Saturday, August 22, 2009

Slave New World?

One could view the finalists in Dwell Magazine's "Reburbia" competition as creative, light-hearted, largely harmless exercises in techno-dweeb future-think. And on that level, the top entries do offer some clever (if inadvertently humorous) scenarios for the urban and suburban landscape of the future. But there's a darker side to the contest that commands our attention.

That most of the finalists slavishly bow to the "sustainability" mania, and take predictable swipes at evil "sprawl" -- as if those who choose to dwell in a tract development are soulless wretches whose lives can't be worth living, for want of "walkability" -- isn't surprising, given the suburbia-non-grata snobbishness that runs in planning and design circles. This wasn't just a design exercise, after all; it was a political exercise, inviting architects and professional planners to have a little fun, while heaping requisite scorn on the environmentally-incorrect lifestyle choices of Homo Suburbanis.

Strolling the streets of Reburbia isn't just an imaginative adventure. It also offers a revealing glimpse into the mind of the modern eco-Utopian, which melds dark apocalyptic forebodings with naive flights of fancy. It's a mirror held up to the tortured psyches of "new urbanists," where all the predictable bogeymen can be found: Big box stores, freeways, parking garages, strip malls and, of course, "McMansions." There, too, is the fear of looming economic and ecological calamity -- the sense that we'll all have to resort to farming freeway medians in the dark days ahead. Tossed in for good measure are the energy policy panaceas of the moment.

You have wind-powered freeway systems, "big box agriculture," parking lot agriculture, big box biofuel plants, swimming pools that double as water purification systems, abandoned McMansions devolving into frog-friendly wetlands. Pessimism and misanthropy permeate the scenes. The future is not an earthly paradise, where human ingenuity and intelligence have triumphed -- the sort of Jetsonsesque future Americans were promised in the 1950s -- but a place where farmers scratch out a subsistence living (growing "organic" produce I'm sure) in empty parking garages and on former freeways -- in the wasteland that was suburbia.

The future of suburbia looks desolate and dark. Something terrible has happened there. Parking lots and big box stores no longer are needed, apparently. Where have all the people gone? Have they all moved -- or been moved? -- back into the urban core, to become bicycle commuters? Have they been loaded into boxcars and taken off to fenced camps just beyond the tree line, in a "final solution" to America's over-sized "carbon footprint"? Few hints of what happened to suburbia, and suburbians, can be found in the designs.

Where have all the cars gone, since parking lots seen superfluous and there's so little traffic that the medians can safely be farmed? Have cars become unnecessary? Have cars become illegal? Have cars been taken away?

Were the vacant McMansions that have become wetlands abandoned, as embarrassing extravagances, or were they banned by authorities for having an over-sized "carbon footprint" -- something Boulder, Colorado, is in the process of doing right now? Did their former owners go willingly, or through force? Maybe they've been indicted for environmental crimes and forced to wander through abandoned strip malls (those that haven't been transformed into organic farmers markets, that is) with a scarlet "E" emblazoned on their pajamas.

Reburbia contestants weren't charged with telling the story of how we get from here to there. All they were interested in was conjuring up clever "solutions" to the problem that is (in their frame of reference) suburbia. Yet the question hangs over the contest like acid smog.

Are these just the brain farts of naive Utopians -- harmless dreamers with a fashionably pessimistic outlook? Or are these draft planning documents for the "coercive Utopians" (in Thomas Sowell's phrase) -- those "planners" that intend to use the levers of power, and the force of government, to impose their environmentally- and socially-correct visions on those who won't go willingly?

The problem with such exercises is that the people who organize and participate in them actually take these ideas seriously. The danger is that they'll attempt to impose these visions by force, if given the opportunity. And the reality is that that opportunity is there, thanks to the power granted government planners through the mania for "smart growth," new urbanism and other social engineering fads, combined with the totalitarian tendencies of those trying to "save the planet" from climate change.

Americans have gradually been conditioned into going along like sheep with the planning thing. The broad acceptance of zoning rules -- and the notion that chaos will reign if there isn't some order imposed on things by planning "experts" -- laid the predicate for ever more radical concepts, like urban growth boundaries, new urbanism, historic preservation districts and so-called "smart growth." We've gradually become a nation of control freaks. We've learned that we don't actually have to own a piece of property in order to control it, because zoning laws have collectivized private property rights. The table has been set for even greater tyrannies.

In "global warming" the coercive Utopians have found the ultimate justification for using government force to achieve their goals, since anything can be justified in the name of "saving the planet." Property rights can be trampled. People can be displaced. Extravagances can be banned, or regulated away. Consumer choice can be curtailed. Environmentally-incorrect lifestyles can be made war upon. Energy policy can be dictated by central planners, and the economy can be micromanaged, in the interest of safeguarding the planet.

An alarmist view? Perhaps. But some of what I just described was worming its way into American society even before the battle cry of "save the planet" gave coercive Utopians the green light they need to impose their "Reburbian" values and visions on the rest of us.

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