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[greenyes] Life
Long and technically off-topic yes; absolutely a must read for any curious
human being: yes, too.


from Orion on-line magazine

Big and Blue in the USA
by James Howard Kunstler

Having just returned from a week in England where, among other things,
walking more than ten yards a day is quite normal, I was once again startled
by the crypto-human land whales waddling down the aisles of my local
supermarket in search of Nabisco Snack-Wells, Wow chips, and other
fraudulent inducements to "diet" by overindulgence in "low-fat"
carbohydrate-laden treats. And they did not look happy.

To say that Americans are shockingly obese is hardly a novel observation,
yet it is discouraging to see so many of your fellow citizens in such a
desperate and unhealthy condition, and I'm sure it is even more discouraging
to be in such a state. Related to this is the recent disclosure that
one-third of all Americans are taking prescribed antidepressant medications,
specifically the SSRIs of the Prozac family (Selective Seratonin Re-uptake
Inhibitors, including Zoloft, Paxil, and Celexa). That's one out of every
three men, women, and children! The American media routinely regard the
scandalous levels of both obesity and emotional distress here with
befuddlement and even indignation, as though it were inexplicable and even
unfair that such a friendly, generous, valiant, humorous, and enterprising
folk as we should be so mysteriously afflicted with The Blues.

Have any reporters noticed how we actually live here in America? With very
few exceptions, our cities are hollowed out ruins. Our towns have committed
ritualized suicide in thrall to the WalMart God. Most Americans live in
suburban habitats that are isolating, disaggregated, and neurologically
punishing, and from which every last human quality unrelated to shopping
convenience and personal hygiene has been expunged. We live in places where
virtually no activity or service can be accessed without driving a car, and
the (usually solo) journey past horrifying vistas of on-ramps and off-ramps
offers no chance of a social encounter along the way. Our suburban
environments have by definition destroyed the transition between the urban
habitat and the rural hinterlands. In other words, we can't walk out of town
into the countryside anywhere. Our "homes," as we have taken to calling mere
mass-produced vinyl boxes at the prompting of the realtors, exist in
settings leached of meaningful public space or connection to civic amenity,
with all activity focused inward to the canned entertainments piped into
giant receivers -- where the children especially sprawl in masturbatory
trances, fondling joysticks and keyboards, engorged on cheez doodles and
taco chips.

We've sunk so much of our national wealth
into a particular way of doing things that we're
psychologically compelled to defend it even
if it drives us crazy and kills us.

Placed in such an environment even a theoretically healthy individual would
sooner or later succumb to the kind of despair and anomie that we have
labeled "depression" in our less than honest attempt to shift the blame for
these predictable responses from our own behavioral choices and national
philosophy to some more random "disease" process. But the misery is
multiplied when these very behavioral choices -- inactivity, isolation, and
overeating sugary foods -- lead to disfiguring obesity on top of despair.
And it must be obvious that I am describing a self-reinforcing feedback loop
that generates evermore personal misery and self-destruction.

Another way of looking at our predicament is as the result of a high entropy
economy -- entropy being provoked by huge "free" energy "inputs" in the form
of a hundred years of cheap oil, and entropy being expressed in forms as
varied as toxic waste, ruined soils, and buildings so remorselessly ugly
that the pain of living with them corrodes our souls. Depression (despair
and anomie) and obesity are as much expressions of high entropy as the
commercial highway strips, the Big Box stores, the housing subdivisions, the
hamburger chains, and all the other accessories of the wished-for drive-in

It doesn't help, of course, that this entropic fiasco of self-reinforcing
feedback loops, and diminishing returns have been labeled the American
Dream -- because neither patriotism nor all the Prozac in the world will
immunize us from the consequences of our own behavior, our foolish choices,
and our self-destructive beliefs. This particular American Dream more and
more looks suspiciously like a previous investment trap -- we've sunk so
much of our national wealth into a particular way of doing things that we're
psychologically compelled to defend it even if it drives us crazy and kills

It was interesting to note over in England how many people were out enjoying
themselves in the public realm, with other people. By public realm I mean in
the streets, the cafes, the pubs, the parks, the riverside promenades and
other places explicitly designed for humans to enact their hard-wired social
proclivities. Everywhere I went in Oxford, Cambridge, and London I was
amazed at the hordes of young people so obviously enjoying the company of
groups of their friends, and what a contrast this was to the current culture
back home where you hardly ever see anything but a couple, or perhaps two
couples, out in a bar or restaurant, and where the Starbucks cafes are
filled with solitary individuals, and the streets are for cars only, usually
with lone occupants. It was also startling in England to see groups of old
people walking together in the streets or sitting on a blanket in the park,
because in America old people have been conditioned to go about outside of
home only in cars. Today's older Americans have spent their entire lives in
a car-obsessed culture in which walking is seen as uncomfortable at least
and at worst socially stigmatizing, something only winos do.

In Europe, people make 33% of their trips by foot or bicycle, compared with
9.4% for Americans. American suburbanites weigh on average 6 pounds more
than their counterparts in walkable cities. They have higher blood pressure,
are more susceptible to diabetes, and live two years fewer on average than
Europeans. Pedestrians in the US are three times more likely to be killed in
traffic than in Germany, six times more likely than in Holland. Bicyclists
here are twice as likely to be killed in traffic than Germans, three times
as likely as Dutch.

Statistics hardly tell the whole story, though. The emotional toll of the
American Dream is steep. What we see all over our nation is a situational
loneliness of the most extreme kind; and it is sometimes only recognizable
in contrast to the ways that people behave in other countries. Any culture,
after all, is an immersive environment, and I suspect that most Americans
are unaware of how socially isolated they are among the strip malls and the
gated apartment complexes. Or, to put it another way, of what an effort it
takes to put themselves in the company of other people.

This pervasive situational loneliness, of being stuck alone in your car,
alone in your work cubicle, alone in your apartment, alone at the
supermarket, alone at the video rental shop -- because that's how American
daily life has come to be organized -- is the injury to which the insult of
living in degrading, ugly, frightening, and monotonous surroundings is
added. Is it any wonder that Americans resort to the few things available
that afford even a semblance of contentment: eating easily obtainable and
cheap junk food and popping a daily dose of Paxil or Prozac to stave off
feelings of despair that might actually be a predictable response to
settings and circumstances of our lives? (I'd add pornography to the list
also, a substitute for sex with other real people who cannot be accessed in
the condition of pervasive situational loneliness).

How depressing.

If it's any consolation, I repeat what I have said in this space in previous
rants: that we are headed into a social and economic maelstrom so severe, as
the people on this earth contest over the remaining oil and gas supplies,
that everything about contemporary life in America will have to be
rearranged, reorganized, reformed, and re-scaled. The infrastructure of
suburbia just won't work without utterly dependable supplies of reliably
cheap oil and natural gas. No combination of alternative fuels or energy
systems will permit us to run what we are currently running, or even close
to it. The vaunted hydrogen economy is, at this stage, a complete fantasy,
and at the very least there is going to be an interlude of severe disorder
and economic discontinuity between the unwinding of the cheap oil age and
anything that might plausibly follow it.

We will be driving a lot less than we do now and cars will generally be a
diminished presence in our lives. The automakers and the oil companies can
lobby all they like, but history has a velocity of its own, and it is taking
us into uncharted territory where the GM Yukons and Ford Excursions will be
useless. When the suburbs tank, they will go down hard and fast. The loss of
hallucinated wealth is going to shock us to our socks, and the fight over
the table scraps of the 20th century is liable to entail a lot of political
mischief here in the USA.

The physical arrangements for daily living will have to be revised and
re-ordered accordingly. We're going to have to return to traditional human
habitats: towns, villages, cities, and agricultural landscapes. We will have
to walk out of necessity, or at least ride some places with other people. We
may be too busy to indulge in the blandishments of television and the other
entertainment narcotics we've become addicted to, and even the Internet may
be made irrelevant in a world of regular brownouts. We may have to grow more
of our food closer to home and do some of the physical work ourselves. As
far as I know, there is no such thing as a Cheez Doodle bush. We are going
to be living a lot more locally and thrown on our own resources.

We're going to have to do this whether we like it or not, because
circumstances will compel us to. There may be a lot of hardship and
difficulty, but in the process we are going to get some things back that we
threw away in our foolish attempt to become a drive-in civilization. And
most of these things we get back will have to do with living on more
intimate terms with other people, getting more regular exercise, eating
better food, leading more purposeful lives, and rediscovering the public
realm that is the dwelling place of our collective spirit. Paradoxically,
when that happens fewer of us will need Prozac or the Atkins diet.

Copyright 2003 Orion Society. Reprint requests may be directed to

Peter Anderson
4513 Vernon Blvd. Suite 15
Madison, WI 53705
Ph:    (608) 231-1100
Fax:   (608) 233-0011
Cell    (608) 438-9062
email: anderson@no.address

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