Making the Case for Aggressive Public Works Program to Green USA Economy/Society

Richard Register has been a longtime supporter of Arcosanti and Paolo Soleri’s work. In the spring of this Soleri was invited to keynote at the 2008 Ecocities conference along with Cosanti Foundation Chair Jeffrey Stein. Register was credited with helped to build the concept of Ecocity (see Sustainable Cities section in Wikipedia). In the 70s and 80s Register helped to define Urban Ecology as a way to see cities as organic systems much like natural systems.

I met him briefly during the 2006 Califia Summit which I participated and also helped organize as a volunteer for the Green Century Institute .

His most recent publication Ecocities: Building Cities in Balance With Nature includes crediting (PDF) (Einstein, Ghandi and Paolo Soleri) much of his ideas about ecocities to Paolo Soleri.

More about his perspective can be seen in his blog.

Recently he has been frustrated by the fact that hasn’t “heard one word from any commentator, legislator, government administrator, banker or letter-to-the-editor writer about the relationship of jobs and actual work to economics in discussions of our current economic mess.”

What he and other seem to be proposing is a Marshall Plan to invest in real infrastructure rather than spending hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out big banks and financial institutions.

The idea is simple, we need a sustainable economy and fast and its not clear that bailing out banks will solve the core problem that got us to this point which is a dysfunctional green driven growth at all costs economy. In fact this bail out does not even begin to address the core problem that Soleri though Arcology seeks to address which is the massive wasteful design of the modern American society and its inherent unsustainability which Soleri feels leads to Entrophy.

However to build a real green economy we need strong government and that means visionary and courageous leadership. There is little sign that such as precedent is being shaped either in the traditional centers of power. Indeed Register notes that the SF Chronicle did not publish the below op-ed he wrote (DON’T BAIL OUT, BUILD OUT OF OUR PRESENT ECONOMIC DEBACLE), echoing a deep frustration that many progressive green thinkers feel about how the mainstream institutions (particularly the media) relate to their ideas and perspectives.

Once upon a time there was an economic disaster that laid low the United States of America and spread hardships from sea to shining sea and even out across the oceans blue. Then came a war of unprecedented proportions. But we beat back the Great Depression and won the Second World War. It’s more than a little relevant at this point to ask, “How’d we do that?”

Far from the federal government’s admonition to spend vaguely toward prosperity, delivered in the early days of sliding toward our current meltdown with delivery of our juicy little “economic stimulus payments,” which we’re the first of this year’s bail outs and which cost the United States around $150 billion dollars, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt built us out of the Depression and won the War by saying, “Don’t spend – save. Invest in the future of this country and let’s built it up as if we believed in its future.”

The “it” that got built started out with dams, bridges, post offices, soil reclamation and reforestation projects. The government was paying people, but they actually did something. Then, with Nazi Germany on the warpath and Imperial Japan too, the “it” turned into tanks, guns, bombs and airplanes. But build as if our survival depended on it we did.

Today we wake up to discover we’ve been building suburban sprawl, the most inefficient form of habitat we could ever have imagined, a form so bad it renders car-based cities the largest contributor to climate change and species extinction extant. There’s where the bizarrely expensive houses miles from anything else, with the even more bizarre mortgage terms, began and spread. There’s where the mess was first and worst, compounded by the raising cost of gasoline, asphalt, car depreciation and everything else automotive. Take a map of the Bay Area or anywhere else and you will see the per-person demand for energy and contribution to climate change goes up as population density and “mixed-uses” goes down. Surprise! We are facing another World War, the War of the current built environment against the World itself.

So what to build this time around? Instead of dams, guns and bombs our economic and ecological, national and planet survival depends on building the ecologically tuned, higher density, mixed-use city with its subsystems of transit and bicycle transportation and solar and wind energy. Bail out is not the right term for infusing federal money into building a better world and I doubt Roosevelt used the term, though extreme conservatives of his time probably though of it as a bail out of the worker. Today’s bail out is proposed for the people who at best could go on to loan money into action by financing… something – but what? The last big thing on their track record was exactly what imploded causing the current disaster: car-dependent sprawl, plus a certain measure of their own contagious greed.

Liberals say bail out the small guy (and don’t mention the same old sprawling mess) by trying to shore up mortgages to energy hog buildings and commutes. The general notion that the federal government should actually do something here is completely appropriate, but what?

In early 1942 Roosevelt told the automobile manufacturers it was going to be illegal to make any more cars until this war gets won. They didn’t believe it at first, but they got paid, too. And that’s what they did: joined everyone building us out of the Depression and War. For a year and a half in the middle of the war – amazing to our ears today – not a car was produced. And we won. We need a clear strategy like the New Deal building up to win the Second World War. I wouldn’t advise banning cars today, but I would advise building the city that simply doesn’t need them. In other words, how to get out of our economic mess? Build out, don’t Bail out. Ecologically tuned cities are the answer.

Richard Register is President of Ecocity Builders, Inc., of Oakland, and author of Ecocities – Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature, New Society Publishers.

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