Okay, the long-awaited, much-anticipated happy ending, or where Kunstler gets it wrong. James Howard Kunstler, with his highly acerbic wit, has been foretelling The Long Emergency for some time now. And for the most part, I think he has cause and effect pretty well nailed. Where I think he errs is in predicting the demise of suburbia -- wishful thinking on his part. Kunstler hates the suburbs, sees them as an ugly blight on America and an affront to his sense of esthetics. Ugly they may be, but ugliness is not a fatal flaw, not even for boxes of ticky-tacky.
Kunstler assumes that with happy motoring a relic of the past, suburbanites will be forced to flee – either to the more densely populated urban centers or to walkable small towns. While I agree small town life will soar to the top of the hit parade, why would anyone want to relocate to the city? If we do have a break-down in the supply chain, densely populated areas would be hardest hit and more than likely to experience civil unrest, aka ‘get yer guns out boys and let’s have us a looting spree!’ Cities are where black-outs and brown-outs are most likely to trap people in unlivable circumstances and where potentially unsanitary conditions could lead to epidemic. Why would someone living in their own home in a friendly suburb want to uproot and move into chaos? Okay, so maybe the bank actually owns the home and the neighbors aren’t all that friendly, but those are details that can be managed by the resourceful suburbanite.
As I see it, Joe Suburban loses his job. Wifey is still employed but the income is stretched really thin. The kids have to quit the soccer team and karate lessons – gas is too expensive to waste on unnecessary jaunts – but they have dusted off their skateboards and everyone knows to look out for them when they turn into the cul-de-sac. Joe is actively looking for work but with unemployment figures climbing Mt Everest, he is doubtful of finding anything soon. But he can grow a few vegetables in the meantime. Hey, the Obamas have dug up the White House lawn, why not do the same? Soon his front yard tomato patch is one of many on the street. Suzie next door has chickens but no one is telling code enforcement. Suzie is sharing the eggs with neighbors and who knew she had such a killer recipe for blueberry crumble? Tom down the block is being foreclosed upon but the bank is telling him to stay where he is and pay what and when he can. Better to have Tom and kin in the house than another vacant home no one will buy. Mary’s kids have moved back home and her house is a bit crowded, but they’re finding ways to adjust. When the out-of-work gather in the streets to talk economy, the question du jour is ‘how bad will it get?’ Consensus is that it could get really, really bad. No one is spending money on video games or electronic gadgets any more. Every extra dollar goes towards stocking the pantry with staples. Oprah recommends having a three-month supply of food on hand and people are taking her advice. She is Oprah after all.
When Wal-Mart’s shelves start looking bare, the tomato patch becomes a full-fledged garden. The Dervaes family of Pasadena is the new American Idol. There is hunger in suburbia, but not starvation; old Mrs. Applebee can’t get out and garden anymore, but the neighbors take turns bringing her meals. In return, she’s sharing her Depression Era knowledge of how to prepare cabbage a hundred different ways. When gas rationing becomes a reality, Mrs. Suburban can no longer get to work clear across town, so she and Joe turn their garage into a family business. Joe was always good at tinkering so he starts a little repair shop and his wife is cutting hair. Suzie, next door, is running a bakery. Mary, with the houseful of grandkids, puts all those kids on bikes and is running a fetch-and-deliver service; there aren’t many cars on the streets anymore, so traffic isn’t a problem for the two-wheelers. Zoning laws are being ignored with impunity and code enforcement hasn’t been seen in years. There are occasional disputes among neighbors but a newly formed neighborhood council is hearing complaints and people pretty much abide by their decisions.
Not everything is Green Acres meets Leave it to Beaver. Times are tough. People are making do and doing without. The weather is playing havoc, flooding some and leaving others burned out in extended drought. In places where the growing season is short, people are finding it difficult to store up enough food to make it through the winter. Pigeon pie has become a new favorite though some prefer roast squirrel, and venison stew solves the browsing deer problem. Armed gangs make occasional forays out into the suburbs, but not like they used to. Wonder if they’ve all killed each other off?
With all the hardship, one would think people would be bitter and angry. Well, some are. There are those who sit around and moan all day about the good old days and how easy it was back then. But for the most part, people are finding they enjoy their lives more than they ever did. There is a new energy in America, a new sense of purpose. People are finding clever ways to recycle discarded junk into useful new items. Kids are playing in the streets when they’re not being home-schooled or picking peas. Mom brings her homebrew to the nightly neighborhood pot-luck and Dad is helping the next-door neighbor create swales in her garden. The empty house at the end of the block has become a civic center; everyone donated extra tools, cooking utensils, sewing supplies and books to its lending library. When advertising dried up, television went off the air, and the internet is down, but radio has enjoyed a new surge in popularity. Oh, it’s not the commercial radio of a few years back, this is people in their garages giving the local news, relaying messages to loved ones in distant places, reading recipes and putting on talent shows. The electrical grid has become unreliable but people are generating their own power with windmills made from parts salvaged from the dump. It’s not 24 hour power, but it’s enough to get by. And it’s not the America we thought we were getting when we were saving to send our kids to college and putting our money in 401K's, but it’s an America of amazingly resourceful, innovative, caring people who have risen to the challenge of their times and have been pleasantly surprised by life without widescreen TV’s and morning commutes.
Okay, that’s the happy ending I’ve managed to eke from where I see us headed. Of course, I could be wrong. Actually, I know I’m wrong. The future always has a joker to play – the one thing no one foresaw, the one thing that changed everything. No one ever gets it right. But maybe I’m close. And maybe not.