We have watched with trepidation, both in the United States and abroad, as the American auto industry stumbled, bumbled, and is now shrinking, on a diet for survival.

It is a global threat because, unlike Las Vegas, what happens here does not stay here.

But even this is too focused a beam of worrisome light.

In the 2004 documentary "Super Size Me," the star went on a 30-day binge of pure McDonald’s food. The film got it right about a bloated America, but he was talking butts, bellies and beltlines.

America as a nation, not just a people, had already super-sized: For every McDonald’s, there were hundreds of energy-consuming McMansions, many built on questionable financing. When I was writing the automotive column for the Boston Globe, frequent missives arrived every time I reviewed an SUV asking why I even wrote about these ozone-burning gas guzzlers.

Yet I could tell by the addresses that many came from McMansions in swank suburbs or drafty, huge Victorian homes in preserved urban settings — all of them using far more energy than needed to maintain a family.

And this is but one small piece of a now shrinking, bloated America: don’t forget the big box stores, the luxury chains, the coffee shop chains, the electronics stores, clothing lines, that have all either downsized or folded.

And do not underestimate the effect that downsizing has had on America’s newspapers, threatening even the largest, closing, so far, a handful of eminent journals.

"We overextended ourselves for about 20 years,’’ said John Wolkonowicz, the senior analyst for Lexington, Mass.,-based IHS Global Insight’s North American Automotive Group.

Now, he said, it’s payback time.

Indeed, in his Report for 2008, Gerald Celente, director of Trends Research Institute, warned that America is "a nation on the skids.’"

How so?

Watch out for "failing banks, busted brokerages, toppled corporate giants, bankrupt cities, states in default………'"

Evidence: Besides the automotive plants being closed, and thousands and thousands of jobs lost, even more will be lost with the closing of about 2,000 Chrysler and General Motors auto dealerships whose existence often anchored the economies of their locales and contributed to local charities and sports programs.


But wait, as they often say in late-night info-commercials. There’s more.

Starbucks, which put the double mocha latte into the maw of an incessantly thirsty America, loses about 900 coffee shops.

And consider this flesh sliced from the bone of big, fat America in recent months:

Linens & Things: 120 stores; Circuit City: total power outage; Ritz Camera: 300 outlets; Pier 1 Imports: 80 stores; Ruby Tuesday: 70 restaurants.

Hardly the whole list, but reflective of buyers shying from non-essential items.

But notice, too, that these are non-manufacturing purveyors, and industrial decline (such as autos) certainly has helped bring them down.

Global Insight’s Wolkonowicz, stressing that he was speaking for himself, not pushing the firm’s outlook, said that besides massive government debt and the continued tsunami of newly-minted dollars on the market, the industrial collapse is ominous.

"Personally," he said, "I have fundamental problems with an economy that doesn’t have much of a manufacturing segment in it."

And the automobile industry, of course, has long been a vital artery feeding the American heart. And increasingly, as foreign companies build factories here, it has rattled the offices of the automotive hierarchy and politicians here and abroad.

In the United States, for instance, at a time you would expect politicians to band together on a national scale, Southern state representatives in Washington voted against helping General Motors or Chrysler (Ford did not ask for help). Yet these are the same folks who helped foreign companies build automotive plants in their states.

It is a schism reminiscent of the oil and gasoline crisis of the mid-1970s, when a favorite bumper sticker in Texas and other nearby states proclaimed, "Let the Yankee Bastards Freeze in the Dark."

Ironic, given that the prescient Celente predicts a seismic shift in values and behavior, writing that, "Economically, the new consciousness will recapture Yankee frugality and reject the lunatic behaviors that have been unsustainable since the Second World War — big houses, big cars, big spending."

His report reminds me of a recent drive into rural New Hampshire, a place where I spent many summers as a kid. I was struck by the fact that the region has not been touched by development, that many of the houses I remember still stand.

These were the homes of people I considered incredibly rich because of the fine construction and the spaciousness of their homes. And yet, it quickly dawned on me that the fabulous palaces of my longing youth are actually pretty small by today’s standards. And maybe that’s where we need to be heading: smaller houses, smaller cars, smaller appetites.

As Celente told an interviewer for the Atlantic Free Press, "I’m gunning for something better to replace what we got. A renaissance! I’m gunning for a renaissance: an era where quality beats out the crap of quantity."

Read more from Wheels columnist Royal Ford:

Review: 2010 Kia Soul

On the death of Pontiac

A lean New York auto show

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