‘A Beautiful City, a Hell on Earth’

<i> Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College. </i>

All the praise and all the complaints about Los Angeles are justified.

It’s a beautiful city, it’s hell on Earth, it exemplifies every dream and every excess of the human race and its destiny is to run into problems sooner than the rest of us. Los Angeles pioneered freeways, earthquake-proof construction, the catalytic converter and air-pollution emission trading. It is working hard on multilingual, multiracial human relations.

The next problem that L.A. has to solve ahead of other cities is growth. There is a limit to the number of people, buildings, cars, smokestacks that can be crammed in between the mountains and the sea. At some point the growth of Los Angeles will stop. There are two ways it can stop. One is that the city becomes so ugly, so polluted, so overwhelmed with the problems caused by growth that more people and businesses move out than move in.

The other way is to stop growth deliberately, with the intention of having a city that is not only manageable, but responsible to the large hinterland from which it draws its resources and to which it returns its wastes. No city has ever done that. In a land where freedom of movement is a right, and where growth is the supposed solution to all problems, the question of how to develop without growing, to differentiate, to innovate, to get better without getting bigger has never been taken seriously.


But it is the ultimate question before all of us, with L.A. out in front. The next challenge for the incredible spunk and drive of L.A. is not how to keep growing against all bounds--that was the problem of the 20th Century. The problem of the 21st is how to live good and just lives within limits, in harmony with the Earth and each other. Great cities can rise out of cruelty, deviousness and a refusal to be bounded. Livable cities can only be sustained out of humility, compassion and acceptance of the concept of “enough.”