Leaf-cutter ants, suburban sprawl

You have to respect leaf-cutter ants. Bit by bit they slice off the leaves of a tree, carrying to distant nests many times their body weight in little green sections along the tropical-forest floor, relentlessly.

It is impressive to witness the operations of an ecosystem by the tiniest of creatures and leads one to consider how the human spirit puts metal to dreams of wealth and success in building livable communities in natural landscapes.

Leaf-cutter ants are as focused and unstoppable as Florida’s builders, consuming one green field after another for subdivisions and related commercial development.The effects of suburban growth are much harder to digest than a little leaf. But sprawl must be progress if people want it, right?

Wrong. Poorly planned growth throughout Florida is proliferating with death-defying illogic.

From every corner of the state, ordinary citizens are furious at the disproportionate allocation of resources to the benefit of tract housing and related commercial development, especially when government facilitates sprawl into environmentally sensitive lands.

Yes. Homes, private wealth and jobs are created by sprawl, but the side effects are brutal, systemic and self-limiting: overwhelming traffic, overcrowded schools and inadequate water infrastructure, to name a few.

The effect of cutter ants in the forest is disproportionate to their tiny size. In contrast, sprawl-related industries are gargantuan and diminish Florida.

Anyplace in their unwavering, single-file march could be anyplace else. What is consumed and discarded is often unrecoverable within limits of fiscal sanity.

For the cutter-ant colony to be successful, what is needed is a mated queen. The sprawl lobby in Florida has a mating ritual, too, facilitated by state legislators, local government, lobbyists and the reciprocal motion as regulated and regulators exchange positions in timeless fashion.

Yes, it is legal. So property-rights and campaign contributions are freely available to all who can afford them.

When a tree is culled from the forest, decimated by cutter ants, new growth emerges in its place. In contrast, however, the costs of sprawl are not containable.

Not the facts of the scientist, not the knowledge of the environmentalist, not the letter-writing of the civic association, or the wisdom of the PTA. “No, no, no!” they cry. The cutter ants of Florida’s suburban sprawl are impervious to entreaty or plea.

The leaves dismantled by cutter ants might represent Florida’s Everglades, ripped up and mined to make concrete, or open space in Orange County bulldozed for sprawl, or the edge of Collier or Pasco or the Panhandle used to mismanage water resources to facilitate growth at the expense of Floridians already here. It could be any county in Florida. And it’s not fair.

The denuded tree branch might represent the right of citizens to object. The little pieces of green carried away by 12 times the weight of Florida’s developers might represent the right to referenda by petition, or new measures to provide regulatory “relief” and the simultaneous slicing and dicing of the ability of the public to be involved in matters related to zoning.

Not all builders agree with the decimation of Florida’s landscape, but the development industry in Florida is alarmingly reticent to express diverse opinions.

The march of sprawl across the fastest-growing areas of our nation consumes more energy than it is able to replenish and cannot be good for business in the long run. But find an industry group that will stand with the citizens crying, “No, no, no!”

Within the chambers of commerce, find one leader who will stand up to criticize suburban sprawl.

We are sentient beings, are we not? Is sprawl a controlling economic interest that is harmful to the whole of society, or is it not? The silence of Florida’s business community is deafening.

Because the cutter ants of sprawl-related development are so richly rewarded, because business and community leaders will not speak out, Florida is a state defined by default of the common denominator: strip malls, impassible roads, wilderness converted to subdivisions, industrial water quality defended as good as nature’s, generous contributions to hospitals and universities by developers and petty politicians who give away the store in order to feather their own nests.

These phenomena are so ho-hum, so contradictory in claimed benefits, that scarcely a voice of complaint can be heard when sprawl boosters say, “We are only building what the market wants, what is affordable to you and what affords us the rewards of hard work.”

Florida is wracked by massive infrastructure deficits, and these common effects of suburban sprawl are not embellishments: They are simply not sustainable.


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