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Sustainability: a good without light

Sustainability: a good without light

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    Curtis white paper and toderian Curtis white paper and toderian Document Transcript

    • Sustainability: A Good Without Light Curtis White I have a disclaimer to make before I begin my comments for you. I am not an ecologist. I have no expertise in urban planning or making cities sustainable. I am a generalist and a humanist. In fact, I am the worst sort of generalist, a novelist. Which means that what you should expect from me is not edifying scientific analysis, but a good story. Actually, telling stories is not something that should seem strange or unfamiliar to environmentalists. Beyond our dependence on scientific studies and analyses, we are always telling stories that have to do with the “why” of environmental devastation. Why is this happening? What does it say about human nature? Or America? Whether we know it or not, such questions are an invitation to metaphysics. Metaphysics is that branch of philosophy, at one time the queen of philosophical pursuits, concerned with what is beyond the merely phenomenal. If a forest is clear cut, this is something more than a single rather stupid incident. It is part of a general practice that is social, political, and economic. And behind that practice is what ancient philosophy called a logos: a construction of both spirit and mind. And so we ask, “What logos is it that produces such a thing as
    • clear cutting?” We environmentalists are surprised and maybe a little embarrassed to learn that when we try to answer this question we are indulging in metaphysical speculation. Nonetheless, we often do try to answer this question. The forms this speculation has taken will be familiar to you. There is biological speculation: humans are destructive by nature. There is Christian speculation: humans are greedy, i.e. sinful. There is sociological speculation: humans are locked within social structures and are unaware of what they do. And there is the most common, and most metaphysical, political speculation: environmental destruction is the consequence of two hundred years of the “political economy” of capitalism. The story I am in the process of telling has elements of all of these metaphysical tales. It comes under the rubric of the Barbaric Heart. In my thinking, all of the above metaphysical explanations are either informed by or are a response to the Barbaric Heart. The natural mode of reasoning for the Barbaric Heart is simple enough to describe. It was the logic not only of the ancient northern hordes, clothed in animal skins, but of the Empire and the Western civilization that followed as well. For the Romans, virtue simply meant success, usually military success. Valor. That was the heart of Romanitas. This was their barbaric assumption: our prosperity
    • is dependent on violence. Or, as the great Roman hero Cincinnatus said, in some perplexity, since he just wanted to work his farm, “We are somehow fated to enjoy the favor of the gods in larger measure when warring than when at peace.” That was Roman virtu. Which is a way of saying that the Barbaric itself is a form of virtue, especially if you think that winning, surviving, triumphing, and accumulating great wealth are virtues (as, in order, athletes, Darwinians, military commanders, and Donald Trump do). But virtues are not things that God has described for us. Virtues are specific to cultures and rarely are they exclusive. They are always challenged by contrary organizations of virtue. Barbaric virtues have been challenged by competing ethical organizations like the Stoic virtues of honour, integrity, simplicity, loyalty, and moderation, or the Christian virtues of selflessness, compassion, reverence, humility, faith, and hope. There have been other articulations of virtue as well. Humanism and the Enlightenment advocated the virtues of fraternity and equality before the law, challenging the barbarity of royal despotism. Romanticism created “intimations” of the virtue of a transcendental relation to Nature, challenging the early brutality of unfettered European industrialism. The environmental movement has used all of these strategies at one time or another.
    • The virtues that have attempted to confront the Barbaric Heart are the virtues of one form or another of what I’ll call for lack of a better term the Thoughtful. And the Thoughtful is concerned with articulating a sense of the whole. In his “Second Philippic” against Marc Antony, Cicero chastised him for surrounding the Senate with his armed men. “Why do your henchmen listen with their hands on their swords?” he accused. For Cicero, Antony represented the City of Force, while the Senate represented the City of Reason. Cicero’s interest was in “the brotherhood of the entire human race.” (Cicero, 22) To see that what is most important is a “whole,” a brotherhood or a “natural league,” requires an ability to think beyond the immediate. In whatever form, the Thoughtful attempts to arrest the Barbaric in its activities and say, “Wouldn’t it be better to think about being human in this way?” Or, for environmentalists, “Wouldn’t it be better to think about our relation to the natural world not as an opportunity for exploitation and profit but as life-giving interdependence?” The Barbaric Heart is perfectly capable of seeing the attraction of the ideals that Thoughtfulness offers. Unfortunately, it has very little to offer on its own beyond the self-evidently immoral argument that if it is allowed to continue its violent ways (as if it were asking), the benefits of that violence will eventually
    • “trickle down” to you. Its options for contending with alternative articulations of virtue are few. First, obviously, it can simply kill, imprison or banish their advocates. Roman emperors persecuted not only Christians but Greek philosophers, the Stoics. In CE89, the Emperor Domitian banished philosophers from Rome. Second, it can adopt a strategy of delay, as we see in the work of corporate lobbyists, rightwing media pundits, and the dishonest products of corporate-sponsored think-tanks. For the purposes of self-defense, it will don the garb of its enemies, claim thoughtfulness for itself, and insist that its actions are in the name of freedom, democracy, Christianity, etc. Thus the profitable work of Fox News, Charles Krauthammer, Thomas Sowell, the Weekly Standard, and the venerable National Review. It’s a rather shameless ploy, but when you consider that it’s employed by people whose first instinct is violence, it’s a major strategic advance. But the third and shrewdest strategy of the Barbaric Heart is to reason in this way, “I will always have the option of violence because that after all is what I am. My efforts at denying the arguments of the Thoughtful through my own claims to being thoughtful will go on, of course, so long as there are well-educated hypocrites to do the work. But it seems to me that if I must have an enemy, the best thing I could do would be to invent that enemy
    • myself and in my own image.” This, as you can see, is some very sophisticated barbarity. How have we seen this strategy at work within mainstream environmentalism? I believe its primary vehicle is the notion of sustainability. Sustainable agriculture. Sustainable cities. Sustainable development. Sustainable economies. Sustainability seems for most of us as close as we can come to wisdom. Henceforth, we’re told, it’s going to be a green collar world. As a recent television advertisement tells us: Where is a perfect world of clean water and air, no land fills, and 100% recycling? A Suburu plant in Indiana! Never mind that it’s producing low mileage SUVs like the Outback. Through advertisements of this kind, the Barbaric Heart assures us that it has had a change of heart, and it can now be trusted to play nice. In truth, the point of sustainability is the idea that the economic, political and social systems that have together produced our current global environmental calamity do not need to be replaced. The point of sustainability most often seems to be to preserve—not overthrow—the very system of Barbaric virtues that has created this great threat to the natural world in the first place. In fact, what sustainability means, deprived of its mint-green cloak, is “stay the course,” in George W. Bush’s diction. But I want to be quite uncompromising in saying that the
    • logic of sustainability is also a sort of thoughtlessness. It participates in the yearnings and willfulness of the Barbaric Heart in spite of itself. The logic of sustainability, as a sort of program of carefully calibrated amendment (“Sure! We can make coal clean and still maintain our Lifestyle.”) is not an answer to our problem but a surrender to it. It is, as Simone Weil put it, a “good without light.” Thoughtlessness isn’t no-thought; it’s thought that maintains realities that real thought would prohibit. What is most menacing about the logic of sustainability is evident to anyone who wishes to look into its language. It will “operationalize” sustainability. It will create metrics and indices. It will create “life-cycle assessments.” It will create a sustainability index. It will institute a “global reporting initiative.” It will imagine something called “industrial ecology” and not laugh. Most famously, it will measure carbon footprints. What the so-called sustainability movement has accomplished is the creation of “metrics,” ways of measuring. It may not have had much impact on the natural world, but it has guaranteed that, for the moment, thinking will not be about spiritual and social renewal (another Great Awakening) but will be restricted to “technical interpretation.” In short, to this point sustainability’s signal
    • accomplishment has been to bring calipers to the head of a songbird. But what is most thoughtless about the logic of sustainability, especially as it has emerged through the Kyoto and Bali international agreements and protocols, is the assumption that it should allow for continued “economic growth” and “development.” In short, sustainability assumes that the reasoning of economics—of economics as a form of scientific reason—must continue to provide the most telling analyses of and prescriptions for any future model for the relationship between human beings and the natural world. But what if the thinking of economics is merely another vestment for the Barbaric Heart? The idea that economics will aid us in thinking through the problem of the destruction of the natural world, will aid us in managing the earth’s “carrying capacity,” commits us to the assumption that our world ought to be governed and guided by technicians. It is part of the thinking that says, “If only the politicians would listen to what we scientists have to say! The scientists will save us if only we’d listen to them, respect their authority, follow their instructions.” Or, as the website Ecogeek puts it, “We’re in a bit of an eco-mess, but we’ve got the brains to lick any problem.” In short, for the Ecogeek technical innovation
    • will save the planet. They can maintain this while gloriously ignoring the fact that the world we presently inhabit was conceived by science, designed by engineers, and implemented by technicians. It starts with the rapidly beating heart of the four- stroke engine inside your automobile, and then radiates out in what is laughably called urban planning (the strip mall, the commuters, the traffic jams, the capitulation to our own machines), and then what is disturbingly called transportation (the sterility of the interstate highway, the fantastic waste and increasingly fascistic experience of jet travel), and then the global energy infrastructure, burning off methane waste, spilling its toxic cargo on land and shore, and destroying the people who have been cursed with “oil wealth.” And of course looming over all of this, guaranteeing it, is the grim visage of the warrior, the global oil police known as the military. What I want to suggest, not to put too fine a point on it, is that the act of trusting to these experts is to place faith not in the subtle capacities of the engineer, but to indulge in the primitive longing of the barbarian in his moment of despair. After a period of truly grand slaughter and plunder, the barbarian discovers with an audible “uh-oh” that the legions have regrouped, they’re moving forward in an orderly and powerful way and it’s going to be murder and mayhem in the barbarian camp for a while. The
    • barbarian has been shown that his willfulness and violence has become the equivalent of self-defeat. That is his inescapable reality even if it’s one he is constitutionally incapable of understanding. The waters are lapping at the shores of Manhattan Island. What science should be saying now is not “why were we not listened to, respected, followed,” but “we have wittingly taken common cause with the barbarians and participated in the making of this world, and it is clear now that this making was also our collective unmaking.” And yet like the barbarian in his moment of anguish, who thinks that the only possible response to his situation is to be even more violent next time, our technocracy thinks that what will cure technological disaster is more and smarter technology. In the end, the great difficulty that we environmentalists have with those forces of destruction that we see around us is not with their sinfulness or greed, not with their stupidity, and not with their part in an international capitalist conspiracy. The truly daunting task before us has to do with their sense of their own virtue. With, in short, their happiness. I’ll repeat, the greatest difficulty faced by the environmental movement is the happiness of those social forces that are at the source of most environmental problems. These communities, if one can call them that, believe that they are prosperous because they are virtuous, and they are happy because
    • they are prosperous. Very many people are happy with the American business model, they are happy with their cars, and they are happy with the array of cheap consumer goods available to them at the mall, and they are ecstatic with their computers and home entertainment systems. We can explain to them that those consumer goods are connected in a very compelling cause/effect line to China, global energy consumption, pollution, and the reign of genocidal regimes like that in the Sudan, but such an account seems to them truly metaphysical. Our challenge is to provide a metaphysics (or a narrative, if you prefer) that provides a different and compelling way of thinking about who we are and what an alternative form of happiness could look like. That is a mostly terrifying suggestion to people who already think they are happy. People do not easily abandon happiness because someone says they ought to, or that there is a superior form of happiness down the road. For example, the promotion of “localism” is a tough sell because it looks to most people like a return to the social realities of the nineteen thirties. Walking, growing your own food, and in general living more humbly. The problem for environmentalists, people who do follow the causal chain of consumer culture to the Sudan, people who find the idea of local, self-sustaining communities and simpler lives attractive, is how to maintain a commitment to this thing the
    • United States of America. Because, frankly, to many of us it looks increasingly on any number of fronts like the enemy. It would seem to be the fondest residence for the Barbaric Heart since the Roman Empire. There’s an old Italian folk tale, told by Boccaccio among others, that goes something like this: A Jew once told a Christian friend that he wished to convert to Christianity. He sensed that it was the true religion. But before he converted he wanted to visit Rome in order to see first hand how Christians lived. This idea horrified his friend because he knew what sin and hypocrisy he’d see there, so he tried to dissuade him from the journey. Never the less, the Jew went. On his return he said to his Christian friend that he would convert because, truly, Christianity must be the greatest religion. To believe in a religion that endures such debasement of its own ideals takes the very greatest faith. So, our discovery that American culture is the home of the Barbaric Heart should not inspire Anti-Americanism but a truer Americanism. An America whose primary commitment is to the Thoughtful. What I have advocated elsewhere is a renewal of the distinctly American virtues of pragmatism and transcendentalism. I offer these remedies not because of a merely antiquarian fetish with our past, but with the intent of making history work critically, in the interest of life, in the present. Pragmatism and
    • transcendentalism have always been our homegrown responses to the violent world of the Barbaric Heart. Pragmatism offers the renewal of a democratic world in which the offering of reasons is paramount, and the best reasons prevail. Transcendentalism, as developed by Emerson and Thoreau, offers the renewal of a world in which nature is a source of joy, not profit, and the primary way in which we humans discover our relationship to God. But that is a much longer argument for another day. From “Planetizen” The Planning and Development Network Media Density Discussions are Needed for Cities Brent Toderian 16 April 2008 - 11:54am Tagged: * Architecture * Community / Economic Development * Energy * Environment * Government / Politics * History / Preservation
    • * Infrastructure * Land Use * Landscape Architecture * Urban Development / Real Estate Can any North American city have a meaningful public discussion about sustainability, about its "green-ness" or ecological footprint, without having the challenging but necessary public discussion about the city's density? Many are still trying to. Many freely trumpet smart growth and sustainability without the tension and trouble that comes with discussing the "d-word" openly, and thus avoid the necessary heavy-lifting. Few politicians, and embarrassingly not enough city planners, are willing to tackle the density issue publicly, as it is still what Sustainable Urbanism author Douglas Farr calls the "3rd rail" of sustainable city building. There is, however, great commonality in thinking in expert circles that density done well is a critical component to reducing a city's carbon footprint. The vast majority of our city's greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings and transportation, both of which are powerfully determined or influenced by the city's density patterns. But of course, what we've called "density done well" is not easy. What does that mean? How can it be done, with design, amenity, infrastructure, and neighbourhood voice? Here, the public weighs in loudly, and rightly so. And as for the willingness of cities to put the issue front and centre, witness Vancouver. Density has been part of the dialogue for decades,
    • and the public by comparison to most cities, is astute on the issues. But since the launching of the EcoDensity Initiative in June 2006, the density discussion has been front-and-centre like never before. My previous posts have documented some of the steps, controversies and dialogue, which ramped up since November 2007 with two and a half months of consultation on the second draft of the EcoDensity Charter and Initial Actions (54 additional workshops or meetings with public or stakeholder groups to be exact, between Nov 27th and Feb 26th), followed by 7 nights of public delegate presentations to Council on the second drafts from Feb. 26th until early April. The videos of our many hours of presentations and discussions at Council can be found on our EcoDensity website, and its been fascinating to see how they've been poured over, commented on, debated, by bloggers and media alike - the closest thing to reality tv I've been involved with in my career. Many for and against EcoDensity have commented that they have learned a tremendous amount during (and even enjoyed) the many evenings of public presentations and Council questions, much of it about what density done well could and should mean. One of the most interesting results of this year and a half engagement though, has been the surprising number of media articles in our city and region about density and its link to sustainability. As most city planners will attest to, it is usually very difficult to get the media interested in planning matters. Although that is somewhat less true here in Vancouver, we have arguable been in a flurry of media attention with few past equals (although observers who have been here longer than I, may challenge that
    • suggestion). Not every reporter, pundit or letter-writer has agreed, and as one would expect, and there have been pieces both positive and negative to the Initiative. Headlines have ranged from "The Price of EcoDensity" and "EcoDensity Raises Fears of Crowding without Amenities" to "The Argument for Density: Livable, Affordable and Kind to the Climate". A key point in the media back-and-forth came later in the game, when after running many articles and letters with varying perspectives, the Vancouver Sun in March 2008 ran a definitive op/ed from its editorial board endorsing the Initiative, entitled "Vancouver Neighbourhoods needn't fear the Impact of EcoDensity Plans."