The Geography of Nowhere – A Review

Posted: May 20th, 2008 by: h2

The Geography of Nowhere

The Rise and Decline of America’s Manmade Landscape
James Howard Kunstler
Simon & Schuster, 1993

While I’ve read a few other of Kunstler’s books (The Long Emergency, Home From Nowhere), I hadn’t gotten around to reading his first major non-fiction work, The Geography of Nowhere until last week.

Some of you may not be familiar with Kunstler, who is fast becoming a major spokesman for the post peak, long emergency world that is already now becoming increasingly obvious. A good place to start is his blog, named, typically abrasive Kunstler, ClusterFuckNation. While his polemical style doesn’t always work, it’s usually not that far off target, and he’s proving himself to be right far too often to just dismiss his thoughts out of hand.

To get a sense of how he thinks, check out a recent (March, 2007) talk he gave at the San Francisco Commonwealth Club.

You can also read a transcript of a 2005 [Matt] Simmons-Kunstler interview. Matt Simmons is a well respected oil industry investor who wrote a seminal book on the coming decline of Saudi oil production (read it if you haven’t, it’s great) Twilight in the Desert. Simmons, like Kunstler, seems able to engage in critical thinking, and is able to look at reality without falling into fantasy, so it made some sense for them to do this interview together.


From the author’s own site:

my first non-fiction book on the tragic sprawlscape of cartoon architecture, junked cities, and ravaged countryside where we live and work. I argued that the mess we’ve made of our everyday environment was not merely the symptom of a troubled culture, but one of the primary causes of our troubles. “We created a landscape of scary places, and we became a nation of scary people.”

I have to admit to being very pleasantly surprised by this book. Sometimes Kunstler can get a little sloppy (in The Long Emergency, for example), or repetetive (Home From Nowhere), but overall, The Geography of Nowhere did not disappoint at all. It’s well written, well researched, is filled with very interesting historical background that helps put the uniquely bizarre American suburban development into a perspective that actually makes some sense.

Kunstler’s core critique shows how much value the maligned ‘aesthetic’ component of life really can have, especially when you, as he does, come to understand aesthetic principles as being directly related to functional principles, to what makes life work, that is. It is only because we almost totally abandonned such concepts in exchange for a near obscene efficiency that we even have to be told this today.

I have increasingly come to view the term efficiency as a deadly trojan horse, designed to remove more and more of our lives from our hands, and into the hands of the various corporations seeking to profit from whatever part of life they are striving to monetize and capitalize. I remember arguing the wrong side of this question in Spain, coming to realize how wrong I was only years later as I saw just what happens to a society as it puts efficiency before life, community, and humanity.

You have to also keep in mind that Kunstler was way ahead of the curve on pretty much all the major issues we’re seeing come to a head today when it comes to the totally non-sustainable nature of our way of life. My favorite line of his is that suburban development “is the greatest misallocation of resources in human history”. Having grown up in such suburbs, and having had the good fortune to see and live in other types of environments for large parts of my life, I have to agree with this statement.

Home is What Developers Sell You
A House is What You are Left with When the Market Collapses

(All quotes from the hardcover edition, re page numbers)

Americans were as addicted to illusion as they were to cheap petroleum. They had more meaningful relationships with the movie stars and characters on daytime television shows than they did with members of their own families. They didn’t care if things were real or not, if ideas were truthful. In fact, they preferred fantasy. They preferred lies. And the biggest lie of all was that the place they lived was home.
pg. 169

This passage is becoming especially poignant today, when we see all around us American’s preferring lies and fantasy to reality. You see it in the elections, you see it in the obsession with gas guzzling SUVs, with the fairytale stories that housing could endlessly rise in price without every collapsing (a fantasy long ago given a name: ponzi scheme). But most of all, you see it in the fact that people in this country call a piece of mass produced garbage stuck in a horrible, inhuman environment, home. The use of the word ‘home’ is something that has grown to disgust me over the years, because it doesn’t refer to anything other than a house, somewhere to live.

I noticed the near magical quality this word is given when spoken by the media, you can hear the hushed reverence of the newscasters when they report on mass produced residences in mass produced developments being burned in a fire, for example. “16 homes were lost…”

As Kunstler points out elsewhere, in fact, the totem word home is used to refer to houses in the state of being lived in, or being purchased, but the term is dropped in favor of house when it’s sold. This is to help maintain the fiction that a manufactured residence in a manufactured environment has anything to do with the concept of home.

This type of clear thinking is why I like Kunstler, when he’s on, he’s really on.

The Lost Reality of Real, Working, Living, Communities

The term community has gotten so perverted that it is now used to point to the bizarrely antisocial online, internet based collections of people with some shared set of interests. This isn’t an accident, because today, most people have absolutely no idea what a real community actually is. Real communities are real places, filled with real people, who interact with each other in real ways, and contain real economies.

The small town life that Americans long for when they are depressed by their city apartments or their suburban bunkers is really a conceptual subsitute for the idea of community. But a community is not something you have, like a pizza. Nor is it something you can buy, as visitors to Disneyland or Williamsburg discover. It is a living organism based on a web of interdependencies – which is to say, a local economy. It expresses itself physically as connectedness, as buildings actively relating to one another, and to whatever public space exists, be it the street, or the courthouse square, or the village green. “Most important,” Wendell Berry writes, “it must be generally loved and competently cared for by its people, who, individually, identify their own interest with the interest of their neighbors…”. That notion of community began to vanish in America after World War II.
pg. 185-186

All you have to do to verify this statement is walk down any suburban street, then go onto the next one, then the next one. You will pass by house after house, each sealed tight, air-conditioned, most of the inhabitants, if present, will be found watching TV in the family room, a term Kunstler discovers was invented as a euphimism for that space where television was watched. Television viewing being in most cases the primary activity the family actually engages in together.

All too painfully true…

The Real and the Unreal

Kunstler gives some pretty good examples in the book, one chapter devoted to three cities: Detroit, as an example of total failure, today; Portland, Oregon, an example of fairly rational urban planning; and Los Angeles:

The underlying problem that Los Angeles and the rest of the “developed” world faces is how to fashion an economy that is not an enterprise of destruction. That is, how to create sustainable economies and sustainable human habitats – cities and towns – for those economies to dwell in. The transition is going to be difficult. Los Angeles is not well-equipped to make that transition. The forms imposed on its rugged landscape are already obsolete. It is a model of the city as a consumptive machine, consuming raw land, petroleum, and vast amounts of water collected from remote hinterlands. The city’s present strategies for survival have little long term intelligence. The mainly seek to protect a previous bad investment, to keep the consumption machine running a while longer.
pg. 216

Since Los Angeles created the model that the entire so called ‘sun belt’ has followed, in America’s SouthWest, SouthEast, and Texas, this observation has grown even more problematic in the 15 years since Kunstler wrote this.

Already today, major SouthEastern cities like Atlanta are facing looming water shortages, and global warming is looking to make these issues even worse, as the sources for the water begin to retreat and fail, due to both overconsumption and simply not being there at all.

Kunstler then goes on to note how some of America’s favorite tourist destinations create bizarre mirrors for us to stare blankly back at our selves.

As the places where Americans dwell become evermore depressing and impossible, Disney World is where they can escape to worship the nation in the abstract, a cartoon capital of a cartoon republic enshrining the falsehoods, half-truths, and delusions that prop up the squishy thing the national character has become – for instance, that we are a nation of families; that we care about our fellow citizens; that history matters; that there is a place called home.
pg. 217

Thus, the underlying message of Main Street USA – for the grownups, anyway – was that a big corporation could make a better Main Street than a bunch of rubes in a real small town.

And Walt was right! Through the postwar decades Americans happily allowed their towns to be destroyed. They’d flock to Disneyland at Anaheim, or later to Disney World in Florida, and walk down Main Street, and think, gee, it feels good here. Then they’d go back home and tear down half the old buildings downtown and pave them over for parking lots…. pass zoning laws that forbade corner grocery stores in residential neighborhoods and setback rules that required every new business to locate on a one-acre lot until things became so spread out that you had to drive everywhere.
pg. 221

Zoning Laws Revisited

Kunstler’s focus on zoning is worth some major thought. He gets into it quite a bit more deeply through the book, and also in Home From Nowhere. The basic point is simple: by creating strict zoning for each type of human activity, the mix that creates a vibrant, living community, is destroyed in favor of different patches of monoculture, shopping malls, and so on.

To me the points on zoning make this a must read for anyone who actually cares about their environment, and helps go a long way in explaining just how we managed to create such utterly soulless environments for ourselves over the last 100 years.

The deeper truth, as Randall Arendt realized, was that typical zoning laws not only failed to protect the landscape, they virtually mandated sprawl… So, towns ended up splattered all over the countryside while the countryside completely lost its rural character. All you could build in present New England was Los Angeles.
pg. 264

In Closing

If you reflect on his closing comments, especially in light of the peaking of oil supplies, and soon of coal and natural gas, the solution is quite clear, although it’s still unfortunately a total mystery for most Americans:

We will have to downscale our gigantic enterprises and institutions – corporations, governments, banks, schools, hospitals, markets, farms – and learn to live locally, hence responsibly. We will have to drive less an create decent public transportation that people want to use. We will have to produce less garbage (including pollution) and consume less fossil fuel. We will have to reaquire the lost art of civic planning, and redesign our rules for building. If we can do these things, we may be able to recreate a nation of places worth caring about, places of enduring quality and memorable character.
pg. 275

Some people accuse of Kunstler of being a doomsayer, but I disagree completely with this view. I see him as he himself says, optimistic but realistic. He is not just criticizing, he’s offering very real solutions to a very real problem. He’s just not stupid enough to say that more of the same is going to solve anything.

Of course, when you push this matter a bit, you have to see a few things: growth in the sense we have known it for centuries, is simply not a part of this picture. Neither is globalized production, or any of the other freakish developments that have been pushed on us over the last 2 decades under the guise of the inevitable. As Kunstler noted in The Long Emergency, globalization is anything but an inevitable development, rather, it was never anything other than a temporary possibility created by a very temporary global oil glut which dropped prices for shipping and manufacture to ridiculous levels.

This glut is now over, demand is rising beyond the ability of supply, and the age of cheap shipping of doodads from China to Peoria, via huge container ships, and a fleet of trucks, is fast ending.

The same goes for petroleum based food production, perversely labled the green revolution.

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