While the hype over iPads, bullet trains and robot teachers continues to push visions of a magical, sparkling future upon the masses, signs that progress is actually sputtering to a halt are everywhere.
Sure, billionaires like Richard Branson are zooming into tomorrow at the helm of underwater jets designed to whisk the elite off to private islands… but the rest of us should expect the path forward to be much rockier. Literally.
According to USA Today, “High costs and tight budgets have prompted communities in Maine, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Vermont to convert or consider converting their cracked asphalt roads back to gravel.”
That’s right. Unlike the optimistic vision of flying cars presented in Back to Future, the USA is instead turning back the clock and replacing safer, cleaner and faster asphalt roads with their dusty, tire-grinding precursor. Now, I’m certainly not advocating a “pave it all” mentality – I would much prefer to see transportation policies promote more sustainable practices like denser urban corridors connected via mass transit – but these decisions to downgrade the quality of our roads aren’t being driven by environmental intentions (or any other consideration of the public’s benefit).
Our political leaders are allowing roads to go to shit because we’re broke.
The decision to grind up roads and replace them with the crumbled-up remnants is an apt metaphor for the decline of US public education, health care, social services and the other institutions that used to stand for our nation’s prosperity and leadership. Even Disney, the corporation that perhaps more than any other symbolized the cheerful optimism of the American imagination during the post-War era, has degenerated to the point where its child stars are now shilling creepy pseudo-lingerie for kids who want to look like pre-pubescent Tila Tequilas.
When asked by USA Today about what she thought of the plan to gravel-ize the road in front of her house, Gaile Colby said: “Have you ever lived on a gravel road? In the summer, it’s like clouds of dirt coming through your house.”
As the income gap widens and our government increasingly serves only those with connected lobbyists, rural folks who live in poor counties aren’t the only ones being left in the dust. Reporting on a new national study, the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday lead with the news that “De facto segregation is alive and well in virtually ever state” and added that “the trend is particularly severe for African American students.” The UCLA study found that increasing racial isolation in charter schools is contributing significantly to the growing number of “apartheid schools.” I don’t think the charter school concept deserves all the blame for this problem, but the fact that California recently eliminated the state cap on charter schools and the Obama administration is promoting charter schools as a feature of education reform without confronting this troubling trend epitomize the short-sighted mentality of most “reform” efforts in this country, education and otherwise.
I mean, its great that we have a black president and all, but the fact that more and more kids are spending their childhoods in what are accurately called “apartheid schools” should raise some serious red flags. Wasn’t this a problem that we were supposed to be fixing half a century ago? (Gil Scott-Heron’s famous line about “whitey on the moon” comes to mind)
Oh, I almost forgot: All of those things are already happening.
Am I over-hyping the doom and gloom? Are these examples taken out of context to paint an unnecessarily bleak picture of the near future? Well, in the middle of writing this post, I took a break and rode my bike over to Electric Works gallery a few blocks from my apartment to check out a new exhibit called “Rust Belt” by Katherine Westerhout. The show features photos of once-prosperous cities like Detroit and Buffalo in various states of epic decay. The images capture formerly grand hospitals, factories and churches slowly rotting away beneath grimy layers of asbestos dust and mold – the dying American city as a post-industrial Pompeii.
Many of the residents of these rust belt cities have already evacuated. Now that everything else is starting to crumble, where do the rest of us go next?