Wednesday, February 1, 2012

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.


Sarah said...

I brought up a few of these points yesterday in my economics of sustainability class -- Dave just looked at me as if I was confused-- and said something to the effect that we want the land to be "cheap" and not represent its true value.... implying that this is a "win" for the conservationist... Now I am confused.

xtna said...

hi jamaal! it's been a long time since ncs/sta xc and the last time we talked, i'm sure, but i just ran across your blog via facebook and have really enjoyed the three posts i've read so far (bike privilege, energy "independence", and this one) -- i'm totally fired up. these are some of the same issues i'm worried about, too. i assume that in all your reading on sustainability, you've read "natural capitalism" by hunter lovins, amory lovins, and paul hawken? i was hoping the occupy movement would turn up some discussion of this, but most conversations i've had have been about destroying capitalism, instead of taking it away from politics. anyway, i'll keep checking in for more thought-provoking posts! take care!

Karen said...

Hello Surly Urbanist, and thank you for introducing me to your blog. I'm a sustainability specialist, primarily working with "under-served" minority neighborhoods in Pittsburgh (you may know my twitter handle as @KVAbrams and I also have @unblight, which is my blog dedicated to looking at how to deal with blight in urban communities). I am struck by you assertion, your true assertion, that sustainability tends to leave people out of the discourse, but sustainability is about people. It is about the human race, and most importantly the most vulnerable among us. I appreciate your insight and look forward to reading more of what you have to say.