American Author, Social Critic, Public Speaker and Blogger
James Howard Kunstler
American Author, Social Critic, Public Speaker and Blogger
I had one of those steel thermal mugs you carried everywhere with you as a kind of signifier of how busy, and therefore how important you were.
It was obvious there would be no return to "normality." The economy wouldn't be coming back. Globalism was over. The politicians and generals were failing to pull things together at the center. We would not be returning to Boston. The computer industry, in which so many hopes had been vested, was fading into history.
The racket was coming over what used to be our public radio station, WAMC out of Albany, but the familiar reassuring voices of normality were long gone. Some febrile evangelist was railing from the Book of Revelation.
What's bad about sprawl is not its uniformity, but that it is so uniformly bad.
I lay wake? listening to the rain drip from the eaves and thinking of the big map that hung from the top of the chalkboard in my primary school in Wilton, Connecticut, so many years ago, back in the days of cars, television, and air-conditioning. The states on this map were muted tones of pink, green, and yellow. Over it hung the flag that we pledged allegiance to every single morning. "One nation under God, indivisible..."
Living by the clock was an old habit that died hard. Not much that we did required punctuality, but people still wanted to know what time it was.
The road is now like television, violent and tawdry. The landscape it runs through is littered with cartoon buildings and commercial messages. We whiz by them at 55 miles an hour and forget them, because one convenience store looks like the next. They do not celebrate anything beyond their mechanistic ability to sell merchandise. We don't want to remember them. We did not savor the approach and we were not rewarded upon reaching the destination, and it will be the same next time, and every time. There is little sense of having arrived anywhere, because everyplace looks like no place in particular. Suburbia is economically catastrophic, socially toxic, ecologically suicidal and spiritually degrading. It has become a cartoon of country life, an abstraction of it, in many cases a mockery of it.
When a society is stressed, when it comes up against things that are hard to understand, you get a lot of delusional thinking.
I like to call it ?the national automobile slum.? You can call it suburban sprawl. I think it?s appropriate to call it the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.
Look how we live? I'm practically a serf.
The three of us ate a fine supper of grilled trout with sorrel cream sauce, and red potatoes out of Britney's old garden behind the ruins of the Watling place, and watercress saut‚ed in butter for hardly a moment with a dash of vinegar, and cream custard with wild blackberries for dessert.
When you go to a party with 100 people, 99 of them think no one likes them. The other one is me.
I remembered Albany? as just another down-on-its-luck small American city that had sacrificed its vitality to a whirring ring of homogenous suburbs.
Motion is a great tranquilizer.
The trouble with narcissistic architects is that other people don't count for them. Narcissistic architecture in inherently devoid of a social dimension.
You could argue people are generally better off now mentally than they were back then. We follow the natural cycles. We eat real food instead of processed crap full of chemicals. We're not jacked up on coffee and television and sexy advertising all the time. No more anxiety about credit card bills.
America at the turn of the millennium is suffering the woeful consequences, largely unanticipated, of trying to become a drive-in utopia. The attempt took roughly eighty years, from the end of the First World War to the brink of global warming, oil depletion, and other epochal disorders hard upon us. This nation's massive suburban build-out was an orgy of misspent energy and material resources that squandered our national wealth and left us with an infrastructure of daily life that, left as is, has poor prospects in the new century. It is also hard to overstate the cultural destruction that was one of its chief side effects, especially the loss of knowledge, tradition, skill, custom, and vernacular wisdom in the art of city-making that was thrown into the dumpster of history in our effort to fulfill General Motors' 'World of Tomorrow'
I searched the FM band but there was nothing besides other pious pleaders, and they didn't come in too well. The AM band offered about the same thing, only with worse reception, nothing remotely describable as news, and no music because commercial entertainment as we knew it was no more, and its handmaiden, advertising had gone with it.
My beef with the alt-fuel people is not the renewable or alt-fuel ideas themselves. Sooner or later, there's no question we're going to have to rely on them. For me, it's an issue of scale.
The United States is the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, yet its inhabitants are strikingly unhappy. Accordingly, we present to the rest of mankind, on a planet rife with suffering and tragedy, the spectacle of a clown civilization. Sustained on a clown diet rich in sugar and fat, we have developed a clown physiognomy. We dress like clowns. We move about a landscape filled with cartoon buildings in clown-mobiles, absorbed in clownish activities. We fill our idle hours enjoying the canned antics of professional clowns... Death, when we acknowledge it, is just another pratfall on the boob tube. Bang! You're dead!
America does not want change, except from the cash register at Wal-Mart.
I suppose people who graduate from very selective and expensive colleges, and receive immense reinforcement from colleagues who preceded them there develop an inflated sense of their ability to effectively manage things, especially complex things. Many of these young, bright people cannot believe that our creaking and foundering systems won't yield to their managerial tinkering, and the net effect must be to turn them into very cynical careerists with nothing left but personal ladder-climbing and wealth accumulation... The political left in America makes up in cynical cowardly avarice for all the mendacious stupidity on the political right, so we end up at this moment in history with a perfect blend of every bad impulse in human nature and none of the virtues.
Now that we have built the sprawling system of far-flung houses, offices, and discount marts connected by freeways, we can't afford to live in it. We also failed to anticipate the costs of the social problems we created in letting our towns and cities go to hell. Two generations have grown up and matured in America without experiencing what it is like to live in a human habitat of quality. We have lost so much culture in the sense of how to build things well. Bodies of knowledge and sets of skills that took centuries to develop were tossed into the garbage, and we will not get them back easily. The culture of architecture was lost to Modernism and its dogmas. The culture of town planning was handed over to lawyers and bureaucrats, with pockets of resistance mopped up by the automobile, highway, and real estate interests.
There was nothing like it before in history: a machine that promised liberation from the daily bondage of place. And in a free country like the United States, with the unrestricted right to travel, a vast geographical territory to spread out into, and a national tradition of picking up and moving whenever life became intolerable, the automobile came as a blessing.
Americans are suffering so much from being in unrewarding environments that it has made us very cynical. I think that American suburbia has become a powerful generator of anxiety and depression.