Monday, March 17, 2008

The end of the auto culture? … and a time for glee?

   Last week I wrote about the creep of auto-based residential land use into Europe.  This week I give time to the opposite viewpoint –- in particular, to one of the latest manifestos of James Howard Kunstler, Scourge of the Suburbs.  In an excerpt from his new book, “Thrillcraft: The Environmental Consequences of Motorized Recreation,” Kunstler predicts that the death of the auto-based culture is at hand, and calls for rethinking our policies and our lifestyles to handle the change.
Freeway    Of the most remarkable features of the opinions of Kunstler and his ilk is the almost palpable glee with which the end of the dominant American land use culture is predicted.  You do not hear this sort of emotion from more polished critics of suburbia, who call for changes in land use laws as much out of necessity as out of a desire to protect the environment and improve society.  But not Kunstler, who misses no opportunity to pummel the motor-propelled objects of his derision.
   Among other things, he blames the auto-obsessed culture –- as reflected in NASCAR –- in large part on the insecurity of the U.S. South over its poor sister status in the early 20th century, and the opportunities that cars gave southerners to improve their status in the later half of that century.   
   I might have gone further with the sociological argument and extended it to the SUV boom of the 1990s, which was not a southern-driven phenomenon.  As the United States became more crowded, and as lifestyles became more sedentary in the late 20th century, the once-alluring ideal of the sports car appealed less and less to young men (who had fewer palaces to speed and feel the adrenaline rush); its place was taken by an obsession with sheer size and comfort (as reflected in McMansions as well) and gadgets –- features offered by the SUV, which looks very impressive indeed stuck at the light on the way to Home Depot.
   Is Kunstler correct in predicting the imminent decline of this culture and a revival of pre-auto small-town values?  Only time… and perhaps the chemists feverishly at work trying to fashion petroleum alternatives … will tell …

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