Making sustainability awesome

Ananda Lee Tan referred me to current critique of environmental discourse: Bill McKibben sounding the Rational-Protestant alarm of Doom & Gloom, and three rebuttals to his argument–not refutations of threat of climate change, but of the finger-wagging rhetoric of McKibben which is so unlikely to motivate the broad spectrum of Americans into adjusting our lives in ways that improve our overall sustainability.

Living awesomely

I will get to some critique of my own in a moment, but this blog post is only going to be worth reading if you get to the fun stuff first. What if “changing our lifestyles to improve sustainability” meant changing our lifestyles to AWESOME? You live in a dense city because there is so much cool stuff to do, and so many friends you may meet on the street. Dense–not 4 units to the acre like Northeastern suburbs, nor 15 units to the acre like California suburbs–no–90 units to the acre, like Florence or Barcelona. Or maybe 180 units to the acre, like Venice Italy. Do you travel thousands of miles and spend thousands of dollars to see these cities? Why settle for that experience only during vacations? We’re Americans! We can have that, too! We can live that urban life all year long!

Too young to drive? Too old to drive? But you want to meet your friends or see your grandchildren? You don’t have to live as a prisoner in your isolated home! You can take walks in your dense urban home, meet longtime friends and occasional acquaintances. You might also meet the occasional scary stranger–but not alone, on an isolated suburban street. No, in your awesome city, there are lots of people around, lots of eyes on the street. Look at the per-capita rate of violent crimes in New York City compared to rural North Carolina if you want a reality-check. The awesomeness of this dense city IS reality.

Do you believe in supporting strong family life? Like taking walks with your spouse, checking in and not being distracted by driving; like walks and bike rides with your children, to school, to the (nearby) grocery store, to their sports or arts events. What happens when you use your own muscle-power to move around your city every day? Lower blood-pressure; retention of bone-density; general fitness built into an awesome way of life. We are Americans! We have re-created our lives many times, breaking from stifling pasts and haunting histories to create this New World, with our eyes open.

Do you believe in justice? Two weeks ago I saw the bruise-purple cloud of toxic smoke from a Chevron oil refinery fire drift over Richmond and San Pablo, California. I did not hear alarms. The next day one of my students who lives in Richmond confirmed that he first heard the “shelter-in-place” notification about 4 hours after the fire broke out. This area–West Contra-Costa County–is known among us planners as ‘The Cancer Belt.’ House prices and rents in this area are remarkably low; we all know the danger. But if you are a poorer family and you want to live within range of good jobs and future opportunities for your children, you live under the shadow of industrial threat. This same story repeats itself in cities across the world: in Kabul, the poor lived under the acrid black smoke of the brickworks, where tires are burned as the fuel. So: protecting our environment means protecting living things, protecting Creation; and that includes the poor and vulnerable among us. It means always pushing for justice, for fairness. As Americans, we have made astounding progress improving air and water quality, food purity, and product safety. We know we all have the right to breathe the free air, and breathe it freely. This is our quest, this is our vision as a people, as a Republic whose very existence is an unprecedented experiment.

The case for (scientifically-informed) public rhetoric

What I have written above is backed by the hard facts and hard thinking of thousands of people. You may notice that it is not directly about environmental sustainability; I will get to the details of that in the following section. But more important than the details (which you probably know) is that I have tried to write this as a politically persuasive vision–as rhetoric, as political talking points that you are welcome to use. And I have not addressed this vision to “the choir” of people who are already committed to sustainability and social justice. George Lakoff pointed out that rational argumentation falls flat as political rhetoric. Perhaps an unfortunate consequence of the Enlightenment Era was that rhetoric gained a bad reputation; perhaps we conflated ‘persuasive argumentation’ with disingenuous salesmanship, with distortion of the facts. Supposedly, the facts themselves make the most persuasive and authentic argument. No. Flat-out, no. In 1984 I took “Climatic Change” from Orman Granger in the Department of Geography at U.C. Berkeley. 28 years ago, and he had been teaching this course about both natural and human-induced climate change for years by the time I took it in 1984.

Are we objectively certain that human consumption-patterns are causing destructive climate change? No: we will never have that kind of certainty. But do we know that our consumptive lifestyles are causing damage? Yes. There is a world of difference between absolute certainty and actionable knowledge. The world, in this case, is the earth: ours to keep or lose.

WE KNEW–if you were ever curious–scientists have known for decades about the upcoming consequences of human-induced climate change. No, it wouldn’t get warmer everywhere–we knew this too–but more energy in the system would mean more energetic storms. Maybe like the massive gust that hit the East Coast this summer (2012)? Or the unprecedented tornadoes that hit Alabama last year? I don’t think that composite tornadoes of that scale and frequency have ever been recorded before. Or hurricanes in 2005? We couldn’t forecast the details with certainty; we still can’t. But in the larger sense, we knew this would happen. Most importantly, climate scientists could not make a convincing political case for deep changes to American patterns of consumption that might prevent or mitigate widespread suffering. Scientific data and analysis DOES NOT argue its own case; and politicians may have deeply-vested interests in discrediting scientific enquiry.

Politicians use a widespread mischaracterization of science to score rhetorical points. Supposedly “science” means ‘objective knowledge’ which is either absolutely certain or totally invalid. Scientists are lousy at countering this attack because competent researchers are thoroughly committed to the ethic of uncertainty. Einstein tried to explain this (1923,_Norway) by pointing out persistent problems with the Theory of Special Relativity. But maybe Heisenberg expressed it best in 1927 with his Uncertainty Principle. The few scientific discoveries that make a political impact are the ones that humans resist, because we want certainty. In the 16th and 17th centuries, European natural philosophers resisted the Heliocentric model of the solar system because the new model meant that the earth itself was in motion. Humans would have to abandon the idea of terra firma, the idea of the earth as a ‘natural’ constant and stable point of reference. Evolution continues to be resisted because it directly challenges our stable self-conception. Rather than ‘human nature’ as a constant that dates back to Eden and the creation of the world, we need to ask when core human behavioral traits emerged, and how. Even as recently as the mid-1960s, American geologists resisted the theory of continental drift because it “just didn’t make sense that continents could move.” We deeply desire certainty and continuity. Scientific arguments that upset certainties and constants cause serious political trouble. And if the data is messy, complex, and uncertain, humans (not just politicians) express our hidden lust for constancy by ridiculing and dismissing the data and the researchers.

The science of climate-modeling is the least certain, because it depends upon so many variables. Exact forecasting is infeasible because of the number of inputs to the model. So trying to use ‘rational argumentation’ is a crap strategy. Suppose your great-great-great grandchildren find your gravestone etched with “I was right! The science is correct! Humans are changing the climate in destructive ways!” Will they really appreciate your principled position as they cover their mouths against the dust and scavenge for food and water? Will they think that you cared about them and the future of the earth, or just that you wanted to point out that you are right and others are wrong? Objective certainty is not what we need now. Major change is what we need, and fast.

Changing American lifestyles towards awesomeness will take very aggressive and persistent rhetoric. But I don’t mean aggression directed at others, not condemnation. One of the most aggressive, confrontational, and effective rhetoricians I know of was Mahatma Gandhi. He was not mild nor sweet; but he was willing to be publicly beaten and mocked, when he knew that it would get political results. What I mean by aggressive is to find every truthful way to persuade, even if it means making fun of ourselves. We are NOT trying to save our pride, nor our dignity. We are trying to figure out how to live together with our planet.

The details: Why Awesome Sustainability needs to be Urban

Petermann, Smolker, and Brunner rightly point out that efforts to ‘maintain the status-quo American lifestyle’ would be disastrous. Yes, we use biofuels to power our grossmobiles (Sport Utility Vehicles); but already this has affected world grain prices (most have tripled since 2007, I believe) as American ethanol-users out-bid poor households trying to buy food.

In summary, the overall pattern of American consumption is destructive. And that pattern, quite literally, is the pattern of our cities. We have locked ourselves into a high-consumption pattern where we must use tremendous amounts of energy merely to get to school, to work, and to shop on a daily basis. And those single-family houses surrounded by lawns need a lot of (drinking-grade) water just to keep the crabgrass green. Many environmentalists see this as the Great Nemesis: that Americans will stoutly resist lifestyle-changes. That is a self-defeating conclusion. Americans want safety and wholesome environments for their children; but we make a lethal mistake if we equate that with suburbia. If a child is consigned to the back seat of a car for urban movement, they will become obese; THAT is certain t be unwholesome and harmful to their long-term health.

I would give up hope if I did not think that dense, walkable cities can be far better living environments. But cities ARE awesome! In future blog posts I will write about the mundane, straightforward way of living in cities and raising your family in cities. No extremism here: just practical, feasible, daily things that have other rewards and side-benefits. Do we all have to wear hair-shirts flog ourselves in self-mortification for our sins of over-consumption? No!! That is not living, and it is an utter dead-end as a politically persuasive vision. What is the modern vision? To make life better for yourself and your children. How do we do it now? Yes, I want my fast internet. But in a few years we will be able to power that whole system with photovoltaics. I want my kids to be close enough to their friends that they can walk to each others’ houses. That requires density. I want to be able to walk or bike to most things, and take the train to my job so that I can read and prepare for teaching rather than stress out in traffic. I don’t need to take food from any poor family to provide my own family with a rockin’ lifestyle. We can do this. We will be remembered for millennia either for success or failure in this effort; if there is to be a future for humanity, they are watching our political moment quite intensely.

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