On a frigid Norwegian island in the Arctic Ocean just over 800 miles from the North Pole there is an abandoned coal mine that, depending on your viewpiont, is either a silly waste of resources or cheap insurance on the survival of humanity.
The mine houses the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a seed bank that stores backup copies of tens of thousands of seeds in three-ply foil packages tucked into tupperware containers. The idea is that, if something should happen to the ever-changing strains of seeds that we have—whether because of war, natural disaster, etc.—there is a copy there that we can go back to, one that we know works. In a world of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO), there is fear also that we may create a strain of something that we don't fully understand the impact of and, for one reason or another, come to deeply regret that decision.
The vault is part of a broader conversation that has two very polar viewpoints. The following two videos feature people I deeply respect, yet they have opposing notions on GMO. Neil deGrasse Tyson is a brilliant man and points out -- quite correctly -- that pretty much every plant or animal product we consume is a byproduct of tens of thousands of years of cross-breeding (aka: genetic modification). In Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond discusses how corn -- the crop of the Americas -- was very small in the wild and took a long period of time to not only migrate across multiple latitudes but to become large enough to really matter. Without genetic modification, we wouldn't have corn, and without corn, we wouldn't have Mountain Dew, which, speaking for myself, would be a personal tragedy.
Nassim Taleb, the patron saint of Strong Towns thinking, has a big problem with GMOs. It's not that he is predicting doom (he isn't) but he states -- quite correctly -- that the incremental pace of change over tens of thousands of years ensured that nothing destabilized the system. Today, where tens of thousands of years of incremental transition can be reproduced in an afternoon, we can accidentally create things that have devastating effects and not be aware of those impacts -- the unintended consequences -- until it is too late. GMOs may be a panacea, and the risk of devastation may be small, but a small risk of total devastation should never be taken lightly, especially when we've shown over and over that we are terrible at estimating these kinds of risks.
I find myself in a strange place where I -- and Strong Towns, the organization -- am often speaking in the calm and professional manner of a Neil deGrasse Tyson while my heart beats with a skepticism, fear and passion of a Nassim Taleb. I've spent the weekend camping and pondered this situation a great deal, prompted by "An Open Letter to Chuck Marohn" written by our good friend, Johnny Sanphillippo, on his site Granola Shotgun.
In the past, Johnny has accused me -- in a joking manner that friends do -- of wanting to send a hot dish (casserole to you non-Minnesotans) to people who suffer tragedy. He's pushing back on the Libertarian-Catholic tug-of-war I have going on in my mind. I do want to make things better and I do think I can help, if only a little. Here's a specific passage that Johnny wrote which I have dwelled on:
Building in the traditional manner simply isn’t legal or culturally acceptable anymore and engaging with regulators to change the rules is a generational multi-decade process. I won’t live long enough to see the required political shifts unfold. That’s the bad news.
The good news is I don’t have to wait for the larger society to change all the interlocking regulations and protocols in order to achieve my personal goals while helping to build stronger communities along the way. But the process won’t look anything like what Chuck has imagined so far and it won’t involve the Department of Transportation or city council legislation anytime soon. Bureaucracies – both public and private – are determined to maintain themselves at all costs. They’ll continue to ratchet up the rules, fees, and complexity to sustain their own prerogatives.
The process won't look anything like what I've imagined. Johnny's accusing me, in a sense, of being too optimistic, of thinking we can actually save things, that things can be turned around if we just try hard enough. I'm very grateful for this critique, as I always am with Johnny's promptings, because I don't hear it very often. I am almost always inundated by the opposite critique: I'm way too negative.
Let me be clear about what I actually imagine is in store for us. I look at America's cities, towns and neighborhoods and I see overwhelming levels of fragility. I see a development pattern that destroys wealth; the more we do, the poorer we become. I see municipal debt levels rising as a consequence, as well as an increased dependence on state and federal assistance. I see property values and consumption rates (property tax and sales tax) artificially manipulated higher by federal monetary and fiscal policy—a lofty perch I don't see as stable. I see local governments overwhelmed with liabilities, from infrastructure maintenance to pensions and rising health care costs. And I see the people in the system -- politicians, professional staff and residents -- all with powerful short term incentives to simply increase the level of fragility.
Is it possible that we could reach some pinnacle of growth and prosperity, that a -- take your pick -- socialist/capitalist revolution would take place to purify our current hybrid system and get us to some economic utopia that allows our pensions to be paid, our debts to be paid (or written off), all our cul-de-sacs to be fixed, everyone to have affordable housing in nice, walkable neighborhoods with transit and bike lanes and beautiful parks? It's possible, I suppose, but I don't find it very likely.
I think we're royally screwed. I think this thing is going down and it's going down hard. I see all of these fragile systems being pushed to the brink and I think the only open question, really, is how fast does it unwind? Is it something that happens suddenly -- like the collapse of a fragile bridge -- or is it something that happens more slowly? Do we all experience a variation of the Detroit situation over a couple of decades or a couple of years?
And note what I've said about Detroit. First, we're all Detroit. Detroit isn't an anomaly; it's the canary in the coal mine. They adopted this development pattern a couple decades before everyone else and we all copied it. They've now arrived at the logical destination of that approach and we're all just a couple decades, at most, behind them. Second, it wasn't pensions or corruption or Wall Street swindles that brought down Detroit -- all those things have happened in many cities in different ways over thousands of years. It's that Detroit was too fragile to recover from them. They were felled by a cold because they were really fragile.
I think Johnny and I are on the same page with all that. Where we seem to differ is on what comes next and what we should do about it. Here's another excerpt from Johnny's piece:
The sweet spot for self-directed, resilient, and adaptable living – very often at a far lower price point than newer more fashionable properties in the same metro region – is the modest small town or older suburb at the urban/rural interface. Start there. Keep your debt levels low. Explore quiet under-the-radar work-arounds that build household autonomy and reduce critical dependencies on larger systems. Work with like-minded neighbors to solve problems without engaging with the authorities. Create a home based business that generates income, but doesn’t attract unwanted attention from officials. Organize your affairs so if your car went away you could still function without it. Grow a big productive garden. Take on a house mate or two to defray costs and achieve common goals. Wean yourself off critical external inputs. Build a Strong Home first. Lead by example.
Again, here we seem to agree. I live in a small town in a walkable neighborhood within walking distance of the downtown. I have more savings than debt and am increasing the former and reducing the latter aggressively. I work from home, bike/walk a lot and don't drive much, work with my neighbors on things, etc... I maybe don't talk about this stuff enough, but I have. I don't think this is the problem, though. It's what comes beyond this where I think we diverge.
Let me -- and I apologize for this in advance -- throw my friends from Fate, TX, under the rhetorical bus here. I've held up the work they've done, specifically the work in requiring a minimum Private Investment to Public Infrastructure Ratio, as a great model. I think it is, but not so much because it gets to something I think is an answer, but because it applies a thought process to move us along a path of understanding.
Fate's innovative approach is not the answer. There are some serious flaws, not the least of which is that they won't be able to maintain a 20:1 ratio if the properties maintain single-family zoning and lack the ability to incrementally renew themselves. Does that mean it is unworthy? Absolutely not; I think it's a huge leap forward. Here is a city grappling with a difficult problem that most other places just ignore. I think that effort is worth a lot to all of our futures, whether or not it ultimately proves successful.
I say things are going down hard and I mean it. I don't think there is anything we can do as a movement to change that. If the entire county adopted Fate's idea, I don't think it would change the end result in any appreciable way. So what are we doing here at Strong Towns? Why don't we just -- as Johnny suggests -- wait for society to catch up?
I think the difference is that I don't see the Suburban Experiment as a development problem–a physical problem that will need to work itself out. I see it, first and foremost, as a social problem, one where our narrative about decline is more damaging than decline itself.
I go back to Taleb -- and he's really hard sometimes to follow, so I've tried to transcribe into something intelligible -- and specifically this lecture, "How to Live in a World We Don't Understand," where he says (15:02):
With the enlightenment, the industrial revolution, came a greater control over our environment. So what did we get? The smoothness. We remove everything. We smooth out the economic cycles. It's okay until it blows up.
You want to smooth out the forest fires? It's okay, but without fires the forest blows up. You want to make people comfortable? Okay, but their bone density goes down.
Small amount of variation is good for us.
In our rising affluence, Americans have -- for perhaps all the right reasons -- wanted to solve every problem. To smooth out every variation that would cause stress. And in doing so, we've created that chain of unintended consequences I discussed last week.
We want to lower unemployment, so let's get people to work building highways. We want to get more people into housing, so let's create a couple GSEs and then gradually lower underwriting standards. We want to help people in poverty, so let's spend a billion dollars on a commuter rail line and zone the station for high density housing. We need to maintain our infrastructure, so let's borrow a bunch of money at the federal level. I could go on and on. Each of these had -- and still have -- supporters arguing that it was the thing we needed to do, mindless of that chain of unintended consequences.
It's too obvious to say that we're in the wierdest political time any of us can imagine, but I want to say it with some historical context. Each day reminds me more and more of the craziness that accompanied the transition in Rome from republic to empire, from rule by the senate to rule by an emperor. While decline was a part of that transition, it wasn't permanent. Julius Caesar started many public works projects and his successor, Augustus, saw many more through to completion. Rome saw centuries of glory under subsequent rulers. It took an emperor to step into the chaos and restore some sense of order, albeit a one-sided and despotic order.
So where is our republic headed? Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein was quoted this weekend as saying that America was in the middle of a "cold civil war" and I find that to be a fairly accurate description. I don't know who is going to win or how victory will be achieved, especially amidst all this fragility, but I feel confident predicting the strategy: promise more smoothness. Whichever side can take away the pain of volatility is the one that will win. Whether your volatility is college tuition or medical expenses, housing costs or traffic congestion, the side that wins is going to be the one that promises to put out the comparatively little forest fires.
And those reading this site understand that this only means that the forest is going to blow up someday.
So I don't think, Johnny, that society's going to catch up. I think they're going to be dragged kicking and screaming in the best case scenario and, in the worst case, come crashing down around us. I think it's going to be nasty and, to the extent that people identify Trump as part of this, I think whatever comes one or two iterations next is likely to be way worse. So, I'm with you on all of us working to be personally resilient -- get out of debt, have some savings, build social capital with those around you -- but I also think we have to do more.
At Strong Towns, we need to help people talk about the actual problems. The more people who understand—who can be calm voices in a room of hysteria—the better off we are all going to be. We need to start experimenting with responses. Fate is not perfect, but their bold step forward is going to inspire someone else to take the next step. We need to highlight more and more of those here, share them broadly and have a conversation around them. Ultimately, we need to be in place to scale the best ideas when they're needed. We need an alternative to all those bad ideas that are going to get thrown out. We need to make this transition easier.
So you can think of Strong Towns as the urban intellectual version of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. We're going to be a repository of tested and proven thoughts and ideas sitting at the ready for when they are needed. We're going to attract some people who are naively optimistic about the future -- who just want a train or a bike lane -- and that's okay. They're welcome here and maybe we can learn from each other. We're also going to have people who are deeply pessimistic and they'll keep us honest. That's okay too.
In the end, Johnny, as I said to you in an email before you released your piece: I really value you, our friendship and how you've helped keep me grounded and focused. I hope you'll stick with us and continue to add to our conversation. We all benefit from having you here.
(Top image courtesy of CIP)