a long path

As I check the weekly blog post of writer and observer of things James Howard Kunstler, I find that this Monday’s installation of his weekly notes more or less addresses the same general territory that I sat down to address here. The general common theme is people responding to a batch of large scale and chronic problems we have on our hands by trying really hard to not notice them, or at least pretend not to notice them. What I’ve been thinking about here is what sort of national attention defect problems we have on our hands.

Most of what’s presented as “news” is spit out in some passing mention of something that barely tells you the subject, in 15 or 20 seconds, and “in-depth report!” probably means a 5 minute TV segment that really consists of some bare vague introduction, followed by a random collection of people, yapping into their own individual cameras, shouting at each other saying nothing worth saying or hearing.

I can barely stand to check out most of what passes for news now. I’m saying this just after turning on a radio for a bit and trying to get through the midday Here and Now weekday hour news show on NPR, which has an increasing tendency to drive me away in less than 10 or 15 minutes. The problem is generally twofold. Either they’re picking specific topics of each segment by avoiding subjects and events that really matter, and waste time on inanities, or they address a topic that does very definitely matter, but then waste time by filling it with random characters babbling, essentially nothing.

I mentioned a perfect example of this the last time, a segment of the CNN Erin Burnett hour of infotainment. If you might recall, that addressed the topic of the possible appointment of Larry Summers to be the next head of the Federal Reserve, while managing to tell the audience nothing we need to know about the subject.

It’s really not hard to understand how so many people genuinely don’t seem to know what the fuck is happening in anything that matters.


The majority of people here in America are still indulging themselves in a horrifying array of avoidance or different kinds of fantasies, wishful thinking, and delusions about our problem circumstances of diminishing returns in petroleum and other forms of hydrocarbons, either oblivious to the problem, or having half baked passing thoughts about some magic wand solution (such as shale “miracles”) that will just conveniently fix everything right up with no major changes.

What we need to be addressing is getting our heads around some basic fundamentals. As somebody once put it very succinctly, a large part of our problem is that over the course of time since the end of World War II, here in America nearly everybody joined in enthusiastically in a program of building and arranging things so that everything is 15 miles away from everything else, so that climbing into a petroleum burning machine and covering distance became mandatory to do almost anything.

That isn’t our only “energy issue”, but it sure is a major and primary one.

There isn’t some simple easy quick finger-snap of a “solution” to that, but the most important general idea is very simple. The thing that really tops it off is that it’s nothing that humans don’t already know. The batch of people who fall into the category of the new urbanists (because, by God, we just have to categorize everything and everybody) understand the basic and really very simple idea.

What it comes down to is that all over the world, all through human civilization, until the period following World War II, here in the United States, people understood and practiced ideas and plans for arranging human civilization in villages, towns, and cities, in a way where people could live and work and do what they do without traveling serious distances via a machine burning petroleum.

It’s really not a complicated idea. It’s old stuff. The real role of the New Urbanism bunch is that they basically just hauled discarded understanding out of the dumpster where it was tossed, foolishly, decades ago. People already know how to do this stuff.

Not arranging the places where we live and work and do all we do this way is the strange anomaly of human history, the bizarre and arguably crazy exception, not the norm. But the problematic obstacle is fairly obvious. In early 21st century America, all but the oldest of the population have only known an arrangement of things according to the American suburban experiment.

It’s unbelievably difficult to get people’s heads around this. There can be all kinds of obstacles.

One obvious item is people having some notion of their head translating “urban” to “ghetto”.

There are, I suspect, more than just a few people around who might react to the term New Urbanism in an unfortunate way, with some reflex reaction about an “ism“, twitching into some presumptions about being some kind of political ideology, or something.

Aside from all that, there’s the basic absurdity of people regarding the general idea as some really radical and weird concept, rather than what it is, the basic practical way of arranging human civilization that has been the norm all through history, except for the relatively recent historical blip of American suburban sprawl.

We are going to get more localized, rework American cities to actually work the way cities were meant to work. Understanding and forecasting this doesn’t take some crystal ball magic clairvoyance and vision. This is going to happen, one way or another, by plain necessity.


Around a week ago, there was a comment from somebody online. They had come across something unexpected. There was a road in southern Michigan, not far from them, that they had known from previous travels, that, to their surprise, they found was no longer the nice paved road they remembered, but, now, is some sort of strip of tar and gravel.

One key element about this is that the road in question was a road regarded and used as what people consider a main road. It’s also a road in what’s actually a rural area, but a rural area that, over the past half century or so, has come to be a kind of extended suburbia, with all the following and accompanying expectations of suburbia, which basically means, people expecting what they like to think of as nice country living, but with all the services and conveniences of a city. All across America, this kind of hyperextended stretching thin of “municipal” services and resources now finds itself in serious trouble.

It isn’t just roads, of course. We have this problem of hyper overextension of everything under the broad domain of public systems and infrastructure, overextended in an earlier era when people thought that outward expansion away from cities into the newer realms of suburbia was a permanent trend.

One thought was that this Michigan road is part of what you get when we’re surrounded by people who react with indignant unhappiness at anything or anybody suggesting that they might be expected to pay taxes to maintain stuff. This item popping up also makes me recall Kunstler’s classic summation of the American project of outward suburban sprawl as being possibly the greatest misallocation of resources in history.

We (and I use the word “we” pretty broadly to save time, because it sure wasn’t my idea) really screwed the pooch in this department, this project of ideas of a permanent state of outward expansion of American cities. It’s going to be a seriously long and difficult path to recover from the damage, with the largest and most difficult of the difficulties being the amazing oblivion of most Americans to any realization of the situation.

It doesn’t make anything any easier when the situation is muddled even more by people dwelling in some mindset about ideas like “downtown revitalization”, which is something that’s not really a bad idea, on the face of it, but really misses the point. The broad project we need to address and get underway pretty urgently is not about creating some hipster scene of converted warehouse loft apartments and condos with some new bars and clubs and art galleries around some part of downtown, as cool as any of that might be, up to a point.

Little to none that is really getting to the essence of practical necessity, of recovering the concept of cities as functional urban places, laid out and functioning the way urban places developed over the course of human civilization for basic practical reasons, where things are reasonably close together and functionally integrated in a way that allows people to live and function without mass deployment of individual petroleum burning vehicles.

This isn’t about making downtown into some stylish lifestyle zones, although recalling all the concepts of cities that were always the norm until about midway through the 20th century would certainly do a great deal by simply being fully inhabited and functional places, places where people like to be, because they work.

As I think about this, I’m thinking that it might be a good idea to explicitly make clear that about the last thing we need, a royal epic classic in the litany of really bad ideas of the history of civilization, is anything even remotely resembling the kinds of projects we had in the United States over the course of the fifties, sixties, and seventies with the term “urban renewal” slapped on them. All that renewed nothing of a fabric of healthy functional urban cities, and instead largely destroyed whatever was left of it.

Even now, as we see the kind of end game results of collapse of the city of Detroit from decades of abandoning the actual city of Detroit, we have something like a bit of news I pointed to just recently, while addressing that subject, about plans to do even more highway construction in the area. As much as it might seem to some people like hyperbole, it’s really hard for me to look at things like that and regard it as much of anything except some group episode of serious mental illness. What are these people thinking?

As I try to work myself toward wrapping this up before it gets too lengthy (a tendency I’m trying to rein in a tad, fighting the problem of there just being so much that needs to be talked about), I have to note a news story I just heard mere hours ago.

As heard in a report on the midday radio new show Here and Now, here’s a quote from the webpage for this story:

China announced today that car sales rose more than 10 percent in July.

The news is causing some celebration in Detroit, where car sales are at record levels — in part because of strong demand for American cars in China.

This story was reported as being great economic news. On the surface, it probably does sound like great news, to anybody working for the car manufacturers, and anyone working for businesses involved with the car manufacturers. What the story never touched was a bigger story, which should be reported as, basically; a nation of 1.3 billion people is charging ahead in wanting to make itself as dependent on masses of petroleum burning machines as the United States, as the world gets further into diminishing returns in remaining petroleum deposit resources.

Also from that story, you’ll find:

General Motors sold 2.8 million vehicles to the Chinese last year and had an increase of 10 percent in sales this year.

Trucks are a huge seller and many automakers cannot keep up with demand.

“Those trucks are being bought by construction workers,” Eisenstein said. “It’s a sign that the economy is picking up.”

Is it, then? How exactly do these people know this, anyway? Did they ask the buyers if they were using them for construction work?

There are a lot of people in construction trades that need work, and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done, that they can do. The question is, will they be utilized in the work that needs to be done? What we definitely do not need is more and more McMansion outer suburban subdivisions and accompanying strip and corporate big-box shopping centers, with everything miles from everything else.

What we could use, and a lot of skilled and underutilized people could be making a living doing it, is a lot more of repairing and maintaining and renovating and improving older existing buildings, that were built in places that were well placed to create functional communities and cities, back in the days when people thought out those kinds of things.

The need for these kinds of things should be clear: relocalizing economies; functionally integrated real communities of neighborhoods, districts, residence and commerce close together and interwoven, with people able to function in walkable areas, or at least travelling short distances. We need cities and towns that function like working urban places, the way humans have known how to do for centuries, surrounded by the rural working as rural. That, in turn, includes basics like growing food close to the people who need it, working farms growing food locally, worked and owned by farmers who know how to work the land, and care about it, not monocropping corporate farms.

Perhaps the biggest difficulty is that all of that faces the obstacle of being mostly at odds with what a huge majority of Americans now have come to see as normal, status quo, with that being a status quo that is simply and plainly unsustainable. It’s unfortunate that this probably triggers various reflex brain spasms in people who regard words like “sustainable” and “sustainability” as some form of fashionable buzzword terms, followed by all kinds of predictable bullshit and idiocy about “political rhetoric” and “ideology“.

So, how are all these changes and major adjustments going to happen? Good question. It has been discussed before, by many people, with the unfortunate state of affairs being that they virtually never get the attention of the general public. [In the meantime, millions of people form daily audiences for a gnarly parade of people spewing nonstop streams of toxic weapons-grade bullshit, and soak it all up, with the more chatty among them repeating it to everybody they know.]

You can read The Idea of a Local Economy by Wendell Berry.

There’s Making Other Arrangements – A wake-up call to a citizenry in the shadow of oil scarcity by James Howard Kunstler. Another piece by Kunstler is Back to the Future – A road map for tomorrow’s cities.

There are people working the general problem under the general heading of the idea of “transition towns“.

Read Richard Heinberg‘s address to a group of graduating college students for his thoughts to them about heading into a future with their heads on straight in alignment with reality and the long term.

This is just a small sampling. There are some great books, such as Suburban Nation by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck, and a trio of books by James Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere, Home From Nowhere, and The City in Mind.

Kunstler’s book Home From Nowhere is arguably one of the better sources for anybody who simply wants to hear about “solutions”, but, unfortunately, as I’ve said about a zillion times before, one of our largest overall “meta-problems” is that too many people in present day America are likely to react badly to just about anything that represents anything close to a real solution, because, well, they just don’t like it. They find things that are awfully inconvenient. They just really want to hear about something that neatly preserves whatever elements of status quo that they figure suit them, change some things in some sort of tweaks, with no costs to them, and on we roll.

I hate to even write what I’m about to say, because it’s yet another thing that can get weird reactions, but what we have here is a general consciousness problem. It’s looking immeasurably more difficult than it already is to get to where we need to be in this great rearrangement of things because too few people really understand why we need to get there. Even when I occasionally get a glimpse of somebody who seems, superfically at least, to have some sense of what’s wrong with the arrangements of postwar oil gluttony American suburbia, more often than not, from what I can see anyway, it’s likely to revolve around a sense of criticism of suburbia as a lifestyle faux pas, rather than simple function.

The lack of reality in America is extreme. I do not believe anything like it has ever existed in the modern world. Essentially, no one in government or out understands anything. –Paul Craig Roberts




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