By Donella Meadows
–March 17, 1994–
It will come as no surprise to the people of Southern California that L.A.-bashing is a favorite sport of anyone who lives north of Santa Barbara or east of the San Bernardino Mountains. We non-Angelenos love L.A. jokes. We call the place Lalaland. Here in the Northeast, even under three feet of snow, even when it’s 30 below, it’s Los.Angeles we consider unlivable.
A lot of this hostility is just hidden jealousy, of course. Some of it is an allergic reaction to far-out leftist, rightist, or entertainment-industry behavior that bubbles up in L.A. and spreads across the nation. Then there are the environmental reasons for dumping on Los Angeles. All cities are ecological messes, but L.A., in this as in so many other ways, is in a class by itself.
The place is utterly wrong for a city. One massive tectonic plate shoves against another, fomenting earthquakes and thrusting up new, raw mountains, from which boulders and mud inevitably slide. The mountains trap air, and the sun cooks it into smog. The dry, oily chaparral vegetation is just waiting for a Santa Ana wind to burst into wildfire. There isn’t enough water, not without piping it in from all over the Southwest.
But 13 million people and 7.5 million cars have crowded into L.A., and more are planned — more cars on the freeways, more houses in the path of mudslides, more water to be taken from somewhere. The air is so bad that kids growing up in the central city have damaged lungs by the time they’re teenagers. Soon the traffic jams will consist of “zero-emission” vehicles — meaning, in typical L.A. fashion, not zero emission, but emission from electric plants over the mountains, where someone else will breathe the pollution.
Well, that’s what I mean by L.A.- bashing — a sport in which I regularly engage, and for which I just got an angry rebuke from a friend, an Angeleno in exile. The average resident of Los Angeles is NOT, he says, “a rich, arrogant, immature, bubble-head, mindless of the environment and willing to run roughshod over it in the name of pleasure. This portrayal … does a great injustice to the many people in Southern California who love the natural beauty of the place and try their best to protect it.”
“For sure, L.A. is overpopulated, overbuilt, creepy in places, and annoyingly smoggy at times,” admits my friend. “But I love its mountains and beaches and canyons and palm trees and restaurants and cinemas and shops, and its people — the playful, witty, informal, urbane, multi-cultural people whom I have known since childhood.”
To bolster his case he sent me a clipping from The Economist, which says: “No other city has challenged nature so persistently — and, in general, so successfully…. The city began with no port (it built one), no water (it begged, borrowed, and stole it), and no people (it lured them in, playing to their greed, and, often, their lust)…. Los Angeles fails only when it forgets what it is; when it loses heart, and looks backward. At its best, looking forward, there is no more inspiring city in America.”
All this praise and all the complaints are justified. There should never have been a city where L.A. is, but there it stands, simmers, roars, and crows. The courage and cravenness of its people, their ingenuity and obtuseness never cease to astound. It’s a beautiful city, it’s hell on earth, it exemplifies every dream and every excess of the human race, and its destiny is to run into problems sooner than the rest of us. Los Angeles pioneered freeways, earthquake-proof construction, the catalytic converter, and air pollution emission trading. It is working hard on multilingual, multiracial human relations. It’s a beacon city, and that’s why we who don’t live there must, even while cracking L.A. jokes, wish for the city’s success, aid it (with help after the earthquake), and firmly insist on it (OK, for your next trick, you can manage your water problem without drying up other places).
The next problem that L.A. has to solve ahead of other cities is growth. There is a limit to the number of people, buildings, cars, smokestacks that can be crammed in between the mountains and the sea. At some point the growth of Los Angeles will stop. There are two ways it can stop. One is that the city becomes so ugly, so polluted, so overwhelmed with the problems caused by growth that more people and businesses move out than move in.
The other way is to stop growth deliberately, with the intention of having a city that is not only manageable, but responsible to the large hinterland from which it draws its resources and to which it returns its wastes. No city has ever done that. In a land where freedom of movement is a right, and where growth is the supposed solution to all problems, the question of how to develop without growing, to differentiate, to innovate, to get better without getting bigger has never been taken seriously.
But it is the ultimate question before all of us, with L.A. out in front. The next challenge for the incredible spunk and drive of L.A. is not how to keep growing against all bounds — that was the problem of the 20th century. The problem of the 21st is how to live good and just lives within limits, in harmony with the earth and each other. Great cities can rise out of cruelty, deviousness, and a refusal to be bounded. Livable cities can only be sustained out of humility, compassion, and acceptance of the concept of “enough.”
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994