When the oil gives out (new book excerpt)
...every institution in our society will be transformed as its population drifts further and further from competitive individualism, military–industrial bravado, and the careerist rat race. It is as if the freeways of the world will one day soon begin to close down, starting with the fast lane and finally turning into pastures and meadows.
— from The Foreword to The Making of an Elder Culture
One way to evaluate the prospects of Eldertown might be to start from the viewpoint of one of the more apocalyptic environmental groups. The peak oil movement focuses tightly on the issue of energy, the Achilles heel of industrial society. Convinced that global oil production will soon peak — or perhaps already has — the peak oilers predict a horrendous cascade of disasters in our near future. Cars, lacking fuel, will vanish from our lives. Suburbs dependent on commuting will have to be abandoned. Big-box stores will be empty as both the goods and money for consumption disappear. Big homes, too expensive to heat or cool, will stand untenanted. At the extreme, this is of course an unlivable world. But short of that, if one looks at the lifestyle such radical changes demand, are we not dealing with choices that elders are far more apt to make than a younger population? Smaller homes or condos in more densely populated centers. Less driving or no driving at all in private cars. Lower consumption. To be sure, environmentalists, who have never given any attention to aging, are apt to feel none of this will happen soon enough, but surely it is of some importance that one is working with rather than against a powerful demographic trend.
In the near future, as a growing retirement population fans out across the land seeking a new phase of life, we can expect a plethora of schemes for small-town restoration, efforts to turn the backwater into communities of character, many of them healthcare based. However it comes about, the private automobile may one day become an industrial relic, part of a pattern of life that belonged to the world that came before the longevity revolution.
The challenge for city planning will be to transform what started out among seniors as culturally barren Sun City retirement communities (“glorified playpens for seniors,” as Maggie Kuhn called them) into the sort of vital, decentralized cosmopolitan nodes many boomers will prefer. That opportunity is at hand. Culture once available only in metropolitan centers now comes our way via road companies and traveling exhibitions. The rest can arrive by satellite, phone line, mail order, and broadband. Lewis Mumford, our premier historian of cities, recognized this possibility soon after World War II when he predicted the “etherialization” of cities. The result might be an “invisible city ... penetrated by invisible rays and emanations....If a remote village can see the same motion picture or listen to the same radio program as the most swollen center, no one need live in that center or visit it.”
Today Mumford would have included the enormous potential of broadband transmission via the World Wide Web among those “rays and emanations.” Here is a sector of our economy that is more than ready for the elder culture. Just as a restless, perpetually ambient, post-World-War-II generation aspired to a highly mobile, drive-in lifestyle, our digitalized, networked society today aspires to an online way of life. Stay put, find what you need on the Web. To an absurd degree, the computer makers and home-entertainment entrepreneurs seem out to keep us confined to our own homes. At its extreme, I find that vision stultifying, as if the face-to-face convivial experience we all need and seek in gathering places — town squares, public parks, shopping malls, cafes, sporting events, coffee houses — were not the very essence of city life. But there is no question that the Internet can be put to good use in the elder culture, especially for those who would give up on automobiles if they had a viable alternative. Once again, as in the way computers can be an aid to failing memory, the high-tech novelties we now associate with adolescents may have their greater future with the elders of the society.
As hellish as life was in the primitive factory towns (see Steven Johnson's fine study of early industrial London, The Ghost Map), cities at last have matured into the most ecologically enlightened habitat for a world that numbers billions of human beings. Urban density compacts population and saves the land, its resources, natural beauties, and human lives. Cities are where ideas are exchanged most rapidly and where medical progress is made. Subtract the cars and freeways, condense the suburbs back into urban centers — some large, some small — mix in a good measure of social justice, and we have the best design for living in a world where over 50 percent of the human race now chooses to reside in cities. Eldertown makes all this more possible.
As I phrase the matter here, my words may sound overoptimistic. But it will not be words or ideas that draw people to Eldertown. It will be the body, not the mind, that spells the end of the automotive era. The last word will belong to diminishing stamina, declining coordination, aching joints, dimming eyesight, and a general need to get closer to quality medical care. On the small scale, these facts of life are already making a difference. The Japanese, who are reconciled to life in a “gray economy,” have turned longevity into the basis for lucrative investment. Instead of groaning over the size of their senior population, they have become the world leader in geriatric robotics and electronics — homes that give the elderly remarkable independence with security. Even in the United States, new forms of domestic architecture — so-called “universal design” — are becoming the rule in home building, a commitment to convenient access and functionality for residents of all ages and physical conditions.
Elder-friendly domestic architecture is becoming commonplace: wider doorways, fewer stairs or none at all, ramps to connect different levels, drawers and cupboards that open at more accessible heights, step-down bathtubs and showers equipped with grab bars and non-skid surfaces. Boomers in their fifties now commonly demand such features in new homes so they can anticipate staying where they choose to live into their deep senior years. They are thinking about the walkers and wheelchairs in their future. When changes of this kind finally reach the level of city planning, we may see garages, parking lots, and city streets that were once filled with expensive SUVs numbering far more electrically powered go-carts, hybrid flex-cars, and jitneys. Perhaps at that point boomers, who were born to drive, will look back to the world of suburbs and freeways in bewilderment, asking “What was that all about?”
The industrial city, the source of so many of the worst environmental ills over the past two centuries, still has a promising future — but not as the entrepreneurial arena for competitive self-interest it has been for the past few centuries. Nor for the frivolous fun and games that appeal to the young and well off. As it becomes the place where a growing population of elders turn for care, security, and tranquility, it will become an expression of what is best in us, the substance of our deepest ethical and religious values. Utopian literature has never explored the possibilities of Eldertown. It will take time to get used to its unhurried pace, its serenity, and its frugality and to see that as the goal toward which industrial power has been moving. But will we get there soon enough to escape the environmental horrors that now seem to await us?
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