A reader of mine named Aaron emailed me to ask if I’d respond to Alex Steffen’s latest piece at Worldchanging. Aaron writes:

I’d be interested to hear what you have to say about Alex Steffen’s recent post over at worldchanging.com. I think that it is a well considered and well informed post that addresses many of the things that make me uncomfortable in your writing.

I’m really not interested in criticizing your work, or anything of that sort; I believe that the sustainability movement as a whole needs to have a strong and well reasoned message if it is to take root with the public at large. It is essential that we create a dialogue regarding what sustainability really could/should be. I don’t mean for you to have to defend your position, so much as to make an argument for why you have chosen a (separatist? rural? pastoral? a movement away from urbanization) path rather than for some other form of activism or social change.

I should mention that I came to your blog through scienceblogs, and haven’t been a reader for that long, so I don’t really have a good idea of how opposed or not you might be to Alex Steffen’s ideas. I just think that addressing that post should make for some interesting discussion. I hope you don’t think I’m just trying to ruffle your feathers.

It is a good question, and a fair one, and my feathers are not in the least ruffled. I’m not sure I’d describe my work in any of the terms Aaron does – the fact that I personally live in the country and farm does not represent an advocacy that everyone do – in fact, I’ve written a number of pieces over the years making the case for cities and strengthening ties between city and rural areas. I even think there’s a case for some of the much maligned suburbs (note, I agree with Jim Kunstler that the suburbs were an awful design project, but I think some of them are salvageable)

But leaving aside my own characterization of my work vs. Aaron’s, I do think it is fair to say that Alex Steffen and I do not agree in many particulars. I would not identify myself with the “bright green” movement Steffen is hoping to establish for a number of reasons (one of them being that I find the distinction between bright green and dark green to be something of a strawman), and while I see urbanism as having an important environmental future, and many people living in cities, I don’t think Steffen and I would agree on a number of essentials. I do not, for example, imagine everyone living there.

Let me start with what I do like about Steffen’s essay – I think it is extremely well written and rousing, and that most of the ideas that Steffen offers are ones that in other circumstances I could agree with – I think they are excellent principles for a society not pressing hard against a crisis, but less effective in one that is. Of course, they are hard not to agree with – that’s the rousing bit:

I think the way to live in this future is to move forward. Maybe we need less relinquishment and doomerism, and more radical vision and confidence. Maybe we need to start to take responsibility for all of it, and get big enough inside to handle that gracefully. To live in the future we’ve made, we need to make ourselves people of the future, not reflect imperfect idealized understandings of the past.

That said, there’s a lot of teaching to be done in every direction. Because while the frame of much resilience thinking is off, the thinking itself is critical. It would be an enormous service if people who really understand what’s good in the ideas behind permaculture, transition, voluntary simplicity and the like were able to reframe the insights they have to the scale and urban character of future we face.

Smart people can differ on these things, but if I were asked for advice, I’d say: Forget gardening suburban lawns — help us redesign urban foodsheds for millions. Forget cohousing — help us retrofit an entire districts with green buildings, clean energy and green infrastructure. Forget biodiesel — help us plan a whole new regional transportation systems. Forget ecocity ideas about making your neighborhood look like nature — help us densifying our existing cities, changing how they connect to ecosystems so they work like nature. Forget light green frugality, household tips and small steps — help reveal the backstory of the lives we lead and trigger a revolution in sustainable design, post-ownership and genuine prosperity. Forget countercultures. Make the real culture better. Get the new context, embrace the new tools, apply your hard-won insights to the new problems. Add to resilience a rugged urbanism; come help discover how to live in the future we have.

Honestly, who doesn’t agree with the case for optimism, really good systemic design, no one being poor or hungry, improving the mainstream culture? You’d have to be a complete churl to argue against any of this things – this is why it is such a brilliant rhetorical technique. But the question that emerges is whether Steffen’s models can actually provide these things. And for that, we can take a look at history.

Haven’t We Heard These Ideas Somewhere Before?

High density, walkable, sustainable urban design with more public transportation and better infrastructure is not a new idea – it is an awesome idea, if it is achievable – but it isn’t new. In fact this has been the most successful and mainstreamed environmental design idea since I’ve been alive – I’m 37, and around the time of my birth in 1972 it would be entirely feasible to imagine Amory Lovins or Buckminster Fuller or one of a dozen other major public figures in the environmental movement writing precisely this essay, with precisely this diagnosis.

And it wasn’t something that wasn’t taken seriously – indeed, new urbanism and related design models have actually been vastly more successful than almost any other environmental movement – it has had a role in public conversations about design. Indeed, I recently spoke at the Public Forum of the NESEA Conference on Green Building and Design, and this is exactly the sort of thing that has been discussed at NESEA and other places like it for decades. The people doing this work have managed to get New Urbanist style communities built, they’ve had influence on planning committees and in urban policy, and advocates of precisely these policies have managed to get into positions of power. That’s not to say that they’ve had as much influence as everyone would like – witness the fact that the overarching model of development has been contrary – but as environmentalist movements go, this has been an enormously successful and is a comparatively powerful one. It is even bi-partisan in some measure – Rod Dreher’s book _Crunchy Cons_ established that there is a small but significant right concerned with reducing sprawl and creating viable urban communities.

Why is this relevant? Because the emphasis of this article is that we really can’t afford to involve ourselves with trivialities like gardens and personal actions, and it specifically targets folks at movements like Transition and Permaculture and implies that by focusing on these kinds of things, they are preventing the kinds of changes that actually need to happen.

But that’s a misrepresentation – the Transition movement has existed only since the mid-2000s, and the movements Steffen is speaking of are minute compared to the influence of techno-optimist environmentalism that focuses on just the kinds of things that Steffen advocates. For 30 years, there was a virtual unity of thought in support of these ideas among the environmental movement – and 30 years of suburban sprawl being built. To imply that the reason they aren’t being implemented is because a tiny minority of environmentalists are growing gardens and catching rain is ridiculous. In fact, Transition as a movement and related environmentalist movements (speaking personally, I’m not a member of any particular movement and have criticized Transition at times, just as Steffen has) arose in part as a result of the profound failure of just the kind of models that Steffen advocates.

I think this is important to remember – because one of the underlying assumptions of Steffen’s post is that there will be success if we all march shoulder to shoulder in favor of good design and international agreement… and that Transition and permaculture are holding us back, distracting us from the real work. But both movements emerged not because their founders thought “oh, let’s abandon political engagement and national and world level projects and focus on growing gardens” but because they watched the systemic failure of those efforts, and it occurred to them that there were things that could be done that wouldn’t be failures, even if they didn’t operate immediately on a vast scale. At NESEA, one of my fellow panelists, a US Transition Trainer who has worked for decades on climate change legislation observed that she shifted to working with Transition because it became obvious that a large segment of the US population was never going to be motivated by climate change – so she shifted her focus. And much of this shift accounts for the success of things like Transition.

Real Resilience

The fundamental problem of Steffen’s analysis is that it fails to acknowledge that we might fail. He uses the language of resilience – and in some measures, his critique of a narrow vision of resilience is correct. But what is missing from Steffen’s analysis of the idea of resilience is this – a truly resilient model offers benefits both when things go the way you want, and also when things don’t. Otherwise, they aren’t resilient. The basic rule of resilient systems is that they must presume the possibility of systemic failure – because the reality is that those failures are rendered likely by the concatenation of disasters facing us. That’s not doomerism – acknowledging that stuff is going to fall apart isn’t the same as covering your head and screaming we’re all doomed – it is an acknowledgement that climate change and energy depletion have logical consequences and those consequences are that things are going to go wrong sometimes.

Why might systems fail? Well, in this Steffen and I agree entirely – in fact, in his section on “ruggedness” Steffen pays lip service to the ideas of failure:

Another, even bigger problem with this thinking is that it has tended to make us into all-or-nothing thinkers. We have been warning for decades about the need to prevent catastrophe, coloring everything on the other side of catastrophe “unthinkable.”

Welcome to unthinkable. It’s now where we live. Climate catastrophe is now a given: it’s only the degree and flavor of catastrophe that’s still (hopefully) within our control. Our kids are going to spend their entire lives dealing with unfolding ecological crises. They’re going to live their whole lives in a world without untouched nature, with a vast inheritance of trouble, surrounded by systems that are breaking one after another and demand large-scale aggressive interventions.

We’ve spent so much time working to prevent this future, that most of our established leader have spent almost no time thinking about how to live in it. Live in it we must, though: life goes on (assuming we can muster the small flicker of planetary responsibility demanded to not completely bleach the oceans or burn off the biosphere with runaway climate change; I feel confident we will, and if we don’t, that’s not so much an unthinkable future as a terminal one). We live in a world that’s soon to have nine billion people, almost all of them urban or living close by cities, in societies that’re significantly more stressed than they are now, pressing hard against planetary boundaries.

To live in this future, we’ll need a few things. We’ll need a model of urban prosperity that can be accepted as equitable and shared by all. We need tools for sharing innovation and spreading that model quickly to everyone. We need alliances and international agreements that will help soften the blow where its landing the hardest, help refugees, stabilize failed states, prevent wars, stop genocides, preserve global public health systems and essential governance tools (like nuclear non-proliferation agreements) and so on. And we need to be rugged enough to make it through the very hard times that we know are coming.

The problem is that the strategies that Steffen actually proposes – moving almost everyone into dense urban housing, the elimination of the suburbs, mass public transit – are great as long as there’s no deep catastrophe – as long as the unthinkable doesn’t actually involve anything bad happening – and as long as you have the capacity to eliminate economic inequity. They are disastrous, however, if the catastrophes Steffen admits will happen actually happen, and interfere with things like prosperity. For example, Steffen advocates that cities be redesigned so that most private green space is eliminated, arguing that instead of getting urban dwellers to grow gardens, we should be making the cities more dense and walkable.

That might well be a great system in prosperous future where everyone has full access to food, housing and public transportation – but of course, Steffen, other than saying we need to come up with a model of equitable prosperity, offers no such thing. I’m vastly in favor of greater equity, but recognizing that the trajectory we’re on at present and have been on for almost four decades is towards greater and greater inequity, I’d need some suggestions as to how that’s going to happen given the costs of addressing climate change (see previous posts), dealing with the crises and dealing with depletion.

In a society that looks more or less like the one we live in, or even one moderately but not completely more equitable economically speaking, the strategies Steffen advocates are disastrous – we have seen the emergence in the poor world of a new class of hungry. For most of history the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people were rural dwellers without enough land to feed themselves. Now that’s shifting and there’s an emerging and deeply vulnerable class in cities of people who can’t produce food for themselves and cannot buy food. For those people, we can see the absolute urgency of leaving open space for food growing within cities – there is a considerable body of research that demonstrates urban gardening is associated with greater food security and better child nutrition – substantially so according to the UN FAO, which recently affirmed the importance of urban and peri-urban agriculture. Since urban dwellers routinely spend 60-90% of their income on food, this means the difference between adequate and inadequate nutrition and being able to put a little money aside to send children to school.

Steffen’s model, in which we eliminate most agricultural lands to increase urban density works brilliantly once we’ve ended poverty and eliminated inequity, and these are admirable goals. But the history of our attempts to do so is a history failure, and while there is much we can and should do, a strategy that serves the urban poor only after we eliminate social inequity risks starving them beforehand.

The same is true in urban areas in the US – the trajectory we are seeing is of rising hunger. While in all principle, urban densification is a worthy goal, what we are seeing is more and more struggle even in a comparatively affluent nation with low income percentages spent on food to feed people. Moreover, most urban poor areas suffer from a dearth of nutritious produce – and the health consequences of that dearth. Steffen’s proposals are superb if all we have to do is adapt to a climate change that has no economic or social consequences – but since the realities of climate change include heavy economic costs – for example, the incomes of victims of Hurricane Katrina have still not risen back to previous levels – along with all the other difficulties, being able to grow food is a real strategy for the poor to mitigate their suffering. Indeed, we see it being used at every single crisis point in history – the Depression gardens of the US, Russian survival gardens, British war gardens. Steffen’s proposals do the poor the worst possible service if present trajectories continue, or if the climate crises he foresees have any economic consequences whatsoever – and it seems hard to imagine they would not.

The same is true of most of Steffen’s other proposals – his suggestion that we eliminate the suburbs and rebuild dense housing isn’t a terrible one if you could avoid all social inequity and ensure a high and equitable standard of living for everyone, as well as the resources to do such a build out. Some people probably wouldn’t like it, but you might well be able to sell a version of this as the new American dream, so let’s pretend that you can.

But what happens if you don’t eliminate every single social inequity? Well, again, we have historic evidence of what happens when you bulldoze the homes the poor and shift them into dense urban housing – we have historic evidence of what it has done in the US in poor African-American neighborhoods and we have evidence of what it has done in the poor world in the name of “cleaning up” neighborhoods – in China, India, Brazil’s favelas. What tends to happen is greater institutionalization of poverty.

But wait a minute, we’re talking about the suburbs…aren’t they rich? Well, actually, there are now more poor people living in the suburbs than there are in cities, contrary to popular perception.

We could talk about other objections to Steffen’s plans – for example the problem of creating cities that are essentially unevacuable in short periods of time, knowing that we are expecting a vastly greater number of climate related natural disasters. Already the city of New York can’t be evacuated in less than five days to a week – do we want to make most of our major cities functionally unevacuable in the face of a major disaster and risk death rates that number in the millions for those disasters?

Those dense cities are indeed more complex – and more dependent on systems that are functional and successful. An extended blackout in Oneonta, NY is a minor thing. An extended blackout in Manhattan a deeply major one. A garbage strike in suburban Wisconsin is an inconvenience, in Chicago in July a massive health hazard. All that complexity has the consequence of making people more vulnerable to systems failures – so Steffen’s ideas are absolutely right if you can make a legitimate case that systems failures are very, very unlikely in the future. But Steffen not only doesn’t make that case, I’m not convinced he can, given our shared view of what climate change holds in store for us.

Remember, the Personal *is* the Political?

The other place I fundamentally disagree with Steffen is that he uses old saw versions of the distinctions between personal and political acts. I’m not going to fully reiterate my own writings in _Depletion and Abundance_ in which I try and dissect the intellectual problems with the false assumptions behind the categories of “personal” acts, which Steffen deems small and inadequate and the big, vibrant ideas of “design” and “politics” but I will give a general summary of my objections for those who haven’t heard them before, because I think it is relevant.

The two major ones are these – the first is that the categories derive from false and deeply sexist assumptions about gender. Look at the things that are viewed as primarily personal acts, and assumed to be thus insignificant – virtually all of them are associated with women. Growing gardens, eating different foods, deciding what to buy, as Steffen puts it “light green frugality and household tips” – heck, it even sounds feminine. Must be stupid and pointless.

The categories that we regard as “personal” are only regarded that way during times when it is profitable to do so – we can see this during wartime, when what you eat, what you grow, what you buy and how you spend money are of deep importance to the society as a whole, and thus both regulated and the subject of political social influence (ie, see WWII and WWI agitprop posters for examples, or look at rationing). There is no inherent way to distinguish this set of “personal” acts from one that are regarded as of great public import, like, say, voting – functionally, voting is just one thing done by one person that doesn’t matter at all – except, of course, that it is done by millions of people simultaneously. But the same could be true of eating, or not buying things. The assumption that personal acts are irrelevant derives, fundamentally, not from a clear eyed analysis of what actually causes an impact, but because of a fundamental sexism that associates these acts with women and deems them unimportant because of that association.

And the reason we are successful in doing this is that we tend to hold up two unrelated things against one another. Here’s one person (probably a woman, or a poor person) gardening. Here’s many important people designing a sustainable food system. Well yes, the garden does look awfully unimportant there. But if we set these things up in fair comparisons, things don’t look so bad. Here are many people trying to politically overthrow the influence of corporations. Here are many people not purchasing things from corporations, undermining their profits and their ability to purchase influence. (Consider, for a useful historic example, the boycott, spearheaded in large part by women, on tea during the American revolution which in some measure brought about that revolution and nearly sent the all-powerful East India Company into bankruptcy) Here is a newly designed sustainable food system. Here are America’s victory gardens, producing, in 1944, an equal amount of produce to that produced on every single farm in the US. Hmmmm…pointless indeed.

I’m not sure if Steffen is intentionally attempting to trivialize the other side of this analysis or not by playing on the language of sexism and unequal comparisons – he may well believe that these actions don’t matter. But I think it is important to note that Steffen is misrepresenting both the potential impact of social trends that move many people to take “private” actions and have enormous economic and public impacts, and also the likelihood of success for strategies he prefers.

Where’s the New Dream?

And this brings me to the final reason – and perhaps the central one – that I’m not “bright green” as Steffen puts it. It isn’t just the lack of real resilience, the assumptions of success without evidence to back them up, the buying into false and sexist distinctions that bother me – it is that there are no people in Steffen’s vision – quite literally in the pictures he uses to illustrate his piece. There are a number of them, and they are all empty landscapes, populated by houses and trains and castles – but there aren’t any people expressing any desires in them, and I think that perhaps unintentionally, the visuals tell us something about this vision Steffen has.

In this vision, big, important designers with visioning skills come along and transform our landscape for us. They take 50% of the American population living in suburbs, and move them away from their yards and into dense, walkable cities. We don’t hear any protests, because, well, there are no actors, and the merits of good design speak for themselves. We don’t have to worry about social inequity any more – we just have design things so that it never exists again. With optimism, we can create our techno-utopia, just in time to save us all, and we’ll all be really happy about it.

But the truth is that we’ve failed miserably to convince the majority of people to make even very basic shifts in lifestyle – in part, I think because designers and engineers and people who come at this from a primarily technical and analytic background often forget that there are people in this story – messy, complicated people who aren’t always motivated by the same things, who like to have choices, who have different opinions of their own good.

Now Steffen could reply by observing that we have to use the strategies that best enable us to survive, and he’s right. But the fact is that we’ve been failing to do so – failure manifestly is an option. And in order to succeed, we need two things. First, we need to engage people the way people are actually engaged – not by promising them a pre-designed world complete with personal habitrail in a walkable city, but giving them choices, and actually letting them have them. Anything else smacks, I think of the shock doctrine – done for your own good, we’ll give you a better world whether you like it or not ;-).

There’s nothing in her about how Steffen would engage the opposition, how we would change people’s collective dreams and ambitions. There’s nothing in here that allows for choices, for a range of different possible lifestyles – dammit, we’re going to have the best, and everyone is going to have it. Besides the political difficulties inherent in achieving this, though, even if you could, it ends up being an imposed, elite down strategy that is disengaged from the majority of people – because while Steffen suggests that we all participate in these projects, the actual number of people who attend design conferences and design world-scale food systems are pretty small, and tend to be priveleged.

There’s no room here for strategies designed by ordinary people that only fit one community. There’s no room for difference, diversity, divergence. There’s no room for local strategies, local cultures, indigenous models, or anything that isn’t good for everyone. Steffen may be right that we haven’t been successful at changing the world “one person at a time” – at the same time, we haven’t been terribly successful either when we’ve attempted to impose one model on the whole world. One neoliberal economy didn’t work. One green revolution agriculture didn’t work. One cinderblock housing design didn’t work.

I understand the sense that we don’t have time to do things one household at a time – we don’t. We also can’t do things “everyone at once” – we’ve proven that over and over again. So what can we do?

Well, what we can do is what we are doing – develop multi-pronged approaches. What we can do is both advocate for international treaties and help our neighbors give up their cars or carshare. What we can do is grow gardens that serve us if our food system fails us and also advocate for better social safety net programs and greater economic equity. What we can do is attempt to redesign our cities and also attempt to make the people who can’t or won’t be relocated rapidly as crisis proof as possible.

Steffan has fallen into a number of major logical errors here, but the first and deepest is this either/or thinking – the idea that it is impossible for us to act both personally and politically – but in fact, it is impossible for us not to do both – that personal acts are always political, and can be made significant, that political acts are only significant if they deal with political and social and biological realities. We have no time for intellectually weak brangling over which is more important – we must do both, lest and before things fall apart.