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Telosa – artist’s conception

It’s been a chaotic year and a half, with disease ravaging the world and many political leaders in the U.S. taking advantage of the crisis to score points against their opponents instead of taking the obvious necessary steps to restore public health. Many people will look back on this time in history, I fear, with shame and regret.

Which is why it’s comforting, in a weird way, to read about a billionaire and former Wal-Mart executive named Mark Lore (pronounced, apparently, Lor – EE) who has announced plans for a mega-scale utopian community to be built somewhere in the American West, with a target population of five million inhabitants by 2050.

The underlying idea behind Telosa, as this new city is to be called, is not exactly new, and indeed we see it at work in community land trusts around the country even now. The social critic Henry George formulated its basic principles in 1879: the community owns the land, but grants a license to individuals and companies for the use of that land. It’s a sort of modified half-capitalist, half-socialist idea, and of course the devil is in the details of such an arrangement.

The most immediate curiosity about Mr. Lore’s plan is the idea that this city of the future will be located in the American Southwest, which is already starved for water and could hardly be imagined to take on another five million people. Appalachia is also mentioned as a possible site, which would make a lot more sense ecologically.

Also nothing particularly new is the prospect of a successful businessperson deciding that he or she has a great new idea for reorganizing society, and using the power of wealth to test out this idea. One of the most interesting communities of the late 19th and early 20th century was Leclaire, Illinois, founded by plumbing industrialist N. O. Nelson in what is now Edwardsville.

Leclaire started out as a planned “workers’ paradise,” where employees of the N. O. Nelson Manufacturing Company would have all their needs met in a comfortable environment that would, in theory, make them happy, productive, and committed workers. Things didn’t quite turn out that way, as usually happens when someone else takes on the task of deciding what’s best for you. The workers had their own ideas about what their needs were, and eventually discord came to paradise.

The park at the site of Leclaire, Illinois.

It’s tempting to scoff at the idea of a model city being created by someone who is a former executive at a company that is, let’s face it, not anyone’s idea of a worker’s paradise. But that’s the thing about ideas for social improvement: they just keep coming up, again and again, and sometimes from the most unexpected places.