The Good Society 11.3 (2002) 95-96
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Ophuls' Great Leap Forward
On the first page of his essay, William Ophuls describes the city as "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." Later, he reiterates this thesis: "the core problem of the city in general and the modern city in particular, is that it expropriates resources which, in the natural scheme of things, do not belong to it."
This thesis is novel and refreshing as much for what it does not propose as for what it does. First, in this article, Ophuls avoids the bromides of the 1970s about the limits to growth; mercifully, the word "sustainable" does not enter the argument. Ophuls in this essay appears to recognize that economists like Robert Solow were correct in arguing that an information society will always find ways to substitute between resource flows so that when one commodity becomes scarce (for example, whale oil used for household lighting), a more plentiful one will replace it (kerosene, electricity, etc.). As knowledge has increased over the centuries, the prices of all commodities—food especially—have declined and continue to go down. The most recent book that debunks the doomsaying of the 1970s—Bjon Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist—has been criticized as beating a dead horse. The book review in Science observes, "To any modern professional, it is no news at all that the 1972 Limits to Growth study was mostly wrong."
No shortages exist or loom for the goods the modern city sucks from the hinterland; those Ophuls list, matter, energy, and population, are not in short supply. Solar, fission, and eventually thermal and fusion technologies will assure energy supplies. Ophuls does not assert otherwise. He argues that the city expropriates resources that are not necessarily scarce but that do not in the scheme of things naturally belong to it.
Second, while Ophuls does repeat the platitude that the problems of urban civilization defy technical fixes and demand political solutions, he spares us the customary-and-usual list of the requisite institutional and social reforms. He does not restate these truisms: 1) that problems of overpopulation can best be addressed by improving the status and opportunities of women; 2) that famine results from poverty and oppression not from there being too many mouths to feed; and 3) that the burdens of development can best be lifted by the blessings of democratic, transparent political institutions, accessible and competitive markets, education, religious toleration, and so on. While commonplaces such as these are true enough, Ophuls does not reiterate them, not necessarily because he disagrees with them, but because to mention them is to connive at criminal boredom.
What makes Ophuls' article remarkable is its central assumption that resources "naturally belong" in particular places, presumably, where God first put them. To be sure, the city creates wealth, both its own and that of the hinterland, as Jane Jacobs among other sociologists has established. In converting pulp from neighboring forests into poetry—or sand into fiber optic cable—urban civilization vastly improves the standard of living of people in all areas that can trade with it. But as Ophuls recognizes and many of us fail to notice, even when trade is voluntary, the modern city violates the natural scheme of things by expropriating resources that do not belong to it. The concept of "belong" does not refer to a notion of transferable ownership but of inalienable rootedness. Everything has a natural place from which it should not be expropriated or taken.
Some might cavil that Ophuls commits the naturalistic fallacy, i.e., by supposing that what is natural is for that reason right or good. John Stuart Mill has written, "In sober truth, nearly all the things which men are hanged or imprisoned for doing to one another, are nature's every day performances." Similarly, Hobbes and Spinoza believed that a state of nature brought each into war with all, since everyone has a natural right to whatever power allows and appetite...