Jacobean Tragedy

The gross misinterpretation of an intellectual icon

Chattanooga is to urban planners what Cuba was to the '60s left: a junket, a model, and something likely to embarrass them 20 years later. The Tennessee town has become the Shangri-La of the sustainable development movement, that fractious coalition of policy makers, activists, and executives who hope to cure a host of ecological crises, real and imaginary, with more planning, more management, and more buzzwords. Foreign officials come calling, from Shanghai, Stockholm, Prague. Praise descends from the United Nations, federal agencies, and the Utne Reader (which recently named Chattanooga "one of the ten most enlightened towns in America"). With the possible exception of Portland, Oregon, Chattanooga is the Sustainables' favorite American city.

Now it plans to build an "eco-industrial park," an initiative it promises "will connect both industrial and non-industrial companies in a series of waste-becomes-raw-material feedback loops that will save money by keeping the material flows and energy flows within an industrial metabolism, rather than releasing waste into the environment." The President's Council on Sustainable Development has issued a grant to help build the park, and the city fathers rarely miss an opportunity to plug the project. It's a more moderate, mainstream version of environmental guru Herman Daly's "steady-state economy," defined as a "constant level of stocks maintained by minimal throughput of flows." That means you reuse almost all your waste and strictly limit growth.

Flash back three decades. In 1969, urbanologist Jane Jacobs suggested that recycling might become a solution to pollution. Cities, she wrote, are potential junk mines, waiting for entrepreneurs to extract useful material from household trash, industrial waste, even smokestacks. She devoted several pages of her classic The Economy of Cities to this idea, describing several ways one might transform waste into wealth. The cities of the future, she wrote, may "become huge, rich and diverse mines of raw materials. These mines will differ from any now to be found because they will become richer the more and the longer they are exploited."

On a superficial level, it sounds like the Chattanooga project. But it's very different. And the distinctions between the two show a lot of what's wrong with the sustainable development movement. They also show how seriously some Sustainables have misappropriated Jacobs's work.

Jacobs is probably our greatest student of how cities work, how they grow, and how they die. Her The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) is one of the great books of the century--a book that undermined the idea that cities should be works of art, designed by enlightened planner-architects, insisting instead that they were living systems best understood from the ground, not the air. The book's success launched her first into activism, fighting to save her Greenwich Village home from the urban planners, and then into Toronto, a city whose leaders proved more sympathetic to her ideas. She also continued to write, deepening her study of city life and society.

One of her most important insights, enunciated in The Economy of Cities, is the way new work grows out of old: not by plan, as too many social engineers have assumed, and not by ever-finer division of labor, as Adam Smith asserted, but by serendipity. First, work is divided into smaller tasks, à la Smith, and then someone discovers that one of those smaller processes has other uses. The old enterprise then reinvents itself, or else someone breaks away from it to start a new operation. In this way, a sand mining company (3M) began to develop new forms of adhesive tape; a dress maker (Ida Rosenthal) invented, and turned to manufacturing, the brassiere; and--not an example of innovation, but an illustration of the same principle--many Japanese bicycle repair shops gradually moved into bicycle manufacturing.

Jacobs expected recycling to develop this way. To the extent that it's a viable concern, it has. (Think of the scrap industry, or of the savings glass manufacturers have realized from using recycled content.) Contrast that process with these words from business writer Paul Hawken's 1993 book The Ecology of Commerce--a passage the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce saw fit to quote in a portfolio sent to journalists interested in its eco-industrial park: "A prototype of industrial ecology and cooperation is in place right now in Kalundborg, Denmark. In Kalundborg, a coal-fired plant, an oil refinery, a pharmaceutical company specializing in biotechnology, a sheetrock plant, concrete producers, a producer of sulfuric acid, the municipal heating authority, a fish farm, some greenhouses, local farms and other enterprises work cooperatively together....This synergy is remarkable because it happened `spontaneously,' without governmental regulation or law as the prime motivating factor, and because some of the relationships between outputs and inputs were serendipitous or unplanned at the outset."

Here's the kicker: "Imagine what a team of designers could come up with if they were to start from scratch, locating and specifying industries and factories that had potentially synergistic and symbiotic relationships."

Jacobs expects chance and entrepreneurship to produce progress. Hawken seems surprised when they do. Jacobs distrusts planners. Hawken, in this passage, does not. Of course, it makes sense to expect industries to imitate success, the serendipity of the past giving way to the deliberate design of the present. And it makes sense for companies that might want to use one another's waste to plan their proximity to one another in advance. But that sort of decentralized, contractual imitation of what works elsewhere differs considerably from the plan the Chattanoogans are proposing. The latter is a demonstration project, not a living economy; government planners dreamed it up, and it will be financed, in large part, by federal dollars.

Companies still will make money off it, of course. How could they not? The risk will be socialized and the profits privatized; the industries will be serving not customers but an ideological agenda. (And a civic agenda. Chattanooga has been trying to reposition itself as an "environmental city" for years, hoping to draw in tourists and fat federal grants.) Small wonder sustainability is becoming a corporate buzzword: You don't have to buy Daly's crank economics to make some easy dough off his rhetoric.

Thankfully, most of us have little direct contact with raw industrial waste. When we think of recycling, we think of our domestic trash--and, perhaps, of a local compulsory recycling law. Such laws are just as misguided as Chattanooga's eco-industrial park, and for much the same reason. The value of the activity takes a back seat to its symbolism; planners forget that the recycling process also uses energy and sometimes is more wasteful than simply throwing things away. So separating trash becomes a sort of religious ritual, a tiresome procedure that citizens are put through (or environmental aesthetes put themselves through) to prove their fealty to Mother Earth, whether or not they're doing her any favors.

Contrast that with another passage from The Economy of Cities, describing a hapless household trying to recycle its junk: "Imagine that one serviceman calls who is interested only in old metal, another who is interested in waste paper, another in garbage, another in discarded wool furniture, another in used-up plastics, another who wants old books (but only if their bindings have gilt letters; another serviceman is interested in the others), and so on. A family would be driven crazy by this traffic, let alone by the necessity of separating and storing for various intervals the various wastes."

Jacobs did not then propose that the family be forced to separate its trash. Indeed, she implied that this would defeat the purpose of the enterprise. "The aim must be to get all the wastes possible into the system--not only those that are already valuable at a given stage of development, but also those that are only beginning to become useful and those that are not yet useful but may become so," she writes. "A type of work that does not now exist is thus necessary: services that collect all wastes, not for shunting into incinerators or gulches, but for distributing to various primary specialists from whom the materials will go to converters or reusers."

An interesting idea. But trying it means allowing the new work to grow from the old work. That cannot happen if garbage collection is socialized, or if the government contracts with a single private company to do the job. It can happen if households hire people to haul away their refuse. At first, the private haulers might give the garbage to landfills; as opportunities to sell different sorts of trash develop, they'd diversify, much as homeless people collect cans for profit in places with deposit law. Except, of course, that the trash collectors would be responding to an actual market incentive, not one jerry-rigged by the state.

If recycling technology advances far enough, the haulers may find themselves paying for the garbage they collect, rather than getting paid to collect it. But even when opportunities to sell trash don't arise, there can still be a solid incentive to recycle: As landfill space grows scarce, limited by geography or by popular opposition, it will grow more expensive to dispose of trash. In some communities, this has already happened. In others, it hasn't, and that's fine; it just means recycling isn't necessary. There's nothing wrong with that. We're talking about a means of waste disposal, not a moral imperative.

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