In talking with Anthony Flint and reading Big Coal, a parallel occurred to me.

I asked Flint about the historical roots of single-use development — the kind that separated out residential areas and led to the sprawl we now know and love. He told me that such zoning measures were originally passed by progressives, in an effort to move the dirty, disease-causing elements of urban life — e.g., slaughterhouses and factories — away from where people live. It was concern for the health of the underclass that led to single-use development.

Similarly, when coal turbines were first developed, one business model was to build them small and make them residential appliances (to sell machines rather than electricity, in effect). But the early turbines were dirty. So eventually, savvy businessfolk moved the turbines far out of town and made them huge.

Early on in America’s industrial development, the impetus was to separate and spread out the various functions of human community, because the industrial functions were filthy and unhealthy. But we got stuck with that dissipation.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

A principal part of this century’s environmental fight is to reintegrate and condense the functions of human community.