Here's an excellent intro-blurb in Wired. Much of it is fine on its face, albeit lovingly flocked with fashionable buzzwords — certainly somebody has to take on the insanity of an environmental movement that seems like it would prefer to send us hurtling back to the 18th century. But… that doesn't mean the author and his buddies are ready for prime-time, either.
"Cities beat suburbs. Manhattanites use less energy than most people in North America. Sprawl eats land and snarls traffic. Building homes close together is a more efficient use of space and infrastructure. It also encourages walking, promotes public transit, and fosters community."
Currently, cities do NOT beat suburbs. If they did, everybody in exurbia would be pining for downtowns, rather than fleeing the idea like extras in a B movie. Manhattanites may use less energy, but quite a bit of that is because other people are using energy to bring things to Manhattanites.
1. What is sprawl, except houses out in the country, built closely together?
2. Encouraging walking is fine in theory… to which purpose?
3. Is public transit an end good in and of itself?
4. Fosters community? How? Every city I've lived in was characterized by people generally ignoring each other, the only exceptions being those areas which are effectively suburbs-built-small.
In contrast, in my sixth-acre stereotypical suburban lot, I can:
1. Shoot arrows in my back yard.
2. Create a rose garden in my front yard.
3. Grow fruit and nut trees which I can then use to make brandy and tasty breads.
4. See the stars at night (not a lot of them, but a hell of a lot more than in the city).
5. Sleep without the constant noise of city buses and drunks.
6. Forget to lock my doors, car or otherwise, without expecting to be robbed on the spot.
7. Create a sense of community that has nothing to do with a top-down urban planner's vision.
And #7 is really the rub, isn't it? Over at worldchanging.com, they've got guys talking about planning communities "that actually work…" when the history of the 20th century tells me everything I need to know about people who assume that me and mine are dysfunctional and in need of change brought about from the outside.
Redesigning civilization along these lines would bring a quality of life few of us can imagine. That's because a fully functioning ecology is tantamount to tangible wealth. Clean air and water, a diversity of animal and plant species, soil and mineral resources, and predictable weather are annuities that will pay dividends for as long as the human race survives – and may even extend our stay on Earth.
It may seem impossibly far away, but on days when the smog blows off, you can already see it: a society built on radically green design, sustainable energy, and closed-loop cities; a civilization afloat on a cloud of efficient, nontoxic, recyclable technology. That's a future we can live with.
Annuities? Dividends? So, tell me again how the imputed value of this vision, which is "tantamount to wealth" (whatever that means — it clearly doesn't mean "equal to wealth" in any economic sense you can actually falsify) adds quality to my life, rather than simply satisfying a tiny minority's ideology? Of course "few" can imagine it — for starters, those "closed loop cities" aren't going to get anywhere, in an urban landscape which scorns industry and shuns agriculture, and increasingly prices out all but the fashionable rich few. Manhattanites may use less energy than most North Americans… (why not, let's assume that's true) but so do most Nigerians, and I don't exactly see a massive line at the consulate for would-be emigrants to Lagos. Currently Manhattan is a playground for the wealthy, where it is economically irrational for anybody in the middle class to try to raise a family and retire. Who do these people think are going to do the real work, while Cindy Freaking Lauper, downtrodden working-class janitor that she is, is in court fighting to keep her apartment at a ridiculously-low rent-controlled price? (real-life example from last year) What precisely do these people think "closed-loop" urbanites are going to eat?
It's not that "few can imagine it…" but rather that "few" are so utterly-disconnected from reality that they could take it seriously. Clearly only the clueless leaded-gasoline-huffing mouth-breathers can comprehend economics 101? Once again, we see the classic ideological overreach and handy condescension of those who envision themselves running the system and calling the shots, rather than having to squeeze their lives into the petty boxes of somebody else's utopian vision.
Redesigning civilization? Holy cow, and here I thought I was arrogant…