I believe the summer of 2008 will likely be remembered as a turning point in America waking up to face a new reality as it relates to energy consumption. Nothing like $4/gallon gas to force our hands collectively. If we don't learn from this lesson, then the discomfort we felt at the pump, checkout stand and elsewhere will probably be just a prickle compared to what is to come.
Today the NY Times published an interesting discussion on the future of suburbs in America. They do not paint a pretty picture by any means.
James Kunstler, the author of The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century, World Made By Hand, and three books about suburbs and cities: The Geography of Nowhere, Home From Nowhere, and The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition.
“The suburbs have three destinies, none of them exclusive: as materials salvage, as slums, and as ruins.”
Kunstler believes we are going to seriously turn back the clock and instead of moving back to the city, for the first time in 200 years begin moving back to farms, or at least closer to where our food is produced as it is no longer economically feasible to transport that potato across the country.
He suggest the reality that we are no longer going to be an automobile based society has not really sunk in, because if it had we would hear more discussion about rebuilding the train infrastructure in America.
As a throwback to my childhood, I still love road trips. For a variety of reasons I did not really take any until recent years so Kunster's suggestion that we won't be able to maintain our highway system discouraging and I hope just a bit extreme, not quite fact. Nothing can take away the thrill of driving through the mountains in Tenn, enjoying the field of sunflowers in Kansas [at least for the first twenty miles] discovering that New England is not the only part of the country with lovely fall foliage, Oklahoma is actually a lovely state and Arkansas can put on quite a show too. Those are just a few highlights from trips driving from Dallas to Chicago to New York and a drive last year to Colorado Springs.
In Dallas, we are seeing people moving farther and farther out, but only to commute into the city while they replace farm line with new subdivisions. Wylie, Murphy, Frisco and McKinney have transformed from sleepy towns to major new communities in what seems like overnight. In the case of Frisco & McKinney at least you are seeing some jobs and companies beginning to move to the area so the residents can find employment closer to home. But not enough to support the bulk of the new residents.
Kunstler's comments remind me of a conversation I had eleven years ago with a man wealthy enough to live off his self-managed stock portfolio. We discussed how the American economy was no longer built on anything we made but on the value of a piece of paper, whether stock or currency. While recognizing that clearly we did not want to have the lifestyle of a 3rd world country - he talked about how at least because they were still hands on with the raising of their food, they could still sustain themselves. Where would we be if food could no longer be plentifully available at the local store?
Now eleven years later, grocery stores are consolidating. Gas prices have had a ripple effect on our ability to afford staples such as bread, rice, eggs and milk at the local Kroger. You would have thought this would result in a boom for farmer markets, but no because they cannot afford to drive the produce into town.
If Kunstler is correct there are silver linings, we could potentially undo the damages of the health problems our modern, instant, fast food society has produced. Perhaps the childhood obesity problem will go a long way toward resolving itself in large measure. He suggest we will eventually return to the small city, village model allowing for more walkable communities. This also would result in health benefits.
With the closure of Steak & Ale franchise and many smaller, high end restaurants a second benefit we may see is saving money as we begin to eat at home again. Or at the very least bring our lunch. Now that I am in the habit, it is a challenge to go out because I find I not only save money but time. You lose up to 20 minutes of your lunch hour in travel and wait time.
The .43/gallon price drop this month has at least temporarily given us a reprieve to some incredibly hard questions. But this could simply be temporary and if we do not use the time wisely........
I will continue looking at the NY Times article in a separate post.