Sunday, December 30, 2007

The End of Sprawl?

Can it be that objective analysis of our dire condition and wishful thinking are beginning to coincide? One can hope.

An op-ed in today's Washington Post speaks to many of the themes of the discussion that has been going on around my critique of George Bailey, and more widely in my concerns about the consequences of many of the bad choices we have made as a culture over the past fifty-odd years, now culminating in the exhaustion of resources and the undermining of many forms of cultural inheritance. The op-ed raises the possibility of "the end of sprawl," a cessation of the outward movement of suburban development beyond their original urban centers due to the combination of the current housing collapse and the high price of oil (I have argued that the two are connected, in fact, and will remain so as resource inflation will result in a condition of stagflation and hence higher real interest rates along with the decline in the purchasing power of the dollar).

In many iterations of the debate between traditionalists and libertarians (a split that is bound to continue to widen as the primary season continues to unfold, particularly given the harshness of the Republican establishment's attacks on Huckabee), the main critique of traditionalists is that they advocate a way of life that would not be choiceworthy or even worth living. They point to the very fact that, given a choice, people have moved away from that way of life to lives of ease and comfort.

This argument is worth a very long response in itself, but it's worth at least pointing out that the "adjustments" we will have to make as a consequence of the reckless way of life we have been living are not nearly so dire as is often suggested by libertarian scare mongers.

Take, for instance, the concluding argument of the op-ed's author Eduardo Penalever, who closes on a hopeful note that there may be considerable rewards for successfully moving away from our current car-dependent culture:

"Although the end of sprawl will require painful changes, it will also provide a badly needed opportunity to take stock of the car-dependent, privatized society that has evolved over the past 60 years and to begin imagining different ways of living and governing. We may discover that it's not so bad living closer to work, in transit- and pedestrian-friendly, diverse neighborhoods where we run into friends and neighbors as we walk to the store, school or the office. We may even find that we don't miss our cars and commutes, and the culture they created, nearly as much as we feared we would."

Heaven forfend - we might be able to be happy even if we are deprived of certain "choices!" If we were prepared to grow up a bit, we might even choose to deprive ourselves of those choices that allow us to live cheaply and easily in the present but will make the lives of our children much poorer and much harder. The happiest outcome of the end of sprawl might be that we would, by necessity, live in more constrained ways that would force us to grow up and choose those constraints rather than be forced to adopt them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Patrick,

The author blogs at Mirror of Justice, a site devoted to Catholic legal theory, which you should visit regularly, if you don't already.

Happy New Year!