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June 30, 2008
As Cheap Gas
Disappears, Will Communities Rise Again?
Here’s a possible silver lining for sky-high prices of
gasoline: It could encourage more and more Americans to claim ownership
over their communities.
Years and years of cheap gas encouraged people to move
farther and farther away from their workplaces. As cities became
unattractive, workers fled to the suburbs, encouraged by cheap
transportation. When they arrive at work, American workers have
increasingly worked longer and longer hours, so as soon as they got a
spare minute they could flee – screaming – from their lives. Cheap
transportation has turned American life into one act of escapism after
another. We don’t confront problems; we flee from them. Is there any
doubt why the nation is on the wrong track? Is it really all the fault
of squabbling politicians?
The era of the cheap, easy escapism has come to a close,
at least for the time being. There will be a period of adjustment, no
doubt, as people get used to high prices of gasoline. It will likely be
made longer by the seemingly endless stream of bad news about the
What to do in the mean time?
Hopefully, people will look around their own communities
and help to make them into places that don’t encourage people to flee as
soon as the opportunity presents itself. Hopefully, people will take a
greater interest in what happens down the block than what is happening
That might seem like wishful thinking. Perhaps it is. On
the other hand, people are more likely to take an interest in what
they’re immersed in, and what they can’t – for whatever reason – escape.
No one has yet explored the role of the disintegration of
the community in the general decline of the American state. People tend
to look to big things – primarily economic indicators, and sharp and
polarizing partisanship in government – as evidence of things in
While those are certainly symptoms, what’s typically
overlooked is that solutions to those problems sometimes start at the
bottom. America’s strength hasn’t always necessarily just been its
political institutions. Before cheap gas and the Internet shrank
distances between places, the nation’s strength was rooted in its
Cheap transportation made it possible to live further away
from where people work (and commute by themselves), and to take more
frequent vacations (and travel individually in cars, or for short
periods of time on airplanes) away from home. The greatest incentive to
remain vested in a community – the fact that it wasn’t easy to escape –
was taken away. People drifted off into their own lives, alienated from
Guess where that’s led us?
It’s hardly surprising that at a time when there is a
strong individual rights movement our politicians have forgotten the art
of compromise and statesmanship. It’s also hardly surprising that a
strong individual rights movement exists at a time when so many people
spend so much of their day detached from others commuting to and from
work. Strong communities require that people sacrifice part of their
individuality for the betterment of all.
That’s also not to say that if people stopped commuting or
pursuing their individual ambitions that the clouds would clear and milk
and honey would again flow from America’s bosom. As with all things,
there’s a need for balance, but more importantly the act of rebuilding
communities – that critical part of the nation’s foundation – requires
work and personal investment.
What starts us down that path is first bringing people
back to the communities in which they live. Like anything, escapism in
too heavy a dose is unhealthy, and the result is a critical part of the
nation’s foundation is rotted out. Now that the easy path to it has been
– at least temporarily – taken away, perhaps more people will take the
time to confront the shape of the place in which they live and discover
how they can make it better.
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