When I first read about South Pacific cargo cults that arose during World War II, I had the same reaction that many of you likely had: how simple and backward primitive people can be. And by extension: how intelligent and sophisticated I and my "modern" peers are.

My reading of Jared Diamond -- specifically, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?, which I can't recommend highly enough -- as well as Nassim Taleb has disabused me of my arrogance, at least in this regard.

For those of you not familiar with cargo cults, let me provide a brief overview of the South Pacific incident I referenced, understanding that there are many more. During World War II, islands in the South Pacific that had little prior contact with Japanese or American/European explorers were subjected to a series of war-related occupations. Troops would come in and set up landing strips along with all the other associated infrastructure -- barracks, offices, control towers, etc... -- and, in the process, share some of their stores with the natives on the island. In many cases, the stuff that was shared proved lavish for people who had been used to lives of privation.

Then the war ended, the troops left and, of course, the materials ceased coming. How would the residents of these islands restore this level of abundance? You can imagine a local leader and their Make Melanesia Great Again campaign. All we need to do -- or so it goes -- is to do what was done before and we'll get the same results. It's so obvious it's hardly even debatable.

So these people set about recreating the conditions that created the largess. Having no awareness of manufacturing, industrial agriculture and metal working let alone the logistics of supply and shipping --all the complexity that created the results they were after -- they set about producing the things they did understand. They cleared straight paths through the forest for airplanes to land on. They built model airplanes out of grass and sticks and parked them near the runway. They erected control towers and placed people in them to sit for hours with headphones they had carved out of wood. They would dress like soldiers, parade around and even sit in meetings.  

They believed that if they did these things, the planes full of cargo would start landing again. How simple. How backward. How primitive.

Now a serious question: How is the thinking of a cargo cult any different than the thinking that brought us this?

Photo by Chris Arnade in a great Medium piece on Cairo, Illinois.

Photo by Chris Arnade in a great Medium piece on Cairo, Illinois.

We remember what success used to look like. We've even been to other places and seen success. Those places have decorative lights, wrought iron and brick pavers. If we put in decorative lights, wrought iron and brick pavers, we will see success too. It's simple.

Or how about this one?

Surface parking near the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis, 2007. Photo from Wikimedia.

Surface parking near the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis, 2007. Photo from Wikimedia.

The mall has abundant free parking. If we have abundant free parking we can be as successful as the mall. Let's tear down a large percentage of our city and dedicate it to parking. We can pretend we're so much more sophisticated, but really, it's simple.

There's even President Trump's idea of an infrastructure surge, potential legislation that seems to have rare bipartisan support. Paraphrasing the voice of a generation (or perhaps a generational voice) New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman: We used to invest in infrastructure and, when we did, great things happened to America. Thus, if we want to make America great again, we'll build some more infrastructure. It's simple.

Amid all of this foolishness, what we really need is to humble ourselves. We must begin to realize that we're not actually as smart as we think we are, that even when we think we understand something -- traffic, zoning, economics, love -- cities are so vastly complex that we really can't fully understand what is happening. That doesn't make us powerless and it shouldn't keep us from taking action, but it should incline us to taking small, incremental steps, always building off of what we've experienced. It should make us very skeptical of the grand solution.

Although, granted, that's more of a Shelbyville idea....


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