All Commentary
Saturday, November 1, 2008

Gas Prices: The Latest Excuse to Reengineer Society

Are Current Lifestyles Unsustainable?

As someone who commutes 16 miles each way to work in a gas-guzzling sports car along the LA-area freeways, I’ve been less-than-amused by the nearly $5 a gallon I must pay for the premium fuel that keeps my mid-life-crisis-mobile running. Yet despite the misery of high prices, I’ve taken a certain joy in watching the market at work.

Certainly, gas prices are high for various reasons, not the least of them being ridiculous government regulatory, environmental, and monetary policies. Nevertheless, consumers and businesses respond rapidly to changing conditions and rising prices. A few months ago, I was surrounded on the freeways by large SUVs, minivans, and those mega-pickup trucks that look like they’ve been plucked from a monster-truck event at Anaheim Stadium. Of course, the roads still have their share of bigger vehicles, but these days the roads are abuzz with Focuses, Priuses, and Civics. Traffic is noticeably down, as drivers have cut back on trips or have chosen carpooling, mass transit, and other alternatives, such as telecommuting.

As the Los Angeles Times recently reported, Americans seem to have lost their “faith” in free markets in the wake of higher gas prices, the housing bust, and bank troubles. But whether or not individuals trust the market is not as important as this reality: they live by the market. They make changes—sometimes lifestyle changes—based on their own budgets, and price signals are more effective (and more in keeping with a free society) than government rules at spurring such change.

So those of us who understand a few things about free markets aren’t too worried (beyond our normal pocketbook considerations) when we see the trends. As long as the government doesn’t place too many barriers in the way, increasing gas prices will make it economically feasible for oil companies to find new sources of oil or more efficiently tap existing wells. Oil alternatives will spring up. It doesn’t matter if my car is powered by gasoline or chicken droppings. People might be encouraged to adjust their lifestyles somewhat, but I would be shocked if the energy situation causes widespread changes in most Americans’ daily lives.

Doomsayers Versus the Market

Every “crisis,” however, gives voice to those who believe that current lifestyles are “unsustainable” and must be changed—for the sake of the planet! The telling point: these doomsayers never are content allowing the natural market process to cause these changes. Nope. They always are pushing for government policies to mandate the changes.

James Howard Kunstler is the author of World Made by Hand, described as “a novel about America’s post-oil future.” He is closely associated with the New Urbanist and Smart Growth movements, which seek to use government regulation to promote high-density urban living and restrict the development of traditional suburbs. In a June 8 column in the Dallas Morning News, Kunstler seemed almost gleeful about the high energy prices that have been annoying car-driving Americans.

“Everywhere I go these days, talking about the global energy predicament on the college lecture circuit or at environmental conferences, I hear an increasingly shrill cry for ‘solutions,’ ” Kunstler wrote. “This is just another symptom of the delusional thinking that now grips the nation. . . . I say this because I detect in this strident plea the desperate wish to keep our ‘Happy Motoring’ utopia running by means other than oil and its byproducts. But the truth is that no combination of solar, wind and nuclear power, ethanol, biodiesel, tar sands and used French fry oil will allow us to power Wal-Mart, Disney World and the Interstate Highway System—or even a fraction of these things—in the future. We have to make other arrangements.”

In Kunstler’s view, our modern economic system doesn’t create vibrant economies, healthy diets, and wonderful health care. Instead, our oil-based “utopia” is about keeping running those things most disdained by Kunstler and other environmental elites—theme parks, discount stores, highways.

Kunstler, who is a fairly typical voice among environmental/urban-planning doomsayers, sees no possibility for additional oil exploration or for meaningful alternatives. Once “global demand for oil exceeds the global supply,” that’s it. Our “complex systems of daily life” will be shaken to the core. Everything will change. He lists these things: food production, commerce and trade, our means of travel, urban development, our acquisition of capital, governance, health care, education, and more. “These problems are all interrelated. They all face a crisis.”

Are We in Denial?

The nation is, in his view, engaged in a massive fantasy or is in a deep state of denial. Most of us are too dimwitted to understand what Kunstler sees:

So what are intelligent responses to our predicament? First, we’ll have to dramatically reorganize the everyday activities of American life. We’ll have to grow our food closer to home, in a manner that will require more human attention. In fact, agriculture needs to return to the center of economic life. We’ll have to restore local economic networks—the very networks that the big-box stores systematically destroyed—made of fine-grained layers of wholesalers, middlemen and retailers. We’ll also have to occupy the landscape differently, in traditional towns, villages and small cities. Our giant metroplexes are not going to make it, and the successful places will be ones that encourage local farming.

Kunstler sees an end to regular airline travel, but believes that “fixing the U.S. passenger railroad system is probably the one project we could undertake right away that would have the greatest impact on the country’s oil consumption.” But don’t worry, he explains, “We don’t have to be crybabies about this.” Americans simply need to understand that we can’t keep “getting something for nothing” and we need to be “honest about the way the universe really works.”

These are shocking suggestions, of course, and when Kunstler says “we,” one can only surmise that he means “the government.” Most Americans tend to be unwilling to dramatically reorganize their everyday lives just because some academics don’t like their suburban, car-oriented lifestyles. But Kunstler does remind us, albeit accidentally, about one way the world works: ideologues try to gain power for their world-saving visions, and if they do, the rest of us better watch out. Kunstler’s ideas seem more closely related to Pol Pot’s urban-clearing experiment than anything envisioned by our founders.

There’s so much silliness here to debunk. How exactly could farmers grow sufficient amounts of food close to home here in the sprawling 17-million-population, quasi-desert Los Angeles basin? If anyone tried this, wouldn’t industrial techniques be needed to produce the highest possible yield on the least amount of land if it were to succeed? Yet Kunstler wants this food to have “more human attention.” He wants agriculture to return to the center of our economic life. I suppose the government can tear up the existing network of freeways and plant corn and alfalfa there instead, but I can’t quite see why this is such a necessity. I don’t have any great desire to spend my days either harvesting food or working as a cog in one of those “fine-grained layers of wholesalers, middlemen and retailers.” Then again, personal desire has no place in this dystopia. (As urban author Jane Jacobs wrote, “As in all utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planners in charge.”) Kunstler is saying that we should give up our professions as writers, academics, doctors, entrepreneurs, and builders and instead trade foodstuffs or sell things in giant farmers’ markets. No thank you. Now you see why a little force might be necessary to implement this vision.

As a prominent New Urbanist/Smart Growther, Kunstler predictably prefers living in small, traditional towns. Most New Urbanists I know are content building Yuppie malls that pretend to be old townes (you’ve got to have the “e” at the end if you want to target the right demographic), railing against suburbia, and lobbying city councils to stop proposed new housing tracts. But how exactly would those of us living in suburbia come to occupy the landscape differently? I know Kunstler’s proposal is post-apocalyptic. He sees the oil crisis as a shock to the current system. But, still, we can’t just abandon the equity (such as it is in this declining market!) in our four-bedroom “McMansions” (the derogatory elitist term for newer suburban homes), push our $30,000 cars over the cliffs at Malibu, and try to find some village in the Sierras to move into.

Yet it’s Kunstler who suggests that the rest of us are living in a fantasy world.

Not everyone in the environmental and planning “communities” is looking to such radical solutions, but there’s lots of gloating about high gas prices by anti-suburban scolds.

In an article titled “Gas Prices Changing the Face of America,” the website “Smart Growth America” argues: “Though struggling with near-term implications, many are starting to wonder how a future of costly energy will reshape their lives and landscape. You can already see it in the housing market, where people are unable to unload McMansions in partly finished, distant subdivisions for the same reason they can’t sell their large SUVs: Potential buyers don’t want the high gas bills. Americans are beginning to ask themselves the big questions: ‘How did we get to a situation where the only option we have is to drive? Why can’t I take a train to work? Why can’t my kids walk to school like I did?’”

Of course, it’s perfectly reasonable for people to seek out such options when gas prices go up (although as a former East Coast transit rider, I can’t understand the love affair with dirty buses and crammed subway cars). Farther-out suburbs are suffering the most as gas prices soar, for the obvious reason that it becomes more costly to commute from such neighborhoods. It would be nice for Smart Growthers to call for fewer building regulations rather than more of them, which would enable more Americans to live closer to their jobs. But that’s expecting a bit much from activists who believe that Americans should live packed together in condos and apartments.

Increased Government Control

The Smart Growth folks have a series of proposals also detailed on the website. They almost all involve more government control over land use and other decisions. The philosophy is best summarized by this proposal: “By directing growth to communities where people already live and work, smart growth limits the amount of farmland and open space that is developed, makes existing communities more attractive—with a mix of housing, restaurants, parks, cafes, and jobs, and minimizes the need for new water, sewer and road infrastructure that increase taxpayer burdens.”

This is all about coercion. All growth will be directed into existing communities. Farmland and open space will be “protected” from growth. This Smart Growth agenda would obliterate America’s system of property rights. If cities are bad, and the countryside must be protected, then where will 300 million Americans live? Wouldn’t the creation of a new village-based society cause the massive sprawl that these urban planners are so worried about? Ironically, some of Kunstler’s ideas have support among paleoconservatives, who are trying to create a Norman Rockwell-esque America. Don’t any of these folks have any concern about the ideas of freedom or individualism? Ignore the last question; we already know the answer.

Ideas generated by folks such as Kunstler, who was celebrated at a Congress for the New Urbanism conference I attended a couple of years ago, create the philosophical base for these Smart Growth organizations, which have successfully influenced planning groups and government organizations—so much so that we can see their footprint in every new subdivision built. One proposed near my house is typical. The city approved 16 homes on 30 acres, but all the homes must be crammed together on tiny lots, with the bulk of the land set aside as open space. That’s a New Urbanist concept. I’ve written about local cities that subsidize downtown development and promote condo construction and “live/work lofts” even as they use regulatory takings to deprive property owners of the right to build on open space. These are the real-world outgrowths of the Kunstler philosophy. It’s easy to laugh at the absurdity of what he proposes, but these doom-and-gloom scenarios lead to specific regulatory agendas. In California, state officials are using global-warming rules and water access as specific means to shut down suburban growth. At the federal level a California Democratic congresswoman and a Republican senator are pushing for a return to that old Nixon- and Carter-era “gas-saving” standby—the 55 mph national speed limit. Never mind that most Americans drive at the natural speed limit of any given road and that few savings would result. There’s no end to coercive proposals by those who are hostile to freedom and the market or believe that government’s role is to prod and improve individuals to help them make the “right” decisions.

The Survival of Suburbia

Media coverage certainly enhances the urgency of these proposals. A recent news story was headlined, “Is America’s Suburban Dream Collapsing into a Nightmare?” The article was about the subprime mess, which has certainly been nightmarish for some individuals. But suburbia, I suspect, will survive. If anything, the subprime-driven housing crisis is a needed self-correction of a government-driven problem. But that’s a difficult argument to make in the face of Armageddon! Here’s Kunstler again (he’s so quotable) from a speech he gave in 2005 to the PetroCollapse New York Conference:

We’ve become a nation of overfed clowns and crybabies, afraid of the truth, indifferent to the common good, hardly even a common culture, selfish, belligerent, narcissistic whiners seeking every means possible to live outside a reality-based community. These are the consequences of a value system that puts comfort, convenience, and leisure above all other considerations. . . . We’ve signed off on all other values since the end of World War II. . . . Consumers have no duties, obligations or responsibilities to anything besides their own desire to eat more Cheez Doodles and drink more beer.

Apparently, Kunstler’s issues go deeper than concern about the loss of an important energy source. Keep these quotations in mind, though, given that they offer a window in the thinking of those who will use this and every other “crisis” to push for what they have always really wanted: massive, government reorganization of society.

  • Steven Greenhut is senior fellow and western region director for the R Street Institute. In this role, he is responsible for running R Street’s West Coast office in Sacramento, California and leading R Street’s work on legislation and issues affecting the western states.