Prophets of Doom, Disasters
Now when I read critics who suggest that suburban life is doomed, or that our cities need to be rebuilt, or that we must alter our relationship to nature, I hear echoes of earlier writers who felt that events were out of our control, and that we would be left scrambling in the ruins of our civilization. My grade school and high school years were spent in the shadow of the Cold War. It was a time of growing prosperity with an underlying fear of total destruction. As a reader of science fiction, I had that fear reinforced by stories and novels of a post-disaster world. The disasters were usually nuclear war but some were biological. These stories moved against the triumphalism of those more common science fiction stories where American technological heros spread capitalism throughout the galaxy. Today's critics usually do not predict universal war. But wars and rumors of war are not that far away when discussing global rivalries over resources.
Most of those earlier post-disaster novels imagined us reverting to closed communities separated by large distances. Often the plots brought these communities into conflict with one another. Some stories envisioned the loss of civilization and its radical re-founding. In dozens of stories the hero or heroine in a tribal setting discovers remnants of the older and richer world. In some stories the hero or the heroine manages to start the climb back to civilization. In Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, technological advance returns but brings only more conflict and new disasters. In George Stewart's Earth Abides, after a mysterious disease kills most of humanity, scattered survivors struggle to maintain knowledge of history, culture, and technology, but their children cannot hold it, and revert to tribalism and mythology.
Today some argue we are headed for collapse. Others argue that though we will have to innovate and change in many ways, we will avoid collapse and be better off in the long run. Still others argue that technological fixes can keep something like our present way of life going indefinitely. In these debates many suggest that suburban life is doomed.
Among peak oil writers who preach the end of our current way of life, James Howard Kunstler is one of the most eloquent. He sees the path to other energy sources blocked by our dependence on oil for manufacturing and transport. He predicts a regress toward simpler modes of living and traveling. In The Long Emergency Kunstler suggests that our widespread networks will collapse, cities will shrink and suburbs will either become deserted wastelands or will reinvent themselves as self-sufficient towns. In his novels World Made By Hand and its sequel he envisions life in a small town that has lost contact with the wide world and its products. Kunstler and others with him at times seem to long for old rural cooperative living arrangements, and a technological regression to slower, simpler time.
”Peter Golden: …. I guess my question here is,...one would almost have the feeling that you think more would be gained by this kind of life than lost. Would that be accurate? James Howard Kunstler: Yes. What the people in my fictional town are gaining and what they're losing are things that I think Americans sense very deeply but maybe don’t know how to articulate. They're losing a lot of comfort, maybe, convenience, but they’re gaining so much more in personal relations with the people who live around them, and the depth of those relationships. They’re working with people they know on things that matter directly to their everyday life and to their ability to survive. And it’s just a much more directly experienced world than the mediated secondhand experienced world that they have left behind.” (from an interview)
At a further extreme Dmitry Orlov claims that we should learn from the experience of post-Soviet Russia how to scramble for subsistence when the social order collapses. John Robb argues that large scale political and economic networks may not break but they will become increasingly unreliable as technological advances and black economies empower criminal/terror/factional groups who profit from attacking these crucial transport and power networks. He sees our larger institutions as more and more hollowed out, and recommends building up resilient local communities with multiple informal and flexible connections.
On the other side there are technological optimists proclaiming the new networked society, global linkage, immediate access, the wisdom of crowds, and technical fixes for new problems. I am working between those two poles, suggesting that the technology and patterns from the one might moderate the other.
The most optimistic visions see oil price rises as stimulating scientific and social innovation. Strong optimists argue that technology can enable something like our current urban and suburban modes of life to continue and grow. If our use of energy seems wasteful, new sources can be found that will increase energy in an environmentally responsible way, perhaps by better nuclear energy, perhaps by collecting solar energy in space, perhaps in ways we don't yet know. If we need new kinds of transport, we will invent them. If our continued expansion threatens to hurt the environment, we can work to reengineer the planet and its atmosphere. Stewart Brand argues that we have no choice but play gods.
[Climate change is] actually a world-sized problem that will take world sized solutions that involves forms of governance we don't have yet. It involves technologies we are just glimpsing. It involves what ecologists call ecosystem engineering. Beavers do it, earthworms do it. They don't usually do it at a planetary scale. We have to do it at a planetary scale. A lot of sentiments and aesthetics of the environmental movement stand in the way of that. (Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline, xx).
Technological innovation of a less global kind underlies the two Ecotopia books by Ernest Callenbach, which combine a vision of ecological disorders with an optimism about our ability to develop large and small green technologies and new social arrangements. The books envision communities that are not like like older cities or suburbs. Our current modes of living change, and the new green technologies and new social patterns help create a more balanced partnering with the natural systems around us. This vision might include new sources of power and new modes of transport, with the image of playing god replaced by one of controlled, balanced interaction.
I've wondered for a long time about how our contemporary ways of living and thinking relate to traditional centered hierarchical modes of life. With a lifelong interest in architecture and urban planning, I see talking about cities and suburbs as a way to bring my abstract philosophical concerns about new kinds of unity and connection down to earth. At an abstract level this concerns different conceptual schemes and philosophical systems, so I’ve written history and analyses of those. The clash of tradition and modern also brings new kinds of art and writing, so I've studied new modes of non-linear writing. More concretely, this clash concerns ways of building, assigning space, and making communities, so I have written about architecture and about new kinds of places and how we might find ways of living amid new kinds of connections and unities.
My philosophical upbringing was divided between a love for Plato's search for unchanging foundations, and an increasing appreciation of the dynamics of change, seen in Aristotle, Hegel, Whitehead, and contemporary French and German thinkers. Plato deplored social and intellectual change, and sought refuge in the certainties of mathematics and a timeless metaphysics. But he knew well the inevitability of change in our world, and in his more practical works he sought ways to guide and control change. On the other hand Hegel and Whitehead and the recent French thinkers rejoiced to see unexpected revolutionary alterations but also sought to understand the background ontological dynamics that made change possible and inevitable.
Part of the excitement of philosophy is understanding how an innocent sounding question or a new concept can shake previously taken for granted presuppositions. Huge architectures of ideas and social practices may become questionable. Such change may be felt as a threat or as a liberation. This may lead to a desire to defend an intellectual or social system against such shocks, or it can lead to an eagerness for new perspectives that alter our ways of thinking and valuing. I think the latter attitude is more realistic since change is unavoidable.
This writing project began as a reaction to those who think that suburbia will die because of its dependence on oil and fragile networks of distribution. I was wondering to what extent communication and transport networks could be maintained in a situation where oil was absent or expensive, and where high-tech devices were increasingly difficult to operate. I wanted to present a moderately optimistic picture and argue that the maintenance of far-flung connections could be a way of enriching life even as it changed. Technology supports those connections, whether that technology is the internet or a steamboat or a horse. Link and networks can allow the complexity of life to be maintained even if the circumstances of living became more difficult.
It is fashionable to condemn globalization and communications media for encouraging hyper-consumerism and dumping endless crap into our lives. It is true that transportation and communication networks can deliver junk and spam and seductive advertisements for wasteful products. But those same networks can make our lives richer and more complex and more self-aware. It is not the connections and the networks that are the problem. The more flow the better, as long as we have good filters and informed choices. If in some of the scenarios below, those connections become strained and slow, then perhaps we realize their importance.
In the Sprawling Places book and website, I had argued that contemporary places such as suburban sprawl are more humanly complex than their architectural forms and layouts show. The spatial repetition and banal architecture of suburbia hide linkages across communication and transportation and social networks. Also, the social norms and patterns people live by are becoming more diverse even in suburbia, and not always in harmonious ways. I argued that architectural interventions and social changes could make suburban places more complex, humane, and self-aware. Many of those suggestions, however, relied upon transportation and the Internet, so they presumed that those networks would be active. Now I am asking how much that complexity could survive if our basic technologies of transport and communication were threatened.
(Continue to Scenarios: Worries)