Bill Totten's Weblog

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Formerly Normal

Clusterfuck Nation

by Jim Kunstler

Comment on current events by the author of
The Long Emergency (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005) (November 19 2007)

Venturing into the rural outlands of the upstate New York counties these days, you see new houses everywhere in what was, until about the 1970s, mostly farm country. Almost all of them are stand-alone houses; there are very few multiple-unit subdivisions up here, a la the vast beige housing monocultures found in the sunbelt. But they seem no less tragic to me.

These new houses all follow the "normal" programming of their time - a time that is stealthily ending. The program is as follows: Each house occupies an out-parcel of an acre or so of what used to be a farm or a woodlot. The house is set in the middle of the plot, surrounded by an apron of decorative foundation shrubs and grass lawn. The scheme derives from the English idea of "a manor in a park". You can tell, because if trees remain (or get planted) on the lawn, they are always deployed arbitrarily, never in formal rows, as the French would do it. The idea is that every homeowner is the "lord of the manor".

Of course, a major feature of this is the asphalt pad-and-driveway where the household stores (and not incidentally displays) its collection of cars, one for each adult family member plus "training" models for the adolescent offspring. This part of the package is indispensable, the umbilicus that connects the household to all the necessities of life, from paychecks to Slim Fast bars. Its continuation is assumed. In fact, the value of the house depends on that assumption.

The appeal of this program is obvious in the consumer-democracy of recent times. The stupendous aggregate wealth ginned up at the climax of the cheap energy fiesta made everyone an aristocrat. As Tom Wolfe has pointed out, the average American roofer or insurance adjuster of these times has enjoyed a more comfortable life than Louis XIV. They certainly bathe more regularly, in sumptuous vinyl tubs, with motor-drive water jets, and possess refrigerated larders of delicacies from thousands of miles away (not to mention access to colonoscopies and periodontics).

This luxurious life is a fragile thing, though. The fragility is actually expressed in the houses themselves, which are uniformly constructed from materials that would not seem to have a glorious destiny: wood-chips, glue, and vinyl. Anyone who visits the Palatine Hill in Rome must be impressed by the way stone blocks and masonry walls melt away over time. Imagine what would happen to a box made of chip-board over fir studs after a few decades of poor maintenance. You can even state categorically that the vinyl cladding was not designed to be maintained, only replaced. And in as much as vinyl siding is made from petroleum byproducts, one can easily foresee future replacement problems.

There are also the things that you can't see: the furnaces and the mortgages. The expectation that it will be possible to get affordable heating oil or propane gas a decade or so into the future must be considered, shall we say, a crap shoot at best - and in the climate of upstate New York, that can't be reassuring. As for the mortgages, we already know what is happening to them - like the "transformer" entities of the movies, they are morphing into monsters that destroy everything in their path.

I guess what really gets me about these houses popping up in the former cornfields and meadows is that the owners have absolutely no idea what a problem they are creating for themselves and their families (and their society), especially now as we move into a critical period of post-peak-oil instability. It's both poignant and pathetic, and a little disgusting. Their expectations are plain to see: that the life of luxury and incessant mobility is so assured that they can invest everything, even their anticipated future earnings, to enjoy all that the program had to offer. But they have tragically missed the fact that the program has changed.

Of course, I am aware that my ability to venture easily into the outlands of Washington County, New York, is not something that I can take for granted much longer. A year or so from now, I may have to plan ahead, even make sacrifices, to travel so distantly from where I live. In the meantime, I wonder with the keenest curiosity what is going through the minds of the people who dwell out there. Surely they've noticed that gasoline is $3.25. One can easily imagine the granite countertop in the kitchen where the bills are piling up, the frightening invoices from Master Card and Discovery, along with dunning letters from the company that "services" the mortgage. One can imagine the feelings of despondency creeping up the veins of the household lord and his lady as they contemplate the distress sale of their motorboat, jet skis, snowmobiles, and RV - and the futility even of trying.

I think we are entering a time when what has seemed utterly normal to us will suddenly appear alien and threatening. If there was ever a recipe for an extreme social response, this will be it. As the poet said, the center cannot hold.

Bill Totten


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