In the Curbside Chat, I describe the modern, American approach to development as a massive experiment, an aggressive deviation from thousands of years of accumulated wisdom on how to build places. It is an economic experiment, yes, but I always point out that it is also a social, culture and political experiment. Much like bees evolved hives that work in concert with their genetic dispositions -- bees and the nature of hives evolved together, each impacting and guiding the other -- pre-Suburban Experiment cities reflect the genetic dispositions of humans.
This is one of the primary reasons I reject the planning profession's density fetish: it simplifies vast complexity down to a simple, blunt metric. The hubris of believing that thousands of years of humans incrementally figuring out how to build cities can be best represented today in a single number is insulting to anyone who thinks seriously about it.
Conversely, there is something powerful to understanding how temporal discounting -- the predisposition of humans to highly value positive feedback today and deeply discount potential negative feedback in the distant future -- would lead modern Americans, free from the physical restraints of pre-industrial development, to overbuild, to commit ourselves to a Ponzi-scheme path of development that rewards us now but leaves us with crippling long term liabilities. The left/right narratives we are bombarded with daily ignore -- where they don't aggressively exploit -- this natural human failing.
The Growth Ponzi Scheme is the result of a human disposition that we all share. It's not some problem of the engineering/planning profession. We can't blame this on weak or corrupt politicians. It's not a society unmoored and predisposed to greed or self-indulgence. No, we're all wired this way. For reasons that we can surmise, humans living as hunter/gatherers tens of thousands of years ago found it advantageous to indulge whenever they found it possible and not to worry so much about the long term consequences. We inherit those predispositions, even though we live in a time of plenty.
Consider the ideal human physiology of 100,000 years ago. Jared Diamond describes it in his book The World Before Yesterday. Since large meals were infrequent, the ideal person would be able to consume a lot of food at one time when it became available. That person would then metabolize the food slowly, much of it converted to fat that would sustain them during the weeks or months between large meals. The ideal person would then shed this fat slowly so as to survive the extended time when the only food would be roots, nuts or berries.
Today, in a time where food is in abundance for most of the Earth's inhabitants, that physiology is a nightmare: most of everything you eat is converted to fat which then burns off really, really slowly. Diamond hypothesizes that there was a huge die-off when humans became agrarian and had to adapt to life with more food security. We can witness similar stress today in Polynesian societies where food security has resulted in obesity rates as high as 95% and diabetes beyond epidemic proportions.
Modern humans are a byproduct of our evolutionary past and so, if we want to change things, we don't need better engineers or new politicians but a different cultural conversation. A conversation that addresses our natural dispositions now that we no longer have the restraints that held our ancestors in check.
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has researched the evolutionary basis of our moral beliefs. He suggests that nature provides a first draft of what he calls the "moral mind", essentially the predispositions that come naturally to us all. That first draft is then revised by culture and experience, shaping us into who we are.
Haidt and his research colleagues have identified five elements that they believe make up that first draft of the moral mind. These are the things we are immediately prepared to learn. They include:
- In Group Loyalty
In other words, as humans, we're generally predisposed to care for others and see harm as morally wrong. We have an innate sense of fairness and the need to reciprocate. We tend to display loyalty to our group as well as identify authority figures to whom it is natural to show deference. And we have a sense of what is right and wrong to do to our bodies. Now I'm not suggesting -- and Haidt does not suggest -- that we all are the same at birth because we are clearly not, just that our moral wiring is configured to operate on these channels.
For example, I'll focus for a moment on Purity/Sanctity, which is probably the most controversial moral channel today. It's pretty easy to grasp why a morality over what entered one's body was important to pre-historic humans. Those with this predisposition would have had moral reservations that kept them from ingesting things or engaging in acts that caused them harm, thus making them more likely to survive. Such people would have less downside risk -- they are not the ones trying out new mushrooms -- but would still enjoy the upside potential from those not wired in this way (after all, if the person without a Purity/Sanctity morality channel survived eating the mushrooms, the prudish would also benefit from the knowledge, despite not taking any risk). I gaze at my pet dog out the window and see a different species that does not contain this moral wiring on purity.
In modern times, this ancient wiring plays out in strange ways. Today's political right tends to moralize sex while the political left tends to moralize things like food. It's always been comical to me how the food purists in our audience flip out every time I mention how much I enjoy Mountain Dew. People continually send me emails on how horrible it is and how it will certainly lead to my future suffering. Haidt's research has helped me understand this reaction, but it also helped me realize how my frequent mentioning of Mountain Dew is a subtle signal that I don't practice food purity, that my morality does not emerge from the cultural left.
Haidt suggests that culture and experience has molded the moral mapping of people who tend to be liberal and those who tend to be conservative in different ways. While liberals focus almost exclusively on the first two -- Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity -- discounting the others in most ways, those who identify as conservatives embrace all five, often even discounting the first two when the other three are threatened. In a larger sense, Haidt suggests that liberals tend to speak for the weak and oppressed, even at the risk of chaos, while conservatives speak for institutions and traditions, even at a cost to those at the bottom.
This reality is most clear to me in the reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement. The liberals I know tend to see Black Lives Matter protests in terms of social justice, of speaking up for an oppressed group to end harm and promote fairness. The conservatives I know are often sympathetic to individual instances of police abuse of minorities (and thus are bewildered/frustrated when they are called racist) but, when looking at police/minority interactions as a group, place a higher moral value on the institution of policing and the social order it provides. It's hard to say that one side is exclusively right and the other exclusively wrong, but politically we often do. In retrospect, my post on ending the routine traffic stop was an attempt to bridge that moral divide (and, incidentally, there were quite a few African American men in our audience who thanked me for the post while a not insignificant number of white folk here locally who were very angry with me for defaming police officers).
This is really important because, as our most recent election demonstrated, our cities have become moral monocultures, as has our countryside. They each reflect one set of moral tuning, a reality each side considers exclusively correct. That reality is a key aspect of the Suburban Experiment and a key distinction between it and the Traditional Development Pattern. As Haidt says in the TED Talk I share in this article:
I think that the greatest wonder in the world is not the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon is really simple. It's just a lot of rock and then a lot of water and wind and a lot of time. And you get the Grand Canyon. It's not that complicated.
This is what's really complicated: that there were people living in places like the Grand Canyon cooperating with each other. Or on the savannas of Africa. Or on the frozen shores of Alaska. And then some of these villages grew into the mighty cities of Babylon and Rome and Tenochtitlan. How did this happen? This is an absolute miracle; much harder to explain than the Grand Canyon.
The answer, I think, is that they used every tool in the toolbox. It took all our moral psychology to create these cooperative groups.
In our cities, we need people who are concerned with the harm done to others and we need people to champion social justice. But we also need people who express group loyalty, who show deference to authority and institutions and who call on others to suppress their base urges and work for higher ends. It can't be one to the exclusion of the other; it must be a mix of both. If we want our cities to be strong, there must be a struggle between the moral vision of the left and the right in every neighborhood and every city, just like there was when these special creations of humanity were evolved along with us in the first place.
Our cities don't just need racial or ethnic diversity, they need moral diversity as well. When people share all the same morals they start to act like a team and, as Haidt suggests, the psychology of teams shuts down open-minded thinking.
In his book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, journalist Bill Bishop combines demographic data, election results and research in human psychology to show exactly how this is happening. As we move around in the modern America of the Suburban Experiment, we are able to self sort into neighborhoods of people with moral mapping similar to our own. Statistically, this moves the median of accepted discourse in each neighborhood further to the extremes. A moderate opinion in an electorally blue city would be a radically left opinion in Red America. Conversely, a moderate opinion in a red precinct is offensive and heretical to those in Blue America. We experience a different reality and there is nobody there to challenge that reality, even though it is woefully incomplete.
I experienced this over the past few months in my own life. I moved from a very red area outside of town to a deep blue area in the middle of it. Of all the races on the ballot, there was one I was confident in predicting. Our Minnesota House race had a young, dynamic candidate running on the Democratic Farm Labor ticket and I would have put big money on her winning. Her signs and billboards were everywhere. People were coming to my door weekly on her behalf. My neighbors were hosting fundraisers and meetups for her. It seemed like she had so much momentum, until election night when she won our precinct in a big way, but lost the overall election by a near 2:1 margin.
I now live in a Blue Bubble, a place devoid of real moral diversity. These are beautiful people and I enjoy living among them, but I know that without the day-to-day tension of meeting and knowing people with different views, different values and different ways of interpreting events, we are going to become closed minded. There will be some comfort in that because, not only will we believe ourselves morally correct and even superior, we will experience the affirmation of that belief from those around us. This is really dangerous.
And so I'm going to suggest today that our cities apply affirmative action to conservatives (and that our countrysides do the same with liberals). If we're committed to diversity of all types, we should work to ensure that conservative voices -- with their different moral tuning -- are part of the dialog for how we improve our cities, towns and neighborhoods. It will be painful and it will be frustrating -- it is so much easier to simply discount the other and brand them heretical to all we hold sacred -- but the lessons of history prove that the challenges and restraints caused by the moral mix of humanity are necessary to producing successful places.
There is a beautiful line in the Prayer of Saint Francis that I find myself frequently clinging to. It has come to me as I finish this piece.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
Building a Strong Town requires that we seek, not to be understood, but to understand each other. True understanding requires moral diversity, not just as an abstract exercise, but in the day to day struggle that is making a place work. In the absence of moral diversity, let's make extra effort to seek those who are outside of our moral matrix. We do this and our efforts at building stronger cities will be informed by a truer reality.