Wednesday, May 20, 2009

American Sprawl

Jim Kunstler's dark visions for America include some pretty hefty hammering on the evolution of American cities. My friend Roger has recently posted a great blog about how the city of Savannah, Georgia is laid out, comparing it favorably to most plains towns and giving a good summary of what has happened. Here's my take.

Our cities had vast spaces surrounding them so expansion was an easy option. The explosion in automobile use allowed everyone the chance to work in the city and live in their own single-family home in countrified suburbia - the American version of English "country gentlefolk". When I was a boy in the Chicago 'burbs, my father rode a commuter train to work downtown. That train's business was usurped in the 60s by the development of expressways out to the 'burbs and the commuter lines went out of business. They ripped out the tracks in the 70s and made the right-of-way through town into a bike and walking path, which it remains to this day. Cheap oil powered the automobiles that enabled the expansion of the suburbs even as public intracity transport declined.

My life in that town as a youth was something like what Roger describes - we walked or rode bikes most everywhere we needed (although even then the car had become a convenient option to expand our horizon). My grade school was less than a block away from my home. Strip malls were just beginning - our 'central business district' was easily accessible to most people in town and had locally-owned businesses for the most part, not chains. The chains came in as I was growing up and forced out most of the locally-owned competition. The shift toward sprawl began as development of outlying parts of town made some things accessible only by car. I could walk to my high school, but it was nearly an hour's walk, so we rode a school bus and my father would drive me when the bus wasn't available (I didn't have my own car until I was in graduate school).

Chicago was accessible by bus so my high school friend and I could safely take the bus downtown, spend the day going to museums, enjoy a nice lunch in a restaurant, see a movie, walk along the lakeshore, and return home safely that evening - all before we were 16. Imagine letting your kids do that today!

Having traveled in Europe, I've seen they don't sprawl so much. Most people living outside the city park on the outskirts and walk in. Even relatively large cities are compact and many of the things you'd want to see and do are within walking distance. Most people don't live in individual houses, living instead in what we would call apartments, often located above city storefronts. The cities sprawl upward, not outward. There's frequent, affordable, comprehensive public transportation, including intercity as well as intracity transport. We have nothing like that anymore - whatever passenger train and bus lines existed in our past are mostly long gone, replaced by inefficient, gas-guzzling road vehicles and aircraft.

The time when we could afford this system is passing, quickly, hastened by the demise of cheap oil. Any sustainable system must look more like Savannah than Atlanta.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Polarization and beliefs

Although Jim Kunstler (see my blog links) has a very dark image of our future, certainly darker than I want to believe, there are some pretty obvious problems ahead for the Great American Lifestyle we've all become accustomed to since the 1950s. The question that should be on our minds right now is just how far the coming "adjustments" can go before the existing social contract for America breaks down. If we're unable to restore the national economy to something sustainable that has the confidence of the majority of citizens, then the unthinkable - the disintegration of our society - could occur.

History suggests that when social contracts collapse, opinions of moderates are swept away. Extreme radicals on opposite ends of the political spectrum gain adherents because, it seems that gradual, evolutionary solutions move too slowly to satisfy people in hard times. Anyone speaking on behalf of moderation and tolerance is likely to be overwhelmed by the slogans, promises, and rhetoric of extremist demagogues. Scapegoats are selected and advocacy of extreme measures that trample on civil liberties becomes the norm. Vying extremist factions make whatever promises they have to in order to seize power, without regard to their actual intentions for the future.

The potential for this sort of internal collapse is inherent in any society, but it becomes most virulent when times are difficult. Even in relatively good times, demagogues (self-chosen, megalomaniacal leaders espousing extremist views anywhere across the political spectrum) can always be found in any society. When the social contract is seen as acceptable for the majority, these extremists are marginalized and ineffective. However, they never go away entirely (like virulent bacteria) and when the situation takes a turn for the worse, they’re right there to take advantage of hard times. They thrive on social and economic chaos, when society's "immunity" to their toxicity is at its weakest, sometimes supporting (usually covertly) actions apparently contradictory to their aims, just for the purpose of further polarization and erosion of confidence in the status quo. Economic collapse magnifies social inequity and turns the have-nots against the haves, with the outcome likely to be bad for moderate views regardless of the "victors" in such a struggle. The lessons of history are clear on this.

Around the world, there's a trend toward religious fundamentalism. I believe this to be an indicator of cracks developing in the social structure. Inherent in religious fundamentalism is an "us against them" mentality that magnifies intolerance. If your beliefs differ from mine, then either you have to convert to our orthodoxy or we'll marginalize, disenfranchise, and perhaps eventually kill you for being different. Tough times amplify and spread this polarized mentality, often sanctified by the notion that God (or whatever name your particular deity goes by) is "on our side" against the evils associated with any other belief set (or lifestyle). Many people need to be given a moral compass by which to guide their actions, rather than deducing one on their own - thinking rationally is hard and easy answers are elusive (and usually misleading, with unforeseen consequences). When religious (or quasi-religious secular) beliefs are used to that end, then intolerance, which is built in to virtually all major religions, is fostered. Opponents are characterized as evil, or even subhuman, unworthy to be participate in the "new order" to come. Intolerance is a stepping-stone to persecution and "cleansing" of contrary elements in society.

Even more or less secular autocracies (like Hitler's Fascism or Stalin's Socialism) cloak themselves in a quasi-religious "orthodoxy" as all proponents of any other viewpoint are suppressed ruthlessly. The structure of these secular forms is virtually identical to theocracies with only minor word changes. "Cults of personality" are little more than attempted deification of the leaders, justifying demands for blind, unthinking obedience and intolerance for any contrary viewpoint.

This is a possible future for us – we stand now on what might be the crumbling foundations of the American Experiment in social order. Most Americans assume that we're immune to a slide toward a repressive, autocratic society. I'm not very confident in our immunity if times get really tough (as they did in Russia at the turn of the 20th Century, or in Germany in the 1930s). I fear that a collapse of the social contract could move us toward anarchy, civil war, and the rise of a demagogue to power, resulting in an intellectual "Dark Age" dominated by some form of dogma (religious or not) from which it might take a long time for a new Renaissance. And I suspect that if the USA falls, it will take most of the rest of the world down with it. What will emerge from that can't be known with certainty, but it would likely be very different from the world as we know it. I hope I don't live long enough to see this come to pass - the collapse will be awful and the values I cherish will be swept away, to be replaced by mere survival skills in a world turned cruel and unforgiving.