Trying times for suburban development

Book review by Bev Hermanson
Title: The Long Emergency
Author: James Howard Kunstler
Produced by Grove Press, New York

You may wonder what this alarmist book has to do with property development in this country. It is written in an emphatic style and is, from cover to cover, a long wail about what American society could be facing. However, it’s a sad fact that when America sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold. And as we subscribe to modern living in our cities, we would be well advised to take note of some of his points, as they relate to our state of being just as much.

Kunstler has spent many years analysing modern lifestyle patterns and has already written three books on the subject: The City in Mind, Home from Nowhere and The Geography of Nowhere. The Long Emergency examines in depth the Americans’ penchant for suburban sprawl and everything that supports it. He predicts the downfall of this way of life and the evaporation of the American Dream.

Putting the last century into perspective, he says that the exponential growth in civilization, in technology and in suburban sprawl can all be laid at the feet of the oil economy. The basis of our lives is cheap fossil fuel – period. The drama that we face is that we only have another twenty or thirty years of utopia before the oil reserves deplete to a point that it would take more energy to extract the oil than the oil itself will provide. Most of us optimistically presume that the R&D experts will have come up with something else by then, that we will seamlessly migrate to the next, better technology that will enable us to continue the frenetic pace of our lives. Kunstler thinks differently. He is predicting a state of crisis of global proportions.

In fact, Kunstler predicts that globalisation will be flipped on its head. Instead of the world getting smaller, there will be a reversal and it will get bigger again. As the man-in-the-street finds air travel, and for that matter, motoring, more and more inaccessible, the urban fabric of society is going to unravel. Urban sprawl, out-of-town shopping malls that ship cheap goods in from China, skyscrapers and the freeway systems are all going to become defunct.

“The boom in suburban houses must necessarily be understood as part and parcel of the suburban predicament – the fact that it was part of the greatest misallocation of resources in world history,” says Kunstler. “The housing subdivisions, as much as the freeways, the malls, the office parks and the fast food outlets represent an infrastructure for daily living that will not be re-usable, except perhaps as salvage.”

Kunstler predicts that the powerhouse of the United States of America may well break up and become, instead, autonomous regions, not nearly as cohesive as the current set-up. “The cheap oil age created an artificial bubble of plentitude for a period not much longer than a human lifetime – a hundred years. America finds itself nearing the end of the cheap oil age, having invested its national wealth in a living arrangement – suburban sprawl – that has no future.”

“It is possible that the fossil fuel efflorescence was a one-shot deal for the human race,” he goes on to say. “So much of what we construe to be among our entitlements to perpetual progress may prove to have been a strange, marvelous and anomalous moment in the planet’s history.”

Part of Kunstler’s Long Emergency are further resource wars and the resultant strife as civilization attempts to cling to defunct practices and lifestyles that will no longer be sustainable. He does look at some of the catastrophes that will be triggered by climate change, but they play second fiddle to his preoccupation with the looming oil crisis.

Here, in Africa, we are possibly better placed to cope with the disintegration of mass economies. In our cities, we have convenience stores (albeit coupled with filling stations) dotted all over the place, within easy walking distance from many homes; we have towns that are driven by communities that offer basic tradesman skills; and more of our agriculture is people-driven rather than the industrialised mass-production utilised by the Americans. But we may need to re-think our urban and suburban planning and this book certainly provides plenty of food for thought.

Article by: Bev Hermanson - www.designmagazine.co.za