While I applaud Paul Holland and Linda Yates’s commitment to building a green home (“Xanadu,” by Joshua Green, July/August Atlantic) and hope other multimillionaires with estate-home plans follow suit, I wonder how a 5,600-square-foot single-family house sited in what appears to be semi-wildland, with five cars (albeit electric), a pool, and playing court could be the greenest house in the world. This raises concerns for me about LEED, which seems to focus on the physical house while ignoring its context. Wouldn’t it be greener for the couple to move up the peninsula from Silicon Valley to San Francisco (or any compact community), buy a 1,500-square-foot home that has been there for many decades, take public transit to work, and join the YMCA?
San Francisco, Calif.
Joshua Green replies:
I sent Amy Hutzel’s letter to Linda Yates, and she responded: “When it comes to environmental impact, size matters, but what matters most is energy efficiency and the use of alternative energy. One of the home’s greenest features is its ability to produce enough clean energy to supply our needs and still return some to the grid. We don’t have five cars, but we’ll produce enough solar energy to charge five cars, so our transportation, along with our home, will be fossil-fuel-free and oil-independent for most of our day-to-day living. The site itself is, in a sense, recycled (not wildlands): the home is being built on the property where I grew up, which we’re returning to a more native state, both by replacing the existing, energy-inefficient dwelling and by restoring the surrounding habitat. We expect there will be ancillary benefits, too. The home will foster several clean technologies that others can use, which we hope will spark not just imaginations but new industries and new jobs.
“The LEED ‘greenest’ label is intended to encourage and reward green building. Any home larger than 2,500 square feet starts with a deficit and must earn more points proportionately to gain the same status as a smaller home. To be clear—and we say this every time we talk about the house—we are the greenest custom home; the greenest dwelling is actually a tent or a yurt.”
Although Sebastian Mallaby admits that Paul Romer’s scheme for foreign-run “charter cities” in undeveloped nations has many weak spots (“The Politically Incorrect Guide to Ending Poverty,” July/August Atlantic), he ignores the central fact of international politics that will ultimately doom Romer’s plans: national sovereignty itself. Romer argues that the poorest nations could not use Chinese-style special economic zones to lure foreign investment, because their weak governments could not be trusted to maintain the zones’ required “new rules.” By the same token, these governments could not be trusted to leave control over their “charter city” to foreigners. They might well be tempted to re-annex their territory by force to exploit the city’s newly affluent economy. And what could stop them? Only the military force of the sponsor nation. No wonder rich nations have been so reluctant to step forward as charter sponsors. A wise donor nation would demand extraterritoriality and the right to quarter troops in its charter. The cities would in reality become clones of Guantánamo: miniature colonies maintained by foreign armed forces. Romer should take a closer look at the real history of his Hong Kong exemplar. The British kept power there only as long as they could protect it against the armed sovereignty of China, and ceded it only when they could no longer defend it. Once again, a lovely theory is defeated by a stubborn fact.
David J. Zimny
Paul Romer’s proposals on how to tackle poverty in developing countries are not as far removed from feasibility as some in the development community may think. After all, the imitation of best practices in areas like public-sector financial management (New Zealand) or education reform (Denmark) is widely accepted and encouraged among industrialized countries. Therefore, experiments such as model cities or idea incubators may well generate a sufficient number of imitators to attain a critical mass, which may in turn serve as a catalyst for nationwide change.
What Dr. Romer does not emphasize sufficiently, though, is that urban elites must accept the need for rural development on equal terms with urban renewal and strengthened urban economic and political governance. Hence, heavyweight development institutions, such as the World Bank, need to remind central governments where most of their natural resources come from (the countryside) and make any further assistance conditional upon much closer integration of city-centric development efforts with those in rural areas.
While I applaud Paul Romer’s attempt to “think the unthinkable,” it strikes me that both he and Sebastian Mallaby have missed the important fact that Romer’s idea is not at all novel, but instead, if implemented, would be a continuation of an already bad thing. One can find examples of Western enclaves, amiable to foreign direct investment and sheltered by their own laws, all across the global south—not least in those parts of Africa where the West has found and exploited oil.
Although Romer is certainly not advocating for another Niger Delta, I find it hard to believe that the Western governments in Romer’s narrative would not be inclined to set conditions in these “charter cities” favorable to their largest supporters at multinational firms, who are champing at the bit for cheap labor, low taxes, and government-provided security from the people and politics of the country that surrounds them. Romer and Mallaby seem to naively see a distinction between Western governments and multinational corporations that surely does not exist.