Jim Kunstler tells a story about being told a story:
An acquaintance told me a weird story yesterday. Let's call him "E." He runs an Internet consulting company here in Saratoga Springs. It employs about twenty-five people in a downtown building E put up a few years ago.Meanwhile, over at Balloon Juice, Tim revisits Jared Diamond’s latest.
Last month a freak windstorm ripped through here and took down the electric power for three days. E lost communication with the payroll service (a separate company) that issues his employee's salaries. The storm happened in the middle of the day, Friday, payday.
The power came back on Sunday night, and on Monday two of E's employees each asked for private meetings with the boss. Because of the storm, they said, the payroll company had failed to make electronic salary deposits in their checking accounts. They were concerned because they were late on their mortgage payments and without the past week's electronic paycheck, they couldn't pay their mortgages.
E told me that these were "high-level employees" with substantial salaries who were both living in "very high-end homes," which around here would mean around a half-million dollars (and I know that in some parts of the US, like Washington, DC, or San Francisco, a half-million barely gets you a "pre-owned" raised ranch). He said he was shocked to discover that his executives were living from paycheck to paycheck, in houses that by normal criteria (i.e. pre-bubble standards) they probably couldn't afford.
I first encountered Kunstler while suffering from a near-post-adolescent infatuation with The New Urbanism. I’ve recovered somewhat; I’m far too big an aesthete and fan of great modern and contemporary architecture to buy into the stylistic atavism that always seems to accompany New Urbanists. Is it possible to combine sustainable, mixed-use, community-fostering planning with innovative design? Yes. The Spanish certainly seem good at it, if recent history is any indication. (The US . . . not so much. Look at the godawful mess in lower Manhattan, where the only thing that anyone seems able to agree on is that whatever gets built will be shitty, but at least there’ll be a shopping mall.)
But the obsessions of New Urbanism are still near to my heart. I’m a proponent of urban living and, to the extent possible, a proponent of regional agricultures. That’s partly because I’m a fag (urban) and a foodie (the other thing). It’s partly because I believe communitarian values necessary to civil society are best fostered by relatively high population densities, whereas good land-use policies are best fostered by giving actual farmers and ranchers vested interests in long-term methods of sustainable agriculture. I’m speaking in generalities here, but you get the picture.
Anyway, the intersection between Kunstler’s tale and Jared Diamond’s Necromonicon of Most Disapperèd Civilizations occurs way out in the David Brooksian exurbs, where despite a few recent news pieces on shrinking houses, Americans go on building farther and bigger, not entirely unlike the Easter Islanders, who, Diamond explains, competed to erect the biggest monuments until, in pursuit of that preposterous end, they chopped down every goddamn tree on their island. Then they all died.
Ours is a more complex society, of course, and larger. If our collapse comes (there are days I suspect it’s already here), it will occur all around us and in slow motion—over the course of decades and perhaps centuries. It will come as a result of the bizarrely concurrent extenuation and super-sizing of the physical America, in which the bonds that tie us together as a polity are worn ever-thinner by our sheer distance from one another, even as distance and size necessitate endless increases in our rapacity for resources and fuels. I don’t mean to sound Malthusian, and I recognize that technological innovation has in the past mitigated what seemed like coming environmental or demographic doom. But let’s be frank: technological progress is neither infinite nor assured, and our rate of consumption clearly outpaces our rate of invention at present.
Meanwhile, Kevin Phillips recently appeared with Lou Dobbs and made a very interesting, very scary comparison:
[I]f you look at two previous leading world economic powers, Britain, 100 years ago, and the Dutch after New Amsterdam […] In each case what happened was an erosion of actually making things, as the society shifted towards trading things and moving money around and all of that sort of stuff.So David Brooks et al. ("an elite that is then a vested set of interests?") can happy-talk all they want about how exurban McMansionism is the first true re-expansion of the American identity since Frederick Jackson Turner pronounced the frontier closed, and E.’s execs can keep living mortgage-payment to mortgage-payment in those McMansions, and George W. Bush can pronounce at a press conference that Americans’ household net worth is now higher than it has ever been (largely based, one presumes, on part-ownership of those very soon-to-be-un-salable McMansions).
Once you start to make that transition, there doesn't seem to be any way to go back because you create an elite that is then a set of vested interest[s] in the new way of doing things. And they don't much care whether or not they're still making steel in Sheffield, or in Pittsburgh.
Frankly, I don’t like the odds . . . or the resemblances.