Kunstler gives lectures on topics related to suburbia, urban development, and the challenges of what he calls "the global oil predicament", and a resultant change in the "American Way of Life." He has lectured at the TED Conference, the American Institute of Architects, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the International Council of Shopping Centers, the National Association of Science and Technology, as well as at numerous colleges and universities, including Yale, MIT, Harvard, Cornell, University of Illinois, DePaul, Texas A & M, the USMA, and Rutgers University.
Kunstler was born in New York City to Jewish parents, who divorced when he was eight. His family then moved to the suburbs on Long Island. His biological father was a middleman in the diamond trade. Kunstler spent most of his childhood with his mother and stepfather, a publicist for Broadway shows. While spending summers at a boys' camp in New Hampshire, he became acquainted with a small town ethos that would later permeate many of his works.
In 1966, he graduated from New York City's High School of Music & Art, and attended the State University of New York at Brockport, where he majored in theater. After college, Kunstler worked as a reporter and feature writer for a number of newspapers, and finally as a staff writer for Rolling Stone. In 1975, he began writing books and lecturing full-time.
He has lectured at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Dartmouth, Cornell, MIT, RPI, the University of Virginia, and many other colleges, and he has appeared before many professional organizations such as the AIA, the APA, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
He lives in Washington County, New York, and formerly was married to the children's author Jennifer Armstrong.
Over the course of the first 14 years of his writing career (1979–1993), Kunstler wrote seven novels.
Since the mid-1990s, he has written four non-fiction books about suburban development and diminishing global oil supplies. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, his first work on the subject, The Geography of Nowhere, discussed the effects of "cartoon architecture, junked cities, and a ravaged countryside". The book was described as a jeremiad by The Washington Post. Kunstler is critical of suburbia and urban development trends throughout the United States, and is a proponent of the New Urbanism movement. According to Scott Carlson, reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Kunstler's books on the subject have become "standard reading in architecture and urban planning courses".
He describes America as a poorly planned and "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." In a 2001 op-ed for Planetizen, he wrote that in the wake of 9/11 the "age of skyscrapers is at an end", that no new megatowers would be built, and that existing tall buildings are destined to be dismantled.
In his books that followed, such as Home From Nowhere, The City in Mind, and The Long Emergency (2005), he discussed topics like a post-oil America. Kunstler says he wrote The Geography of Nowhere, "Because I believe a lot of people share my 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". He was featured in the "peak oil" documentary, The End of Suburbia, widely circulated on the internet, as well as the Canadian mockumentary, Radiant City (2006).
In his recent science fiction novel World Made by Hand (2008), he describes a future dependent on localized production and agriculture, with little reliance on imports. Three "World Made by Hand" sequels have followed: The Witch of Hebron (2010), A History of the Future (2015), and The Harrows of Spring (scheduled for release in July 2016).
In his writings and lectures, he contends that there is no other alternative energy source on the horizon that can replace relatively cheap oil. He therefore envisions a "low energy" world that will be radically different from today's. This has contributed to his becoming an outspoken advocate for one of his solutions, a more energy-efficient rail system, and writes "we have to get cracking on the revival of the railroad system if we expect to remain a united country."
Bill Kauffman has called Kunstler the "scourge of suburbia," and a "slashingly witty Jeremiah." In a review of Kunstler's weekly audio podcast, the Columbia Journalism Review described the KunstlerCast as "a weekly podcast that offers some of the smartest, most honest urban commentary around—online or off." The Albany, New York, Times Union reviewed Kunstler's book World Made by Hand, writing that, "James Howard Kunstler is fiddling his way to the apocalypse, one jig at a time." The paper described the book's scenario as "grim", with "an upside or two."
Kunstler has been called "provocative and entertaining" by The New York Times, while The Christian Science Monitor noted that "disturbing others’ sense of normality is something Kunstler does well... everyone who knows his work acknowledges his power to wake up a crowd." In critiquing The Long Emergency, journalist Chris Hayes claims that while Kunstler makes valid points about the consequences of peak oil, he undermines his credibility with rhetoric and perceived misanthropy. Joseph Romm, a climate change expert and Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, has stated his belief that accelerating shifts toward renewable energy will maintain suburban lifestyles and that, contrary to Kunstler's arguments, "suburbia won’t be destroyed by peak oil."
Charles Bensinger, co-founder of Renewable Energy Partners of New Mexico, describes Kunstler's views as "fashionably fear-mongering" and uninformed regarding the potential of renewable energy resources to eliminate the need for fossil fuels. Conversely, Paul Salopek of the Chicago Tribune finds that, "Kunstler has plotted energy starvation to its logical extremes" and points to the US Department of Energy Hirsch report as drawing similar conclusions. David Ehrenfeld, writing for American Scientist, sees Kunstler delivering a "powerful integration of science, technology, economics, finance, international politics and social change" with a "lengthy discussion of the alternatives to cheap oil."