I’m Warren Smith, and today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with the founder of the Strong Towns Movement, Chuck Marohn.
CHUCK MAROHN: I started to recognize that cities are in essence human habitat. They are the place where humans live. And when they're optimized to the human experience, when they are optimized to the human, they perform a lot of functions really well. And when they're optimized around other things, the automobile, GDP growth, you know, name, your external parameter, they function more like machines that actually tend to grind up human prosperity, as opposed to create its flourishing.
Chuck Marohn has become a disruptive force in the world of urban planning. He believes that we should be designing cities, towns, roads, neighborhoods, and highways as if people mattered, and not short-term economic efficiency.
Motivated by the Christian idea humans have inherent dignity and carefully argued with the facts, data, and precision of an engineer—which he is—he has created a movement of like-minded people, and that movement now includes elected officials and policy makers who believe that we humans flourish not as isolated creatures, but as members of a community.
He is challenging some long-held idols of the urban planning world. He believes, for example, that the number of highway deaths in this country—nearly 40,000 per year—is not just unfortunate, or a cost of economic efficiency, but a preventable tragedy with a massive human cost, an outrage, and that traffic engineers who design roads for speed have a moral and perhaps even a legal liability for these deaths.
Marohn started Strong Towns as a blog in 2008. It has since become a podcast. He has written six books, and his ideas are now having an impact on mayors and urban planners around the country. His latest book is Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town.
Support for Listening In comes from Samaritan Ministries, a community of Christians who care for one another spiritually and financially when a medical need arises.
Patrick and Melody liked the idea of a group of people coming together to share medical costs, and joined Samaritan Ministries in 2017. When they welcomed twin daughters, fellow members sent money directly to them to help them pay their medical bills. When the body of Christ comes together, burdens are lifted, and God is glorified. This applies to all areas of life, including health care. More at samaritanministries.org/worldpodcast.
WS: Chuck Marohn, welcome to the program. Before we begin, let's kind of look at first principles, kind of the big picture. What is a strong town? And why do you say that this revolution has to come from the bottom up rather than from the top down?
CM: Oh, those are good questions. Thank you, Warren, it's very nice to be here and chat with you. A strong town is at its core, a place that is financially viable, a place that can maintain and sustain its own critical systems. I'm a civil engineer and a land use planner. And part of what motivated me to start writing the blog that became Strong Towns was that I saw cities making all kinds of financial investments, investments in infrastructure, investments in systems, that they had no capacities to sustain over time. And so to me, like, the the base inspiration of this was the idea that if a city is going to be viable, if a place is going to be viable, it actually needs to be able to survive periods of time where you're not growing, where you're not experiencing massive inflows of capital, where you're not, you know, buoyed by kind of outside forces. And, you know, when we look at cities today, we see that they actually are very fragile. Even the biggest, most, you know, financially successful growing cities have this underlying fiscal insolvency to them, that makes them reliant on, you know, accelerating levels of growth in order to sustain you know, people's drinking water, and the ability of people to drive to the store, and all these systems that we look at as critical to human habitat. So a strong town is, is really about focusing on how to become a place that yes, is plugged in and can interact with the world, but can also stand on its own and really by standing on its own, guide and project its own destiny?
WS: You know, Chuck, these ideas that you're talking about just now, and that you talk about a lot on on the Strong Towns podcast and in your books, I think there might be a danger for some of our listeners to hear them and think, Well, he's an engineer. He's talking about efficiency and effectiveness and data and numbers. And right about now my eyes start glazing over. But in reality, the more I've sort of dug into what you're about is that you're talking about building flourishing community. You're talking about human flourishing. You're talking about putting human beings at the top of the value chain, rather than, for example, the speed at which you can travel on a road or the traffic volume that you can travel. Am I getting you right? Whenever I sort of jump to that conclusion about what you are really about?
CM: Yes, at its essence. I think it's important, though, and there's some nuance here. I didn't start there, right? Like I started where, you know, go, go ahead and eyes glaze over. But I started as an engineer, right? Like, I'm about efficiency, I'm about optimization. How do we get you know, more water through the pipe, more cars through the street? Those were the parameters that I began with. And, you know, as I did this work, as an engineer, as I did this work as a planner, I just kept running into obstacles where it wasn't producing the outcome that we said we were trying to produce. Mainly, like human prosperity. The economic growth we were experiencing wasn't making people in the community wealthier and better off. It wasn't lowering taxes. It wasn't reducing our debt burden. It wasn't giving us better parks and better quality of life and more options in terms of like the things we could do. It didn't leave a better future for our kids. And so I started to ask some questions as to why. And I think, you know, we can fast forward through years of kind of wandering in the wilderness trying to figure many of these things out, things that other people who started in different places maybe was more intuitive to them. Before, you know, I started to recognize that cities are in essence human habitat. They are the place where humans live. And when they're optimized to the human experience, you use the term human flourishing. but, you know, I think when they are optimized to the human, they perform a lot of functions really well. And when they're optimized around other things, the automobile, GDP growth, you know, name your external parameter, they function more like machines that actually tend to grind up human prosperity, as opposed to create its flourishing. So this is a long journey for me to actually go from that place where cities could be defined, kind of almost mechanically, by its inputs and outputs and circular flow, to recognizing that, you know, as a beehive is optimized for bees, a city is really optimized at its best for humans, because it is, in its essence, human habitat.
WS: Well, Chuck, you say early in Confessions of a Recovering Engineer, which is your more recent book, and not Strong Towns, which is your earlier book, though, the idea I think, is embedded and implicit in the Strong Towns book as well, that that what we have here, in many ways is, is a conflict in values. And you use an example for, you use several examples near the beginning of Confessions. One of the things that you say is just, there's there are values embedded in the language of the engineer. So for example, an engineer will talk about a road improvement project, rather than what it really is, which is a certainly it's a modification or road modification project. But it may or may not be an improvement. And another thing that you talk about, which I guess this is where the light bulb really went off for me, you talked about four values, often the traffic engineers that guide or drive traffic engineers whenever they're doing a road modification - or improvement - project. And they are speed, volume, traffic volume, safety, and cost, in that order. But you say that whenever you go speak to groups, if you ask them which ones they value the most, it's not speed, it's safety. And just that inversion of those values says a whole lot about whether we value humans over whether over material, or things, or money.
CM: Yeah, that's right. And it's it's ironic, and I think it should be pointed out that even engineers answer that way. The engineers, you know, have inherited a language and a process a series of processes to define what they do from it from a traffic standpoint, right. I never worked on a project that wasn't an improvement. It was always the Fifth Street improvement, the intersection improvements. The, you know, and, and oftentimes, when you got done, like, it was a horrible outcome for a lot of people. But you know, we labeled it an improvement, and that kind of creates its own internal culture and momentum. But when engineers go out and design a street, I mean, there's a very, there's a very straightforward process that they use. That we would just call this, as engineers ‘the design process.’ You start with the speed that you expect vehicles to travel. You then look at the volume of vehicles you're expected to handle. Given those two things, what does the manual, design manual say is a safe street? And then what is the cost for doing that? And, you know, we don't think of these as values, even though they are. You know, they, they're the priority system. They're the the methodology that engineers use to go about creating a place. And therefore, they represent a set of values, maybe their values are so deeply embedded we don't even recognize them, but they're embedded their deep values that are part of this process. When you surface those values, and you ask people to talk about them, and you ask people to prioritize them in their way, everybody starts with safety. Everybody starts with like, the most important thing when we're designing a street is to make it safe. When you do that, what happens is that speed becomes the lowest value, instead of the number one thing we start with in the design process. It actually becomes the thing we get to once we establish safety and once we establish a project that is cost effective for us. Humans in their habitat are very willing to sacrifice automobile speed, in order to have an environment that is safe and have investments that are cost effective. And that is reflected nowhere within the profession and nowhere within the design process, even though when you talk to engineers individually and even as a group, they will say that they share those design values. And of course they should, because I hate to bring it to you, but engineers are also humans, you know? It might not seem that way all the time, but they actually are. You know, they have emotions, they cry, they care about their kids. They, you know, prioritize safety in their own lives, too. So it's just, you know, connecting those dots for everybody.
WS: Well, I think one of the things that kind of brought that home for me was, were some news reports that I saw a few months ago that you highlighted on the Strong Towns podcast that said that, you know, during the pandemic, traffic, you know, people stayed home. I mean, I'm sitting here working in my basement right now. I'm talking to you in my basement. And a lot of people stayed home. Traffic volume fell fairly precipitously, but traffic accidents, well, deaths did not fall. And the reason for that largely was because less congestion meant people drove faster. The old saying that speed kills is true. And you know, once again, it kind of brought me face to face with this idea that if human, or if the engineers got what they wanted, that would result in human tragedy. That the traffic, that the roads would not be congested, that people would be traveling at much higher speeds than they are right now. The inevitable, not the possible, but the inevitable result of that would be human tragedy. And somehow or another, these values of the engineer, these effectiveness, efficiency values of the engineer, are so embedded in our culture, that we are willing to embrace them even to our detriment.
CM: Yeah, yeah. And I think rationalize in a way that is, you know, is is disturbing at times. When we're talking about highways, speed is an advantage. It's not, it's not a disadvantage. In fact, highway speeds, when when everyone's driving in the same direction, and there's no lateral conflict, there's no merging traffic and traffic, you know, cutting across and what have you, highways are really, really safe at high speeds. Speed is not the killer. Speed is actually an advantage on a highway. But when you get on to an arterial or a collector road or a local street, and all of a sudden you've optimized that for throughput, you've optimized it for speed and volume, you do wind up with this like statistical inevitability of a certain level of tragedy, a certain level of, of, you know, traumatic injury and death. The pandemic presents a very interesting case, because you can look for decades - and engineers will point to this - they'll say our approach to safety has made things safer, because traffic fatalities have gone down in terms of vehicle miles traveled. So our rate of death has actually decreased. The total deaths have kind of stayed the same, because we're driving more. But like the rate of death has gone down per vehicle miles traveled. And, and engineers have pointed to that as a huge success. Look, all the things we've done with adding wider lanes and more buffer room and seat belts and enforcement and airbags and all this stuff, the, the public education campaigns and the you know, campaigns against drunk driving, like all this has had this huge impact. I don't think that that's true. I think what has happened, and as you see deaths come down, you see levels of congestion go up. Over the last few decades, what we have found is that congestion has swamped our system faster than we have been able to, you know, quote, unquote, fight it by expanding different parts of the system. More and more people experience large parts of their commuting day in times of extreme congestion. And in extreme congestion, what you have is you have cars going very slow, because you're just, you're there's a car in front of you, you can't go fast. When you hit the pandemic and you remove the vehicle in front of you, and all of a sudden what is revealed is not only the extreme level of over-engineering, but just how dangerous these places are when you don't have that congestion, you know, curtailing how fast people can drive. Our arterioles and our collector roads are the most deadly space that we have designed as a profession. And the sad thing is over the last 40 years, most of our public investment has gone into building spaces exactly like that.
WS: Well, yeah, in fact, we can't get too much into the weeds. Let's just stipulate for the record that if you want to really dig into this, go get Chuck Marohn's book Confessions of a Recovering Engineer or his earlier book, Strong Towns, A bottom up revolution to rebuild American prosperity. But I do want to introduce just a couple of words here because you've mentioned roads and streets. But you, I don't know if you coined this or not.
CM: I did. Yeah.
WS: But you coined a word that called that, stroad. S-T-R-O-A-D, which is kind of a hybrid between, you know, at least etymologically a hybrid between street and road. But in fact, it is a completely different creature. It is it is something that, that it's a creature, completely made up by man, completely made by these engineers, the tribe of which you are a part, and that you have nonetheless been critical of. It's, it's this creature that is neither a good street, nor a good road. And it is just a deathtrap for human beings. Could you say a little more about that?
CM: Yeah, we call it ‘the futon of transportation,’ right? So, a futon's an uncomfortable couch that makes into an uncomfortable bed. It tries to, you know, college students love it, because it can do two things at once. But it does neither of them really well. If you look at a road, a road, at its essence is a high speed connection between two places. And you know, we can think of early roads, as you know, people getting on a ship and going from one place to another, people getting on a railroad and going from one place to another. You had two places that were connected, and then as high a speed as could be managed between them. A street is essentially the platform for human habitat. It is the framework for building wealth and prosperity within a place. And when we focus on that human habitat, the throughput becomes a really like low value function, right? You're actually trying to build a place where people can walk to the store, walk to their neighbor's, walk to their church, be be part of a community. That's where all the value comes from actually building a city and a place. And so a ‘stroad,’ what it does, is it tries to perform both of these functions and fails at both. It tries to move cars quickly. But on a strode you know, you'll have 40 mile an hour speeds or 45 mile an hour speeds and traffic signals spaced around because you got to have, you know, crossing traffic and merging traffic. And so even though we engineer for high speeds, nobody is legally allowed to drive very fast. And then you also wind up with this weird situation where you're not building great habitat, because whenever you bisect a neighborhood with a fast moving roadway, the development pattern spreads way out. It becomes very disconnected. It induces a lot of congestion. It becomes very dangerous and uncomfortable to be in outside of an automobile. And so you don't have the the kind of reciprocating relationship that you get in more thick neighborhoods where people can easily walk and move between different businesses. And you get a very high cost, low returning environment from a financial standpoint. So yeah, these are these are tragically dangerous places. They are also really horrible investments. And I think the saddest part is that this is primarily where we've put our, our fiscal wealth and our energy over the past, you know, generation and a half in building transportation systems.
WS: Well, Chuck, I want to explore that idea a little bit, because I've sort of been an amateur student, I guess you could say, of urban planning for, you know, 20, 30, 40 years. I was one of those nerdy kids that when I was a teenager growing up in Atlanta, I would look at the Atlanta Regional Commission projections of population and, and, you know, attend, actually attended meetings. So it was just kind of a, you know it's always been a longtime interest of mine. And one of the things that I've discovered about urban planners generally and about that profession is that it tends to be liberal. It tends to be highly connected to the government. It tends to be very growth oriented. It wants to spend more money on infrastructure. That's how everybody in this system makes money - is more money on infrastructure. And I think where a light bulb went on for me with regard to Strong Towns is that your approach, while I think many liberals could embrace many of the ideas that you're talking about, your approach is fundamentally a conservative approach, especially a fiscally conservative approach. First of all, am I characterizing you accurately? And can you say more about that?
CM: No, I think that's very fair. And, especially in today's America. But I would, I would go a step further. Because when we're talking about liberal and conservative, I think it's important to point out that we're not talking Democrat and Republican. What we're really talking about, in my estimation, is an emphasis on top down versus an emphasis on bottom up. And the amazing thing is, is once you start talking about local communities and bottom up, there's a huge space there for progressives. I mean it, the best neighborhoods are this really organic mix of yin and yang, of conservative and liberal. Of people who are focused on making sure that things are orderly and taken care of, and the finances are in order, combined with people who are really compassionate about their neighbors and people who struggle and, and people who are having a difficult time living in the places we've designed. So, you know, the the conflict really manifests itself in a top down, bottom up. And not to get too political, but I'll give you an example that's adjacent that I've been like talking to people recently about. You know, the Green New Deal is one of these things that really mobilizes, you know, Democrats and progressive-minded people from a top down way. You know, the government in a sense coming in and ordering parts of society to function in a way optimized, at least the thought is, optimized for the reduction in carbon emissions. And, you know, you get out of the Green New Deal things like solar panels and what have you. But you also get the electric car and the automated vehicle and, and all these things designed to, you know, bring about that world. I think that that is a crazy pipe dream. And I actually think that it is a, a dream kind of designed to be co-opted by the top down forces on, you know, all sides of the political spectrum. As an analog to that, I think we can agree that the world would be a better place if we emitted less carbon, and if we drove less, and had buildings that were more energy efficient. There's a really great way to get to that from a bottom up, and that is just make our neighborhoods more walkable. I mean, it's, it not only is like a very simple strategy, but it's a strategy that would cost way less, would require a lot less top down coordination. And from a financial standpoint, would really, really benefit local governments, small businesses, families, and people who are trying to make it in a community. I think a lot of times if we just got out of the way of, of people being able to work together at the local level, or if we wanted to be very proactive from a top down, protect those ecosystems from in a sense, the top down forces that are battering them, we would see a lot of common ground between Democrats and Republicans at the national level actually manifest in our local communities in ways that I think would surprise us.
WS: Well, and one of the ways that you say to do that, in Confessions in particular is, is to stop spending money on infrastructure, especially infrastructure out, and just take care of the stuff that already exists in in towns, these places that you talk about are driving their true economic wealth. You say that the current model is that we don't take care of stuff, that we'll just move farther out. We build infrastructure to those places, we build shiny new stuff to a finished state while we're letting the interior stuff deteriorate, and that we never receive a financial return on the investment in this, on the stuff around the edges. All the while this stuff in the early, in the beginning, deteriorates. And that to me in some ways, Chuck, sounds like the Biblical value of being a good steward. Am I getting you wrong there?
CM: No you're not.
WS: Is it that simple?
CM: Yes, I think it is that simple, actually. You know, we have created a development pattern that was designed to keep us out of the Great Depression. You know, the, the great economic insight of World War II is that if you pour a bunch of money into the economy, and, you know, put a bunch of people to work doing stuff, you can get out of a Great Depression. And, you know, after World War II, we continued that, not by fighting foreign enemies, although we've done plenty of that. But we did it by pouring money into highways, pouring money into the GI bill so people can buy homes, building housing subdivisions, selling Amway door to door. You know, the, the whole like accoutrement of suburbanization became this mechanism to keep us out of the Great Depression. And in many ways, it was very successful at that. But if you go down to local government, and I think, you know, it's important to recognize what we talk about when we talk about local government. We're not talking about the lowest form of government in, like a hierarchy of government. I think a lot of times we look at government, local governments like the algae of the government system. We actually think local government is the highest level of coordination for people working together in a community. And when you look at this development model, in terms of the local government, the community, what you see is that it really mimics ‘slash and burn’ agriculture. You know, we go in with ‘slash and burn’ agriculture, and we slash down a forest and we burn it up, and then we use the ground. And once we use the ground up, we move on to the next place. And you can do that. I mean, humans did that for a long time, when they had very small needs and very small populations. You could essentially do that and use up things and not return for another 100 years and things would maybe regenerate a little bit. But you know, the scale that we're doing it at, and the fact that we're leaving behind neighborhoods of people that are deeply, deeply struggling, I mean, our neighbors, is just in its, I want to use the word immoral. I don't want to like, you know, make make this all about values, because I don't think we have to necessarily, you know, end with that. I mean, we can, we can look at the finances and say financially, this is like a really bad setup. But the reality is, is that the ‘slash and burn’ agriculture aspect of it is capturing more and more and more people in a lifestyle and development style that is just robbing them of their capacity, of their prosperity, and of their future prospects in a way that, you know, is damaging all of society.
WS: Yeah. Well, Chuck, it seems to me that the problems that you're pointing out become even more acute, more urgent, when you realize that our population is not growing, like it used to grow in the past. And that, if we think that we're just gonna, you know, keep growing in the way that we've grown in in the past, we're gonna end up with a hitting a very, of coming to a very abrupt stop as we crash into a demographic wall. And another aspect of that is just to look at Detroit. You mentioned Detroit a good bit in one of the books. Now I can't remember which one because.
CM: It's in the first one, yeah.
WS: Okay, in the first one. You said, one of the things you say about Detroit is that is that Detroit is not a one off. Detroit is not a black swan, so to speak. That Detroit is a…
CM: They're the canary in the coal mine.
WS: They got, they got there first. Exactly right. And so when I when I started reading that I started thinking, Oh, wow, you know, what, if we really care about cities, if we can really care about strong towns, if we really care about creating environments where humans can thrive and flourish, there's a real urgency about this stuff.
CM: Yes, yes. There's a huge urgency. And it's it's difficult, because, you know, I think we all want to impose a narrative on the bifurcation of society. The ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots,’ the wealth gap, the prosperity gap. There's a, there's a certain nostalgia for the 50s and 60s and how we had this great middle class, and we had this government that was was able to be very generous and set up all these programs and systems. I think if anybody wants to get their minds wrapped around this, think of the community that they live in, and go back to the neighborhoods that were built in the 1950s, in the 1960s, and look at them. And then go look at the neighborhoods that were built in the 1970s and the 1980s. And look at them. And what you will see is that when we go out and build in this pattern, and we build all at once and we build to this finished state, what happens is that we will go and we will build a large area at one time. Hundreds of houses, thousands of houses within a few years of each other. And 25 years later, 30 years later, every house in that development, their roof will fail at the same time. And their sidewalk will fail at the same time. And their appliances will all start breaking down at the same time because they were all built at the same time with the same lifespan, lifecycle. And so all of a sudden, you have this point where this development needs love, it needs people to come in and say, in our current model, you know, we're going to fix that roof and maintain the porch and repaint the house and put all this capital into it. But if you look at the demographics of a place like that, what happens is that when you start to get to that end, the people of wealth and the people with affluence within that neighborhood, they pick up and they move. They move to the next hot place. They move to the next great place. And who is left behind are people of lesser financial capacity, who are now struggling in a place that is starting to fail and fall apart. What we see is that we can maintain those places for a while by taking on debt, by inducing more growth in other parts of the system to try to generate some free cash flow that we can come back and kind of patch things up. But if you go look at those places that were built in the 50s and 60s, a lot of them are struggling deeply, deeply. If you look at the places in the 70s and 80s, it's the same kind of thing. If you go to the 90s in the early 2000s, there'll be a little bit less so, but you can see, like, the trend, right? This is a system that is grinding wealth, community wealth, into dust. It actually destroys our capacity over time. And we desperately need to change it, because we're locking generations into, you know, ways of living, that are literally like grinding the capacity out of them.
WS: Yeah. Well, Chuck, I gotta tell you, after reading your books, what you just said, sounds stark, and sounds bleak, and sounds, you know, assertion, you know, sounds like an assertion rather than an argument. But I will tell you that, that after reading your books, I have come to believe that what you're saying is true. So let's pivot if we could, in the few minutes that we have left to talk about maybe some solutions. Because what you're talking about really is wholesale cultural change. And you because you're proposing a bottom up revolution. And that can be scary and daunting as well, until you realize that, you know, 50 years ago, everybody smoked. Smoke, everybody smoked indoors. 40 years ago, you know, nobody wore seatbelts. You know, when my when my mom wanted to wanted to calm down a bunch of unruly kids in the backseat, you just tap on the brakes until we all ended up in the floorboard, right?
CM: Right. Yep.
WS: But but yet we've seen really, while the changes that are necessary seem daunting, we have seen really amazing cultural change in the last 20, 30, 40 years in different areas. What are some of the things that have to happen to our culture today to create a strong towns revolution?
CM: Oh, changes in the culture? I think that's an interesting question. And it's it's one that I've wrestled with, but maybe not written specifically on or talked about specifically. Because I'm, I mean, I am an engineer. I'm a planner. I'm not like a cultural, you know, molder shaper, whatever, what, you know, analysis, what would that be a sociology like, it's not my forte. When I think about, like, what needs to happen, I feel like there needs to be a recognition - and certainly we have built our movements and our recommendations and our programs around this acknowledgement that we live together in a place. And that we can have, you know, a circle of concern. I'm concerned about what's going on in the Ukraine. I'm concerned about this, and that, you know, issue in Washington, D.C. I'm concerned about corruption. I'm concerned about whatever. But our circle of care has to be where we put most of our energy. We can fix the street in front of our house, if we work together. We can make our park nicer, if we work together. We can actually spend a lot less money. We actually have the capacity to do a whole lot of things in our own communities, if we take the time to go out and do them. And I think, you know, what, the broad recognition is that, and I can go back to the climate change issue, which I said, I've been in serious discussions with a lot of people on this issue lately. Is the solution to climate change for all of us to continue doing what we're doing and hope that Elon Musk rescues us? Or someone else, you know, comes up with a green overlay to our really dysfunctional, you know, development pattern, a development pattern that is robbing us of capacity. Or is our, you know, approach to say, you know what, we can reconfigure our cities over time, this isn't gonna happen overnight. But we can start to make different choices, different decisions about how we build and how we develop, that will not only make us wealthier, give us more capacity, make our cities better places to live, help us have more prosperous lives, but will allow us to opt out of the automobile more, allow us to walk more, allow us to choose options that don't require as much fossil fuel consumption. I think we could turn the needle like really, really quickly on the issue you know, looking at it that way. And I think the beautiful thing about it, is that, you know, your city does not need to do it in order for my city to do it. Like I like we can do it here unilaterally, there's nothing stopping us from doing it. And like I would argue to many cities who want to be leaders on. like. the climate change issue, for example, go be a leader. Like, go do it, just do it. Because when you do it, you're going to find out that it's an optimum outcome in many different dimensions. And you can actually lead and inspire others to want to follow you, as opposed to all of us being enfeebled and like waiting for a solution at a level that, you know, we don't control or we don't really have any influence on to come and save us.
WS: Yeah. Well, Chuck, I don't. In my world in the evangelical Christian world. Sometimes we talk about doing a Jesus Juke, and I don't want to do a Jesus Juke on you. But...
CM: Go head. I'm good with it.
WS: You're good with Jesus? But it sounds to me if that as I sort of take the whole counsel of what you're saying, in the podcast or your books, you're basically saying, be good stewards of the gifts that you have been given. Love your neighbor as yourself. And treat human beings as if they are made in the image of God. And as if they have some dignity, and put them at the top of your consideration whenever you're trying to balance the things that you should consider.
CM: There's a reason why, you know, when we talk about human habitat, what we're talking about is a system that has evolved over time out of our interactions with each other. And, you know, I am a Catholic. I'm a Christian. There's a lot of my insight there that is informed by that. But I also can step back and recognize that religions all over the world have very similar prescriptions. You know, you can go to to Islam, you can go to Judaism, you can go to some of the Eastern religions, and they will all have one variation on the theme of love your neighbor, treat others as you would be treated. The Golden Rule is a is a universal thing. And I, you know, there's a lot of people who will roll their eyes and say, well, you know, that's great. And we should all be that way. But that's not a public policy statement. I would just say that public policy can't overcome us not being neighborly. Like if we are not going to be human to each other, if we are not going to treat each other well, if we're not going to put others in our community at the top of our hierarchy of responsibility and our hierarchy of concern, there is no state legislation, there is no federal legislation, there is no program that's going to overcome that human failing and shortcoming. It was St. Augustine who said something along the lines, and I'm gonna I'm gonna butcher this quote, but, you know, “Without God, we can't. Without us, God won't.” And it's this thing that like, it's a working together, right? It's a it's a, it's a co creation, with the Creator and ourselves, who build, you know, you know, Jesus's whole message was, we're going to build the kingdom of God on earth. That's what we're going to do. And I think it's our responsibility, in as far as we're human, and we live in places with other humans, to, you know, be good neighbors and good stewards. And, you know, we won't finish that kingdom on earth because we're flawed and sinful people. But we can sure make it a heck of a lot better place to live. And I think get us closer to that destination that, you know, as Christians, we're seeking.
That brings to a close my conversation with Chuck Marohn. Chuck’s latest book is: Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town.
By the way, if you were challenged or nourished by today’s conversation, I’d like to recommend that you check out two interviews from the Listening In archives. Last year I interviewed Marie Matsuki Mockett, the author of American Harvest. I also had Grace Olmstead on the program. She’s the author of Uprooted: Recovering The Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind. Both of these books—and the conversations I had with their authors—explore more fully the ideas of community, human flourishing, and the relationship we humans have to each other, to God, and to the places he has us. I should add that Grace Olmstead has also been a guest on the Strong Towns podcast, and I recommend to you their conversation, as well. You can find it on all the major podcast platforms.
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Also, Listening In is now in its ninth year, and we have an extensive archive of more than 400 conversations with writers, filmmakers, news makers, and interesting people of all kinds—including Marie Mockett and Grace Olmstead, who I just mentioned. So if you’re new to the program, head over to the World News Group website and use the search engine to explore what we have there. Again, that’s WNG.org.
Tune in next week to hear my conversation with pastor and author Russ Ramsey. His new book is Rembrandt is in the Wind: Learning To Love Art Through The Eyes of Faith. I absolutely love this book, and I’m excited to introduce it—and Russ Ramsey—to you. I hope you’ll join us.
The producer for today’s program is Leigh Jones. Johnny Franklin is the technical producer. And Paul Butler is executive producer for WORLD Radio. I’m your host, Warren Smith. And you’ve been Listening In….
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