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Thu

22

Nov

2007

Formerly Normal - James Howard Kunstler
Thursday, 22 November 2007 22:21
by James Howard Kunstler

Venturing into the rural outlands of the upstate New York counties these days, you see new houses everywhere in what was, until about the 1970s, mostly farm country. Almost all of them are stand-alone houses; there are very few multiple-unit subdivisions up here, a la the vast beige housing monocultures found in the sunbelt. But they seem no less tragic to me.

These new houses all follow the "normal" programming of their time — a time that is stealthily ending. The program is as follows: Each house occupies an out-parcel of an acre or so of what used to be a farm or a woodlot. The house is set in the middle of the plot, surrounded by an apron of decorative foundation shrubs and grass lawn. The scheme derives from the English idea of "a manor in a park." You can tell, because if trees remain (or get planted) on the lawn, they are always deployed arbitrarily, never in formal rows, as the French would do it. The idea is that every homeowner is the "lord of the manor."

Of course, a major feature of this is the asphalt pad-and-driveway where the household stores (and not incidentally displays) its collection of cars, one for each adult family member plus "training" models for the adolescent offspring. This part of the package is indispensable, the umbilicus that connects the household to all the necessities of life, from paychecks to Slim Fast bars. Its continuation is assumed. In fact, the value of the house depends on that assumption.

The appeal of this program is obvious in the consumer-democracy of recent times. The stupendous aggregate wealth ginned up at the climax of the cheap energy fiesta made everyone an aristocrat. As Tom Wolfe has pointed out, the average American roofer or insurance adjuster of these times has enjoyed a more comfortable life than Louis XIV. They certainly bathe more regularly, in sumptuous vinyl tubs, with motor-drive water jets, and possess refrigerated larders of delicacies from thousands of miles away (not to mention access to colonoscopies and periodontics).

This luxurious life is a fragile thing, though. The fragility is actually expressed in the houses themselves, which are uniformly constructed from materials that would not seem to have a glorious destiny: wood-chips, glue, and vinyl. Anyone who visits the Palatine Hill in Rome must be impressed by the way stone blocks and masonry walls melt away over time. Imagine what would happen to a box made of chip-board over fir studs after a few decades of poor maintenance. You can even state categorically that the vinyl cladding was not designed to be maintained, only replaced. And in as much as vinyl siding is made from petroleum byproducts, one can easily foresee future replacement problems.

There are also the things that you can't see: the furnaces and the mortgages. The expectation that it will be possible to get affordable heating oil or propane gas a decade or so into the future must be considered, shall we say, a crap shoot at best — and in the climate of upstate New York, that can't be reassuring. As for the mortgages, we already know what is happening to them — like the "transformer" entities of the movies, they are morphing into monsters that destroy everything in their path.

I guess what really gets me about these houses popping up in the former cornfields and meadows is that the owners have absolutely no idea what a problem they are creating for themselves and their families (and their society), especially now as we move into a critical period of post-peak-oil instability. It's both poignant and pathetic, and a little disgusting. Their expectations are plain to see: that the life of luxury and incessant mobility is so assured that they can invest everything, even their anticipated future earnings, to enjoy all that the program had to offer. But they have tragically missed the fact that the program has changed.

Of course, I am aware that my ability to venture easily into the outlands of Washington County, New York, is not something that I can take for granted much longer. A year or so from now, I may have to plan ahead, even make sacrifices, to travel so distantly from where I live. In the meantime, I wonder with the keenest curiosity what is going through the minds of the people who dwell out there. Surely they've noticed that gasoline is $3.25. One can easily imagine the granite countertop in the kitchen where the bills are piling up, the frightening invoices from Master Card and Discovery, along with dunning letters from the company that "services" the mortgage. One can imagine the feelings of despondency creeping up the veins of the household lord and his lady as they contemplate the distress sale of their motorboat, jet skis, snowmobiles, and RV — and the futility even of trying.

I think we are entering a time when what has seemed utterly normal to us will suddenly appear alien and threatening. If there was ever a recipe for an extreme social response, this will be it. As the poet said, the center cannot hold.
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mjosef said:

0
Kuntsler Eyes Washington County Real Estate - Plans Dirt-Track Racing
Okay, so my title is misleading. So is his record of his sneers as he went around my area of domicile.
First, Mr. Kuntlser said he didn't want to live in no damn suburb. Fine, so what about the former farmland of Washington County, an impoverished landscape of natural beauty? Well, the people are just so stupid, he says. They leave their shit around all over the place, and by the look of them, they can't even tell one Beethoven sonata from the other. So now what - where can Mr. Kuntsler lay his head and his hard-won royalties?
We are all products and prisoners of the inherited supersystem, which is the arrangement of all the traditions and forces of our institutions. As humans, we will consume the energy that is available to us, and if we destroy, it is because it becomes logical within that supersystem to do so. That is not too pedantic, is it? It is not individual choice that makes our world - it is the workings of the nearly unalterable supersystem.
My wife and I moved into an existing house in Washington County, and so our moral record, as compiled by Mr. Kuntsler for his great God in the sky, is damn well spotless. Oh, only on this and a few green initiatives, my wife and I, though we lack the money to buy the real green indulgences that would buy us the freedom to consume without guilt, are certified for approval by the world's morality arbiter, Mr. Kuntsler. However, just like him, just like all of our fine progressive, Atlantic Free Press brethren, we are complicit on so many other levels of connection to the perpetuation of the planetary holocaust. Kunstler writes books; books haven't stopped Hitler and now Bush from getting power. The farms that used to provide the agrarian life of Washignton County have been burned by the forces of corporate capitalism to which Mr. Kuntlser pays his taxes to. The shoes on his feet, and on my feet, are made by modern-day slaves. The formerly obscenely rich have gotten to the level of foie gras richness despite the existence of Mr. Kuntlser, and the existence of me. He cannot live anywhere that will not stand on the corruptions of history, the degradations of the devolving present, and on the lamentable sufferings that are surely to come in his and my and our lifetimes. We are each but one individual, each gifted with the magnificent prefrontal cortex, but imprisoned by the solitary nature of our lowly, enmeshed, practically minute selves. Mr. Kuntlser seems to enjoy scolding the individuals of Washington County for their heedless lives; better to blame the supersystem, which we have only the slightest chance of altering for the better. I am going out to try to enjoy my day in the gorgeous environ of Washignton County, New York, despite my nihilism; Mr. Kuntsler is going to dip into his vat of bile in the fetid, shopper's world air of Saratoga Springs, New York - so who's the visionary?
 
November 23, 2007
Votes: +0

Jimmy Montague said:

Jimmy Montague
Yuppies and dopes.
Sometimes I think yuppie came out of the so-called drug war. Neanderthal drug laws ran the price of dope up so high that people had to get careers in order to afford quality dope. I remember when, down along the Mexican border, we used to get four-finger bags of Panama Red for $10. Then the DEA came along and all of a sudden the price of pot went to $50 for a weighed ounce (one finger) of not-very-good shit. Smokers used to be happy with a bag of brown Mexican reefer, a bottle of Strawberry Hill and a sack of potato chips. All of a sudden we were bowled over by people who affected a taste for Colombian pot, "good" wine and imported cheese. And by DEA agents.

I really don't know how it all happened, even though I watched it happen, and I watched the people I partied with change until I didn't want to party with them any more. I started smoking pot because I learned that people at pot parties were smart and hip and heavily into alternatives. I quit smoking pot when I found myself immersed in the same commercial culture I had rejected before I came to the party. For a while I smoked a 69-cent corncob pipe in the midst of a crowd who smoked hundred-dollar bongs.

Since that epiphany, I've watched in horrified fascination while the sequels play out around me. The power of mainstream commercial culture to me seems simply stupefying. I cannot speak for Jim Kunstler; it's not my place to defend him; but I think I understand some of his thinking because I think he is like me in some ways.

I hate the things, the ways of doing and being, the policies, the systems, the ideologies that rape the planet and kill people. I'm frustrated by my inability to change things and by my seeming inability to avoid participation in some aspects of the system, to stop or to get off of what I know is a runaway train. I keep waiting for the rest of the passengers to wake up to the situation; I'm sure that by working together we could be effective, but I can't draw their attention to the fact that we're headed for a train wreck if we don't do something collectively.

So I write and occasionally publish criticism. I write to Congress. I sign petitions and sometimes, outside of a shopping mall, I ask the public to sign petitions as they walk in to buy their iphones and their digital cameras. Sometimes they do sign -- but I get the feeling they forget about signing before their signatures are dry, and I KNOW that the signers don't think of themselves as I think of them and of myself, as participants, as abettors of planetary disaster. In times when I'm most frustrated, I feel like some sort of post-modern Cassandra, a gifted storm-crow to whom nobody listens. At my lowest, a certain meanness gets hold of my mind and I blame others for being unable to do for themselves what I cannot do for my own self.

Twenty-five hundred years ago a Greek said that the unexamined life isn't worth living. Today we might say that self-knowledge is hard work that few are willing (or equipped) to undertake.

I live in a room full of books in a shack along the Wapsipinicon River. I heat the place with a small wood stove. I drive a rusty old, 4-cylinder Chevy pickup when I drive at all -- which isn't often. If my head is in the right place, I'm content with the fact that when I leave the planet, the footprints I've left here will be mighty small indeed. If my head is in the wrong place, I want a shiny new Porsche and a lot more books. And I know that whatever happens to the rest of you won't be MY fault and damn you all to hell for wrecking the joint without my permission.

The Sixties are definitely over and, no matter how much I hope for it, the American people will never wake up to the fact that we were on the right road back then. I've grown my hair back to remind them of the fact. If you're unhappy with the situation you're in when the train jumps the track, suck it up, assholes. And thanks, Jim Kunstler, for another good essay.
 
November 23, 2007
Votes: +0

The Wendigo said:

0
mjosef sounds paranoid
I don't recall Kunstler singling out mjosef or anyone. What is mjosef defending so strenuously? What guilt resides in his noggin, in his heart?

Anyone who's ever read Kunstler knows that he's been on this theme for MANY years and I haven't ever read anything by Kunstler which would be fairly read as "sneering" or attacking or derogating anything that isn't destructive, negative or cancerous already, without any input from Kunstler.

I guess what I'm saying is, I've read a fair amount of Kunstler's writing and quite a few of mjosef's comments, and I come away wondering what in Hell mjosef reads that gives him the conclusions he's drawing. It's surely not Kunstler. It's likely some bizarre interpretive problem, with mjosef imagining Kunstler to be something he's not.

Most distrubing to me is how mjosef seeks to make excuses for our situation and then he throws up his hands and simply gives in, saying it's too big for anyone individually. These are the thoughts of a robot who hasn't begun to grasp his human faculties.
 
November 26, 2007
Votes: +0

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