On green building, urban development, and reviving rural America
In this section, Alex and I discuss green building, urban development, and reviving rural America.
DR: Give a few examples of the kinds of things you have in mind.
AS: Green building is one of the most visible changes.
We are capable of building buildings now that use fractions of the energy, water, materials, etc. of a building 10 years ago and deliver all the same benefits, if not more. If every building on the planet was built to LEED Platinum standard right now, we’d shrink our footprint on the planet by quite a bit. And when you look at emerging technologies, materials, building techniques, and architectural practices, it’s clear we are going to be capable of designing buildings in another ten years that make our current best practices look a little clumsy. Given the drastic ecological impacts that buildings have now — for example, they use twice as much energy in the U.S. as cars, according to NRDC — the ability to build in a truly green way represents a gigantic leap forward. So green building is one.
Hybrid cars are another great sign. Not because the technology is perfect now — it’s still reliant on petrochemicals, and we all know we’re reaching the end of oil, right? What’s important about hybrids is the fact that they’ve become so popular, so quickly. They’re forcing this realization on carmakers, "Oh my god, this is a huge market we totally underestimated," and helping to trigger more aggressive moves to market bright green technologies in other categories. Green is no longer flaky. Green is profitable. That’s huge.
DR: I can definitely see these technical leaps in green building, but the problem with something like cars is that they — and this also applies to energy usage more broadly — crucially depend on infrastructure, and infrastructure, at least currently, is not something that can be built up modularly, or in a distributed, collaborative way. We have massive, centralized highway and energy-grid systems that can only be modified by a centralized power.
AS: The answer to the problem of the automobile is not under the hood, the answer is in urban form — what we build where. And the great model here is Vancouver, B.C., which is increasingly a place where people can afford to live without cars, and live better than they do in most other car-dependent North American cities. Vancouver has proven that you can relatively quickly build an extremely compact, transit-friendly city where people’s quality of life radically improves.
That’s the key — quality of life. When you put things close together, you see great benefits in terms of transportation infrastructures. People can walk places, they can bike, they can hop on public transportation. But when you build for density you’ve also got to invest in quality of life. That’s something we know how to do. It’s not rocket science. It’s a political fight. And the reason we’ve lost that political fight is that we’ve been absolutely atrocious … well, environmentalists have a historical ambiguity about the city.
Many environmentalists think the city is the problem. And I would say, just as you can’t be anti-technology and be an environmentalist in the 21st century, you can’t be anti-urban and be an environmentalist in the 21st century. The majority of the people on the planet already live in cities.
DR: And that’s accelerating everywhere.
AS: Exactly. A city the size of Seattle gets built every four days on this planet. Cities are the question. And most people who live in suburbs and rural areas in fact live in communities dependent for their existence on the neighboring city. The suburb is just a privileged subset of the city. It’s very hard to find people who aren’t connected to a metropol. So most people are being intellectually dishonest when they say they hate the city and live in the suburbs. They hate being around the effects of their actions. They still live in cities.
DR: Speaking of urban development, one of the reasons I think environmentalists and global warming have become part of the American culture war …
AS: Because oil companies have an enormous amount of money and they bought the debate. There’s no other reason. I mean, honestly. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the culture war and it has everything to do with the oil and coal lobbies being very well-funded and very smart.
DR: Well, I think that’s part of it, but I also think environmentalists are, sometimes rightly, viewed as anti-development. A lot of right-wingers, particularly libertarian and free-market types, view all these arguments as Trojan horses for an essentially anti-human, anti-development, anti-economic-growth stance.
AS: I would agree to you to this extent: We’ve let ourselves be boxed into that box. I don’t think that’s what most environmentalists think. But we’ve let ourselves be put there and it’s very clear that we are there now. Most Americans think we are job-killers. Most Americans think we are going to put them in the poor house. And, so, just like we need a new vision of cities, in order to sell people on the idea of dense, livable, transit-friendly cities, we need a new vision of the economy.
DR: The reason I brought that up is that when people hear about urban planning and dense cities and walking, what many of them hear is, "give up your SUV, give up your big house — you have too much, you’re occupying too much space." They hear that anti, get-smaller message. The germ is in there for a lot of people.
AS: On one hand, we shouldn’t kid ourselves: There are going to be winners and losers. People who drive gas-guzzling SUVs and live far out in the hinterlands of the suburbs are going to lose under any plan that we’re willing to endorse. We’re not willing to see people get 2 miles a gallon for the next 15 years. But, that said, the reality is that we need to be far less concerned about the negative impacts of people’s behaviors and far more concerned with crafting and selling a lifestyle that more people want to live.
In a sense, we need to start our own culture war. Our culture needs to be about prosperity, excitement, vitality, style, security, and jobs, in a world that is much greener. We need to sell the sizzle, not the steak, and the sizzle is that the world we’re describing is better. We’re describing a world where folks have great jobs, are making money, living well, being healthy and happy, living in great neighborhoods rather than commuting an hour each way, eating safe and delicious food rather than processed crap, having a million options for getting together with friends and doing fun stuff, rather than sitting at home in the subdivision watching TV for four hours a night. Cities can be built to offer unbeatable quality of life.
DR: In the U.S., rural red areas lose citizens to urban blue areas, even though they’re outbreeding blue areas by a large margin. They lose people to blue areas and blue areas almost never lose people to red areas, because people are obviously attracted to the vitality and the sense that economically and culturally, the future is being built in cities.
AS: Absolutely. The engines of our economy are cities. The engines of our creative economy are cities, as Richard Florida likes to point out. Environmentalism needs to whole-heartedly embrace the idea of an urban future. That doesn’t mean that we want every tree in the world cut down or wild places eliminated, it means the opposite. It means we want those things protected. We want to create a world where people can live well without destroying those things.
DR: Yeah, cities are not eliminating most of the trees; cities are not taking up the bulk of the land.
AS: David Owen wrote a brilliant article for the New Yorker a couple months ago describing the greenest place in America, which is Manhattan [ed. note: "Green Manhattan"]. People in Manhattan use the fewest resources and the least amount of energy of anybody in America.
DR: It has more citizens than something like 10 or 12 other states but uses less energy than any of them. [ed. note, from Owen article: " New York City is more populous than all but 11 states; if it were granted statehood, it would rank 51st in per-capita energy use."]
AS: What we really need to get our heads around is that every time someone chooses to live in a dense, urban setting, that’s one less bit of sprawl, which is one more piece of habitat protected, one more family that isn’t driving everywhere, polluting the atmosphere, changing the climate, releasing all sorts of mutanogenic chemicals into the world. Every time somebody decides to live a bright green urban lifestyle, we are one person closer to having a sustainable planet.
We need to start actively imagining and selling urban futures that are sexy and sustainable, and start fighting for those things, start fighting for a positive vision of the world rather than simply complaining all the time about how we’re fucking it up.
DR: I’d like you to comment on another couple of traditional environmental stances. The first is a bias against business, the private sector in general, viewed by a lot of enviros as a place where greed runs untrammeled. And the flip side is an over-reliance on the mechanisms of government: legislation, regulation, and litigation. All these are primarily methods of restraint. So again, even if you acknowledge that those methods are good, and they are certainly necessary sometimes, you can’t avoid the general impression of, for lack of a better word, downerism. How do you see the bright green vision relating to these two planks of traditional environmentalism?
AS: You mentioned that litigation, regulation, and the like are mechanisms of restraint, and there are some things that we want to restrain people from doing. There are times when suing the bastards is the best thing to do. And I think there are a bunch of debates in which our attitude oughtta be, "no, not at all, not now, not ever." There are chemicals in common use that we know are literally giving our kids cancer as we speak. There’s no reason to use them; we can design better alternatives. Our answer to those ought to be prohibition. Let’s just ban the stuff.
That said, that’s a hammer. We don’t want to go around thinking every problem in the world is a nail.
There are many things the environmental movement could do that it isn’t doing. Bad corporate citizens obviously abound out there, but there are also a bunch of clever folks who know they can make big money off this bright green thing. We oughtta be cozy and kissing with those folks — when Toyota releases a Prius, when developers put up a green building in a downtown setting.
Acknowledging that we have allies in business will let us do two things. First of all, it will let us pick better fights when we do go to the mat with someone. But also, it will let us start endorsing things worth doing. There’s more to being an environmentalist than occasionally signing an online petition and mailing your check to the Sierra Club. Really the most effective environmental actions you can take have to do with crafting your home and surroundings, your workplace decisions and your investment habits.
DR: Right, your consumer dollar. And again, the distributed networks we’re talking about apply to the business world as well, in that we can quickly marshal large, effective consumer blocs to a) recognize good new products and practices, and b) withdraw, hopefully some day, substantial amounts of money from obvious malefactors.
AS: It comes back again to, is the environmental movement about criticizing or creating? Unfortunately, at the moment the environmental movement is about whining. It’s not even about launching effective criticism, ’cause most people don’t know what we’re saying, they don’t hear us, they don’t get our frames, they don’t get our messages, they don’t believe what we have to say, they think we want to kill their jobs.
And I believe with all my heart, if we’re going to save the planet, we’re going to do it by creating a future people want more than the one we’ve got now. We don’t need more protests, we need more products. We don’t need more investigations, we need more innovations. And we don’t need more apocalyptic rantings, we need visions of a future worth fighting for.
And then we need to go out and sell the stuffing out of it.
This is where a certain willingness to engage in cultural activism, in culture hacking, comes in. Because the way to sell it is to imagine it as fully and wholly as possible, and then communicate those images in as compelling a way as possible. I mean, I want to be deluged with portrayals of bright green urban living, hip green styles, flashy super-sustainable cars and computers and condos, eco-luxury and wealth. I want the vision we’re selling to be so much sexier than anything our opponents have to offer that people support us out of pure, lusting self-interest.
DR: It seems to me that part of what’s driving political division in the U.S. is a sense by the middle of the country that they’re continuously being drained of people, drained of money, drained of the sort of lifestyle and life-sustaining activities that they used to have. They’re losing any cultural vitality, any sense that they play an important role in the culture.
Like anybody in that situation would, they resent it, and the last thing they want to hear about is what the cool kids on the coasts are doing. How do we, in addition to the style, sex, and delirious urbanity of it all, include a vision of how the culturally and economically left-behind people in rural America can participate in and enjoy and endorse this vision?
AS: One of the places we’ve failed the worst is providing a vision of the rural future. What the 20th century wrought on the middle of this country was essentially a scorched-earth policy. We’ve depleted the aquifers. We’ve mined the soil. We’ve destroyed native habitats almost completely, especially the high plains. We’ve enacted these incredibly oppressive economic policies, which have destroyed an entire class of small farmers. Now, we’ve basically turned the whole thing over to giant agribusiness corporations and factory farming. This is a national failure, not just a failure of environmentalists, but the environmental consequences could not be worse.
We need to do is start imagining what a high-tech, prosperous, 21st century rural life would look like. We can’t allow ourselves to treat people in rural America the way environmentalists have sometimes been guilty of treating people in the developing world, which is saying, "well, you don’t have a lot right now, so you’re not really causing any problems, so just stay where you are." No future that requires rural America be poor is viable to sell to the American people. It doesn’t have to be that way.
There are all sorts of things we could do to create bright green rural industries. An obvious one is wind power. The high plains states in particular have more wind energy than we’re ever going to need. We could very easily set up a wind energy industry in the high plains states that would make the Dakotas and Nebraska the OPEC of the 21st century.
DR: Return them to their status as the breadbasket of the country — only this time they would be the generator.
AS: And there are pretty interesting visions beyond that.
One of the things we’ve been trying to do for over 100 years now is replace a native, perennial grassland with an imported, annual grassland — when you grow wheat, that’s what you’re doing. And a bunch of experts say we could, using smart breeding and other forms of green biotechnology, recreate the perennial grasslands to give us grains and other goods in ways that are ecologically a miniscule portion of their present impact. Ways that would let us harvest the bounty of prairies rather than bulldozing up vast sections of land year after year, and allow us to reduce the gigantic tonnage of pesticides we’re dumping on ourselves every year, and eating, and allow us to use much less water, etc.
They might also allow for some other interesting possibilities — one of the more far-out is the return of the buffalo commons, the idea of running buffalo through the Midwest in vast herds and having that be the source of our meat.
These ideas are indicative of the kind of thing we could do if we took seriously the problems of rural America. In a similar way, if you took seriously the problems of forest land, and you looked at the advantages we gain as a society from having biodiversity and ecosystem services like clean water and clean air, you can actually imagine setting up a trading system that would pay people to work their forest land sustainably. You can imagine a future where small-scale sustainable foresters would be relatively prosperous small businesspeople rather than people hanging on by their fingernails out in the middle of nowhere.
DR: What rural folks are hanging on to by their fingernails now are not things they own and work, that provide for their families — which is to me the essential, core red state value, the value of hard work and providing for the people you care for and the sense of owning something. What they’re scraping for now are pretty crappy service jobs for massive, centralized, horrifically violent and destructive agribusiness and dairy and ranching corporations.
AS: Exactly, there’s not a lot of self-reliance working the assembly line at a poultry-slaughtering plant.
DR: Right, whereas you can imagine sustainable, prosperous small farmers and small foresters, all of whom have several wind turbines on their land. All of this, like I said, relies on infrastructure: a) the ability to easily determine, via information infrastructure, who needs your stuff, where your stuff is, where their stuff is, etc., and b) the physical infrastructure necessary to easily transport your goods to the people who need them.
But as long as that infrastructure is there, you are talking about people who once again have their plot of land, that sort of "Waltons"-esque, essential Americana.
I’d just hate to see the whole bright green movement swamped by urban hipsters to the point that we forget to emphasize the real, rootsy, earthy, workable benefits of this stuff to people who have been screwed over.
AS: Absolutely. One of the ways to do that is by re-emphasizing precisely the sort of connections you’re talking about. One low-tech but awesome solution is community-supported agriculture. I assume most Grist readers know what that is, but in essence, it’s a system whereby farmers sell directly to people who live in the cities, getting a higher return for their produce and bringing fresh, organic produce right to their doorsteps. It’s a win-win for everybody. Well, that kind of urban-rural connection could happen a lot more. There’s no reason why Seattle, for example, couldn’t buy green energy from Eastern Washington, from wind farms out on the Palouse.
DR: Get it in aggregate from 100 or 1000 different wind farms.
AS: Right. The fact is that the stuff that fuels our lives, from the food that fuels our body to the energy that fuels our lights, comes from elsewhere most of the time. We can do a little bit in the city, and probably should, to grow a little bit of our own food and generate a little bit of our own energy, but the reality is that much of it’s going to come from elsewhere in 50 years just like it does today. The connection between the food on your plate and the welfare of some guy picking crops in the Central Valley can be made visible today. Information is essentially free; it’s easy to do this kind of stuff. We can make it a hip part of your life to know, not only where your food comes from in the abstract sense of, "my food was grown locally," but where your food comes from in the sense of, "Bob Smith grew this apple for me."
DR: He’s having a good apple harvest this year.
AS: Exactly. And last time he was in town he dropped off some cider — it was pretty awesome. That is definitely bright green, and it is something we can, should, and I hope will sell to the American people.