Our newest tourist attraction may be one of the Seven Blunders of the World. More of the same are in the works.
LONG YEARS AGO, I experienced a recurring kid’s fantasy of being in an elevator whose cable snapped, sending the cab on a clattering rendezvous with destiny 20 storeys below. Just as the plummeting cab was about to hit bottom, I flexed and jumped in the air at the exact same speed as the dropping cage; and when, a split-second later, the cab finally stopped in a roar of torn metal, I landed cloudlike on the ruined deck, my feet crossed gracefully at the ankles (think Fred Astaire or Bruce Lee), and walked out completely unharmed.
Such reveries are the training wheels for adult magical thinking, like the sober belief that you’re gorgeous, a near-genius, unique, talented, sexually important, powerful, and headed for great things; and on a cultural level, how, when you flush the toilet or discard plastic in the garbage, a fairy carries the waste to faraway Planet Cesspoolia, or how your car alone emits not carbon-laced exhaust but orange-cranberry-scented oxygen with vitamin D to help grow strong bones.
Topping any list of magical ideas should be the one euphemistically named “Ironitis.” Having nothing to do with irony, it’s a social pathology common to engineers, project managers, consultants, ambitious bureaucrats and their corporate or political enablers, and characterized by the delusion that so long as the dough can be light-fingered out of abstracted taxpayers’ wallets, there can never be too many new bridges, highway overpasses, or other big infrastructure projects. For the so afflicted, hardware addresses all needs, solves all problems and sustains the entire project of modernity whose gleaming endpoint, where the horizon meets the dawn, is some sci-fi future filled with inter-galactic on-ramps.
Ironitis is social pathology because it shares with the sociopath a grandiosity; a conviction of rightness; the ability to experience counter-argument or doubt simply as Luddite noise; a belief in one’s own powers and abilities; the incapacity to experience remorse or guilt; great skill at transferring blame and responsibility, or rendering them ambiguous; and my two favourites: criminal or entrepreneurial versatility and a barely hidden desire to rule the world—in all, a form of hubris that co-indicts many of us because it’s made possible by our willing cooperation.
To mangle a folk aphorism: If you’re an engineer, everything looks like a bridge. And what do we do? We encourage the bastards!
I know: Why complain? Look, I get this is the good life, even with its cracks and flaws, and I don’t have problems with state authority—well, okay, some, but I’m not holed up in an East Sooke double-wide crammed with patriot-rage brochures, 200 cans of tuna fish, and an arsenal that would make the cops chitter with envy. I just look at some of this infrastructure, think about the limits of nature to absorb the human project, and wonder: What problems are we trying to solve?
Yes, like the airport turnoff. Traffic coming north from Victoria to the airport was occasionally stacking up along the left-turn lane of the Pat Bay Highway, creating a potential hazard for adjacent through-lane traffic.
Fine. Problem stated.
So, why not extend the duration of the left-turn green signal so another 30 cars could get through, or add a pressure-activated sensor under the left-turn lane to automatically change the lights if waiting cars back up past a certain point, and/or lengthen the left-turn lane, or convert that turn lane into a simple overpass crossing above the southbound lanes of the Pat Bay and dropping airport traffic onto the perfectly serviceable existing McTavish Road? Cost of any of these responses? A buck and two box-tops, not $24 million—an amount large enough to bring about world peace. But no, it was crucial to fulfill the Airport Authority manager’s masturbation fantasy while—bonus!—creating the world’s stupidest overpass and roundabout system. Stunning only is that no one has exploited the tourist attraction potential with big signs: “One Of The Seven Blunders Of The World!”
These engineering grandiosities need now to be seen as artifacts of a rapidly closing era of cheap oil and energy. Soon, society will not be able to dedicate shrinking economic resources to highway extravagances when energy supplies dwindle, price shocks hit, and some fundamental choices are forced upon us. I hope the post-apocalyptic mob remembers to hang a few politicians and some Urban Systems execs from the railing when gas hits $7/litre and the only things using the overpass are bicyclists and deer—both probably chased by zombies.
You might want to believe that no one staring the future in the eye, cold sober, could come to the rational conclusion that $24 million for a glorified overpass was a good use of resources. But big-ticket expenditures like this take place in a state of culturally induced sleepwalking, and are simply pieces in a dreamscape of ever-expanding abundance and ever-continuing well-being. As a recent Huffington Post/YouGov poll learned, Americans feel that climate change will have extreme consequences, but just not in their lifetime. Really, where could you possibly place prudence on that game board?
The same $24 million invested in developing an improved system for local growing, production and marketing of food, say, would generate a liberating miracle for the Capital Region. Aw, doesn’t have the sex appeal of a highway overpass? Sorry.
It’s no mystery how such incredibly stupid, bad, ill-considered project ideas take on legitimacy and heft, and go the distance. These things are managed by a political ecology as self-regenerating and adaptive as anything you will find in nature. Inquiries and introductions are made. Exploratory ideas are floated. The airport dude talks with business dudes who talk with the MP dude and/or the MLA dude. Word snakes along invisible political conduits that “frosting” would be useful in the riding. Some money gets tossed in the pot. The consultants rev up. Reports are commissioned, confirming need and feasibility. At some point there’s a federal and/or provincial infrastructure funding incentive program and then the ready-made miracle is pulled out of a hat, and there’s an official announcement and maybe a speech or two, the whole thing reported by the media with a fanfare better reserved for the Second Coming. Utterly lost by then is the humble fact that three times a week, half a dozen cars hung out at the back of a left-turn lane on the Pat Bay Highway at McTavish.
In an interview, filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky comments about his unmade film of the Frank Herbert book, Dune, and describes his design vision for the castle of the ruling bad guy, Baron Harkonnen: “The castle itself, a symbol of intemperance, exploitation, aggression and brutality, with a magical aura which has a negative effect on all the inhabitants.” The castle is a metaphysical expression of the control of crazed and foolish leaders: the head, with its magical (synthetic) authority over the body politic, pushing that citizen-body into negativity and a life of submissive consumption (anger and depression, transmuted locally into pickups and Costco).
Which takes us to Langford, where so many of these themes converge.
Back in the good old days, you could tell you were on the Langford side of the View Royal border from the mountains of rusting car bodies, their windows blown out by shotgun blasts; the dysgenic, one-eyed shufflers looking like living embodiments from Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Persecutors of Christ,” spit-roasting squirrel or tearing at the haunch of a hapless Irish Setter whisked the night before from dewy Uplands lawns; hollow-eyed citizens with names like Tim-Bob and Duane, Raeneese and Suelene, all munching on doughnuts and packing lots of heat; recreationally fire-bombed bus shelters; t-shirts with the arrow aiming straight north, and the words in 300-point balloon type: “I’m With Stupid.”
But then two or three developers, over morning coffee at some local Grill ‘n’ Skillet, a dozen years ago, had a business idea and called it Langford. Now look at the place: ruined and character-less—from the hinterlands authenticity of “Dueling Banjos” to an invented landscape of “Picket Fences” in a decade. I was there last week, stopped a local and asked “Hey, where can I buy a pound of weed and place a bet for a cash-purse cage fight?” “I beg your pardon?” said the Langford stalwart, removing two tasteful Schonbek lamps from the deck of his 4x4 and sounding about as twee as anyone you might accost buying pain rustique at the Pure Vanilla Bakery in Oak Bay.
It’s a tale of cheap dirt, easy approvals and production housing, not the calculation of hidden energy consumption costs, or social costs, or regional dislocations, or impacts on other municipalities. It’s political ecology on a very grand scale. But hey, what’s another overpass between friends?
Elevator going down? All together now: flex your knees and shout: “Fred Astaire, Fred Astaire, Fred Astaire.”
Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.