Mark Dawson is a long-time member of Strong Towns. A few weeks ago, he wrote an email to us discussing some of the most challenging questions that the Strong Towns message illuminates. He didn’t get in touch to share answers, but rather, to open a conversation.  

Today, we invite you to reflect on Mark’s tough but real analysis and to participate in a discussion about these issues in the comment section. If you’re moved to write a longer response, please contact Rachel Quednau for potential publication on this site.

Here are Mark’s thoughts:

I have never been more profoundly pessimistic in my life than I am right now. The Great Recession found me biking past abandoned construction sites on my way to downtown Chicago in 2009 and 2010, something that had not happened on that scale since the Great Depression. For my wife, Susan, and me, our Adjusted Gross Income for 2010 was less than half of what we had reported in 2007 and one of our lowest in almost 20 years. 2011 was even worse.  In 2008 and 2009, I was working for a trading firm and the chaos on the market floors was so fierce that we simply stopped trading in October of 2008.  I was laid off twice in the space of two years, and was on unemployment insurance for six months, finally stopping in early 2010 not because I started working regularly again, but because I felt I had taken my share.

This was by far the worst recession I had ever seen, and I had lived through four or five others. We managed. But my ability to make assumptions about the future was left gasping for breath and dialing 911 by 2011, and then in 2012, I abandoned it for dead by the side of the road. In 2012 I lost a number of people who were close to me, including my brother, who died suddenly in March, and my mother and best friend, who both died in July.  I’ve been living carpe diem since, and that’s been a huge amount of fun, actually, given that prosperity returned for us as the economy started to recover in 2012, and we had the income needed to support a “seize the day” lifestyle.

I know my responsibility too, and so Susan and I have also sought to be hospitable and generous, while also putting a lot into savings. But what I have been reading over the last few years has dramatically heightened my sense of foreboding. I’ve been wondering about Peak Oil for many years, but it never occurred to me that as a culture the United States also faces a devastating infrastructure deficit.

It’s a good thing Strong Towns is talking about the mess we are in, because hardly anybody else does. We face a shocking lack of the resources needed to maintain the infrastructure essential to sustain an already unsustainable way of life, merely in terms of energy use. And Peak Oil hasn’t gone away, despite the laughter of opponents who considered the collapse of oil prices in 2009 and then declared that the oil would keep on flowing forever. No, it definitely won’t.

Either of these issues enough by itself could bring the Giant to his knees, besides the long term impact of climate change, besides the staggering amount of debt piled up in every sector of our society, and around the world, besides the despair provoked by our government’s inability to function except to serve the interests of giant corporations, besides grave threat posed by ever-increasing belligerence and militarism around the world.

I keep wondering how long the good times are going to last. For all the goodwill and kindness that Strong Towns presents, it also offers a deeply troubling message.  Chuck Marohn said himself in, “Where is our Republic Headed?”:

I think we're royally screwed. I think this thing is going down and it's going down hard. I see all of these fragile systems being pushed to the brink and I think the only open question, really, is how fast does it unwind? Is it something that happens suddenly -- like the collapse of a fragile bridge -- or is it something that happens more slowly? Do we all experience a variation of the Detroit situation over a couple of decades or a couple of years?

I am not saying Strong Towns is being too negative. I’m not asking that the message be changed.  I don’t want each story to end with a list of bullet points of What You Can Do to Save America, because we can’t save America. I want Strong Towns to keep telling the truth, wherever that truth takes us. The profound consequence of that truth, evidently, include recognizing that we can’t reasonably fix decades of lazy thinking and irresponsible decisions. Soon enough we will have to learn to live with (or die from) the unraveling of the civilization we have been building for nearly a century.

We don’t know when this will happen or how.  And part of what I am wondering about right now is that I have been hearing rumors of calamity for years now, a calamity that just keeps on not happening — hard times postponed, perhaps.

Either way, I am thinking in terms of investing heavily in relationships with the people around me, spreading beauty locally, and finding ways to make my community a better place to live. I’ve given up on national and state politics, campaigns and rallies and marches and boycotts and causes. I have greatly enjoyed traveling to spend time with friends and relatives, as well as adventures to eminently walkable places in Belgium and Portugal. But what will the next 20 years look like?

I am guessing many other Strong Towns members and readers are demoralized just as I am, and for similar reasons.  I’d like to have a conversation about that. Maybe you want to challenge my bleak outlook, and I would welcome that effort. Or perhaps you share my views, and maybe we can encourage each other.

How do you feel about life in this country right now? What do you expect to see in the future and how are you responding?
Please share your thoughts in the comments and let’s talk about this.