Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Grass Roots Syndrome

Clusterfuck Nation

by Jim Kunstler

Comment on current events by the author of
The Long Emergency
(Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005) (October 08 2007)

Because I wrote a couple of books about the design of cities (and the shortcomings of suburbia), a lot of blather comes my way about what towns around the nation are planning for the future - and, off course, I hear plenty on the subject in my own town, Saratoga Springs, New York, which is a classic "main street" type town. I also happen to travel a lot and actually see what's going on far from home. Almost everything I see and hear is inconsistent with what I think reality has in store for us.

Most American towns, including my own, are obsessed to the point of mania with the issue of parking and more generally the management of cars, and much of their spending is directed to those ends. Municipal leaders (and the public they serve) have no idea what kind of problems the nation faces with oil. Because life in the USA has worked a particular way all their lives, they assume that it will continue to operate that way. Not only will they be disappointed as happy motoring spirals into history, but they will create a lot mischief in the meantime in planning things based on faulty assumptions.

My own town, for instance, relies heavily on tourism, in particular tourism based on happy motoring. There is not the slightest apprehension among the people here, or our leaders in city hall, that automobile-based tourism may not be happening as soon as five years from now. All our political energy is being expended in fighting about what kind of parking structures we will build (with borrowed money) and where to put them, and how these things might incorporate some secondary uses, such as police offices. We have also been debating plans for the expansion of our modest convention center - in connection with added parking structures. It seems to me that one of the first things to go as the US economy contracts, along with its energy supply, will be activities like boat shows and optometrist's conventions.

Now this town happens to be on a railroad line that connects New York City to Montreal. Before 1950, it was the main way that people came to this town. These days, we get one train a day in each direction. The trains are invariably late, and not just a little late, but hours late. The track bed is in miserable shape and, of course, Amtrak is a sort of soviet-style management organization. There is no awareness among the public here, or our leaders, that we would benefit from improving the passenger railroad service, and around the state of New York generally there is no conversation about fixing the railroads. (Governor Elliot Spitzer is preoccupied these days with arranging to give driver's licenses to people who are in the country illegally.) We are going to pay a large penalty for these failures of attention.

Another aspect of all this has to do with our assumptions about land development. Here in my town, and elsewhere around the country, the assumption is that suburban development will continue just as it has the past sixty years. This assumption is shared both by the developers themselves and their opponents. The developers expect the current "downturn" to reverse before long. From the opponents' point of view, the assumption is based on their legitimate fears and heartaches about what they've seen heedless development do to the American landscape. Consequently, whatever mental energy is left after the parking debates get tabled is dedicated to fighting over projected suburban expansion.

My personal view about this is apparently radical - though I am a man of modest habits and philosophy. My view is that the suburban project, per se, in the United States is over, finished. Like, totally. You can stick a fork in it. What you see is basically all that we're going to get. Not only do we not need anymore of it, but we have way too much of what is already on the ground. We don't need anymore suburban housing pods, and the ones already out there are going to hemorrhage value (and usefulness) as far ahead as anybody can imagine. We need more retail like we need 300-million holes in our heads. Ditto suburban office capacity. Ditto new roads and highways.

The projects that people see under construction now are things that went through the torturous permitting process at minimum a year ago and generally even further back. I would imagine that many of the developers of these few remaining projects - whether they are condo villages or strip malls or chain store "power centers" - are in deep melancholy as they read the news and desperately search for tenants. Their lenders must be equally depressed - and in some cases cutting off further injections of capital. What remains is what bankers call "the workout" - where the financial chips fall when people's hopes and dreams collide with reality's separate agenda.

In connection with the imminent collapse of our investments in suburbia is the fate of all the laws and codes that have governed the creation of it. I think it is a waste of effort at this point to attempt to reform what we generally refer to as "the zoning laws". They will simply become irrelevant. As we get in trouble with oil, and driving becomes more of a problem, it will be self-evident that regulations geared to keeping cars happy can no longer be followed. My guess is that for a period of time we will see a condition of stunned paralysis in the council chambers and planning boards. Eventually, if we are lucky enough to retain effective local governance, a new consensus will emerge that will be more reality-based by necessity.

In saying this, I imply that societies go through cycles of collective thinking that range from being fairly consistent with reality to being dangerously out of whack with it. We're at the latter end of the cycle these days. One of the symptoms of this is the fact that so many Americans believe the only thing wrong with America is George W Bush, and that if only we could wiggle out of "his" war, every day would be Christmas, with Nascar around-the-clock, time-outs for shopping sprees down the aisles of the Target store, 5000-square-foot houses for all (for $750 a month), and three BMWs parked in the driveway ... with fries, and supersize it!

In reality, there's a lot more wrong with how we live and how we think about how we live than the mere presence of George W Bush at the head of the federal government. Our expectations are deeply out of phase with what the earth can provide for us and what the future has in store for us, and this failure of our collective imagination goes down to the grass roots.

Bill Totten


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