Published on Thursday, February 16, 2006, by the Philadelphia Inquirer
Use Environmental World's Fair to Show Progress
by Ed Marston and Auden Schendler
The 1892 World's Fair in Chicago had two costars: the electric dynamo and the first Ferris wheel, which met the technological showboating challenge posed by the Eiffel Tower, hit of the French World's Fair.
The Chicago fair changed how Americans thought about architecture, about what they could expect from cities (the Chicago fair was clean, safe and beautiful), and what technology could do.
The beleaguered environmental movement needs something like a World's Fair today. We need a new way of thinking, and then living. The Chicago fair didn't create clean and safe cities or more exciting architecture. Or a sense of what technology could do by itself. It brought together what had been spread in bits and pieces throughout the nation. And it didn't lecture and rant at the audiences. It showed them:
It lit 200,000 incandescent alternating-current lightbulbs in a nation where even cities were dimly lit. And it hoisted people 264 feet into the sky to show them how easily metallurgy and modern engines could transform their view and way of life.
What we need today is a world's fair that can help us see how we can confront global climate change, sprawl, a decimated natural world, and our other challenges. And these new approaches have to make our lives better rather than more deprived. Happily, such a fair is already under way.
Recently, Aspen began the "Canary Initiative," a climate-change alliance that would make the city the leader on research, discussion, and on-the-ground emissions reduction. And that's in a city that boasts of 57 percent of its electricity coming from renewable sources; a free transit service using some of the quietest, cleanest hybrid diesel buses on the market; an extensive recycling initiative; and a tax on energy-hogging homes that funds energy efficiency and renewable-energy projects.
Now, nobody around Aspen thinks compact fluorescent bulbs are going to hold back global climate change. That's not the point. But taking a lesson from Kierkegaard - who, like Aspenites, thought each existence is the center of the universe - city residents realized that the rarefied nature of their hometown gives them the power to influence the world. Aspen gets press coverage in China, hosts presidents and senators, and, of course, entertains the most influential people on the planet (the people with the most money).
In other words, the Aspens of the world could be seen as a World's Fair in progress. Modern Aspen was started by people who wanted to do more than just let tourists slide downhill on snow. Some were 10th Mountain vets just returned from saving the world. Others founded the Aspen Institute, an intellectual center, in 1950, not long after Bretton Woods changed the global economy. In the '70s, Aspen pioneered growth restrictions. That created a beautiful town, surrounded by open space - as well as immensely high housing prices and long commutes for ordinary-income mortals. But that's the nature of an experiment: Sometimes it bites you even if it works.
Now, town council members from all over the country come to Aspen to see the next round in the experiment: a huge number of employee housing units and a very good mass transit system; model child care; an exemplary local foundation that protects community health by looking after its citizens in a multitude of ways; a city that will soon be 80 percent powered by wind; and an engaged citizenry that writes so many letters to the five local papers, it drives some residents crazy.
Of course Aspen has no Ferris wheel. But until recently, it hasn't had the impetus to build one. Now Aspen does. The world has big problems, and needs a vision of what is possible.
Archimedes said: "Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand, and I will move the Earth." Aspen is both a lever and a place to stand. It's small enough to nimbly change, smart enough to know it's on stage, and beautiful enough to inspire the world.
© 2006 Philadelphia Inquirer