Sunday, March 30, 2008

Review of "The Unforeseen"

Despite a growing trend towards believing that the economy and environment need not be at odds, our society has a long way to go in demonstrating this concept with regards to our land use. “The Unforeseen” is a documentary about the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, set in the context of suburban development in Austin, Texas threatening the Edward’s Aquifer and Barton Springs. It explores the effects of real-estate development and the tension between private property rights and the public good. Though not discussed outright, cheap oil makes such developments possible, and thus this documentary implicitly criticizes our society’s use of energy.

Beginning in the 1980s with the attempt to develop huge tracts of land on the Edward’s Aquifer, “The Unforeseen” covers the large public outcry and grassroots mobilization to protect Barton Springs, followed by the Savings and Loan failure in the early 90’s, and, nevertheless, the increasing suburbanization and sprawl of Austin. While the movie includes interviews with developers and real estate brokers, their values of private property rights and economic growth are trumped by the emotive voices of environmentalists. Simply put, the market cannot place a meaningful value on a healthy ecosystem. So when there is a choice between a clean, healthy river and another faceless subdivision, it is easy to go with the former.

An important consideration in the movie is the question of economic growth. As a society, we have yet to define what constitutes positive growth, as opposed to negative growth. While a major goal of modern economic theory is increasing the GDP, the point is well made that not all aspects of the GDP are good for society. If I go out tomorrow and get in a car wreck and have to go to the hospital, the GDP goes up, which is apparently good for society?

Land development and energy use go hand in hand. “The Unforeseen,” however, did not include an explicit mention of the role of energy in the history of Austin. The presence of cheap oil makes suburbia possible and desirable for many Americans. The decreasing price of oil in the 80’s played a role in the Texas Savings & Loan collapse. The effect of increasing gas prices on the future of Austin were only hinted at through the analogy of the physiology of cancer cells. Despite this apparent absence of energy discussion, the entire documentary implicitly asks the larger, umbrella question, “What is a desirable way to live?”

Even with huge gains in our standard of living, there is much of which we can and should be critical. How we use land is a central issue in how we choose to develop as a society. It is as much an energy question as it is a question of real estate finance and private property rights. At what point is the Austin suburban sprawl too much sprawl? When we become like Dallas or Houston? Or like Los Angeles? Once we, too, pollute the skies enough to achieve ozone nonattainment status? Once we run out of water on a future, hot summer day? Once there is nothing unique or different about Austin except its history and its remaining old buildings?

Within the energy community, the biggest question is where we will get enough future energy from to continue our current lifestyle. We are not asking often enough whether we are using this energy responsibly in the first place. “We don’t know how to use energy, or what to use it for. And we cannot restrain ourselves. Our time is characterized as much by the abuse and waste of human energy as it is by the abuse and waste of fossil fuel energy. Nuclear power, if we are to believe its advocates, is presumably going to be well used by the same mentality that has egregiously devalued and misapplied man – and womanpower. If we had an unlimited supply of solar or wind power, we would use that destructively, too...” (Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, p 13).

It is difficult to deny the destructive role of energy in our land mis-use, nor the deleterious results: degraded air, water, and soil quality, biodiversity decline, and diminishing ecosystem health. “The Unforeseen” presents a case for restraining our land development; it is a passionate call for rethinking how we live, both as individuals and as a community.

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