”. People ask me how I do it. How I do it is by being inspired to help people. The thing that keeps me going is seeing the joy of people whom we help discover there is a better way than dependency on the oil companies. A way that is healthy and brings regular joy in the way that being stuck in a car in traffic does not. The latest example is Cory, who is profiled in the next blog post.

Kunstler, it is your turn to help people find a better way, rather than just being seen as a whiner.

One thought

  1. I don't think Mr Kunstler has any children. I've noticed that childless people (I am one myself) tend to be far more willing to contemplate doom than those with children. We've no investment in the future. On the other hand, Mr. K has a big investment in doom.

    I don't drive, but then again I live in the center of a small town, work from home and, as I said have no kids, so it's easy enough. But I agree with Kunstler that things are structured so that it's almost impossible for most people not to drive.

    Good luck.

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