Detroit: The Real America

By Cam Mather

NBC did a great “Dateline” on Sunday night about Detroit called “America Now: City of Heartbreak and Hope.” http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3032600/ns/dateline_nbc

It was unbelievable. It was heart wrenching. I knew that things were bad there but I had no idea. I’d watched a few videos that had been filmed using a camera while driving through neighborhoods of abandoned houses, but this was the first time I’d seen a major news organization actually do an hour-long show about what can only be considered a huge failure of North American capitalism.

Detroit, the Motor City, was the city that “motivated the world” with the automobile. At its peak metro Detroit was home to 2 million people and supported a thriving middle class. Now Detroit has about 900,000 residents. Auto jobs were good paying jobs and the average workers had a shot at a decent living.

As oil prices went up more efficient foreign cars become more popular in North America while management at the Big Three automakers continued to look only to the short term and pump out more profitable SUVs. Much of the production spread to outlying suburbs but even those are having trouble these days. The mayor of Detroit is now recommending that they need to stop providing services to hundreds of blocks of poorly populated areas because they just can’t afford to.

It was truly heartbreaking to look at block after block of abandoned homes. These had been homes to families. People lived there, grew up there, celebrated birthdays and holidays there. They looked well made, as houses were 60 and 70 years ago, but no one wanted to live there. You can buy a house in Detroit today for $2,000, but it isn’t in a neighborhood you would want to live in. The classic example of decay is the Michigan Central Railway Station. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michigan_Central_Station. It’s a magnificent historic building that the city wants to tear down.

What was strange was that ABC also did a piece on their Sunday news about Detroit. http://abcnews.go.com/WN/detroits-historic-buildings-crumble-decay-vandals/story?id=10399909 It’s worth watching this two-minute piece. It was as if Sunday night was “Let’s all get depressed and learn about Detroit night” on television. I always find it strange when the big three networks in the U.S. manage to cover the same stories on the same night. It’s like the producers talk every morning about their lineups.

Well it was depressing and it is a stark representation of how brutal capitalism is. We can build cars cheaper somewhere else, so let’s just leave this area behind to decay. When you think of the embedded energy in those houses that they’re tearing down to turn into urban farms, the mind boggles. Perhaps it would have been better to preserve the farmland somewhere else rather than having suburbs consume it, and continue to live densely in urban areas we’ve already build up.

Don’t get me wrong. I have had a tremendous standard of living based on living in a capitalist society. I’ve been self-employed for 25 years and I hope I have created some wealth in that time. But I would be remiss if I didn’t also admit the downsides to the system. It’s wasteful. It’s trashing the planet. It could use a little fine-tuning.

Yes I’m part of the problem. I drive a car. My Honda Civic was made in my province of Ontario, but it’s a car none-the-less. I’d like to buy more locally made products, but they can be hard to find. That’s the good thing about peak oil. As energy costs rise, we’ll all be shopping locally soon!

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Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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