Friday, August 16, 2002

THE CITY IN MIND by James Howard Kunstler. Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 272 pages, $25.

THE LIMITLESS CITY: A Primer on the Urban Sprawl Debate by Oliver Gillham. Island Press, 309 pages, $30. ISBN 1-55963-833-8

SOLVING SPRAWL by F. Kaid Benfield, Jutka Terris, and Nancy Vorsanger. National Resources Defense Council/Island Press. 200 pages, paper $20.

THE GOOD IN NATURE AND HUMANITY: Connecting Science, Religion and Spirituality with the Natural World, edited by Stephen R. Kellert and Timothy J. Farnham, Island Press, 278 pages, cloth $28. ISBN 1-55963-838-9

by William Severini Kowinski

From the publication of THE GEOGRAPHY OF NOWHERE, James Howard Kunstler has been an informed provocateur in the court house of the built environment, carving out a niche in the marketplace of expression somewhere between Hunter Thompson and Jane Jacobs. Kunstler is known as an advocate, a gadfly, and now officially on the Orion website, a curmudgeon, which tend to obscure his reporting, description and scholarship. But it is these qualities that are particularly sharp in his new book, THE CITY IN MIND.

Chapters on five European capitals, three U.S. cities and Mexico City each narrate a particular history that presents a theme ("Rome: In Search of the Classical," "Atlanta: Does Edge City Have a Future?" for example.) These themes in turn inform further ruminations on cities in general as they are today, while forming an argument about how they should be.

The narratives are often fascinating simply as good reading, and even though he elsewhere allies himself with the New Urbanists, there's no overt attempt to push a particular program. Kunstler sees the virtues of large scale planning in Paris, and the accidentally effective changes that add up to a livable Boston. He doesn't spare the vitriol when conjuring up the sprawling horrors of Atlanta or the altered unreality of Las Vegas, but for a writer with a reputation for attack, the concepts that conspicuously recur are "beauty", "civilized" and "worth living in." These comprise his goals for places.

He remains provocative, even apart from the spasms of verbal abuse. He criticizes advocates of "open spaces" as urban panacea, resulting in "these little cartoons of the countryside deployed everywhere" between the malls and the condos. They are a reflexive but inadequate answer, especially for one city he cites when "everything it contained was so poorly made, not worth caring about, and unworthy of the continuation of collective self-respect called civilization."

Those phrases exemplify a chief virtue of this book: simple and eye-opening eloquence on matters often obscured by thick pastes of jargon. There is no mystery about what Kunstler likes and doesn't like, but that's not the standard that most interests me. Do we really agree that our places should be well made, beautiful and worth caring about and living in, even if we don't share the same vision of what such places would look like? I wonder. The energy of any excesses or arguable propositions the reader might find here is balanced by the power of this central notion: that our civilization reflects our own self-respect.

Kunstler's past work influences those closer to the trench warfare of planning: Oliver Gillham quotes him at length several times in THE LIMITLESS CITY, and the authors of SOLVING SPRAWL start their book by quoting a passage from his HOME FROM NOWHERE, saying it "provides inspiration to those of us who have been concerned about the American landscape." While Kunstler inspires, cajoles, lambastes and celebrates, others in the civic ecology have to sweat the details, figure out what is doable right now, and then do it. They will find a strong foundation of facts, clear analysis and direct, engaging writing in Gillham's THE LIMITLESS CITY.

Formatted in the friendly fashion of a 1950s textbook, it is a peerless one volume summary not only of the urban sprawl debate which is its announced subject, but of much of what has shaped American cities up to the present moment. (It was going to press just after the events of 9-11-01, so while some text on New York City was added, other discussion and photos remain but are now more historic than intended.)

As a broad survey, THE LIMITLESS CITY is a perfect companion to an earlier volume, SOLVING SPRAWL, which focuses on a number of specific examples in U.S. cities and suburbs where the perils of growth and change were transformed into new ideas for places "worth living in." Though each example seems to have been selected to illustrate a solution to problems that recur in various places, the stories are highly individualized, with the players named, the dollar figures given, and the testimony of people who live or trade there.

The writing is crisp, informative and involving-like magazine journalism once was, when magazines published stories about reality. It's an attractive book, with clearly consecutive text broken by unobtrusive sidebars and small but surprisingly sharp and effective color photos.

Since suburban sprawl raised its ugly head as a bizarre counterpart to the dehumanized city, the built environment has gotten more complex and yet more uniform, resulting in both deadly places and wasted spaces. What is wasted by the scorched earth of sprawl is another profound concern.

The issue of sprawl links those whose professional purview is the urban environment with advocates for the natural environment. Thanks to existing sprawl and its effects, "the urban and the rural have cruelly cancelled each other out" as Kunstler observes. Though as Gillham points out, the built places still take up only about 5% of U.S. land, the feeder mechanisms of our society---highways, skyways, the office, farm and manufacturing factories; the mines, grids and strips--- rule over most of it, and threaten to bring ruin to all of it. So it shouldn't be too surprising that an anthology emanating from a conference concerned with connecting science, religion and spirituality with the natural world should include some painful awareness of "often inherently conflicted" moral and civic "responsibilities to both human communities and natural ecosystems and landscapes."

That's how Strachan Donnelley's essay in the anthology, THE GOOD IN NATURE AND HUMANITY, begins. Donnelley is an ethicist trained in philosophy who runs a project focused on regional planning in Chicago. To create a framework for planning, he considers Plato, Darwin, and Aldo Leopold (who he calls "the Alexander Pushkin of American environmental and conservation ethics." A more accessible if perhaps less accurate description of Leopold, the author of THE SAND COUNTY ALMANAC, might be as a godfather of American ecology.) Donnelley also mentions his own background, growing up in Libertyville, Illinois when it was a farm town of 5,000. It is now, he writes, a suburb of some 30,000. Thinking about urban life was more or less forced on him.

Donnelley's conclusion isn't programmatic-just that he has learned particularly through Leopold to apply his more informed and comprehensive understanding of the context of nature to urban planning. But given that what planning considers is usually much more limited than the effects of the plan, this is something. The web of life may be more visible outside the city, but it reaches everywhere. It is a context that is more than physical-- a "moral ecology" and a source of our sense of beauty, quality and places worth living in.

Though the writing in this book's essays is uneven, they demonstrate that the complex concerns involved in the human relationship to the rest of nature must also be addressed in the built parts of the ecology. Nature is not just what sprawl destroys. We are part of it. And it is part of our individual and collective self-respect.

MASTER PASSIONS: Emotion, Narrative, And the Development of Culture by Mihnea C. Moldoveanu and Nitin Nohria. M.I.T. Press. 247 pages, $29.95.

A consultant I knew had just presented some basic psychological concepts of group dynamics to executives of a division in a large and powerful corporation facing painful change, and was driving a couple of the execs back to their office. Glancing in the rear-view mirror, he saw that the exec in the back seat had picked up a teddy bear left there by the consultant's child. When the consultant mentioned this in a kidding way, the exec was astonished--he didn't realize he was holding a teddy bear to his heart.

Skills of psychological manipulation may be high art there, but in psychological self-knowledge few places are more primitive than American corporate offices. Denial seems a necessary function of the ambition and envy that authors Moldoveanu and Nohria assert drive the daily operations of allegedly rational, bottom-line businesses in MASTER PASSIONS. The authors are academicians in management and business administration so they apply the fruits of their selected erudition to corporate cultures and those most directly invested and embroiled in it.

Examples from non-working life (especially marital and sexual relationships) and other contexts (like writing a book) also abound. The examples, which they call "thought experiments, are the scariest part of a scary book. They reveal endless spirals of rationalization as tools of denial, as the master passions are justified by master narratives which appropriate history, ideology and cultural norms to create "reasons" that hide the real motives, especially from the perpetrator.

Along the way the authors get in some acerbic and entertaining asides on the dubious claims of economics as a science, or how the subtle ways that baboons manage leadership transitions are more evolved than the clumsy ways that humans usually do it.

Talking about emotions in the land of corporate numbness is fairly radical-emotions have long been devalued by the ideology of "rational choice" and a constricted view of the scientific purview. The work of neuroscientists like Antonio and Hanna Damasio (who the authors don't cite) now support the idea that emotions are primary and not the handmaiden or even the ugly stepsister of reason.

But the authors of this sharp and stimulating book up the ante by asserting that these master passions pulling the strings are inescapable except by escaping the self altogether, through catharsis-- not by blindly acting on them but by "bringing these emotions as emotions before consciousness-becoming conscious of their sway on the body and hold on the mind. It is therefore about wakening to greater self-knowledge."
While this may be the kind of news that fills flipcharts in corporate consulting sessions, it has been basic program of a lot of psychology-Jung's for instance-- for about a century. Even here, the authors remain scary with their examples of those who attained self-knowledge: Shakespeare's Iago and Richard III, two paragons of sociopathic evil. But at least they knew how evil they were, and this, apparently is progress.

The authors don't seem to trust the conceptual mind to deal with the master passions and change behavior. There is little shrift given to developing a sense of proportion, of countervailing feelings or forces or disciplines within and without that could break the tyranny of the big bad passions without denying them. They don't acknowledge recent ideas about emotional intelligence, from Daniel Goleman to Martha Nussbaum.

Their only advice on how to escape the master passions sounds an awful lot like Zen meditation. Perhaps ambitious for the book's success, envious of other corporate gurus and fearing to lose half their audience, they never call it that. Meditation is a valid technique to apply, but my reading of contemporary Zen writers (Mark Epstein, for instance) suggests they would advise some conscious thought and effort as well, as one of many possible personal and cultural strategies to shift the internal balances towards other passions and more conscious control of actions, especially in order to keep those passions from hurting others. The authors are certainly correct, however, that the first steps are to acknowledge that we have these passions, and to understand as fully as possible their power to motivate and deceive.

The authors intend this book to be an "invitation to reflection" on the complex mechanisms at work, leading the reader to "understand social phenomena from within." But by concentrating on the subjective (the motives for actions) and essentially ignoring the object (the actions themselves and their results in the world) gives the book an amoral aura, and adds to its claustrophobic tinge of horror. At worst, it could be used to justify even more bad behavior: I pollute the world because evolution, capitalism or the devil made me do it, is not much changed by the insight that I do it because I have the devil in my heart and I just can't help myself.

Besides, without checking the result of actions, the role of the passions can't be realistically evaluated. I'm not going to preemptively deny the power of fear (the basis of most of the passions discussed here), and I have to admit that until recently I hadn't paid much attention to the prevalence and power of envy. But maybe the authors have spent too much time in business and academia to appreciate some balance. Perhaps envy and ambition drove a certain scientist to ignore the research of others and then claim it as his own, while thousands died unnecessarily of AIDs (as another recent book asserts.) But should we vilify Rachel Carson because in exposing the extent and deadliness of pollution she may have been motivated by the ambition of the whistle-blower? Writing a book may be an act of love as well as ambition.

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