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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 economy.


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 in Hollywood.


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 decline.


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 communities.


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 one another.


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.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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