Ask Dr. Salvo
June 21, 1994
Dear Doctor Salvo,
Recent rapid commercial developments on the Eastern Shore have raised serious questions about the benefits versus the costs of unrestricted development on "Big 98." How does it, already, affect life in Fairhope, Montrose, Daphne, Spanish Fort, Lake Forest, and Point Clear? Any idea about this?
Yes, several ideas. You don't just feel crowded, you are crowded. If you drive 98 mornings or evenings you will see just as much traffic going north as there is going south -- and it is stacking up like arteriosclerosis. By the time big 98 is widened all the way to Barnwell, or on to Foley, it will already be over trafficked. By then it will no doubt seem quite reasonable for more "developers" to extend 98 westward to Dauphin Island. This would, granted, provide another escape route in hurricane times, but otherwise would make life worse for Eastern Shore and Fort Morgan road citizens. What we would have then would be a mini-San Francisco, without hills. [See Salvo's article on Garbage Mountain, Mt. Trashmore, etc. for further enrichment of your forebodings]
"So what's wrong with that?" the cheery developer queries. Most visitors, and even some residents, believe San Francisco may be somewhat oversized, but is closer to being the right size. Yet about anyone will agree that Los Angeles is the wrong size, possibly two or three times the size it should be. So are New York, Tokyo, London, Hong Kong. I don't know about Philadelphia, because it seems closer to the right size. So does D.C., but it has a dangerous expansive trend that recalls L.A. and makes one long for Savannah. A generation or so in the past I visited Savannah, drove and walked in it -- it seemed exactly the right size. Something like a Vieux Carre sealed off from New Orleans by a big swirl of Mississippi (there's a word that has grown too large).
Then I heard, or read, that Savannah had stayed the right size for years because the inhabitants and their elected leaders preferred it that way. No ambition to rival Miami. I hope my memory is accurate, sort of, and that Savannah remains a little backward, cramped, conservative, and lacking in ambition. If this is all a pleasant pipe dream, you Savannah transplants among my readers, please enlighten me, though I'll hate the truth. Because I need to understand the concept -- the right size. Is a hummingbird about right, or an elephant too much, or a great blue whale grossly gigantic?
Too little for what purpose? Whose purposes? How will we know if the limits have been exceeded? A biologist named Haldane and another named D'Arcy Thompson wrote some fascinating observations about "being the right size," but they meant per organism, the ratio of surface to length, width, volume -- how thoughtfully these variables had worked out over a few billion years of evolution and natural selection. This kind of thinking brings up inviting analogies with such matters as the total biomass of all plant and animal life inside a city limit: It stirs unhappy similes of sewage system and excretory system; respiratory system and available non-lethal air to breathe. Energy coming into town and stuff and creatures with it; same energy stuff leaving town via clogged arteries or free flowing open ones. Complexity growing with size.
Enough offices, factories, shops, restaurants, theaters, swimming pools, playgrounds for people to have enough work and play, but not too much. I am inclined to blind favoritism toward more and more recreational area in town that is green, eats CO2 and makes O2 for us. How could we ever overdo it? In parts of over-industrialized England a system of green belts has been devised to take the misery out of life in a factory town. Every few miles the sooty grey concrete and bricks and old building stone of the 19th and 20th Century industries are bulldozed down and replaced by several miles of turf, trees, shrubs, whatever.
A belt of this living green then must surround every few miles of "development" be it residential, business, or industrial. The huge expense of all this will cause any township to think hard before allowing more mindless expansion.
I don't think we have questioned the ideal of growth (unlimited) as a goal and a good in itself, at least not enough to do any good! Every year the gross national product and other indices of economic "health" are supposed to grow. Same with the population. Why? In parts of the Third World where severe overpopulation, rampant contagious diseases, and famine prevail, we have learned (I hope) some sobering lessons: With good prenatal and perinatal care, good sanitation and immunization, we can greatly reduce infant mortality. However, this often results merely in a larger loss of life, from starvation a few years later. This awareness used to cause A.I.D. and other goodwill missions of the U.S. to frantically embark upon a campaign to increase agricultural production by means of tractors, cultivation, harvesters, and chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Quite often the results were spectacular, as to increased production, but thousands of peasant farmers were rapidly unemployed because of our "labor saving machines." Whose labor was saved? For what, for whom? At what cost? Etc.? Now A.I.D. efforts include "labor-intensive" as a positive value.
Before these real complexities emerged in the world's discourse, before the concepts of ecology and living system were available to provide some beginning solution -- the problems of world population were simply diagrammed by a great teacher of tropical medicine, one of my mentors. He said the human race was like a colony of creatures with parasites below them and raptors above them. The parasite might be a liver fluke or a malarial organism in the blood. The raptor might, in jungle villages, be a leopard or a tiger. In civilization it might be a warlord or a colonial ruler exacting tribute. If they demand too much, the people starve or run off. If the malaria is too virulent, the flukes too numerous, the host population, mankind, will disappear. If the demands from above and below are tolerable, the colony -- mankind -- will grow, and grow and grow, until? Until it reaches the right size for its purposes, ideally.
Well, citizens and city fathers on the Eastern Shore, keep in mind the Fair Hopeians of the North and Midwest, the legacy they left behind for us to protect and enjoy. They were smart and tough enough to be Utopian and to create a place to live with the water, the wind, the pines and cool creeks -- and with plenty of public beach for all, and a powerful attempt to put away greed and the push for limitless land acquisition. I still believe that Fairhope and the rest of the Eastern Shore towns can protect themselves against excessive "development" and "progress" -- but there is no time to spare.
June 21, 1994