Coming into focus: Asheville’s worldview war

After years in the trenches of Asheville's pitched battles over development and natural resources — Parkside, the Downtown Master Plan, Rep. Moffitt's seizure of the water system — I've come to see that our little city is on the front lines of a full-blown worldview war. At first it was hard to identify the opposing philosophies through the fog of battling buzzwords. But once I learned to decipher their codes, it became clear which two forces are at war: self-interest and sustainability.

The self-interest camp was easier to recognize, especially after its partisans conquered Raleigh and overran our state government. In many a debate and public hearing, I've heard them trumpeting their single-minded doctrine: private profit über alles.

Deriding government initiatives as "social engineering,” its political camp followers proclaim that "deregulation" and "market-based reforms" will liberate the "private sector" to efficiently exploit such "commodities" as our homes and forests. A developer betrays his loyalty to self-interest when he attacks environmental protections as violations of "private property rights" and declares that he can do anything he pleases with his real estate, whose "highest and best use" is defined as whatever makes the owner the most money. Behind the bullet-point barrage and the John Locke and Ayn Rand quotes, however, this glorification of selfishness, which critics call "free-market fundamentalism," seems barely distinguishable from how criminals and sociopaths rationalize their choices.

In contrast, sustainability seemed hidden in the weeds like some grass-roots insurgency. True, at outposts such as Asheville City Hall, I could pick up the movement’s buzzwords: rejecting “uncontrolled sprawl” (which self-interest hails as "unshackled growth”), preserving historic structures through “adaptive reuse,” and creating "greenways" to conserve species' natural habitats. “Mixed-use" development and “affordable housing” aim to break down economic and social barriers, and economic, social and environmental “diversity” is paramount.

Each of those goals was appealing enough, but taken together they seemed chaotic. What core principle could possibly unify this ragtag revolution? Where could I read sustainability's manifesto?

At last I found it, enshrined in the opening pages of Asheville's 2025 Plan. City planners and Council members cite this comprehensive, community-developed blueprint whenever they make a major recommendation or decision, much as courts ground important rulings in the Bill of Rights. According to the plan's "Vision" section, "Sustainability is a balancing of economic objectives, social goals and environmental resources in a way that works for both present and future generations."

Sustainability is based on what its theorists call the "triple bottom line" of economic viability, community development and environmental stewardship — or "profit + people + planet.” In the long term, each component’s health depends on keeping all of them in balance. For organizations that adopt the triple bottom line, Council member Cecil Bothwell has written, "Dollars and quality of life and the environment are all deemed to be of equal importance.”

Rather than enforcing a shortsighted focus on the next quarter's profits, sustainability uses a trifocal lens to diversify one’s view. Up close, you're still looking out for yourself, but in the middle ground, you recognize society's interests. And toward the far horizon, your perspective broadens to include the wider world not made by man.

No wonder the free-market fundamentalists feel threatened. This isn't a proper opposition, an antithesis they can compete with and defeat, like capitalism vs. communism, or corporations vs. government. It's a synthesis that includes but refuses to be dominated by the profit motive's all-devouring force. Caring about one’s fellow creatures becomes a counterweight to self-interest, which sustainability doesn't actually fight but rather embraces and mellows, like a cop in a commune.

Sustainability also induces holistic thinking. Eavesdropping on City Council's March 11 strategic retreat, I noticed how animated the discussion became when Gordon Smith observed that many Council priorities, such as affordable housing, food security and multimodal transportation, intersect "like a Venn diagram." Lauren Bradley, the city’s director of finance and management services, noted how well this view fits with the triple bottom line, which she said city staff are becoming fascinated with as a framework for analysis and planning.

To me, these "3BL" lenses are downright subversive. Try them on and, suddenly, your home and yard morph from solitary castle into part of a community, an ecosystem. Picture-perfect lawns become sterile, non-native environments whose runoff degrades local streams. Dilapidated "eyesores" start telling you their stories as historic buildings; a vacant lot's "highest and best use" looks more like a community garden than yet another block of condos. You realize that your rights as an owner are tied to your responsibilities as a steward.

Self-interest may have the upper hand in wealth and influence, but I suspect that in the triple bottom line, sustainability's advocates have discovered a secret weapon that can ultimately win the worldview war. Here, Mr. Moffitt, just take a peek through these little lenses.

— Steve Rasmussen lives near Rhododendron Creek in West Asheville. He can be contacted via oldenwilde.org.

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