Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Kunstler's Long Emergency

I finally read Kunstler's Long Emergency. I sometimes have mixed reactions to Kunstler's nonfiction (I've not read his fiction). Sometimes I think he is spot on. His critiques of suburban sprawl hit very close to home for me. He seems to zero in on and bring to the fore issues of development that I experienced as feelings, but never could put my finger on. Since I was seven.

Growing up in Omaha, and visiting the new neighborhoods, why did they feel negative? So empty? Why did these new neighborhoods feel almost exactly the same way my moving company jobs did, with their weedy backlots, acres of concrete for moving trucks, and three story pole barn for warehousing overseas airmen's containers of household goods? Partly it was archetecture, I now realize. Partly it was landscaping too. The nicely manicured grass did very little to ameliorate Nebraska's July sun, and the staked-out saplings were pathetic little sticks compared to the older parts of town.

Sometimes however, I didn't like Kunstler's vitriol against suburbs. Face it, intellectuals hate suburbs. Artsy people too, hate suburbs. Think of the movies alone. The 80s' "Suburbia", "American Beauty", "Edward Scissorhands." TV's "Desparate Housewives". American intellectuals loathe suburbs and all they stand for. As long as intellectuals are toeing the anti-suburban line, I think their analyses are somewhat compromised. And I was never sure if Kunstler fell into that camp or not.

Contrasting intellectuals' dislike of suburbs, is David Brooks' On Paradise Drive. Brooks is a more politically conservative commentator than many intellectuals, especially in regard to the suburbs. Instead of simply hating them, he wants to know why so many average Americans choose to live their lives in the suburbs. Avoiding the elitism that is so inherent in so many other cultural critiques, he recognizes them as repositories for average families' dreams. The suburbs represent reasonable choices for average Americans following their career and life trajectories around the nation. I like that about Brooks.

Back to Kunstler though, his criticisms may sound elitist. But I think they are more grounded than simple intellectual snobbery. While disliking suburbs for 'junking up the landscape,' delivering 'abstraction' instead of real life, and creating 'cartoon architecture' he argues the point that suburbs are inherently inefficient, and therefore bad investments.

This is interesting. Note that many of these are not politically liberal points. Classicism in architecture is not avant-garde, it is not uber-hip, it is conservative. Essentially you are saying 'we've found these minimally essential points, let's retain them.' As opposed to modernism which throws them all out. Or postmodernism, which tends toward the chaotic and random.

He says suburbs are wasteful and inefficient. This makes sense in a free market economy. Truly, is it in the best interest of a free-market society to build homes, retail, schools, so that they are essentially used up about the same time their mortgages are paid? Arguably not, but more importantly, in doing this we are treating our infrastructure as a consumer good, not as investments. Investments retain their values after they are paid off, and should create some value. Who takes all their capital and wastes it on consumer goods? Not effective capitalists.

So this illustrates that Kunstler does not fit easily into boxes. He sometimes acts like an artsy-fartsy snob. Until you read closely and recognize that he is also acting a lot like a crusty old conservative. I like ppl who think on their own and avoid boxes.

But all of this is played out in his earlier urban books. Long Emergency begins looking at American life, complete with the inefficiencies described above, but from the perspective of the oil peak. The Peak Oil argument should be common knowledge. If you are not familiar, google it. Essentially Kunstler is asking what happens to American life, as energy prices progress on an intractable climb? Suddenly those inefficiences in urban infrastructure really matter. Suddenly all that capital invested into our way of life is transformed into lost consumer spending. It was fun while it lasted. Now it's over and the money's gone.

Suffice it to say that this is a somewhat depressing book. And the questions are worth asking. What does happen as fuel costs go up? Is our current retail infrastructure going to work? Kunstler thinks not. Sam's Club/Wal-Mart is predicated on all of us having cargo vehicles, ready to drive anywhere from 5-30 miles to stock up for the week on our stuff. It's cheap because it's all made in China, and shipped thousands of miles. I could see that being problematic in a high fuel environment.

Are new homes going to continue being a rock solid investment returning these amazing gains in value year after year? Kunstler thinks not. He argues that the entire economy is founded on continuing suburban sprawl. Including Home Depot, Cash-Out refi's, and yet more mega-retail blocks on the edge of town. If fuel costs were to go up, then certainly some of the commutes ppl make to afford these homes will become unreasonable. If fuel costs go up, the single use zoning of suburban development are going to become unreasonable. This infrastructure will be terribly difficult to retrofit for public transportation, if it came to that.

I could go on. I won't though. If you're interested go buy the book. I have to credit Kunstler and some of the new urbanist writers because they revealed a new aspect of sociology to me. Until I encountered this genre, it simply did not occur to me how infrastructure shapes the lives of community. This sounds pathetic, I know. How did I get through grad school with that blindness? I took courses on political sociology, feminist sociology, social movements, power relations, symbolic interaction, meaning in modern life, social thoery, and more. I wrote about communities. All of it was good, but you will notice that there just is not much focus on streets and transportation in that list.

So, as a sociologist, the Peak Oil argument is fascinating. Regardless of if one buys in with the "Peakers" or not. Simply analyzing how infrastructure, transportation, and energy are interconnected is excellent sociological practice. Just for the sake of argument, let's assume Peak Oil is true and happened today, and there will be a 2-3% gap in meeting energy demand next year. What economic implications are there going to be for individual families? On manufacturing? On retail? On politics? What about the following year, and there is now 4-6% demand being unmet? Fuel prices are rising, what happens to politics, family life, small town communities, urban areas, suburban areas? How long until there is demand destruction? And what does that even entail? When does it make sense oto rebuild American manufacturing - to stop shipping stuff from China? Can we even do this in a high fuel price environment?

These are fascinating questions, and provide excellent exercise in sociolgical thinking. How does my individual life, my story, tie into the broader historical movements and changes of today? What are the goings-on of today that will be historically meaningful?

One more point and I will end this lengthy essay. First, Kunstler did not start life as a sociologist, nor do I think he would call himself that. He started as a writer, a journalist, then moved to fiction, and has most recently taken up nonfiction. As a regular citizen with a gift for good writing, he analyzed what he saw around himself. Now his books are kept in the sociology section at Barnes & Noble. Funny thing is, in that section I don't find many sociologists. This is no disrespect to Kunstler at all, but it does reflect my first essay. We sociologists have done a terrible job of bringing our discipline to the public. Many people do not know what sociology is, and if they walk in to a B&N, they will not find sociologists. We need to make ourselves relevant again, the world needs our input.

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