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Salmagundi (Fall 2006, No. 152), the quarterly journal of humanities and social sciences of Skidmore ... - page 2 / 6





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everything ever built in America – will drastically lose its usefulness and its relative “market” value. What’s more, the discontinuities-to-come in the global energy picture will pose challenges so severe to industrial society that we will be lucky to salvage anything resembling civilized life altogether.

It is necessary to insert right here that, contrary to a lot of wishful thinking and techgnostic wool-gathering rampant these days, no combination of alternative fuels or systems for using them will allow us to run America the way we currently run it, or even a substantial fraction of it. We are not going to run Wal-Mart, Walt Disney World, and the interstate highway system on hydrogen, coal synfuels, tar sand or oil shale distillates, bio-diesel, ethanol, recycled french-fry oil, solar electricity, wind power, or nuclear fission. The stark truth of the situation is that we are simply going to have to make other arrangements – and I’m sorry to have to repeat that this will be the case whether we like it or not. Suburbia will be coming off the menu. We will no longer be able to resort to the stupid argument that it is okay because we chose it.

Another very troubling aspect of Bruegmann’s book is that his statistical salvos fail to address altogether the many questions of quality and character in our everyday environments. The sad truth is that most of America has come to be composed of places that are not worth caring about, and they may eventually (if not already) add up to a nation not worth defending, or a culture not worth carrying on. You can cite the population figures and density trend lines all day long and never come to the conclusion that Hackensack, New Jersey, has become a soul-sapping sinkhole of auto-centric crap with strikingly poor prospects for maintaining its value or utility in the not-too-distant future. When it is convenient, Bruegmann claims that the statistical analysis of his opponents fails to tell the story correctly. He writes:

"We can use the Chicago area as a typical example. For years, sprawl opponents trumpeted the “fact” that between 1970 and 1990 the metropolitan area grew in population by only 4 percent, but grew in land by 46 percent. This kind of statistic, juxtaposed with a photograph of a new subdivision under construction in a cornfield conjures up images of a juggernaut moving inexorably across the countryside, flattening farms and forest, replacing country roads with highways lined with wall-to-wall strip centers and an endless sprawl of large lot subdivisions. . . . Even if the figures were accurate, they would not necessarily represent a crisis. There is no shortage of land in Illinois."

All this promiscuous marshalling of statistics really demonstrates is that the story is hardly about statistics anymore than it is about the magical operations of markets or the wonders of democracy. The appropriate lesson of the sprawl era is that societies can make extremely unfortunate collective decisions, and the losses incurred are irreversible. This is really the central conflict between the sprawl champions and those of us who do not view sprawl as any kind of boon. Sprawl is, and always has been, to put it as plainly as possible, a living arrangement with no future – and to regard it as anything else is a disservice to our fate.


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