How Quaint Neighborhoods Can Make Communities Resilient and Save the Economy

What's to come?
March 20 2012 11:41 AM

Death to the McMansion

How charm and convenience can make our communities more resilient—and save our economy.

Small house.
Is America done with the McMansion?

Susan Law Cain/iStockphoto.

On March 23, Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University that explores emerging technologies, policy, and society—will hold a live event in Washington, D.C., on the concept of resilience. Academics, policymakers, and other experts will discuss resilience in the environment, business, national security, even the Constitution. Slate’s Matt Yglesias and Emily Bazelon will be there, too. To learn more and to RSVP, click here.

Recently, Japan and Korea have begun to express deep concerns about the “ability of the United States to address profound problems in its political and economic system.”

This is not just about the “business cycle.” Our key Asian allies are wondering whether we’re even able to see the gathering storm on the horizon, much less respond. Their worry is shared by many of our own national security leaders. In the midst of the great recession, Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked two officers within his personal staff to explore the question of “grand strategy.” They recommended the development of a “national strategy of sustainability.” It’s good advice.

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The ability to execute grand strategy is something that sets America apart. Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower all used grand strategies to prevail in the two great strategic contests of the last century. Moreover, it was our economy that did the heavy lifting in each of those undertakings, first harnessing the nation’s industrial might to out-produce and finish off the Axis, then aiming our markets at suburban expansion to outperform and outlast the Soviets while paying for a military alliance to contain them.

We need a new one, but what would a grand strategy of sustainability look like, exactly? First, we need a definition of grand strategy. Here’s mine: A grand strategy combines our economic engine, our governing institutions, and our international engagement to meet the great global challenges of the era.

While the world appears to be getting only more complex over time, there are in actuality just four massive, full-certainty threats at play:

1. Deleveraging: the depression-scale event we’re experiencing, thanks to the burst credit bubble. It’s at least a 10-year process, and we’re not very far along.

2. Global economic inclusion: Roughly 3 billion people will enter the global middle class in the next 20 years. We don’t even have enough resources for the 2.5 billion already here, meaning commodity prices—and strategic behavior—have only begun to rise.

3. Ecosystem depletion: Whether it’s climate change or the destruction of natural capital, we’re rapidly depleting the systems that provide us air, water, and food, while floods, droughts, tornadoes, and hurricanes are getting more extreme.

4. Resilience: Finally, our systems, supply chains, and infrastructure are simply not resilient. Instead of compartmentalizing shocks and risk, our lean, just-in-time “value chains” are magnifying disruptive events and the systems themselves are vulnerable to breakdown, attack, and capture.

These problems frame an existential challenge, creating an age of global instability. Each is by itself epoch-defining, and they are now fully intertwined. None can be solved independently, and business-as-usual will only aggravate and accelerate them, driving what is essentially a slow collapse of the international economic order.

The good news is that as long as we resist being distracted by important but ultimately second-tier problems—like Iranian saber-rattling or health care reform—today’s economic opportunity begins to emerge.