We started publishing 2 weeks ago 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.
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.
“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-Graham, Jenny 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 :
The Limits to Capital
Are we at the threshold of the apocalyptic ‘next world’ that scientist James Lovelock (2009) speaks of? Put differently, is the human species now at the precipice of natural default and the massive societal change it must surely trigger? These are not new questions. The end of carbon-intensive capitalism has been long predicted: As Beck (2012: 90) reminded us, already, more than a century ago, Max Weber anticipated the end of oil-based capitalism when he spoke of a time when ‘the last hundredweight of fossil fuel is built up’.
The contemporary problem of overshoot has two faces: one of over accumulation and thus depletion of natural capital; the other a simul- taneous overabundance of financial capital and critical deprivation of social capital (‘planet of slums’ etc.). The built environment is now central to these twin crises of the age. Urbanisation is at the heart of overproduction and ecological default, but also central to the absorption of excess capital. The real estate sector has its own dynamics, and investment in housing is vital for capital accumulation, as Harvey has explained, yet all this takes place within a paradigm of growth capitalism that shapes and seems to impel these destructive and often exclusive modes of development. The massive contemporary infrastructure development push in world cities reflects both realities—absorption and depletion. The ricocheting spiral of these modalities defines the urban age. This indicates a convulsive instability at the heart of human prospect that contradicts the predictive confidence of popular urban commentary. As debt fuels what seem to be property bubbles in various urban centres—with the Australian capital cities of Sydney and Melbourne being particularly worrying examples—renegade economist Steve Keen (2017) warns that it would be prudent to prepare for the closing of the casino before these bubbles burst. The convulsion suggests a bad ending.
Such a culminating crisis seems imminent. The strengthening testimony of natural science indicates that ‘the infernal self-propelling machine of Capital’—in Žižek’s (2012: 35) colourful terms—is finally reaching the limits of improvidence. So, can we speak finally of the limits to capital? Could the vertical sprawl of urban intensification be regarded as capitalism’s last violent act? The real and awful consequences of the compact city project are finally, if slowly, dawning upon us (Gleeson 2014). As history shows, capital has an infernal power to appropriate and deploy to its own end (valorisation) what begin as progressive causes that seek to restrain its excesses through sound socio-technical innovations. And so it is with the compact city which sought to contain and make safe the heretofore brute and ecocidal nature of capitalist urbanisation. Alas, progressive intent was innocent of capital’s intent, which now mocks the compact city ideal through hypertrophic urbanism (inflation of space driven by financial not human logic). As the injuries of urban intensification mount it becomes apparent yet again that, although indubitably an artefact of modernity, capital is exposed yet again as ‘a bad friend of progress’.
Harvey (2010: 78) states that ‘…capitalism has, in the past, success- fully circumvented around natural barriers’—the seeming resolution (at least for now) of the peak oil emergency may be the latest instance of this impressive ‘Houdini’ reflex. Harvey (ibid.) also acknowledges that ‘There may be an imminent crisis in our relation to nature that will require widespread adaptations….’. By adaptations he does not mean the technocratic innovations or lifestyle adjustments inherent in green urbanism but wholesale systemic change.
Is Žižek correct? Will natural scarcities and despoliation soon present an absolute, and thus insurmountable, barrier to accumulation that will trigger a final transformative crisis of capitalism? The Right scoffs and many progressives still wish for reform not transformation. The issues reviewed earlier, however, support Žižek. A massive, disruptive adjustment to the human world is inevitable. The next world is already dawning. Humanity will surely survive to see it. Political economic analysis of the causes of the crisis suggests that capitalism will not. As with preceding modes of production it will collapse under the weight of internal contradictions, and perhaps in the face of yet unknown natural obstacles. Humanity will be freer to consider new productive and social relationships. This may not mark transition to a post-growth world of greater wealth but of diminished and reconceived materiality and, with a mixture of struggle and fortune, expanded qualitative relationships.
To a New Settlement
Decades of green censure have done little or nothing to reset the path of consumption, which has yearned for ever higher, ever-more trivial peaks. We may recall the philosopher Erich Fromm’s (2009 ) warning that the destructive contradictions of modernity would ever reveal themselves in this manner. The great unheralded cost of individuation was alienation from Earth, kin and community. This rupture would drive an exodus of souls towards the consolations of consumerism and other compensations for the ‘terrible burden’ of individualism. This flight from desolation has defined the consumerist age of neo- liberalism, but it does not explain exhaustively the origins of the current human predicament. Through technological artifice and material restraint small parts of the species have supressed the consumerist drive. But we do not know how to produce less.
Ultimately, the solution to crisis is crisis: a massive suspension of capitalism as prelude to a new economic and social dispensation. It is the new beginning of which philosopher Hannah Arendt (1998 ) believed we are infinitely capable. The energy foundations of capitalism seem set for disruption in coming years and decades as fossil reserves deplete and climate warming ramps up. We enter a chrysalis era—insecure but with latent potential. Urry (2011: 46–47) worried that ‘There are rather limited future worlds because of the twentieth-century legacy of high carbon production and consumption’. But humans make history in mysteriously unpredictable ways even with diminished resources, although always, as Marx insisted, the new worlds are stamped with the birthmarks of the old from whose womb they emerge. David Holmgren’s (2009) insightful text Future Scenarios may well depict the field of divergent human possibilities that will usher in the new dispensation. He speaks of alternative world trajectories, ranging from autocracy and chaos, to Earth stewardship, that will attend the transition that appears inevitable. Likely there will be elements of all these trajectories as the messy future unfolds, and our challenge is to ensure the balance is weighted as far as possible in terms consistent with human and ecological co-existence and mutual flourishing.
Nothing is ordained, however, and it is the task of politics, or collective action more broadly, to choose the next world. As outlined further below, we see urban social movements as humanity’s best hope for driving and managing the transition to a new urban and suburban form—a transition that is perhaps already underway, if only in its early stages. The promise of human natality that Arendt reassured us of can be breached but not erased entirely. She firmly believed that the human capacity for renewal would always carry us out of the worst quagmires. Can the great vessel of human ingenuity carry us to new shores? Considering the rising flood of planetary woe, urbanist Mike Davis (2010) asks, ‘Who will build the Ark?’
We must set sail for newer, safer shores and resist the sirens of destruction. The urban age is not a time of species affirmation; it is the hour of our gravest peril. It is also the reopening of unhuman possibility. To liberate human prospect, we must cast down not defend the burning barricades of a dying modernity. Urban revolution is upon us again. Unlike the uprisings of the nineteenth century, which tore up slums and tenements of inner cities, this great insurrection must extend to, and in some places, begin from, the suburbs. Its first crucible, however, is not the street or place of assembly but the fundaments and filaments of human imagination. We must imagine a resettled world; a resettled suburbia.
Charting for Degrowth
Resettlement means transformation, of the suburban fabric yes, but also and more importantly, of the fundamental political economy that shapes human activity, especially urbanisation. Transformation in turn necessitates transition, a journey to somewhere different, to a profoundly new human dispensation. To begin this we need a chart to guide change that steers us towards what is possible and necessary and away from the shoals of false hope, in particular the deceptive lures of a reformed capitalism grounded in a ‘sustainable’ high-energy social system. This requires a careful and discriminatory plotting of the way forward. After all, if the map is poorly drawn and the compass is broken, one is unlikely to arrive at where one needs to go. To avoid that tragic disorientation, we must first ‘think globally’ about both justice and sus- tainability, for only then can one know how best to ‘act locally’.
The essential contours of the global predicament can be quite concisely stated. There are now 7.6 billion people on Earth, and recent studies from the United Nations suggest we’re heading for around 9.8 billion by mid-century and more than 11 billion by 2100. This global population, even if it stopped growing today, is placing tremendous burdens on planetary ecosystems. By all range of indicators (pollution, climatic, deforestation, top toil erosion, resource depletion, biodiversity loss, etc.) the global economy is now in gross ecological overshoot, year-by-year degrading the biophysical foundations of life in ways that are unsustainable (Steffan et al. 2015). Needless to say, modes of production and consumption in the wealthiest regions of the world are by far the most environmentally impactful, although the emerging economies seem to be following (or being forced onto) the same high-impact, fossil fuel-dependent industrial path taken by the richest nations. Let us not pretend that all the talk about ‘sustainable development’ in recent decades has produced sustainable development.
Despite the global economy being in this overgrown state of ecological overshoot, we also know that billions of people on the planet are, by any humane standard, under-consuming (Hickel 2017). If these people are to raise their living standards to some dignified level of material sufficiency, as they have every right to do, it is likely that this will place further burdens on already overburdened ecosystems. All this and more is radically calling into question the legitimacy of the high-impact forms of urban and suburban life that have evolved in the most developed regions of the world, supported by and seemingly required by the eco- nomics of growth that define capitalism.
And yet, despite the fact that humanity is making unsustainable demands on a finite biosphere, all nations on the planet (including or especially the richest nations) are seeking to grow their economies with- out apparent limit. This is highly problematic, to say the least, because of the close connection between economic growth (in terms of GDP) and rising energy and resource consumption. It is all very well to point to the potential of technology and efficiency improvements to produce ‘green growth’, but the fact is that as the world gets distracted by such theoretical possibilities, the time for transition is vanishing (Smith2016).
We frame our forthcoming analysis of suburbia by this ‘limits to growth’ perspective. We conclude that globalising the high-consumption, energy-intensive ways of living prevalent in the wealthiest regions of the world would be ecologically catastrophic, and reject the theory that all nations on the planet can grow their economies while sufficiently ‘decoupling’ economic activity from environmental impact by way of technological advancement and efficiency improvements. The extent of decoupling required is far too great (Jackson 2009).
In the same vein, we reject any policy that sees a growing population as a desirable means of keeping the cogs of economic growth turning. Despite all the criticism he has received, Paul Ehrlich (quoted in Hurst1997) was fundamentally right in stating that ‘whatever problem you’re interested in, you’re not going to solve it unless you also solve the population problem’. That insight applies as much to urban development as other domains of life. At the same time, after siphoning resources away from the rest of the world, it would be inhumane for the rich world to callously close borders now and leave the world’s poor—including the growing populations of what are increasingly called ‘climate refugees’— to fend for themselves. Clearly this is complex, thorny terrain, which must be negotiated with constant reference to an ethics of solidarity and
compassion. One thing is clear: we must oppose the tide of scapegoat racism that seems to being driving the wave of populist nationalism that today calls for the closing of borders at a time when we must be open- ing our hearts.
Just as there are no simple answers to the vexed population dilem- mas, so too with regards sustainable energy transitions. As will be seen, we are generally sceptical about the ability of renewable energy to easily or fully replace the energy services provided by fossil fuels—especially those energy services dependent on the 96 million barrels of oil that are consumed every day. It follows that the most industrialised and energy intensive regions of the world will almost certainly need to adapt to an ‘energy descent’ future if 100% renewable energy supply is achieved (Odum and Odum 2001). But given the energetic foundations of eco- nomic activity, reduced energy supply implies that those energy-in- tensive societies, such as Australia, will need to go through a phase of planned economic contraction, with the aim of leaving sufficient ‘ecological room’ for the poorest nations to provide a dignified standard of living for those currently destitute. This will require the rich nations to create new ‘post-growth’ or ‘degrowth’ forms of economy, while at the cultural level variously reimagining the good life beyond consumer culture. Tinkering around the edges of growth capitalism will not cut it. Green consumerism is a dangerous mirage.
Granted, most people are not ready to accept these deep implications of the global situation, but only by understanding and acknowledging the true extent of the ecological predicament and the limits of technological and market-based solutions can one understand the arguments developed in this book. It is important to bear this ‘limits to growth’ perspective in mind when evaluating our position, which might otherwise be interpreted as being too radical. Radical it is, but this is defended on the grounds that it is a response proportionate to the magnitude and urgency of the overlapping crises we face. Given how closely connected urban forms are to their underlying economic modes of production, it should come as no surprise that our book is framed and informed by the macro-perspective of political economy.
The terminology of ‘degrowth’ has provoked debate (Raworth 2017), but on careful consideration we feel it is the most appropriate term to frame the present enquiry. In a civilisation where growth is widely considered synonymous with ‘good’ or ‘progress’, there is certainly a public relations challenge in attempting to undermine this most fundamental metaphor so directly. But therein also lies a key strength. Other terms like ‘sustainable development’ or the ‘green economy’ get co-opted so easily, ultimately being rendered meaningless by virtue of meaning anything. Business as usual continues. While degrowth certainly has its own ambiguities, it has the virtue of directly and boldly evoking the need for overall contraction of energy and resource demands in the wealthiest nations. If that it is what is needed, then degrowth clearly lays down that gauntlet in ways that discourse on sustainable development does not. Furthermore, while sustainable development has been interpreted to mean growth, one cannot redefine degrowth to mean growth without degenerating into Orwellian double-speak. We are also encouraged by the fact that over the last decade degrowth has provoked a widespread and necessary debate that is in the process is moving beyond academic circles and beginning to enter public discourse.
In recent decades the ‘limits to growth’ position more broadly has received a great deal of attention, mostly from economic and ecologi- cal perspectives. Recently, the degrowth movement has begun contributing an important range of new political and sociological analyses, offering deeper insight into the alternative paradigm, evaluating transition strategies, policies, and obstacles, while also continuing to update and refine the ecological critique of growth economics in response to those who continue to fetishise growth (see, D’Alisa et al. 2015; Weiss and Cattaneo 2017; Kallis 2017). The purpose of our book, however, is not to review these existing literatures in any depth (see Kallis et al.2018), but to extend and deepen the understanding of degrowth by examining the concept and the movement from a perspective that has received very little attention—namely, urban theory. What has been written on degrowth and urban theory (see e.g. Lietaert 2010; Xue2015; March 2018; Lehtinen 2018) has neglected what is our focus herein: suburbia and its (re)inhabitation in an energy and resource constrained world.
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You can find a number of Samuel Alexander’s books in our online store in the link below: