Who Will Build the Ark? The Utopian Imperative in an Age of Catastrophe

My talk tonight is rather like the famous courtroom scene in Orson Welles' 'Lady from Shanghai.' In this 1947 film - a noir allegory about proletarian virtue in the embrace of ruling-class decadence - Welles plays a leftwing sailor named Michael O'Hara, who rolls in the hay with femme fatale Rita Hayward, then is framed for murder by her husband, Arthur Bannister (played by Everett Sloan). Bannister, the most celebrated criminal lawyer in America, convinces O'Hara to appoint him as his defense, all the better to ensure his rival's conviction and execution. At the turning point in the trial, decried by the prosecution as "yet another of the great Bannister's famous tricks,' Bannister the attorney calls Bannister the aggrieved husband to the witness stand and interrogates himself in rapid schizoid volleys to the mirth of the jury.

In the spirit of 'Lady from Shanghai,' I've organized this talk as a debate with myself, a mental tournament between analytic despair and utopian possibility that is personally, and probably objectively, irresolvable.

In the first half of the presentation, 'Pessimism of the Intellect,' I adduce arguments for believing that we've already lost the first, epochal stage of the battle against global warming. The Kyoto Protocol, in the smug but sadly accurate words of one of its chief opponents, has done "nothing measurable about climate change. Global carbon dioxide emissions arose by the same amount they were supposed to fall because of it." It is unlikely, moreover, that a post-Kyoto process can stabilize greenhouse gas accumulation this side of the famous 'red line' of 450 ppm by 2020. If this is the case, the most heroic efforts of our children's generation will be unable to forestall a radical reshaping of ecologies, water resources, and agricultural systems. In a warmer world, moreover, socio-economic inequality will have a meteorological mandate, and there will be little incentive for the rich Northern Hemisphere countries whose carbon emissions have destroyed the climate equilibrium of the Holocene to share resources for adaptation with those poor subtropical countries most vulnerable to droughts and floods.

The second part of the talk is my self-rebuttal ('Optimism of the Imagination'). I appeal to the paradox that the single most important cause of global warming - the urbanization of humanity - is also potentially the principal solution to the problem of human survival in the later twenty-first century. Left to the dismal politics of the present, of course, cities of poverty will almost certainly become the coffins of hope; but all the more reason that we must start thinking like Noah. Since most of history's giant trees have already been cut down, a new Ark will have to be constructed out of the materials that a desperate humanity finds at hand in insurgent communities, pirate technologies, bootlegged media, rebel science, and forgotten utopias.

Case for the Prosecution: 'PESSIMISM OF THE INTELLECT'


Our world, our old world that we have inhabited for the last 12,000 years, has ended, even if no newspaper in North America or Europe has yet printed its scientific obituary.

Last February, while cranes were hoisting cladding to the 141st floor of the Burj Dubai tower (which is now twice the height of the Empire State Building), the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London was adding the newest and highest storey to the geological column.

The London Society is the world's oldest association of Earth scientists, founded in 1808, and its Commission acts as a college of cardinals in the adjudication of the geological time-scale. Stratigraphers slice up Earth's history as preserved in sedimentary strata into a hierarchy of eons, eras, periods, and epochs marked by the "golden spikes" of mass extinctions, speciation events, and/or abrupt changes in atmospheric chemistry.

In geology, as in biology and history, periodization is a complex, controversial art, and the most bitter feud in nineteenth-century British science -- still known as the "Great Devonian Controversy" -- was fought over competing interpretations of homely Welsh graywackes and English Old Red Sandstone.

As a result, earth science sets extraordinarily rigorous standards for the beatification of any new geological division. Although the idea of an "Anthropocene" epoch - defined by the emergence of urban-industrial society as a geological force - has long circulated in the literature, stratigraphers have never acknowledged its warrant.

At least for the London Society, that position has now been revised. To the question, "Are we now living in the Anthropocene?," the twenty-one members of the Commission unanimously answer "yes." They marshal robust evidence that the Holocene epoch -- the interglacial span of unusually stable climate that has allowed the rapid evolution of agriculture and urban civilization -- has ended and that the Earth has entered "a stratigraphic interval without close parallel in the last several million years". In addition to the buildup of greenhouse gases, the stratigraphers cite human landscape transformation which "now exceeds [annual] natural sediment production by an order of magnitude," the ominous acidification of the oceans, and the relentless destruction of biota.

This new age, they explain, is defined both by the heating trend (whose closest analogue may be the catastrophe known as the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum, 56 million years ago) and by the radical instability expected of future environments. In somber prose, they warn that "the combination of extinctions, global species migrations and the widespread replacement of natural vegetation with agricultural monocultures is producing a distinctive contemporary biostratigraphic signal. These effects are permanent, as future evolution will take place from surviving (and frequently anthropogenically relocated) stocks." Evolution itself, in other words, has been forced into a new trajectory.


The Commission's coronation of the Anthropocene coincides with growing scientific controversy over the Fourth Assessment Report issued last year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC, of course, is mandated to assess the possible range of climate change and establish appropriate targets for the mitigation of emissions. The most critical baselines include estimates of 'climate sensitivity' to increasing accumulations of greenhouse gas, as well as socio-economic tableaux that configure different futures of energy use and thus of emissions. But an impressive number of senior researchers, including key participants in the IPCC's own working groups, have recently expressed unease or disagreement with the methodology of the Fourth Assessment, which they charge is unwarrantly optimistic in its geophysics and social science.

The most celebrated dissenter, as you might know, is James Hansen from NASA's Godard Laboratory. The Paul Revere of global warming who first warned Congress of the greenhouse peril in a famous 1988 hearing, he returned to Washington this year with the troubling message that the IPCC, through its failure to parameterize crucial Earth-system feedbacks, has given far too much leeway to further carbon emissions. Instead of the IPCC's proposed red line of 450 ppm carbon dioxide, his research team found compelling paleoclimatic evidence that the threshold of safety was only 350 ppm or even less. The "stunning corollary" of this recalibration of climate sensitivity, he testified, is that " the oft-stated goal to keep global warming less than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is a recipe for global disaster, not salvation." Indeed, since the current level is about 385 ppm, we may already be past the notorious 'tipping point.' Therefore Hansen has mobilized a Quixotic army of scientists and environmental activists including Al Gore and Bill McKibbin to save the world via an emergency carbon tax that would reverse greenhouse concentrations to pre-Bush levels by 2015.

Although I am an earth-science hobbyist who enjoys browsing the technical literature and occasionally chatting with geophysicist friends at Lamont-Doherty, I have no qualification to express an opinion on the Hansen debate or the proper setting on the planetary thermostat. Anyone, however, who is engaged with the social sciences or simply pays regular attention to macro-trends should feel less shy about joining the debate over the other controversial cornerstone of the Fourth Assessment: its socio-economic projections and what we might term their 'political unconscious.'

The current scenarios were adopted by the IPCC in 2000 to model future global emissions based on different "storylines" about population growth as well as technological and economic development. The Panel's major scenarios - the A1 family, the B2, and so on - are well-known to policymakers and greenhouse activists, but few outside the research community have actually read the fine print, particularly the IPCC's heroic confidence that greater energy efficiency will be an "automatic" by-product of future economic growth. Indeed all the scenarios, even the "business as usual" variants, assume that almost 60 per cent of future carbon reduction will occur independently of explicit greenhouse mitigation measures.

The Panel, in effect, has bet the ranch, or rather the planet, on a market-driven evolution toward a post-carbon world economy: a transition that requires not only international emissions caps and carbon trading, but also voluntary corporate commitments to technologies that hardly exist even in prototype, such as carbon capture, hydrogen and advanced transit systems, and cellulosic biofuels. "In many of the SRES [IPPC] illustrative scenarios," emphasize the contributors to SCOPE's recent landmark report on The Global Carbon Cycle (2004), "the deployment of non-carbon-emitting energy supply systems exceeds the size of the global energy system in 1990."

Kyoto-type accords and carbon markets are designed -- almost as analogues to Keynesian "pump-priming" -- to bridge the shortfall between spontaneous decarbonization and the emissions targets required by each scenario. Although the IPCC never spells it out, its mitigation targets necessarily presume that windfall profits from higher fossil fuel prices over the next generation will be efficiently recycled into renewable energy technology and not wasted on mile-high-skyscrapers, asset bubbles, and mega-payouts to shareholders. Overall, the International Energy Agency estimates that it will cost about $45 trillion to halve greenhouse gas output by 2050. But without the large quotient of 'automatic' progress in energy efficiency, the bridge will never be built and IPPC goals will be unachievable; in the worst case (the straightforward extrapolation of current energy use), carbon emissions could easily triple by mid-century.

In a recent issue of Nature, critics cited the dismal carbon record of the last (or should I say, 'lost') decade, to demonstrate that the IPPC baseline assumptions about markets and technology are little more than heroic leaps of faith. Unsurprisingly, the Bush administration's 'voluntary' commitment to achieve an 18 per cent reduction in carbon intensity levels by 2012 has turned out to be a bad joke. European carbon emissions, meanwhile, have been rising (dramatically in some sectors) through early 2008 despite the European Union's much praised adoption of a cap-and-trade system three years earlier.

Likewise there has been scant evidence in recent years of the automatic progress in energy efficiency that is the sine qua non of IPCC scenarios. Much of what the storylines depict as the efficiency of new technology has in fact been the result of the closing down of heavy industries in the United States, Europe and and the ex-Soviet bloc. The relocation of energy-intensive production to East Asia burnishes the carbon balance sheets of some OECD countries but deindustrialization should not be confused with spontaneous decarbonization. Most researchers believe that energy intensity has actually risen since 2000; that is, global carbon dioxide emissions have kept pace with, or even grown marginally faster than, energy use.

Moreover the IPCC carbon budget has already been broken. At end of September, the Global Carbon Project, which keeps the accounts, reported that emissions have been rising faster than projected even in the IPPC's worst-case scenario. From 2000 to 2007 carbon dioxide rose by 3.5 per cent annually, compared with the 2.7 per cent in IPCC projections, or the .09 per cent recorded during the 1990s. We are already outside the IPCC envelope, in other words, and coal may be largely to blame for this unforseen acceleration of greenhouse emissions.

Coal production has undergone a dramatic renaissance over the last decade, as nightmares of the nineteenth century return to haunt the twenty-first century. In China five million miners toil under Dickensian conditions to extract the dirty mineral that allows Beijing to open an average of one new coal-fueled power station each week. Coal consumption is also booming in Europe (which has 50 new coal-fueled plants scheduled to open over the next five years) and North America (where 200 plants are planned). In Britain, the Kingsnorth coal-fired power-plant will be a leviathan that produces annual CO2 emissions greater than the combined output of thirty developing countries; similarly, the giant New Dominion plant under construction in Virginia will generate the equivalent of the exhausts of one million cars.

Those scientists like Hansen and reformers like Gore who believe that humanity's survival depends upon drastic, immediate reductions in coal-fueled emissions will find little solace in projected trends. In a commanding study of The Future of Coal published last year, MIT engineers concluded that coal use would increase under any foreseeable scenario, even in the face of high carbon taxes. Investment in carbon-capture and sequestration (CCS) technology, moreover, is "completely inadequate," and CCS - assuming that it is actually practical - would not become a utility-scale alternative until 2030 or later.

In the United States, the Bush's administration's recent 'green energy' legislation has only created a "perverse incentive" for utilities to build more coal-fired plants in the "expectation that emissions from these plants would potentially be 'grandfathered' by the grant of free CO2 allowances as part of future carbon emissions regulations." Meanwhile a a consortium of coal producers, coal-burning utilities, and coal-hauling railroads - calling themselves the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity - spent $40 million over the last election cycle to ensure that both presidential candidates sang in unison about the virtues of the dirtiest but cheapest fuel.

Largely because of the seemingly inexorable popularity of coal, a fossil fuel with a proven 200 year supply, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change finds that the "carbon content per unit of energy is likely to rise." Indeed, the U.S. Energy Department, before the economy collapsed, projected that national energy production would increase at least 20 per cent over the next generation, while globally the total consumption of fossil fuels is predicted to rise 55 per cent, with international oil exports doubling in volume. The United Nations Development Program, which has made its own study of sustainable energy goals, warns that it will require "a 50 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions worldwide by 2050 against 1990 levels" to keep humanity outside the red zone of runaway warming, usually defined as a greater than two degrees centigrade increase this century. Yet the International Energy Agency predicts that, in all likelihood, such emissions will actually increase over the next half century period by nearly 100 per cent -- enough greenhouse gas to propel us past several critical tipping points. (The IEA also projects that renewable energy, apart from hydropower, will provide only 4 per cent of electricity generation in 2030 - up from 1 per cent today.)


The current world recession - a non-linear event of the kind that IPCC scenarists ignore in their storylines - may provide a temporary respite, particularly as depressed oil prices delay the opening of the Pandora's box of new mega-carbon reservoirs such as tar sands and oil shales. But the slump is unlikely to slow the destruction of the Amazon rainforest because Brazilian farmers will rationally seek to defend gross incomes by expanding production. And because electricity demand is less elastic than automobile use, the share of coal in carbon emissions will continue to increase. In the United States, in fact, coal production is the only civilian industry or economic sector that is currently hiring rather than laying off workers.

More importantly, falling fossil-fuel prices and frozen credit markets are eroding entrepreneurial incentives to develop capital-intensive wind and solar alternatives On Wall Street, eco-energy stocks have slumped faster than the market as a whole and investment capital has virtually disappeared, leaving some of the most celebrated clean-energy start-ups, like Tesla Motors and Clear Skies Solar, in danger of sudden crib death. Tax credits, as advocated by President-elect Obama, are unlikely to reverse this green depression. As one venture capital manager recently told the New York Times, "natural gas at $6 makes wind look like a questionable idea and solar power unfathomably expensive."

Thus the economic crisis provides a compelling pretext for the groom once again to leave the bride at the altar, as major companies default on their public commitments to renewable energy. In the United States, mega-utilities like Duke Energy and Public Service Enterprise Group have abandoned highly advertised solar and wind energy projects, while Royal Dutch Shell has dropped its plan to invest in the London Array. In Australia, Chevron has protested the Labour government's cap-and-trade initiative by canceling the development of Gorgon gas field.

Governments and ruling parties have been equally avid to escape their carbon debts. In Canada's October's general election, for example, the Conservative Party, supported by Western oil and coal interests, defeated the Liberal's 'Green Shift' agenda based on a national carbon tax, while in Washington the Bush administration scrapped its major carbon-capture technology initiative. On the supposedly greener side of the Atlantic, the Berlusconi regime - which is in the process of converting Italy's grid from oil to coal - recently denounced the EU goal of cutting emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 as an "unaffordable sacrifice;" while the German government, in the words of the Financial Times, "dealt a severe blow to the proposal to force companies to pay for the carbon dioxide they emit by backing an almost total exemption for industry." ("This crisis changes priorities," explained a sheepish German foreign minister.)

Pessimism now abounds. Even Yvo de Boer, the Director of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, concedes that, as long as the economic crisis persists, "most sensible governments will be reluctant to impose new costs on [industry] in the form of carbon-emissions caps."

Although the election of Barack Obama (and the parallel rise of a new Washington power-structure identified with the information-technology industries) offers hopes of a 'Green Keynesian' response to the economic crisis based on public investment in renewable energy, hybrid cars and green jobs, the new president will almost certainly avoid major confrontations with the powerful coal and utility lobbies. And even if Obama did eventually bring Washington into alignment with the Kyoto signatories, he would be joining a process that is widely acknowledged to have failed and which offers little hope or assistance to those who will have the most urgent need to adapt to climate change.


So even if invisible hands and visionary leaders can restart the engines of economic growth, they are unlikely to be able to turn down the global thermostat in time to prevent runaway climate change. Nor should we expect that the G-7 or the G-30 will be eager to clean up the mess they have made.

Climate diplomacy based upon the Kyoto template assumes that all the major actors, once they have accepted the consensus science in the IPCC reports, will recognize an overriding common interest in gaining control over the greenhouse effect. But global warming is not H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, where invading Martians democratically annihilate humanity without class or ethnic distinction. Climate change, instead, will produce dramatically unequal impacts across regions and social classes, inflicting the greatest damage upon poor countries with the fewest resources for meaningful adaptation. This geographical separation of emission source from environmental consequence undermines proactive solidarity.

As the United Nations Development Program emphasized in its report last year, global warming is above all a threat to the poor and the unborn, the "two constituencies with little or no political voice." Coordinated global action on their behalf thus presupposes either their revolutionary empowerment (a scenario not considered by the IPCC) or the transmutation of the self-interest of rich countries and classes into an enlightened "solidarity" with little precedent in history.

From a rational-actor perspective, the latter outcome only seems realistic if it can be shown that privileged groups possess no preferential "exit" option; that internationalist public opinion drives policymaking in key countries; and that greenhouse gas mitigation can be achieved without major sacrifices in Northern Hemispheric standards of living -- none of which seem likely. Moreover, there is no shortage of eminent apologists, like Yale economists William Nordhaus and Robert Mendelsohn, ready to explain that it makes more sense to defer abatement until poorer countries become richer and thus more capable of bearing the costs themselves.

In other words, instead of galvanizing heroic innovation and international cooperation, growing environmental and socio-economic turbulence may simply drive elite publics into more frenzied attempts to wall themselves off from the rest of humanity. Global mitigation, in this unexplored but not improbable scenario, would be tacitly abandoned (as, to some extent, it already has been) in favor of accelerated investment in selective adaptation for Earth's first-class passengers. The goal would be the creation of green and gated oases of permanent affluence on an otherwise stricken planet.

Of course, there would still be treaties, carbon credits, famine relief, humanitarian acrobatics, and perhaps the full-scale conversion of some European cities and small countries to alternative energy. But worldwide adaptation to climate change, which presupposes trillions of dollars of investment in the urban and rural infrastructures of poor and medium-income countries, as well as the assisted migration of tens of millions of people from Africa and Asia, would necessarily command a revolution of almost mythic magnitude in the redistribution of income and power. Meanwhile we are speeding, faster than we dare imagine, toward a fateful rendezvous around 2030, or even earlier, when the convergent impacts of climate change, peak oil, peak water, and an additional 1.5 billion people on the planet will produce negatives synergies probably beyond our imagination.

Let me repeat this fundamental question: Will rich counties ever mobilize the political will and economic resources to actually achieve IPCC targets or, for that matter, to help poorer countries adapt to the inevitable, already "committed" quotient of warming now working its way through the slow circulation of the world ocean?

More vividly: Will the electorates of the wealthy nations shed their current bigotry and walled borders to admit refugees from predicted epicenters of drought and desertification like the Maghreb, Mexico, Ethiopia, and Pakistan? Will Americans, the most miserly people when measured by per capita foreign aid, be willing to tax themselves to help relocate the millions likely to be flooded out of densely settled, mega-delta regions like Bangladesh? And will North American agribusiness, the likely beneficiary of global warming, voluntarily make world food security, not profit-taking in a seller's market, its highest priority?

Market-oriented optimists, of course, will point to demonstration-scale carbon-offset programs like the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) which, they claim, will ensure green investment in the Third World. But the impact of CDM is thus far negligible; it subsidizes small-scale reforestation and the scrubbing of industrial emissions, rather than fundamental investment in domestic and urban use of fossil fuels.

Moreover, most the developing world undoubtedly prefers for the North to acknowledge the environmental disaster it has created and take responsibility for cleaning it up. Poor countries rightly rail against the notion that the greatest burden of adjustment to the Anthropocene epoch should fall on those who have contributed least to carbon emissions and drawn the slightest benefits from two centuries of industrial revolution.

In a sobering study recently published in the Proceedings of the [U.S.] National Academy of Science, a research team attempted to calculate the environmental costs of economic globalization since 1961 as expressed in deforestation, climate change, overfishing, ozone depletion, mangrove conversion, and agricultural expansion. After making adjustments for relative cost burdens, they found that the richest countries by their activities had generated 42 per cent of environmental degradation across the world, while shouldering only 3 per cent of the resulting costs.

The radicals of the South will rightly point to another debt as well. For thirty years, cities in the developing world have grown at breakneck speed without counterpart public investments in infrastructure, housing, or public health. In lpart this has been the result of foreign debts contracted by dictators, with payments enforced by the International Monetary Fund, and public spending downsized or redistributed by the World Bank's "structural adjustment" agreements.

This planetary deficit of opportunity and social justice is summarized by the fact that more than one billion people, according to UN Habitat, currently live in slums and that their number is expected to double by 2030. An equal number, or more, forage in the so-called informal sector (a first-world euphemism for mass unemployment). Sheer demographic momentum, meanwhile, will increase the world's urban population by 3 billion people over the next 40 years (90 per cent of them in poor cities), and no one -- absolutely no one -- has a clue how a planet of slums, with growing food and energy crises, will accommodate their biological survival, much less their aspirations to basic happiness and dignity.

If this seems unduly apocalyptic, consider the likely impacts of global warming upon tropical and semi-tropical agriculture. One of the pioneer analysts of the economics of global warming, Petersen Institute fellow William R. Cline, recently published a country-by-country study of the likely effects of climate change on crop production by the later decades of this century. Coupling climate models to crop process and neo-Ricardian farm output models, and allowing for various levels of carbon-dioxide fertilization, he offers the most sophisticated look so far at the possible futures of human nutrition.

The view is grim. Even in Cline's most optimistic simulations, the agricultural systems of Pakistan (minus 20 per cent of current farm output) and Northwestern India (minus 30 per cent) are likely devastated, along with much of the Middle East, the Maghreb, the Sahel belt, parts of Southern Africa, and the Caribbean and Mexico. Twenty-nine developing countries, according to Cline, stand to lose 20 per cent or more of their current farm output to global warming, while agriculture in the already rich North is likely to receive, on average, an 8 per cent boost.

This potential loss of agricultural capacity in the developing world is even more ominous in the context of the United Nations' warning that a doubling of food production will be necessary to sustain the earth's mid-century population. The current food affordability crisis, aggravated by the biofuel boom, is only a modest portent of the chaos that could soon grow from the convergence of resource depletion, intractable inequality, and climate change. The real danger exists that human solidarity itself, like a West Antarctic ice shelf, will suddenly fracture and shatter into a thousand shards.



Academic research has come late in the day to confront the synergistic possibilities of peak population growth, abrupt climate change, peak oil (and in some regions, peak water), the possible collapse of entire agricultural systems, and the accumulated penalties of urban neglect. Although the German government, the CIA, and the Pentagon have all published reports on the national-security implications of a multiply-determined world crisis in the coming decades, their insights have been more Hollywoodish than oracular.

This is not surprising. As last United Nations Human Development Report observed: "There are no obvious historical analogies for the urgency of the climate change problem." While paleoclimatology can help scientists anticipate the non-linear physics of a warming earth, there is no historical precedent or vantage point for understanding what will happen in the 2050s when a peak species' population of 9 to 11 billion struggles to adapt to climate chaos and depleted fossil energy. Almost any scenario, from the collapse of civilization to a new golden age of fusion power, can be projected on the strange screen of our grandchildren's future.

We can be sure, however, that cities will remain the ground zero of Convergence. Although forest clearance and export monocultures have played fundamental roles in the transition to a new geological epoch, the prime-mover has been the almost exponential increase in the carbon footprints of urban regions in the Northern hemisphere. Heating and cooling the urban built environment alone is responsible for an estimated 35 to 45 per cent of current carbon emissions, while urban industries and transportation contribute another 35 or 40 or per cent. In a sense, city life is rapidly destroying the ecological niche - Holocene climate stability - which made its evolution into complexity possible.

Yet there is a striking paradox here:

What makes urban areas so environmentally unsustainable are precisely those features, even in largest megacities, that are most anti-urban or sub-urban:

explosive horizontal expansion, accompanied by the degradation or sheer destruction of vital natural services (aquifers, watersheds, truck farms, forests, coastal eco-systems)

downstream dumping of waste and pollution

grotesquely oversized environmental footprints

the monstrous growth of traffic and air pollution;

urban form dictated by speculators and developers

absence of democratic control over planning, development and tax resources

extreme spatial segregation by income and/or ethnicity

unsafe environments for children, elderly, and special needs

gentrification through eviction

disintegration of traditional working-class urban culture;

low-intensity warfare between police and subsistence criminals

the growth of peripheral slums and informal employment;

the high costs of providing infrastructure to sprawl;

the privatization and militarization of public space;

bunkering of the wealthy in sterilized historical centers or walled suburbs

By contrast, those qualities that are most 'classically' urban, even on the scale of small cities and towns, combine to generate a more virtuous circle.

urban growth preserves open space and vital natural systems

well-defined boundaries between city and preserved countryside;

waste is recycled, not exported downstream

strict regulation of automobile use

environmental economies of scale in transportation and residential construction;

the substitution of public luxury for privatized consumption;

the socialization of desire and identity within public space;

affordable access to city centers from periphery

egalitarian public services

large domains of public or non-profit housing

ethnic and income heterogeneity at fractal scales of city

powerful capacities for progressive taxation and planning in the public interest

high levels of political mobilization and civic participation

public landscapes designed with children, seniors and special needs in mind

rich dialectics of neighborhood and world culture;

the priority of civic memory over proprietary icon;

spatial integration of work, recreation and home-life.


Such sharp demarcations between 'good' and 'bad' features of city life are redolent of famous attempts in the previous century to distill a canonical urbanism or anti-urbanism: Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs, Frank Lloyd Wright and Walt Disney, Corbusier and the CIAM manifesto, the 'New Urbanism' of Andres Duany and Peter Calthorpe, and so on. But no one needs 'urban theorists' to have eloquent opinions about virtues and vices of the urban built environments and the kinds of social interactions they foster or discourage. Especially here in Munich, with a rich conjugation of different periods and conditions.

What often goes unnoticed in such moral inventories, however, is the consistent affinity between social and environment justice, between the communal ethos and a greener urbanism. Their mutual attraction is magnetic if not inevitable. The conservation of urban green spaces and waterscapes, for example, serves simultaneously to preserve vital natural elements of urban metabolism while providing leisure and cultural resources for the popular classes. Reducing suburban gridlock with better planning and more public transit turns traffic sewers back into neighborhood streets while reducing greenhouse emissions.

There are innumerable examples and they all point toward to a single unifying principle: namely, that the cornerstone of the low-carbon city, far more than any particular green design or technology, is the priority given to public affluence over private wealth. As we all know, several additional Earths would be required to allow all of humanity to live in a suburban house with two cars and a lawn, and this obvious constraint is sometimes evoked to justify the impossibility of reconciling finite resources with rising standards of living. Most contemporary cities, in rich countries or poor, repress the potential environmental efficiencies inherent in human settlement density. The ecological genius of the city remains a vast, largely hidden power.

But there is no planetary shortage of 'carrying capacity' if we are willing to make democratic public space, rather than modular, private consumption, the engine of sustainable equality. Public affluence - represented by great urban parks, free museums, libraries, and infinite possibilities for human interaction - represents an alternative route to a rich standard of life based on earth-friendly, carnivalesque sociality. Although seldom noticed by academic urban theorists, university campuses are often little quasi-socialist paradises around rich public spaces for learning, research, performance, and human reproduction.

The utopian ecological critique of the modern city was pioneered by socialists and anarchists, beginning with Guild Socialism's dream (influenced by the bioregionalist ideas of Kropotkin, and later, Geddes) of garden cities for re-artisanized English workers, and ending with the bombardment of the Karl-Marx-Hauf - Red Vienna's great experiment in communal living - during the Austrian Civil War in 1934. In between are the invention of the kibbutz by Russian and Polish socialist, the modernist social housing projects of the Bauhaus, and the extraordinary debate over urbanism conducted in the Soviet Union during the 1920s.

This radical urban imagination was a victim of the tragedies of the 1930s and 1940s. Stalinism, on one hand, veered toward a monumentalism in architecture and art, inhumane in scale and texture, that was little different from the Wagnerian hyperboles of Albert Speer in the Third Reich. Postwar Social Democracy, on the other hand, abandoned alternative urbanism for a Keynesian mass housing policy that emphasized economies of scale in high-rise projects on cheap suburban estates, and thereby uprooted traditional working-class urban identities.

Yet the late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth century conversations about the 'socialist city' provide invaluable starting points for thinking about the current planetary crisis. Consider, for example, the Constructivists. El Lissitzy, Melnikov, Leonidov, Golosov and the Vesnin brothers are probably not familiar names, but these brilliant socialist designers - constrained by early Soviet urban misery and a drastic shortage of public investment - proposed to relieve congested apartment life with splendidly designed workers clubs, people's theaters, and sports complexes. They gave urgent priority to the emancipation of proletarian women through the organization of communal kitchens, day nurseries, public baths, and cooperatives of all kinds. Although they envisioned workers clubs and social centers, linked to vast Fordist factories and eventual high-rise housing, as the 'social condensers' of a new proletarian civilization, they were also elaborating a practical strategy for leveraging poor urban workers' standard of living in otherwise austere circumstances.

In the context of global environmental emergency, this Constructivist project could be translated into the proposition that the egalitarian aspects of city life consistently provide the best sociological and physical supports for resource conservation and carbon mitigation. Indeed, there is little hope of mitigating greenhouse emissions or adapting human habitats to the Anthropocene unless the movement to control global warming converges with the struggle to raise living standards and abolish world poverty. And in real life, beyond the IPCC's simplistic scenarios, this means participating in the struggle for democratic control over urban space, capital flows, resource-sheds, and large-scale means of production.

I think the inner crisis in environmental politics today is precisely the lack of bold concepts that address the challenges of poverty, energy, biodiversity, and climate change within an integrated vision of human progress. At a micro-level, of course, there have been enormous strides in developing alternative technologies and passive energy housing, but demonstration projects in wealthy communities and rich countries will not save the world. The more affluent, to be sure, can now choose from an abundance of designs for eco-living: but what is the ultimate goal: to allow well-meaning celebrities to brag about their zero-carbon lifestyles or to bring solar energy, toilets, pediatric clinics and mass transit to poor urban communities?


Tackling the challenge of sustainable urban design for the whole planet, and not just for a few privileged countries or social groups, requires a vast stage for the imagination, such as the arts and sciences inhabited in the May days of Vhutemas and the Bauhaus. It presupposes a radical willingness to think beyond the horizon of neo-liberal capitalism toward a global revolution that reintegrates the labor of the informal working classes, as well as the rural poor, in the sustainable reconstruction of their built environments and livelihoods.

Of course, this is an utterly unrealistic scenario, but one either embarks on a journey of hope, believing that collaborations between architects, engineers, ecologists, and activists can play small, but essential roles in making an alter-monde more possible, or one submits to a future in which designers are just the hireling imagineers of elite, alternative existences. The planetary 'green zones' may offer pharaonic opportunities for the monumentalization of individual visions, but the moral questions of architecture and planning can only be resolved in the tenements and sprawl of the 'red zones.'

From this perspective, I believe that only a return to explicitly utopian thinking can clarify the minimal conditions for the preservation of human solidarity in face of convergent planetary crises. I think I understand what the Italian Marxist architects Tafuri and Dal Co meant when they cautioned against "a regression to the utopian," but to raise our imaginations to the challenge of the Anthropocene, we must be able to envision alternative configurations of agents, practices and social relations, and this requires, in turn, that we suspend the politico-economic assumptions that chain us to the present.

I speak, of course, as an aging Socialist, who still believes in the self-emancipation of labor with the same fervor with which Governor Palin believes in shooting caribou. But utopianism isn't necessarily millenarianism, nor is it confined just to the soapbox or pulpit. One of the most encouraging developments in that emergent intellectual space where researchers and activists discuss the impacts of global warming on development has been a new willingness to advocate the Necessary rather than the merely Practical. A growing chorus of expert voices warn that either we fight for 'impossible' solutions to the increasingly entangled crises of urban poverty and climate change, or become ourselves complicit in a de facto triage of humanity.

Thus I think we can be cheered by a recent editorial (11 September 2008) in Nature. Explaining that the "challenges of rampant urbanization demands integrated, multidisciplinary approaches, and new thinking,' the editors challenge the rich countries to finance a zero-carbon revolution in the cities of the developing world. "It may seem utopian," they write, "to promote these innovations in emerging and developing-world megacities, many of whose inhabitants can barely afford a roof over their heads. But those countries have already shown a gift for technological fast-forwarding, for example, by leapfrogging the need for landline infrastructure to embrace mobile phones. And many poorer countries have a rich tradition of adapting buildings to local practices, environments, and climates - a home-grown approach to integrated design that has been all but lost in the West. They now have an opportunity to combine these traditional approaches with modern technologies."

Similarly, the 2007/2008 United Nations Human Development Report warns that the 'future of human solidarity' depends upon a massive aid program to help developing countries adapt to climate shocks. The Report calls for removing the "obstacles to the rapid disbursement of the low-carbon technologies needed to avoid dangerous climate change. ... the world's poor cannot be left to sink or swim with their own resources while rich countries protect their citizens behind climate-defence fortifications." "Put bluntly," it continues," the world's poor and future generations cannot afford the complacency and prevarication that continues to characterize international negotiations on climate change." The refusal to act decisively on behalf of all humanity would be "a moral failure on a scale unparalleled in history."

If this sounds like a sentimental call to the barricades, an echo from classrooms and studios of forty years ago, then so be it. Because if you accept any of the evidence presented in the first half of this talk, then taking a 'realist' view of the human prospect, like seeing Medusa's head, would simply turn you into stone.

in Telepolis [Germany], 12/11/2008
by Mike Davis
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