Book Review: The Great Inversion

Websites like The Atlantic Cities seem to publish new statistics on the Millennial generation's affinity for urban living at least once a week. Articles like The End of Car Ownership; It's Official: Downtowns are Booming; and Will Millennials Stay? Alan Ehrenhalt gives some context and nuance to this 21st century shift in urban thinking by profiling a number of unique American cities on the verge of change in The Great Inversion.

Ehrenhalt's thesis is that the post-war demographic shift is now seeing its inverse with young and affluent (largely white) people moving to the city while immigrants, minorities and poorer people are heading to the suburbs.

Despite this basic premise, the cities and neighborhoods Ehrenhalt visits are all facing unique challenges. There's New York City's Financial District that's seeing an unexpected conversion of office space to residential, but without the mom 'n pop shops deemed vital to a healthy community by famous urbanist Jane Jacobs. There's Phoenix and the suburbs of Denver, CO struggling to redefine themselves as "walkable, transit-oriented" in an era far removed from the post-war sprawl mentality they were born into. And there are places like Philadelphia ("Bostroit") that are thriving in the downtown core but remain crippled under a glut of abandoned buildings elsewhere.

It's clear that the urbanist revival of the past 15 years or so is still struggling to find its footing. Much of the development (in the suburbs especially) seems to capture the facade of city life, but not its heart. Reston Town Center in Virginia, West Hartford, CT's Blue Back Square and the rest of the new crop of polished suburban "downtown centers" seem more eager have people buy things than to foster civic engagement.

There are two factors that Ehrenhalt glosses over to the book's detriment. The first is the role that energy, climate change and resource scarcity play in the future of cities. He cops out by saying he's not an energy policy expert, a frustrating statement considering cities consume 75% of the world's energy and the enormous challenges they face in light of that.

And while race and inequality are part of his thesis, Ehrenhalt says that there's nothing much to be done about segregation by class, that it's "a fact of American life". In this way he brushes aside the idea that equality (or lack thereof) might be the most important factor determining the shape of our cities. Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá (it's difficult not to quote a Colombian mayor these days) puts it best: "A city needs to show as much respect for a person riding a $30 bicycle as it does for someone driving a $30,000 car." American cities just aren't there yet.

Book Review: China's Environmental Challenges

China’s environmental story is full of contradictions. What does one make of a country where the government severely limits the freedom of NGOs, yet has some of the most thorough environmental laws and most sustainably-minded leadership in the world? A place where the opening of a nature preserve is celebrated with a banquet that includes endangered animals? A country that builds the most wind turbines—and burns the most coal?

Judith Shapiro’s readable new book, China’s Environmental Challenges, untangles these contradictions and provides a snapshot of China as it teeters on the edge of unprecedented ecological limits. Shapiro was one of the few Americans to enter China before relations between the two countries were normalized in 1978 and now teaches global environmental politics at American University. In the book, she looks at how national identity, government structure and civil society play into China’s approach to environmental issues.

By now, we’re familiar with news of polluted cities and “cancer villages,” enormous factories and contentious dam projects, rapid desertification and a growing middle class eager to model the West’s worst consumerist excesses. With news like this, one gets the impression that Chinese society is a monolithic ogre blindly pulling its people, and the world, toward environmental ruin.

But according to Shapiro, the country’s domestic realities and international relations are complex.
She reveals that China’s leadership under Mao Zedong was just as undeniably brutal to nature as it was to millions of Chinese during the “Great Leap Forward” (1958-1961): swaths of forests were felled for unusable steel smelters, sparrows were systematically killed as “pests” despite their important role in defending crops from insects, and ecologically-sensitive areas throughout the country were converted to  experimental farmland, leading to famine (Shapiro’s 2001 book Mao’s War Against Nature digs further into this period).

But China’s government has become increasingly more fractured and sensitive to environmental issues in the last few decades, just as the stakes have been raised. Echoing Jonathan Watts in When a Billion Chinese Jump, Shapiro writes that it’s not the national government, but an entrenched network of corrupt and uncontrollable developers and local officials, that are driving most of the country’s environmental problems today.  

A Factory on the Yangtze River / Wikimedia Commons
The same rich countries that lament China’s environmental record are far from blameless either. For decades, the US and Europe have displaced environmental harms to China, especially in the textile and electronics industries. Now China, with its rising economic prowess and disgruntled, savvy middle class, is exporting harms itself: to poorer areas domestically, and to Southeast Asia and Africa.

Though they’re hampered by repressive rules about activism and fundraising, Shapiro describes China’s community of environmental groups as large, active and, for the most part, respected. She delves into the contours of this community in what turns out to be the most encouraging part of the book.

Chinese NGOs have attended the last few UN climate negotiations to pressure their government and the global community to take bolder action on climate change. Famous journalists-turned-activists like Liu Jianqiang and the 2012 Goldman Prize winner Ma Jun are well-known for their publicizing environmental harms and challenging corporations and government projects.

Low estimates put the number of environmental protests at 5000 each year, many of them originating from the same middle class that fuels the country’s resource consumption. While the difference between human rights abuses and environmental damage isn’t as distinct as it might be in developed countries, Shapiro says environmental groups enjoy a greater level of freedom than other types of political organizations.

Protesting a Chemical Plant in Dalian, August 2011 (Getty)
Any hope of addressing China’s enormous environmental problems will involve strengthening this mostly feeble civil society sector, giving voice to the rural and minority populations most affected by environmental damage, and tapping into China’s home-grown notions of sustainability found in its religious and cultural traditions. With Western-style consumerism ascendant and free speech still stifled, the prospect of such a shift happening is slim, but the seeds of change do exist. One suspects that US leadership on climate change, which is currently lacking, may also influence China’s actions on the global stage.

Although Shapiro’s book is aimed at students (each chapter ends with discussion questions), general readers will find the book helpful when placing news items like the recent US-China clean technology trade tensions or friction over embassy smog reporting in context. Those wishing for more in-depth discussions on particular issues will need to look elsewhere.

It’s impossible to be a globally-minded environmentalist today without considering the role China plays. Shapiro rightly says that “it is within China that much of the future of the planet will be decided.” 

Comfort in Communal Spaces

When I was a kid, I claimed I would to grow up to be a hermit like Adam on Northern Exposure: cabin in the woods, gruff attitude, haughtily shunning society and its pedestrian rules. I hated teamwork time in school - I felt I could accomplish things with less struggle if I did it myself. In other words, I thought I was special. As I get older, though, I'm beginning to appreciate the comfort of melting into a crowd and working on something with a group - it's a transformation reflected in the Fleet Foxes song, Helplessness Blues:

I was raised up believing 
I was somehow unique 
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes 
Unique in each way you can see 

And now after some thinking 
I'd say I'd rather be 
A functioning cog in some great machinery 
Serving something beyond me

This weekend I went for the second time to a Korean-style spa in Virginia called "Spa World". One of the unique aspects of the place is its large common room where people of all ages and nationalities nap and read and chat on mats laid out on the floor.

You stake out your temporary real estate, park your head on a cushion and drift in and out of wakefulness as the older Korean couple on the mat next to you talk in even, comforting tones you can't understand or the kids a few mats over unwrap red bean popsicles. In whatever section of the building you're in, there's a feeling of relaxed, anonymous intimacy with those around you - you're either wearing your birthday suit like everyone else in the pool area (and why feel self-conscious when everyone else is naked too?), or you're dressed in matching orange jumpsuits in the co-ed rooms as if you're all rooting for the same team.

Through my friends, I've also gotten into social dances like Square and Contra.

jack_mitchell_iv / flickr
Although the building block of such dances is the couple, the unity and integrity of the whole group is what's important. By the end of the night, everyone has danced with nearly everyone else on the floor, giving the event a feeling of shared joy and accomplishment. I can show up alone to an event like this and immediately feel embraced by the crowd.

Tryst in Washington, DC. A kind of community living room (Photo: Poldavo)
The buzz about walkable communities, collaborative consumption, placemaking, and localism all signal a shift from the illusion of separateness which Americans have been operating under for past few decades. We made a bargain, it seems: things over people; possessions over community. There are signs that we're now beginning to see the value in trusting each other and working together, in a shared purpose that transcends the nuclear family. Despite my youthful affinity for solitude, I welcome this shift.

A Masculine Lens on Climate Change?

Happy Mother’s Day.

"Sea Stack" by Justine Kurland
The ecoAmerica values survey, which I usually find insightful, tweaked me the wrong way recently. The report tries to take the American public's pulse on environmental issues. One section offers suggestions on messaging for environmental advocates, including this one:
Make climate solutions masculine to garner more support

Passive energy sources may be the solution for the planet, but many Americans want action. The majority of positive attitudes on the environment and current climate change solutions, such as wind and solar energy, are viewed as feminine. Feminine issues are passive, and passive issues do not require immediate attention. Themes of sacrifice and must do – also perceived as feminine – are not bold solutions to climate change.

The majority of anti-green attitudes are viewed as masculine. Problems perceived as masculine – tough problems – require immediate, bold action. Americans with masculine, anti-green attitudes, such as resentment and excuses, want big solutions. They need to know that whatever America invests in and builds will work. They want bold solutions at scale, that are visibly active, and yield significant, visible progress. They are not attracted to solutions that cut off energy supply when days are cloudy or windless…
How to unpack this? To me, what this reveals is not a problem with how the American public views environmental issues, but how they view gender (if these findings are accurate, anyway). And are the surveyors simply passing along data, or letting their own biases about gender color the results? There’s also an unspoken assumption here: men run things, “masculinity” takes precedent in American culture; therefore, we must appeal to men.

I understand the concept of opening communication channels with and appealing to those in power. But must we downgrade “feminine” values (whether they're coming from women or men) in order to open those channels?

Far from being passive, women are not only on the frontlines of climate change, they’re also some of the most courageous advocates for “immediate, bold action”. Accepting stereotypes about what constitutes a “feminine” solution vs. a “masculine” one divides us when we need to be working together.

I was also surprised that the findings equated renewable energy with femininity. What with men occupying most of the green jobs, the Weather Channel’s new show Turbine Cowboys and the “booth babes” one finds at renewable energy conferences – the sector seems pretty masculine to me.

Maybe instead of continuing to romanticize technocratic solutions, we should recognize that so-called feminine perspectives are vital in the current crisis. How might we build that recognition? What do you think?

Religion and Environmentalism

I became disgruntled with organized (Western) religion as a kid and didn't think much about its value until, ironically, I became more of an environmental activist. Like in the civil rights movement, churches are nourishing environmental causes, whether it was St. Stephen's hosting Tar Sands Action trainings or St. Columba's showing documentaries during the Environmental Film Festival. Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light is tapping into religion's potential to address the ethical vacuum in environmental debates and last week our local chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby co-hosted an event with them.

The panelists Yasir Syeed and Laura Bellows spoke movingly about how religion could counteract contemporary ideas about "resources": putting the "spirit" back in a nature which has largely been appreciated only for its monetary or utilitarian value.

I also visited the Washington National Cathedral today for an Easter organ concert and was tickled to stumble across grizzly bears, spawning salmon and jellyfish among the saints and biblical scenes on their stained glass windows:

Religion (done right, of course) is not so far from art and literature: we need their stories and metaphors to understand our relationship to other living things.