Will We All Walk to Wal-mart When Gas is Too Expensive?

OpEd by Susan Bourland agrees with author James Howard Kunstler that Sprawlburbia is totally dependent on cheap oil and as a result, its days are numbered.

Published: 06-Feb-2005

Those of you who know me know I believe that oil is not a limitless resource. I don't think this puts me in a minority. It's the constantly talking about it that makes me the minority freak I am. One of today's most provocative oil-scarcity prognosticators and teachers in this futuristic way of thinking is the author and activist James Howard Kunstler, who recently gave a speech which pretty much says it all. Herein is a short history of the American way of life -- basically a sprawlburbia currently being sold to you by Republicans as "freedom" and the "way we do things here in America."

But, as Kunstler makes clear, using the central fact of peak oil production, the typical driving suburbanite's life will change a lot in the next 20 years or so. What is most interesting about this speech, however, is its underlying testament to the viability of smaller nations (perhaps de facto new nations carved from our existing nation) in our future. Whereas today the Pacific Northwest and California are giving Washington D.C. legislative raspberries by means of new, stringent environmental ideology (growth management and emmissions laws), the post-peak-oil production world of tomorrow will see all regions of the U.S. concerned with local government and production. Why? Sprawlburbia is totally dependent on cheap oil.

Kunstler makes a case for this futurescape's resemblance to a 19th century American town, with local food grown in outlying areas and backyards, and the general collapse of the Walmart/big box/suburban economy.

Is there the slightest hint of optimism and wishful thinking to Kunstler's oft-repeated post-sprawl future? I don't see big boxes dying with the end of cheap oil. I see the government ensuring the continuance of the big box economy with transportation subsidies, much as the Feds today prop up and bail out the giant, unsuccessful airline industry. Whereas the Walmart economy currently threatens mom n' pop capitalism, the end of cheap oil and the merging of mega-corporate big boxes could drive the last nail into small capitalism's coffin. After all, many, many people live within hiking (by 19th century standards) distance to a Walmart today. I live a half mile from a Walmart SuperCenter site (the neighborhood fights it now, but we're gonna lose); my momma lives 5 miles from a SuperCenter being built right now in New Orleans; my sister lives 3 miles from a Super Target.

Small, rural towns in the Midwest (the classic ravaged Main Streets WalMart leaves in its wake) are even riper for the big-box monopoly future. They, after all, will have been shopping for most of their things at Walmarts for the past generation, while their 19th century main street infrastructures were left to nesting pigeons and their guano, a local florist, antique shops, the dance studio (ie daycare for after school), the historical society, and a stripped down bar, each things Walmart hadn't figured out a way of selling yet.

Who can honestly not imagine a WalMart SuperCenter within 3 miles of 90% of the population containing (in place of its tire and automotive area), a Starbucks inside the McDonalds, a Curves fitness center, a "care on demand" emergency health clinic, an E-Bayer station, a state-sponsored bank, a Bennigan's (or Flingers or Tchotchky's)and a building supply area? The garden and landscaping areas of the ancient 21st century Walmarts will have long since been replaced by in-house Walmart bookstores featuring only titles the folks in Bentonville, Arkansas deem readable. Reading will experience a resurgence because so many people will endure 2-hour commutes on company-built commuter trains. Borders Books, long since driven out of the big-box economy because of its insistence on carrying liberal and progressive titles, will have been reduced to its original store in Ann Arbor, which will remain one of the few old style college towns in the country.

I also foresee the future Walmart monopoly being dry. Liquor stores will be rare and very expensive. Plenty of folks will desire to go back to the good old days of residential taverns, but their hands will be tied by ever-more homogenizing zoning restrictions in the suburbs. Rather than encouraging small-scale entrepreneurialism after the collapse of suburbia, national and local government will simply work toward making sure all needs are included under Walmart's roof. This consolidation of retail/entertainment/culture trade will just make the whole deal easier to regulate and tax.

Someday a gallon of gas will cost a hundred dollars. Who among us cannot imagine darkened retail corridors, abandoned strip malls, defunct gas stations, looted E-Z marts, shot out CVS', weedy Pier 1 parking lots, burned down business hotels -- all the while watching bigger and bigger Walmart SuperCenters pop up, with bigger and bigger yellow smiley faces on billboards newly erected on suburban streets?

What is your neighborhood, town, city, state and nation doing to help prepare for the coming collapse of the car culture?

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