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Monday, June 02, 2008

Sustainable Communities - Comfortable Ant Hills

Relying heavily on designs inspired by anthills and termite mounds, the modern sustainable communities movement calls for a radical restructuring of the American Dream Home. The Sustainable Communities folks call for smaller, more energy efficient cities with jobs and services placed closed to large apartment like complexes. The single family home will go the way of the dinosaur and nature will fill in all the new open spaces left when everyone moves into these human hives.

This concept for the future makes several assumptions that I think make some of their ideas untenable as a practical policy for the future of our nation.

1. This model assumes a pretty thoroughly socialist political system in order to work. Residents of these communal cities will inevitably give up many of their rights and freedoms that they now take for granted. You won't be able to go where you want, when you want. The proximity of neighbors limit what you can do on your own property, if you, in fact, own your own property in the first place. Public ownership of all property seems to be embedded in the sustainable communities concept.

- I don't think socialism will ever be acceptable to a significant portion of Americans. The right to independent movement, the right to property, the right to make decisions about how and where you live and what your home looks like is precious to a lot of us. I don't expect many will be willing to give that liberty up on the notion that we'll be saving the planet.

2. This model assumes that technology will not catch up with demands in key areas like power and transportation sufficiently to allow independent movement and that society must inevitably move in the direction of mass transit.

- Technology is expanding geometrically. It doubles every ten years or so in this fashion 1 > 2 > 4 > 8 > 16 > 32 > 64 . At the current rate, technology will seem magical within a very short time. We can adapt to what we have or we can innovate till we have what we want. The question is, "What will be best for humankind as a whole?" The lesson of history is that hive cities don't work out very well on the whole. They tend to violence, human sacrifice and citizen on citizen aggression.

3. This model assumes that placing everybody in close-packed utopias will result in peace and safety and free us from dependence on cars and trucks thanks to a well-managed universal public transit system.

- The problem with staking everything on short walks and subways is that mass transit leaves us terribly vulnerable to terrorism in a way that is unacceptable to many Americans. Our lifestyle and success has earned us many enemies among poorer nations, not because the ordinary people believe we are robbing from them, but because their dismal leadership must needs make us the villains to draw attention from the fact that their own tyranny and mismanagement has led to the appalling conditions in their own countries. Unless governments worldwide suddenly renounce tyranny and embrace capitalism, I don't see much chance of that changing anytime soon. Therefore terrorism will increase and it always seems that the best place to set off a bomb is on a bus or subway. I figure they can't get as many of us at a time if we're each alone in our cars.

3. The model assumes a growing paucity of resources for power.

- While it is true that resources can be depleted, there are obvious alternatives available out there that are infinitely renewable and I see no reason for pessimism. The man who finds a cheap and reliable energy source will be a millionaire. The oil companies can only hang on to their dominance in energy so long as they provide cheap energy. They can't do that any longer and unless they find another kind of energy, they aren't going to remain on the top of the heap much longer. It may be that something else is already on the horizon and that that is why they aren't interested in drilling and building new refineries. Maybe they know something we don't know.

4. The model assumes that rising energy costs will drive us to bunch up and submit to "planning" by a powerful central government run by really smart people. They've even gone so far as to deliberately drive up costs to force people to use public transit or cut auto use.

- In doing so, they threaten to collapse our economy in the name of a theory that at best has limited evidence that it's a good model for human cultures. Human nature is what it is. Our society's most innovative and productive citizens also tend to be independent and freedom loving. If you naturally select a society for members that are docile, non-threatening and accepting of authority, you inevitably reduce productivity, innovation and drive to excel or you drive your best people elsewhere and they take their talent for problem-solving with them. My suspicion is that they'll move off planet if Jesus doesn't come soon.

Don't get me wrong, I think there's a place for such communities and some people will fit nicely within them. At the same time, there's also a place for folks who want to live amongst the woods and lakes and we have the ability to make that an environmentally rational choice as well. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for mankind's problems.

Human socio-political systems never work well when powerful individuals and groups exercise absolute or near absolute control - not in governments, not in churches, not in cultures. You can't simplify a society through rigid rules and ubiquitous public planning enough that planners and rulers can effectively control a society. You create an illusion of safety and security, but not the thing itself.

As you remove personal liberty and personal responsibility and replace it with group think and group action, you sew discontent in the populace and set your society up for disaster. Human eco-systems work best when decentralized and a high level of personal liberty granted and a high level of personal responsibility expected.

You can still do innovative work on eco-friendly communities and sustainable communities, but just lets not get carried away and try to legislate them into existence. Good ideas are always sellable if the marketplace is free and available to all.

That said, however, I think we're headed for big trouble in the next election, I'm here to tell you.

Just one man's opinion....

Tom King

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