Distinguishing between the objective and the subjective is beyond the capacity of most people it seems. I’m not talking about the rabbit hole of philosophical discussions, whatever their value, in which we end up at cogito ergo sum and everything else must be doubted, but rather distinguishing between what we want to be true and what is true.
I finally read a piece at CityLab this week which actually corresponded to my lived experience and yet does not bode well for many of my hopes and dreams. It spoke of the continuing trend of not just suburbanization, but the increasing relative economic strength of suburbs to urban areas. I don’t want this to be the case. There was part of me that so wanted the narrative of young people and retirees moving back to the city in more than just the metros which constitute “the usual suspects” to be the new reality, but it never connected with what I actually witness in the news feeds of my former students, or what I see in the neighborhood that surrounds me.
People prefer big houses on big lots with big SUVs surrounded by anything but another house like their house or any nearby place to engage with strangers. They like the 7 mile drive to get milk and the 37 minute commute to work and only an enforceable economic reality will change those behaviors.
What do I mean by an enforceable economic reality? I mean a circumstance where every option to push off the payment of the actual cost of their lifestyle is gone and the inability to pay in the here and now for the true cost of said lifestyle results in its revocation. Read this essay I found on ZeroHedge this week and let it soak in. Yes, instead of basing their lifestyle on their real economic circumstances what many people do is choose a lifestyle and then figure out a way, using creative financing, to live that life.
But they are doing it. And have been doing it. Successfully. Sometimes for decades and decades.
That means that, as long as people can push out their day of reckoning to its conceptual horizon and beyond, they are the ones living in reality and I’m the one trapped in a fantasy. They’ve been on their luxury vacations, lived in their McMansions, and driven their Escalades; and some of them have died more or less of old age doing so. As I have written many times, I enjoy my, as it turns out, fantasy world of frugality and savings; buying things with cash, vacationing with money I’ve saved, installing insulation and low flow toilets to live more cheaply, growing food in my garden to eat a bit more humbly; but it’s fanciful to to think that I will ever be joined in this endeavor by the society at large unless they are obligated to do so.
The lifestyle I enjoy; urban, walkable, active, a bit loud and heterogeneous, is not what most people want, and they’re not coming to it unless they are brought to it kicking and screaming and, truth be told, I don’t want that. I don’t want that because I know that it will also mean that the aspects of fantastical reality which I enjoy today will also be gone: The overly generous compensation which I receive for my public sector employment; the ridiculous pension I’ve been promised (given average life expectancy which may be part of this ersatz reality) for decades of non-productivity; and perhaps ultimately, cheap, and abundant energy available for use at my whim.
In a corollary to the idea that “markets can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent”, today’s reality can remain in effect for longer than I might remain alive. Even if I do manage to outlive today’s reality I know that its end will entail the exhaustion of most of the best resources, resources that won’t be there to infill and build to full efficiency the urban corridor in which I live. The end product will be lesser than if it had been done under today’s fantasmagorical reality, but that is how it will be done if it is ever done.
In my deluded state it appears that the migration of people on the local, regional, and continental scale is toward places and lifestyles which are destined for catastrophe. That behavior is irrational, and insane; like not having the money to do things but doing them anyway. I have to accept that the lifestyle I enjoy is for most people for whatever reason, the thing which above all else must be avoided; and so it will be avoided.
In truth that seems to leave me in a sort of stasis. To the degree this reality holds my neighborhood will continue to struggle, taking what crumbs it can recover from the festival of hypertrophic growth of the society at large to stave off decline as it has for nearly 100 years. Conversely the collapse of the current paradigm will see its material deconstructed and repurposed as best it can to increase the carrying capacity of this place which may function in an altered reality where decisions have consequences.