Beyond the Big Box

The recent lemminglike march of events in this nation has dramatically demonstrated the desperate need for a fundamental change in our political decision-making process.

At this point in history, our Constitution serves us ill. Indeed, its failure to clearly delineate the rights of women, children, minorities and working people; its failure to clearly separate the economic, political and cultural realms; and its elevation of property rights above human rights and environmental protection have underlain the unending domestic upheaval this nation has endured for the past 150 years.

The great 19th-century French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville made these astute observations about the American character: Americans, he said, were freer than Europeans because they mostly worked for themselves as small merchants, professionals and farmers rather than laboring under some form of feudal system. Americans’ two greatest passions were freedom and money, and he wrote that he did not know which of these would ultimately prevail.

Sadly, it seems that in America at the dawn of the 21st century, the love of money has prevailed. We, as a people, have forgotten that much of the mass-organized civil disobedience mounted by the American colonists 15 years before the beginning of their armed revolt against Great Britain in 1776 was directed against three multinational corporations chartered by the British crown: the Massachusetts Bay Company, which controlled the colony of Massachusetts; the Hudson Bay Company, which controlled the colony of New York; and the East India Tea Company, which controlled much of the American colonies’ food distribution (and in whose honor the Boston Tea Party was held in 1773).

We, as a nation, have forgotten the warnings of great Americans — including Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower — against the ascendancy of the giant corporations that now dominate our national life (and that of the entire world), forming a global, neo-feudal system that, unchallenged, could usher in a new Dark Age.

Many citizens will not speak out against these corporations predatory practices out of fear for their livelihoods. Many public officials fail to protect the citizenry from the corporate agenda for the same reason. Many organizations will not speak out for fear that frivolous corporate lawsuits might be filed against them as a tactic for suppressing free speech.

All of this is defended in the name of “free enterprise,” covering the sinister sneer of corporate greed with a happy face. But those enormous economic entities (which we freely subsidize with our resources) have hardly cornered the market on greed. We, as a nation, have placed convenience above conscience — greedily grasping after material goods while vehemently denying the material evils that produce them. We, as a nation, have forgotten that free enterprise is best pursued by free people. We, as a nation, have come to believe that freedom means the ability to choose from among 30 brands of toothpaste (“At always low prices — always!”), rather than the ability to decide for oneself what is right and to consciously choose to live it out.

Those of us who have dared to speak out against unchecked corporate development have sometimes been denounced as “parasites,” “cancer,” “poison in the life-blood of this city” and — worst of all — “tree-huggers”!

Those who say that most left-leaning activists are against all development have not heard us aright. We are against inappropriate development that would set Asheville — the jewel of these mountains — in an ugly vault of corporate-reinforced concrete and render virtually sterile the soil in which a healthy, homegrown economy might thrive.

To those big concerns already doing business here as good corporate citizens, we say, “Welcome!” To those who would gridlock our streets, divide our citizens, deface our landscape and economically strip-mine these mountains, we say, “Enough!” Far from saying “Not in our back yard!” we are proclaiming, “Not on our planet!”

De Tocqueville had another observation about the American character: that Americans have a genius for envisioning and enacting community goals by cooperating in voluntary associations. We ask that the people and the public officials of Asheville, Buncombe County and Western North Carolina draw upon this genius to enact the following:

• Create community councils that are actually empowered to govern, including developing their own local land-use plans and dealing directly with prospective developers (who would be required to meet interactively with those community members who would be affected by the proposed developments). A model for this already exists in Waynesville, N.C., which, through broad-based participation, has avoided the kinds of land-use conflicts afflicting Buncombe County and its municipalities.

• Restore televised public comment in the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meetings to help ensure truly participative democracy in Buncombe County.

• Revise Asheville’s Unified Development Ordinance to restore public notification and public comment on developments of one to 50 residential units.

• Undertake regional campaign reform that sets genuinely enforceable limits on campaign donations and expenditures and makes the government cable channel of every county and municipality available for free candidate forums, debates and citizen-originated town meetings as well as government programming.

• Establish public-access cable channels and low-powered community-radio stations in every part of Western North Carolina.

• Empower citizens to order traffic, environmental and economic-impact studies of all developments proposed by local governments, rather than relying solely on those commissioned by developers.

• Cap most development in Western North Carolina at 80,000 square feet and create flexible standards for multi-story chain-store projects when appropriate.

“Bandwidth,” a current catchword for high-tech economic development, would be better applied to the human spirit. Indeed, increasing the bandwidth of our minds and hearts is the smartest growth that we — as citizens of this bioregion, this state, this nation, this continent and this planet — could ever hope to achieve. It can help us see that the great change that must be made can begin with us, here and now!

We, as a nation, must grow in understanding till we see that Big Boxes, left unchecked, become Pandora’s Boxes from which can emerge all manner of evils to our cities; that Big Boxes, left unchecked, become the coffins in which the beauty of our land and of our people shall be entombed. We, as a nation, must grow in understanding till we see that there’s no conflict between our economy and our environment: Particularly in this bioregion, the environment is our economy. We as a nation must grow in understanding till we learn to think outside the Big Box and in terms of the Big Circle — the Earthrise. Within its growing circumference, this new paradigm for the new millennium includes the well-being of all life.

Those who would sacrifice anything to become something will, in the end, destroy everything and create nothing. But those who willingly sacrifice their personal desire for more in order to benefit everyone shall be the salvation of the earth.

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