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Leo Infrastructure

April 3, 2024

I must ask you at the outset to imagine that there has been a revolution in the United States. We can talk later about why that suspension of disbelief is necessary. Suffice it to say for now that those who currently wield decision-making power have to be whisked off the stage before the scenario I want us to consider can be rolled out. I promise to bring them back on shortly. Unharmed.

People yearn to travel, to go on adventures. Young people most insistently, but people of all ages feel the itch from time to time to escape their ordinary routine and explore something unfamiliar. If there was no such yearning, one imagines that human evolution would have followed a different path than the one that has brought us into this particular present. I suspect it had survival value.

The revolutionaries thought it wise to implement policies geared towards the satisfaction of basic human needs (from the perspective of the regime they overthrew, this idea was damn near unthinkable).  They had determined, from a careful study of history, that those kinds of policies prevented all kinds of trouble from erupting down the road. A needs-based approach accorded well with what most people understood to be common sense, which made them easy to conceive and implement non-coercively. Indeed, they found that there wasn’t much need to order anyone around when everyone had ready access to the resources and time necessary to do what they were predisposed, by cultural and biological inheritance, to find pleasurable.

Satisfaction of basic needs would require the building of an appropriate infrastructure. Without a plan of execution, even a mighty ambition cannot impact the course of events. These revolutionaries had also deduced, from an anxious consideration of current events, that such an infrastructure would inevitably implode if it proved indifferent to the needs of the land and its other-than-human inhabitants. We would have to stop fouling our planetary nest and killing off our earthly companions.

The revolutionaries formed a Working Group to consider how best to meet the human need to travel and explore. They focused on a transcontinental system, leaving the business of facilitating local transport to the localities themselves. This group debated, consulted the long-experienced and well-informed, debated some more, broke bread and shared wine together (it is rumored that some singing and dancing may also have occurred), and then debated some more, the negotiations infused this time with the good will generated by acts of communal merry-making. Good will builds trust, and trust enables speedy and fair-minded decision-making.

They adhered throughout to the standard Aldo Leopold had proposed long ago as an ethical rule of thumb: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” These were Leopoldian revolutionaries, or, as they preferred, “Leos” (as it rolled more easily off the tongue).

A consensus was eventually reached on an infrastructure plan. There were to be five transcontinental transportation corridors spaced as evenly as possible north to south, plotted to run through or near major population centers. The three in the middle were to be rail lines for freight and passenger travel. Along with the tracks, rail cars, and construction costs, money was budgeted for the construction of railway stations all along the way, in big cities and small towns. These were envisaged as centers of renewed community life. They were to be designed for beauty and comfort, but also to support a renaissance of locally-owned businesses. When you got off the train you would be greeted with a wealth of restaurants, inns, pubs, markets and shops of all kinds, parks and playgrounds, performance spaces for artists. The restaurants and food markets would be connected to small farms and gardens in the area, nodes in a local and bioregional agricultural network that would grow and prosper along with the localized economy as a whole.

The Leos did not believe in nationalization or expropriation of any kind, so corporate chains and industrial farmers were to be left alone. But they and their products were not to be invited into the new commercial and transportation hubs. Amazon, Walmart, Starbucks, McDonalds – these and all the other global conglomerates had destroyed the very fabric of community life in most places and were not to be allowed to sabotage this effort to mend it. As the commercial energies of revitalizing communities began to flow primarily through local channels, the corporate chains were free to adapt to now prevailing market conditions however they liked. Deprived of government favor and a monopolistic stranglehold on the economy, some would likely wither away altogether, a natural death that prospering locals would have no reason to mourn.

The southernmost corridor was designated for the use of cars, buses, and trucks. The Leos figured that some people, at least in the short run, were going to prefer this means of travel and transport and they aspired, as much as was humanly possible, to serve all the people. They had little appetite for banning things in any case. The “internal combustion corridor,” as they called it, was nonetheless designed to bring about the same revitalization of local commerce and culture. Auto hubs would be designed according to the same specifications as governed the train stations, with the same priority accorded to small business owners and the same connections to local and bioregional food webs. The global energy companies would, of necessity, own the refueling stations, but everything else – cafes and diners, bookstores and honky-tonks, inns and camping grounds, repair shops and fitness centers – were to be locally owned and operated. People who just can’t imagine getting along without a private automobile – or who just like to get out on a highway every now and then and cruise – could do so in a more enjoyable manner than was possible before the revolution. Given the ready availability of train travel in the country’s midsection, it was expected that traffic, hence congestion, would be significantly reduced for internal combustion motorists.

The northernmost corridor was reserved exclusively for non-motorized travel. Walkers, bikers, and horse riders would have their own route for getting from place to place, coast to coast even if they had the mettle for that kind of excursion. Leos called this the “peace and freedom” route, as it allowed travelers to enjoy the quiet and serenity of a landscape free of the noise and danger of high-speed traffic. Community centers along this route would be arrayed to accommodate the slower pace of travel. Leos were particularly excited by the prospect of designing trails and stops along the way for horse traffic. Bike enthusiasts broached creative ideas about what features they might build into such a corridor. Since the pace of traffic differs for each, walkers, bikers, and horseback riders would each have their own trail. And there is the issue of horse droppings, which would have to be collected and distributed to nearby farms. Otherwise, the rest areas along this route would serve the same purpose as the railway stations and auto hubs – to stimulate the rebirth of a local economy centered around small businesses and agricultural homesteads.

The Leos were quite aware that five transcontinental corridors do not make a transportation system. Other roads would be needed to link up localities and regions and there would have to be internal combustion vehicles to travel them. But they hoped that the construction of a nation-wide, (mainly) non-automotive infrastructure would make it easier to do more of this connecting with rail, light rail, and walking/biking/horse-riding trails. As that happened, there would be less need for cars and trucks. Or, to the Leos’ way of thinking, people in this situation would come to realize that an automobile was not a basic human need. It had only become so because the decision-makers atop the old regime had built an infrastructure that required everyone to own a car or two so that money flowed freely into the pockets of those who built, fueled, and insured them.

That infrastructure was well on the way to collapsing, and bringing everything else down with it, when the revolutionaries managed to seize the reins and change course. From that near catastrophe they concluded that they needed to get people out of cars and cars off the road. They needed to make other modes of transportation more affordable and enjoyable than the private automobile. That conviction lay at the heart of the Leo infrastructure plan.

In the years leading up to the revolution, people seeking to head off impending disasters had advocated for the electrification of automotive travel. This campaign was part of a larger vision of “green growth” or “green sustainability.” In the spirit of considering all options, the Leos had appointed a committee to study these ideas. At the meeting held to compose a report, committee members made a list of likely drawbacks – the ecological costs of mining, processing, and transporting all needed materials, the labor conditions imposed on those who did this work, the need to replace batteries after 25 years and dispose of mountains of dead ones, the continuation of high rates of lethal accidents, the harm done to wildlife, and on and on. At a certain point, adding to the list began to feel rather ludicrous and committee members lost their ability to take the exercise seriously (minutes for the meeting noted a “raucous” laughing jag of considerable duration). Plans for powering automobiles with electricity, rather than reducing their number, could not be reconciled with Leopoldian ethics, so that option was summarily dismissed.

The biotic community would fare quite well under the terms of the Leo infrastructure plan.

Emissions would decrease dramatically as cars were removed from the roads and fewer new ones, electric or otherwise, needed to be manufactured. The quality of air, water, and croplands would improve as the residues of fossil fuel combustion were no longer being spewed indiscriminately over the whole landscape. Noise levels would drop. A calming stillness would settle over the land, as the sensory organs of all living things adjusted to a world liberated from the tyranny of a dense highway system.

The non-human members of the community would see their habitats expand, a reversal without precedent in the era of mass production and heedless consumption. The territory traversed by the northernmost, non-motorized route would be more welcoming to the large mammals that, thanks to car-first development and human malevolence, were barely clinging to survival. Fewer animals would be flattened by high-speed vehicles – “road kill” as they were so accurately, if callously, labeled. Rail line designers would plot underpasses and overpasses to align with wildlife corridors. Citizens in routine contact with flourishing wildlife populations and, as participants in local agricultural networks, less dependent upon the likes of Tyson and Cargill, would now find it practical to do what they had long known to be moral – put an end to the barbaric treatment of cows, pigs, and chickens in the industrial food system. The Leos deemed indifference to the cruelties inflicted upon these biotic co-inhabitants to be one of the most disturbing features of the pre-revolutionary era. Humans conditioned to tolerate that cruelty, they believed, found it easier to accept – and perform – the other acts of barbarism endemic to those dark times.

Human beings set loose in the world shaped by Leo infrastructure would find it easy to meet the needs common to their species. Like many mammals, the biped is a social animal, and sociability of every description would be readily available in railroad passenger cars, along the various non-motorized paths, and in the many railway stations, commercial hubs, and rest stops that would proliferate from coast to coast. A good time, however one chose to seek it, would always be near at hand. It would not be such a challenge to stay healthy, as pollution levels decreased and people formerly condemned to sit for hours in an automobile took to bike paths and pedestrian walkways. Young people, it was expected, would leap at the opportunity to work in the stables that sprang up along the peace and freedom corridor and rural areas generally with the subsidization of horseback travel. Caring for these magnificent beasts might do what no amount of parental hectoring could achieve – curb cell phone and social media dependency and the cognitive and emotional impairments that abounded as that dependency took hold.

The Leo infrastructure plan would enable a tangible expansion of freedom. The automobile imposes a particular regimen on daily life and it is inescapably monochrome. The Leo plan creates real options, not just as regards means of transportation but also the different local and regional cultures that would evolve, in who knows how many directions, after cars ceased to dominate the landscape. These differences would be sharp enough that some people might choose to relocate to the part of the country that offers most of what is important to them. Freedom would inhere not in how you choose to spend your money but in how you wish to live.

Prosperity in the small-scale economies envisaged by the plan would nourish a rich diversity, as residents put their own stamp on their localities. And this prosperity, unlike the kind generated by a growth-driven global economy, would not require the plundering of the planet. Indeed, the Leo plan, by altering transportation habits and localizing economic activity, would put society on an ecological trajectory leading consciously away from, rather than hurtling blindly towards, wholesale collapse.

How would such an ambitious infrastructure plan be funded? That question was a tough one indeed for anyone who set priorities in accordance with pre-revolutionary notions of resource allocation. For the Leos it was a simple matter. They took every item on the federal budget and grouped it into one of two categories – “does satisfy a basic human need” and “does not satisfy a basic human need.” A full discussion of that list would be out of place here, but suffice it so say that money diverted from just two items in the “does not satisfy” column – 1) military expenditures for offensive, rather than defensive, weapons systems and imperial outposts, and 2) subsidies to fossil fuel companies, agribusiness, and financial institutions – would be enough to build and maintain every component of the infrastructure plan well into the future with plenty left over. Rail cars are cheaper to build than long-range bombers and nuclear submarines. A network of bike and horse trails costs next to nothing when compared to an ICBM system. The brevity of the “does satisfy” column suggested to the Leos that, once the infrastructure was in place, many of the functions of government could be performed at the neighborhood and community level. As democracy became more local it would become more direct, more participatory. The real thing, in short. Taxes were to be reapportioned to facilitate that transition and rates overall would plummet as tasks once performed by sprawling bureaucracies were allotted to local assemblies.

The time has now arrived to solicit some feedback. Please respond candidly to the following questions.

  1. Would you like to live in the world the Leo infrastructure plan would call into being?

Given the tangible benefits – ease of sociability, the revitalization of local economies and cultures, improved physical and mental health, greater diversity of lifestyle choices, smaller ecological footprint, restoration of inter-species understanding and affection, a serious reduction in the power of big banks, big corporations, and big governments to mold everything to their purposes  – I would wager that most people would answer “yes.”

  1. Can you imagine anything like this ever coming to pass?

The answer to this one, I trust you will agree, must be a resounding “no.” The Leo infrastructure plan, this kind of a world, reads like a utopian fantasy. It is difficult to imagine how, in practical terms, we could get from where we are now to a society that adheres to the Leopoldian standard of ethical behavior and sound policy. In a world that only trusts information wrung from cold calculation, that chasm can only be crossed on the wings of wild imaginings.

That is where these conversations typically end. “Ah well,” we say, “such is life.” And of course, “it is what it is.” With these truisms we resign ourselves to accepting whatever comes with chins held high and a rueful smile on our lips.

To push this conversation in a more productive direction, I will add one more item to the questionnaire. Please consider a third question, one that might wipe that smile off our faces. A question that, once answered, reveals the mechanics of good-natured submissiveness.

Before I ask it, we must do what I promised in the opening paragraph – bring the decision-makers back up on stage. The corporate CEOs, the bank presidents and Wall Street dons, the high government officials – visualize them all packed together, all facing forward, each one wearing a suit, a tie, a flag lapel pin, and an aura of insufferable self-importance. These are the guys who are overheating the planet, fouling the water and the air, depleting the soil, coating land and sea with chemicals and plastics, condemning to death any species that cannot be appended to the machinery of money-making, bombing into oblivion anyone who might hinder their plans for total domination, supplying the weapons of war to other regimes eager to do the same, turning us all into either victims of, or accessories to, the monstrous crimes they commit unimpeded by the laws they have written.

Behold the deciders! They are a loathsome bunch, painful to look at all clumped together in one place. But I must ask you to keep them in your mind’s eye as you consider this last question:

  1. How does an idea like the Leo infrastructure plan, which makes so many kinds of good practical sense, come to appear hopelessly utopian?

Well, yeah. It’s these guys, right? There are no scientific or technological barriers to be surmounted. We are not talking water into wine, shape shifting, or time traveling here. All the skills and materials we need to bring such a future into being are readily available. Coming together to build such a world would be as enjoyable and rewarding a task as homo sapiens have ever seen fit to undertake. Such an idea only appears utopian because the characters up on that stage, by virtue of the authority we cede to them as compliant citizens and loyal employees, set the limits on what we imagine to be possible. It is perhaps their most indispensable instrument of social control. As long as they possess it, we will get an infrastructure – and a world – that meets their standards of realism. Much of the nastiness on display in the halls of power and at the grassroots flows from the fact that horrifying acts of cruelty and violence are rapidly becoming, by those standards, practical necessities.

Ursula Le Guin spent much of a long writing career exploring realms where ordinary constraints had been abolished on what was considered possible. She was forever building alternative universes to inhabit. Doing so allowed her to develop ideas about love and freedom, solidarity and justice, that found little footing in the world she awoke to each morning. Her commitment to these ideas put a sharp edge on her political opinions, which she sometimes shared with the public. On one such occasion, she offered this bit of wisdom:

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries — the realists of a larger reality.

She offers here no moon-struck fantasy about what can never be but a hard-nosed proposal for what we can do when we refuse to bend to the realism of the Overlords. The “larger reality” it invokes is not a dream world but a real one, inhabited at present by poets, visionaries – anybody who has managed to shake off the fears and obsessions that drive us to obedient conformity.

The biotic community is as real as a thing can be. But like any larger reality, it takes work to make it visible. That work is crucial if we are to “remember freedom” and, thus fortified, reimagine it in a form appropriate to a time of social and ecological unraveling. Only as visionaries will we get a realistic chance of narrowing the gap between the world we got and a world we would be happy to live in.

… for a vision of social transformation that is realistic in just this way, please visit


Brian Lloyd

Brian, recently retired, worked for three decades in the Department of History at the University of California, Riverside. He specialized in twentieth-century U.S. intellectual and cultural history. He writes now as an advocate for localization, which he sees as the most promising strategy for defusing the many crises we face and reconnecting to the things that make life pleasurable. His essays and a "localist manifesto" are available at Read more.