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The Great Reordering

by Mark Peres

July 7,2008

The evidence is pouring in. From standing-room only on light-rail, the a run on scooters and the rise of telecommuting to the redesign of milk cartons, and sport utility vehicles and McMansions losing value overnight – the great reordering is underway. We are witnessing the long-prophesied tectonic shift from the cheap-energy, low-density, carbon-intensive culture that has defined us over the last 60 years to something different. There will be winners and there will be losers – and it’s happening fast.

Our entire post-WWII socioeconomic structure was built on seemingly endless low-cost crude and American multinational hegemony. We built suburb after suburb sprawling continuously into the countryside, thousands of miles of gargantuan asphalt highways, strip malls, interchanges and roads, separated our work from our homes from our schools from our shops, segregated races and incomes, and consumed and polluted and laid waste at a planet-scourging pace.

The heresy here is that the Greatest Generation got it wrong. Instead of reinvesting in our cities, they abandoned them. In the words of James Howard Kuntsler, after the war, “our cities were decanted.” The American Dream was redefined as a spacious, stuffed-filled, single-family home, a strip of pesticide-soaked grass and push-button gizmos that left you fat and stoned on the couch. Over the last 60 years, we have buttressed the dream with a ‘me-first’ addiction clothed in ‘self-help’ religiosity that has furthered our delusions of an abundant-rich universe that is there for our very own individual, gluttonous needs and desires.

That’s not to say that suburbia even when bad hasn’t been good – social order and shared values came from backyard grilling, safe cul-de-sacs and trimming the yard – but it has come at an awful cost. We paid for it with a massively inefficient allocation of resources that has left the nation in debt with collapsing infrastructure subject to the political whims of foreign, oil-producing, authoritarian regimes. The great reordering will soon see many of our suburbs becoming slums as foreclosure signs populate dusty, broken-glass, littered front yards.

Politicians and energy companies and developers will be blamed. The hue and cry will get deafening. Long-standing policies will change suddenly in the anxiety of the moment. Bio-fuels that raise the price of food? Sure. Off-shore drilling? Why not? Nuclear power plants next door? Absolutely, as long as it lets me suck off the grid and buy and consume and lead the dream that is my inalienable right to pursue.

The great reordering will lead to the loss of jobs once considered secure, and the creation of careers in entirely new places. Our own city, feeling shocks that just months ago seemed impossible, that were simply not part of our narrative, may shudder in response to the purchasing of local corporations as their market value plummets. Just watch the red as the electronic ticker tape goes by.

The disorder and displacement will be met by a countervailing consciousness – one that is green and communal and other-centered. There will be a surge – not only in militias and uniformed armies and terrorists that will fight with exponential lethality over diminishing resources – but also a surge in innovation and technology and behavior that will have us living differently. We will relearn. We will restructure. And the new ethos will call upon us to access collective intelligence and see our human journey in ecumenical light.

The century ahead will see this decade as seminal to the new age. This will be the decade in which the post-war suburban project came to an end; when all that supported it – cheap fossil fuels, mountainous landfills – became suspect. This will be the decade in which we will have spoken of inconvenient truths, Waste Allocation Load Lifters-Earth class, slow food and hybrids.

We have had great seismic shifts before. The last great restructuring was in our politics when old and new collided throughout the world in the 1960’s, bringing about mass social change. This restructuring is economic and environmental, challenging the very way we live and the ideas that give it meaning. But it is in this crisis that lay our opportunity to re-imagine success. We can re-think our cities, how we commute, what we need, and what we consider the good life. The evidence suggests an awakening to an entirely different kind of prophetic moment.

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