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Wake For a Fading Suburbia

Energy shortages, global disruptions mean opportunity for real communities

March 21, 2001 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Friends and colleagues react with astonishment when I say the Age of Suburbia is virtually over. Two things account for their incredulity: 1) The sheer amount of hopeless architecture that already litters the landscape of what I often refer to as our National Automobile Slum and 2) Evidence of continued activity in new construction start-ups.

Let’s take them in reverse order. Yes some bulldozers are still out there scraping off the trees for new parking lots. But I think this represents the last few twitches of a nearly dead system.

That leads directly to the other point: The job is done. We’ve put in place all the repulsive infrastructure of the world’s first (and possibly last) drive-in Utopia.

Now we have to live with the consequences, and perhaps do something positive about it, namely to recondense American life into coherent villages, towns, and cities and to restore the agricultural lands between them.
I sense from my extensive travels around the nation that the battle for America’s hearts and minds on the sprawl issue is over. Even in the most septic corners of the Sunbelt citizens are unhappy with their allocations of asphalt and glowing plastic buildings. They may not quite know why their everyday environment makes them so miserable, but they’re turning out for my slide lectures to find out in places like Meridian, Mississippi, and Lafayette, Louisiana.

The problem, of course, is that it is now too late. They’ve already destroyed their towns and established grossly unsustainable patterns of living. What remains twitching on the ground is the residue of bad habits. The developers, the banks, the highway engineers, the planning officials, the corporate cannibals are all still going through the motions, still wreaking the last few tweaks of destruction (when dinosaurs come to their final rest, some trees get crushed), still doing what they’ve dedicated their vocational lives to.

Meanwhile an ominous wind is blowing change across our world. America has reached what writer Malcolm Gladwell calls the “tipping point” in this phase of modern history. The extraordinary circumstances that permitted us to build a National Automobile Slum — endless supplies of cheap fossil fuel, relative world peace — are drawing to a close. We are entering a period when events will compel us to change the way we live in America, whether we like it or not.

Here’s what I think is about to happen. The two oil-producing regions that saved America’s hind end after the OPEC disruptions of the 1970s are the Alaska North Slope and the North Sea fields belonging to Norway and England. These oil fields are now past peak production. From now on most of the oil in the world will be controlled by people who hate us. Contrary to some wishful propaganda emanating from the oil industry and the U.S. government, the Islamic world is more, rather than less, inclined to punish the west.

The key to oil jihad is this simple: You don’t have to deprive America of oil to mess up the current American living arrangement. All you have to do is disrupt the markets. Even moderate increases in gasoline prices will clip enough commuters at the margins to make that way of life increasingly impossible.

The natural gas predicament here in North America will not make up for oil jihad. Natural gas is a commodity that does not travel across the seas. It is too costly and difficult to compress. It travels only through pipelines on whatever continent it is found. What we are seeing right now in gas market price instability is a direct consequence of decisions made in response to the OPEC oil disruptions 25 years ago — too many electric generating plants, factories, and home heating systems were converted to gas and now demand outstrips supplies.

Add to these events, problems of a type that we have not had to deal with before and one can see the outlines of a challenged American lifestyle. Climate change due to global warming will affect crop production not only in our nation but in Mexico and Central America, with implications for disruptive large-scale population movements.

To me all the foregoing exogenous events imply that America will have to return to more localized economies, geared more to the production of food and articles of value than to “infotainment” and other nonmaterial or “service” activities. The caesar salad that travels 3,000 miles from California to your table will be a thing of the past.

The 21st century I envision includes far fewer car trips and far less motoring as a general thing. Americans will be lucky to find towns and cities that are worth living in — many have been so badly disassembled and disaggregated that there is not much left to work with. But that will be where we will have to re-establish a civic fabric — that is, if we are really interested in carrying American civilization forward.

So this is how I astonish and amaze my friends with glimpses forward into the new century. I would go so far to say that my predications are optimistic at least insofar as they anticipate the end of a ridiculous way of American life and the beginning of something possibly more sane.

James Howard Kunstler, the author of The Geography of Nowhere and Home From Nowhere, lives in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He is reachable at

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