My theories about the psychology of sprawl started as a hunch, then grew into a working theory, followed by a few recent posts, and some subsequent recognition from urban thinkers–but no hard data. Then, I got a tweet from Rust Wire Editor Angie Schmitt:
— Angie Schmitt (@schmange19) April 12, 2012
Walmarts and hate groups, eh? I opened the link. It read:
The study…found that the number of Wal-Mart stores was a better predictor of hate group participation than the unemployment rate, high crime rates and low education…
The researchers believe that the correlation between Wal-Mart and hate groups exists because of breakdown of the community. Small local businesses are more likely to be members of civic groups and involved in the community…
In contrast, people are more likely to feel alienated by big-box retailers like Wal-Mart, the researchers explained.
Alienation -> big box -> hate. Damn right. But there’s more to the story. And if one endpoint is Walmart and hate groups, then what are the roots? I’m going to give it a conceptual shot in easy, succinct language.
Fear-fed culture. Before we were human we were lizards. Then mammals. Then (wo)men. The evolution of our brain thus proceeds from the plant-like stem, to the lizard brain, to more mammalian components that govern maternal instincts, community, creativity, abstract dreaminess, etc. The problem is we’ve got to get through the lizard brain–that governor of fear, eating, mating, sexing–to get to more evolved parts. Many people get stuck operating in lizard states and then in aggregate: cultures of lizard-ness arise. Sprawl is one such reptilian culture. The tea party is another. This is their flag.
The evolution of suburbia into sprawl. Fear drove the suburbs. There was white flight, and there was a formal effort that saw the development of suburbia as a federal defense system against a potential atomic attack from the Reds. This is real, not conjecture. Beyond the perceived security that came with flight and dispersal is the security that comes with blending in. Think camouflaging. When you become everyone there is less of a worry of being singled out. This cycle of flight, dispersal, and homogeneity eventually grew into the big, splotchy, characterless derivative that is today’s sprawling landscape.
The downside. I happened upon Brene Brown’s TEDxKansas City talk entitled the Price of Invulnerability. She states correctly there are sacrifices to security, particularly the capacity to love, create, and experience joy, as each state–by their ephemeral nature–are about accepting vulnerability. Again, by living in the primitive state of the lizard brain one gets blocked to experiencing those higher states that make us human. The irony then: we are everyone and we are alone. And the fear never leaves but worsens.
Comfort in consumption. The lizard brain operates from scarcity. Early man knew if it was there you’d better get it, because there are no promises of food or water over the ridge. That imprint is still with us, hence the primal comfort of consumption, which then tends to take the place of real connection and joy. New houses, new things, and endless foodstuffs. More, always. It has to be this way as the half-life of consumption’s reward is short. And so it has to be cheap or else it can’t be bought at the necessary frequency to placate. Walmart and the big box allow through their sheer scale that cheap flow at the trough. Check their logo. Marlboro had the rugged individualist. Walmart has the body-less smiling mouth.
The cycling of alienation into hate. Back to the hate group study above: it posits Walmart breaks down the social capital of the small business environment, hence alienation and hate. But it’s more than that, as Walmart–and I am convinced of this–locates in sprawl-like places where alienation already persists. Then you get a cyclical effect: the big box ponies up to alienation, feeds the need for comfort, and tears the social fabric further, thus feeding the alienation even more. And of course alienation has long been associated with hate, thus the hate group effect. Oh, and this says nothing of Walmart’s increasing presence in arming all this fear and hate. From the New York Times:
The gun lobby has had steady success in weakening gun laws — especially in the two dozen statehouses that followed Florida in enacting new self-defense laws to allow the instant use of deadly force in a confrontation rather than retreat from danger. These laws are fostered by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, with heavyweight business supporters like Walmart, a major gun retailer.
Of course maybe I am wrong. Maybe I think too much. Maybe it is just about cheap prices and convenience. And smiley faces. And a place that sells chips, motor oil, and the Martha Stewart Modern Festive Pinwheel Kit.
Nah, and I think the Beatles, of all people, were onto this way back. It’s all there: the lizard, the mass man, the alienation, the need for a fix. And so the lyrics from Happiness is a Warm Gun I leave you with:
She’s well acquainted with the touch of the velvet hand like a lizard on a window pane
The man in the crowd with the multicolored mirrors on his hobnail boots
Lying with his eyes while his hands are busy working overtime
A soap impression of his wife which he ate and donated to the National Trust
I need a fix ’cause I’m going down
Of course happiness is not a warm gun. Nor a gun retailer for that matter.