Suburbia Project

The Psychology of Previous Investment

The conditions of the permanent global energy crisis we face will create a lot of economic losers, and they are going to be very angry over the loss of their entitlements.

By James Howard Kunstler
Published October 21, 2005

There is an understandable wish to rescue the suburban habitat that we have poured our collective wealth into constructing for nearly a century. I have consistently described the suburbs as "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world," and I stick by that.

Having made these tragic choices, we (in North America) are now additionally burdened by the psychology of previous investment. That is, we cannot even imagine letting go of this investment, or even changing the way it works - especially where cars are concerned.

I don't believe the suburbs generally have bright prospects, and much of the material that makes them up - the raised ranch houses, the strip mall buildings, the fast food huts - was not designed to endure in any case.

But getting back to my original point, there is no denying that we are stuck with all this stuff, and that we will be inclined to try to make work in a future that offers very different conditions of daily life.

Having prefaced my vision, let me state that I think we will see a reversal of the settlement trend that dominated that past 200 years of the industrial revoltuion - namely, the mass movement of rural populations to cities.

Because our food production system will be so stressed by the reduction or loss of fossil fuel "inputs," we are going to have to change the way we do agriculture completely. It will have to be more local, it will probably require more human and animal labor, and it will probably have to be done on a smaller scale.

This will deeply affect our land use patterns.

I see our large cities uniformly and severely contracting, and in a particular way. Once the trend is firmly established, I believe we will see the cities densify at the cores, while the asteroid belt of progressive suburban fabric becomes incrementally more distressed moving outward.

I am not convinced that anything will be able to prevent this from happening. Many of our classic industrial cities - Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis - are already in an advanced state of contraction.

It is useful to remember that these cities occupy important geographically strategic sites, and that therefore some significant settlement will remain there. But altogether, I think we will see smaller populations inhabiting these places, while the "action" returns to smaller towns and rural places where agriculture will come much more to the center of American economic life, and involve the labor of a much larger percentage of the population.

It has been proposed (e.g. on the ProUrb Web list and other places) that the suburbs can be used for food production - in other words, that the yards and lawns can be turned into gardens.

I do not know to what extent this will be possible or plausible - not the gardening per se, but the socio-economic problem of overcoming in daily life all the other deficiencies of the development pattern: the separation of uses, the vast distances between things that had previously been mitigated by cheap gasoline and easy motoring, the dearth of civic amenity and community connection.

These are significant obstacles, and what disturbs me about the discussions I encounter is the tendency to assume that, while undergoing such a massive socio-economic change, all other factors of life will remain as we know them. This is particularly troubling when it comes to issues like civil order.

I've written in my book, the Long Emergency [see the RTH review], that we are probably in for a lot of political mischief and civil disorder.

The conditions of the permanent global energy crisis we face will create a lot of economic losers - I call them the formerly middle class - and they are going to be very angry over the loss of their entitlements to high-paying office jobs, big houses, cheap gas, cornucopian supermarkets, and all the other blandishments of the high energy life we have been enjoying.

I think we are underestimating the social trouble that these conditions portend, especially the greivance and resentment against the increasingly small and isolated elite who manage to retain wealth, chattels and land.

James Howard Kunstler was born in New York City in 1948. He moved to the Long Island suburbs in 1954, and in 1957 he returned to the city where he spent most of his childhood. He graduated from the State University of New York’s Brockport campus, worked as a reporter and feature writer for a number of newspapers, and finally as a staff writer for Rolling Stone Magazine. In 1975, he turned to writing books on a full-time basis, writing nine published novels. In 1994 Kunstler published The Geography of Nowhere, a landmark book that traced America's evolution from a nation of coherent communities to a wasteland of placeless architecture and parking lots. He continued his exploration of American architecture with Home from Nowhere and The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition. His most recent non-fiction book, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, describes the changes that American society faces in the 21st century.

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By ilpo (registered) - website | Posted March 20, 2010 at 19:25:52

For a continuing verbal dialogue with James Howard Kunstler visit and listen to the podcasts.

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