Thursday, October 1, 2009

Real Sustainability

Yes, of course individual choices matter and we should not let individual consumption habits off the hook.... but changing the basic infrastructure of food production, transport and the physical organization of living spaces and is what's going to have to happen if we're ever going to have a sustainable society.

Buying organic milk is an important step that has concrete consequences... but this mere act alone is hardly going to shake the structural problems that are destroying the environment. And that organic consumption, as a "niche market", has so comfortably adjusted to the current coordinates of capitalism should make us suspicious. The problem isn't merely 'lifestyle choices' or consumption habits. It's literally, as Owen points out, the physical organization of our lives: exurbs and suburbs, low-density developments that require heavy car usage, centralized corporate food production, huge single-family homes with massive irrigated lawns, etc.

Owen's absolutely right: if we're ever going to have a sustainable society, we're going to have to radically reject the post-war fantasy world of single-family homes with white picket fences with huge garages, family cars, suburb and exurb life as 'typical', etc.

It's one thing to moralize and blame individual people for not giving up their cars in a place in which driving is encouraged or required by 99% of the infrastructure. It's another to talk about creating concrete alternative modes of transportation on a large scale, that would facilitate the phasing out of the car. It's another to talk about rethinking car production, and gradually re-deploying the workers in the auto industry into new productive efforts directed towards making the things that a sustainable society would need (tons more buses, trains, wind-power turbines, etc.).

Americans didn't become addicted to cars by some strange accident: they were slowly hooked and forced into it by a convergence of factors (marketing, government subsidy, creation of interstate system, etc.), but the most important one was the massive proliferation of sprawling post-Levittown suburbs from the 50s onward. Before the 50s, the vast majority of Americans did not own a car... and our infrastructure reflected that fact. Towns were walkable and things people needed (food, entertainment, bars, stores, etc.) were close by. It wouldn't have made sense in the 1920s to build the kind of sprawling nightmares we see today: most people wouldn't have been able to get anywhere.

Taking a look at the recent past would do the sustainability movement a lot of good. It sounds like a pipe-dream to think that our society could make the changes necessary to be sustainable. But the fact is that for the most part the technology and know-how is already there to make it happen, and it's not cutting edge stuff that I'm talking about. Most of what we need to do is simply give up the wasteful excess that we've come to expect from the 50s onward. A lot of what needs to happen is that we need to forgo certain 'technological advances' that have done little else except manufacture new 'needs' and place convenience above all other relevant considerations. We managed fine for most of the 20th century without heavy reliance on the automobile, and many people all over the world do just fine today without a car at the center of their lives.

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