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Detroit: A Cautionary Tale For Modern Civilization

"Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder," wrote British historian Arnold Toynbee. Lessons from the downfall of the automotive industry's once-glorious capital.

View of Detroit from an abandoned factory
View of Detroit from an abandoned factory
Laurent Carpentier

There is life after bankruptcy. Detroit’s default is not the beginning of the end for the municipality, but rather the inevitable consequence of sinking so far into debt that the city could not climb out. “A town exists to provide services,” said Bill Nowling, spokesperson for emergency city manager Kevin Orr. “We cannot reverse that like we could with a business. That's the difference between chapter 9 and chapter 11 bankruptcies.”

So why has Detroit’s bankruptcy created such a wave of commentary and worry across the planet? Because of its size — at its height, the fourth-largest in the United States? Because it creates an unfortunate precedent? No, the fall of Detroit is worrying because it symbolizes a fundamental change in civilization.

No junk bonds here, no subprime mortgages. Instead, the total collapse of the automobile industry, once the reason behind so many 20th century triumphs, brought the city to its knees.

Detroit was the birthplace of so many hopes and dreams during that era of prosperity — a period of time now revealing faults inherent to the system. It was here, at Ford, that Taylorism and division of labor was born. Here, again, in the General Motors factory across the street, that consumer credit (and by extension, excessive household debt?) was first conceived. Even the first mall was built here. The whole city was a motorist utopia, with automobiles encoded in its DNA.

Of course, the recent desertion of Detroit — in the last 40 years, the population has shrunk from 1.8 million inhabitants to fewer than 800,000 — can be explained by a number of key historical events. The race riots during the 1960s triggered the flight of the white middle class to the suburbs, and the financial crisis in the 1980s forced the black middle class to up and leave.

Without inhabitants, there is not a healthy tax base. Without sufficient taxes, public services suffer. And without public services, a city of empty skyscrapers simply cannot thrive.

Unfathomable sadness

“Everyone is watching what’s happening in Detroit because they're wondering if it's going to happen to them,” says Chris Jaszczak, owner of 1515 Broadway, one of the few center city cafés, above which he lives.

His Polish grandfather, a Marxist militant, was killed in Chicago, and his father participated in the first strikes in 1933. He characterizes the 1967 race riots as the “insurrection.” A Vietnam veteran turned pacifist, Jaszczak received help from Occupy Wall Street when the banks tried to evict him because he was unable to make his payments. This remains one of the last memories of the human face of Detroit.

It is undoubtedly the simple loss of humanity in the city that provokes such unfathomable sadness. Detroit is a symbol of the greatness of our civilization and of an era that we will one day call “anthropocene” — the era of man. Humans have become the primary geological force on the planet, responsible for changes not only to the surface of the earth and the land, but also to the atmosphere, the biosphere and the hydrosphere. Detroit is like a symbol of man’s decay, his limitations and what is at stake in the future.

What is happening in Detroit leads us to question our model of society. Does everything have a beginning and an end?

Six thousand years ago in Mesopotamia, the first great urban civilization was born. The Sumerians developed a sophisticated irrigation system, which marked a victory of knowledge and technology over nature. Unfortunately, over the centuries, the irrigation waters transported mineral salts, salting the fields bit by bit and rendering them infertile.

All that's left of that glorious age in the now-barren region of southern Iraq are the ruins. “Civilizations die from suicide,” wrote the British historian Arnold Toynbee, “not by murder.” Rather apt, both for the Sumerians and for Detroit.

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