Rebuilding From the Region Up

Photograph Source: Remi Jouan – CC BY-SA 3.0

Lewis Mumford’s archenemy was the pioneer who ravaged the North American continent as he moved across it.  A “land skinner” out for immediate profit, he would move on when soils or forests were exhausted, seeking new frontiers to exploit. Development of industries and cities followed much the same pattern. The pioneer, whether the homesteader or the land speculator, was the nemesis of the richly developed, settled human culture Mumford sought to foster throughout his work as one of the 20th century’s great public intellectuals.

When he began his writing career in the 1920s and 30s, Mumford was in sharp variance with the general view of pioneer as hero. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner had lionized the pioneer in his 1893 essay, one of the most influential in U.S. history, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.”  Turner was still alive in Mumford’s early writing days, living until 1932. In Turner’s analysis, the frontier created the spirit of democratic individualism and expansive opportunity that was the essence of the U.S., and the pioneer was its progenitor.  Today we have a far more nuanced view of the pioneer.  Aware of the history of native displacement and the environmental destruction that accompanied the settlement of the U.S., the general view is in many ways closer to Mumford’s than Turner’s.

Mumford placed the U.S. pioneer in the context of the half-millennium of European expansion over the entire earth. “ . . . the great era of exploration and colonization, which opened in the sixteenth century, introduced a period of terrestrial neglect. In the act of seizing all the habitable parts of the earth, the colonists of Africa and the Americas systematically misused and neglected their possession; First, perhaps, out of ignorance, but no less because, even when better knowledge existed, an imperious government, a rapacious economic corporation or individual, would set no bounds to greed or to momentary needs.”[1]

This series has been detailing how Mumford saw a regional framework underlaying civilization, one that was obscured and overwhelmed by the rise of nation-states and capitalism in this era of expansion. Mumford posed a return to the region as a place to begin repairing the damage done.

“Today the era of exploration has come to an end . . . the era of the callous pioneer, who laid waste to a particular area, looted it natural resources, and moved on, is over: there is no place left to move. We have reached the end of our journey, and in the main, we must retrace our steps, and, region by region, learn to do intelligently and co-operatively what we hitherto did in such disregard for the elementary decencies of life. The grasp of the region as a dynamic social reality is the first step . . . “[2]

Regions as the ground for rebuilding

Unfortunately, Mumford’s insights were well in advance of his time. Today we face a set of crises brought on by the continued drive to unlimited expansion, and which now threaten the very future of humanity. The headlines are climate disruption created by burning fossil fuels and disrupting forests and soils, and intensified great power conflict as non-western powers emerge. In the backdrop are increased wealth inequality, along with a deterioration of democratic institutions, and a general decline of natural ecosystems. Even as challenges demand response, economic and political power elites insulated from democratic control continue to push the models through which they succeeded, just as those models are having increasingly destructive effects. This reflects the exact situation Arnold Toynbee called out in his analysis of why civilizations fall.

If we had heeded Mumford’s words, and created a more co-operative society that respected limits, we would not be facing the crises we do today. Now, as we are driven to conceive systemic change in order to cope with those crises, we should recall Mumford’s insights on regionalism as a way to rebuild human society. That is what this series has intended.

In many ways, Mumford was calling for a different system of governance, the creation of institutions at the regional scale that would be organized by a system of democratic regional planning. As discussed in the last post, while these may seem utopian, his concepts offer a guidepost to measure the present day and guide progress.

Mumford posed a redrawing of political boundaries to reflect regional realities. “No existing state or administrative lines are sacred or unalterable . . . it would be absurd to imagine that the temporary forms achieved during the era of extreme instability and rapid transition were permanent ones . . . what has been created by man in the past can be re-defined and re-created in the interests of a more effective communal life. Hence local administrative boundaries or national boundaries that interrupt the more fundamental configurations of regions, or the grouping of regional into inter-regional areas or provinces, must be progressively diminished: eventually wiped out. That means the devolution of political power and the building up of local centers of initiative and control . . . “[3]

The work of collective imagination

But, more fundamentally than the political, Mumford saw the creation of regions as an act of collective imagination. “The region, no less than the city, is a collective work of art.”[4] In reclaiming the regional framework of civilization, stirring our collective imaginations is where we can begin.

Mumford counterposed the region to nationalism, a pernicious force in his day as much as in ours. “ . . . ‘nationalism’ is an attempt to make the laws and customs and beliefs of a single region or city do duty for the varied expressions of a multitude of other regions. To the extent that such a unity does not grow out of spontaneous allegiances or natural affiliations, it must be held together by deliberate effort: indoctrination in the school, propaganda in the press, restrictive laws, extirpation of rival dialects and languages, either by mockery or mandate, suppression of the customs and privileges of minorities.”[5]

This set up a hierarchical “pyramid of communities whose apex and central point was the capital city,” and a hierarchy among states with one having the central position. The contrast is social relativity in which “no one state can claim pre-eminence, and no one position within the community is central. Every unit and every activity, no matter how small, no matter how apparently insignificant, has a fundamental importance  . . .”[6]

Today, we live in a hyper-centralized world where our imaginations are captured by mass media institutions centered in a few cities. In the U.S., it’s New York, Los Angeles and Washington, DC, and one might add major tech platforms in the Bay Area and Seattle. It is astounding how, in the creation of national realities, major centers away from the coasts play only a marginal role. Media plays a supporting role in orienting us to national political institutions centered in the Northeast.

At the same time, it is clear that both media and national political institutions are increasingly failing to address the huge issues facing us. Again, climate is the poster. But one might point out that holds for the range of mounting crises. The apex of the pyramid is failing us. Unfortunately, prospects are limited for situations to get better, and the likely track is for them to become worse. So reclaiming a regional framework, where democratic possibilities can still be realized, is crucial.

The region as classroom for democracy

Mumford saw great importance in the education system, to make use of local communities and regions as a classroom and laboratory.  He conceived of engagement with the region through concrete experiences, and the development of comprehensive regional surveys as the practical means. Such common knowledge would provide a basis for regional political life as a daily engagement and not the “monopoly of remote specialists.”[7]  “All rational politics must begin with the concrete facts of regional life, not as they appear to the specialist, but as they appear first of all to those who live in the region.”[8]

Mumford contrasted this approach with the extreme specialization of knowledge already evident in his time, and even more extreme now. “  . . the amount of specialized knowledge, often accurate, often extremely refined, has far outstripped our capacity to make use of it as part of a consistent whole.” The way to integrate specialized knowledge was “starting from the common whole – a region, its activities, its people, its configuration, it’s total life – and relating each further achievement in specialized knowledge to this cluster images and experiences.” [9]

Such an approach to knowledge and education would give people a sense of organic relationships without which they would become more subject to external manipulation.  “. . . our metropolitan populations throughout the world are both witless and wantless: true cannon-fodder, potential serfs for a new totalitarian feudalism, people whose imaginative lives are satiated by shadows . . . “[10] These words ring at least as true today as when Mumford wrote them in the 1930s.

Concentrated power leads to collapse

We should pay heed to some later words on where a society which loses the organic relationships of community and place will go in its search for limitless expansion and power. Overconcentration of power at the center “repeatedly marked the last stage in the classic cycle of civilization,” Mumford wrote in his 1961 The City in History. “There is surely no evidence of stability in a civilization that has, within forty years, undergone two world wars and prematurely terminated the lives of some sixty million people . . . “[11]  “ . . . even in cultures far less committed to quantitative growth than our own, there comes a point where the tumorous organ will destroy the organism at whose expense it has reached such swollen dimensions.”[12]

Concentrated centers of power “encase the organic, many-sided life of the community in petrified and overspecialized forms” that prevent adaptation to new circumstances.[13]  This thought is highly resonant with the analysis Joseph Tainter developed in his book, The Collapse of Complex Societies. Overviewing the Western Roman Empire, and the civilizations of the Maya and Anazasi, Tainter theorized that societies develop increasingly complex and specialized structures to solve problems, until they overrun the energy required to maintain them, causing their collapse. The Mayans were building their biggest pyramids, and the Anasazi their largest pueblos, just before they collapsed. If this seems distant from the present, consider that the world’s two tallest skyscrapers, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa and the Shanghai Tower, sit on land likely to be overtaked by rising seas in the next century.

In this perspective, Mumford’s call to re-ground education, political life and collective imagination in the region, to reclaim these vital aspects from overspecialized and overconcentrated centers of power, becomes a vital response to civilizational crisis. If creating actual new forms of political governance seems distant, the work of collective imagination and pursuit of knowledge lays a groundwork for the political and cultural reconstruction whose need will become increasingly evident.

What may seem impossible . . .

Mumford became less optimistic through his life, as he saw the growth of technological civilization tracking on some of his worst case scenarios. But in concluding The City In History, he offered a hope we should all take to heart. “ . . . happily life has one predictable attribute: It is full of surprises. At the last moment – and our generation may be close to the last moment – the purposes and projects that will redeem our present aimless dynamism may gain the upper hand. When that happens, obstacles that now seem insuperable will melt away, . . . vast sums of money and energy  . . . will be released for the recultivation of the earth and the rebuilding of cities  . . . If once the sterile dreams and sadistic nightmares that obsess the ruling elite are vanquished, there will be such a release of human vitality as will make the Renascence seem almost a stillbirth.”[14]

Indeed, at a moment when so much is headed down the wrong track, and the human future itself is in question, we must realize that good surprises are indeed possible, and that there are possibilities to turn this around. Reclaiming our collective imagination to envision alternatives is vital to this process. Lewis Mumford pointed us to the region as a ground on which we could begin the work of re-imagining. His regionalist approach should inform our efforts as we seek to overcome our civilizational crisis and build a better world.


[1] Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1970, p. 304-5

[2] Ibid, p. 305

[3] Ibid, p. 368-9

[4] Ibid, p. 315

[5] Ibid, p. 349

[6] Ibid, p. 355

[7] Ibid, p. 382

[8] Ibid, p. 383

[9] Ibid, p. 385

[10] Ibid, p. 387

[11] Lewis Mumford, The City In History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects, Harcourt, Brace & World, New York, 1961, p. 525

[12] Ibid, p. 527

[13] Ibid, p. 526

[14] Ibid, p. 574-5