Shock ‘n’ awful

According to Asheville’s Building Safety Department, City Council last year authorized almost double—double—the already astronomical dollar value of development that occurred in 2006! Our progressive Council has left a carbon footprint on our beautiful mountains that would make Halliburton blush with environmental embarrassment. How many oxygen-making trees have been permanently displaced by inert impermeables? Thousands? Tens of thousands? No one knows.

In money terms, Council OK’d development worth $279 million in 2006 and $493 million last year. Even allowing for the $80 million Ellington project, that’s a huge jump. The previous high was $204 million in 2004, and development in the peak year of the 1920s boom totaled $70 million (in 2007 dollars). We might as well stop fighting NIMBY skirmishes to protect our neighborhoods and start toting titanium umbrellas to stop them from plopping 12-story buildings on top of us. Or start building Berlin Walls to protect ourselves from 400-unit condo coves corrupting once-peaceful neighborhoods. You think “shock and awe” had a bad effect on Baghdad’s environment? Bush should just have let our City Council loose on them.

Of course, I’m exaggerating outrageously. Or am I? Here’s how native son Thomas Wolfe described the war-torn feeling of 1920s Asheville: “The place looked like a battle field: it was cratered and shelltorn with savage explosions of brick and concrete all over town.” Sound familiar? And Wolfe was looking at about one-seventh the amount of growth from which we’re now reeling.

Irrational nonsensicals

Last year, City Council OK’d 2,895 building permits for projects ranging from The Ellington—roughly the square footage of two super Wal-Marts—to small yet equally impermeable single-family dwellings. That makes 2,895 environmental bombs Council has dropped, many leaving carbon footprints as big as any in America’s non-nuclear arsenal. Of course, Council’s bombs don’t directly kill people—they just kill our small-town virtues and big natural glories.

Meanwhile, in the last election, we fired Bryan Freeborn—the only Council member with any substantive record of fighting growth. What were we thinking? Capitalism, of course. We’ve been experiencing a bull cycle of irrational exuberance for 10 or 12 years, and now we’re heading into a bear cycle of paranoid pessimism. Some call it the greed-and-fear cycle. Either way, it’s an idiotic system on which to bet the whole economy! It toys with lives and environments, making them dependent on the whims of psychologically unstable investors. Only such tangible, material conditions as droughts or energy shortages should be allowed to affect our basic, survival economy. Because we can grow just as much food and make just as much energy in our current state of fear. Instead of living by these facts, however, we live by the extremes of manic-depressive markets.

True, if we ever did decide not to keep growing, we’d have to take care of everyone who depends on the growth industry for a living. This involves a huge slice of the population: resource extractors, construction workers, building suppliers, home furnishers, landscapers, real-estate agents, architects, engineers and developers, to name a few. Giving them security would entail a degree of sharing that’s now being approached in much of Europe but is rarely even considered here. Still, if we guaranteed everyone a minimum income, we could make growth decisions from a place of careful reason, rather than one of economic insecurity or lust.

Skyscraper national park

It’s probably time we admitted defeat in the current fight against growth. I’m also very sad that the collateral damage has included my friendships with several City Council members. I know they’re doing the best they think they can, given the fact that the economy has been storming irrationally exuberant gully-washers all over our beautiful mountains. If the economy could, it would turn all of America into skyscraping Manhattan, thus maximizing real-estate values everywhere.

So if we ever try to control growth again, let’s realize that it will require a much greater control of our economy—and that developers’ property rights will often have to take a back seat to the community’s priorities.

Finally, let’s hope that the current wave of irrational fear doesn’t crush Asheville the way another one did in 1929. Actually, Asheville continued to boom until 1932, thanks to massive bank fraud involving the mayor and many other prominent citizens. But when we did crash, it took more than 40 years before we recovered. So today’s Asheville may still appear to be booming as we finish all the new behemoths scraping away downtown sky. But then what?

Here’s how Wolfe described what happened in 1932:

The town almost literally blew its brains out. Forty people shot themselves in 10 days, and others did so later. What happened in [Asheville] and elsewhere has been described in the learned tomes of the overnight economists as a breakdown of “the system, the capitalist system.” Yes, it was that. But it was also much more than that. It was the ruin of men who found out, as soon as these symbols of their outward success had been destroyed, that they had nothing left—no inner equivalent from which they might now draw new strength.

I think Wolfe greatly exaggerated the moral aspects. It seems more likely that we are unconscious prisoners of an economy that has no ecological—and little social—intelligence. Yet we have such a strong belief in its other virtues that we can’t bring ourselves to bridle it. Besides, we couldn’t possibly have another Great Depression, could we?

[Asheville resident Bill Branyon’s newest book, Will You Mini-Marry Me?, will be published in March. His most recently published novel is Asheville, NC, Circa 2000 AD (Transnational Publishing, 2003).]

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