I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. I know what I think is going to happen, and I know the vision I have, as murky and fuzzy as it is, for how we are going to get there but, having been wrong about many things many times before, I have no doubt that my own judgement isn’t to be completely trusted.
When I make decisions I put them through a mental venn diagram with three circles representing; the present, a “business as usual” future, and my own personal quasi-apocalyptic view of the future. It started as a more formal process, but I’ve done it for so long now that it’s second nature. I look for activities, investments, and opportunities that pay off in all three areas and put my efforts and energies there.
Keeping myself in shape is something I enjoy now, will make wandering down the streets of Prague much easier in retirement, and would help me outrun all the zombies* in a zombie apocalypse. Growing a garden is an enjoyable pastime today, can reduce my grocery bill a bit in retirement, and can give me a set of skills that could be useful if the industrial agricultural system starts to break down. My home is a source of pride today and gives me flexibility when entertaining or taking in family members in need, it has great potential as a revenue source in a business as usual future while still providing me even in my dotage with a small residential space; and in an energy scarce future it is in the most walkable and most transit friendly location in western Massachusetts and is surrounded by all of the primary institutional and infrastructural foundations of the region. Investments in energy efficiency like insulation, storm windows, and passive solar heat give me the opportunity to be smug today, can reduce my monthly outlays in the future, or could be life savers if energy supplies become less reliable.
*(Zombies, in this case, being a need to work much further into old age than a current pensioner my expect.)
In a business as usual future living in a walkable neighborhood will keep me in shape and save me money by eliminating any need for an automobile, in a future where cars and their infrastructure become too expensive for society to maintain I will already be where others want to be, with an asset that can be shared, in a place that will increase in value. My “business as usual” pension being as generous as it promises to be I can afford to put the rest of my financial investments into things like local farms which give me a feeling of satisfaction today. If the future ends up being like today, only more so, and the local food movement is nothing more than a passing fad, I won’t have lost anything I couldn’t afford to lose; if on the other hand my pension and Social Security end up providing me with pennies on the dollar of what they’ve promised I may have access to enough food to get by.
I put my views on local issues through the same framework, but I try to only mention aloud only what I view as today’s benefits of a particular decision along with its utility in a business as usual future; if I make the mistake of expressing my suspicions about the potential for economic collapse, for example, in a public forum I know that I lose the support of many more people than I gain.
An example might be the addition of a new exit ramp on the Massachusetts Turnpike between Westfield and Lee. My deepest fear about this idea is that many thousands of acres of serviceable agricultural land could be wasted on “a living arrangement that has no future” in a last gasp attempt to sustain the unsustainable through one final mini exurban blowout of homes and auto oriented retail. In a future where communities depend more and more on food grown locally that would be a disaster. My public arguments (both honest) coming from a “presentist” view and a business as usual future, would be that the potential shift in growth to these hill towns could alter the existing culture in ways the current residents clearly were seeking to avoid when they chose their communities, and could stall the tiny uptick in growth and development in the region’s urban core. I would also reference the Strong Towns view regarding horizontal development and its Ponzi Scheme impact on fiscal stability.
Parking garages are my bete noire. To people with a very different aesthetic from my own they represent a very positive current good; they want to drive to get where they want to go and they want to park, preferably for free, when they get there. I argue against their aesthetic, I point out that successful urban places generally are not car friendly, but they can point to many apparently successful car oriented places. In a standard view “tomorrow is the same as today only more so” they see the car as ubiquitous; I see the car, internal combustion or electric, with a human driver or self driven, as disappearing, slowly but surely from the landscape: The materials used to create even self driven electric cars are mined and produced and shipped using fossil fuels; since only a tiny fraction of our electricity comes from solar and wind (and even those industries are very fossil fuel dependent) they are just as polluting as traditional vehicles; the roads they drive on and the sprawl which both demands their existence and their existence promotes are enormous energy sinks which are wasteful and unsustainable.
In other words I’m a loon.
So that leaves me arguing the idea that “millennials” prefer walkable urban places and car infrastructure is an impediment to developing it, and many successful cities across Europe and North America have accommodated the automobile but have prioritized the pedestrian, even in “the age of the automobile,” so it makes sense that, in the core of the city at least, “we” follow suit; that would be my public argument. They would counter with a list of “successful” growing cities from Houston to Phoenix that are clearly car centered…”and screw Europe!”
They’re not wrong. About the present and the recent past that is. And they’re not idiots to think that the near future is likely to resemble the recent past.
Deep down I believe every parking deck, parking lot, parking garage, viaduct, and stroad we produce now will be nothing but a millstone around our necks for decades to come. Saying so makes me Cassandra, so I use other, hopefully more successful arguments. Of course, on the other hand, I could just be wrong. But I don’t think so.