Friday, April 13

Sacred Unsustainability

My cubicle sentence is aptly termed “permit review,” and that really just about sums it up. I simply apply regulations to submissions , verify compliance, and then move the submissions on down the line. Well, I also argue with people a lot. I argue about things I have little or no control over. The arguments I have with citizens and developers are akin to those you’d see between an irate customer and a burger clerk making minimum wage (for maximum work). I can’t change the cost of the burger. If you don’t like it, go somewhere else.

Recently two contractors came in to pick up a slew of building permits for new single family homes in a new outbreak of sprawl north of town. They were bragging that they were going to be building many more of the same and it seemed as if they somehow believed by perpetuating the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of mankind that they were doing the world, and more particularly me, a favor. I gave them the blankest look back I could muster. I wanted to scream at them.

Of course the backlash wouldn’t have been worth the brain damage it would have caused. And every time I give disagreement to the merits of the sprawl we perpetuate with our current regulations I get the looks that say: “It’s job security for YOU;” as if I should just shut up and like it because I’ve been suckered into being a whore for an unsustainable system. I gotta feed my kids, man.

If we justify something simply because it’s necessary for the good of the economy, but that thing is not good for our future, then there is a good chance the economy is not good for our future. If we’re justifying dubious means at any cost, then the end can’t necessarily be a good thing.

The largest component of our current societal dysfunction is that we view (what we believe to be) free market capitalism as sacred and eclipsing all other considerations. We put aside community, conservation, and thrift in pursuit of the almighty quick buck. We create those quick bucks by possessing land, churning up the resources there, those that should be conserved as part of the The Commons, and we turn those resources into cash. If we dribble a little cash around through the process we grin like Cheshire cats and brag about creating jobs.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—with oomph—NO JOBS ARE SACRED, even mine. All of those manufacturing jobs that have gone overseas? I would argue that instead of bringing them back to the US they should just go away. Period.

A recent Grist article addressed the move for big box stores, led by Walmart, to make goods that are of increasingly inferior quality. The goods are cheaper, but we end up buying more of them because they just don’t have a realistic lifespan. But since the junk is so cheap we just buy new to replace the old.
Why should we support this kind of gross unsustainability?

I’m sure there are many people who get all tingly inside thinking about the proposal to build a “Super” Walmart less than 800 yards from an existing mild-mannered Walmart along my current morning bike commute. To me it is a travesty that, instead of looking toward a better sustainable plan, Walmart will enter into greenfield development to “upgrade” an existing facility. And what will happen to the old box? It may sit empty if past trends continue. What’s an even bigger travesty is that within 6 miles there are two other existing mere mortal Walmarts and another proposed “Super” Walmart. Now, I do happen to live in a sprawling metro area pushing 3 million souls, but c’mon! FIVE Walmarts in a 6 mile radius? How much Chinese junk does one suburban hell need?

Back to “creating jobs:” Our current political discourse throws that phrase around like free money. We don’t need “jobs,” we need occupations, professions, trades, careers. The political athletes jockeying for power today look only to the raw numbers that they can spin and say: “Look, I created jobs.” Only the most oblivious of Americans wouldn’t realize that those numbers don’t tell the whole story, and the slick-haired crooks that are using them in their propaganda had nothing to do with the numbers anyway.

We absolutely do not need more Walmart associate positions in this country.

The modern Western lifestyle is unsustainable. The only true work worth pursuing is that work which transitions us to a more sustainable culture. More. We’ll never be completely sustainable, but we can work hard to create a more elegant and resilient American fabric.

Those bragging contractors? I can’t be too hard on them. They gotta feed their kids, too. I’m sure if we sat down over coffee to discuss sprawl the chat would quickly devolve into a yelling match, but I hope before the end I could bring them around to seeing the unsustainability of our current path; not to shame them, but to help them make more informed decisions down the road.

As for me, I am stuck being a whore for sprawl for now. When I exited those hallowed halls of learning four years ago, diploma leaking ink into my palm, I hoped to take my degree in Geography (emphasis in planning) and save the world. Instead, I brokered a deal with myself: work the menial entry level job to pay your dues, but NEVER settle. I am diligently seeking to change my professional path now that I have a better perspective and understanding of the realm of planning, but for the time being I must keep feeding those kids. They eat A LOT.

To bring this into a Pavement’s Edge context: we have a friend that works for a big oil company. When we’ve had discussions about transportation and energy issues he and his wife have affirmed that big oil has provided well for their family. I understand their position. I understand the value they see in what they perceive as a secure, stable, and even lucrative job. I can’t fault them for that.

If you want to get down to brass tacks though, in a true free market, the market will eventually correct for unsustainable goods and services, including the petroleum extraction and refinement industries. For those who have chosen unsustainable professions (planners, construction workers, oil industry workers, etc) there will be market pains as the system adjusts to future changes.  And make no mistake- in an unsustainable system the bill always comes due. A finite sphere cannot contain an infinite curve of growth.

If we can, as a society, as a race, make the smart changes we need to make to slow the rapid pace of development down to something closer to a sane level then people like myself, my friend, and those contractors most likely will have to transition to other occupations to continue providing for our families. At the very least, as the market realigns to more realistic realities in the future, there will be more competition for our jobs.

Future Site of a Temporary Repository for Goods Made in China En Route to the Landfill by Way of Your Home

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