I sit and write these words while I’m traveling for my work to a professional conference halfway across the country in another nameless city that is typically a carbon copy of another nameless city I visited the year before. The cities blend together after a while, because there really isn’t much difference between them: same Mariotts and Hilton Hotels with their elaborate and, frankly embarrassing, excesses, same busy streets, the same dead-looking people scurrying about. I’ve accepted this travel as a necessary evil of my profession, but it does give me a good opportunity to reflect upon my experiences and our larger system in which I begrudgingly take part. Today’s meditation focuses on the nature of place: its personal, civic, and spiritual connections.
In the airport, food options are limited, and I haven’t brought quite enough with me to sustain me for the entire journey in the face of flight delays. I carefully look at my options for food, and finally select a restaurant that has a famous chef’s name attached to it. It has a berry salad on the menu that looked appealing. The salad arrives, looking delicious: fresh greens, feta cheese, raspberry vinaigrette, mandarin oranges, strawberries and grapes. I pause, taking a moment to be thankful for the plants who have given their lives for me to eat this and thankful for the sheep who produced the milk for the feta. And then I begin to think about this salad, how it is so far from being rooted in a local place, so far from being seasonal or local. Where did this food come from? The vinaigrette does not taste freshly made–it kinda has a rubbery taste to it and has a weird consistency. The oranges, grapes, and strawberries came from somewhere warm. The greens, the feta–do I really want to know? The food certainly isn’t local to Detroit this time of year. Under what conditions was it produced? The problem is, there is literally no way to find out where this food is produced nor under what circumstances: this is not a question one can ask. My guess is that the food comes from one or more of the big restaurant distributors (like Gordon’s Food service). Tracing these strawberries or fresh greens back to a farm is impossible because the system is designed to prevent such activity. What I do know, however, is that this salad is well branded by the name of the famous chef. That’s all I’m meant to know–the branding, the distributor. My stomach gone sour, I manage to get the rest of the salad down and walk out of the restaurant, looking at the long line of chain establishments in airport culture. This airport could be any airport; this meal eaten anywhere. This “faceless and nameless” salad is just one symptom of a larger problem, what James Howard Kunsler calls the “Geography of Nowhere.”
I’ve traveled to most of the big cities in the USA in the last ten years as I’ve attended various conferences as part of the work of my profession. Some cities make more of an attempt than others to have some local sense of place and unique identity (Austin, San Francisco, and New Orleans being the most successful of those I’ve visited). But that local sense of place is often obscured by the rubber stamped replication of the same stores everywhere: Rite-Aid, Walmart, Wendy’s, Outback Steakhouse, McDonald’s, Subway, Bank of America, Friday’s, the list goes on and on. Most places, big or small, are dominated by the same stores everywhere–and the monotony is deafening. We have gotten to the point, in 2015, where there are still local places to be found in these towns and cities across the US, but they are often harder to find and they are shutting down at alarming rates. When you do find these local gems, you realize that even these local places are often dependent on the industrialized machine for functionality, because that is the only way to stay profitable. The local diner, ran by a local owner, still uses Gordon’s food service for all of their food needs. Local food, of course, is just one casualty of this rubber-stamped replication–I think the others are happiness, localized wealth and economies, and a true sense of community.
I’ve been thinking about this issue of being rooted in a place, of our lost localness and uniqueness, after returning from Costa Rica. The contrast between the US and Costa Rica is so stark: where everywhere you went in Costa Rica, local and unique businesses thrived. You were able to meet the owners–they were serving your food grown on a local farm, they were showing you to your room, and they were excited to sell you the wares that they in many cases had produced themselves. And you could literally taste the difference–every meal was fantastic, locally sourced right there in the community. Every place you stayed was unique and wonderful. Could you imagine of things were like that here, as they once were?
James Howard Kunsler’s Geography of Nowhere attempts to make sense of the faceless, nameless, rubber-stamped geographies–what he calls dehumanizing places. He argues that the automobile is to blame for much of this as it allowed for continued expansion (an colonizing mentality); it allowed people to move further and further out into the suburbs and become entirely dependent upon the automobile; and it encouraged the destruction of energy-efficient public transportation. It was GM who systematically purchased and destroyed street car lines in the earlier part of the 20th century, making way for wider roads and bus systems. I have seen the results of this firsthand in the Detroit Metro area, where practically no public transportation exists (and you hear of stories like this man who walked to work 21 miles). The lack of public transportation also results in horrific traffic and mean attitudes on the road–a truely unpleasant experience.
The suburbs themselves in every place, including both housing and commercial establishments, became areas of isolation not accessible without a personal car. Think about any strip mall or line of stores along a major roadway you’ve visited, and how its impossible to go between them, impossible to walk anywhere between them and how dangerous it feels to be out of your car. Think about the winding roads of your nearest subdivision–and the repressive laws within. The sprawl encourages isolation. And thinking about this while you are flying above–you can see how far the sprawl has gone, how visible our sprawl is from the skies…
Of course, what Kunsler is really arguing is that modern-day America just feels wrong. It feels wrong, uncomfortable, and yet its all that most of us have ever known. We have to take vacations to get “away from it all” and when we return, it crushes us. I have certainly experienced this firsthand–after attending a spiritual retreat for 8 days a few years ago, I remember getting in the car at with a friend to drive back to Michigan. Our first rest stop, a few hours into our journey, was full of loud televisions, walls of plastic-packaged products, screaming children demanding toys, and food fryers tended by unhappy-looking pimply faced teens. I literally lost it and could not return inside–my heart was racing, my palms were sweaty; it was a full-blown panic attack, the first one that I had ever experienced. Even when you aren’t dealing with reverse culture shock, it still takes a lot of energy to go out into the world, into the geography of nowhere. Even though I depend on the big businesses a heck of a lot less than I used to, I still need toilet paper or canning jars once in a while. Going into it the world of strip malls and big box stores is uncomfortable; the people who are there shopping have these sad, numb, or dead looks on their faces (pay attention the next time you go shopping–you’ll see what I mean). Now that I’ve largely removed myself from it, it gets harder and harder to return each time. Its hard to explain to people who are still fully entrenched in the system–but sometimes when I tell a few like-minded friends about my difficulty in going out into it, they knowingly nod.
I also think the spiritual implications of the “geography of nowhere” are also of critical importance. When a new home in a subdivision out in the suburbs is created, an act of destruction takes place–an immediate destruction of the landscape. This is because the first thing that is done is that “developers” remove the topsoil and strip the land bare to the subsoil. Each teaspoon of healthy topsoil, contains over a million bacteria, 100 grams of fungal hyphae, 10,000 protozoa, hundreds of beneficial nematodes and microanthropods–in other words, so much life, the web of life upon which all other plants and animals depend. The topsoil is turned into another commodity by the “developers” which is bagged and sold to big box stores, and then the new owners of the house have to buy it back, but by then, this soil web of life is long dead. After stripping the life from the land, humans are ready to inhabit the land, complete with fossil-fuel dependent cars and chemlawns. How can a place like this, rooted in so much destruction, have any sense of the sacred? Most habitations and most buildings are constructed in the same way–the land is stripped bare with no thought or care for the life that may already exist there; the homes or buildings are placed not in harmony with it, but in many cases, opposed to it, and then those buildings and homes and their inhabitants continue to pollute and dump chemicals. How can we engage in sacred actions, heal this land, when our habitations have caused such destruction in their creation? I think this accounts for so much of our disconnect from nature–the “nature” of grass inhabiting a chemlawn is not able to be connected with in the same way as that which came before the subdivision. This whole process already, from the time of its beginning, creates a destructive cycle that is only continued with the suburban sprawl. Truthfully, I have a hard time handling the energy of subdivisions or strip malls. They feel wrong to me on a cultural and personal level, but more than that, they feel wrong to me on a spiritual level. And the contradictory thing here is that each time I enter–what happens? I contribute to that destruction. The contradictions of living–in any way–in modern consumerist society are so apparent.
The civic implications of such a geography are also important. When people are kept so far apart and are isolated, there is no sense of community nor democracy. The isolation with means that people don’t interact with those different from them–and this can lead to misunderstandings, resentment, and more (think about the war on the poor; the lack of care and compassion for the needy; the cold-hearted approach to so much social justice we see). No sense of community exists when corporations provide all of your needs, and you no longer need to depend upon each other. I think the concepts of democracy have failed our modern age for a lot of reasons, but certainly, our destructive and isolated living habits have certainly contributed.
One could say, in thinking about the geography of nowhere and our loss of a sense of local identity and place, that the corporations have stolen our communities. That they have somehow stolen our local identities from us–but I think the truth is much harder to hear. We have willingly acquiesced to their presence in every city and town and rural area in our lives. We have done this at great cost to ourselves, our environments, and our communities. Every time we decide to purchase a house in a subdivision, to shop at a big box store in a strip mall, or eat at a chain store, we are contributing. Perhaps, as someone sitting on the edge of the Millennial generation (born in 1981, graduating high school in 1999), I want to lay the blame at those who rejected the movements toward sustainability in the 1970’s, before I was born or when I was a young child incapable of knowing better. But again, I look towards the actions in my adult life and know the blame sits with every one of us, regardless of our generation or our previous life choices. And its up to each of us to make a change.
The question becomes: what can we do about this? I think there are individual things we can do, and also larger-picture cultural things that can be done. On the individual side, I think the first thing to do is to recognize that in a capitalist system, there is a simple law of supply and demand. Whatever there is a demand for, whatever is profitable, creates the jobs, moves the markets, and so on, is what is purchased–and purchasing power can have tremendous pull. The craft beer movement is an excellent example of this. At one time, Budweiser had almost 15% of the market; ten years later, it now has just 7%. Why? At some point, people realized that this mass-produced industrialized product labeled “beer” wasn’t really all that great, and instead opted for local breweries full of quirkiness, options, and above all, flavor. And now there are more local breweries than ever before. So more broadly, each time we purchase (or not purchase) something, we are essentially supporting not only that product, but that business and the way it conducts itself in the world. I cannot state this firmly enough. Don’t like the big box stores in the strip malls? Then find local alternatives–you’ll not only get better service, but you’ll get to often go to more interesting areas in town. The same is true of our homes–when we purchase or even choose to rent a particular kind of home (especially one in the suburbs) we are backing that way of life with our own dollars. Now for some of us, we are in homes and those choices are made and we are committed to them because of previous choices–but even then, there are lots of ways to levy positive change within existing communities. But if or when the choice comes again, can we choose a home that is within walkable proximity to a downtown area? Can we choose a home that doesn’t contribute to suburban sprawl? As I’ve suggested before on this blog, each and every action we take is a chance to make positive change in the world. And for me, this isn’t just talk–I know how hard what I’m suggesting is to actually enact!
The larger issue here is that intentional planning and selling of a particular ideology to generations past and present has gotten us into this mess, and more intentional planning and education is probably what is needed to get us out. Kunsler suggests something similar in Geography of Nowhere and argues that new urban planners can design smarter, more localized, and more community-driven cities and towns. I think there’s a lot of potential here, but again, it takes groups of people who want these things to manifest them. I also will mention permaculture design here, as permaculture design isn’t just a design science for lawns–it can also be used to design effective communities. What would happen if we designed spaces using permaculture’s three ethical principles: fair share, care for people, and care for earth? Transformation!
Like most of the more philosophical posts I write on this blog, there are no easy answers. There are just the hard questions, and the question that each of us can ask: what can I personally do? What can we collectively do? The answers to these questions will help us continue to navigate into the future yet unknown.