Serious Things Day II: Why I'm Not Bright Green

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 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.



More like this

Apart from the logical errors, in my view the biggest problem with Steffen's proposals is a distinct lack of comprehension of how humans behave in groups.

What he wants to see happen- will not happen. That's a pretty big reason not to spend much time discussing it. Most of his ideas on how "we" should "move forward" contain some version of "can't we all just get along?" - which, we should comprehend deeply, is something humans in fact do not do.

As soon as some leader gets up on his horse, and hollers "This way! This way! Forward" - there will be abundant contradiction - often from others also on horses- stating flatly that that is NOT the way forward.

This is such basic human nature- and extremely visible in the current political scrambles all over the world- that to base a direction on the expectation that a majority of people will follow and believe- is really pretty silly.

The disconnect comes between conceiving directions, and applying them.

Reason and logic can be useful and good servants in the conception process. But they are useless in moving large groups of people. There it's a matter of herding, not explaining.

Well, I'll say I'm glad Aaron asked the question, because you provided one hell of a thorough answer, Sharon. Excellent, excellent reply.

{{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.}}

I am definitely a churl then as I have absolutely nothing but disgust for a person who advocates for a post-ownership world. I think owning private property is essential to a free people.

And that is where he fails. He seems to view people as simply being pawns who should be grateful that he is telling them what they to do. Freedom and liberty are of no concern to him.

"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 countercultures. Make the real culture better."

Sorry, but this is risible. Who is this "us" here? He completely ignores the problem of power... if not redesigning food sheds for millions is more profitable for the powers that be, they will not be redesigned.

Besides, the whole idea of designing from the top down... isn't this just another installment of the fantasy worlds of designers of suburban "utopia" of the early 20th century? Livable environments evolve organically.

Somehow his rhetoric really smacks of those brave bold architects from The Fountainhead, and why can't the rest of us just get on board?

Besides, I'm not a brave, bold designer, so why shouldn't it be a good idea for me to get a good garden going until one comes along to sweep me off to my high-rise dream home?

By DerelictHat (not verified) on 13 Apr 2010 #permalink

"And this brings me to the final reason...big, important designers with visioning skills come along and transform our landscape for us...There's no room here for strategies designed by ordinary people that only fit one community... for difference, diversity, divergence. There's no room for local strategies, local cultures, indigenous models, or anything that isn't good for everyone."

This same thought was expressed some time back by Wendell Berry when he wrote: "The inevitable aim of industrial agri-investors is the big universal solution. They want a big product that can be marketed everywhere. [But] the kind of agriculture we're talking about that leads to food security and land conservation is locally adapted agriculture. And they can't do that. Industrial agriculture plants cornfields in Arizona; locally adapted agriculture says, what can we fit in this place that will not destroy it? Or what can nature help us to do here? That's the critical issue."

"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."

*chokes back a very snarky joke*

Seeing as how currently, in economic, social, governmental and public health conditions that are relatively less bad than those we anticipate as a result of climate change and so on, we have NOT managed to get even one of those things let alone the whole laundry list of things the young man believes we will need...

My problem with the new "Green Design" stuff that is popular nowadays, is that by and large it still requires massive amounts of money, new construction or major renovations, and people who like those kinds of Le Corbusier-type aesthetics, all of which are in very short supply--and looks like they will become scarcer than hen's teeth in the future. I'm not even convinced that permanent structures will be a really great idea in the future, given climate instability; it may be more feasible to move around with the seasons, like the semi-nomadic/semi-sedentary Plains Indians tribes did in Medieval times.

I would argue that from a climate change standpoint, if your goal is to ensure that as many humans as possible survive, then population density in existing cities is exactly what you don't want--because most of those big cities are in a floodplain, on a coast, one way or another directly in the path of major storms and disasters. Better to keep people in smaller towns, spread out a bit, with transit lines connecting each town, and each town more self-sufficient. This has the added benefit of feeling homey and familiar to many folks, making that emotional connection to a smaller town/city with neighbors and a corner grocery and whatnot.

Besides which, after a certain number of evacuations, how many people will really want to live in large cities? How many Katrina refugees never went back? If New Orleans started to suffer routine flood damage from seasonal hurricanes, rather than a once-in-a-lifetime event, how could you convince folks to stay--even though the city is currently quite walkable and has public transit?

I especially like your point about city dwellers spending such a large %age of their income on food. I go round and round with my boss on this point, as he insists that my extreme locavore-ism cannot possibly be as economical as his method of eating processed food three meals daily. Yes, a larger percentage of my money goes towards a mortgage, but when the mortgage is paid off (hopefully soon...) I will have a property with a house and barn thereon, and I will still have food to eat. When he is done eating dinner, he will have a bunch of empty wrappers. A major objection I have to Steffen's proposal is that it makes cities into fiefdoms ruled by ADM and Monsanto, organizations which have not, historically, had the interests of anyone other than their stockholders at heart.

Thanks for the post Sharon.
My motivation for asking you to write this is the deep discomfort I have when I hear both âextremesâ of the environmental/sustainability movement criticize each other. While I cannot come up with a good dichotomy to describe this, I will satisfy myself with calling them micro vs. macro perspectives. It is obvious to me that both are needed, but so often I find one portraying the other as a stereotype; the real substance of many arguments are overlooked as nuance, and instead, external or trivial aspects are focused upon.
I think your âremember, the personal *is* politicalâ section is spot on, and covers much of what I didnât like about Steffanâs article. Gardening and living off-grid arenât the red herrings he fears they are. Personal action is not de facto anti-social.
I also agree that the resilience he talks about does assume that nothing too catastrophic will happen. I suppose that makes him an optimist, but I think Iâm going to have to put myself in that camp as well. There is a widely held view that, because people have their heads in the ground, and have had them there for decades, we wonât see a strong and swift response to climate change. I think that is ridiculous. What holds us back right now isnât ignorance per se, it is internal division. When threat becomes (obvious) reality, we will unite, just as we have for other disasters (WWII). Many think that this will happen too late, but disasters wonât happen everywhere at once. It seems far more likely that we will have a few tragic events for rallying cries with enough time to react, than we have catastrophe descend upon the Earth.

My personal opinion is that we need to start gathering momentum for social change, design solutions, and foster resiliency wherever we can, so that we can react in time.
When put like this, everyone agrees.
When someone starts to talk about farms, others deride the naivety of a farmer with food holding off hungry masses, or how quaint but ineffective they are.
Someone else talks about bright green cities, and all the sudden theyâre dictators trying to take our freedom, or naïve progressives blindly leading us into idealistic communes or urban housing projects.
The reality is that farmers can soften the blow of disaster enough so that we can manage, and that we need good design to lead us into a new future. Since this is an audience that knows more about the former, I want to talk about the latter.
Mostly, I want to address the comments, because I was taken aback by the ignorance of some of them. That idea that design can change society isnât a naïve proposition; itâs an established fact. This doesnât mean you can get on your soapbox and people will magically follow you. But to reject that design can lead is ignorant of all the cases where urban planning and public works have had enormous impact. Rather than go into specifics, Iâll just point you to Steffanâs website as a great repository of all sorts of examples of why this can and should work. It is absolute hyperbole to compare his ideas to Ayn Randâs, or her characters. To think that he would do away with private property just because he believes in the commons is crazy. Fiefdoms?!? Seriously? How can you have a serious discussion about urban sustainability when you assume that, oh boy!, they must be in cahoots with Monsanto!
And it is exactly this sort of response to reasonable ideas from other perspectives that, frankly, pisses me off. Even Sharonâs response (which lacks this reactionary sentiment) comes to conclusions about what Steffan thinks or intends that I simply cannot find evidence for, notably the mass relocation to cities. He doesnât want a relocation, he just wants most of the new population growth to be urban, along with any areas that are unsalvageably unsustainable.
The future Steffan seems to want isnât radically different, on a fundamental level, from our present, just as the ideas on this blog arenât a radical departure from modern society. Overall, Iâm encouraged by Sharonâs response, greatly disappointed by the other readers here, and still greatly frustrated that people with the similar goals canât communicate.

You claim that I was being reactionary for stating that he wanted to do away with private property. I could easily be mistaken, but the phrase "post-ownership" sure seems to imply that he envisions a society in which no one owns any private property.


If he had meant "post-ownership" to mean as radical a concept as abolishing private property, don't you think he would have given it a little more discussion? If you read the article, he avoids any ambiguity by having the phrase as a link to another article discussing technologies related to walkability is cities. The phrase, as I understand it, expresses an investment into the commons, namely transportation infrastructure. He uses this term, I think, because he frequently talks about how valuable public spaces are.

It's an odd phrase, to be sure, and made more so by the lack of hypertext in the quotation. However, none of his other ideas even remotely suggest anything so extreme. The scope of his arguments are firmly rooted in urban planning and technology, not fundamental social reform.

I really think more of you should look into ideas like his. He's not simply pulling things out of thin air. His ideas are based on empirical evidence and existing precedent, not pie in the sky idealism or any such nonsense. The man portrayed in these comments is a caricature.

I second Vera's comment:

Livable environments evolve organically.

I also agree that design is powerful. As it is amoral. The connection between public design and state fascism is well documented, and even though I might be willing to believe that the people powerful enough to reshape the public environment in the ways described here will be nice benevolent people, I have not the faith in my fellow man to believe that they will remain so indefinitely, or relinquish power when their job is done.

But much more to the point, in my mind is the value of the experience of growing your own food. I have yet to hear someone speak of large scale solutions to the problems facing us in an overcrowded world, and simultaneously acknowledge the miracle that we call agriculture. A good harvest is not something that can be banked on. There are a thousand things that can go wrong, and the only way we all stay fed is that we are drawing from a huge pool of far flung resources, both energy and soil. Until we can build our society on the humility that comes from the actual experience that nature controls us, not the other way around, we will continue to get ourselves into this kind of fix.

I recommend reading 'Anasazi America' published around 1988. It details the system used by the ancient Puebloan people, which sound very much like some of the ideas put forward by Steffan, and they did it without a standing army.
There are some really good ideas out there. I hope some of them work. I think we should try all the good ideas to see what does work.
There are still way too many of us.

By Eric in Kansas (not verified) on 13 Apr 2010 #permalink

Great post Sharon - maybe one of your best.

There are three simple things I would like to see that I think would go a long way, the first being redirecting our macroeconomic wealth away from the Imperial overstretch that is destroying this country financially and morally, and using that wealth to prepare for the Peak Everything Age we are living in.

This might involve things like putting wealth into research on alternative energy systems and providing bigtime tax breaks and/or rebates for people who buy them. With the money we have spent on Iraq, we could have given every home owner enough money to install solar systems, and...well, I am sure you can imagine plenty of things so I need not go on.

Second, for people to stop eating factory farm meat and eating only meat from local farms that try to utilize sustainable and humane practices. This would also entail, by default, cutting meat consumption way down, to maybe 25% of what it is at present.

The second proposal might just save enough resources to potentially end world hunger and stop incredible levels of environmental pollution. One could also argue that it would improve diet and health and therefore lower health care costs on both personal and social levels.

Third, we should utilize the full potential of hemp, for fuel, fiber and food.

If we could just do that much, along with all the other things you have mentioned and have written about, I think we can go a long way toward lessening the suffering as humanity enters the new reality of Peak Everything.

As for the first looks about as likely as Wall Street reform - another thing that would be nice. As for the second, I think there is a good chance of this movement growing.

Beyond that, I just do not see us as having the sheer wealth available that it would take to do the kind of mega-projects that Steffan advocates.

"I have yet to hear someone speak of large scale solutions to the problems facing us in an overcrowded world, and simultaneously acknowledge the miracle that we call agriculture"

And vice versa.

This is precisely my point.

Also, how is Steffan this all-powerful dictator with standing armies? He's a blogger talking about making more bike paths or networking traffic lights. Most of what he wants to see comes from the private sector. All the public issues are at the community/city level. I chall

There can't be a productive discussion if neither side actually listens to each other!

Okay, I'm taking a deep breath.
Aaron, I was actually agreeing with you in some places.
That certain societies have solved the kinds of problems that we are facing.
The standing army comment was to note that such things are possible with much less force than we often believe is necessary, not to accuse anyone of dictatorship.
Similarly, the remark about public design & fascism was not to accuse Steffan of anything, but to register my deep distrust of grand ideas and their implementation, however benign the intent. I don't really even trust that an evolutionary grass-roots set of solutions will necessarily work out well for everyone, but my gut feels better about that kind of approach.
I also agree wholeheartedly that a lot of energy is being wasted arguing about who is greener or whatever. It is dispiriting. If just a fraction of that energy were put into raising tomatoes, we'd see a lot of tomatoes.
It is my belief that the only effective way to bring lasting positive change is to lead by example. To live within the limits of our own little corner of the biosphere, and to live well. By being (relatively more) free & happy and less oblivious & wasteful. If those kinds of personal changes seem too small, I think Sharon's voting analogy is apt. I don't think it takes very many households making an effort to live within their environmental means to equate to the net gain from making more bike paths or networking traffic lights.
And this is what I find most encouraging about Sharon's project: she is actually doing the work, in the real world of trying to live well. And doing us the favor of telling about it.

By Eric in Kansas (not verified) on 13 Apr 2010 #permalink

We're not just talking about per-capita thermodynamic efficiency here. We're talking about _trust_.

Doomers have lost their faith in the greater system, and at least economically and politically, a lot of other people have as well! To abandon land ownership in favor of a pillbox apartment is to be tantamount to Sandra Bullock getting back together with Jesse James. A pillbox apartment abandons any notion of self-sufficiency and places yourself completely at the mercy of the greater system. This is at a time when the abuses of greed and corruption run rampant. This is why in the comments here people are talking about ADM and Monsanto, because that is our starting point in how the masses are fed. Converting fossil fuels into calories. Factory farmed meat consuming endless soybeans that could otherwise be eaten directly. Huge pivot-irrigated tracts of land contributing to nitrogen blooms. Even if all that, plus GMOs and pesticides don't bother you, UG99 decimating the monoculture wheat crop just might get your attention.

So despite this house of cards, we're supposed to believe that the experts, the central planners, will somehow prop it all up? I certainly wish them luck, considering that much of this mess may actually be a necessary evil to prevent a malthusian die-off, but at the individual level, people in-the-know are going to want to hedge their bets.

Fantastic post, Sharon.

Let's see, what are some other "post-ownership" institutions? Public libraries -- it's nice not to have to buy every book I want to read (good for the Earth not to print so many books, too). Neighborhood tool libraries -- I'd much rather borrow some expensive, rarely-used tool than have to buy one. And I certainly wish that we had enough public "post-ownership" transportation that I didn't need to own a car -- I could certainly find better things to do with my money than spend it on purchasing, maintaining, fueling, and insuring a one-and-a-half-ton personal transportation device that spends most of its time in my garage or on my driveway (two wastes of land and money that I also wouldn't need without a car).

And I think it would be much better for our local electric utility to be "post-ownership" like Seattle's, or Austin's. I get really tired of being cheated and jacked around for the benefit of the present "ownership".

Certain "goods" should be individually owned and others are much better in "post-ownership".

Wow. You have one amazingly sharpe mind. You are 2 big steps ahead of me. Great Post!!!
(Hi Sharon!!)

Aaron, Mike,

Post-ownership may or may not refer to abolishing private ownership.

At the least, Alex Steffan is relying on "the powerful entity in charge" taking complete design and utilization control over design and operation of the "sustainable" solution.

Where Sharon mentions that Steffan's approach doesn't allow for failure - it is a completely all-or-nothing approach - what I see is that Sharon discusses what I can do, without relying on government or landlord or city council "doing the smart thing".

Steffan envisions every locale and community and city doing the "smart" thing for their environment. An interesting approach, entering a period of climate change. Just like mandating home loan lenders make loans to people that can't afford them doesn't make the loan "sustainable", mandating that every community and city develop an appropriate "sustainable" systemic approach - and enforce that "smart" approach community wide - is sheer hubric and wishful thinking. Anyone observing government in action will note how ObamaCare started out as a political war cry, took a few detours into "golly, what would actually help", then was overtaken by the "how can we unionize all of them health care workers?" crowd. Then ObamaCare became a totem of government riding roughshod over national interest, in favor of political stature and special interests.

As for re-directing agribusiness, one of the first hurdles is patent protection for Monsanto's monopolistic control over seed, fertilizer, and other chemicals. Included are the attending regulations and laws that enforce draconian protection of those patents by grain elevators, by food processors, by USDA agents and inspectors, and by law enforcement and the courts. Monsanto has been rewarded in the courts for seeding competing fields with their product, then claiming the mixture of "their" DNA into the "suspect" crop entitles them to collect royalties and prevent using that crop for seed use. Dismantling agribusiness, like "smart" re-urbanization, will require a new system of justice and laws to replace what is embodied today.

Besides, how do you clear today's unsustainable cities, and retrofit or rebuild with new materials - in a sustainable way?

Where Sharon seems to rely on government and consensus and business interests to remain as self-absorbed - or as tyrannical - as they have for ages, Steffan seems to envision combining these interests in building his dream. I can see it happening - Transition Towns, etc. - in a small scale, and for a time (about one election cycle) in larger venues. But I think taking care of myself, working with neighbors - is more likely to continue to the next generation, and they may be in a better position to elect politicians in line with sustainable approaches, and do business in a way that develops markets and approaches in line with sustainability. Who knows? It might not take a whole generation to make a difference.

What I am sure of, though, is that the nation that elected Barack Obama is no where close to considering a national goal based on sustainability instead of petty, narcissistic, self-serving dependence on organized labor and special interests invested in the here and now. YMMV.

Very interesting piece, Sharon! Although I'll admit that I didn't read Alex Steffen's article other than for the excerpts you cited, I think that it betrays some pretty deep logical fallacies, combined with a misunderstanding of historical trends and human tendencies, that are papered over with optimism and clever rhetoric. And given Americans' general preoccupation with boundless optimism and abundance, these techniques (whether planned or haphazard) are quite effective, as evidenced by Aaron's post that compelled you to write the piece.

If I could recommend ONE book for Aaron, Mr. Steffens, and anyone else promoting the techno-optimist course for addressing our myriad problems, it would be The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph A. Tainter. In it, Tainter examines why all complex societies eventually collapse, and he focuses on the examples of Rome, the Maya and Chacoan civilization to try and demonstrate why. It's a dense and scholarly work in which Tainter eventually focuses on economic and demographic trends to explain these occurrences, but I'll summarize.

ALL complex societies eventually collapse, and the roots of their collapse can be found in what propelled them to expansion and complexity in the first place. Initial upgrades in complexity and expansion come at relatively low costs and offer high marginal returns, which encourages societies to do them again. The problem becomes that each subsequent increment of expansion or complexity offers diminishing marginal returns, until at last a civilization reaches the point at which it can experience negative marginal returns. However, the socio-politico-economic practices of that society are effectively "locked in" by this time, because their cultural narrative tells them that success is gained in doing what has been done before. It is the time at which a society approaches and then passes this point when collapse happens.

A good case in point is the collapse of Rome. Many people in the outlying provinces actually welcomed the Germanic barbarians because they could provide the same basic services as the empire at that time (namely protection) at a much reduced cost than the empire could. People simply came to the conclusion that the high costs of complexity provided no added benefit.

Mr. Steffens' proposals seem to be a case in point because they propose MORE complexity (as you rightfully pointed out, Sharon) as the solution to our problems. However, complexity by its nature is not resilient -- it is fragile. If anyone doubts this, consider that modern humans have existed for some 200,000 years yet we have been unable to sustain a single complex society without collapse for much more than 1,000 years. Furthermore, it completely ignores the impact of the narrative of the American experience, seeking to overturn a full four centuries (going back to Jamestown) of expanding territory and resources fueling a hyper-individualist ethos and staving off political conflict. In short, such solutions may feel good and tell us what we wish were true, but they are utterly and completely unworkable in a world in which old paradigms are increasingly being proven as unworkable and unsustainable into the future.

By Christopher Harrison (not verified) on 14 Apr 2010 #permalink

When I was a high school environmentalist (not too much deep thought there --- save the rainforests! save the whales!), someone told me that they only real way to protect the earth was for everyone to live in cities, leaving the open space for nature. The idea made intuitive sense and it took years for me to make it mesh with my own deep urge to live in nature and grow my own food. Was I actually being anti-environmental by wanting to farm? Since then, I've come to a couple of conclusions.

Humans are inevitably a part of nature. If we all crammed into cities, someone would get rich by owning the countryside, probably abusing the land in the process. My dream of the non-city areas turning into parkland is just that --- a pipe dream. The more effective way to protect the earth is to learn a way to live in harmony with nature rather than separating people from nature (and that got me into permaculture.)

In the meantime, I spent a few years working at an environmental activist nonprofit agency, an experience that involved lots of banging our heads against the wall and not really getting much done. We were trying to tell people what to do, and that never works. Since I quit the job to farm and blog more full time, I've discovered that I actually seem to make more of a difference by simply leading the life that I feel is ethical and watching people follow my example. I've been trying to articulate this for a while, and Sharon's explanation of how personal changes can make a difference really resonated with me. Thanks!

I'd encourage people to actually read the Steffen article - I actually agree with Aaron that some of the responses to him here are over the top - I don't think he's a fascist, a Randian or anything like it. I think like me, he's a writer fascinated by this question of what we should do, and has observes, reasonable people can disagree - if I thought he was a cartoon, I wouldn't bother to disagree.

Aaron, I don't agree that the implication of Steffen's post is that all future growth alone will be from cities - I don't think that you can account for his comments about the non-viability of suburbs, while more than half the national population lives in them, and say that he doesn't include major shifts.


One more thought - Aaron, I'm not sure you can argue that Steffen mostly wants to build bike paths and other innocuous things - at least by implication that's what he'd dismiss the Transition folks and other relocalizers for (actually, I think when he did his hit piece on Transition, it was seed swaps ;-)), but bike paths are precisely the kind of small scale things that can be done locally, one city or town at a time.

Either that, or, as I think, there isn't really an empirical vision line between "bright and dark green" - and part of the reason Steffen spends so much time working one up is that he needs it to exist.


I read Steffen's piece a couple days ago, and found it woefully imperialistic. And then I read an interview with him in The Sun magazine. He's at his most ridiculous when he insists cities are the primary answer to all our problems (I agree with Sharon that cities are a source of many of our problems, division of labor foremost among them) and that we have a generation to abandon our country- and suburban-living arrangements for the cities. This plea for time -- which we've been hearing for several generations -- is too late. If we have a living planet within a generation, it will be because we have terminated the industrial age.

Just checking here- Aaron, my strong expectation from the back and forth here is that you are under 25 years of age. Yes? No?

By ranklebiter (not verified) on 14 Apr 2010 #permalink

You make some great points here. I'm not convinced that Steffen's vision is so much in opposition to your own. The way I hear what he wrote is as a reminder and an invitation that we can indeed get involved in thinking upwards, as we learn to organize our own backstories, food and water communities and so on; we need to remember that our experience in putting these sustainability visions into practice in our own lives means we have something real to offer, and have the confidence to start suggesting those ideas to our city planners. City planning is going on now in every city in the world and I get the impression many of the people still making the decisions have not yet caught up with the reality of the world we live in. Perhaps we who have gone through convincement of the need for drastic change, and who are struggling hard at implementing changes in our own lives, need a reminder that as citizens in democratic societies we may be able to do more to offer our perspectives and learnings to the professional planners and decision-makers in the wider communities we live amongst in our bioregions.
Maybe the way I read Steffen's post is very much coloured by my recent pattern of engagement - as well as food growing I am regularly attending a neighbourhood forum in my area of the city, and we had a success gettin some funding and got some big native fruit trees planted on public land around this area last month. That's a larger scale than my previous efforts, successful in a small way so far - so I'm starting to believe that I can join in the conversations that that planners and politicians have about the future of the city where I live - I will see how it goes.
The increased media coverage of zero emissions models, peak oil and so on - an caught my eye recently - means it seems to be getting easier to get local government officials to understand what I have been thinking about and talking about for a longer time. I can have confidence that the ideas I have been chewing over with the sustainability crew all my life are fairly robust and we can look at scaling them up. Not in a one size fits all way as some of your commenters seem to think Steffen is suggesting but my applying our ways of reviving knowledge of localized food systems.

By Alice Yaxley (not verified) on 14 Apr 2010 #permalink

Well put, Sharon. One thing that bothers me in Steffen's piece (and those who think like him) is that it so all or nothing. There's no room for "every little bit helps." Either we all need to do it his way or it won't work. There's no respect for human individuality in that. No consideration that our interests and abilities lead us down different lives to live. Of course, some folks can only see in black and white. I suppose he's one of them(?)

I fear that many readers are getting sidetracked by the specifics of what Steffan is or is not arguing. My frustration is that no one is really talking to each other or listening, while this issue must transcend partisan bickering. There are certainly many good ideas on his website, and I tend to agree with most strongly those that deal with community/city level change. This represents the majority of the content on the site, and there are many great ideas there that I would hope get embraced by anyone involved in the sustainability movement.

But I am not advocating his ideas as universally great, and sometimes I think him wrongheaded in many of the ways that have been pointed out thus far. The scale of relocation he talks about is an extreme, and he is certainly a techno-optimist. He does not give credit to many important aspects of sustainability, namely the sort that are often discussed here. What I hope is apparent is that same myopic view is toward the "other side" is prevalent here as well. The notable exception is obviously Sharon, who is generally a fount of reason, which is why I asked her to address this.

Just as I will challenge him to embrace good ideas wherever they are found, I challenge all of you to address some of the "bright green" ideas on their merit, not with fear-mongering rhetoric about fascism or socialism.

Aaron- one of the reasons you feel people are not listening- is because you are not listening.

Folks on this blog have been through a lot of what you are talking about/interested in- most here have moved far beyond the discussion point, and into the practical. What can I DO? What can my community DO? Not in some distant future, but right now, today, this week, this year. DO.

The reason a lot of Steffan's "ideas" are dismissed is because a) they're very unlikely, and b) he gives no pathway, or time frame, for ANY of what he's talking about to happen.

We just don't have time for pure blue sky- that's a proven path to non-action.

You want to see some changes? A change? Great, glad to hear it; I'd love to try whatever anyone is willing to try. Experimentation, you know. But unless you can point to HOW- in this world, in this year - don't waste my time.

This is a real interesting post and comment thread. I hope to read Steffen's piece later and maybe then I'll have something more useful to add. For now a few things. First, better design of our cities *and* suburban areas now extant would be a great help - and as many people above have said, given the locked-in thinking of those currently holding power, it's unlikely to happen until enough of us ordinary people have made the kind of changes (or tried to make them and found out why we couldn't) that Sharon describes to create the demand for those kind of changes. In other words, I think the personal has to lead before the political can follow. Second, as Sharon alluded to, we don't have enough resources for a massive rebuild of cities; best to think in terms of making what we already have more resilient and less wasteful, and to use the lowest-impact ways we can find to do that. Third, I personally hate living in dense, built-up areas; I absolutely need a day-to-day physical connection with dirt, plants, animals, air, water that is incompatible with living in dense urban areas. Since I don't think I'm the only one, maybe it makes more sense for us to consider how we can make it possible for everyone to find the best place and way to live that is also resilient in the face of crises. Revitalizing inner-ring suburbs like the one I live in, within ten miles of a major urban downtown, might offer many of us a good and low-impact life, maybe even lower-impact and almost certainly more resilient in Sharon's sense than a dense urban life. I'll see if Steffen addresses that when I read his piece, but if he doesn't, I think that is a flaw in his argument that Sharon pointed out above.

Hi Sharon... on the nail as ever... reading Steffen's article you would think that the debate you and I had with him a few months ago hadn't happened at all! He still sets up a ridiculous straw man version of what Transition is (and permaculture...) so he can knock it down in order to prove his 'Bright Green' case...

He writes;

"...I'm more and more convinced that the idea we as individuals, or little pocket communities, or small towns can lead the way to sustainability on our own is sort of delusional and unworthy of ourselves. Certainly the idea that some people can disconnect and live happy transition lives while society crashes around them betrays a profound misreading of history: all those other un-transitioned people aren't going to just go away and leave us to our straw-bale buildings and arugula patches"

...which is not only hugely patronising, but plain wrong(I don't know anyone in Transition who thinks it is about disconnecting from society "while society crashes around them").

While it is noble of you to spend so much time responding so insightfully and articulately, I don't think I will respond to posts like this until he actually writes something about Transition that is actually based on some kind of engaging with and actually trying to understand it....

My key thought from reading both is that his call for widening what resilience refers to seems to be a process of pushing peak oil and economic contraction out of the picture.... as they rather inconveniently make 'Bright Green' responses somewhat impractical, or at least are very challenging. You can't meaningfully talk about resilience without also looking at governance for resilience, how you promote individual resilience, as well as how you create a more resilient infrastructure. All of those things require engaged and enthused communities, an element conspicuously missing from Steffen's vision. It won't be done just by them, of course, but they are a key ingredient.

Anyway, must get on, but thanks, once again, for your insights...

I find it interesting that a lot of people see living in dense cities as completely opposed to having access to growing space... I live in what I consider to be a fairly dense city (Edinburgh, Scotland) which is almost unique in Britain in that people still live right in the centre of it. In terms of residence, it's probably denser than most, because it never went down the route of separating residential areas from business and light industry. Yet it also has a thriving allotment community and plenty of green spaces... OK, we don't have nearly enough allotments at the moment, and the bulk of residences are only 4 or 5 storeys, but still, it seems like some compromise is possible.

--But the history of our attempts to do so is a history failure,

I think that the word processor ate an "of" here.

"While it is noble of you to spend so much time responding so insightfully and articulately, I don't think I will respond to posts like this until he actually writes something about Transition that is actually based on some kind of engaging with and actually trying to understand it...."

Surprise, Rob has hit my sentiments Exactly- in case you were wondering if I were deprecating all this. Noble is the right word and boy am I glad YOU are doing it, not me.

It's disappointing to see so many folks buying into a false dichotomy, as if as individuals we can either make personal life style changes or be politically engaged, but not both. Or as if we can be politically engaged either locally or globally, but not both. As a practical matter, certain individuals may spend more time on one or the other, but as a movement we do not have to make a choice. As a movement, we make alliances and build coalitions as we go about working on our particular projects.

For myself, I'm certainly more drawn to Sharon's general approach to things, and to that of Transition and Permaculture. OTOH, while Alex certainly made some unnecessary comments that brought on this needless debate, I think I disagree that those comments were the emphasis of his article. His main point is that our actions need to be motivated by thinking about the whole system. He bemoans the fact that many people ignore the environmental "backstory" of what their lifestyle. Those are points that I think we all agree on, regardless of whether our comfort zones are more inclusive of personal or political responses, or local or global ones.

By jaggedben (not verified) on 14 Apr 2010 #permalink

I think it comes down to a top-down approach (Steffen) or a bottom-up approach (Sharon). The top-down approach also invites people to wait for someone else to solve the problem rather than taking action themselves.

All of those little decisions we made as consumers were ultimately responsible for our current mess.

Besides, politicians never initiate bold new approaches to solving problems- it's too risky if they don't have the support of their constituents. Once a sufficient number of people change their lifestyle, the politicians notice and "take the lead".

By Cheryl Nechamen (not verified) on 14 Apr 2010 #permalink

Great post! As I read Steffen's post, I became first bewildered and then angry. He, indeed, seems to grossly miscalculate how the average person would respond to being told to give up their independence and move where they are told to. It just sounds like another government system meant to make me more dependent on others for the basics that I now can provide for myself and so, I reject it! I live on a small hobby farm in a suburban area and have embraced the self-sustainability movement...I grow my own food, raise animals, and daily look for new ways to change my lifestyle to one of nurturing the Earth instead depleting it and walking away from the responsibilities/consequences of those actions. How dare he denigrate my efforts to effect real and lasting changes as nothing more than "growing a garden and household hints"! I agree that there are many approaches to bringing about real and lasting change, however, I, and many others like me all around the world, are doing what we believe is best and beneficial for our families and for the planet instead of sitting around waiting for "someone else" to come up with the answers. If Steffen's proposals are what we have to look forward to, then I'm glad I didn't sit around and disappointing!!

What is the source for the statment that it would take five days to evacuate Manhattan? Thanks!

I read ...what was his name? Oh yeah, Steffen. I read his article. You said it was well written & rousing? You're just being nice, right?

Five stages of grief. The game is over but he just can't allow himself to admit it. The man is stuck somewhere in the midst of anger, denial & bargaining with an emphasis on the last two.

I must say the thought of living in a large suburban complex with no private green spaces gives me major heebie jeebies, the word dystopia comes to mind. Thank you Sharon for another great post, I wish I could marshal my thoughts and arguments as well as you can.

Sharon, have a new song for your playlist! Indigo Girls, Hammer and a Nail. Figured I'd should post it to a current article...

By Christina (not verified) on 15 Apr 2010 #permalink

Finished reading Steffen's article. Sharon, I think your post was an excellent response.

Steffen's suggestion of a redesign that matches our current reality is a good one. In fact, I think that's just what permaculture practitioners and Transitioners are trying to do: redesign to meet the challenging conditions we are already facing and their increasing challenge to us as time goes on. The more different ideas for redesign, the better. It's a little surprising that Steffen critiques those two movements because in many ways I think they have similar goals to his work. Mostly they seem different in scale, not in intent.

In the end I think that the increasing cost of energy and resources will prevent the sort of large-scale rebuilding of urban areas that Steffen suggests. We'll find ourselves having to make do with what is at hand: the current housing stock (for the most part - some will need replacing, but there is a lot of decent housing that could be quite fine places to live with air leak sealage and more insulation), in the currently existing areas, with the currently existing roads and commercial and industrial locations. I can see a real need for good design that takes the reduction in available energy, resources, and money into account and that allows us to live more within ecological limits in the places that already exist. Could ordinary people and people with design expertise work together to come up with ideas in that direction?

I've been following Alex Steffen for years.

I've also appreciated some of Sharon's writing, especially on the what, how, and why of demographic transitions.

And I have to say, Sharon scored some points over Alex's piece until I got to Sharon's interpretation of the 'personal' V the 'regional'. Alex seems to be writing about SCALE, not gender, REGIONAL systems thinking, not backyard tinkering, massively shoving this ship in a different direction, not painting the deck chairs on the Titanic a nice shade of Carnation Pink! Turning this into another women's liberation piece is not helpful at this point, and is a charge I'm sure Alex would be quite mystified by.

I felt like I was reading a first year's Sociology 101 essay, trying to gain points with the lecturer by reading some Feminist issue into every. single. piece. ever written by a man.

Sharon, you really lost me there.

@ Vera rants against Alex Steffen when she says "Sorry, but this is risible. Who is this "us" here? He completely ignores the problem of power... if not redesigning food sheds for millions is more profitable for the powers that be, they will not be redesigned.
Besides, the whole idea of designing from the top down... isn't this just another installment of the fantasy worlds of designers of suburban "utopia" of the early 20th century? Livable environments evolve organically."
Who designs your cities, the people? When was the last time you had a vote on a development? When was the last time you met with your town planner and actually agreed to a dozen new McMansion estates? Sorry Vera, but you already live in the 'top down' world of governments both Local, State, and even Federal that all have input into planning laws, where highways go, and how land is zoned.
Who is âusâ? Itâs us activists heâs speaking to, you and I. And if we care enough weâll write that letter and go to that meeting and start demanding New Urbanism and the slow but inevitable conversion of sprawl back to farmland. If you want to have ANY input into the type of city youâll ultimately live in, itâs via politics. You can grow some veggies for now in your backyard if it makes you feel better, but my bet is half of suburbia will be bulldozed over and reclaimed and detoxified for farmlands again. My bet is the New Urbanists will win. Why? Because they are simply RIGHT!
If you have 3 minutes, check the video âBuilt to Lastâ. Itâs the simple truth, and anyone that says otherwise doesnât have the math straight. I donât know how somebody can claim to be an environmentalist and not support this.

5. "Organic" development? Really?
Now that we know how to design the basic frameworks of cities and neighbourhoods, the businesses within those designs will come and go 'organically', what might also be called 'according to the marketplace'. But the land will still be ZONED, so thereâs no real place for the land use itself, the category of 'residential' or 'commercial' etc to change âorganicallyâ at the local level. It has been this way since mankind developed writing and cities and a stratified society. Land use has always been a matter of power and authority. Why is that a new idea?

Who designs your cities, the people? When was the last time you had a vote on a development?
The people with the most money. See "The Villages" in Florida for a particularly fine example of the modern Company Town.

The important part here, which I feel you may be missing, is these developers are going to build their houses to sell. If they make the houses gated communities for the wealthy, because the middle classes have gone the way of the dodo bird, then by dog they will build spendy gated communities. If they build the things in a floodplain because the high ground doesn't have a waterfront view, then in a floodplain they will be--and when the houses are all flooded out, they will build more so the residents can use their flood insurance payouts to rebuild in a place that is no better a flood risk.

Correct or feasible has nothing to do with it. Ever been involved in your local land use and planning committee? I have. Since most of my area is already as built up as can be, developers around here like to build condos where 25% of the units must be sold to "low income" folks--the developer really makes their money on the other 75%. The state grants a lot of exemptions for such projects, including wetlands destruction exemptions.

We asked the civil engineer in charge some basic questions about the project: Why was it all stick-built stuff with minimum insulation for this region, with fuel oil furnaces? Why were the windows so cheap and thin? Why were the appliances not energy-efficient? Didn't he know that low income folks can't afford $8000 winter heating bills? Since the neighbors had bought their houses with the understanding that the area he proposed to develop would remain wooded, why not an earth-sheltered design that would both save the view and save the heating bills? Why not a large geothermal installation, if the condos were to be attached? Why wasn't the whole shebang LEED-certified to appease the local wildlife defenders?

He agreed to install Energy Star appliances. The rest, he informed us, was not possible because such units would not sell. It needed to look a certain way, in order to be marketable, and that meant stick-built crap. Also, stick-built crap can be built cheaply by moderately-skilled migrant workers, whereas other designs require engineers on site all day and union master craftsmen who can read blueprints. That cut into his profit margin.

What stopped the development was economics--now, no one is buying at all, especially not overpriced condos.

WRT zoning: Right now, even as I type, the distinctions between land use are blurring. Lots of people running little businesses out of their homes--eBay and Etsy shops, service-type jobs, and those are just the legit jobs people run from home. Lots of people planting victory gardens, too, and they aren't zoned agricultural. When you count, *cough* illicit gardening of cash crops *cough*, no one is asking for a permit from the city. I think it's reasonable that these distinctions will further blur, or simply become unenforceable.