Asheville (and America) at the crossroads

Asheville, it seems, has become everybody’s favorite place. Any town that can top the “best of” lists of both Rolling Stone and Money magazines is unique, indeed. This very specialness, however, places our fair city squarely at a crossroads — or, perhaps, in the crosshairs of the American juggernaut called progress.

America has swallowed a very dangerous assumption: that progress and growth are absolute benefits, never to be questioned. It’s a fundamental article of American faith that the production and consumption of consumer goods must increase steadily, year after year after year. When they don’t, it’s called “recession,” which is seen as a terrible evil.

Recession, of course, reflects a slowdown of the present corporate, consumer system. But does anyone ever stop to consider that there might be other ways for our society’s economy to configure itself, besides the slavish production, marketing and purchasing of consumer goods? Could we, for example, successfully configure our society — and gauge our quality of life — based on its overall humanity, sustainability and social equity, rather than on the sheer quantity of goods and wealth produced?

The city of Asheville is very much in the grip of this dilemma. Conventional wisdom argues that market forces must dictate any decisions our community makes. But as Asheville becomes ever more popular, market forces will invariably conclude that continuing to grow, grow, grow economically is the automatic — in fact, the only possible — choice. Small, local businesses must “inevitably” give way to larger corporate enterprises.

So money that would have stayed in the community is siphoned off to corporate headquarters and stockholders in far-away cities, states and even countries. Well-paying jobs are replaced by low-wage, service-sector work. Jobs created by local employers who are part of (and answerable to) the community are replaced by jobs controlled by distant interests. Small, personable, human-scale businesses are replaced by huge, bureaucratic, unresponsive and uncaring entities. Yes, unemployment is low, but what is the quality of the jobs available? Does anybody care? Is the question ever even discussed?

Asheville is in crisis — and so is all of America. But as long as we believe that producing ever more consumer goods at the cheapest price is an absolute good, there are really no more decisions to be made. The market will make them for us. Get out of the way, Mom and Pop: Make way for “progress.” Even the idea of preservation remains viable only as long as it’s profitable.

What I’m driving at is subtle. It’s partly about the community’s bricks and mortar, the trees, and the quaint ambiance. Those arguments, however, can be countered by pointing to the way many cities have been revitalized by market forces. Market forces brought downtown Asheville back from the graveyard it had become 20 years ago. But those were local market forces, driven by small, local business owners. No, the argument I’m making is really about the soul of this community — and the nation.

Too much of anything, however good in principle, can spoil what was once beneficial. There’s no doubt that market forces helped create American strength and vitality. But what was once a strength now shows a marked potential to become destructive. Healthy ambition to get ahead and create some security has given way to naked greed. Our quality of life has fallen victim to the illusion that acquiring more, bigger, fancier, faster possessions is the answer. The backbone of American commerce — the small, local business — has been displaced by international corporations that now control every facet of American life. Lots of money’s being made, but it’s concentrating in ever-fewer hands. The disparity between the average worker’s net worth and that of the economic elite is worse than at any time since the heyday of the robber barons, early in the industrial age. In many ways, the average American’s quality of life has deteriorated significantly — no matter how many luxury goods they now own.

Asheville has grown (and is about to grow still more) in ways unimaginable only a few years ago. Right now, it’s a beautiful city with many unique characteristics. There’s a thriving central business district that’s mostly locally owned and operated. There’s a strong arts community. There’s even a significant, controversial but colorful, alternative-culture community. Asheville has real character and vibrancy. Yet the great American prosperity is doing little for these people. Small-business owners, artists and bohemians still subsist on very shaky economic ground, and there seems to be no place for them within the homogeneous monolith of corporate, profit-driven culture.

This commentary is probably an exercise in futility, because Asheville is part of America, and America seems completely in the mesmerizing grip of the glittering consumer ethic. Asheville is a boomtown, and it will most likely continue to boom — until, I fear, what makes Asheville special gets used up, and the corporate giants, having drained this place dry, go off in search of the next unique, quaint community to exploit, leaving behind an Asheville that’s indistinguishable from any other American city.

I can only hope my voice resonates with others who, like me, are becoming increasingly uneasy about the community-shattering, culture-devouring, family-dislocating, environment-destroying gods that America now worships. These new gods are manifested in the giant corporations, the modern obsession with consumer goods, and the unquestioned supremacy of the profit motive that have come to define the market forces of the modern age.

And so I shout my cry into this onrushing gale: “There must be a better way!” Let’s start looking to create a more preservation-based, community-oriented, humanity-celebrating, ecologically sound social and economic structure. Let the political battleground of the emerging 21st century be the premise that people are more important than profits, that creativity and diversity are more valuable than commercial homogeneity. I am certain that a stable, sound economy can be built along these lines. Let’s start measuring progress this way.

We live in an age of dizzying technological advances. In its infancy, technology was seen as a liberating force that would grant us a more enlightened and enlivening existence. Instead, we have enslaved ourselves to working harder and longer than ever, even as we use technology to shrink the world and turn human beings into the technicians of a monolithic, corporate culture. This is surely a wrong turn. Quirky, beautiful Asheville is an oasis in the middle of this sea of conformity, a bastion of quaintness and creativity. But our little jewel is in serious danger of being packaged and sold, just like everything else in America.

There must be a better way!

[Asheville resident Bill Walz teaches and writes about mindful living.]

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