Most Americans don't know it, but there's a world's fair this year, the first of the new millennium. It opened in late March in Aichi Prefecture, near Nagoya, Japan, just ahead of the 35th anniversary of Earth Day, which is Friday, April 22. The theme is "Nature's Wisdom," and the expo site is intended to be a kind of high-tech Ecotopia showcasing hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles, "intelligent multimode transit" featuring driverless low-emission buses, recyclable biomass plastics, and cutting-edge robots. It's not the first fair with a green theme (Expo '74 in Spokane had that honor), but the focus is timely in this age of global warming and rapid industrialization.
One invitee to the fair—though he doesn't know it yet—will be Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. In late September, near the fair's end, Expo '05 will host a conference of mayors and civic leaders from cities that previously have hosted world's fairs. The topic will be the legacies such events can leave their cities, ranging from the Eiffel Tower in Paris to Seattle Center, our lasting civic amenity, which has been the envy of fair planners since 1962. (That and the fact that our Century 21 Exposition was one of the last fairs to turn a profit.) Consider the example of our Canadian sister, Vancouver, which reduced much of its Expo '86 site to rubble and sold off the land to developers.
The confab is also timely given that Seattle Center is being managed in a way that might revise the appraisals of those who have heaped praise on our legacy. Our civic jewel is troubled. It is slowly being privatized, downsized, and stiffed by deadbeat tenants and is about to have its historic Alweg monorail torn down and premier open space bisected by a new monorail line—if it ever gets built. It's quaint that we once regarded Disneyfication as a threat to Seattle Center, when actually a worse threat is its being nibbled to death by civic ducks. Maybe a trip to Aichi would stiffen Nickels' resolve to stave off the opportunists and keep the Center for posterity. With Nickels strolling toward re-election virtually unopposed, it seems like a September junket could fit into the schedule.
The organizer of the conference in Aichi is the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE), the Paris-based group that organizes and sanctions world's fairs. They'll be the ones issuing an invite to Nickels. Nearly 100 nations are members. Not surprisingly in the George W. Bush era, the U.S. is no longer one of them. At a time when world's fairs are actually becoming a global phenomenon, especially in the developing world (Korea in 1993; the next biggie in Shanghai in 2010), the U.S. is now a reluctant participant in these "grand intercultural symphonies," as Expo '05 calls itself.
After giving the BIE the United Nations treatment and failing to pay dues for a number of years (about $25,000 per year—the cost of a country club membership), the U.S. dropped out of the organization entirely in 2001, meaning that we cannot host a fair nor participate in the process of deciding who will get the next one. In terms of international trade and cultural exchange, it's like dropping out of the Olympics. Of course, given the way we've treated the United Nations, maybe the BIE is getting off easy. After hosting fairs in two centuries (the first in New York in 1853), the U.S. has apparently had enough. Few in America noticed our withdrawal, however, and even fewer cared. (The last fair we hosted was the colossal flop in New Orleans in 1984.) But the world took our withdrawal as yet another example of American unilateralism. (Consider also the Kyoto accords on climate change, trashed treaties, occupied Iraq, and the boos of Vatican mourners when Bush's image flashed on the screen at Pope John Paul II's funeral.)
America's lack of interest in fairs is a bit puzzling, because they are one of the oldest modern tools for promoting free trade and globalization. In fact, in a speech at the opening of the very first world's fair—the Great Exposition in London in 1851—Prince Albert outlined a Victorian economic vision that would be completely recognized and supported by today's free traders and the neocons. Prince Albert saw a world increasingly bound together by a global economy with the British Empire at the center of the worldwide web. It's not far different from how Bush and company see America's position today. World's fairs are festivals celebrating the Panglossian imperialism that is so much in vogue in our "freedom and free markets" rhetoric.
Among the baffled is the secretary general of the BIE, Vicente Gonzalez Loscertales, a former history professor from Seville, Spain. At a recent world's fair academic symposium in San Francisco organized by Cal State Fresno, Loscertales wondered aloud why the U.S. had abandoned its role at this moment. He has failed to receive an adequate answer from anyone in government—only vague explanations that there is no political constituency for expos in the U.S. Democrats tend to think money for pavilions and such is better spent elsewhere; Republicans tend to want to cut any spending that resembles foreign aid; and corporate America, which often supplied sponsorship cash, has gone transnational. Global brands can be harmed if they are perceived as too American.
But as world's fairs have evolved, their ideological underpinnings have changed. Expos have begun to question the idea of progress at any cost, and the U.S. seems ill at ease. Fairs such as the one in 2000 in Hanover, Germany, have showcased themes like doing more with less, an attitude at odds with the old-fashioned apple-pie faith that bigger is always better. Also, the kind of globalization represented by recent world's fairs suggests a more cooperative, more sensitive approach to the planet than our leadership is comfortable with. These utopias don't embody the "you're either with us or against us" dictums of the post-9/11 Bush-Cheney era. Nature's wisdom? Screw it, we'll drill in ANWR, you evil foreign bastards!
It also might be that we have less to offer. Not only is our particular nation-state an example of globe-chomping excess, but some countries are much more advanced in green building, eco-innovation, and sustainable development. As I noted in a column about Expo '00 (see "Observations From the New Millennium's First Gee-Whiz Fair," July 19, 2000), the French were showing off an electric car that could go more than 100 kilometers per hour—built in 1899. As Seattle struggles with the new monorail's Green Line, there are many who note that the monorail's planned technology isn't state of the art now (why not maglev?), let alone when the system is finished. Could it be that we have more to learn from the rest of the world than we have to teach it?
Acknowledging that could be a cruel blow to a nation that likes to either tell the rest of the world what to do, or to stuff it. In recent years, the U.S. pavilions at world's fairs have been utterly embarrassing token gestures. In Seville in 1992, we offered up a used geodesic dome, an old film from General Motors, and a mock-up of Kansas City! At Hanover, we were a complete no-show. Even tiny countries often manage to present 3-D holographic films, state of the art IMAX presentations, and sophisticated interactive, multimedia cultural programs.
The U.S. does have a corporate-funded pavilion at Expo '05, funded in part by Toyota, whose corporate home is Aichi. It celebrates the ingenuity of Benjamin Franklin, the first American of international repute. The exhibit features an actor playing the part of old Ben—apparently we couldn't even rise to the level of 1964 technology to offer a robot like the one Disney made of Abe Lincoln for the New York World's Fair. At least one visitor to the U.S pavilion in Japan has said it seems stuck in a 1970s or 1980s technological time warp compared with other pavilions.
Franklin is a great American icon. In addition to embodying American inventiveness and entrepreneurship, he stands as an enlightened example of the power of curiosity. Unfortunately, that also stands in stark contrast with America's attitude toward the world in general, as exemplified by our leader, Incurious George Bush.
But the pavilion apparently leaves no question who is in charge. I have it on good authority that the VIP room at the U.S. pavilion is done up like a Texas ranch. The world's powerful must pay homage to Crawford. That Hee-Haw symbolism won't be lost on anyone. And Ben must be rolling in his grave.