Monday, February 19, 2007

The Unsustainable Strip Mall Existence.

Today I found myself travelling through the netherworld of a typical American exurb. This setup is repeated countless times across the national landscape, and people pass through without ever reflecting on its meaning. It represents convenience, familiarity and "progress". Yet it is an insidious sign of the homogenization of our culture. It's Walmart, Sam's Club, Best Buy, Starbucks, McDonalds, Target, Barnes and Noble and a few dozen other chains that dominate the newest of public spaces. There are no sidewalks and no pedestrians. No one bikes or walks their dog there. You won't find anything resembling a public square, where people could congregate outside, milling among other members of the community- because there is no community. There is no residential development integrated seemlessly within the area. That would be impossible.

If you go to grab lunch at one of the many franchise restaurants, you will find that 90% of the menus are identical, regardless of the marketing scheme of each location. The food you'll eat will be bland and inoffensive. There will be no distinctive flavors to startle your palate. Your environment wil be carefully manufactured to appear authentic to whatever cultural influence the eatery claims... but upon closer inspection you will find nothing but artifice and illusion. After lunch you can get in your car and drive 500 yards to a store for some shopping. Everything you pick up will have been mass produced thousands of miles from whatever location you are in. These products will appeal to your sense of belonging and identity as a US citizen. The packaging will be elaborate, but the quality of the items will be suspect- as none of it will have been manufactured with a sense of craftsmanship or durable simplicity. Everything is made with its obsolescence predetermined by careful research and the logic of accounting. You will be lulled into a series of robotic, trancelike movements as you subconsciously negotiate your consumer experience.

Far from upsetting people, this cookie cutter existence is actually sought after. Many Americans actually form their identify by conforming to the demographic imperatives that corporations invent to sell their products. Meanwhile anything of any significant cultural value is pushed to the margins. For each big box store that opens its doors, dozens of independently owned businesses are pushed out. People who have struggled to create their own specialized merchant shops are forced to relinquish their dream of being their own boss. And all the individual character and charm that has been built through the history of a specific place (whether city, region or town) is lost forever. That is the reality of the American Way. People even empower their leaders to export this "freedom" to the rest of the world in an orgy of global corporate imperialism. Because if Iraqis or Afghanis had strip malls, then they would finally understand that "we are right". Never mind the origins of human civilization... this is survival of the fittest (or should that be "fattest").

Even beyond the aesthetics and the cultural loss, I often speculate on the ultimate ramifications of building this type of society. What will happen to the exurbs when cheap oil recedes forever into history? All of the money that has been invested to build these strip malls and highways will be wasted. With the illusion of perpetual growth, we have mortgaged our future. This is an unsustainable system. And the irony is that many of the people who choose to live in the housing development sprawl of the exurbs bemoan any type of taxation for "social programs". They have escaped the problems of the cities, and have decided that they need not bother with other people's problems. Yet they fail to see the hypocrisy in their political beliefs. They believe that they have made their lives through their own self-reliance, without government support. But their lifestyles would be impossible without the highway subsidies that are funded with tax dollars. They wouldn't be able to maintain their detachment from social problems without the cheap energy bought and paid for by huge military expenditures- all financed through public spending.

The politics promoted and enabled by the thinking of such exurbanites has proven to be a failure. The United States government is hopelessly in debt and its existence is artificially propped up by foreign investment. The US dollar is the currency of the oil trade, and thus it has a tenuous value. When the energy paradigm shifts, the entire economy is going to suffer. As the costs of fossil fuels rise and people begin to default on their mortgages... and the supranational corporations begin to enter bankruptcy... will those in the great sprawl be mired in the crumbling dust of their artficial dreams?

Will they crawl back to the cities in defeat? What type of reception do you think will await them?

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