`Progress At What Price?

I LIVE in the mountains of Virginia, in a landscape whose beauty remains substantially intact. In earlier eras of my life I've lived inside the Washington Beltway and within walking distance of the San Francisco Bay. My experience has given me a perspective on the thrust of economic development that not many of my present neighbors seem to share - not if I can judge from the letters I read these days in my local newspapers.

Our part of Virginia is in the direction toward which the Disney Corporation, if it gets its way, will build its Disney's America theme park. Each issue of the weekly Shenandoah Valley newspaper carries some enthusiastic endorsement of this project. Look at the jobs it'll bring! It's progress! It means a brighter future!

These views reflect the perspective of people contemplating the evolving world from the seemingly safe perspective of their rural and small-town communities. Having lived on the southern stretches of the great Eastern megalopolis, I feel like calling out to my neighbors, ``I have seen the future, and it doesn't work so well. Resist the temptation to worship at the altar of untrammeled economic growth.''

For over a decade, I watched the lovely town of Frederick, Md., being absorbed into the Washington metropolitan area. Recently, the last holdout was overcome: the lovely green acres where horses grazed by a stream, two blocks behind the strip where Burger King and Kmart are found, have been transformed from a bucolic setting recalling the town's historical charm and rural character into grist for developers.

Throughout the country, the pattern is repeated. A rural landscape is turned into a suburban development. What is suburban one day is sucked into the city the next. When do we ask: How much development is enough? How do we preserve what's worth preserving from homogenizing pavement and commercial strips?

If these questions get asked at all, they get asked too late. In recent years, voters of Fairfax County, Va., and Montgomery County, Md., stunned experts by turning out of office some of the agents of overdevelopment. But by then, the horse was already out of the barn. Indeed, the barn itself had been torn down.

People who can still find comfort in the view from their front porches need to see further into what is coming their way. Developers' money comes at a price: Mickey Mouse breathes out toxic fumes of traffic congestion. Strips of national chains tear at the fabric that holds local communities together. Bulldozers scrape off the history that connects us with our land. An empire is spreading our way to colonize us, and the time to act to control our relations with that empire is before we are fully in its grip.

My neighbors see the problems that more developed areas bring, but they do not connect those problems with the economic forces they invite into their area to shape their future.

The complacency of those who still live in unruined places reminds me of Machiavelli's description of how the ancient Romans managed to bring the whole of the Mediterranean world under their dominion. While the ``potent prince'' is making war upon one of the areas adjacent to his domain, Machiavelli said, the ``other powers that are more distant and have no immediate intercourse with him will look upon this as a matter too remote for them to be concerned about, and will continue in this error until the conflagration spreads to their door, when they have no means for extinguishing it except their own forces, which will no longer suffice when the fire has once gained the upper hand.''

Like those who lived around the Mediterranean 2,000 years ago, we in this still-lovely valley will forfeit control over our destiny if we allow the powerful system nibbling at our periphery to work its will untrammeled now.

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