Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Biking may not be "elitist" but it is Privileged

A classmate of mine posted this article on facebook responding to charges biking, vegetarianism, and other "progressive" causes in living a more sustainable life as elitist. While I'm sympathetic to the goal there are some problematic aspects to this post.

Choosing to bike in our auto-centric world is certainly a sacrifice. It dictates where you decide you'll live, work, shop, and play. Making and committing to that choice, especially going so far as to not own a motor vehicle at all is admirable. But it is still a choice. And it is the recognition that is a choice that places the choice in a position of privilege. In a country where the built environment worships at the altar of the car, committing to bicycling as your primary mode of transit is largely the province of those who choose to bike for cultural/political reasons and those who bike by necessity.

As mentioned earlier, we live in a society where our built environment is designed for automobile travel. We still have metropolitan areas defined by commercial and industrial districts that are commuted to, primarily by automobile, over relatively long distances from residential areas. Being able to live close enough to your work that you can comfortably bike there is not something that all people have access to. It's awesome that you can bike to work, but what do you say to a worker who lives across town in a cheaper neighborhood because that's the section of the city where he or she can afford to stay? Not everyone can live close enough to their place of employment to make biking a primary mode of commuting transit. The same critique holds for access to grocery stores, community centers, or houses of worship. All of these things exist within space and access to these areas is limited by income. It may not be feasible or desirable to bike to these spaces. Simply because you choose to do so doesn't make you a martyr. It means you have the power to decide. Many people do not. Not recognizing that is indeed an issue of privilege, and yes, in certain respects, elitism.

We should also recognize that there are different cultural and professional expectations that people have to meet and biking may not be amenable to these. For example, many black women in professional or service occupations would go out of their way to NOT bike for hair-care reasons. In many professional and service areas black women are expected to wear their hair straightened or in some cases in braids or other labor-intensive ways. Sweating out your new do by biking in the heat or in the rain is a no-go AND incredibly expensive. The fact that you can go to work in an environment where you aren't particularly judged on your appearance is, again, a position of privilege. We can attack a system that judges women on their appearance and reinforces white beauty standards, but to not recognize them as mitigating factors in travel mode choice is, again, a privileged position.

Succinctly, biking may not be elitist, but to not explicitly recognize it as a choice that incurs social and economic cost just as you lambast driving as a choice, places you in a position of privilege. People may counter that the saved income people have from not owning a car will mitigate those costs. To a certain extent this is true, but that still does not address cultural issues and expectations, like the hair issue, or presenting a certain kind of appearance at a house of worship or place of work. We should absolutely work on normalizing bicycling as a primary means of transport, but articles like this that do not recognize that there are legitimate reasons why people choose not to are not only privileged, but they do make certain bicycling advocates elitist.

Some Reflections on the Strengths and Weaknesses of the Environmental Justice Movement

Most of these observations are taken from a short reflection paper I wrote for class on a piece by Pellow and Brulle called Power, Justice, and the Environment: Toward Critical Environmental Justice Studies. It was the first chapter to an edited volume they collected on critiquing certain aspects of the environmental justice movement. I did not read the rest of the volume, so if some of these observations or questions are answered later in the book, I apologize. Regardless, I think some of these questions are interesting and those who ally themselves with environmentalism, sustainability, environmental justice or any similar movement should consider them.

The piece goes over a brief history of the EJ movement and describes how it came up due to weaknesses and prejudices in the traditional environmental movement. I have written before on the explicit connection between our form of American capitalism and environmental degradation. Pellow and Brulle extend this by pointing out how the traditional environmental movement has not been successful in bringing about systemic political-economic change, resulting in continued social and economic inequality that is also reflected in unequal distribution of environmental costs and pollution. The environmental justice sprang from this gap, representing the interests of groups of poor folks and people of color that were the losers not only in the general political-economic system but also had to deal with the negative environmental consequences that those who often headed and participated in traditional environmental organizations (primarily middle class and white). So, we find EJ coming in to explicitly connect environmental concerns with an explicit critique of capitalism processes. That being said, if you haven't notice we're still in the same mixed capitalist economy that's dominated for the past century, so EJ suffers from the same weakness as the traditional environmentalist movement. But I think that EJ is better situated to actually challenge this capitalist model because of its focus on inequality and in organizing to address such inequality.

Unfortunately, the EJ movement suffers from two huge weaknesses that limit its potential to be a widely-adopted form of capitalist challenge. The first is the local nature of many EJ groups and causes. Even though organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council are now allying with EJ organizations and act as forceful advocates on general issues of EJ, the EJ movement is still largely hampered by its parochial/local nature. This is great for the isolated cases that the EJ movement has been famous for fighting, but its inability to better leverage resources to insert its critiques and viewpoints nationally into a variety of organizations is a MAJOR flaw. This is especially problematic in the wake of incidences like the Gulf oil spill and the continued rise of fracking around the country. Now there are some very intense battles involving compensation over loss of livelihoods in the Gulf and there are many challenges to the natural gas industry's dominance over local areas, but a concerted national message that encompasses environmental stewardship and social and economic equality has not crystallized. I fear that it may take an even greater ecological crisis before people really wake up or are receptive to such messages, but I feel that EJ and traditional environmental organizations can do more by more explicit partnering and organizing and beating on this message regarding irresponsible system consumption and unequal distribution of its benefits AND costs.

The second critique lies in the continued racial and social segregation that still defines, to a great extent, the traditional environmental movement and the EJ movement. This segregation developed in the 1970s based on conflicts between traditional environmentalists and EJ activists over prospective national land-use legislation. Margaret Weir gives a great history of the initial splits between these two groups in Robert Fishmans "The American Planning Tradition". I won't delve into the historical splits deeply here but suffice it to say that traditional environmental groups and urban EJ groups were at odds over the legislation and that break cemented the current segregation and differences that still largely exist today. Yes, groups like NRDC have EJ sections and explicitly mention them but we still find parallel tracks for EJ groups and activists and more traditional environmental groups. This racial and social segregation is mirrored even within the EJ movement where Latino, Black, and Native groups have their own separate organizations. Frankly, those of us who are concerned about issues of equity and environmental quality MUST make explicit attempts to integrate organizations and to expand their influence to larger scales. In addition, these groups must reach out to poor and middle class white America. This means partnering with traditional environmental organizations and going into areas where poor whites are traditionally enemies of the american left and yet still suffer from social and environmental inequity, like the industrial midwest and south. We've seen groups in appalachia battle mountaintop mining and fighting coal companies influence, so it's not like poor white are unwilling to battle for their own rights and their environments. But other EJ groups must reach out to these groups. We have to go about forming a grand coalition that is multihued and made up of people of different educational backgrounds and classes.

Simply, we cannot hope to institute systemic change if we cannot convince ALL affected people that they share a common background and state. So, as you go out and prepare to do what you do to organize or advocate for varied interests, look for opportunities to reach to those "other" folk. And if you're uncomfortable with that or haven't even consider it, then look at your own privilege and prejudice and get over yourself. We all in this.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Pernicious Argument of "Energy Independence"

Bloomberg News has an interesting article touting America's recovered "energy independence". The reason that America is approaching independence from foreign controlled fossil fuel? It's not greater energy efficiency in our vehicles or homes. It's not more responsible land uses that better balance housing and job locations and limit the necessity of driving. It's not the implementation of a carbon tax, or even the inferior cap and trade, that has pushed towards not being dependent on fossil fuels. No, the thing that will save us is cheap natural gas released from shale formations!! In other words, we're producing our own fossil fuels now. So, we have no reason to attack Iran or worry about Russia. In addition, domestic production of natural gas has the potential to help fuel (see what I did there?) an economic boom. Job growth estimations and overall potential economic impacts vary depending on who you cite, but it is undeniable that the price of natural gas has dropped precipitously thanks to the introduction of natural gas produced from shale. This has resulted in exports of natural gas increasing and limiting our own imports of the stuff, thus the touted "independence" that Bloomberg celebrates.

So, what's the problem? Climate change. The connection between greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide and methane, and climate change is well documented and accepted science. As an urban planner this worries me immensely. You don't have to be studying sustainability science to be worried about issues of sea level rise in coastal areas. This is especially true on the east coast from where I hail where you have many major cities that are on the coasts or lie in low-lying areas and floodplains. There are other grave issues that accompany climate change from increased risk of major storms like hurricanes, exacerbated drought conditions (look at Texas), or worse heat waves that sweep cities and could potentially harm vulnerable populations like senior citizens and children. These are issues that planners are intimately aware of and we are put in the unique position of trying to mitigate these issues, even in the face of popular opposition. Without getting into the deep well of the relationship of planners to the public and existing political institutions, I just wanted to point out that these issues are deep and planners are trying to address some systemic factors that contribute to our use of fossil fuels.

Before my more environmentally active colleagues attack me, I am aware that there ARE many problematic issues of shale gas exploitation, ranging from issues of water pollution (mentioned the Bloomberg article but never explored in depth), to questions of mineral rights, and land development. The process challenges a lot of conventions in the social, environmental, economic, and political spheres. None of which are adequately explored in this piece by Bloomberg.

And this is what makes this energy independence framing pernicious. It's put in a positive framing because we don't have to worry about being dependent upon foreign oil, it has the potential to fund thousands and jobs, and take us to a newer energy future. This is an INCREDIBLY powerful narrative. It's also largely indifferent to the issues I've brought up, and I've barely scratched the surface about what's problematic about the lionizing of natural gas exploitation. That being said, environmentally and socially conscious folk and policymakers (and this is not isolated on the traditional left, in many states there are legitimate issues regarding land ownership rights where opponents to fracking fall largely on a more conservative property rights spectrum) need to prepare strategies that attack this framing and recognize its strengths and adjust accordingly.

Attacking fracking as a dirty industry that pollutes water and befouls the land has been successful in some municipalities but we see in states like Pennsylvania that are pre-empting local municipalities from deciding whether or not they want fracking in their areas. So anti-fracking strategists need to be able to work and organize not only the county level but go to the state level and they need to be able to provide legitimate alternative visions. It's incredibly difficult for a state that suffers from a lack of tax revenue and high unemployment to not take advantage of a multi-billion dollar growth industry. We have to formulate arguments that say that there is a better way to develop without resorting to an environmentally destructive practice that encourages us to continue our dependence on fossil fuels.

Some approaches: attack the positive economic impact argument by fully integrating social and environmental costs into analysis and we need to talk more about the benefits of alternative strategies, like energy efficiency. Energy efficiency and weatherization can act not only as a series of strategies for saving energy but as drivers of economic development. We have millions of units of housing in this country that are relatively energy inefficient and the potential economic impact of ramping up weatherization and energy efficiency programs is great. Many cities are doing this on a small scale but partnering with banks, credit unions, workforce development groups, and government could allow us to leverage potentially billions of dollars into this growth field. In addition, we need to ramp up efforts to push for alternative and renewable energy sources (including nuclear, in my opinion) and tie investment in those industries to other forms of innovations and jobs. We lost our monopoly on the production of solar panels and wind turbines to China. Investing heavily in solar, wind, tidal, and nuclear energy offers potential positive impacts not only environmentally, but you can see positive results in the manufacturing and construction sectors, two HUGE drivers of economic strength in this country. This takes the energy independence message and flips it on its head. It says that we can be energy independent AND we can benefit economically without having to depend on this fracking and the continued exploitation of fossil fuels.

None of what I'm writing about here is new but as this electoral season continues to heat up interest groups need to be formulating their strategies NOW in order to head off potential messages. And believe you me, this is going to be a DOMINANT message in the upcoming elections. If we cannot cogently address the multiple arguments presented, then we can continue to watch out country go down a path of increased fossil fuel dependence. But at least it will be our own fuel.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Baratunde on "How To Be Black" and making it in America

I just had to share this link to Fresh Air's podcast with Baratunde Thurston. He's a director for the Onion, a co-creator of Jack and Jill Politics, and he just released a sometimes satirical memoir/advice book on how to be black.

I'm not gonna say much on it, you should listen to it. But what did touch me was hearing about his growing up in DC and the work his mom put in to educate him and keep him out of trouble. His mom started out as a domestic worker, educated herself, and, ultimately, became an early computer programer for the office of the comptroller. I was born in DC and raised in PG county and went to high school in DC. I have close friends and family in DC, it's home for me. But hearing how his mom could work her way up into a federal position and advance from there struck me. I know so many people with stories like that. In this country of increasing deindustrialization and decline where opportunities for the working class and poor are constantly shrinking, the public sector is one of the few places where a person can not only have fairly secure, decent paying work, but also have the ability to advance, to earn benefits, and to get a pension. In other words, government work is an entry way into the middle class.

I think this is something that is either ignored or is simply not known by a lot of "conservatives" that crow about public employees. The federal government literally saved Baratunde's life. Not through food stamps, but through employment. This wasn't charity, but an opportunity his mom took advantage of and she ran with it. Isn't that what America should be about?

Why "sustainability" articles annoy the hell out of me...

If you don't already know I'm a planner by training. I have masters in city and regional planning from UNC-Chapel Hill (GO HEELS). I specialized in economic development but I have a good cross training in workforce development, some land-use development, and housing issues. I came to PSU to study up on sustainability in planning, and I've become increasing interested in the field of urban ecology and its intersections with planning.

That being said, while I certainly can't claim to be an expert in the incredibly vast field of sustainability science, I've read more on sustainability, ecosystem services, and planning than 95% of people out here and probably as much if not more than a lot of folk who blog or write about it. Additionally, I've started to explore the field of political ecology, a relatively recent field that actively explores the relationships between our ecology and political-economic systems. So, in other words, I know a little bit about "sustainability".

It's an idea that is incredibly vast and contested and articles like this annoy the hell out of someone like me for multiple reasons. The first and foremost is the political question. The VAST majority of "sustainability" articles do not directly question or challenge the dominant politics or political economic system (read:capitalism) directly. If you're not willing to at least openly question our current political economic system, then you're either lazy, dumb, or disingenuous. This article calls for a city that "positively enhances" the surrounding ecosystem services that the city absorbs. Ignoring the fact that our understanding of restoration ecology is limited and that there is existing evidence that many restoration activities, at least for wetlands, aren't all that effective, we still ignore the MASSIVE political-economic shifts necessary to shift a city (and not just a city but state and national governments also) to change the entire way that development decisions are made. This would require us to fundamentally change how we price land by taking the ecosystem services (like, fresh water and air, fiber, and carbon sequestration) and adding the value of those services to the price of land. That would require an entirely different viewpoint on what land is. 

Our current concept of land is based on this capitalist idea that land is something to be actively consumed and, more specifically, that we consume it for the purpose of doing something with it. Land, itself, has little intrinsic value. Land is valued by how valuable we think that particular space will  be. So, if we see a grassland or forest, we don't see an area that gives us fresh air, water, flood protection, and that moderates heat and wind, what we see is an industrial forest, or a housing development, or prime agricultural land. And for the US, that's how it's always been. In order to even talk about creating a "regenerative" city, we need to talk about how we view and consume land. That's a DEEP issue that speaks to our very conception of what it means to be American and how we grow. Not explicitly recognizing this means that you're giving only 25% of the answer. We know different ways to make our physical cities more efficient and less ecologically destructive. The technology is largely here. So, why don't we do it? Because it takes political will and an entire restructuring of our economy! We have to create a country where ecological concerns, at minimum, are weighted equally with economic concerns. Honestly, if we're talking purely from an ecological standpoint, ecological concerns should out weigh the economic, but let's just gun for a true equal footing. As soon as we get there, we can start talking. But we will NEVER get there if commentators don't bring it up and challenge the political economic system responsible for our current ecological crises.

My second major critique is that these articles often miss another large variable, people. They miss people, in general, and they also miss poor people and minority communities. It's especially stark in the article I've cited as the "regenerative" city is entirely geared towards enhancing ecosystem services. Notice the author does not mention anything about a local economy or how people will live in such a city. It's even more dramatic when you take into account that the author holds this concept of the city against other models of the city that at least pretend to worry about whether people will have work and a way to live. This critique is not new. We've seen it play out in the traditional environmentalist vs environmental justice movements. This concept of the city sees people as the problem as opposed to the reason why cities exist. The city, in this regenerative model, serves the surrounding ecosystem, not its inhabitants. I'm not saying we shouldn't care about our ecosystems, we most certainly should. But we also need to recognize that people will consume resources. We have to. Can we consume more responsibly? Most certainly. But we absolutely must consume. Articles like this do nothing to show us a way to do that or to examine what the relationship of people will be with such a city. And finally, what do people actually do? We're talking about a fundamental restructuring of our economy...what does that even look like? These articles NEVER address this absolutely fundamental question or they assume that "green jobs" will replace all of the old, dirty jobs that existed before.

Look, these are huge questions and issues. But those of us who care passionately about our ecosystem and the survival of the human race (yes, it IS that dire) do a disservice to our movement and to our science when we don't honestly pushback on the system and way of life that got us here in the first place. It is absurd to assume that our current model of capitalism can get us out of this mess. I'm not advocating for the downfall of capitalism (at least not yet) but I do think we need a fundamental transformation of capitalism where ecological concerns hold equal if not greater weight than the potential use-value of a piece of land or area of water. Additionally, we need to bring people back into the equation when we speak of developing these new cities. Can we have a regenerative city of 10, 15, or 20 million people? These are serious questions. Why? Because those incredibly large megacities are quickly becoming the norm around the world. If that model won't work, then we need to figure that out yesterday and start figuring out how we change urbanization NOW. To not explicitly include people not only shows an enmity for humanity but also an intellectual sloppiness that should not be excused.

I'm out.


After a nearly three year hiatus I am resetting this blog. I have a new alter-ego, living in a new city, and starting a new stage of of my intellectual growth and adult life.

For those of you who don't know me, I'm the surly urbanist. I'm a grad student at Portland State University in beautiful Portland, OR. I am interested in the field urban ecology, its intersections with urban planning, and issues of urban development in a resource-constrained world. Beyond that, I'm just a nerdy black dude trying to get his PhD. I look forward to the trip.