David Rodeback's Blog

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Friday, July 6, 2007
Orson Scott Card on How We Live and How We Ought to Live

Foreign oil, domestic poverty, and no highway is ever wide enough . . .

Here are three contemporary issues. Their point of intersection is my point of interest.

Dependence on foreign oil: Whenever things get particularly expensive at the gas pump, or especially dicey in the Middle East -- which seems to be more often than not -- we start to think about alternatives, especially alternative sources of energy. These hold some promise for the distant future, but the only source with large-scale present potential is nuclear energy; for some reason we think (because we're not thinking) that would be worse than war and large-scale, long-term international extortion. On second thought, I suppose ethanol has some contemporary promise, too, if you don't mind the severe upward pressure its large-scale use would exert on the price of food. Meanwhile, in any case, we find ways to use less gasoline, driving more efficient cars on fewer trips of shorter distances -- all of which helps to a degree. Then things stabilize for a while, politically and economically, and we never carry our thinking about alternatives much further.

Poverty: Sometimes, motivated by personal experience, first-hand observation, or in-your-face, typically inflated statistics about poverty, we think about alternatives in that realm, too, or at least ways to reduce the incidence and effects of poverty. We give the poor more money. We try to make things less expensive for them (as long as that doesn't mean encouraging them to shop at Wal-Mart, the left's corporate archvillain du jour). And if we are truly enlightened, we try to lift them out of -- to teach them out of -- the habits of poverty, which most often are the real problem. But mostly we don't worry about these things very long or very deeply, because we're so wrapped up in our own lives. This is understandable, and to some degree, perhaps, even morally defensible.

Population growth and traffic congestion: Here on Utah's Wasatch Front, we're starting to notice several trends, which we might have seen long ago and from afar, had we been paying attention. Our population is growing rapidly, as much from immigration (legal and otherwise, from other states and other nations) as from the much ballyhooed fertility of the Mormons. Neither Salt Lake Valley nor Utah Valley has reached build-out, yet, but it is foreseeable. The closer we get to it, the more we'll see what used to be small, quiet, even bucolic towns building up -- and more than just three or four stories up. We already see clearly that we cannot build highways fast enough for all the cars belonging to all the people who want or need to get from here to there and back again. It is the nature of urban life that auto traffic expands to fill all available lanes, no matter how many lanes you make available. The easier it is to get from here to there, the more people want to do it, and the more trivial can be the justification for such journeys. And as natives of -- or transplants to -- the American West, we understand that driving our own cars whenever and wherever we wish to is more essentially American than baseball, hot dogs, motherhood, and apple pie. Conversely, mass transit is just one big, obvious step towards communism. (Okay, I don't think that, and I haven't heard anyone actually say it that way, but a lot of public officials in Utah County and elsewhere have acted like it over the years.)

All of this is my long introduction to some highly recommended reading.

Foreign oil, domestic poverty, and no highway is ever wide enough . . . For Orson Scott Card of North Carolina, and of authorial fame, these issues intersect at a single point. We are subsidizing cars by building highways with tax money. We are requiring cars of even the poorest people, who need them to get to work and to the grocery store. We have lost touch with the notion of neighborhood. The long-term solution is to make life without cars feasible again for many people, not just a few who live in large cities with decent public transit.

In April Card posted two long articles about all this, and I strongly recommend you read them. I'm not sure he has all the answers, or even all the questions, but he seems to have thought things through more completely than anyone else I've heard or read lately on the subject. He touches on sociology, economics, politics, law, and other relevant disciplines. You may not agree with his general premise or his specific points -- I'm not sure I do, completely -- but reading these two pieces carefully will bend your mind. Perhaps it will cause to you think more deeply -- even more holistically, in the classic pre-hippie sense of that term -- about how we live and how we ought to live.

Here are the articles, each with an excerpt to get the mental juices flowing:

Cars were fun, but people in the city didn't actually need them. There were streetcars and subways and elevated railways in the big cities; in smaller cities, you simply walked or rode a bus.

But we wanted to move out of the city. Get away from the crowds, to a place where we could have estates with vast lawns and woods like the rich people.

OK, so we couldn't afford an estate. But we'd buy enough land to pretend. None of these houses butting right up against the sidewalk -- we'd have lawns and trees! Patios!

Meanwhile, the government set about boosting the automobile industry by building a vast network of roads. Gradually, the purpose of local government (besides ruining education, of course) was to redesign our cities so that cars could get everywhere and do everything.

In fact, all that I want government to do, locally and at higher levels, is to stop with the regulations that force us to use cars for everything, and replace them with regulations that permit us to walk or bike.

Right now, in most locations zoning laws force developers to create neighborhoods with houses of about the same size and cost, on roughly the same size lot, while forbidding any retail within walking distance.

Meanwhile, those same laws generally forbid the construction of new neighborhoods that mix income levels, house sizes, and densities.


It's as if government looked at the beloved old neighborhoods that people drive through with yearning and nostalgia, and banned them.

The result is that the poor are shunted off into isolated islands, where crime thrives, employment is remote, and the poor have to own cars just to get a job. Meanwhile, most people can't walk or bike to any useful destination, because the law has forbidden retail or office buildings anywhere near where people live.

I have no problem with allowing people to continue to live in pedestrian-hostile neighborhoods, if they want to. I just want the law to allow the construction and adaptation of low-car-use neighborhoods.

When you're finished reading them, I'd be happy to discuss them with you here at the blog. Feel free to send them to and discuss them with city and county officials -- and candidates! -- you know. And if you want more to read on this subject, Card recommends a book.

As you might have discerned, I'm somewhat sympathetic to Card's view. I actually like excellent public transit, such as I have experienced in Boston; New York; Chicago; Washington, DC; Moscow; and elsewhere.

(If you think that makes me a Communist, or even a liberal, I will charitably assume that you're new to my blog and to American politics generally. If you think that makes my views distasteful to the wacko right in Utah . . . I certainly hope so. I'd hate to have my views discredited by the nutbar demographic agreeing with me.)

And if you suppose that these sympathies of mine advise me that sensible mixed-use development, such as is under way at several locations in American Fork, can be an excellent thing . . . You're right.

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