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The Big Answer

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Home from Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World for the 21st Century

a book by James Howard Kunstler

(our site's book review)

The author notes that “insidious corporate colonialism” has abolished community—places that were worth caring about, sinking roots in, and nourishing for the duration of a generation or so. And without community, family life suffers, because isolated families cannot bear the burden of filling all the needs of their members. Spouses routinely fail at completely filling each other’s needs for a very simple reason: It’s impossible. Without community networks and connections, needs will go unmet, and family members’ efforts to mitigate this result only in adding insult to injury. And people get angry, blame the person rather than the lifestyle, and divorce, abuse, hit, or simply indulge in alcoholism or other forms of substance abuse. We’re in danger of losing our very selves, says Kunstler.

He points out that America is so far ahead of other countries in the entertainment industry because people don’t really like where and how they live and are therefore preoccupied with fantasy and make-believe. This is startlingly correct, of course. He didn’t just get off the boat.

Kunstler didn’t just get off the boat—his thinking has depth
Kunstler didn’t just get off the boat—his thinking has depth

He asserts that the metaphor of the isolated nuclear family home constituting the “good life” is in reality an antisocial view of human existence. He says that we must cease pretending that urban and suburban life is a never-ending episode of Little House on the Prairie, and develop a new notion of the good life, and then develop a physical form that accommodates it. [Think MC, and look at the MC drawings.]

He says suburbia is antisocial and deficient and not 'the good life'
He says suburbia is antisocial and deficient and not 'the good life'

He says that the needed knowledge for restoring decent human environments can be found in “. . . the cultural garbage barge where we tossed it a few decades ago.” We need to cease supporting the spread of suburbia and settle for nothing less than a good living environment.

Is he naïve enough to believe that the negative physical environment is the whole problem? No: “. . . we desperately need orphanages for the uncared-for children of incompetent parents, or a kind of combined orphanage and group home in which incompetent parents might live with their children under supervision while they learn the skills of parenting.” This is a bit too liberal-progressive and welfare state and socially engineered to be any kind of long-term solution, of course, but it at least beats supporting the continuation of the cycles of abuse, crime, fear, neglect and sociopathic germination, as long as it was used only short-term and only while a better alternative is evolving. [Think MC.]

It would shake things up and scream “no more” to breeding drug-pushing sociopaths as a way of life. But the interventionist, social engineering aspects of it make one gag nearly as much as the abusive, negative environments, and we’ll be the first to admit it. But policies already exist wherein kids in hell-homes are put in foster homes. The kids deserve this step up, regardless of its intrusiveness. So admitting that Kunstler’s solution is better than keeping kids in a hell-home is no real stretch.

Foster homes are better than keeping kids in hell-homes, which feel like this picture
Foster homes are better than keeping kids in hell-homes, which feel like this picture

Like most social thinkers, he sees the rights/responsibilities imbalance and wants it corrected. This particular author puts a bit too much stock in the curative possibilities inherent in moving suburbanites back to the towns and cities where there can be “. . . a place that is worth caring about.” It isn’t the suburbs per se that are the major culprit, but the type of relating, communication, childcare and parenting that comes out of such a life.

It’s quite possible to transform the quality of such relationships even in the suburban setting and have an environment worth caring about—especially if families on blocks cooperate to form an integrated block plan with a central hub, common space in a large, common back yard, and appropriate walkways. Of course, this cannot work unless the people who engage in it are very good friends who trust one another—including in the childcare area. And all this would be extremely unlikely to simply naturally evolve on either a suburban or urban block without the aid of computer matching.

Without people registering, MCs cannot form
Without people registering, MCs cannot form

In other words, the MC movement can make life work well even in the suburbs that Kunstler despises so much, as long as residents are willing to make simple but necessary environmental adjustments regarding landscape integration, fences, walkways, and a hub/sun/common space, and as long as old, dysfunctional communication, parenting and relationship practices are replaced with MC ones—Authoritative and Democratic Parenting Programs. This doesn’t mean that ticky tacky cracker-box suburban environments aren’t intrinsically depressing and human-spirit-numbing. It just means that one has to work that much harder to create an inspiring MC environment in such a place, since the families there already have a lot working against them.

In line with this and Kunstler’s valid anti-suburban arguments, we’d recommend that people starting MCs realize that they’re for the long haul (they’re long-term, rooted environments) so they’re better off all moving to (or building) a decent physical environment before starting an MC. See Why Register for an MC?.

One option: building a better environment
One option: building a better environment

The author wants the middle class and wealthy to return to the cities and forget the pretentiousness of suburban life, but he says this won’t happen unless the cities can be made habitable and the suburban equation turns out to be an economic failure (unlikely). He faults Republicans for pushing suburbia but at the same time deploring the social problems which persist because of the flight to the suburbs. Their “family values” sound good until one finds out who is the biggest culprit in destroying the context for such values to remain alive and well.

He also bemoans the excessive use of automobiles, pollution, the barrier to civic life that the automobile represents, commuting, and conspicuous suburban garages. (The pedestrian pocket fixes this since it has emphasis on the front porch and de-emphasis on the garage, and it relies upon mass transit, higher density development, and quality public space.)

The pedestrian pocket model relies upon mass transit, higher density development and quality public space.
The pedestrian pocket

His ideas about trying to get neighborhoods to be mixed-use in the sense of integrating people with different incomes may be a bit too idealistic. People are more comfortable and neighborly with others in their economic class—mix up these classes and you get guilt and resentment, distrust and psychological projection, envy and suspicion. Also too idealistic is the idea that people will willingly take five minute walks to get where they need to go in their pedestrian pocket, as well as use mass transit to get to shopping or work. And the idea that civic art standards can replace zoning laws also may be a bit too idealistic. Zoning—in spite of its shortcomings—has a lot to do with keeping living environments safer, more secure, more enjoyable and more aesthetic.