Kunstler describes the ugly fruits of America’s social decay

Summary: I know of nobody who describes the decay of American society by marshaling facts and logic as well as James Howard Kunstler, aided by his powerful writing.

Americans alone
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A Place of Your Own

By James Howard Kunstler at his website. Posted with his generous permission.

Do you know your place? In these days of hysterical Wokesterism, the question would surely provoke a riot of cowbell-clanging Antifa cadres, fainting spells in the congressional black caucus, and gravely equivocal op-eds from David Brooks of The New York Times. Yet it’s a central, unacknowledged quandary of our time that so many Americans have no place and suffer terribly from it.

Human beings need a place in the social order, in the economic order, and in actual geography in order to function optimally in a life fraught with the normal challenges and difficulties that reality presents. Let’s take these places in reverse order.

It’s a fact that most Americans live in everyday environments that are, at best, not worth caring about, and at worst actively punishing to human neurology. Have you taken a good look at the American landscape and townscape lately? How do you feel venturing down the six-lane commercial boulevards lined with cartoon architecture? Either anxious or numb, would be my guess. Or a Main Street of empty storefronts? Or an avenue of looming, despotic glass skyscrapers? Or a vast subdivision of identical McHouses where the buffalo once roamed?

Is it any wonder that Americans require more antidepressant medication than people in other lands? Or, that failing to find treatment, they self-medicate with alcohol, opiates, sugary snacks, and anything else that takes them out of the soul-crushing reality of their surroundings.

I don’t think you can overstate the damage we’ve done to ourselves in the sheer material arrangement of our national life. A decade ago, I sat in on many zoning board meetings called to approve new WalMarts and other chain-stores around my region of upstate New York and southern Vermont. Inevitably, the companies organized a claque of locals in the meeting hall – itself a depressing, low-ceilinged chamber of cinder blocks and fluorescent lighting – to fill the seats and yell in support of “bargain shopping.”

That was some bargain they got. The chain-stores got approved and the Main Streets died, but that wasn’t the end of it. This dynamic also destroyed networks that gave local citizens an economic and social place. Locally owned business people were the caretakers of the town. They took care of two buildings – their place of business and their home. They sat on library, school, and hospital boards and donated money to running local institutions. They employed people who lived in town and there were consequences for treating them well or badly. There was even a time in this country when local business people wouldn’t dare to put up an insultingly ugly building.

A lot of this economic behavior has produced the social perversities of our time. Exterminating an entire class of local merchants has eliminated the heart of the American middle-class and grotesquely concentrated the nation’s wealth among corporate leviathans who comprise one percent of the population. It also eliminated the place where young people learned how to do business, preparing themselves to try ventures of their own, and to make a place for themselves in the world.

What is your place now? A cubicle in the marketing department of Old Navy? An aisle in the Home Depot? A desk in the Diversity and Inclusion office of some State University, pushing to sort the student population into racial and sexual categories because all other ways of belonging in society are gone? Or do you occupy ten square feet of sidewalk with a tarp and a shopping cart? None of those places are liable to furnish a personal sense that life is worth living.

Those of you out there still sincerely clamoring for “change” might start asking yourselves if you have a clue about finding a place worth caring about in this country and what it might actually take to get there, including the revision of a lot of ideas in your head that you take for granted. Hint: if you’re looking for it in the current political leadership you are probably wasting your time and energy. If you’re looking for it in some group identity, you may not ever discover the power in your own individual ability to make choices for yourself.


Editor’s note

This destruction of communities has swept across America since WWII. Cities had an elite class of people with ties to the community, the owners and senior executives of businesses based in the community. Business consolidation has eliminated them, leaving behind VP’s following orders from HQs in NY and LA – and rootless employees.

Rural areas and small towns have been the hardest hit. And not just in the US. This is one of the causes of the “yellow vest” protests in France, as the WSJ reports.

“Rural areas have also been hardest hit by the rise in e-commerce and by big-box retailers that have gutted many villages that once served as centers of commerce and social life in the countryside. ‘It’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back,’ said Kevin Meyer, a 24-year-old gilet jaune who commutes to work at a textile factory from his small village, Montferrier, at the foot of the Pyrénées in southwestern France. ‘Life in rural areas is already difficult. There’s little work and all the shops are closing.’”

The destruction of families has further fragmented and alienated America’s people.

See the effect of this and other factors at work: A new, dark picture of America’s future.

James Howard Kunstler
Photo by Charlie Samuels.

About James Howard Kunstler

James Howard Kunstler (Wikipedia) worked as a reporter and feature writer for a number of newspapers, before working as a staff writer for Rolling Stone Magazine. In 1975, he began writing books on a full-time basis. Kunstler is the author of 12 novels and has been a regular contributor to many major media, writing about environmental and economic issues. He is a leading supporter of the movement known as “New Urbanism.”

He has lectured at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, Dartmouth, Cornell, MIT, and many other colleges. He has written five non-fiction books.

See some of his recent posts about America. They’re all well worth reading!

For More Information

Ideas! For shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.  For more about these matters, see Reforming America: steps to new politics and especially these …

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  2. The bitter fruits of our alienation from America.
  3. Andrew Bacevich looks at America’s political rot and describes solutions.
  4. A story about monkeys explains our grifter nation.
  5. ImportantThe bizarre but easy next step to fixing America – more about problem recognition.

24 thoughts on “Kunstler describes the ugly fruits of America’s social decay”

  1. From decay comes the birth of a new successive generation, paraphrasing the Odum brothers, often considered the founders of Ecology.

    Consider that if one does not have children, where does the next generation of children come from if not from those who do not follow that dictum. Many of the most egregious of the considered “solutions” are self defeating and/or unsustainable. They do not fit the actual expression of successful humans. After all, we are all guilty of being the progeny of survivors, IIRC an old Jewish saying. None of the scenarios of imminent destruction account for the exponential ability of living systems to respond to circumstances that are the basis of said destruction, IMO.

    And though it seems that as a whole, we are isolated, the truth is that with the technology and price of information, a literal world of information is at our fingertips. If life has taught me one thing, it has taught me that the “doom and gloom” scenarios are too static to truly represent the human future.


    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “Consider that if one does not have children, where does the next generation of children come from if not from those who do not follow that dictum.”

      That’s an important point. Families with high fertility are unlike the liberal elites: migrants, lower-income women, Mormons.

      “If life has taught me one thing, it has taught me that the “doom and gloom” scenarios are too static to truly represent the human future.”

      That is your life experience, but that’s just an eyeblink in time. History teaches us that civilizations are fragile, and can fall with astonishing speed.

      1. Larry, I would like to make a point better: If the study of life has taught me one thing, it has taught me that the “doom and gloom” scenarios are too static to truly represent most biological organisms’ futures.

        Biology teaches us that species may come and go but successful ones and their progeny remain.

        I think history shows that civilizations are similar.

      2. Larry Kummer, Editor


        Your points are valid. But I don’t understand your point. Here are 4 reasons.

        (1) When I’m driving on a necessary trip (eg, taking my child to the hospital), I do the best I can despite the visibility. You are saying that the visibility is always poor (in terms of our ability to see the future of America over the next 2 generations). So what? That was true for the Founders. It’s true for us. But we have to steer America, seeing the future as best we can – and responding accordingly.

        (2) You appear to regard our ability to see ahead as binary – we can’t do it, or we can. I don’t believe that’s remotely correct. We can’t do perfectly, but we can do so adequately.

        (3) You speak of “doom and gloom” scenarios as inaccurate. Why? Sometimes the weather is fair, sometimes it is stormy. Why do you believe that the latter of these predictions is usually wrong?

        (4) “the “doom and gloom” scenarios are too static to truly represent most biological organisms’ futures.”

        Biologists disagree with you. They make a great many predictions based on “doom and gloom” scenarios. You can believe that they are wrong, but I’ll side with them.

      3. Larry,
        1.) If our vision is poor, how do we know to steer, but to do the best we can. It may be that we are doing as best we can, because our vision is poor, and the other reasons are secondary.

        2.) I should be more lucid. I have more of a problem with the presentation of binary. I, like you, see that binary choice as not likely, or next to impossible, if not just plain unstable.

        3.) It is the doom part. Throughout history, doom has been proclaimed and yet still here we are. Doom also has been called for civilizations. Do they fall. yes. Has that been the fall of civilization. No. Not that it is not expensive, nor that it is not deadly for persons. But gloom implies sunshine sooner if not later, except if there is doom. The transfer of the thoughts and spirit of civilizations appears to ongoing, IMO.

        4.) Larry, I am a biologist. The paleo record indicates that species evolve, more so than just go extinct; and that mass extinctions are extremely rare. Larry, many of the 1800’s – 1970’s predictions of doom were based on loss of biota. Many today are based on the loss of biota. I will go with their track record. Far, far fewer species have gone extinct than predicted. Most have been overpredation by man and/or loss of habitat by man; even more pressure has been by succession brought by the introduction of invasive species by man. Those invasive species are doing quite well. Additionally, note that biodiversity and including invasive species is verbotten, since it conflicts with the “natural” is best and man is bad. You have noted before that many of the persons who trumpet the doom by climate change, started first with the overpopulation and pesticide scares of the 50’s – 70’s,if you include the nuclear horror stories. The nuclear horror stories also usually contained an element of the lost biosphere.

      4. Larry Kummer, Editor


        “It is the doom part. Throughout history, doom has been proclaimed and yet still here we are.”

        That’s just silly. Think about it.

        “Larry, I am a biologist.”

        Congrat’s. Then talk with your fellows about all those peer-reviewed papers.

  2. On a first look, the data doesn’t support Kunstler’s thesis (i.e. SB numbers are still high),

    “American Business is Overwhelmingly Small Business. According to data from the Census Bureau’s Annual Survey of Entrepreneurs, there were 5.6 million employer firms in the United States in 2016.

    ● Firms with fewer than 500 workers accounted for 99.7 percent of those businesses.
    ● Firms with fewer than 100 workers accounted for 98.2 percent.
    ● Firms with fewer than 20 workers made up 89.0 percent.

    Add in the number of nonemployer businesses – there were 24.8 million in 2016 (latest data) – then the share of U.S. businesses with less than 20 workers increases to 98.0 percent.” https://sbecouncil.org/about-us/facts-and-data/

    The above data does not examine SB as percentage of GDP which could change the effects.

    A more interesting look is to examine the role of the automobile in reshaping our social fabric- not simply blaming Walmart.

    1. I think there is truth to your hypothesis and in the author’s observations. I have recently been discussing the rapidly changing society around us with some of my friends and coworkers. To me, the hyper-partisanship we are witnessing is a direct result of the loss of people having a sense to being part of a community. We have replaced this loss through tribal affiliation via the means of social media and the “news” provider(s) that best fit our personal beliefs.

      The automobile just might be the root of this evolution. I spend almost an hour every day during the work week just commuting to and from work. Where I live is in a completely different community from the one I work, so my social life outside of my immediate family are my coworkers and the rare occasion when we go out to dinner with a close friend for dinner. Even religious attendance seems to be more sterile now, with the older churches going the way of the greatest generation. Newer churches (the ones that seem to be doing well anyway) are becoming places of money and entertainment (mega churches) with a small, elite cadre that run these palaces. if you don’t have money, they aren’t interested in you.

      Ironically, recent immigrants don’t seem to suffer from these maladies. While their communities may be poor and overpopulated, I get a sense of community and shared heritage whenever I am in those parts of town. The same seems to be true of their religious institutions.

      Ultimately, people desire a sense of belonging and stability. Western society as it currently stands offers neither of these and I believe that as time goes by we will see large, voluntary defections from our system to other systems that are offering these qualities. I know this has already been stated on this website multiple times, so I will end this post here.

  3. Corporate takeover of the business landscape is a symptom of the problem, not the cause. Big Government is the root cause (with it’s own root causes), because as you increase regulations, you increase costs. Only large businesses can spread those costs out over their entire operation, while small businesses have to absorb those costs in few places. The difference in average unit costs gives a clear advantage to being bigger. We won’t solve the problem until government stops trying to interfere in the marketplace.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      That’s quite false. The first era of giant monopolies in the US – larger in market share than allowed today – was in the late 19th century. The economy was almost unregulated then.

      1. Agreed. This romantic vision of America was only true for a few decades after World War II and even then it was mostly for the then white majority who lived in this country. It’s interesting that at a time the Civil Rights movement was coming to a head that the rulers in our country were already laying the ground floor for the second gilded age, which we now seem to be entering. Just goes to demonstrate that just because one side wins a major battle, it doesn’t mean the war is won. Of course, the most cunning move by our rulers was ensuring a strategy of divide and conquer was put into place, which we took the bait. Now we are so fragmented and warring among tribal identifications that we have lost site of who the real enemy is.

      2. Larry Kummer, Editor


        “This romantic vision of America was only true for a few decades after World War II”

        that’s an important and seldom mentioned point. See Much of what we love about America was true only for a moment.

        “even then it was mostly for the then white majority who lived in this country”

        That’s missing the big point about that golden moment in time. Nobody thought America was perfect then. Rather, it was special because we were moving in the right direction at high speed. The next phase of the Civil Rights movement began in WWII (see this history) and culminated with the signing of the great Civil Rights bills in 1964 – 65.

      3. As we are presently struggling in the New Gilded Age, many (as Kunstler) reflect on losses to the fabric of the society we used to cherish.

        OTOH, one has to recognize that there were never in history of mankind so many people (by count as well as by proportion) so well off and that the evil Walmarts, Amazons and such had just became viable in this very environment. Sure, the values are shifting, and it seems that human values do deteriorate with this; however, that’s been expected — paraphrase this (with grain of salt), perhaps a theme on a sociologist’s paper: “You’re whether poor and warm and giving Or you’re well off and cold and scroogy.”

        What’s uglier?

      4. Larry Kummer, Editor


        We’re not historians in 2300 looking back at America of 2019. We its citizens, responsible for its changes.

        Every.Single.Post about the need for reform receives almost nothing but comments saying some form of “Oh well, lie back and watch TV.” Those benefits which you describe were built by people with a higher sense of responsibility for American than that.

        “What’s uglier?”

        Citizens with every advantage known in human history who choose apathy, so that their descendants don’t enjoy them. That’ much uglier.

      5. Was Corporate personhood ever a good idea? Plus if the limited liability that Corporations had was eradicated and became unlimited liability what would happen?

      6. Larry Kummer, Editor


        “Was Corporate personhood ever a good idea?”

        Yes, for the plutocrats that increasingly run America. Not so much for the rest of us. Think of it as fruits of our apathy.

        “Plus if the limited liability that Corporations had was eradicated and became unlimited liability what would happen?”

        I assume you mean limited liability of shareholders. Ending that would crash our economy, fast.

      7. Larry (on JaKo),

        I think I wasn’t clear enough on this and therefore you missed my intended point. What I meant was that people well fed, housed and with reasonable prospect of keeping it that way AND bombarded with an unprecedented propaganda, are not interested in revolting against the “hand which feeds them.” We have to wait, unfortunately, until these premises change dramatically, to see activism on the rise again (that has been my theme for some time now).

        However, I’m glad I hear that motto of FM again!

      8. Larry Kummer, Editor


        That’s a good point. But authors of the Federalist Papers believed differently. They believed that the American people had a strong desire for liberty — and willingness to fight for it at great cost even against long odds. This is why they believed the American experiment would succeed.

        If we are happy to have goods and easily fooled by propaganda, than the Republic is doomed. We’re not suited to be a free people. What could change that?

      9. Larry Kummer, Editor

        From Federalist Paper #57 by James Madison

        What is to preserve our freedoms from the Legislature?

        I answer, the genius of the whole system; the nature of just and constitutional laws; and, above all, the vigilant and manly spirit which actuates the people of America; a spirit which nourishes freedom, and in return is nourished by it.”

        Letter #84 by Alexander Hamilton

        “{Liberty} must altogether depend on public opinion, and on the general spirit of the people and of the government. And here, after all, as intimated upon another occasion, must we seek for the only solid basis of all our rights.”

      10. No, Larry, it’s true. Monopolies in and of themselves have nothing to do with corporate takeover. The only bad monopolies are those created by government regulation, subsidizing a business by law, and that’s how most of those 19th century monopolies were created. Government regulation was the problem. Any monopoly who comes about based on good service and pricing alone will be fine, and then someone will come along and compete and take their market share. Free enterprise always works if the government keeps its hands out of it. I agree with info that the larger problem is with the corporate structure and limited liability which is in direct opposition to God’s law, relieving the business owners of any responsibility and accountability.

      11. Larry Kummer, Editor


        Wow. I’ve seen pure statements of ideology, but that’s one of the most remarkable. Whatever.

      12. Then one of the solutions is to end corporate personhood.

        Ensuing that golden parachutes would be less likely.

        But if removing limited liability would crash the world economy. Would it undo the rule and wealth of the plutocracy at the same time?

        Perhaps the reason that it would crash the world economy is that due to the highly plutocratic nature of the world economy already.

      13. Larry Kummer, Editor


        How to reform modern corporations is an important but complex subject. Corporate “personhood” at some level is necessary for them to operate: buy and sell, litigate in the Courts, etc.

        The sticking point comes to corporations’ having rights under the Constitution. Some of those are necessary. But where to draw the line? I think we’ve gone too far, perhaps far too far — but it is not a subject I’m familiar enough with to have useful recommendations.

        The Wikipedia entry is a good introduction.

      14. Larry Kummer, Editor

        Info – a follow-up note.

        My guess (guess!) is that the principal-agent problem is a far more serious issue for modern mega-corps. Shareholders are too diffuse, too disinterested, and too weak to control the senior executives. The execs are too often in effect looting them, running them to promote their personal politics – and runnin them poorly.

        This is part of a larger problem with our increasingly dysfunctional institutions, discussed in A new, dark picture of America’s future.

        It’s like syphilis before modern medicine. It seems like a dozen different diseases (hence it is called “the great imitator”). Treating them individually accomplishes little. Success came from the discovery of the bacterium Treponema pallidum. I suspect that is like our problem. We see the symptoms, but not the underlying cause.

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