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EXCERPT FROM “DE-GROWTH IN THE SUBURBS, A RADICAL URBAN IMAGINARY. “ Part 2

We started publishing last week this series of an excerpt from Samuel Alexander and Brendan Gleeson’s new book, “Degrowth in the Suburbs: A Radical Urban Imaginary”.

The chapter we will be publishing over 4 weeks (Reimagining the Suburbs Beyond Growth) is the first chapter in the book.

You can read the first part we published last week here.

Dr Samuel Alexander,  is the co-director of the Simplicity Institute and a lecturer with the Office for Environmental Programs, University of Melbourne, as well as Research Fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne.

This book addresses a central dilemma of the urban age: how to make suburban landscapes sustainable in the face of planetary ecological crisis.  The authors argue that degrowth, a planned contraction of overgrown economies, is the most coherent paradigm for suburban renewal. They depart from the anti-suburban sentiment of much environmentalism to show that existing suburbia can be the centre-ground of transition to a new social dispensation based on the principle of enlightened material and energy restraint.

Reviews:

“There is nothing that embodies the twisted values of growth-addicted capitalism more visibly than suburban sprawl.  Massive matrices of carbon-intensive consumerism, the suburbs reflect the forces that are driving our descent into ecological crisis.  But as deepening crises begin to engulf us, Alexander and Gleeson see an unlikely flicker of hope.  The suburbs, they argue, hold the potential for a new, more resilient way of living that could help see us through the calamities of the Anthropocene.  This is a brilliant, invigorating book, poetically written and full of exciting ideas.  A marvellous achievement.’

Jason Hickel, author of The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions

  ‘In a world seemingly beset by intractable challenges with potentially dire outcomes, Samuel Alexander and Brendan Gleeson offer a beacon of hope through their sketches of a tantalizing and realistic suburban future in which resource use has been downscaled and localised, and most importantly a culture of sufficiency has taken root. They elaborate a bold imaginary demonstrating how the myriad of initiatives that are already present might form the basis of a radically different suburban future. Degrowth in the Suburbs: A Radical Urban Imaginary sets the compass in a direction that will help steer civil society and government towards the type of world we would be proud to bequeath future generations.’

J.K. Gibson-GrahamJenny Cameron and Stephen Healy, authors of Take Back the Economy: An Ethical Guide for Transforming Our Communities

You can purchase the e-book in the following link : 

https://www.palgrave.com/us/book/9789811321306

 

The End of the Carnival

The historical suburban model has run its course because its mother ship, capitalism, has run aground on the reefs of contradiction and overreach. Indeed, the whole vessel seemed to crunch to a sickening and deadly halt during the Global Financial Crisis (2008–9) and to continue to founder in the years afterwards. The crisis halted a long phase of neoliberal growth leveraged through mounting private debt, and a progressive decoupling of the material and financial economies. Its successor is still emerging through wildly unsettled global and national political currents, but increasingly it just seems like a new phase of neoliberalism—austerity governance—not the progressive alternative that radicals hoped would be legitimised by the crisis.

The phase of ‘Made in China’ affluence that preceded the global default was implacably hostile to ecological values. In a new play of species chauvinism, resources—biotic and material—were cast in vast quantities into the furnace of growth. The entropic power of capitalism was marked as never before by a full-scale assault on resource stocks and biodiversity; meanwhile human riches were depleted by cultural homogenisation and relentless commoditisation. It was, however, not the source of the most threatening environmental crises confrontinghomo urbanis, a climate warmed and destabilised by two centuries of growth, fuelled by fossil energy. The industrial order that emerged in the wake of astonishingly clever technical innovations and through an expansion of the human mind generally had one great flaw. It assumed itself freed from nature via access to a carbon legacy assumed infinitely abundant.

This ‘Promethean conceit’ saw nature as a force to be tamed and shackled to the wheel of progress. Industrial power showed it could be so—at least for a time. There were opponents of Prometheanism who saw the rising volcano of the market, not the growth in the human family, as the trigger for natural depletion and disorder. Long ago Frederick Engels (1959 [1876]: 12) warned: ‘Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch because of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us’. Climate change is a spectacular form of revenge. The old criticism of economic growth which neoliberals declared heresy seems to have the angels on its side.

For a long time, the efficiency view dominated. It still does, and its newest manifestation is the rising faith in green technologies to lessen natural dependency and decouple productive activity from its resource and energy foundations. Its urban referents dream of green urbanism, even a ‘post-carbon city’, made possible through innovation not re-foundation. Blogs are busy with discussion of a ‘city fix’; a new era of urban efficiency that rescales resource use within safe limits. In The Economist (2012) we read: ‘Instead of trying to limit growth, plan- ners should “make room”’. There is nothing new in this unimaginative injunction. Neoliberal urbanism has been making this demand of planning for the last few decades. But it is a death star for homo urbanis.

Industrial capitalism proved to be a great innovator, extracting greater yields from fixed inputs—though the record was uneven and often masked the plunder of new resource fields as declining ones were preserved through better husbandry. The main problem was that the drive for efficiency improvement never seemed to dent the relentless growth in resource consumption. Even today, after decades of extraordinary technological advancement and innovation, the ecological burdens of global capitalism continue to increase (Wiedmann et al. 2015). Decidedly, the god of green growth has forsaken us (Smith 2016).

This is partly explained by the ‘Jevons Paradox’ which posits that improvements in the efficiency of a resource’s use tend to increase not decrease the overall consumption of that resource. William Stanley Jevons (1835–82) in his 1865 book The Coal Question documented the simultaneous rising efficiency of coal use in England and the growth in aggregate coal consumption. This twin effect has operated ever thus, and often to the immediate benefit of humanity. It has marked an improvement in the overall welfare of human populations, at least in parts of the West. The material power of expanding markets has been greatly intensified by the harnessing of rising energy efficiency to the expansion of aggregate input. Efficiency is reinvested in more growth and consumption, rarely if ever maintaining outputs with fewer inputs. Put simply, efficiency serves the creation of much more with more. It looks benign if we ignore the threat to our species’ survival inherent in this trend over the longer term, not to mention the vast majority of the global population who have not seen many, if any, of the spoils of this rampant development project (see Hickel 2017).

A Crisis of Overproduction

The threat of climate warming, already manifest, is primarily a consequence of overproduction not overconsumption, even if these driving forces are, in many respects, two sides of the same coin. The same can be said of other dimensions of the ecological crisis, notably, resource depletion. Consumption of inputs, of final products, follows in the trail of the unstoppable compulsion to expand economic activity and value.

In capitalism the market is a dynamic, self-replicating force. Market relations are characterised by relentless, convulsive expansion not equilibrium or ‘steady state’ optimality. The unplanned nature of capitalist competition means that, periodically, the output of individual firms, industries, sectors, cannot be sold. Equilibriums are accidents and ever temporary spaces in the long struggle to force growth ever outwards and upwards. Markets obstinately drive output beyond social need and thus ever towards the precipice of overproduction. Harvey (2008: 24) explains:

“Capitalists have to produce a surplus product in order to produce surplus value; this in turn must be reinvested in order to generate more surplus value. The result of continued reinvestment is the expansion of surplus production at a compound rate… The perpetual need to find profitable terrains for capital-surplus production and absorption… presents the capitalist with a number of barriers to continuous and trouble-free expansion.”

This unremittingly drives a twin territorial expansion: new territory for the extraction of resources (human and natural) and for the absorption of waste—or in a word, globalisation. In the converging fields of contemporary climate science and climate debate, the question of ‘absorption’ comes starkly into focus. The constant expansion in productive capacity places ever mounting pressure on the natural environment to supply more raw materials and absorb greater amounts of waste.

Economic globalisation, given new impetus by neoliberalism, produced new terrains for resource extraction but it did not expand the atmosphere. As if in recognition, it now wishes to bury emissions underground through carbon sequestration. Other riskier forms of geo-engineering witness to the increasingly desperate search for some means of mending the rapine of compound growth. Hardly a consequence of straightforward consumption overreach, climate change is a time of profound ecological reckoning which has arisen from historical overburdening of the atmospheric terrain. It is testimony to an economic system that Žižek (2012: 78) describes as ‘…a beast that cannot be controlled’. It must, however, be brought to heel before it propels humanity, and all we presume to govern, into the abyss.

Photo by Victoriano Izquierdo on Unsplash

Consumptive Cities

Increasingly cities, not social and economic structures, are identified as the source of environmental despoliation and resource depletion. This shift is urged by the chorusing of the urban age. The ‘consumptive cities’ view has different emphases. Enquiry and advocacy seeks to restrain urban environmental overload through better management, improved technical systems, social cooperation and innovation, sustainable design and low-carbon transport. Comparative review points to metropolitan exemplars of the new sustainable urbanism; governance—progressive, entrepreneurial or both—is deemed crucial. Beacon cities—Curitiba Brazil, Portland USA, Vancouver Canada, Freiburg Germany, etc.—are to light the path to a greener urbanity. Colder judgement casts them as cathedrals in a vast desert of neoliberal urbanisation.

Some assessments find refuge in the past, including the ‘New Urbanism’ which has issued an impressive coda on the quest for urban sustainability. Harvey (1997) sees such misty-eyed urbanisms as a ‘communitarian trap’; an attempt by elites to recover in aestheticised, commoditised forms the social relations lost to modernisation. Broader approaches take an open system view, for example, by measuring the environmental footprint of cities, without acknowledging the underlying shaping influences of accumulation and geopolitics in the global ecological crisis. There is recognition that cities export their resource impacts and wastes (including carbon) through the global political economy. Although varying considerably in premise and approach, most such analyses are joined to a broader enterprise—‘sustainable urban development’—that seeks to reconcile ecology, including human nature, to economic growth in some form. Much of this literature and advocacy is reactively hostile to the vast fabric in which its readers reside, suburbia, without considering the latent potential capacity of that landscape to adapt and march to a new economic drumbeat.

These assessments are valuable but insufficient. It is undoubtedly true that modern cities are ‘over consumptive’, but this does not satisfy critical explanation. The ‘consumptive city’ reifies what we see the image of a ravenous, belching urban environment into something it is not, the structural origin of the natural crisis. It neglects the centrality of urbanisation to the creation of value. As French philosopher Henri Lefebvre (2003 [1970]: 117) insisted, urbanisation is ‘not only a devouring activity’, it hosts and realises production by ‘combining markets’ (capital, land, labour) and casting aside barriers to accumulation and profit making. Thus, the origin of the present crisis is not ‘the city’, or even consumption in the first instance, but the endemic problem of overproduction that has plagued capitalism historically, and generated periodic structural defaults. It has also relentlessly, indeed remorselessly driven urbanisation; a principal motive force in the territorial enlargement of the political economy generally.

The dream of green reform is that economic growth can be decou- pled from this twin territorial expansion. The insights of industrial ecology would green production. State and civil society would be transformed by a great ‘ecological modernisation’ of policy and purpose. For decades these dreams have inspired many renovating projects, including in cities which have been stages for new green urbanisms, such as London’s Beddington Zero Energy Development. New regulatory frames and voluntary schemes have mandated and starred urban designs with smaller footprints. The margins of efficiency are tightened in some places but in a context of ever massive urbanisation.

Some resources may be used more efficiently but as we have pointed out this husbandry cloaks a greater abandonment, the ever-escalating consumption and degradation of Earth. Our tormented incapacity to live within the sustainable limits of the planet has been relentlessly staged in a world aware of its deteriorating ecology but thus far unable to stem the decline through any means. The spectacle of species impotence has taken on a voyeuristic quality of ‘reality television’. We have agonised about the Amazon for years but watched helplessly the inexorable waning of our last great forest.

The global ecological crisis—of declining resource reserves, of failing waste absorption, of biodiversity destruction—betrays a systemic disinterest in reform, whatever its theoretical possibilities. The Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth thesis, published in 1972, briefly captured the Western imagination (Meadows et al. 1972). The barriers of caution and conservation were subsequently circumvented by the growth path of globalising super-capitalism. And yet, the report was no siren of imminent doom. It looked presciently ahead to 2070, foretelling a collapse in population and production capacity that looks increasingly plausible as business as usual persists despite all warnings. Extensive resource modelling by Graham Turner (2014) and col- leagues at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) suggested that the Club of Rome’s forecast about species overshoot was largely accurate.

Will a yet-to-be-realised ecological modernisation of capitalism stem the tide of global bankruptcy? This refers to the ever-proliferating ensemble of actions designed to reduce the ‘ecological load’ of markets, including the heroic ambition to ‘dematerialise’ accumulation. The economist Tim Jackson’s definitive work, Prosperity without Growth (2009), exposes the ruse of ecological modernisation. By many indicators, decades of innovation and effort have not even secured the ‘relative’ decoupling of resource use from economic growth, let alone the absolute declines in resource demands that are so urgently needed (see also, Wiedmann et al. 2015; Ward et al. 2016; Kallis 2017). It is notable that the rising tide of global carbon emissions was not halted by the recent world recession. Reducing or greening consumption runs counter to fundamental expansionary economic forces and raises equity risks—whose consumption is to be reduced? The threat of injustice from responses premised on consumption restraint has been too little debated in the West. It is, however, an established and persistent theme in the global geopolitics of climate response.

What then of urban policy and intervention? Its powers and role must be redefined through a series of premises that recognise the root problem of overproduction. They follow thus. Built environment change is slow and contested. In a developed city, turnover (additions and alterations) in the built stock is typically much less than five per cent per annum. Even if planning could implement rapid change, it is unlikely that this would reduce energy consumption at the scale or in the time frame needed. The relationship between energy use and urban morphology is complex, multivalent and context dependent. The main greenhouse problem is the energy embodied in (and indirectly consumed through) goods and services. Planning is not a frontline mechanism for mitigation. None of this is to deny the project of urban containment in its broadest sense: it responds to and evokes a broader imperative of the age, to craft a new dispensation that enshrines self-limitation as a premise for all human endeavours. If we are to survive the looming social, ecological and economic disruptions to the status quo, the primary goal is not to rebuild our cities but instead learn how to re-inhabit a built environment that already exists.

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Featured Image : Photo by Alvin Engler on Unsplash

You can find a number of Samuel Alexander’s books in our online store in the link below: 

https://pmnlive.wpengine.com/product-category/ebook/

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Samuel Alexander

Dr Samuel Alexander is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Melbourne, Australia, teaching a course called ‘Consumerism and the Growth Economy: Critical Interdisciplinary Perspectives’ as part of the Master of Environment.

2 Comments

  1. The excerpt references many sources about the paradox that efficiency feeds more consumption, not lessens it. A glaring omission is the work of Timothy Garrett, atmospheric physicist at U Utah. I leave references for your use:
    https://www.cabrillo.edu/~rnolthenius/Apowers/A7-K43-Garrett.pdf

    https://www.earth-syst-dynam.net/3/1/2012/esd-3-1-2012-discussion.html

    https://www.earth-syst-dynam.net/6/673/2015/esd-6-673-2015-discussion.html

    FAQ in response to various confusions out there:
    https://www.inscc.utah.edu/~tgarrett/Economics/FAQ.html
    Garrett’s blog called nephologue. https://nephologue.blogspot.com

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