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Tech Billionaires’ Fantasy Cities Are Environmentally Catastrophic Tax Havens

Despite Marc Lore’s ambitions for Telosa, water wars seem more likely than flying cars in our dystopian near future.

Courtesy of BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group and Bucharest Studio
An architectural rendering of Telosa, billionaire Marc Lore’s planned desert city

Earlier this week, Marc Lore, the 50-year-old billionaire who most recently worked as a high-level executive at Walmart and also founded, granted USA Today an interview about the $400 billion, five million–person city he’s planning to build in the American West. The story was remarkably straight-faced, full of all the self-aggrandizing details you tend to get when a tech entrepreneur decides it’s his destiny to wrestle society under control. The city’s name, Telosa, comes from the ancient Greek word for “higher purpose,” Lore said, and he’s coined the word equitism, a clunky combination of equality and capitalism, to describe its ideology. Equitism is also what he’s named the preposterous tower at the heart of his city, shown in expensive renderings being circled by solar-powered flying cars. In a promotional video released recently, Lore surveyed an arid landscape and spoke of a “global standard of living” that will expand “human potential.” He emphasized the importance of disrupters; building a sovereign territory based on your own principles being the ultimate life hack for escaping the various injustices visited on the billionaire class.

Lore’s utopia, like a number of similar and mostly aborted tech-industry plans, feels reminiscent of the way a child might invent a city where there are no bedtimes. As a detailed profile of the project published in Bloomberg Businessweek last month made clear, for all the slide decks about “core values” and “sustainable urban design,” the principle motivation behind Telosa appears to be that Lore is extremely annoyed about being taxed. In the city Lore says he will build, land will be owned by a private trust on which citizens are free to build and sell their own homes. Taxes will be paid mostly for infrastructural improvements to the city, proposals Lore suggested citizens should vote on. (This rather ordinary idea, that citizens of a city vote to approve spending on public works, is put in raw market-speak as projects having to “fight one another” to be realized in full.)

As the value of the land increases, Lore says, the effects will be similar to wealth-sharing at a startup in which employees are paid partially in stock. “If you went into the desert where the land was worth nothing, or very little, and you created a foundation that owned the land, and people moved there and tax dollars built infrastructure and we built one of the greatest cities in the world, the foundation could be worth a trillion dollars,” he told Joshua Brustein, who reported the Bloomberg piece. Plus, everyone would know where their taxes are going, he said, contrasting Telosa with cities not designed by Lore and his 50-odd staff, which, his logic implies, are burdening their citizens with obscure tariffs they can’t control.

The imposition of startup culture on every aspect of a Telosa citizen’s life is accompanied by an infinite scroll of technologies that will allegedly undergird this tax sanctuary in the desert: photovoltaic roofs, elevated water storage, aeroponic farms, regenerative ecological services, “climate-positive energy innovations,” and, obviously, self-driving cars. Among the first companies to officially partner with Telosa is one that deals in “all-electric aerial ride-sharing,” advertising itself as a way for people who live in congested cities to commute by air.

Lore told USA Today he was fascinated by the idea of “something growing from nothing,” a reference to building an oasis from scratch that’s still quite the statement from a man who started his career as an investment banker and currently resides in a $43.8 million penthouse featuring a life-size bronze statue of Benjamin Franklin on one of its decks. Naturally, his plans, no matter how unlikely they are to be realized, have become symbols onto which commentators project their own gripes. “Marc Lore’s woke city will screen settlers for diversity,” wrote the New York Post. Meanwhile, the industry publication Smart Cities Dive, bless it, interviewed a sustainability expert about Lore’s plans. “It’s a pretty big challenge as far as sustainability,” she said. “Desert is hot. Water is scarce.”

In the years since the Seasteaders turned their Libertarian fantasies to space travel and tech companies formally enshrined their desire to generate cities using the algorithmic certainty of search results, a surprising number of tech-monied men have decided to purchase land in areas already suffering from infrastructural issues they couldn’t hope to resolve. Though Bill Gates has remained wisely quiet about the “smart city” he’s building in southwestern Arizona, he bought almost 25,000 acres in 2017, where his people have said he’s hoping to place a data center and launch a distribution model connected by self-driving cars. Earlier this year, in Nevada, a bitcoin entrepreneur named Jeffrey Berns petitioned to found a 67,000-acre self-governed territory named Painted Rock where city services would be run on blockchain, a concept he told the BBC was simply “very cool.” In few of these scenarios, for all the bluster about a sustainable future and more equitable societies, have the transformative governments’ founders mentioned that the regions they are planning on settling are drastically over-developed and projected to run out of water in as soon as 50 years—an omission that either confirms these cities are just expensive architectural renders or betrays a widespread certainty that the water crisis won’t apply to certain people.

Though he didn’t mention it in interviews about his utopia, months before he petitioned the state government to allow him to build it, Berns bought 7,000 acre-feet of water in two separate groundwater basins far from where he planned to build his town. The water that would have flowed through his poorly conceived autonomous zone would have been siphoned from a rural area 100 miles to the south. The project was scrapped in April, not long after Berns was the subject of a sexual harassment suit. It remains unclear what happened to all that water he bought.

In 2018, the futurist Douglass Rushkoff was offered an exorbitant rate to speak at what he believed was a panel but was in fact a small conference of investment bankers. It turned out they didn’t want Rushkoff’s ideas about the future so much as his opinions on which countries would be less impacted by climate change and—in a horrific turn—how they would “maintain authority” over their security forces “after the event.” The years since have surfaced significant reporting on the tech wealth attempting to insulate itself from the coming disaster, prepping using money earned via an industry that has itself hastened political instability and ecological decline. The superrich have stockpiles of water, private jets, and bunkers in New Zealand. There’s surely something dystopian about five million people existing in a garden city built by the guy who founded, all of them living and working in a desert oasis and voting by app. But the more likely dark future is that these founders will use their talent for pivoting quickly when the problems their cities aim to address get particularly bad. At the very least, it’s obvious these glorious visions, offered for public consumption with inspiring tag lines, are very different from their private contingency plans.