Revoltin'Developments

                 

           Toward A Consensus of Reality with

          guidance from James Howard Kunstler 

 

 

        The love of possession is a disease with them [the whites]. They take tithes from the poor and weak to support the rich who rule. They claim this mother of ours, the earth, for their own and fence their neighbors away; they deface her with their buildings and their refuse. That nation is like a spring freshnet that overruns its banks and destroys all who are in its path.  - Sitting Bull

        When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is made unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money. - Cree Prophecy

         Where there is no vision, the people perish.   - Proverbs  29:18

           

In plutocratic, debt-ridden America, as some forgotten genius once said, home is where the bank mails your credit-card statement. A few years back, before my ship came in, mine was delivered to an urban abode where I lived with a lady in Neoclassical, albeit shabby domestic bliss.

As a joke, I named our humble dwelling Villa Rackrent, a play on Castle Rackrent, the title of the first novel by the celebrated Irish writer Maria Edgeworth. The Neoclassical relationship didn't last and I moved out, but the Villa still stands in all its glory at the edge of Boomtown behind a glut of semi-industrial, low-rise concrete boxes and once charming bungalows fading into ignoble dereliction. A vinyl-wrapped, minimal-cost retrofitted dump like most of the structures in the area, Villa Rackrent exists in space with no meaningful relationship (community) whatsoever to anything around it other than the main thoroughfare, the sewer lines and the power company cable. A once stately residence on the corner across the street, now converted into a funeral home, is a fitting icon for the depressing ambiance of the surrounding neighborhood. Despite a few attempts to fix up the Villa and imbue it with dignity, the place stubbornly failed to resonate with the neoclassical values of clarity of form, grandeur of scale and fine craftsmanship I admire. 

In short, like its shabby neighbors, the Villa Rackrent lacked charm, and it remains, to sharpen the point, with its plastic siding and screw-on aluminum shutters, a perfect example of the ghastly effects of the home-improvement industry. Another strike against it is the lack of space, a criticism that doesn't apply to the domiciles more to my liking designed by the great Italian architect Andrea Palladio. At least that's the story according to Witold Rybczynski, author of The Perfect House. After living in Palladio's Villa Saraceno for eight days Rybczynski concluded: "There are lessons here for anyone building a home today: instead of concentrating on increasingly refined details and exotic materials, focus instead on spaciousness. Make things longer, wider, taller, slightly more generous than they have to be. You will be repaid in full." 

"There is at the back of every artist's mind something like a pattern or type of architecture," wrote GK Chesterton. "It is a thing like the landscape of his dreams; the sort of world he would wish to make or in which he would wish to wander, the strange flora and fauna of his own secret planet."  With these quotes in mind, I put a net-zero, passive solar villa made of energy-saving materials on my Chesterton wish list and imagined it built in a walkable, human-scaled, sylvan setting replete with the colors and sounds of nature. I also incorporated the sage advice of architect Deborah Burke who poses the question in her book House Rules, "What spaces do people really need for basic human tasks, duties and pleasures?" Her response includes the suggestion, "We as a culture should move away from 'destination rooms'--places where specific activities happen in isolation--to spaces that allow people to encounter each

other . . . Houses that provide a combination of spaces for solitary or communal activity allow for greater enjoyment of domestic life." Burke's thesis is summarized in her House Rule #8: Honor Daily Life. "The point is to design for the enjoyment of domestic life. Accommodate the core requirements of living, the primal activities common to all human beings: eating, sleeping, bathing, pursuing creative endeavors in solitude and while interacting with others. The flow of energy through a house should accommodate all these modes of being with comfort and delight."

Attaining these core ideals in an oil-scarce future will be difficult within the context of an unsustainable auto-centric landscape saturated with shopping malls and millions of cars in route to them. (The number of suburban malls in America rose from around a hundred in 1950 to more than 40,000 today.)  It's stressful to realize that the people running the ship of state believe that a society built on the premise of endless consumption in the face of rapidly dwindling oil supplies is a good idea. 

"You can be sure that when a nation is led by the reality-deficient, unhappy outcomes are a sure thing," the eminently quotable James Howard Kunstler ominously wrote on his January 28, 2013, blog. "They will systematically destroy trust in the way things actually work and beat a fast path to either tyranny (where reality doesn't matter) or anarchy (where reality cannot be managed at all). This is what happens when nations go mad." That seems to be where the American empire is now as the neoliberal business plan becomes more and more unsustainable with every passing day. The much discussed ideal of sustainable development that promises to rescue our communities from further degeneration remains an inchoate vision at best and has yet to come into focus in the form of a clear mandate for change.

 

If sustainable development is defined as resource utilization that meets current needs without spoiling the landscape or depleting assets for future generations, mounting evidence indicates that the predatory capitalist ethos driving the American economy today is not only unsustainable, it's downright lethal. If the built environment is emblematic of the nation's collective memory, then Americans are a people with amnesia who have settled for a predatory society based on corporate racketeering, and creeping, decaying urbanism. You don't have to be a professional town planner or an architect to notice that the land of milk and honey is fast becoming what Kunstler calls a "national automobile slum," the by-product of America's unsustainable, extractive natural resource exploitation and destructive land-use patterns, all facilitated by unbridled auto-mobility, mechanized petrochemical agribusiness practices and cheap oil. Just look around. It's hard to argue with Kunstler's assertion "eighty percent of everything ever built in America has been built in the last fifty years, and most of it is depressing, brutal, ugly, unhealthy, and spiritually degrading." 

 

According to Kunstler, the great suburban build-out of tract houses and highways after World War Two facilitated by an abundance of cheap petroleum represents "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world." The long-term consequences of this fundamental error are documented on his blog, Clusterfucknation.com and in numerous books including The Long Emergency, Living in the Long Emergency, Too Much Magic, The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind,

and World Made By Hand, all important works of brilliant analysis in which he also lays out a path of atonement for our errant ways. We must now "direct our remaining capital toward the energy realities of the future," he says, "particularly in the way we grow food, the way we conduct commerce and transport goods, the way we inhabit the landscape and how we manage the banking sector." Kunstler sees all of these imperatives becoming more local in scale and all connected by a rebuilt railway system. "There is probably no project that would have a greater effect on reducing our oil use right away than fixing the passenger railroad system in America," he says in The Kunstler Cast, a wonderful little book of interviews by Duncan Crary. "It would put scores of thousands of people to work at meaningful jobs at all levels." 

All these points taken together could add up to a culture in sync with nature rather than at war with her. Such a prospect would not only be beautiful--it would be sustainable and more likely to endure for the benefit of future generations. How satisfying and fulfilling this world would be if humans took Wendell Berry's dictum to heart and served "what coheres and endures," rather than "what disintegrates and destroys." It would also be prudent to establish a true democracy as the founders envisioned it, fulfilling Cicero's description of the Good Life as "participation in power." What's in place now is what Lewis Lapham once called a "stupefied plutocracy" that spends more than half its budget on military madness. According to Lapham, democracy is an aspiration, an ideal that requires knowledge, skill discipline, and vigilance to achieve

as a fact, virtues that can also be applied to the process of designing a home.

 

Henry David Thoreau focused on the crux of the matter when he posed the question, "What's the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?" The predicament, as Kunstler bluntly points out in Too Much Magic, is this: "We are arguably forcing conditions that might make the only planet we call home uninhabitable." Unfortunately, he also makes the case that here in America we have decided politically to deny the facts and have arrived "at the position where our society has chosen to do nothing about what is among the gravest problems the human race has ever faced . . . As a society, we've got to come up with a consensus of reality that's consistent with the way things are really going, a coherent picture about what's happening to us and what we're going to do about it." 

The salient feature of the current malaise is an economic ethos that respects neither the integrity of the man-made environment or the welfare of other living beings. As Kunstler describes the scene, we are now facing a monumental "crisis of the human habitat: cities ruined by corporate giantism and abstract renewal schemes, public buildings and public spaces unworthy of human affection, vast sprawling suburbs that lack any sense of community, housing that the Un-rich cannot afford to live in, a slavish obeisance to the needs of automobiles and their dependent industries at the expense of human needs, and a gathering ecological calamity that we have only begun to measure." 

The crisis has taken the form of suburban sprawl, a truly "revoltin' development," to borrow the apt phrase Kunstler quoted on his blog from the 1950s TV show "The Life of Riley," that's consuming land at the rate of 365 miles per hour. That amounts to over three million acres of forests, farms and wetlands in a year, with the farmland alone totaling an area equivalent in size to the state of Delaware. Nearly 40 million acres of consumed land is covered by roads and parking lots, which quickly adds up to a concretized area as big as the nation of Rwanda. The foul air, contaminated soil, polluted water and visual degradation that accompany this juggernaut are grim reminders of what happens when a society places the economic utility of physical space above its ecological and aesthetic integrity. 

"To fully grasp the dynamics of the changing American landscape," writes John Miller in Ecotopia: Narcissism and the New American Landscape, "is to identify and ultimately understand an emerging Twenty-first century American aesthetic. While being neither as benign as the agrarian nor as de facto as the industrial, the New American Landscape will be the first synthetic environment in history whose aesthetics will systematically anesthetize those who call it home." 

Referring to The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Henry Miller's fiercely critical book on the American scene, interviewer Julie Burns asked the author in the May 1971 issue of Mademoiselle magazine, "What was the nightmare that was air-conditioned?" 

 

" . . . The horrible monotony . . . the monotony in America," Miller replied. "One place is like another--no quality, no character to any town or city. I can't think of one American city that really has character, and I've seen all the major cities and many of the towns." In another interview a year earlier, Miller told Bob Thomas of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, that the USA is "going through a process of deterioration and disintegration. I see very little left of what inspired the founding fathers," he said.  

Most of the blame for the decline described by Miller is directed at developers, a strange breed of capitalist exploiters motivated by greed rather than stewardship who proceed in their excesses in accordance with Jake Page's Law of Severed Continuity which describes the demented practice of naming newly created developments for the natural resources that were destroyed in order to build them. To Wit: a housing project where there is scarcely a tree left standing on the site is named Tall Trees; a vast tract of tacky-tacky houses where one would be hard pressed to find Monsieur Reynard evading his pursuers is called Fox Chase; a once beautiful waterfront location near the Chesapeake Bay where developers all but destroyed the underwater vegetation beds that once attracted millions of Canvasback Ducks is now Canvasback Cove Condos. 

These trends aren't endemic to America; the same insane patterns of so called "development" threaten human settlements around the world. The forces of crass commercialism, expedient consumerism and greed have reduced Venice, Italy, for example, to what Gore Vidal called a "sort of Disneyland." Vidal noted in a 1988 documentary film that contemporary Venice is overrun with visitors during every season of the year, making attempts to preserve this precious cultural resource impossible. Meanwhile, nearby Florence, Italy, notably one of the most famous repositories of art and architecture in the world, has been transformed into a shopping mall for tourists. As a result, air pollution throughout the region frequently reaches dangerous levels, and the Arnothe city's great river, is now septic. The fate of Florence's surrounding environs is equally lamentable. Mario Sabbieti, author of Florence from the Air, writes in a caption accompanying a picture of Florence's squalid suburbs: "The Florentine suburbs are now as anonymous and undistinguished as those of any city in any other country . . . Florence, like most other Italian cities, has not managed its modernization with particular success, real estate speculation and the absence of serious planning being the culprits." Beautiful architectural masterpieces still stand, but the sprawl around them is not likely to evoke "Stendhal Syndrome," the state of euphoria the French writer experienced when he visited the city's Basilica of Santa Croce. Founded by Saint Francis himself, according to legend, the structure is also known as the Temple of the Italian Glories because of the many Italian luminaries buried there, including Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, and the great composer Rossini.  

Henry James, in his many luminous writings about Florence, deplored the "taint of the modern order" over a century ago, but felt that one had "to at least read something of the old soul into the new forms." Although this may be advisable in the case of a city like Florence where there is a heightened appreciation of the past, such an accomplishment seems impossible here in America where the connection between the "old soul" and the "new forms" has been lost in the sprawl. Or perhaps there never really was a connection, a notion that seems closer to the truth. As poet Gary Snyder observed, "Our forefathers were conquerors and never cultivated or passed on an intimate relationship with the territory they had overrun." Novelist Jim Harrison makes the same point in Just Before Dark, averring "if the next good country doesn't exist it's because we pillaged the last one we so stridently walked through." RWB Lewis in the City of Florence, points out the dislocation that stems from such an attitude, citing "the continuing image in nineteenth-century writing of the characteristic American as a man without a past, a sort of newborn Adam inhabiting a country evasive of the forces and lessons of history." 

Iconic, traditional American aesthetic forms still exist, but they are sequestered for the most part from the "real" world as symbolic shrines and monuments. One shining example is Frank Lloyd Wright's totem of organic architecture, Fallingwater at Bear Run, Pennsylvania, a precious specimen of natural architecture sparkling like a diamond in the midst of the blighted, sprawling landscape that surrounds it. Design and build in harmony with nature. That's the essence of the cure for our ills as prescribed by Wright and his followers and beautifully expressed in the architects's most famous residential masterpiece. The house was designed for Pittsburgh department store magnate Edgar J. Kaufmann and completed in 1937. "Fallingwater is Wright's greatest essay in horizontal space," wrote New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger in 1986. "It is his most powerful piece of structural drama; it is his most sublime integration of man and nature."

 

While there's no denying that Fallingwater is a remarkable achievement, the ethic of organic architecture that it represents is too costly to apply in practical terms. It's whopping upkeep bill certainly puts it far beyond the reach of most folks and beautiful though it is, the residence has been literally falling into the water ever since it was completed. A turn-of-the millennium makeover to fix the leaky roof, seal the windows and shore-up the sagging concrete terraces cost the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy that manages the structure, over $11 million. The overhaul has fixed the structure's flaws for the time being, but maintaining it for future generations will continue to be an expensive proposition because of the constant stresses of the wet environment that surrounds it. In addition to the persistent problem of mold and mildew on moist surfaces, the house is bombarded by acid rain generated by a nearby coal-burning plant. 

Fallingwater isn't the only American home struggling against the law of entropy; things are tough all over for the legions who reside in the ugly, shoddily constructed developments composed of houses Frank Lloyd Wright wouldn't have allowed his dog to live in. The rustic charm of the nation's rural beginnings is becoming harder to find as barracks-style housing clusters spread over the landscape like poisonous mushrooms along with Wal-marts and strip malls, a pattern that developed after World War Two when urbanites left the cities in droves and invaded the countryside via the National Highway System, 160,000 miles of concrete Phillip Langdon called America's "fume-laden corridor of commerce." The great Baltimore Sun critic HL Mencken documented the sordid beginnings of it all back in 1945 in Libido For the Ugly, an acerbic essay that describes the repulsive patterns of residential development he observed in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area. In his piece, Mencken lamented "the sheer revolting monstrousness of every house in sight," noting the "general effect of hideousness without a break," and concluded that Americans share a "love of ugliness for its own sake . . . a lust to make the world intolerable." Mencken wrote his prescient piece shortly after World War Two during a train journey, years before the hideousness of the man-made landscape had metastasized into the megalopolis we wriggle uncomfortably in today. Since Mencken's time, things have only gotten more offensive to the nerves, more threatening to the environment and more displeasing to the eye. "It is as if some titanic and aberrant genius, uncompromisingly inimical to man, had devoted all the ingenuity of Hell to making them," he wrote about the towns and villages he saw during his trip. "They show grotesqueries of ugliness that in retrospect, become almost diabolical. One cannot imagine mere human beings concocting such dreadful things, and one can scarcely imagine human beings bearing life in them." 

 

Unimaginable to a sensitive artist like Mencken perhaps, but Americans as a species are apparently inured to the sprawl that has enveloped them. A few visionaries such as architect Malcolm Wells have rung the warning bell, but the sound has fallen on deaf ears. "As an architect," wrote Wells in the Winter 1998 CoEvolution Quarterly, "I'm ashamed of what my fellow professionals and I have done during the last fifty years. Russel Baker was right when he asked, 'Why do Americans hate lawyers so much when architects are doing more than lawyers can to make the country unlivable?' Pay us a fee and we will do anything. What do we do? Look around you: America's best land: destroyed, nature: crushed under buildings and parking lots, resources: squandered, energy: wasted. The saddest part is that we know better and still do nothing about it. We actually know how to build without destroying the land." 

With energy costs escalating, traditional design and building practices negatively impact ecological sustainability issues, not only in suburban construction, but in city development as well. High maintenance costs are a particularly thorny problem, especially in luxury homes and apartments. Maintenance service charges for a top-end New York City apartment, for example, can be as high as $35 per square foot per year. The wasteful energy systems and short life spans characteristic of the majority of middle and low-cost structures makes the need  for ecological design and aesthetic principles more important than ever.   

 

There are architects out there in TV land whose work is based on ecological principles, but they are few and far between. Shining examples of this rare species are principal architect Matt O'Malia and his crew at G-O Logic, a Maine-based outfit that designs and builds beautiful, affordable prefab passive solar homes. "Our baseline for every project is the Passive House standard of energy performance and indoor air quality," the firm states on its website. "Our goal is an architectural language that expresses building performance not only as a practical and social value, but also as an avenue of aesthetic expression . . . Our work internalizes the aesthetic mode of modernism, while reflecting our deep appreciation for the local vernacular, and our perception that every building exists in relationship with its neighbors and the environment." (For More of the G-O Logic story and photographs of their gorgeous, net zero buildings go to thegohome.us)

Entire communities based on ecological design principles also exist, but they too are the exception rather than the rule. One successful example is Village Homes, a six-acre, mixed-use residential sustainable community located in Davis, California. According to developers Judy and Michael Corbett, design features chosen for Village Homes aimed to enhance the social life of the community a well as to create a sustainable environment. Residents of the development report that its creators have fulfilled both goals exceedingly well. In the context of a modern neighborhood, the Corbetts have managed to incorporate ecological design and energy conservation patterns so successfully that the National Association of Home Builders and the Natural Resources Defense Council cited Village Homes as a model for new development. 

Lewis Mumford famously said, "All thinking worthy of the name must now be ecological." The dictum also applies to aesthetic perception as well as the routine relationships between people and the environment. The spectacle of the typical suburban tract house, sorely lacking in "utility, firmness and beauty," the core architectural virtues coined by Vitruvius over 2500 years ago, is an especially ubiquitous example of our failure to heed Mumford's imperative. "If psychosis is the attempt to live a lie," writes Theodore Rosak in Voice of the Earth, "then the epidemic psychosis of our time is the lie of believing that we have no ethical obligation to our planetary home." Evidence of our national delusion and anthropocentric arrogance is mounting in the form of the unsustainable, auto-centric residential nightmare we have built around us since 1945. 

 

"The human species," writes Chris Hedges in his January 13, 2013 Truthdig column, "led by white Europeans and Euro-Americans, has been on a 500-year-long planet-wide rampage of conquering, plundering, looting, exploiting and polluting the Earth--as well as killing the indigenous communities that stood in the way. But the game is up. The technical and scientific forces that created a life of unparalleled luxury--as well as unrivaled military and economic power for the industrial elites--are the forces that now doom us. The mania for ceaseless economic expansion and exploitation has become a curse, a death sentence. But even as our economic and environmental systems unravel, after the hottest year in the contiguous 48 states since record keeping began 107 years ago, we lack the emotional and intellectual creativity to shut down the engine of global capitalism. We have bound ourselves to a doomsday machine that grinds forward, as the draft report of the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisor Committee illustrates." 

 

"Climate change is already affecting the American people," the report states in part. "Certain types of weather events have become more frequent and/or intense, including heat waves, heavy downpours, and, in some regions, floods and droughts. Sea level is rising, oceans are becoming more acidic, and glaciers and arctic sea ice are melting. These changes are part of the pattern of global climate change, which

is primarily driven by human activity. After at least two thousand years of little change, sea level rose roughly eight inches over the last century and satellite data provides evidence that the rate of rise over the past 20 years has roughly doubled . . . Sea level is projected to rise an additional 1-4 feet in this century."

 

The list of ecological problems is long. Acid rain has increased dramatically worldwide. The ozone layer that protects people from harmful ultraviolet rays is being destroyed by chloro-fluorocabon by-products of capitalist industrialization. Over half the planet's forests are gone, and as a result the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has increased dramatically, rapidly heating up the planet. Meanwhile, 90 percent of the world's ocean fisheries are being exploited to the point of exhaustion. What's more, we continue to stumble toward an ecological precipice under a system of laws and environmental regulations that has little impact on the deepening crisis. According to the World resources Institute, for example, waste and pollution in the US, Japan, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands have increased by as much as 28 percent

in the past quarter century despite attempts to use resources more efficiently. 

"I bet that the great intellectual insight of the twentieth century won't turn out to be nuclear physics," writes Bill McKibben in After Preservation. "I bet it will turn out to be ecology, the idea that all things are deeply interconnected." As ecologist Johanna Macy points out in the Great Turning, a collective transformation of consciousness is needed to enable us to dismantle the ecologically disastrous neoliberal paradigm of perpetual war and environmental exploitation and create in its place a more just, life-affirming arrangement with reality. In any case, our addiction to fossil fuels that drives the predatory capitalistic economy intent on squeezing the last vestiges of profit from an ecosystem on the verge of collapse potentially dooms us all. Global consumer culture is clearly on a collision course with nature; the current level of consumption is simply not sustainable. The quixotic notion that technology alone will save us from the horrors of climate change, deforestation, pollution, and overpopulation is a delusion. 

Worldwatch Institute founder Lester Brown calls the global economy a Ponzi scheme destined to collapse because of its demands on natural resources. In the 1950s, according to Brown, the global economy functioned sustainably, but by the end of the Reagan administration consumption demands exceeded the planet's regenerative limits, and today those natural support systems are being exploited beyond their sustainable capacity by more than 30 percent. Moreover, during the past half century, we have consumed more natural resources than were used up in mankind's entire history. Today, as a consequence of global warming, forty percent of the Arctic sea ice has melted in less than a generation. In America, twenty-five billion tons of topsoil is washed away every year. Meanwhile, species loss worldwide is already comparable to the great extinctions of the past. Now facing extinction ourselves, we must dismantle the predatory corporate capitalist system that, as Chris Hedges points out in his July 12, Truthdig column, "Turns everything, including human beings and the natural world, into commodities to be exploited until exhaustion or collapse." 

The global economic system based on debt speculation and driven by a perpetual-growth engine, is proving to be what professor Ronald Wright calls a "progress trap," a phenomenon he defines as an evolutionary development that at first seems to be a good thing, but eventually turns out to be a disaster. In Surviving Progress, a film based on Wright's bestselling book, A Short History of Progress, economic historian Michael Hudson identifies the global, debt-based economy as the crux of the problem. Since Roman times, says Hudson, economics has meant concentrated wealth at the top of the social pyramid, which in America's case, is a Wall Street oligarchy. In the US, the top one percent are the "debt pushers" to whom all society's debts are owed and these parasites will stop at nothing in order to get what they perceive as their due, including laying the nation and the entire planet to waste if necessary, in the name of profit. The delusion harbored in the minds of these neoliberal predators that economic growth can be limitless and not have to take into account collateral human and environmental costs is a form of "brain damage," according to geneticist/activist David Suzuki, who is interviewed at length in the film. An economy dependent on ruthless exploitation of Nature to the point of exhaustion is "just plain nuts," he says. In Roman times, as Chris Hedges has pointed out, parasitic lunatics were hanged, while in our time they are rewarded with billions in bail-out money when their usurious scams collapse. Stopping this criminal class of debt pushers, avers Michael Hudson, is "The political fight of the century." 

As Johanna Macy says, we are going to have to learn to perceive life differently, pursue different goals than the ones that now drive the global economy, want different things and seek different pleasures in order to heal the planet that is our cosmic home. In short, we need a new mythology that Joseph Campbell described as "a myth that will identify the individual not just with his own self, family or group, but with the whole planet," a myth that DH Lawrence called "a new complete tree of life from the roots that are within us." Pulitzer Prize winning poet Gary Snyder sized up mankind's present, tumultuous, evolutionary moment in Four Changes, a broadside distributed freely back in 1969: "Since it doesn't seem practical or even desirable to think that direct bloody force will achieve much, it would best to consider this a continuing 'revolution of consciousness' which will be won not by guns but by seizing the key images, myths, archetypes, eschatology's, and ecstasies so that life won't seem worth living unless one's on the transforming energy's side." 

Contemplating these realities stirred memories of America's "Happy Motoring" period back in the 1950s and the summers I spent at Montresor Camp, a beloved haunt of my youth on a farm near Leesburg, Virginia. The Montresor Farm/Camp operation was the endeavor of Neal and Nancy Stanford, who were both prominent educators in France before relocating to America after World War Two. Neal Stanford was also a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and frequently wrote about energy issues in his regular column. It was the 1950s in America, the nation's so called "golden age." Rock and Roll was all the rage on the music front, Eisenhower was President and rich people and corporations still paid their fair share of taxes. The power elite running the show in Washington had not yet abandoned the ideals of governing for the common good in favor of the neoliberal ideology that has ruined the economy for everyone except the uber rich. The bipartisan political establishment still functioned democratically for the most part, and was not yet dominated entirely by the power of corporate money. The media was largely uncorrupted by the coteries of right-wing billionaires who control the press today and who had not yet declared all-out class war in a concerted effort to rewrite the tax code in order to shift the financial burden onto the middle class and working poor. Government and industry leaders of all political stripes supported a commitment to full employment as the collective responsibility of a democratic society. There were no profligate wars of empire to pay for then, and even folks of modest means could afford to send their kids to summer camp. The US was at war, albeit a cold one with Russia and Leesburg, Virginia, just up the road from Montresor Farm, was a sleepy little town surrounded by pristine farmlands and Civil War battlefields. A gallon of gas cost about eighteen cents and high-rollers could buy a brand new pink Cadillac convertible for less than $6,000. In 1953, the Stanfords paid a mere $100,000 for the entire 280-acre farm/estate, lock, stock, and barrel. The nation was in the midst of the so-called "Golden Age of Capitalism," the long boom of reconstruction and economic expansion that followed World War Two. During this period, roughly 1945 to 1975, the rate of fossil-fuel consumption increased rapidly, a phenomenon Neal Stanford wrote about in the Christian Science Monitor. 

The title of one prescient piece, The Future of Fuels, An Intimate Message from Washington, published in the June 5, 1957, Features Section of the Monitor, begins: "Speechmakers and speeches are a dime a dozen in this windy city, so a man has to say something particularly significant or be particularly provocative to get the attention of the press these days. One such man and one such speech are Admiral H. G. Rickover and his recent remarks on 'Energy Resources and Our Future.'" The story is based on Stanford's coverage of a speech by Admiral Rickover, who was then the Navy's top expert on nuclear power. Like Rickover, Stanford saw the shadow of oil scarcity looming over America's future and sought to promote awareness of it. Stanford characterizes Rickover's remarks as, "Full of startling, provocative, and significant observations as any your correspondent can remember coming across in years. Which proves there is plenty that is of importance for officials to say--even if they will only abandon the obvious, the stereotyped, and the expected." Stanford then goes on to report the highlights of what he calls Rickover's "admirable discussion," in which the admiral noted the breath-taking rate at which fossil fuels were being consumed and the implications of this on the future of America. 

 

It's uncanny how accurately Stanford's article about Rickover reflects the issues we face today as a result of the "energy crisis" the admiral predicted back in 1957. Stanford apparently recognized the folly of constructing an economy based on diminishing carbon-based energy sources and saw a kindred spirit in Rickover. More than half a century has passed since Stanford's article and America has already witnessed the first shocks in what is proving to be a painful decline from the peak reached in the mid-70s by a civilization dependent on fossil fuels foreseen by Rickover. By the summer of 2008, the price of oil had risen to $147 a barrel followed by a financial meltdown unprecedented in American history, events that signaled the end of the fossil fuel era. Montresor as I knew it is also history now. Part of the estate was sold to developers and the original farm buildings left to ruin. The once pristine rural landscape is now a McMansion Hell. None of the energy hogs built there is appropriate for America's oil-scarce future, and in a few years, when the oil runs out completely, the Montresor version of suburbia will most likely degenerate into another example of what Kunstler describes as a place "not worth caring about and a living arrangement with no future." 

 

Thinking about Montresor in terms of the looming global energy scarcity we face, it's hard to imagine a worse fate for this once beautiful farm than to end up engulfed in the metastasis of unsustainable suburban development. Remembering the days when horses instead of houses stood on Montresor's fields, I wondered what Neal Stanford would think of the bloom of energy gluttons sprouting on the landscape like weeds today. Recalling his 1957 interview with Admiral Rickover, I pondered why warnings broadcast by such men went unheeded. Wes Jackson, in his enlightening book Consulting the Genius of the Place, shed some welcome light on the matter, speculating that the demise of an organization called Friends of the Land might partially explain why Rickover's words, so skillfully amplified by Stanford, fell on deaf ears. Friends of the Land was run by people concerned about conserving the ecological health of the nation, people of vision like Rickover and Stanford. "The organization probably went under because of the nature of the 1950s," writes Jackson, "which included a great acceleration in the use of fossil fuel. It was an era of great complacency, too, in America. Technology was solving our problems. Everything was going to be bigger and better, and the opportunities were limitless. It was not a time when many were inclined to listen to the dire warnings of a few who happened to be reading signs of the times."

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