Sustainable design aims to safeguard the future of the Earth as environmentalists worry about the effects of melting ice caps, ozone depletion, and species eradication. Even bleaker, however, imagine a future where our garbage has piled so high and wide that there is no room left for anything else—including us.
That is the premise of WALL-E, the latest bit of genius from animation studio Pixar. Hundreds of years from now, the entire planet has become an immense landscape of litter. Humans have long since quit the Earth, which is left to be tended by the title character, an adorable little sanitation robot whose name stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class. Fritting about in this vast junkyard, WALL-E painstakingly stacks up ziggurats of trash, skyscrapers of scrap, whole cities of refuse.
Is a waste-filled future so far-fetched? In the United States alone, some 40 million plastic bottles get tossed out every day, and only a fraction of this is recycled. Until it shut down in 2001, the Fresh Kills landfill on New York's Staten Island threatened to become the highest elevation on the East Coast. A footprint of nearly five square miles and 650 tons of rubbish shipped in daily made it possibly the biggest manmade structure in the world, larger in volume than the Great Wall of China. Fresh Kills opened only 60 years ago—what will the world look like several centuries from now?
For me, however, the most terrifying glimpse of the planet's future may not be WALL-E or even Al Gore's 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, but another film that came out that year-Idiocracy, Mike Judge's dark satire about the dumbing down of humanity and the world. Five hundred years in the future, everyone is a moron, and the environment reflects it. Crops are fed with sports drink, signs are crooked and misspelled, and every available surface is plastered with corporate logos, so entire cities look like NASCAR uniforms. Buildings teeter more than the Tower of Pisa, barely held together by guy-wires and some kind of structural duct tape.
When we first witness this wasteland, in the background we can make out an enormous, neighborhood-sized low-rise that turns out to be a colossal Costco. Big Box has become Really Big Box, or what Starbucks might call Venti Box. I'd like to enjoy Idiocracy as the hilarious antics of the guy who brought us Beavis and Butt-Head, but the sand-swept mishmash being erected today in Dubai makes me wonder how far off Judge is.
Whether or not these dystopian visions will become our fate, today a very real threat remains in the growing influence of corporate interests over culture and the environment. Worldwide, writes Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation, McDonald's is the largest single owner of retail space, and the Golden Arches may be more recognized than any other symbol on Earth, including the Christian cross. Inner cities and older neighborhoods languish because housing and Big Box (Small Box by Mike Judge's standards) have sucked commerce to the suburbs. In the 1990s, 5,000 independent hardware stores were displaced by 1,500 Wal-Marts and Lowe's stores.
As Good magazine reported last winter, the total acreage of Wal-Mart stores now exceeds the size of the island of Manhattan. In the next several years, the company intends to expand its footprint by about 20,000 acres, destroying habitat and encouraging sprawl, since its land use is estimated to be five times less efficient than urban equivalents. Tragically, ecosystems that have enriched the land for millennia are being replaced by franchises that disappear every decade or two, so today's malls will be tomorrow's trash. If economics continue to outweigh ecology, one day the Earth may be wrapped in a continuous commercial strip.
Revisiting her childhood home of Oakland, Calif., in the 1930s, the writer Gertrude Stein famously quipped that "there is no 'there' there"; 70 years later, there's no "there" anywhere. Main Street may have been "almost all right" for Robert Venturi four decades ago, but today it no longer exists, having been replaced everywhere by rampant generic sprawl. Around the globe, density has continued to decrease during the 15 years since James Howard Kunstler wrote his brilliant attack on suburbanism, The Geography of Nowhere. The lack of difference from place to place devastates culture no less than nature. According to biologist E.O. Wilson, biodiversity is the single most important aspect of ecology, so it follows that architectural and social diversity are equally essential for community.
Architect Ken Yeang has written that "saving the environment from continued devastation by our built environment is the single most important issue for our tomorrow." But the devastation of the built environment is just as much at risk. Sprawl was born of plentiful land and cheap oil, but those are things of the past. Embracing greater density, diversity, cleaner fuels, and healthier lifestyles, as well as the subtle natural and cultural variations between one location and another, will help create richer places—a new Geography of Somewhere. Otherwise, the future may be idiocratic.