“The emersive ugliness of the everyday environments of America is entropy made visible.” So begins James Howard Kunstler’s 2004 presentation at TED. Entropy made visible. Yesterday morning I drove past the construction site of an older section of my township and I witnessed entropy visible. What has been for thousands of years a quiet patch of trees and thickets is now turning into a spate of modern huts composed of gaudy slabs of beige yogurt.
Entropy Made Visible
After I put my little one down to bed last night, I Googled through my disgust and found the video below. It’s about 20 minutes of your valuable time, but if you care about regaining a civil (and humorous) perspective on modern Suburbia, please watch this (if you don’t have time, bookmark this page or subscribe to my feed so you can enjoy it later):
Kunstler makes clear to us the vitality of civil design in our life. We have a responsibility to design meaningful spaces to live. Unfortunately, we don’t always get to see this basic need because we are accustomed and blind to the landscapes we build around ourselves. I don’t know how we’re going to get back to dwelling among more remarkable designs, but I know we owe it to ourselves and our children to do a far better job. Some kinds of form are critically functional.
The Public Realm
The public realm is a place that we aught to value, to care for, a place to “dwell in hopeful presence” as Kunstler points out. He says that our public places aught to have these key ingredients:
- A well-defined space
- A permeable membrane (e.g shops, bistros, cafes)
- A place that you want to hang
- A pleasurable experience
The next time you pass your local mall or shopping center take a good look. Do you love what you see there? I don’t either.
If we build places that we don’t care for then we degrade the very places we live in. We degrade ourselves, our presence in the world, and our future; and we squander the very world into which we bring forth children. Look around the communities we have been building–do you really care for these places? Would you die fighting for them? This isn’t about the eye-soars associated with low-income slums. We are seeing more and more high-income atrocities of culture: McMansions abound like enormous fungal curses upon the land. We were entrusted by the universe with a beautiful world, with a free land and with enough brains to make the best of both. But what are we doing with that trust? I think we’re failing it. What’s the opportunity cost of lost trust? I don’t want us to lose trust. Not in ourselves. Not on the world stage. Not the trust our youth deserves from us.
I don’t know what kind of bargains we keep making with the devils within us, but it doesn’t look good. Literally. There comes a turning point in every civilization when it decides to either re-enlighten itself or to just throw itself on the Pagan fires of its self-constructed doom.
The ancient Romans had something important to say about the nature of nature:
Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret.
(You can expel nature with a fork, but she will return.)
Which is to say that you can only temporarily carve out of nature’s bounty. If you live a life that is not in tandem with nature, then nature will find a way to snuff you out. This isn’t to say that we all need to drop what we’re doing and sit around in caves eating bowls of salad. That perspective belongs to fanatics (paradoxically that’s the sort of madness our disconnection with nature is breeding daily). We don’t need to be paranoid about our carbon footprints. We just need to be mindful of nature’s built-in incentive to work with it. Maybe we need to build entirely new social marketing tools devoted to the fundamental project of civilization: intelligent design.
The Grandeur That Could Be Ours
The Romans arrived at wisdom too late. It’s not too late for us. But: the scarce resource of our given time is slithering away like a furious viper. We need to find a better use of the resources entrusted to us. Capitalism, democracy and freedom are all at stake. Ironically, for all of the architectural ingenuity of the Romans, in the end it was a carpenter who they nailed into history and their own coffin. This isn’t a matter of being cheap politically in vogue; it’s a simple matter of being alive and happy.