Column to be published in
Long Island Newsday
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
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
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
Copyright © 1999 James Howard