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Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Homage to JHK

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With a couple of days left on my spring break, I pulled out a copy of James Howard Kunstler’s Home from Nowhere, his 1996 call for a reassessment of suburban sprawl and its attendant social and ecological problems.  He is a particularly astute observer of the contradictions and blind spots in our thinking about the automobile, and doesn’t mind telling us we’ve fucked up.  Big time.

His arguments aren’t necessarily new, and are part of a growing body of literature critical of the car-centered suburban mode of social organization, but nobody lays it on the line quite like JHK.  He’s a cross between Lewis Mumford and Hunter S. Thompson.  He’s acerbic, scathing, unflinching, and bracing.  He’s a bit of a cynic and a curmudgeon, but he cuts through the bullshit and lays a withering scowl upon what he calls our “geography of nowhere”—suburban sprawl.  At the center of this heart of darkness is the automobile, the totem of a society gone profoundly antisocial and, at times, quite mad.  One of my favorite scenes is from his dystopian post-automobile age novel, The Long Emergency, set in the not-too-distant future when the combination of petroleum shortages, nuclear war, and climate change have doomed the unsustainable “American way of life.”  In a brutal dissection of the pathological depth of our psychological dependence on the car, one of his characters sits in his beloved automobile and puts a bullet in his own head rather than continue to live in a world without cars.  JHK is the tonic answer to the sickly-sweet carbonated sugar water of American car culture.

Of our penchant for equating cars with “freedom,” Kunstler writes in Home from Nowhere, “[t]his is the freedom of a fourteen-year-old child,” a freedom to do whatever we want, consume whatever we want, heedless of the consequences.  When the consequences (highway deaths, polluted air, climate change) become too obvious to ignore, the tendency is to put our faith in techno-solutions, despite the fact that they ignore the root of the problem and are evidence of the peculiar blindness of wishful thinking.  He dissects the fallacy that the electric car will save us from the destructive effects of the automobile, likening it to “the old joke about the guy who decides to make his blanket longer by cutting off twelve inches from the top and sewing it onto the bottom.”  He lays out the economics of the automobile as clearly as anyone and one realizes how deeply we’re in hock to these tin cans on wheels.  The more money we pour into the car system, the more congested our roads become, the more money we throw at it, the more dependent we become on it, the more congested it becomes, and so on.

In a society living in a deep state of denial about automobiles, it should come as no surprise that politicians tend to pander to this addiction.  Rather than asking the average voter to confront the uncomfortable truth that the age of the automobile is coming to an end—must come to an end for its economic and ecological unsustainability—they promise more and wider freeways, the cost be damned, as a panacea for the problems caused by, well, more and wider freeways.  It’s not as if transportation engineers don’t know the consequences of more, wider freeways.  Indeed, they have a term for the inevitable congestion that will follow: induced demand.  Happens every time.  As JHK points out, “we have the knowledge to do the right thing; we lack only the will to do the right thing.”

Despite our auto-sociopathy, there is another way.

I believe that our utter dependence on the automobile must come to an end.  Society can no longer afford the cultural phenomenon of mandatory mass car ownership.  Whatever cars might run on in the future, we will have to use fewer of them and less often.  We are going to need places that are worth dwelling in, from which we won’t feel compelled to escape every moment we are not working. … an intelligently designed town can easily provide access to the needs and wishes of people in everyday life by public transit, walking, and biking.  The models for these places already exist.  They’re called London, Paris, Amsterdam, Prague, Munich, Oxford, Perugia, and Zurich.

More people are beginning to see this, but there are powerful cultural and economic interests working against such a transformation.  The odds are long, but the stakes are high, and will only get higher the longer we wait.

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2 thoughts on “Homage to JHK

  1. Rich Slimbach on said:

    I join you in praising Kunstler’s laser-sharp and fearless revelations of suburbia’s “shadow side.”

    Kunstler forcefully argues that car culture was imposed on the American public. And it is certainly true that the petroleum, automotive, and road-building industries have exerted enormous political power, especially since WW2, starving rail and public transit infrastructure of funds and systematically foreclosing all other transport options. But thankfully Kunstler doesn’t let us off the hook. He tells us what we don’t want to hear: that we’ve been car crazy quite on our own. We’ve locked ourselves into a “car country,” claiming there is no viable alternative; the only choice we’ve left ourselves is what kind of car to drive.

    Personal experience tells us that cars are not merely seductive; they’re addictive. The cartoon tells it all. Congestion, road rage, air pollution, obesity, depression, fuel prices, and resource wars may continue to increase, but the last thing we question is our “right” to the privacy, comfort, and freedom of the automobile.
    I recently asked a class of 25 undergrads what it would take for them to walk away from their cars. An hour-long commute to a job five miles away? No hands went up. Paying $7 per gallon at the pump? Still no hands. What about $10 per gallon? That got four responses. Incredible. Like you say, for the last seven decades we engineered our surroundings for Happy Motoring (Kunstler’s memorable phrase). Suburban car culture has become a signifier of “progress,” and who doesn’t want progress? (I can think of two communities who don’t—the biotic and the indigenous—but they don’t count.)

    Mumford, for all his genius, once praised the “park-like setting” of suburbs, while denigrating the urban “deterioration of the environment.” But he had it backward. Kunstler reminds us that Manhattan and downtown Paris, London and Shanghai—not suburbia—are the real friends of the environment. Where Mumford was spot-on, though, was about the likelihood of us voluntarily changing our ways. It would take, in his words, “an all-out fatal shock treatment, close to catastrophe, to break the hold of civilized man’s chronic psychosis.” I hope to God he’s wrong again.

    • Rich, thanks for the thoughtful response. I meant the comparison with Mumford primarily as a stylistic analogy, and in his later career, Mumford also leveled a critique of the suburb and the automobile, though it wasn’t as well developed as it might have been. And, to be fair, Mumford’s critique of the city was a critique based on the idea that cities were places where unpleasant industries of the industrial era predominated. He was reacting to the fact that in the city of the late 19th – mid 20th century, nobody would want to live within breathing distance of the Bethlehem Steel Works, the Union Stockyards, or the River Rouge automobile factory. Now that many of those industries (and jobs) have fled, there is an opportunity for more people to live and work in walkable, transit-oriented cities. There is also an opportunity to rethink what the suburb means, (especially in older suburbs) orienting it around walkability, bikeability, and transit. This seems like a no-brainer, but many suburbanites remain too wedded to their cars to envision something different.

      Your survey of undergrads is disappointing, though perhaps not surprising. The turn to the automobile was neither inevitable nor instantaneous, as Historians like Peter Norton and Christopher Wells have shown, and the shift away from cars will probably need to be taken in steps. My own transformation to multimodal commuter began with substituting the bike for one short car trip per week. It gradually grew from there. Five years ago, I couldn’t have imagined walking away from my car, though I can today. Perhaps the question to ask students is “what would it take to get you to leave your car at home one day a week?” (assuming it’s a weekday when they need to get to school/work). That’s an easier task to wrap their minds around, and less daunting to contemplate.

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