Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Zombie America - installment 2

(Second in a series)

America is in decline. The signs are all around us.  These are the words with which I began this series, but I was wrong - it isn't just America, its the entire advanced industrialized world.

Advanced capitalist industrial societies are all zombies - we all died some time ago, we just didn't notice we'd become the walking dead.

The first indicator of this decline that I talked about in the first installment is the desertion of communities, first small towns, and now urban neighborhoods and cities.  All my examples were from the United States, because until today, I was unaware that the exact same trend is occurring in Europe.

Yesterday, I began reading a fascinating, almost lyrically written, work of non-fiction The Coming Population Crash And Our Planet's Surprising Future by Fred Pearce (Beacon Press 2010). There on page 87, at the beginning of chapter 10, were these words:
"Even at eight p.m. on a sunny summer's evening, the roads were empty in Chemnitz [Germany], an industrial center known for forty years as Karl-Marx-Stadt. The tiny summer houses on suburban allotments were deserted. I have seen the derelict, rust belt landscapes of former industrial towns before--not least in England, on trains from Sheffield to Doncaster or Birmingham to Wolverhampton.But this world seemed drained of people. In Bavaria, I had asked if anyone ever went to Dresden or beyond. Most shuddered at the idea. I could have been asking about Chernobyl. Of course there were people about, but far fewer than there once were."
Pearce goes on to give details of the abandonment of the industries, towns and cities of the eastern portions of Germany. In the eastern town of Hoyerswerda the main municipal activity is tearing down buildings and "giving street after street "back to nature;" a description that readily fits the conditions of Detroit in the U.S. as well.

The film below examines the dismantling of Detroit:

The second indicator that America is a zombie society, is the dismantling of basic public amenities such as roads, water systems, sewer systems that were once assumed to be part of modern community life. 

I live in one of the few areas of America that never achieved those things.  In the coal fields of eastern Kentucky where I live, municipal water systems have never reached more than 30 percent of the residents of this region. Municipal sewage service reaches only about 20 percent. The last significant expansion of water and sewer services in my county was 10 years ago (when my neighborhood got "city" water). Sewer was suppose to follow that within a few years, but never did. As I read reports about the retrenchment of such services in more urban communities, I begin to realize that sewer probably never is coming to my neighborhood.

Paved roads are being dismantled in America. Across the nation, smaller municipalities are finding that they can no longer afford the costs for the petroleum based components of paved roads.

In a Wall Street Journal article, "Roads to Ruin: Towns Rip Up the Pavement: Asphalt Is Replaced By Cheaper Gravel; 'Back to Stone Age'" reporter By Lauren Etter describes the process in widening phenomenon:
"Paved roads, historical emblems of American achievement, are being torn up across rural America and replaced with gravel or other rough surfaces as counties struggle with tight budgets and dwindling state and federal revenue. State money for local roads was cut in many places amid budget shortfalls.

The heavy machines at work in Jamestown, N.D., are grinding the asphalt off road beds, grading the bed and packing the material back down to create a new road surface.

In Michigan, at least 38 of the 83 counties have converted some asphalt roads to gravel in recent years. Last year, South Dakota turned at least 100 miles of asphalt road surfaces to gravel. Counties in Alabama and Pennsylvania have begun downgrading asphalt roads to cheaper chip-and-seal road, also known as "poor man's pavement." Some counties in Ohio are simply letting roads erode to gravel."
Roads aren't the only modern amenity to take a hit in recent years. In Jefferson County, Alabama malfeasance, fraud, construction problems, rampant political corruption and a series of debt and derivative deals that went sour have resulted in the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. Soaring costs have meant soaring rates for water and sewer, that the poor of Jefferson County cannot pay. The poor of Jefferson County have found themselves cut off from municipal water and make due with bottled water for drinking and bathing, and setting up portable toilets in their yards in place of sewer service. That the poor are doing with less is nothing new in America. The most fascinating element of the story of Jefferson County, is that the middle class and affluent in Jefferson Counties suburban communities are responding to the high rates for water and sewer by installing individual septic systems. ("Third world in the U.S." BBC World, 14 December 2011 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-16172522

When affluent suburban communities start moving backwards, from municipal sewage service to private septic systems (and all the environmental problems those pose), something is very, very wrong in America. Something vital has died.

This morning I read a comment following an Internet news article by some anonymous reader of libertarian persuasion, who argued that there would be no loss of services like police, fire, and rescue workers, when (not if) libertarians were successful in cutting federal taxes and the size of federal government. This clueless commenter suggested that people would willingly start paying higher local governments taxes to provide all those services. As someone who has made a life study of community sociology, I know that tax austerity has its roots in local governments, and that the pressures for tax cuts, and the service cuts those tax losses make necessary are far more acute at the community and county level than at the federal level.

When towns are tearing up roads and cutting off water and sewer lines due to low tax mentality, how would communities ever compensate for the loss of federal funds for necessary services (like police, fire, rescue)?

1 comment:

Jessica G said...

Fascinating and horrifying insights!