James Howard Kunstler: Time to get off the hamster-wheel of futility
Even if the so-called economy were recovering, the people of the USA would be stuck in a physical setting for daily life that has no future – the nightmare infrastructure of subdivision houses, strip malls, and WalMarts, all rigged up for incessant motoring.
Of course, the so-called economy is not recovering because there is no more cheap oil. If oil ever gets cheap again, it will be because nobody has enough money to pay for it and surely you can connect the dots to what that hamster wheel of futility means.
In fact, the heart of our economic predicament is that the American economy came to be based on the construction of ever more suburban stuff, the financing of which, especially the houses, became the fodder for an episode of epic swindles that has left our banking system a hollowed out shell of accounting fraud. In short, we built even more stuff with no future, and ruined our society in the process. How tragic is that?
The behavioral habits, practices, and consequences of being stuck in that living arrangement may end up being at least as problematic as the physical residue of it. It has left the people in a network of alienation, anxiety, and misery that defeats exactly the mentality needed to break free of it. For the truth is we’re faced with a massive necessary re-ordering of daily life in this country, and there is no vision or will to get on with job.
Among the tribulations of this living arrangement is the utter loss of connection between place and purpose often expressed in the phrase “loss of community,” which is a little too abstract to me and fails to convey the tragedy of individuals living with no sense of purpose — and by that I mean duties, obligations, and responsibilities to other human beings.
Obviously, the whole idea of a single-family house by definition dictates a certain disposition of things. It will lack the dimension and social relations of a household composed of multiple generations plus non-family members, helpers, employees, servants.
And it should also be obvious that the single-generation, single-family house is a product of mid-20th century industrial dynamism that made even factory worker wage slaves rich by historical standards – Tom Wolfe pointed out years ago that the average GM assembly line drone enjoyed more sheer physical luxury at home than Louis XIV.
Put the single-family house in the context of a suburban monoculture organized to conform relentlessly to the dictates of single use zoning, and you get a recipe for instant (and permanent) social dysfunction.
Then, fill that house with electronic diversion devices and a microwave oven and you end up with a very few disconnected humans who rarely share a meal and exist, while “at home,” in a narcissistic vapor-realm of canned entertainment, pornography, texting (i.e. melodrama created to fill a void of purposelessness), and the sado-masochistic combats of video games (a substitute for purposeful, virile endeavor), all floating on a virtual river of relentless advertising.
It always interests me to see the emergent purposelessness of the American Dream expressed so vividly in the television sitcoms of that mid-20th century day – the very moment of its emergence. Ozzie Nelson of Ozzie and Harriet seemed to have absolutely nothing to do except sit around the kitchen waiting for somebody else to come in for a cup of coffee. He clearly had nowhere else to go. The ennui of Ozzie Nelson was a source of mirth to busy hipsters who savored the ironies of behavioral kitsch – loving what’s horrible for the horror it induces.
But it really isn’t so funny since it is a portrait of an un-manned man trapped in utter purposeless and reduced to the pathetic existential status of somebody endlessly waiting for nothing. (Cue Samuel Beckett….)
Anyway, that was then and it’s all crashing down now in a great galumphing debris-field of bankruptcy, psychosis, regret, obesity, and foreclosure. So what comes next?
They say that the millennial generation is the most group-oriented, cooperative bunch to come along in the march of Boomers, Xs, and Ys. How much of this is an hallucination of transient computer connectivity, I don’t know. The fact that it is so difficult for them financially to even hope to form a household will surely be a defining factor in the choices they make ahead about how exactly to inhabit the landscape.
I think they will make out better in this project than their Boomer forerunners, who started out in communes sharing toothbrushes and graduated to dismal McMansions in a geography of nowhere, while dedicating their careers to the looting of posterity.
I’m quite sure that many will rediscover a sense of purpose in the re-ordering of social life that lies ahead, which includes a return to different household arrangements and probably much more hierarchical social relations. Implicit in the latter is the now-utterly-incorrect-and-taboo notion of someone knowing their place.
The catch is: you need to have a place in order to know your place, and therefore know who you are – and in a society full of people for whom place means nothing, there is little chance of acquiring a real identity, other than the sham raiment of the app-supported avatar life that has taken the place of being human.
I had a fugitive thought the other evening walking through my beaten-down small town in the late fall chill. I imagined that instead of the blue tomb-like glow of television emanating from house to house that I could hear the sequential music of parlor pianos, and voices singing to them, and of healthy people coming and going from warm kitchens to fetch firewood, and of groups of people gathered around tables for a meal, and generally of buildings that were truly inhabited, not just storage containers for lives unspent.
I grant you it was a fleeting nostalgic fantasy. But isn’t nostalgia just a state of being homesick?