Social Ecology and the Greening of Our Cities

Note: This article is from a presentation for Changer le Monde, Un Quartier à la Fois! (Changing the World, One Neighborhood at a Time) conference, Montreal, 5/1/08

Over the past year, we’ve seen an unprecedented rise in awareness of the consequences of potentially catastrophic global climate changes, and the need for a more ecologically sound way of life. We know that profound changes in our energy systems, our modes of transportation, and our entire way of life, are absolutely essential if we are to avoid a cascade of climate disruptions that will threaten every aspect of life on earth.

We also know that people living in the global South, especially in subsistence cultures that contribute the least to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, are already facing the most severe consequences of an increasingly chaotic climate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 report not only certified that the evidence for accelerating, humanly-generated climate changes is, in their word, "unequivocal," but they compiled a massive array of evidence that the consequences of global warming for crop productivity, drinking water supplies, floods, droughts, wildfires and the spread of disease are already upon us.

Here in North America, we have been inundated over the past two years with a plethora of seductive, but ultimately false solutions to this predicament. We face a well-orchestrated political push, from the highest levels of the US government, for a revival of nuclear power. Not only do we still, after 50 years, have no clue what to do with monstrous quantities of highly radioactive nuclear waste, but if our societies do commit the massive capital resources needed to build a new generation of nuclear power plants, there will be literally nothing left to fund truly green, solar-based alternatives. And if this were to happen, in a few years we will run out of the relatively accessible uranium ore that now minimizes greenhouse gas emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle, and the energy needed to mine and purify more uranium would quickly become yet another large contributor to catastrophic global warming.

Another false solution to global warming that we read a great deal about are so-called ‘biofuels.’ Running our cars on ethanol fermented from corn and diesel fuel made from soybeans and other food crops is already contributing to a worldwide food shortage that has caused starvation and social upheavals in Mexico, Egypt, Thailand, Haiti, and all around the world. The amount of corn needed to produce the ethanol for one SUV tank is enough to feed a hungry person for a year. And the idea that we can someday run our cars on fuel extracted from grasses and trees is another dangerous myth that is mainly underwriting a new wave of subsidies to the US biotechnology industry.

Third, we are told that if the world is to make significant reductions in our emissions of greenhouse gases, the only way to carry out these reductions is through the wonders of the so-called "free market." The European Union has been experimenting with market-based trading of carbon emissions between companies and countries for a few years now, and has clearly demonstrated that trading of carbon emissions represents a new subsidy to highly polluting corporations, without any demonstrable reduction in their contributions to destabilizing the climate. Buying carbon offsets from projects in other parts of the world is even farther from presenting a real solution. Carbon offsets are encouraging the conversion of native forests into monoculture tree plantations, lengthening the lifespan of polluting landfills and industrial facilities in Asia and Africa, in exchange for incremental changes in their operations, and ultimately perpetuating the very inequalities that we need to eliminate in order to create a more just and sustainable world.

It is becoming common wisdom today that the real solutions to global warming, as well as to reducing social inequality and furthering the dual goals of justice and sustainability, are fundamentally local. Not that we don’t require global-scale changes in political structures, economic institutions, and the very foundations of society. But it is at the local level, in our cities, towns and neighborhoods, that we can create lasting models of the kind of world we wish to see, and begin to shatter the myth that meaningful changes are impossible. It is here at the local level that we create living examples of a more ecologically sound way of life, and also build the political movement that takes power back from powerful institutions and demands the broader political and economic changes that are necessary.

The last time a popular movement compelled widespread changes in our environmental and energy policies on a global scale was during the late 1970s and early eighties, when people in Europe, the US and across the world mobilized to end the huge wave of nuclear power development that swept the world in the aftermath of the 1973 Arab oil embargo. In the mid-1970s, we had lines around the block all across the US to purchase gasoline, and analysts predicted that the demand for electricity would soon outrun supplies.

This led to a plan to build hundreds of new nuclear power plants all across the US and Europe. European activists, particularly in Germany, had begun direct action occupations of proposed nuclear power plant sites in the early seventies, often collaborating with local residents to create long-term encampments that challenged the authorities for months at a time. In the US, inspired by these European actions, we built a large, nationwide antinuclear movement that not only ended the push for nuclear power, but embodied a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between technological and social changes. Local and regional antinuclear alliances all across the US contrasted the prevailing image of a highly militarized nuclear state with a long-range vision of an entirely new social order. In this alternative future, decentralized, solar-powered communities would be empowered to decide their energy future and also their political future. Many of us in that movement looked to the emerging philosophy of social ecology as a firm theoretical grounding for a new socially transformative ecological politics.

One further outgrowth of that inspiring anti-nuclear movement was the emergence of a new phenomenon in urban design: the then-revolutionary idea of creating Green Cities. Radical architects, planners, and urban activists began devising visionary plans for redesigning cities along the lines of the emerging new ecological consciousness. For perhaps the first time since the rise of the industrial city in the 19th century, urban planners were discussing native plants, solar-friendly architecture, and rooftop gardens, as well as ways to minimize waste, reclaim once-free flowing rivers, and even return wildlife into the urban setting. Neighborhoods would be redesigned so as to bring living and working places closer together and minimize the scourge of commuting. A resurgence of neighborhood shops would reverse the trend toward ever larger and more remote shopping malls. Some even proposed tearing up streets so as to make neighborhoods friendlier to people and their gardens, and less burdened by automobile traffic. We saw a resurgence of urban gardens, motivated by the knowledge that 19th century cities including Paris grew a large amount of their food, and cities like Kyoto, Japan do so to this day. Further, in keeping with the democratic spirit of the time, innovations in urban design were closely tied to the spread of neighborhood-based democracy. Decentralization of city government was a popular call, with neighborhood planning boards, school boards, and other such bodies proliferating across North America.

Today, in response to the urgency of global warming, we are seeing the rise of a new Green City movement, but today’s movement is largely lacking the visionary focus of 30 years ago. In the US, at least, the emphasis is entirely on demonstrating new technologies and new building materials. Demonstration projects are viewed as ends in themselves, without much thought about bringing energy saving technologies into far wider use, nor integrating them into a new vision of the city. New "Green-certified" buildings use the latest high-tech materials, usually heavily reliant on fossil fuels for their production, and are generally out of reach to anyone but the wealthiest corporate-friendly developers. This approach to greening cities owes more to the rise of "green" products and fashionable "green" consumerism than to any popular movement for fundamental social change.

For example, Popular Science magazine did a survey this past February, aiming to identify the "50 Greenest Cities" in the US. They rated all US cities of over 100,000 in population on a somewhat arbitrary 30 point scale, focusing on electricity sources, transportation (particularly use of public transit), "green living (mainly the number of "green"-certified buildings), recycling and so-called "green perspective." Electricity and transportation accounted for 20 out of the 30 points, and the remaining categories encompassed the other ten. They also highlighted half a dozen particularly noteworthy projects in the leading cities.

It is no surprise that Portland, Oregon, which may have been the first city in the world to institutionalize environmentally conscious planning in the 1980s, came up first with 23 out of 30 points. The first very large city on the list is Chicago at number 9, cited mainly for its famous lakefront parks, energy-efficient cogeneration of heat and electricity, and four city projects certified by the Green Building Council. New York is number 20, with more than 50% of residents taking public transportation to work, and a new effort to produce electricity from the tides. But only a dozen cities got more than 20 points, and only 31 rated higher than 15. The last 20 so-called "Green cities" received ratings of only 10-15 out of 30. Oakland, California is featured for having added just three hydrogen-powered buses to its fleet, San Francisco for putting solar panels on the roof of its mammoth convention center, and Salt Lake City for one geothermal-powered commercial building. These are all important innovations, but overall, the expectations raised by surveys like this are astoundingly low. There is nothing about reducing overall emissions of greenhouse gases, nothing about fewer people commuting to work, certainly nothing about redesigning neighborhoods, or bringing a greater sense of democracy into people’s lives.

With half of the world’s population now living in urban areas, we cannot overemphasize the need to dramatically change how our cities work. Back in the 1960s, at the dawn of today’s environmental movement, most environmentalists were dismissive of cities. They were seen by many as hopeless cesspools of smog, industrial waste, over-congestion, and human despair. The suburbs, a product of the post-World War 2 economic boom in the United States, were still expanding rapidly, and people were encouraged to flee the cities to embrace the new suburban lifestyle. Today we know that suburbs are akin to ecological deserts, with monocultures of chemically treated lawns, people terminally confined to their cars, and unconscionably wasteful patterns of land use. But 40 years ago, cities were widely perceived to be the problem.

One of the few dissenting voices in those years was Murray Bookchin, the founding philosopher of social ecology and one of the most visionary social thinkers of the late 20th century. Bookchin authored more than 20 books during his lifetime and sought to offer a coherent theoretical underpinning to the work of a generation of ecological and anti-authoritarian activists. Numerous concepts that became common wisdom among ecological activists in the sixties and beyond were first articulated clearly in Bookchin’s writings, including the socially reconstructive dimension of ecological science, the potential links between sustainable technologies and political decentralization, and the evolution beyond class consciousness on the left toward a more encompassing critique of all forms of social hierarchy.

In pioneering works such as The Crisis in Our Cities, The Limits of the City, The Ecology of Freedom, and Urbanization Without Cities, Bookchin delved deeply into the early history of cities, as well as their present condition. He came to understand that cities historically were the first ‘free spaces,’ where people embraced a new-found sense of personal freedom, beyond the provincialism of more traditional, kinship-centered communities. Cities in ancient times were the locus of a potential ethical union of people, the places where community was consciously created, and where humanity began to elaborate a "second nature," in the terminology of Aristotle and Cicero: a cultural evolution consciously distinct from non-human "first nature." Furthermore, cities for Bookchin were a locus of ethical political engagement. Bookchin was fascinated with the structures of the Athenian polis that flourished during the 7th century BCE. Clearly, the classical Greek polis had severe shortcomings in terms of gender relations and a despicable reliance on slave labor-qualities it shared with virtually all other highly organized societies of the period. But, to this day, the polis remains unique in human history as a setting where decisions affecting the future of the city were made by all of its citizens in open assembly, creating a unique, ethically crafted model of democracy that the world has yet to equal in its scope.

Social ecology’s outlook on contemporary politics seeks to bring this model into the present. Drawing on examples from the Parisian sections during the French Revolution, as well as the Paris Commune of 1871, Bookchin came to view the neighborhood as "the authentic unit of political life." He proposed a political strategy that he called "libertarian municipalism," seeking to draw out what he viewed as a fundamental conflict between our communities and the state. Libertarian municipalism proposes that citizen assemblies become the center of public life in towns and neighborhoods and function as counterinstitutions to official decision-making bodies, eventually assuming control over essential political and economic decisions. Representatives in city councils and regional assemblies would come to function as mandated delegates, deputized by their local assemblies and empowered only to carry out the wishes of the people.

Bookchin also realized that towns and neighborhoods could not truly move forward as islands unto themselves, and thus libertarian municipalism is also a politics of confederation. In Bookchin’s words, "Confederalism is… a way of perpetuating interdependence among communities and regions-indeed it is a way of democratizing that interdependence without surrendering the principle of local control. Through confederation, a community can retain its identity and roundedness while participating in a sharing way with the larger whole that makes up a balanced ecological society."

Third, libertarian municipalism is an approach to democratizing the economy under direct community control. An ecological economy is a moral economy, not constrained by the competitive ways of the capitalist market. In such a society, economic as well as political relationships are guided by an ethics of mutualism and reciprocity. Again, quoting Bookchin, "In such a municipal economy – confederal, interdependent, and rational by ecological, not simply technological standards – we would expect that the special interests that divide people today into workers, professionals, managers, and the like would be melded into a general interest in which people see themselves as citizens, guided … by the needs of their community and region rather than by personal proclivities and vocational concerns."

In a world where the commercial marketplace has thoroughly colonized every sphere of life, virtually dissolving our collective memory of the diversity of lifeways that existed prior to capitalism, a decentralized, moral economy also serves as a kind of school. It is a school for a new kind of citizen, active in public life and public service, and empowered to guide the decisions that affect the life of the community. In a world where right wing ideology would relegate everything to the realm of the private, social ecology emphasizes the reinvigoration of the public sphere, the place where community life happens, and where the economy is guided toward the genuine satisfaction of everyone’s needs.

As Murray Bookchin first articulated in the mid-1960s, the technological means are already available to create a satisfying life for everyone, within the limits of natural constraints, but relieved of the artificial burdens that have shaped human existence throughout the industrial era. Today, more than ever, the obstacles are entirely social and political. Today we have the most inequitable distribution of wealth since the period just before the Great Depression of the 1930s. The occupation of Iraq has cost the US and its allies over $3 trillion over the past five years, according to Nobel economics laureate Joseph Stiglitz. Public funds are squandered on projects and tax measures that benefit the few at the expense of the many, while corporations today will not even invest in measures to save energy and make their operations more efficient unless they can demonstrate a two year payback-a constraint that is not imposed on any other type of investment. Once again, it is here in our neighborhoods that we can both demonstrate a better way and organize to bring these changes to the wider world.


Brian Tokar has been an activist, author and a leading critical voice for ecological activism since the 1970s, and is currently the Director of the Institute for Social Ecology, based in Vermont.  He is the author of The Green Alternative and Earth for Sale, and edited Redesigning Life?, an international collection on the politics and implications of biotechnology, as well as Gene Traders: Biotechnology, World Trade and the Globalization of Hunger. Brian has lectured throughout the U.S., as well as internationally, and is acclaimed as a passionate advocate of grassroots action for ecological sanity and global justice.  His articles on environmental issues, emerging ecological movements, and resistance to genetic engineering appear in Z Magazine, Earth Island Journal, Toward Freedom, and on websites such as Counterpunch, ZNet, Truthout, and WW4Report.  Brian holds concurrent degrees from MIT in biology and physics, and a Masters degree in biophysics from Harvard University.

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