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The Good Society 11.3 (2002) 91-94

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The Rousseauean Moment

William Ophuls

The great delusion of our time is this: that the complex and interrelated problems of modern urban civilization have technical solutions. But those seeking merely practical cures to our collective ills are doomed to frustration, because the real remedy is political, not technological.

The root problem of the city—and therefore of urban civilization itself—is that it is an ecological parasite: it arrogates to itself resources that do not naturally belong to it by sucking matter, energy, and population away from its hinterland. Metropolitan Los Angeles, for instance, would perish in a matter of weeks if the many aqueducts that bring water from a thousand miles away no longer functioned.

By its very nature, parasitism is exploitative—a one-way, one-sided process that tends to leave the host debilitated, if not dead. Yet it is precisely this exploitation of the rural and natural periphery that permits those who inhabit the urban core to live high on the ecological hog.

This has been true since ancient times—indeed, since the origin of civilization, when humanity exchanged an existence based on usufruct for one founded on cultivation. For agriculture as a mode of production eventually entailed cities and empires that could only live by exploiting their hinterlands. Thus Rome, to choose but one example, ruthlessly mined captured provinces for their human and natural wealth, leaving behind barren wastelands where crops once grew or lions once roamed. In effect, a naked ecological imperialism was the indispensable basis of Roman wealth and power.

However, the ecological sins of the ancient world pale beside our own. To oversimplify greatly, the marriage of Enlightenment political ideology and Enlightenment scientific technology launched the modern age—an age dedicated to continuously increasing humanity's command of matter and energy so as to make ourselves, in Descartes' words, "the masters and possessors of nature."

The consequence has been an orgy of "economic development." This has, on the one hand, brought enormous benefit to vast numbers of people. On the other hand, however, it has also increased the rate and extent of ecological parasitism by many orders of magnitude. For instance, from levels that were already quite high, energy production has increased by approximately 2,500 percent in just the past fifty years. We are only now beginning to come to terms with this shadow side of what we hitherto regarded as an almost unmitigated good. If urban civilization is not to become a victim of its own success, then something fundamental needs to change.

The essential character of that change has to be political: it is the basic pattern of civilization since ancient times that is called into question. The human race has grown so numerous and powerful that it can no longer live as a parasite on nature, but must instead learn to live symbiotically, like the bees that make nature's garden bloom. In short, we need the political vision to invent a new mode of existence for a new form of civilization that harmonizes the interests of man and nature.

To put the matter more concretely, merely practical measures will not suffice to solve the problem represented by the modern urban way of life. Technological fixes by themselves cannot create a new mode of existence or a new form of civilization, they can only make the giant conurbations of today less destructive and more intelligent parasites. Djakarta, Mexico City, and New York City would certainly be much improved with better technology, but they would still consume vast resources and inflict heavy costs on their environment. Thus although technology will be an indispensable part of the solution, it must be an enhanced, ecological technology that makes it possible for humanity to live once again by usufruct instead of exploitation.

Nor can economic development as commonly understood be expected to solve the problem. By its very nature, economic growth amplifies and intensifies the degree and scope of ecological parasitism. That is precisely how we became "rich." Moreover, if we were to raise the currently impoverished to the...


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