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The geography of expensive oil

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The house on the slide-show screen is your average two-story suburban denizen: neutral vinyl siding, 14-inch-deep front porch and a postage-stamp yard with vibrantly green grass. There are no windows on the sides, so the occupants can keep up their "little cabin in the woods" blinders rather than be subjected to a close-up of their neighbors' adjacent life.

This house could, and does, occupy the top of many a cul-de-sac from Maine to New Mexico. And that's what bugs James Kunstler about it.

"This is the most common house in America," Kunstler tells a group of chuckling federal workers in RTP who've come to hear the author's ideas about our "parking lot nation." "The front of this house is a TV. It's a TV, and it's broadcasting the 'We're Normal!' show, 24/7."

Houses like this one are based on an economic and geographic model that provides maximum profits to developers and requires the occupants to drive absolutely everywhere, Kunstler says. And, he argues, these vehicle-docking bays with customized living quarters above them are also an endangered species.

"We need to start preparing the American public for the eventuality that we will have to change some of our habits," Kunstler told about 80 employees and visitors at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency building March 4.

Within anywhere from "five minutes from now until 10 years from now," America's "cheap-oil economy," will be severely interrupted by rising prices and shrinking supplies, rendering the development models of the last 60 to 100 years unworkable, Kunstler theorizes.

"The suburban sprawl way of life in America has no future. It has no future," he says. "We're going into a transition that will be disorderly."

When the time comes, people who commute far to jobs, grocery stores and other necessities, and companies like Wal-Mart that rely on "warehouses on wheels" for survival will find their way of life coming to an end, he says. At the same time, political and economic chaos will ensue, as the growth industry that has engorged its bottom line on this model refuses to yield to new patterns.

"We're going to see a fight over the table scraps of the 20th century," says the author of "The Geography of Nowhere," a 1993 book exploring the costs of suburban sprawl. "There's going to be a big fight over the retention of suburban entitlements that can't be sustained by reality."

The new world he envisions is a return to self-sufficient communities, where, for example, local creameries supply all the cheese, since Kraft will no longer be able to ship its products 3,000 miles. It's a world where people walk and bike much more often than they drive, where city centers resume their role as the hub of existence, with downtowns full of shops on the ground floors and dwellings upstairs.

That world exists only at the end of a long struggle, Kunstler admits. In the meantime, he advises his audiences there are small steps each resident can take.

First, don't complain about the chain stores--they'll be gone in 10 years anyway, under the current churn of big-box retail. Secondly, don't lecture the SUV drivers--reinventing our future isn't about driving smaller or more efficient cars, it's about eliminating most of the driving we do, period.

Also on his list of advice: eliminate the words "open space" from their vocabulary when challenging new development in their communities.

"You want a park, ask for a park. You want a ball field, ask for that. If you ask for 'open space' or 'green space,' abstractions will be delivered," Kunstler says, showing slides of an industrial building whose developer agreed to provide "open space" as part of the project and then set aside a two-foot wide strip of grass around the perimeter.

"Nobody packs a picnic basket on Sunday and says, 'Hey, honey, let's go to the green space,'" he says.

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