We're not dumber than our ancestors, we just have power tools

The ruins of Rhodes (Source: jebulon)

In 305 BCE, Demetrius, the eventual king of Macedonia, laid siege to the city of Rhodes. Rhodes was an important sea port, gateway to the Aegean Sea, and significantly for Demetrius, a friend of Ptolemy I and his Egyptian dynasty. The Macedonians saw the conquest of Rhodes as an opportunity to plunder a wealthy center of trade while simultaneously cutting off a potential supplier of ships and arms to their Egyptian rivals.

After a year of sustained efforts to overtake the city failed, Demetrius and his forces turned back to Macedonia. The Rhodians celebrated their victory by gathering the supplies and materials left by the Macedonians to turn into The Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

The Colossus was an ancient marvel — a statue roughly the size of the Statue of Liberty. It was constructed by building earthworks around the lower parts as higher parts were built. Once completed, the earth was dug away to reveal the giant figure gazing out over the harbor of Rhodes. The Colossus stood sentry over the Port of Rhodes for little over 50 years before being felled by an earthquake; the spoils of war and a generation’s labor reduced to rubble, never to be remade.

The ancient world was filled with grand schemes that have all failed in some form or another. The Roman Empire once stretched across Europe, North Africa, and into the modern Middle East, only to collapse as its ossified society could no longer maintain power over distant lands. The same fate befell the Egyptians. Our human history is a story of boom and bust, expansion and contraction.

At Strong Towns we often talk about the hubris of our modern development pattern. We have vastly overbuilt our infrastructure. Our policies for managing urban growth actively promote unprofitable development and undermine profitable development, relying on a ponzi scheme to stay afloat. When you do the math it’s no surprise many of our cities are functionally insolvent.

The history of urban development in the last century or two is far too complex to boil down to a single isolated dynamic that bears the blame for our current predicament. One of the causes we focus on here is the departure from traditional city-building principles of incremental improvements driven by local actors in favor of ever-larger investments made by outside actors, coupled with top-down, orderly-but-dumb forces that drive most development today — an industrial approach to city building that sees our neighborhoods as factory widgets to be standardized for mass production, not as complex ecosystems to be nurtured.

While this approach is markedly different in scale from the way we have built successful cities for millennia around the world, I think it’s important to recognize that the impulses that have led us here are human impulses. It’s the same drive that took the Romans into Persia and Spain, the same appetites that brought the Spanish into South and Central America, and yes, the same celebration of plenty that drove the Rhodians to erect a giant metal sculpture on the banks of the sea.

"We’re not constitutionally divergent from our ancestors, but there are some significant differences that make our circumstances particularly explosive."

We’re not constitutionally divergent from our ancestors, but there are some significant differences that make our circumstances particularly explosive. For starters, mechanization and the energy orgy brought on by the ubiquitous use of fossil fuels has dramatically altered the scale at which our societies can operate. It would have taken weeks or even months to cross the greatest empires of our ancestors; we can fall asleep on an airplane and wake up halfway around the world. The reach of computer technology connects us instantaneously to people and markets virtually anywhere on the globe. It’s not that these advances are necessarily deleterious — most of humanity enjoys at least some of the benefits accrued by these trends in the form of affordable vaccines, greater food security, and communication with distant loved ones — it’s that they have also amplified our ability to overextend, making a potential collapse all the more precipitous and painful.

At the same time, the last few centuries have ushered in the dominance of liberal (in the classical sense) philosophy, which prizes individual initiative and autonomy over all else and envisions the state as a vehicle for securing individual rights. There are clear benefits to this development as well — as a religious minority I cherish my First Amendment right to practice religion as I please — but liberal ideology carries costs as well. Patrick Deneen argues in Why Liberalism Failed that the price of individualism has been the systematic weakening of traditional sources of social stability and informal governance as well as, paradoxically, the expansion of state power over everyday life.

Deneen also describes how liberal principles have tended to divorce us from the past and the future so that we live in an ever-present now. Quoting Alexis de Tocqueville:

[Aristocracy] links everybody, from peasant to king, in one long chain. Democracy breaks the chain and frees each link. . . Thus, not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors, but also clouds their view of their descendents and isolates them from their contemporaries.

Deneen concludes:

"The cultural forces once responsible for instilling virtue and a sense of shared destiny in each person — as imperfect as those cultures were — have been undermined at the same time that we’ve amplified the potential energy wound up in the system."

Liberalism makes humanity into mayflies, and unsurprisingly, its culmination has led each generation to accumulate scandalous levels of debt to be left for its children, while rapacious exploitation of resources continues in the progressive belief that future generations will devise a way to deal with the depletions.

Over millennia of trial and error, our ancestors developed cultural conventions that tended to curb the greatest excesses and dull the force of the natural cycles that we’ve faced since we first crawled out from the ocean millions of years ago. We now face a double-whammy: the cultural forces once responsible for instilling virtue and a sense of shared destiny in each person — as imperfect as those cultures were — have been undermined at the same time that we’ve amplified the potential energy wound up in the system, ready to fling us groundward from the heights we’ve reached.

I don’t pretend to have an easy solution to our predicament, but we can’t begin to correct course if we don’t face the all-too-human foibles within all of us that drive us towards our uncertain future.

(Top photo from Nathan Hughes Hamilton)


In this new series, we’re looking at Collier County as a case study for how insolvent growth persists in Florida. What's the history behind Collier’s development, and where is it headed?

May 19, 2021 ·

The "growth machine" is too big to fail. What if it fails anyway?

Aug 31, 2020 ·

After World War II, the federal government subsidized a massive suburban experiment that was completely unprecedented in human history. But—as a mostly-forgotten 1942 manual by the Department of Commerce makes clear—it didn’t have to be that way.

Jul 13, 2020 ·

The American pattern of development creates the illusion of wealth. Today we are in the process of seeing that illusion destroyed…and with it the prosperity we have come to take for granted.

May 18, 2020 ·

Spencer Gardner has been writing for Strong Towns since 2016. He is a transportation planner based in Spokane, WA, who spends his spare time chasing his children, riding bikes, and doing hobbyist computer programming. He's also getting started on his own missing middle development project in Spokane's West Central neighborhood.

Spencer Gardner·March 6, 2018

Strong Towns Comment Policy

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

× Comments for this thread are now closed
  • The economic consequences illustrated here are not the cause of "classic liberalism," a term we can debate (linking to wikipedia is not sufficient), but to libertarianism. Strong Towns should not make this mistake. It makes it hard for "modern liberals" fighting for civil rights/duties and fair playing fields - social equality, more responsible government AND leaner markets - to read or listen to the arguments when the noted causes are so skewed. We continue to overspend on infrastructure because of two things: ignorance about the real costs and long term consequences AND short term special interests, primarily private market pressures on government. I also agree with some of the other comments that ask Strong Towns to stop beating the overspending dead horse, recognize the real benefits of investment that promotes local returns and offer real solutions. You've been addressing those ingrained causes of ignorance but tend to gloss over the strong market interests. Follow the money.

      • I adhere to Lord Acton's warning, "power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." 1887 Interestingly, this was Sodom and Gomorrah's problem -- powerful rulers were corrupt and abused the poor, the weak and strangers. Thus, civilization has recognized the danger of unrestrained power. The US Constitution sought to limit the pernicious influence of power by balancing one type of power against another type such as one finds in a Republic.

        The Greek philosophers may be most noted for seeking out the form of government which provided for the best of the general welfare which was really no different than the Sodom story or the Declaration of Independence. Power leads to corruption because people make decisions only to help themselves. Los Angles has become a dying city because it is ruled by a criminal enterprise based upon mutual bribery which funnels as much money to the top 1% as possible while degrading the lives of average Angelenos. As long as any society's goal is to make the most powerful people the most wealthy and damn everyone else, disaster will follow disaster.

          • I posted this article on my own Facebook page, with the following comment. I really would like to understand better which construction projects Strong Towns considers excess, and which ones are good investment in the community.

            Strong Towns has been beating the too-much-infrastructure drum for a while now. I wish they offered more specific examples of what they're talking about. I can think of a few: Detroit's Silverdome and Tiger Stadium; Houston's Astrodome.

            Is a big park, a big theater, a performing arts center an example? (Two cities of my youth, Schenectady and Pittsfield, have resurrected old theaters from the brink of ruin.) A museum that runs out of money and sells off much of its collection when the city is economically pressed? (Pittsfield). A bridge? A great public school? A highway that brought jobs to the area? (I know, I know -- I'm picking for a fight with that example. But Pittsfield never had a highway, and that is considered a major factor in its demise.)

              • I have a rule of thumb (which has a basis):

                If it costs more than $1B, it probably shouldnt be done.

                There was an econtalk on megaprojects a few years back, which were defined as above. 90% are late. 90% are over budget. 90% fail to deliver what was promised. And those 3 variables are mostly independent, meaning only 1 in 1000 megaprojects hits all 3 goals.

                In almost every case, it would be better to do 10,000 $100k projects instead of the $1B one.

                  • Rob -- by your measure, the "big dig" tunnel in Boston shouldn't have been built. And we shouldn't dig more tunnels underneath the Hudson River.
                    My hazy understanding is that the Big Dig, despite the cost overruns, has been a big help to Boston, and that more Hudson river tunnels are badly needed. What do you think?
                    I'm guessing that you were exaggerating to make a point about $100k. When I was on my local school board, I found we couldn't build so much as a tool shed for $100k.

                      • I was being generous. Chuck Marohn has mentioned doing 10k projects instead of my 100k.

                        it should probably follow a power law. For every $100k project there should be 10 $10k projects. And for every 100 $10k projects, there should thus be 10 $100k projects and 1 $1MM project.

                        Billion dollar projects would be rare.

                        Leave the mega-projects to the private sector. They will fail often too (their stats aren't any better), but at least, to quote Talib, they have skin in the game.

                        "I found we couldn't build so much as a tool shed for $100k."

                        That seems to be a problem with the system. You can buy get a 10'x14' metal shed at Lowes for $499.

                          • Rob, I have a shed like that. It's not rugged enough for public use. I can barely use it myself.
                            The average double-wide mobile home is now $74,000, according to a brief Internet search. $10k buys you a residential roof repair.
                            Our school district once spent a couple million bucks on a school roof.
                            Commercial construction is expensive. That's just a fact.
                            We have a buch of bad laws governing public construction, and those laws do drive up costs while limiting the ability of managers to ensure that the project is done with high quality workmanship and/or on time. We also have a prevailing wage law, which leads to a whole new discussion.
                            Your proposed power law notwithstanding, do you think we should add a tunnel or two under the Hudson River? Canceling that project is widely regarded as one of the dumbest things former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie did. The existing tunnels are used over capacity, and they will need to be shut down for major maintenance at some point.
                            The way I look at it is like so: Our ancestors paid up so we could have wonderful infrastructure -- roads, bridges, tunnels, schools, parks, etc. We are fiddling instead of paying it forward. I want to know what stuff we should or shouldn't build, and price alone isn't a satisfying answer. Function matters too.

                              • "do you think we should add a tunnel or two under the Hudson River?"

                                We? I don't think it should be a federal issue, so as far as it effects me, no, "we" shouldnt.

                                Should New York State or New York City? I don't think it is proper for me to comment on that.

                                KY and my former city recently built 2 new bridges over the Ohio. I think we overbuilt by at least 1 bridge. I like the East End Bridge, if only because it connects I-265 on both sides of the river and that allows what I talked about earlier with the interstate being on the tangent to the city. If they would have moved I-64 to crossing that bridge and removed it from downtown like the 86-64 project suggested, that would have made it even better. And maybe one day they could have got I-65 out of downtown too.

                                I opposed the downtown bridge entirely, there was no need for it at all.

                              • That's the wrong way to look at the "big dig." It may have improved things, but it was part two of a megaproject, running I-93 through the heart of a city, that should never have happened.

                                  • Good point, Andy. I am painfully aware of how urban freeways have ruined cities. (I frequently drive I-95 through Chester, PA, and it just makes me wince. I-676 through Philadelphia is another bad example.)
                                    If we had _underground_ freeways in cities -- so they didn't cut the community in two -- would that be a good project? It would certainly be in the billions.
                                    In 1978, then-Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo launched a $330 million, 1.7 mile railroad tunnel that connected two formerly dead-end commuter railroad stations. The project had been first proposed 20 years earlier. That tunnel was definitely an improvement. I don't know if it was worth the cost, but I don't ever hear of people saying it was a mistake to build it. Point being: if we're a wealthy country, we should use our wealth judiciously, to build lasting and helpful infrastructure improvements. Cost alone doesn't strike me as disqualifying.

                                      • Why build under when you can go around?

                                        My current city, fortunately, had the good luck to be small enough to have our interstate go near town instead of through town. Unfortunately, one of the roads from the interstate exit to downtown has become a gawdawful stroad, but the other main exit has maintained being a road until it gets near downtown, and then it is mostly street like.

                                        This should have been the model for all cities, build a loop road if you want, but the interstates should hit them on a tangent.

                              • The central lesson for me (which I already knew): Nothing is too big to fail. Not a person, not a company, not a city, not an economy, not an empire. And not only that, we shouldn't throw good money after bad in trying to prevent the failure. I may be veering into hyper-schumpeter territory here, but the phoenix will arise from the ashes.

                                Lesson 2: why anti-fragility is important. Failures should have soft landings and a platform for new successes, not a scorched Earth.

                                These are really one and the same. I guess combining them: Let failure happen, the anti-fragile failures will just create a platform for moving forward, the fragile failures are a good riddance.

                                  • I am more bullish than ever. Our cities are in a virtuous cycle and are rapidly restoring themselves into coherent places and then going beyond what they ever were. Over the next decade, we’re going to see a huge acceleration in the building of dedicated bike & bus lanes 5-10 miles out of our city cores, and then we’ll electrify them. Our Clevelands will turn into better versions of Copenhagen. In our suburbia, some will see a continued coalescing into coherent small town communities, some will merge into the larger cities, and what’s left will equip itself for an electric car future or return to nature. Much like our ancestors reused old pavers to build their houses (and vice versa), we’re going to dismantle and upcycle much of our vast automobile infrastructure. We’ve got the tools to solve this fossil fuel dependency issue, and we will. Then we’ll move forward and begin sequestering carbon from atmosphere, cleaning our oceans, making our agriculture compact, sustainable, & ethical. In fact, my bigger worry is that we won’t leave the next generations meaningful work, but then again, they might be conquering the cosmos.

                                      • I'm bullish on urban centers, but not in that way at all. Some of our second and third tier cities are starting to see a J-curve of economic development, similar to Poland and other Eastern European countries; People that left eastern Pennsylvania for NYC (and helped drive housing costs way up throughout the boroughs) are now looking at Philadelphia as a cheaper alternative in the same way that many young Polish (...Latvian, etc.) migrants moved to London, Brussels, Paris, etc., but are now seeing a strong cost-benefit analysis to return closer to home in Warsaw, Krakow, Poznan, etc. after having accumulated skills. I know people from Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin that have moved from NYC and DC back to their home states, going to one of the major metro areas (not always one that is thriving). The current affordability crisis in the major cities is going to help revive the dynamism of our dormant metro areas.

                                        But the idea that we'll become tech-enable eco-friendly utopias...that's a little further than I would dream up.

                                          • You’re describing me. I spent a decade in Boston & DC, before moving to the cheapskate urbanist promise land: Milwaukee, WI. So I agree with you. A down payment in DC is a walk-to-work high rise condo on Lake Michigan or a 22 minute bike ride from 3/2 bungalow in a fully-activated legacy streetcar neighborhood that looks & feels like Brookline (MA) or a Cleveland Park (DC), but with a lot more young scrappy entrepreneurs, a better arts & music scene, and a lot fewer neighbors criticizing the color of your shudders.

                                            Re: technology. I’m actually pretty skeptical of most technology hype and tend to think our energy situation is much more dire than reported. However, protected bike lanes & dedicated transit lanes are mostly paint on pavement, but take political power (something that is moving to urban areas). Outside of those routes, things will necessarily coalesce into towns, move to more independent systems (more off-grid/local grid power, well water, septic, etc), or just decay/find new uses. It will probably just be natural selection –areas that have over extended with far flung public water & sewer systems will enter deeper decline than those that already have well & septic, etc.

                                              • I see the 'coalescing into towns' being far less inevitable and much longer term than our lifetimes. I would tend to agree with your analysis on a 100+-year timeframe, more or less. In an expansive metro area with a strong core economy, that process is likely to happen more rapidly, especially if functional transit exists/gets built. In areas that just sort of peter on with mediocre core output, expect to see what's happened over the decades in Chicago or Cincinnati where the suburbs just get less well maintained, but no major 'reshaping' happens. In areas where the core is dead, expect a circa 2000 Detroit 2.0.

                                                  • Prototypical Milwaukee neighborhood - homes in 100s & 200s for reference.

                                                    Brookline: https://www.google.com/maps...

                                                    Cleveland Park:

                                                    IMO, it's hard to argue that Boston/DC are worth the incremental million dollars, unless there is a real reason one needs to be there (head surgeon at mass general or something..)

                                                  • Michael I'm right there with you, super bullish on the future of American cities. Most people cannot see this vision, and that really holds them back from positive improvements.

                                                    Our future cities will be more convivial, safe, rich, and efficient than we could possibly dream. We don't even need to invent new technology, it's all right here for us. We just need to build it.

                                                      • I'm not as enthusiastic as you both, but I agree completely that cities will be the places where solutions are found. Here's my take on some strong towns ideas: Money should be spent at the most local level reasonable. Money should also be spent only in the current period of human understanding, which I peg at 5 years at the long end. The people who pay taxes should be able to see and feel the benefits or failures of that money. If you spread spending out over generations, or distribute it over huge geographical areas our human minds simply lose focus. And if you can't measure costs and benefits, you can't make smart decisions.

                                                        If you think about it, cities largely have to operation within these principals: Their geography is defined and usually limited, and their ability to take on long-term financing is limited. Due to this they must be most fiscally responsive and, hopefully, responsible. The constraints of geography, time and finances keep cities in check and that will be their strength going forward.

                                                        • You are living in the delusional word of secular religiosity of the New Urbanism.

                                                          • Yup. Just look at the Mammoth Internal Improvement Act in Indiana in 1830s and things like Lucas Oil Stadium downtown and The Palladium here in the ‘burbs in Carmel.