Victor Davis Hanson on the autonomy of the American suburbs

In a column about how disasters can particularly affect complex centralized nations like Japan, classicist Victor Davis Hanson discusses how autonomy and decentralization is a primary feature of American suburbs:

I don’t know quite why many of our environmentalists and urban planners wish to emulate such patterns of settlement (OK, I do know), since for us in America it would be a matter of choice, rather than, as in a highly congested Japan, one of necessity. Putting us in apartments and high rises, reliant on buses and trains, and dependent on huge centralized power, water, and sewage grids are recipes not for ecological utopia, but for a level of dependence and vulnerability that could only lead to disaster. Again, I understand that in terms of efficiency of resource utilization, such densities make sense and I grant that culture sparks where people are, but in times of calamity these regimens prove enormously fragile and a fool’s bargain…

While a disaster comparable to Tokyo is certainly possible here in California, Americans are by nature less prone to rely on centrally provided resources, and are still uneasy with high urban densities. We forget that the suburbanite — ranch house, three cars in the garage, and distance from the urban center — is not just an energy waster in comparison with his Euro apartment-dwelling, single Smart-car-driving, train-commuting counterpart, but a far more independent-minded, free, and self-reliant citizen as well. Again, I hope our technological future is not in grand mass transit projects thought up and operated by a huge federal government, but in cleaner, more fuel-efficient, private cars; not in massive power plants, but smaller, more dispersed local generators, be they powered by nuclear, solar, wind, or fossil fuels; and not in vast agricultural hydraulic regimes, but in family-operated, more intensively worked farms that are the anchors of rural communities — as idealistic and naive as that may sound.

In a wider sense, America’s strength has always been found in the self-reliant, highly individualist, even eccentric citizen.

An interesting argument that perhaps comes down to which is the higher value: avoiding the problems of suburbs including not wasting energy and the other commonly-cited ills of suburbia such as a lack of community, consumerism, a place primarily available to those with money, etc. vs. suburban (and more rural) citizens that are “independent-minded, free, and self-reliant.”

I can imagine some of the responses to Hanson’s claims about suburbanites:

1. Are they really free and self-reliant? Even with their single-family homes and relative autonomy, suburbanites are highly dependent on others for goods like roads and relatively cheap oil that make such suburban life possible. What about the need in the suburbs to “keep up with the Joneses” and perhaps slavishly pursue the newest update of the American Dream? Is the autonomy primarily due to the location and its lower population densities or because many suburbanites have the means or wealth to do what they wish (as do wealthier city dwellers)?

2. Are the problems of centralized systems in the face of major disasters enough to outweigh the benefits of more centralized systems in less troubled times? If a major disaster were to hit a major American metropolitan region and its suburbs, would the average citizen be better equipped to handle the situation?

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  1. Brian says:

    I don’t know. Perhaps the average suburbanite would have an easier time driving away from danger – but they would still be tied to the ability to find gas stations that had gotten deliveries of gas. if you listen to people like Instapundit, one should always have a disaster preparedness kit on hand.

  2. Keith says:

    I was just discussing this last night. While I like the idea that I am more autonomous in the suburbs, I don’t know how helpful that would be in a natural disaster. I am still reliant on the same infrastructure for food, water, and fuel. For a short time I could be self reliant but is that much different than in the city?

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