Minimalists in History: Lewis Mumford

lewis mumford

“A day spent without the sight or sound of beauty, the contemplation of mystery, or the search of truth or perfection is a poverty-stricken day; and a succession of such days is fatal to human life.”
– Lewis Mumford

Lewis Mumford was an American historian, sociologist, philosopher of technology, and literary critic. Though he criticized cities and suburbs, Mumford believed we don’t need to move to the country to live simply. Rather, we need a holistic approach to living in community.

He joined with like-minded people to form the Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA) in the 1920s. This group advocated a series of planned communities to combine the best features of the city and the country, as well as of the farm and the factory.

“Restore human legs as a means of travel. Pedestrians rely on food for fuel and need no special parking facilities.”
– Lewis Mumford

The towns were to be limited in size, both geographically and in terms of population, and largely self-sufficient. Greenbelts of forest and farms would surround the towns, and small scale local industry would be interspersed among them.

The towns would include common green areas, open courtyards, bike and pedestrian paths, cul-de-sacs and playgrounds.

Unfortunately, building of a planned community the RPAA helped develop in Radburn, New Jersey, was interrupted by the Depression. Radburn eventually turned into a typical commuter suburb.

“While any new technical device may increase the range of human freedom, it does so only if the human beneficiaries are at liberty to accept it, to modify it, or to reject it….”
– Lewis Mumford

Mumford criticized the trend toward constant, unrestricted expansion, production, and replacement. He believed these goals work against human satisfaction.

In The City in History, which won the 1962 U.S. National Book Award for Nonfiction, Mumford argues for a world in which technology achieves a balance with nature.

He compares modern cities to early cities of the dead (cemeteries) and soundly criticizes the suburbs:

In the mass movement into suburban areas a new kind of community was produced, which caricatured both the historic city and the archetypal suburban refuge: a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances, on uniform roads, in a treeless communal waste, inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless pre-fabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mold, manufactured in the central metropolis.

Thus the ultimate effect of the suburban escape in our time is, ironically, a low-grade uniform environment from which escape is impossible.

In The Pentagon of Power: The Myth of the Machine, he wrote:

Western society has accepted as unquestionable a technological imperative that is quite as arbitrary as the most primitive taboo: not merely the duty to foster invention and constantly to create technological novelties, but equally the duty to surrender to these novelties unconditionally, just because they are offered, without respect to their human consequences.

One may without exaggeration now speak of technological compulsiveness: a condition under which society meekly submits to every new technological demand and utilizes without question every new product, whether it is an actual improvement or not, since under this dispensation the fact that the proffered product is the result of a new scientific discovery or a new technological process or offers new opportunities for investment, constitutes the sole proof required of its value.

Doesn’t sound like we’ve improved in the 44 years since this book was published. If anything, we’ve become more addicted to buying the latest “and greatest” technology without concern for whether we need it.

5 thoughts on “Minimalists in History: Lewis Mumford

  1. I find it amazing how your minimalists in history saw what was coming and spoke out for simpler values. We are seeing some areas build those intentional communities now with communal spaces and less emphasis on the car. Unfortunately they are far out numbered by the typical suburban subdivision.

    • Thanks, Joy. The towns he was planning had roads for cars, of course, but the idea was to make it possible for people to safely walk and bike. Not an option where we live now – glad we’ll be moving somewhere we can do that again.

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