It was interesting to see the short leash the Institute of Urban Studies (who hosted the lecture and preceding conference) seemed to keepon JH Kunstler last night. While Kunstler seemed quite apt to take questions --and to answer them at length-- the IUS guys wanted things wrapped up chop-chop. Before and after the lecture, they hung over him like mother hens as he spoke with members of the public (especially when it was with Free Press columnist Dallas Hansen). Did their faces turn red when Kunstler suggested that suburban developments will not continue just because people want them? (Choice, of course, is the reason why IUS director Jino Distasio fully, yet discreetly, supports Waverly West.) One has to wonder if they were worried their keynote speaker may have gotten wise to the UIS and the rest of the planning cabal of Winnipeg, and their support of a housing project-esque downtown, suburb-oriented transit plans such as "Bus Rapid Transit", and suburban sprawl (with a few 'green' bells and whistles thrown) on to continue as usual.
I also wonder how many members of the audience left disliking Kunstler because of some very cut-and-dry comments made about wars and the inevitability of them. From the crowd, made up mostly of members of the progressive thinking classes of our society, I'm sure there were many people bothered by that notion. Kunslter however, did do a good deal of making fun of the present American economy, government, and culture. In the end, this must have won the crowd, since not being America is a cherished Canadian value, and hearing an American bash America gives us a temporary fix from our nationality insecurity, and makes us feel a rush of patriotism.
Of course, everything wrong with the America of today is wrong with the Canada of today; while we aren't bombarded with as many easy Canadian targets for jokes and disgust on TV, the way we are American ones, we are still sleep-walking into the future, still entering a cultural and social dark age, and still facing the same prospects for energy shortage and disaster.
One thing I was reminded of during Kunstler's talk, was how short and experimental in the grand scheme of human history, the car-oriented living arrangements, the housing-based economy, and Wal-Mart-style shopping are. Just because things have stayed the same for 60 years, it doesn't mean they will remain the same for the next 60, or indefinately. That could be a very hard thing for a person mine, or even my parent's age, to understand. All we have known in our life and time is cheap and abundant energy, relative peace and prosperity on our side of the world, and the ever-increasing gigantism of buildings, towns, agriculture and technology. These are things we've all enjoyed, and became quickly accustomed to after World War II ended in 1945. Any North American who is old enough to remember what life was like during a different set of circumstances-- such as the 16 years of war and depression that ended in 1945-- is now over 70 years old.
Living in this unique era of peace, prosperity and individual freedom has allowed us to become the society that has forsaken faith and religion for technology and self-worship. Local social and economic networks that held our cities, neighborhoods and towns together were replaced by television sets. We are preoccupied. For some, it is by American Idol, Dr. Phil, gambling casinos, and WWE. For others, it is by hybrid 4-Runners, Oprah, Wi-Fi networks, and issues like same-sex marriage, national day care, and animal rights. As the Pink Floyd song that has played on the stereos in suburban basement bedrooms for 30 years says, we have become comfortably numb.
Of course no one can correctly say what the future will look like, but evidence taken from the pages of history, and a look at present circumstances, suggest that it won't stay the same, and we will not be able to distract ourselves anymore. "Necessity" will replace "choice" as our main reason for planning, building, transporting, shopping and living the way we do.