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City Places for City People
Big and Blue in the USA

by James Howard Kunstler

Having just returned from a week in England where, among other things, walking more than ten yards a day is quite normal, I was once again startled by the crypto-human land whales waddling down the aisles of my local supermarket in search of Nabisco Snack-Wells, Wow chips, and other fraudulent inducements to "diet" by overindulgence in "low-fat" carbohydrate-laden treats. And they did not look happy.

To say that Americans are shockingly obese is hardly a novel observation, yet it is discouraging to see so many of your fellow citizens in such a desperate and unhealthy condition, and I'm sure it is even more discouraging to be in such a state. Related to this is the recent disclosure that one-third of all Americans are taking prescribed antidepressant medications, specifically the SSRIs of the Prozac family (Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors, including Zoloft, Paxil, and Celexa). That's one out of every three men, women, and children! The American media routinely regard the scandalous levels of both obesity and emotional distress here with befuddlement and even indignation, as though it were inexplicable and even unfair that such a friendly, generous, valiant, humorous, and enterprising folk as we should be so mysteriously afflicted with The Blues.

Home Sweet HomeHave any reporters noticed how we actually live here in America? With very few exceptions, our cities are hollowed out ruins. Our towns have committed ritualized suicide in thrall to the WalMart God. Most Americans live in suburban habitats that are isolating, disaggregated, and neurologically punishing, and from which every last human quality unrelated to shopping convenience and personal hygiene has been expunged. We live in places where virtually no activity or service can be accessed without driving a car, and the (usually solo) journey past horrifying vistas of on-ramps and off-ramps offers no chance of a social encounter along the way. Our suburban environments have by definition destroyed the transition between the urban habitat and the rural hinterlands. In other words, we can't walk out of town into the countryside anywhere. Our "homes," as we have taken to calling mere mass-produced vinyl boxes at the prompting of the realtors, exist in settings leached of meaningful public space or connection to civic amenity, with all activity focused inward to the canned entertainments piped into giant receivers--where the children in particular sprawl in masturbatory trances, fondling joysticks and keyboards, engorged on Cheez Doodles and taco chips.

Placed in such an environment, even a theoretically healthy individual would sooner or later succumb to the kind of despair and anomie that we have labeled "depression," in our less than honest attempt to shift the blame for these predictable responses from our own behavioral choices and national philosophy to some more random "disease" process. But the misery is multiplied when these very behavioral choices--inactivity, isolation, and overeating sugary foods--lead to disfiguring obesity on top of despair. And it must be obvious that I am describing a self-reinforcing feedback loop that generates ever more personal misery and self-destruction.

Another way of looking at our predicament is as the result of a high entropy economy--entropy being provoked by huge "free" energy "inputs" in the form of a hundred years of cheap oil, and entropy being expressed in forms as varied as toxic waste, ruined soils, and buildings so remorselessly ugly that the pain of living with them corrodes our souls. Depression (despair and anomie) and obesity are as much expressions of high entropy as the commercial highway strips, the Big Box stores, the housing subdivisions, the hamburger chains, and all the other accessories of the wished-for drive-in Utopia.

It doesn't help, of course, that this entropic fiasco of self-reinforcing feedback loops and diminishing returns has been labeled the American Dream--because neither patriotism nor all the Prozac in the world will immunize us from the consequences of our own behavior, our foolish choices, and our self-destructive beliefs. This particular American Dream more and more looks suspiciously like a previous investment trap--we've sunk so much of our national wealth into a particular way of doing things that we're psychologically compelled to defend it even if it drives us crazy and kills us.

Big Street, Small BoyIt was interesting to note over in England how many people were out enjoying themselves in the public realm, with other people. By public realm I mean in the streets, the cafes, the pubs, the parks, the riverside promenades, and other places explicitly designed for humans to enact their hard-wired social proclivities. Everywhere I went in Oxford, Cambridge, and London I was amazed at the hordes of young people so obviously enjoying the company of groups of their friends, and what a contrast this was to the current culture back home where you hardly ever see anything but a couple, or perhaps two couples, out in a bar or restaurant, and where the Starbucks cafes are filled with solitary individuals, and the streets are for cars only, usually with lone occupants. It was also startling in England to see groups of old people walking together in the streets or sitting on a blanket in the park, because in America old people have been conditioned to go about outside of home only in cars. Today's older Americans have spent their entire lives in a car-obsessed culture in which walking is seen as uncomfortable at least and at worst socially stigmatizing, something only winos do.

In Europe, people make 33% of their trips by foot or bicycle, compared with 9.4% for Americans. American suburbanites weigh on average 6 pounds more than their counterparts in walkable cities. They have higher blood pressure, are more susceptible to diabetes, and live two years fewer on average than Europeans. Pedestrians in the US are three times more likely to be killed in traffic than in Germany, six times more likely than in Holland. Bicyclists here are twice as likely to be killed in traffic than Germans, three times as likely as Dutch.

Statistics hardly tell the whole story, though. The emotional toll of the American Dream is steep. What we see all over our nation is a situational loneliness of the most extreme kind; and it is sometimes only recognizable in contrast to the ways that people behave in other countries. Any culture, after all, is an immersive environment, and I suspect that most Americans are unaware of how socially isolated they are among the strip malls and the gated apartment complexes. Or, to put it another way, of what an effort it takes to put themselves in the company of other people.

Bigbox ShoppingThis pervasive situational loneliness, of being stuck alone in your car, alone in your work cubicle, alone in your apartment, alone at the supermarket, alone at the video rental shop--because that's how American daily life has come to be organized--is the injury to which the insult of living in degrading, ugly, frightening, and monotonous surroundings is added. Is it any wonder that Americans resort to the few things available that afford even a semblance of contentment: eating easily obtainable and cheap junk food and popping a daily dose of Paxil or Prozac to stave off feelings of despair that might actually be a predictable response to settings and circumstances of our lives? (I'd add pornography to the list also, a substitute for sex with other real people who cannot be accessed in the condition of pervasive situational loneliness). How depressing.

If it's any consolation, I repeat what I have said in previous rants: that we are headed into a social and economic maelstrom so severe, as the people on this earth contest over the remaining oil and gas supplies, that everything about contemporary life in America will have to be rearranged, reorganized, reformed, and re-scaled. The infrastructure of suburbia just won't work without utterly dependable supplies of reliably cheap oil and natural gas. No combination of alternative fuels or energy systems will permit us to run what we are currently running, or even close to it. The vaunted hydrogen economy is, at this stage, a complete fantasy, and at the very least there is going to be an interlude of severe disorder and economic discontinuity between the unwinding of the Cheap Oil Age and anything that might plausibly follow it.

We will be driving a lot less than we do now, and cars will generally be a diminished presence in our lives. The automakers and the oil companies can lobby all they like, but history has a velocity of its own, and it is taking us into uncharted territory where the GM Yukons and Ford Excursions will be useless. When the suburbs tank, they will go down hard and fast. The loss of hallucinated wealth is going to shock us to our socks, and the fight over the table scraps of the 20th century is liable to entail a lot of political mischief here in the USA.

New World at HandThe physical arrangements for daily living will have to be revised and re-ordered accordingly. We're going to have to return to traditional human habitats: towns, villages, cities, and agricultural landscapes. We will have to walk out of necessity, or at least ride some places with other people. We may be too busy to indulge in the blandishments of television and the other entertainment narcotics we've become addicted to, and even the Internet may be made irrelevant in a world of regular brownouts. We may have to grow more of our food closer to home and do some of the physical work ourselves. As far as I know, there is no such thing as a Cheez Doodle bush. We are going to be living a lot more locally and thrown on our own resources.

We're going to have to do this whether we like it or not, because circumstances will compel us to. There may be a lot of hardship and difficulty, but in the process we are going to get some things back that we threw away in our foolish attempt to become a drive-in civilization. And most of these things we get back will have to do with living on more intimate terms with other people, getting more regular exercise, eating better food, leading more purposeful lives, and rediscovering the public realm that is the dwelling place of our collective spirit. Paradoxically, when that happens fewer of us will need Prozac or the Atkins diet.

James Howard Kunstler, the author of The Geography of Nowhere and Home From Nowhere, lives in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

This article first appeared on OrionOnline, the website of Orion Magazine. Contact editor@orionsociety.org to request permission for republication.

Photos by Richard Risemberg