Welcome to Telosa, a $400bn “city of the future,” according to its founder, the billionaire Marc Lore. The city doesn’t exist yet, nor is it clear which state will house the experiment, but the architects of the proposed 150,000-acre project are scouting the American south-west. They’re already predicting the first residents can move in by 2030.
Telosa will eventually house 5 million people, according to its website, and benefit from a halo of utopian promises: avant-garde architecture, drought resistance, minimal environmental impact, communal resources. This hypothetical metropolis promises to take some of the most cutting-edge ideas about sustainability and urban design and make them reality.
The plan combines ideas about urban farming (the “beacon” tower of the project will house aeroponic farms) and quality of life (a city where everyone can live and work and play within a 15-minute commute) alongside new green technologies and a model of land ownership proposed, but never executed, by the nineteenth-century economist Henry George. These are ideas that have remained in the abstract or only attempted on a small scale; now they will have a whole American metropolis to experiment with, brought to life by the creative ambitions of one very rich man.
Telosa certainly is a city of the future, but not in, like, a great way. Yes, it probably will have a very shiny public transportation system, but it seems futuristic more in the sense that, as the world deteriorates, the ultra-rich seem increasingly interested in telling the rest of us how to live. No longer content to just sneer down at us from their private jets, they take over our homes, our towns, our society. Clearly Lore has gone to the Aspen Ideas festival at least once, and at some point maybe, I don’t know, a curator he hired to fill his shelves with aesthetically pleasing old books accidentally included some economic theory (if only he had found Charles Fourier before he got to the George!), and now he has notions.
As anyone who has an adult relative who rules over their basement miniature train set with an iron fist, or who has spent any time on social media listening to 22-year-old leftists talk about what life will be like after “the revolution”, knows, a lot of people have ideas about the way cities, countries, and societies should work. We are usually protected from seeing those ideas realized, and dealing with the consequences of their megalomania, simply by preventing any one person from building enough wealth or power. But I have something to tell you about the tax policy of the last couple decades and the way a small number of people have benefited, and you’re not going to like it …
Now that individual men and women possess more wealth than entire countries, they find themselves trying to circumvent politics and make their mark on the Earth in a much more literal way. What if I built something that looked more or less like a penis, and made everybody look at it? Such thoughts continually plague billionaires such as Amazon’s spacecase Jeff Bezos and now tower-builder Marc Lore.
Look, I get their hesitancy. Pay taxes? To this government? The same government that decided to nation-destroy and nation-build and nation-destroy Afghanistan for almost 20 years instead of feeding and educating American children? The same government that subsidizes factory farming, despite its deleterious effects on our environment and our health and the wellbeing of animals? The same government who heard the pain and outrage about the misuse of power by police across America and answered, “How about more police, is that what you want, even more police?”
Watching all this, it almost makes sense that someone with the means and the desire to “help” might want to take a more direct route. And the ideas of this fake little town are grand! Green architecture, environmental technology, “transparent governance”, innovative urban planning ideas – if this works, it could advance our thinking on how humans can exist in a changing world and live harmonious lives during the coming environmental and economic calamities.
But it won’t work. It won’t work because one guy doesn’t get to decide how the world, or even a city, should work. Even if he’s collaborating with the greatest “thinkers” and architects and scientists of our time, just a glance through Lore’s portfolio will reveal that all of his big ideas and fancy language about the betterment and advancement of society are pretty hollow.
This is a guy who built his fortune in part through Walmart, a labor-busting company that pays its own workers so little that they often have to rely on government-funded welfare programs despite being employed full-time.
Lore made another chunk of his fortune by selling a venture to Amazon, a company so odious in its treatment of workers that even the Wall Street Journal has turned up its nose. Both of these companies have been instrumental in funneling money and joy from the lower classes and handing it over to a select few who can think lofty thoughts about, “What would make society better?”
What would make society better? Is it skyscrapers in the desert? Or would it actually benefit the world more if billionaires had less influence over the way society operates?
Telosa’s name, as has been mentioned often in its promotional materials, comes from Aristotle’s use of the word “telos” to mean “highest purpose”. Perhaps a better name could have been derived from Hybris, the Greek goddess of insolence and reckless pride. But it’s best not to wait for some divine act to mete out judgment for our little Icarus here. We the people are in a much better position to bring about his fall. Send in the taxman.
Jessa Crispin is a Guardian US columnist