A Planning Parable, Circa 1984

Tim Halbur's picture
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Burning rainforests. Smog alerts. Gridlocked cities. Seabirds caked with oil. That's how it was, ladies and gentlemen, as we entered the '90s.

This list of environmental peril is familiar still today, although we can cite some success fighting the smog. In this case, the quote is from a TV reporter in 1984, a character in a Ray Bradbury story called "The Toynbee Convector." 

The title is so clumsy and unevocative that I'm constantly struggling to recall it and getting it confused with Bradbury's other, more famous time travel story (the one that popularized the idea of "the butterfly effect").  In The Toynbee Convector, however, time travel is just a device to move the story forward, not the central plot point. 

The story is set in the year 3000, one hundred years after a man named Craig Bennett Stiles invented a time machine and rides it into the future. There, he finds a much improved world, a utopian society with beautiful architecture and planning and advanced technology. Stiles documents everything he can on film and brings it back home to his present (2000, if the back and forth has you addled). He destroys the time machine so as to not ruin this beautiful future (the aforementioned "butterfly effect" being a possibility) and dedicates his life to making the future become a reality, telling his story to the world. 

Okay, <<SPOILER ALERT>>. If you don't want to learn what happens and want to read the story or watch the video for yourself, stop here. 

After planting the seeds for the future, Stiles goes into self-imposed exile, granting no interviews until the year 3000 where the story begins. In that interview, he reveals to one reporter that the entire thing was a hoax. He created meticulous models of a beautiful future for his fraud, filming them to create a visual inspiration. The time machine itself was just a prop, smoke and mirrors. He made the whole thing up because he felt that the world was suffering from a lack of vision and ambition. He quotes Arnold J. Toynbee, an historian and a real person, although I'm not certain of the veracity of the quote: 

In order to survive, humankind must always rush to meet the future.

There is of course a lot in this utopian hoax turned real that would make today's planner cringe. What about community participation, one might ask. This is one man's utopia, which is nearly impossible to reconcile with another's vision. For me though, this little story is a wonderful metaphor for people like us who work to improve the world and the built environment. There are too many people lacking positive visions of the future. We should all be striving to tell stories, create visualizations and persuade people that the world can be better.  

AToynbee tilen interesting addendum: apparently, mysterious tiles have appeared around the world in a number of cities, saying things like, "TOYNBEE IDEA IN Kubrick's 2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER." No one is entirely sure who is behind the tiles, which have been appearing since the 1970s. 

A message from the future, perhaps?

Tim Halbur is communications director for the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU).

Comments

Comments

Do we need fantasy or optimism more?

This author used a time frame of 1000 years?

Come ON.

I can see a largely post-fossil-fuel future in 100 years from now, at least in advanced nations, merely if we let technology and the free market do their thing. But all bets are off if we revert to communist-style planning, or suffer some other retrograde political revolution. A "Green" political revolution taken to its logical extremes, would possibly be the worst imaginable form of totalitarianism, worse than Bolshevism and the Taleban combined.

The problem, as Julian Simon put it so well, is that things continue to get better due to progress and the free market, while humans are forever imagining that things are getting worse. I think a crucial factor here is that previous generations who remember how bad things used to be, and who remember that "progress" was actually OUT OF something worse; continue to die out.

Bjorn Lomborg put it well, that when you interview older people about environmental conditions in their own locale in their lifetime, they almost all say that it has got considerably better. I can see that clear as day myself. But the same people say that "overall, things are getting worse, because the media says so". All these worsening conditions are taking place in the locales of "other people". But finding these "other people" who say that things are getting worse in their locale, is an elusive task. (The obvious exception is in totalitarian states).

I think that people 100 years from now will think our obsession with vehicle exhausts is just as absurd as people 130 years ago obsessing about horse excrement. In fact, given the clean exhausts of the latest Hondas (to say nothing of electric and hybrid and hydrogen vehicles) our obsession already is absurd. CO2 is the only thing that anyone can even try to make a case about. And I suggest that even CO2 has a "Kuznets curve" - the USA's emissions have dropped faster than anyone else's, having reached a peak well above everyone else's.

CO2, futhermore, has the remotest kind of harmful results that are not noticeable in the immediate vicinity of the emitting activity like particulates are. I also think that we will be more worried about the next little ice age, before the next century is up.

Michael Crichton pointed out in an excellent essay, numerous examples of things that became, and continue to become, "scares" just as the problem was ending anyway.

Steven F. Hayward and Amy Kaleita publish an Annual "Index of Leading Environmental Indicators", which is a healthy antidote to the Lester Brown propaganda which people continue to swallow in spite of a track record of being wrong that now spans decades.

The sheer falseness of the environmental movement's beliefs is a strong indicator of the inherently evil potential that this movement has. If we cannot see that, then it is no wonder that previous totalitarian ideologies had so little difficulty propagating in their time. The "means" always end up defining the "end". No movement based on falsehoods has ever been benign in government.

We don't so much need movies and novels with fantastic plots to "stimulate us" into "action", we need healthy doses of truth and positivity. That is the "rush to meet the future" that we need.

Some need fantasy more than others.

Using the unfortunate trifecta of Julian Simon, Lomborg, and a complete ignorance of basic physics in an argument is rarely a winning strategy. Sprinkle that with a mention of a refuted optic and writers in the employ of an anti-environment/pro-fossil fuel think-tank, however, and that's worth a decent chuckle.

Best,

D

Obvious Point About the Market

"things continue to get better due to progress and the free market. ... Bjorn Lomborg put it well, that when you interview older people about environmental conditions in their own locale in their lifetime, they almost all say that it has got considerably better. "

Let me make the obvious point that things got better because of environmental laws, not because of the unhindered operation of the free market.

If you interview older people, they say the air and water are cleaner now than when they were young - and that is because we passed clean air laws and clean water laws.

The free market itself provides no incentive to pay the extra cost of, for example, installing scrubbers to reduce air pollution from smokestacks. The law does that.

Likewise, because coal is the cheapest form of energy, the free market itself provides no incentive to shift to clean energy. Only the law can do that - and in this case, the most efficient way for the law to do it is to put a price on co2 emissions.

You are right that the market creates the prosperity that lets us afford to reduce emissions. You are wrong to think that the market will reduce emissions by itself.

"A "Green" political revolution taken to its logical extremes, would possibly be the worst imaginable form of totalitarianism"

Have you ever looked at my book "The Politics of Simple Living"? It is all about giving people more choices and more freedom than they currently have - for example, choice of work hours to give people more freedom to manage their own time. Check it out at http://www.preservenet.com/simpleliving/PoliticsOfSimpleLiving.html

Charles Siegel

Not quite

Laws and regualtions have to work in tandem with the way people actually work, and what people actually want, to be effective. So to say that things got better because of environmental laws is not really true either... moving from wood-burning stoves, to coal-burning stoves, to coal-fired power plants delivering electricity made a huge difference for the environment and was not the result of "laws". To say that the free market itself provides no incentive to pay the extra cost of scrubbers is not necessarily true either... you are confusing the theoretical free market of the rational man and economists with the real free market of the aggregation of individual choices and desires and assuming that people wouldn't pay more for clean air or that no one would benefit from providing it... , or that the threat of class action lawsuits and nuisance laws to keep producers inline would fail to provide it. It's not like the air wasn't getting cleaner before the government stepped in. It's akin to seat belts in cars, most major car manufacturers put seat belts in cars before it was ever mandated by the government (an idea pioneered by Robert McNamara, yes, that Robert McNamara, at Ford) despite it "costing more".

Now, I am of the opinion that environmental laws did help push everybody in the right direction (by not allowing us to go backwards). But again, laws can only work in tandem with reality (or else we could just pass a law saying everyone has to use 100% windpower, or everyone has to make a minimum wage of $100 an hour, or that you can't talk on your cell phone while driving, etc... won't work no matter what the law says).

Quite.

It's not like the air wasn't getting cleaner before the government stepped in.

1. Kuznets optics problems notwithstanding, I'm not sure how this statement can be supported with the data. If you have some that show this, I'd be interested in seeing them.

2. Technically, free markets cannot provide goods that are non-rival and non-excludable, so regulations are needed. Stating that laws must work with reality isn't really a refutation, or even an acceptable argument for that matter.

3. Whether or not you want to believe that irrational actors acting together somehow magically results in a rational societal direction, there is scant evidence that irrational actors choosing coal is a refutation of the simple fact that the CAA and CWA have vastly improved the environmental conditions in the US. The basic fact that the CAA and CWA have greatly improved outcomes is a basic fact.

Best,

D

Still Not Quite

Out of context arguing is so much fun.

1. I doubt any data exists. Did they measure for Carbon monoxide in Pittsburgh in 1910? Was the air cleaner or worse in Victorian London than in any aribtrary staring year in the 20th century (nice contextual chart... where's the data previous to 1965?). Is the air cleaner now that it was then, yes. Did the CAA and CWA work, yes. Does that mean we need more planning laws to force everyone to do as the planners think everyone should, no. Planners used to love "urban renewal" - were those good laws?

2. So why don't we just mandate zero carbon emissions? If laws don't have to work with reality than our problems are solved.

3. Rational/irrational according to whom (a question one should always ask the economists)? That actors (rational or not) choosing coal-fired power plants greatly improved outcomes is also a basic fact. What law made that happen, or more precisely, what necessary regulation provided that non-rival, non-excludable good?

Sorry, Dano, laws don't exist in a vacuum. They are a product of their time and the society that produced them. To say that without the CAA and CWA the "greatly improved outcomes" you cite would have never happened is simply false.

Quite contextual.

Out of context arguing is so much fun.

Indeed! That's what prompted my reply.

1. If no data exist, the claim can't be made that the air was already getting cleaner prior to regulations. This also makes EKCs problematic, but that is hardly new.

2. The politicians cannot get to zero C emissions for several reasons: technology gaps, societal inertia, infra., cowardice, big polluter's lobby.

3. The neoclassical view of rational utility maximizing agents making collective good decisions is falling by the wayside with the advances in behavioral economics, psychology, physiology. Esp in this polarized society.

Best,

D

Zero C emissions?

"....The politicians cannot get to zero C emissions for several reasons: technology gaps, societal inertia, infra., cowardice...."

But C emissions per unit of GDP are dropping in all advanced countries, especially the USA. They are of course, the "emission" most essential to human existence. Adolf Hitler didn't lack "cowardice", by this analysis. (No offense meant, just making an observation. He made the trains run on time, too).

"C" emitted is recycled by the biosphere into reusable fuel; it is just that the rates of recycling are currently apparently too slow to "close the loop" on current human requirement. No emissions are actually lost to humanity (or the whole biosphere for that matter) for all time.

If technology enabled us to "close the loop", we'd be on our way to planetary utopia far more effectively than any purely political dreamer could think possible.

Laws As a Product of Their Time

"laws don't exist in a vacuum. They are a product of their time and the society that produced them. To say that without the CAA and CWA the "greatly improved outcomes" you cite would have never happened is simply false."

It is true that laws are a product of their time: we passed the CAA and CWA because people at that time wanted cleaner air and water.

It does not follow that the same improved outcomes would have occurred without those laws.

Are you seriously claiming that people would have just given up leaded gasoline voluntarily if the Clean Air Act had not been passed, and that they would have given it up voluntarily as quickly as it was phased out by the law?? That claim is ludicrous.

The logic behind it is:

When individuals act, each individual pays the cost of the environmental improvement, but the benefit goes to society at large. The individual who pays the cost gets only a minute fraction of the benefit and is likely to judge that the benefit is not worth the cost.

When society acts by passing a law, everyone pays the cost and everyone gets the benefit.

Charles Siegel

Does it?

Why is it ludicrous... people now where seat belts much more often than they used to, people smoke much less often than they used to, people don't litter like they used to... a little education and time go a long way. I will grant you you second claim in that it would likely have taken longer than the ban (but hey, maybe we wouldn't have an MBTE problem then).

Again, I can post my questions from above... would you become a heroin addict if it was legal? To say nothing would have happened without a law is to assume people are to stupid to learn and change.

Per your last statement... it really depends on the law, usually some minority pays the cost for the benefit of the majority... in very few instances are costs and benefits universal.

Missing The Point About Externalities

Talking about seat belts, giving up smoking, and avoiding heroin addiction, you are missing the basic economic point about externalities: These are all things that people do to avoid harming themselves.

Yes, if people are educated, they are likely to avoid doing things that harm themselves - but they are less likely to avoid doing things that harm others.

Eg, some idealistic people might will spend extra money on clean energy to help avoid global warming, but most people will buy the cheapest energy they can get - thinking about the costs and benefits to themselves and not the external costs.

Most businesses must buy the cheapest energy, or they will lose out to competitors. Eg, if a factory uses only electricity from solar energy, its products will cost more than the products from a similar factory that used electricity from coal (ceteris paribus), so customers will buy from the factory that uses coal. Likewise, businesses that buy more expensive fleets of vehicles with pollution controls or that buy more expensive unleaded gasoline will not be able to compete (ceteris paribus).

That is why we need laws to either internalize these externalities (eg, for co2 emissions) or to ban certain externalities (eg, to ban leaded gasoline).

This is basic economics, so I won't argue it any further.

Charles Siegel

Seat Belts vs. Catalytic Converters

"It's not like the air wasn't getting cleaner before the government stepped in. It's akin to seat belts in cars..."

People are likely to spend more on a car with seat belts to increase their own safety. They are not likely to spend more on a car with a catalytic converters to improve everyone else's health.

You seem to be saying that new technologies are necessarily better for the environment. An obvious counter-example is the addition of lead to gasoline, a new technology that was universally adopted because it benefited the person using the gasoline, even though it threatened everyone's health, and that was eliminated in the United States only because of the Clean Air Act.

No one says we can just pass a law requiring us to shift immediately to 100% wind power. But it is obvious that an environmental law that charges a rising price for emissions can gradually shift us from coal to clean energy. And it is obvious that we would shift to clean energy much more slowly without that law, because coal is currently cheaper.

Charles Siegel

Apologies, double-post.

Apologies, double-post.

Spending for Public Benefit

So no one will spend any additional money on anything that benefits others? What about charity, what about those who choose pay more for renewable energy, what about childess couples that vote yes on school bonds, what about Mother Theresa? People spend more on things all the time that benefit others... People are not the rational automatons of economics textbooks.

On leaded gas, again, it's all about context. Why was lead in gas..? because it actually helps gas burn cleaner (which actually lowers pollutant level), which leads to more horsepower, greater fuel efficiency, etc... It wasn't obvious that it harmed health until much later (lead began to be added to gas in the 30s). So, the government banned lead in gas, then in 1990 it mandated the use of MBTE, which is now polluting groundwater everywhere... So the Clean Air Act is now responsible for MBTE groundwater pollution... is that aa good law?

People learn and respond and change all the time. Would you use lead-based paint on your house if it was available? Would you become a heroin addict if heroin were legal? Laws can really only do so much.

Sincere environmentalism

After a quick look at your book, Charles, I must say it looks to me like a plea for less regulation in certain areas of our lives, especially those regulations the Unions are most reponsible for.

I admire quite a bit of what Nordhaus and Shellenberger have written on REALISTICALLY tackling environmental and resource and emissions issues. They are what I call truly sincere environmentalists. Although I don't agree with their objectives, they are at least honest about the need to sacrifice things a bit less selectively in the quest to save the planet. If an entrenched Trade Union practice is in the way of the best solution for the environment, Nordhaus and Shellenberger have the principles to say that it, too, must go.

The market won't reduce emissions by itself? Obviously no-one told Honda's engineers and marketing people.

But I do not disagree that regulations have brought spectacular results; it is just that people needed to have been brought to a certain point, as the result of free market created wealth, where they now CARED about the environment. People with no income at all would tend to be quite happy about a new coal-fired foundry in their neighbourhood. There is an obvious correlation between wealth, and the political mandate for environmental regulations.

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