Column to be published in
Long Island Newsday

Fall 1999

Sleepwalking Into the Future

by James Howard Kunstler

     Years from now, the denizens of Long Island may shake their heads in wonder and nausea as they attempt to repair the mighty mess that was made here during the 20th century.  My term for this mess is the national automobile slum. I think it’s more precise than the usual generic term suburban sprawl. A slum, after all, is clearly understood to be a place that offers a very low quality of life. And the mess is everywhere. Every corner of our nation is now afflicted. The on-ramps of Hempstead aren’t any more spiritually rewarding than the ones in Beverly Hills. We’ve become a United Parking Lot of America.
     We have utterly relinquished the everyday world of our nation to the automobile. I don’t think it is possible to overstate the damage that this has done to us collectively as a civilization and as individual souls. The national automobile slum is a place where the past has been obliterated and the future has been foreclosed. Since past represents our memories and the future our hope, life in a car slum is life with no memory and no hope. How many of us can gaze out over a typical highway strip like the Jericho Turnpike and imagine a hopeful future for it or for the people who will have to live with it?
      Suburbia sends out a message of overwhelming hopelessness: “no future here.” Teenagers, who are struggling to develop a meaningful view of life, are especially susceptible to this grim message and are apt to personalize it. If my surroundings have no future, than there is no place for me and I have no future. It is inevitable that such conditions would provoke tremendous anxiety and depression. Add to this the fact that teenagers are just discovering their adult power to act decisively and you have a recipe for the carrying out of tragic deeds.
      The everyday world of the national car slum is saturated with tragedy. NIMBYism is another interesting example. On the surface it may appear to be simple self-interest on the part of neighbors fighting to resist change around them. But deeper down it represents our total lack of faith in the ability of our culture to deliver a credible future. We don’t want anymore houses just like our houses next to our houses. We don’t want to live next to a new school that looks like a plutonium reprocessing plant. We don’t want anything new. All the new stuff we’ve gotten for the past fifty years has made our lives worse.
      Believe it or not, there was a time in the United States when people were delighted to get new buildings. They couldn’t wait for the scaffolds to come off the new town hall or a three-story business block on Main Street. Even the millionaire’s new house was a civic ornament in our towns. The citizens of Roslyn Village did not picket the construction site where William Cullen Bryant built his mansion in the 1850s. When was the last time you looked forward to new development with anything but dread? And what does that tell you about how much we’ve changed as a people?
     I am convinced that forces are underway that will require us to live differently in the future. The past half century we’ve been preoccupied with efficient travel between places that have become increasingly not worth being in. The years ahead will have to be about re-making places that are worth caring about and rewarding to stay in.
       One force we have to reckon with is the approach of what is called peak oil production, the point at which the cheap oil era ends and the era of expensive, harder-to-get oil begins. All credible authorities agree that this will occur in the first decade of the 21st century. Contrary to a lot of wishful thinking on the public’s part, there is no prospective energy replacement nearly as versatile as oil that would allow us to continue our current behavior.
      Another force already affecting us is global warming and the destructive weather events that come with it. The east coast drought and catastrophic September storms of 1999 are a preview of things to come. Hurricane Floyd wasn’t even a direct hit and it was the most expensive disaster in North Carolina history. Imagine a direct hit on Long Island at current property valuations.
      The after-effects of the 1990s credit and equity bubbles that hoisted American finance (and consumerism) to fantasy levels are likely to be severe and long-lasting. America’s credit orgy is linked to a deeply unsound global finance system ungoverned by meaningful institutions. When the paper profits evaporate and the debt can no longer be rolled over, there will be economic blood in the parking lots of the bankrupt strip malls. I expect a staggering loss of value in suburban real estate of all kinds throughout the nation. This will all be very hard on national chain retail, but the internet will deliver the coup-de-grace to big box shopping.
      These forces will induce us to live differently, beginning very soon. They will certainly provoke us to change our values as a well as our living arrangements. It will not be a smooth transition. withdrawal from our car-addiction is apt to be very painful. Economic shocks are generally followed by dangerous spells of delusional politics. Right now America is sleepwalking into the new century. When the nation wakes up, it may have to be dragged kicking and screaming toward a sustainable future.



Copyright © 1999 James Howard Kunstler