08 April 2011

The Old American Dream is a Nightmare

Excerpt from Grist, 9 March 2011

'...[James Howard] Kunstler has long warned of the horrendous hangover we're going to wake up with after our "cheap oil fiesta," but he's not gloating as global instability and climate destabilization become the new not-so-normal. Unlike some dystopians, he's motivated less by the desire to say "I told you so" than by the hope that we might still manage to reinvent the American dream on a scale that better suits our current circumstances.

Q. In your 2005 book The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, you gave high-rises low marks, and declared that you're "not optimistic about our big cities." You maintain that towns and small cities are far better equipped to adapt to the post-cheap-oil future.

Now, we've got economist Edward Glaeser talking up skyscrapers in The Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier. David Owen made a similar case with Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability.

Do you find yourself swayed, even a little, by these defenders of urban density?

A. I am completely on board with compact, dense urbanism. It's a mistake, though, to think that's the same as an urbanism of mega-structures - either skyscrapers or landscrapers.

A lot of this misunderstanding derived from David Owen's 2004 New Yorker article, "Green Manhattan," which declared that stacking people up in towers was the ultimate triumph of urban ecology. Owen is a very nice fellow, but this thesis was a crock.

And I'm confident that Ed Glaeser and his acolytes will be disappointed with how it all works out, too. We are entering a capital-scarce, energy-scarce future. The skyscraper is already obsolete and the architects and academic economists remain tragically clueless about it.

Oddly, the main reason we're done with skyscrapers is not because of the electric issues or heating-cooling issues per se, but because they will never be renovated! They are one-generation buildings. We will not have the capital to renovate them - and all buildings eventually require renovation! We likely won't have the fabricated modular materials they require, either - everything from the manufactured sheet-rock to the silicon gaskets and sealers needed to keep the glass curtain walls attached.

You cannot have a city of buildings unavailable for and unsuited for adaptive re-use. This final exuberant generation of skyscrapers built the past few decades - including the mis-named "green" skyscrapers - may be considered the architectural expression of the final cheap oil blow-off.

From now on, we need desperately to tone down our grandiosity. We will discover to our dismay that all these skyscrapers - amazing feats that they might be - are liabilities, not assets. Our cities are going to contract a lot and the process will be painful in terms of lost notional wealth (and probably other ways, too). They have attained a scale that is inconsistent with the economic and energy realities of the future. The optimum building height, we will re-discover, is the number of stories most healthy people can comfortably walk up.

Q. Is "smart growth" the antidote to sprawl, or just a developer's disingenuous oxymoron?

A. "Smart growth" started as a polemical retort to the "dumb" growth of suburban sprawl. It happened that dumb growth was utterly entrenched in all our local land-use laws, and in the sectors that served them - especially the construction trades and our lending practices. The zoning laws mandated a car-dependent outcome, and the builders furnished it, exactly as specified.

By the way, it's important to understand that suburbia was not dreamed up by the devil or any of his agents among us. It just seemed like a good idea in the America of the 20th century. We had the material and capital resources to build this empire of comfort and convenience, so we did. And all this implies a powerful cultural consensus - a broad agreement that this way of living is okay.

Eventually, of course, it became embedded in our national identity as a late incarnation of the American Dream. All well and good - and over! Because our circumstances have changed drastically now. We face the awful predicament of peak oil, and the global contest over the world's remaining resources, and reality is telling us very loudly that we have to live differently - we have to get a new American Dream.

The resistance to this is ferocious, not because Americans are particularly dumb or wicked, but because of the massive investments we have already made in these suburban infrastructures for daily living. We can't accept the scary mandates of reality, or begin the process of letting go.

Smart growth was a strategy undertaken by the New Urbanist reformers to offer an alternative template for land development in America - one based on the traditional walkable neighborhood. The New Urbanists were superbly skilled at drawing up clear graphical codes that might be used to replace the suburban codes around the country. The term "smart" growth was intended to be a selling point - though, unfortunately it often offended the very people it was aimed at by making their own codes look dumb...

The housing bubble bust...represents not just a transient economic fiasco; it is the end of the suburban project per se. We are finished with suburbia. We're stuck with the residue of it. And now we'll see how this all sorts itself out in the face of $100+ per barrel oil.

We will probably come to see a long era of little-to-no-growth. Whatever happens in terms of the human habitat from now on will involve the re-use of stuff that is already there, one way or another.

Personally, I believe the action is going to shift to small towns, small cities, and places that exist in a relationship with a productive agricultural landscape. The fate of suburbia is to become slums, salvage sites, and ruins. Human beings are very good at sorting out materials, and we'll have to do a lot of that. I believe a great deal of all trade in the years ahead will be in material goods already made, re-purposed, as they say, and re-circulated.

...I maintain that any activity organized at the colossal scale will tend to fail in the face of the compound crises of energy, capital, and ecology (climate change). Giant governments, giant universities, giant retail operations - all these things will wobble and fail in the years ahead as reality compels us to downscale and re-localize...

...we are mounting a foolish campaign to sustain the unsustainable, to defend our previous investments in things like suburban living, instead of making new arrangements. That's what we do when we invest half a trillion dollars of "stimulus" capital in building new circumferential highways around our hypertrophied metroplex cities instead of repairing the railroad system.

There is, sadly, much truth in the old saying that people get what they deserve, not what they expect. We are an extremely demoralized nation, unable to construct a coherent consensus about what is happening and what we might do about it, and floundering as a result. Even at the elite environmentalist level, the conversation is ridiculous. For two years in a row, I attended the Aspen Environmental forum, which attracts the cream of the green-and-enviro community. Whenever the subjects of peak oil and our extreme car dependency came up, all they wanted to talk about was running cars by other clever means: electricity, biodiesel, etc. They showed a total lack interest in walkable communities or public transit. They were blind to the fact that their own techno-grandiosity left them in a position that only promoted further car dependency - which is suicidal, of course...

...I suspect that we have left behind the supposed normality of the past decade and have now entered uncharted territory of the long emergency. We have also seen the first stirrings of American unrest in the battles over public employee bargaining rights. I'd maintain that this is only the start of a very rough political era in the USA. The buildup of tensions is fantastic. You have a dissolving middle class watching their futures whirl around the drain, and an obscenely rich Wall Street banking class (abetted by a disgustingly bought-off political class) that has been allowed to evade the rule of law in running a set of ruinous financial rackets, swindles, and frauds, and this alone is, to me, a recipe for civil disorder. I'm amazed that the Hamptons have not yet been torched.'

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