The Unforeseen

The Unforeseen

The Unforeseen is a documentary about the controversy over growth and development, especially in Austin, Texas.

Though it’s in Texas, and people think of Texas as this bastion of the crudest and most ignorant right wingers, Austin is a quite progressive, artsy kind of city. (Salt Lake City is similarly vastly more liberal than Utah as a whole.) It generally ranks high on lists of the most livable cities, the cities with the most to offer culturally, the cities most appealing to young people, etc.

Not surprisingly, then, a lot of people want to move there. And also not surprisingly, a lot of people want to make as much money as possible off of the fact that a lot of people want to move there.

But the paradox you run into with cities like this is that a significant portion of what makes them such desirable places to live is not consistent with their becoming substantially bigger. So, yes, many people want to move there, but there are also many people already there who don’t want the city they love ruined by massive expansion with its attendant greater strain on resources, destruction of open spaces, addition of fast food chains and Walmarts, etc.

Much of the movie focuses specifically on the fight over developing an area west of central Austin on the Colorado River called Barton Springs. Developers want to convert it from a wilderness and park type area to a residential suburb.

Many locals oppose this idea. So many in fact that they show up en masse at the city council meeting that’s discussing the development and overwhelm it with hours and hours of vehement testimony against the plan. The council, which prior to the meeting had been fully expected to rubber stamp the proposal votes it down.

In some ways it’s an inspiring instance of ordinary people standing up against the 1%. I won’t say I was thrilled with all of them—there are little kids who can’t possibly comprehend the issues reading prepared statements, and some of those testifying against the development are kind of goofy New Agers—but on the whole I’m on their side.

Which is not to say that this kind of thing is always a no-brainer issue. There can be an unappealing NIMBY element to the opposition to development. I mean, people have to live somewhere. In the absence of zero population growth, you can’t have every place insisting “We don’t want a greater strain on our resources, we don’t want more traffic on our roads, we don’t want to feel more crowded,” etc.

But I suspect if you break it down and judge on a case-by-case basis, this problem would be alleviated. Different communities in different circumstances will choose differently.

Austin seems like the kind of place that really would be better off without a lot of growth, as otherwise the special character of the city could be destroyed.

But that doesn’t mean every other city would reach the same decision. Growth, as its supporters vociferously point out, has benefits. Granted, the 1%ers make sure as much as possible of those benefits end up in their pockets, but other people can benefit as well from the construction jobs and all the rest.

Some cities would weigh the costs and benefits and allow a lot of development, and some cities would decide to forego the benefits of growth because the costs are too great, and that’s fine.

Of course, the problem is that these decisions are not going to be made by a fully informed public democratically, nor by wise and impartial philosopher kings. In the real, corrupt, world, these decisions skew dramatically toward the interests of those with the resources and lack of scruples to hire lobbyists and bribe politicians with campaign contributions and all the rest.

So far more communities end up with far more growth than is really in their interest.

The most infuriating instance of such skullduggery in The Unforeseen is when the 1%ers push through the state legislature a bill greatly strengthening the position of developers. Basically what it does is say that if the government (say, the local government of Austin) changes some law/regulation/policy/whatever that adversely affects a developer, the developer must be compensated for the loss.

There’s a whole conservative legal theory along these lines, based on the “takings” clause of the Constitution. Allegedly it is grossly unfair to “change the rules” that a property owner was relying on, and so if that happens the property owner should be entitled to be put back to where they would have been without the change.

The curious thing is that the conservatives don’t seem to see it as an unearned windfall that a property owner is not entitled to when some government action benefits property owners, like if a military base is opened near them, or immigration laws are changed in a way that makes it much easier for them to get lower wage workers.

Not to mention, for some reason the theory applies only to capital and not labor. For instance, if someone invests in land because they want to drill for oil on it, and some environmental law makes that no longer feasible or profitable, then supposedly they have been treated unfairly and deserve money, whereas if some worker is adversely affected by some change in the law that makes it easier to ship jobs overseas, they haven’t had something taken from them that requires compensation.

You know, all government action, and inaction, incidentally affects some people positively and some people negatively. Deal with it. Those positive and negative effects are relevant to bring up when the action is being debated, but it’s ridiculous to say that anyone negatively affected is entitled to have any such harm undone (and it’s especially ridiculous when that “principle” only applies to conservatives’ paymasters).

Anyway, the “infuriating” part isn’t just the law that’s passed, but specifically the fact that thousands of people—who are decidedly not of the 1%—march on the capital demanding this law and vehemently arguing that justice and basic Americanism absolutely requires it.

These boobs have no clue how they’re being tricked. “Please oppress us! Please give the 1%ers even more than they already have! Please make it easier for them to fuck us over! We want only what’s best for them!” You can practically see the Mr. Burns-like capitalists watching this and gleefully rubbing their hands together and cackling at their successful manipulation.

So I’m willing to concede that if these things were decided on their merits, sometimes the growth side would win. But I know they aren’t decided on their merits, so I tend to be very skeptical when the growth side wins.

Despite the scumminess of their tactics, as journalist William Greider comments in an interview, these developers as individuals are not all unappealing people. On a personal level, he notes, they can be quite likable, and in their way admirable.

And that’s mostly consistent with how the developers are presented in this movie. Yeah, some of them come across (to me) as obvious bad guys, but some do not.

The developer given the most time on screen in fact breaks down and cries late in the movie, and it’s a very human moment. He talks about how much his success meant to his mother, and how it crushed him when she died when he was at a low point, going through a bankruptcy. He muses about how much of his life has been spent worrying about deals and debating laws and such, whereas now he recognizes that deeper issues of getting right with God and such should have taken precedence all along.

I don’t see that and think, “Oh fuck you, I’m glad you lost.” I mean, at a certain level I am glad when people like that lose, but I don’t hate them all as individuals and want them to suffer. I found him to be a mostly sympathetic character, especially when he got so emotional there at the end. I just wish he had indeed devoted himself more to the “deeper issues” from the beginning, and not spent so much of his life befouling land and such for his own monetary enrichment.

The Unforeseen is a documentary that I would say is more on the side of the anti-growth folks, but it’s really not a ham-handed, propagandistic presentation. It thoughtfully raises some important issues and lets you hear from various different people on different sides of them without too simplistically separating them into heroes and villains. I’d rank it no worse than around the middle of documentaries I have seen.


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