Air Date: Week of September 10, 1993
Host Steve Curwood talks with author and journalist James Howard Kunstler about his book, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape. Kunstler claims that America's cities, towns and landscape have been sacrificed to cars, property rights and overly individualistic values. Kunstler says the degradation of our everyday environment has led to deep social and economic problems, but is rarely part of policy discussions.
CURWOOD: As the debate over greenhouse gases illustrates, the car stands at the center of much of American politics. It's also been one of the most powerful forces in the reshaping of the American landscape. The ability to cover long distances in a short period of time has led to mindless sprawl. Those changes are the subject of the latest book by author and journalist James Howard Kunstler. It's called The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape, and it's a chronicle of soul-less shopping centers and decaying cities, all organized around the automobile. James Kunstler joins us now from the studios of WAMC in Albany, New York. Thanks for joining us.
KUNSTLER: Hello, Steve.
CURWOOD: In essence, you're saying that American has been ruined.
KUNSTLER: Well, our everyday surroundings have been. There are two things wrong with them. We've created thousands of places in America that are not worth caring about. That's largely a design problem. The second thing is, we've thrown our civic life into the garbage can. In my view it's bankrupting us economically, spiritually, and socially. The hidden costs of our living arrangement in America, the costs are tremendous, and we are suffering terribly.
CURWOOD: For instance?
KUNSTLER: Well, where I live, we built a new junior high school, and we built it four miles out of town on a busy county highway. The kids are forbidden to ride their bikes there, or walk there. They might as well be flushed to school through a pipe and then flushed home at 3:00. They have nothing to do with the town, they're not connected to the civic life of the town anymore, and this impoverishes their lives. It especially impoverishes their developing sense of personal sovereignty; they don't see adults going about in their everyday walks of life, acting normally and decently. Many of them don't see adults doing this until they're 18 and out of school. And then we wonder why they don't know how to behave. So that's a direct consequence, a social consequence. Another is, every little hamlet, every town in America has to operate a mass transit system that operates only two times a day for people under 18. It's called the school bus fleet. The costs of these things are unbelievable and we can't bear the costs any more.
CURWOOD: Now, what about the cost to the natural environment?
KUNSTLER: Well, we've succeeded in destroying the countryside at the same time that we've emptied our towns and cities of their civic life. We've taken all the functions of civic life - shopping, cultural institutions, sports, you name it - and smeared them all over the countryside, so we destroy good rural land at the same time that we really eviscerate our cities. And so we've made each the worst of each world - the countryside's no longer the country, and the town is no longer the town.
CURWOOD: Now, how did this happen?
KUNSTLER: Well, it was partly a result of what I call a position of extreme individualism in our culture. In America, land was always viewed solely as a commodity for profit. It was real estate, something to be bought and sold and exploited. It was not viewed as a sacred trust or as a resource to be preserved for generations to follow, nor was it viewed as part of a larger social organism, like a town. And this view also tended to denigrate the importance of the public realm, the streets, other public places that held together all the little private parcels of real estate. Hence in America today, streets are devoted almost exclusively to the happiness of cars, and towns have become automobile storage depots that only incidentally contain other things, like houses, shops, and schools.
CURWOOD: A lot of people live in these horrible places. Don't you think they care about their environment?
KUNSTLER: I think people care deeply about the everyday environment, the places where they live and work. But I think they're having a very hard time articulating their distress about this. It's been three generations now since we've been living in this car-based environment, and our cultural memory has really been impaired. We no longer really know how to build good places. I think the proof that we're unable to think about this issue is the fact that we are not talking about how we physically live in this country in our ongoing economic debate.
CURWOOD: So what's to be done about this?
KUNSTLER: Well, for starters we're going to have to rethink our zoning laws and our building regulations, and some of our cherished beliefs, especially about cars, so that we can build coherent towns and neighborhoods that are worth caring about. Americans know in their bones what it takes to make a good town a good place to live. You know, they go to Main Street USA in DIsneyland and they like the way it feels there, or they go to places like Charleston or Annapolis, Maryland, or little towns in Vermont . . .
CURWOOD: What are they like there?
KUNSTLER: Well, they love the intimacy of these places, they like the relationships between the buildings and streets and the buildings and each other, and they know that these places make them feel good. But their instincts about how to build are at odds with their building practices and their laws. It's against the zoning laws to build places like the ones I've just described.
CURWOOD: You've said that part of the problem is that we regard the land as something to be exploited, as private property to be passed around. Should people be able to own land or should we have a society that's more like the Native American culture, in which people hold the land in trust?
KUNSTLER: I think it's a little unrealistic to suppose that we're not going to have property ownership. But I do think that we, in some cases, may have to tell some people what they can and cannot do with their land. And we are going to have to think of land less as a civil liberty and more as a social resource.
CURWOOD: Thank you. James Howard Kunstler is author of The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape. Jim, thanks for joining us on Living on Earth.
KUNSTLER: Thanks for having me, Steve.
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