Sprawling across the generations

“You can’t expect us to give up our SUVs. The winters are harsh here.”

—Birmingham high school student, May 12, 2005


Last week I was a sort of moderator at an event in which the East Michigan Environmental Action Council tried to get high school students to notice that our enormously wasteful way of life can’t last all that much longer.

Alas, it seemed to me that the environmentalists mostly failed to make the sale. The occasion was the showing of a telling and largely witty film, The End of Suburbia, which satirizes the classic suburban split-level dream, and, worse, says the lifestyle most of us are living is about to come crashing down.

Most importantly, the film also pretty convincingly makes the case that we’re now at or past the world’s peak production of oil and gas. Which means, simply put, that regardless of politics, there’s going to be less and less fossil fuel, right as the world is daily demanding more and more of it.

What that means, in other words, is that before too long you’re not going to be able to get, or at least not be able to afford, the gas needed to drive your gas-guzzling recreational vehicle from Clarkston to Howell every day. Nor should we depend on hydrogen or solar or other alternative fuels to rescue us in the nick of time; the experts in the film all say they cost more energy than they save.

The program was at Seaholm High School in Birmingham, a community where it’s not all that unusual for teenagers to be presented with new cars for their 16th birthdays. Encouragingly, there were far more high school age students in the audience than might have been expected on a nice May evening. (Later, I learned that many of them got extra credit for going.)

When it was over, I asked for reaction, and deliberately called on all the high school students I could. “I’m not giving up my car or anything,” one ponytailed brunette said. The even more telling comment atop this column was made by a male student wearing a backward baseball cap.

Old bores my age might find it easy to roll our eyes. After all, we were much better at principled self-sacrifice (or at least high-minded-sounding rhetoric) “back in the day.” What selfish little pigs they all are now!

Yet I didn’t blame them, though the two students I mentioned might be advised to avoid careers requiring frequent important ethical decisions.

Frankly, we haven’t done very much to offer the next generation any kind of acceptable alternative — and The End of Suburbia isn’t much better. Like Marxism, it offers a stingingly effective critique of they way we’re living now, and virtually nothing about what we realistically all should do instead.

Toward the end of the movie, there is a little vague muttering about a new urbanism, by which I gather they meant fixing up the old downtowns.

That’s nice, and fundamentally useless. Listen: Human beings, the vast run of us anyway, are not naturally saints, and any social system that expects most of us to voluntarily renounce pleasures and comforts is doomed to fail.

However, most folks I know don’t want to be thought of as selfish greedheads, either. Here’s news for you: Like most members of the middle class, I get welfare, even though my family makes more than $100,000 a year.

My welfare is called a home mortgage deduction; the more house you buy, the more your taxes go down. I can deduct virtually all my house payment, and so can anyone who can “buy” a house. So guess what: People buy bigger and bigger houses farther and farther away from the old central city.

Gasoline, by world standards, is still very cheap, and big roomy vehicles are comfortable and convenient and you have a power trip sitting up there looking down at the world. What we in this country have done is create all sorts of incentives to produce urban sprawl and consume too much fuel.

Nor is there any sign this is changing. The other day I asked Kurt Metzger, research director for Wayne State University’s Center for Urban Studies, if he saw any sign that urban sprawl was slowing.

“Nah,” he said sardonically. In fact, his data shows that for every two new families being created in this area, there are three new houses being started.

Our government encourages this. We could do a lot to get things moving in the right direction instead. And it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how. First of all, do whatever is needed to make Detroit a place sane people would want to live, with schools and social services that work. In the long run, that would be a bargain.

Then, give tax breaks to those who make responsible choices, and put an extra tax on those who don’t. If we don’t want people to drive fuel-wasting vehicles, make them pay for the privilege. Want people not to move to Metamora? Make it economically worth their while to fix up a house in Ferndale or a house with some land attached in west Southfield.

At my forum, the brightest comments were made by Molly Shannon, a 16-year-old student at Birmingham Groves, the high school where my wife teaches and where, incidentally, Birmingham’s minorities have long been subtly channeled. Molly, who’s incredibly well-read and does have a social conscience, noted that “teenagers are controlled by the media, and so if the media encouraged environmentalism, then it could become cool.”

“Basically, action taken by the masses, and especially by the next generation, is all contingent on awareness and manipulation by the media, which has been training to do that for its entire history,” she wrote me later. Gosh, and we thought we had the younger generation fooled.

Environmentalists in the past have lost credibility by announcing Doomsday would arrive in 1985, etc. Nobody really knows when the big crisis will come. What we know for sure is that fossil fuels won’t last forever, and we can’t go on fouling our nests and abandoning them. So we have three choices: A) Pretend, with George W. Bush and Co., that the facts are all hooey, party on and hope the oil lasts till we die. B) Run around hollering doom, and be openly contemptuous of anyone not willing to give up their car or air conditioning right now. Or C) Fight for policies designed to create a better standard we can live with.

The hardest choice is the right one, of course. Not to decide is, of course, to vote for waiting till the big crash comes. That may well happen, but if we want any kind of future, we need to start working for something better.


Worth Watching: Whether you loved or hated him, crusty old Saul Wellman, former Michigan Stalinist, veteran of two major wars and committed revolutionary, was one of a kind. I spent a fascinating morning with him eight years ago at his home in Ann Arbor, hearing what it had been like to spend time with Ernest Hemingway during the Spanish Civil War.

Sunday, a wonderful new documentary, Professional Revolutionary: The Life of Saul Wellman, will have a local premiere at 3 p.m. in Wayne State’s General Lectures building.

An hour before, a reception will honor filmmakers Ron Aronson and Judith Montell, and will feature Victor Navasky, publisher and editorial director of The Nation. For tickets, call 313-577-0828 or e-mail [email protected].

Miss this event, and you are a hopeless dupe of the forces of reaction, or something.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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