Wednesday
May042005

« War On The Suburbs »

Suburbia isn't what it used to beI've heard it said while doing my peak oil research that the only thing that would be as bad or worse than running out of oil for human consumption would be not running out of oil. The obvious response to that is usually the expected one: without oil, we'd be up shit creek, so how could someone say that unless they are some leftist radical out to destroy America? Well, you only need to contemplate that if the availability of oil continues on in the way we now know, all our problems with resource wars, global pollution and decay, corporate scandals, political funny business, and—worst of all—rush hour traffic and fighting to get the best parking space at the gym (an amusing but sad commentary on American life).

I am periodically reading a book called "Suburban Nation" by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. This is not the polemical James Kunstler (who has a blog that is quite a riot to read, and among my core sources for such commentary as I make now), but rather is a sober and studied and very human book from New Urbanist designers and architechs who have taken some detailed looks at what makes the suburban project such a disaster for the country, in so many ways. The book celebrates and urges the return to classic towns of the sort you would expect to see on the eastern seaboard, or in more modest earlier towns, or indeed where all this classic civic design was founded: most of Europe. The authors show how the suburban project was basically created by and for various industrial and professional sectors during a time when all things old were tossed out with the trash, mostly for the sake of doing so, and not because it really improved the lives of citizens. It is well documented how Standard Oil and other companies convinced urban planners that public mass transit was old hat and should be replaced with the automobile, which was to be the standard form of personal transportation. All during the 1950s, zoning and building codes were changed specifically to wipe out most everything that didn't fit within a car-centered design plan of wide lanes, treeless streets (and even sidewalkless streets!), and freeways with their huge ramps, et cetera. Basically, the pedestrian was on his own, because modern cities were constructed in ways that mostly relegated them to second-class citizen status. The 1982 song by Missing Persons ("Walking In LA") was not really a joke song though it may have seemed so—only a nobody walks in LA! Or Houston. Or San Diego. Or Atlanta.

The chapter in Suburban Nation that I am now reading is dedicated to the matter of the loss of meaningful community space, and reminded us that our right to assemble and speak freely does require there to be places where people can actually assemble, but with more urban designs that make it hard for everyday people to gather freely (no parking costs, no building rental costs, etc.), a core component of our governmental system is in jeopardy. If meaningful and functional public space has been made illegal or too expensive to use, and people can't get there anyway, who will do the free speech and community work necessary to keep a democracy going?

(I am unabashedly ripping off the book at this point.)

The suburban model, with its reliance on the car as transportation is actually a step backwards in human civilization because it turns us into sociopaths. First off, suburbs are NOT communities. The suburbs are places that were created for people to separate out from others. The entire suburban appeal is that you can have your own little kingdom where neighbors won't bug you, and traffic won't keep you up at night, blah, blah, blah. Suburban life is actually sociopathic, and particularly, as the book points out, is motorized life. There are some examples: lane cutting, pedestrian deaths due to reckless driving, parking space and filling station snatching, parking space "lag" (the phenomenon of departing drivers taking longer to leave while being waited upon than when no one is waiting), and the ultimate: road rage taken to the point of physical violence and death. I guess we could also add in carjacking and auto theft too. Our cars and our houses have become places where we retreat to, at the same time as our physical manmade landscape is becoming increasingly devoid of places that are even worth caring about. So really, our lives have become reduced to driving between places that don't amount to much, and doing so in one of the most antisocial devices ever created! (Now I am channeling Kunstler.)

People ask me when I get on my peak oil soapbox what the solution is to that whole dilemma. When I tell them I get sneers and comments about 'that will never happen.' Well, all my reading on the failures of American "civilization" and the oil issues (and all the various intersecting fields associated with these) points to the real failure at the core of other failures being our physical manmade landscape being a Frankenstein's monster that we need to reel in. There are so many failures of the suburban development plan that its stupid, but no part of our life or politics has been left alone. When classic town and urban designs were discarded in the 40s and 50s in favor of suburban development patterns and the various corporate entities that got the greatest benefits, so went our civic life, and even our human connections. And, perhaps worst of all, this entire disaster is one that celebrates the disposability of itself!

So my idea is that because the whole global mess of oil, wars, and global debt is one that arose in America's period of extreme suburban growth, the answer to that mess is to work backwards. Well, we may not have a lot of choice. What else can we do when energy prices make it a silly proposition to drive the 40 mile commute? The 25? The 10? The 5? What else can we do when the same energy costs make it unwise to live in oversized isolated single family homes that are filled with all manner of electronic and electric devices, all consuming willy nilly with no thought of the consequences? When we are less able to get in our car and drive, we might be faced with actually having to stay in a place for longer than the time it takes to run in and do our business. Our walking or biking trips will take on more meaning. We will have to talk to people in our daily lives, and hopefully, we might find that they aren't the evil people we think they are. We might have to meet in common places with people who live nearer to us, and talk to them in order to get along. We will need to deisolate. Some say it is a step backwards to think about ditching cars and single family houses (I don't call them "homes," as they are houses only). I say it is a step forward. I think there is a lot of humanity that we have dispensed with in our daily lives that can be reclaimed when we remove the antisocial elements from our lives. They are unfortunately the same items we associate with progress, but really?

If a car is significant of progress, then why do we curse paying high gas prices, insurance, and maintenence costs? If a car is significant of progress, then why do we curse sitting in traffic, consuming away days of our lives in a totally antisocial pursuit? Why do we fight in traffic to get the best space at the parking lot, and leave nasty notes on or key the cars of the people who stole "our" space? If a car is significant of progress, then why do we feel so good when we get to a place like DisneyWorld or some town in Europe where there are none, and things are scaled in such a way that we feel somehow more human? If the car is significant of progress, then why do we allow gas hogs to be made still, something which is pressing us into ever more hostile geopolitical relations and war?

Similarly, if we live in a civilized society, what do we make of the fact that the very young and the elderly are marginalized because they can't drive, and any places of genuine socially redeeming worth are out of their reach without cars? Or what do we make of our economy which is founded basically on turning petroleum into garbage at ever increasing rates, so we can show economic "growth"? Or similarly, what is civilized about a population that feels so damned nihilistic, turning to antisocial behavior such as drugs and violence, even against family? What is civil about the fact that a friend of Kelli and I died in a murderous drug deal gone bad (he never carried arms of any sort)? What is it about our society that makes people demand to be sedated so much that people have to die for it? Why was that line of work so damned lucrative that our friend chose it over a "more respectable" professional job? (He didn't even need to; his family was supportive and his prospects were good as a college grad, but he liked adventure—could it be that he saw a day job as meaningless, making or selling widgets that no one needs?) Why is the black market for drugs so powerful? Could it be that life has gone to shit, and that is one way to recover a sense of self-determination because everything else is so canned? We say we are fighting a "war on drugs" but we put vastly more capital into creating a system of civic life and infrastructure that actually increases the demand for the stuff? I have to wonder how much the budgets for drug rehab programs are compared to the programs that build useless and culturally devoid cities, launch wars on distant nations, and the various mechanisms that drive companies to outsource and close American factories and shops, leaving more and more people without hope, leaving them to turn to whatever comfort they can eek out of life, be it drugs, or nihilistic behavior.

The War on Terror and the War on Drugs should be won by launching a war on failed civic planning and corporation malfeasance and short sightedness. We go to war for oil because we drive too damned much, partly out of genuine need, and partly out of being sold a lifestyle we don't need (a judgment arrived at based on my great grandparents' not needing this sort of life about a hundred years ago. We go to war on drugs because there is a demand. There is a demand because people are aching for their humanity back, but it is a hard slog. It is a hard slog because our lives have been handed over to corporations who make decisions for people without their consent or even knowledge. Democracy is nearly dead in America now, and the only way to get it back is to take it back, and that might mean doing some daring social experiments like trusting people again, and maybe talking to them, eating among them, and so forth. Being sociopaths is an optional thing. Being oil and drug dependent is an optional thing. But I think people need to be reminded of the alternatives to what we do now, and that is wasn't always so. The air wasn't always polluted; the nation was not always racked with fear of neighbors; the corporations did not always govern what we eat, learn, and amuse ourselves with; the single family house was not the only living arrangement available.

There has been some talk in the recent years about America being a Christian nation. No doubt that is not true and never was true, despite a Christian majority population. Be that as it may, if we are to be a Christian nation, it will have to be defined by whether we love our neighbor, which in my studies, is the core of all of Jesus' teachings. Do you think we are up to the task? (Not to worry, my non-Christian readers, because every religion worth its salt puts selflessness above all other virtues. The golden rule is universal among world faiths. I just feel obligated as a Christian to remind everyone that Jesus' leading directive is to love your neighbor—something I think is lost these days when Jesus is directing people to be close-minded bigots, exploitative, and to make war.)

So if any war needs to be launched in America, it needs to be a war on the suburban life, which for all its virtues and idealized traits, is really the root cause of so many problems and so much despair, and in a certain way, is fortunately doomed to such failure that it will never be revisited as a living arrangement.

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