The Wal-Mart Without Us

Lately I’ve been driving around looking at the Wal-Marts and Home Depots of the outer fringes of Spartanburg suburbia as crumbling empty vestiges of bloated corporate egos and outmoded ideas about living.

“The Wal-Mart without us,” I said to Betsy the other day. “It’s going be like Alan Weisman’s book THE WORLD WITHOUT US here in the suburbs.” Weisman imagined the planet free of humans, and that’s not going to happen. But if the downturn deepens there will be hundreds of big box aviaries for owls, dens for foxes, and rubble piles for snakes.

This fantasy isn’t all in my head. Last week TIME called the dying of the American suburbs one of the top ten ideas changing our world right now.
Reading this, I imagine the oversized parking lots of big boxes in Boiling Springs cracking and curling, and among the asphalt springing up acres of red maples and pine saplings.

In this scenario the suburbs will return to the wild as settlement patterns shift closer to the old cores of cities, or a few of the big box complexes will morph into new city centers and satellite developments will be recycled or abandoned.

And then if TIME wasn’t enough to fuel my suburban mini-apocalypse, columnist Thomas Friedman recently wrote a chilling piece called “The Inflection is Near?”

In it Friedman asks, “What if the economic crisis of 2008 represents something more fundamental than a recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall-when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

I don’t know what voice is in your head, but I’ve been reading and teaching books that tell me we live in an unsustainable world for all my working life-farmer poet Wendell Berry’s UNSETTLING OF AMERICA, poet Gary Snyder’s PRACTICE OF THE WILD, and novelist Wallace Stegner’s BEYOND THE HUNDRETH MERIDIAN, to name a few of my favorite “No more” narratives.

“No more” is the myth I’ve often lived by. The ideas I find most compelling are underscored by limits. I’ve always preferred Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY to Rand’s THE FOUNTAINHEAD. Most of the characters that I’ve sided with are men and women who grapple with the untenable, whether it’s human greed, biological pitfalls, comet strikes, or suburban collapse.

Surely we must all have a little of the “no more” narrative within us. Did anyone out there ever really believe that we could continue to build and buy and procreate forever without any downturn? Graphs don’t go up forever on the Y-axis. At some point they turn downward toward the horizontal X.

So how to silence the “no more” stories in my head, or turn them toward something useful? I think one way is to realize no one has the whole story or can predict the outcome of this downturn just as hardly anyone predicted it was coming.

As I’ve often said, the future is neither THE JETSONS nor terrible apocalypse. The future has proved to look more like BLADE RUNNER, a mix of the old and new.

But one thing is sure: times pass, even bad times. There is a future waiting out there, and it will not look exactly like the present. The world will be different when we come through the dark and emerge once again into the light.

I’ll make a deal with you: I’ll try to stop saying “The End is Near,” if you stop saying “World Without End.”

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