The callous plan of the invisible hand

Everyone agrees that Asheville is gasping from more and more bad-air days. Yet the state remains poised to build the I-26 connector, a gigantic road that’s certain to burden our lungs with more poison.

The Asheville Citizen-Times reported recently that the N.C. DOT plans to make the connector eight lanes in order to contain the 50,000 additional cars they believe will choke the road. Yet on the same day, on the same front page, the paper reported on the Southern Appalachian Mountain Initiative. The SAMI study involved an exhaustive nine-year investigation by eminent scientists from all levels of government. They concluded that exhaust from vehicles is almost certainly the reason Asheville — air-quality wise –is being transformed from one of the healthiest environments on earth to a lung-disease capital of the world.

By inviting more vehicles as breathing becomes less viable, we have forfeited any right to claim that we’re nurturing smart growth and sustainable development. It has become starkly obvious that we’re cheering atrocious growth while mesmerized by sustainable delusions.

According to Kevin Lance of the WNC Air Quality Agency, 38 percent of the year, our air is unhealthy to breathe. Up to seven days a year, it is positively dangerous to breathe. And even if environmentalists are able to reduce the eight lanes of I-26 to four, census projections show that Buncombe’s growth will include almost 15,000 more vehicles by 2010. We are planning for the air to get 7 percent dirtier every 10 years! If this fact becomes nationally known, our Land of the Sky moniker may change to Swamp of the Sty. Tourism may die.

Every person with a vehicle who moves to Asheville badly hurts the quality of our life. Yet no one is proposing to stop I-26 (or, God forbid, to build a nonpolluting train). In 1895, Ashevilleans chose to build nonpolluting electric trolley cars in order to keep our air healthy. Today, the addiction to growth and cars is so complete that we can only breathe more poisonous gas at a faster rate. In a town full of environmentalists, how can this happen?

Economic fundamentalists

Of course, many heroic activists are laboring to prevent the destruction of Asheville’s quality of life, but the global economy is accelerating toward us. Obviously, there are great fortunes to be made off our city’s beauty and culture. More than 8,000 new developments and expansions sprang up in Asheville during the last four years. The controversies over the I-26 connector, the Wal-Mart Supercenter and many other hot spots are but small battles in a huge blitzkrieg. Not only will our air become more dangerous, growth may also destroy our graceful quality of life with big-city danger, frenzy and unsightly development. Yet trying to hold back the global economy is like attempting to hold back the Pacific and Atlantic oceans with a pinkie in the fissure of a crumbling wall.

That doesn’t mean that channeling the rampant growth away from such treasures as Beaver Lake is wasted effort. Saving the wetlands of that beautiful area has preserved a natural space for people and animals that will always be transcendent. But unstoppable growth does mean that fighting such rear-guard battles will not halt the air pollution and the sad dilution of an amazing quality of life. In our economy, the drive for profit is endless. Citizen efforts to control it can only be sporadic at best.

In order to derail the juggernaut, a majority of Ashevilleans will have to cease their uncritical belief in one of capitalism’s sacred cows — the invisible hand. The theory goes that an invisible hand transforms individual economic choices into community happiness. But who will be happy if merely breathing becomes problematic and our cool summers become nasty and hot? Choosing to ditch some of the power of the invisible hand should be easy, if one cares at all about the quality of life in Asheville.

The taming of the undercover hand is deceptively simple. It requires only that we, as a community, make decisions about our population and about how many polluting vehicles can drive through Asheville every day. This has been done in other cities. We are uniquely situated to accomplish such a revolution, because the tourism aspect of our economy cannot be shipped to Mexico. No one is going to move Biltmore House, and no one can move the mountains. On the contrary, the only threat to this most basic portion of our economy is growth and its accompanying pollution.

And we have stopped attacks just as powerful. We scared the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission out of situating high- and low-level nuclear-waste dumps in the area. We forced the U.S. Forest Service to clear out most clearcutting in the Nantahala and Pisgah forests. We resoundingly rejected gigantic efforts to force us to drink from the chemical cesspool of the French Broad.

The groundswell of citizen resistance to stop I-26 is waiting to be tapped. Potential protesters include anyone interested in clean air and safe streets, and artists who’ll be choked out of downtown as rents rise with the development tides. But even more exciting is the slumbering giant of West Asheville. It’s those residents’ homes, businesses and peace of mind that will be bulldozed if the eight lanes of the I-26 connector plow through. Four groups are already trying to control I-26 and would love to stop the atrocity if they thought it politically possible (see list below).

Manicuring the hand

And so taming the I-26 connector and the massive development it brings along with it becomes the first goal, if Asheville is to make its own decisions rather than submit to the whims of some theoretical hand. Once that’s accomplished, toll booths that charge prohibitive rates at all major entrances to Asheville would prevent our air from becoming dirtier. Long-term commuters will also pay at the booths, but less, and with the option of cheap rapid transit. Money from these booths could be used to construct nonpolluting north/south and east/west trains. If the beauty and culture of Asheville must be assaulted by uncontrolled population growth, at least vehicles will not turn our grace into a dirty frenzy.

The next step is to decide, democratically, just how many people we want to live in Asheville. Why not? No one says we have to become another Charlotte or Atlanta. Don’t we have enough metropolises?

Further, we need to share enough so that every job is a good job, every wage is a living wage — not a minimum sustenance. If local businesses can’t afford to pay, we should draw together as a community and help them. We should share as if we cared about our future. The only thing we have to lose is the next corporate gimmick, the next big box, the next high-tech fad. But what we have to gain is a settled, secure population and all the grace, culture and beauty that such an equilibrium can inspire. Once every job is a good one, developers will no longer be able to claim that only growth can produce good jobs. Profit will be their only justification. Profit for those who already have enough is a lousy motivation for paving our paradise.

Still, we should continue to fight each instance of insane growth, knowing all the while that it’s a rear-guard action. Because until we stop the invisible hand from making our community choices, we will ultimately fail.

Capitalism is brilliant. Private-property rights are sacred. But the intelligence ascribed to the invisible hand decreases with each new SUV that belches exhaust in Asheville. The only entity that can choose the future of our community intelligently is we, the people. Otherwise, we are doomed to let an unconscious hand make our air nasty, our streets dangerous and frenzied, our views man-made, and our culture controlled by pitiless profit.

Environmental groups fighting the eight-lane I-26 connector include: the WNC Alliance (228-8737), Smart Growth Partners of WNC (236-1282), Citizens for Transportation Reform (693-8190), the North Carolina Alliance for Transportation Reform (693-8190, and the I-26 Connector Awareness Group (281-4800, ext. 75).

[Bill Branyon is a free-lance writer and environmental activist living in Asheville.]

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