Designing cities for silence

As an academic, I crave silence. In fact, without silence, I can’t think. And since thinking is my job, in our current media blitz steal-your-attention economy, I’m often miserable. When I don’t wish to work from home or my office, or am on the road, there are scant places where I can simply walk in, sit down, open my computer, journal, or book, and get to work. It’s a tyranny of noise. Or in the words of Grand Master Flash in “The Message”: “It’s like a jungle sometimes It makes me wonder how I keep from going under.”

The noise, the stress of noise, the violence of noise, is one of the elements that push us close to the edge.

As I study harmony inside and outside, among humans and between humans and nature, silence – or the science of listening – plays major. If we wish to cultivate a harmonious society, where we can invest our resources in art and movement and beauty and biomimcy and regeneration, then we need to create the conditions where we no longer have to contend with broken social norms; where crime is low to nonexistent; where hunger is nonexistent. Where we’re not polluting our air and our pure water is sacred. Where we respect silence and freedom of movement enough to create large carfree swaths of our cities. Where we find better ways to deliver goods like rail and cargo bike. Where we plant trees for shade and beauty.

People always lament: how do we get from here to there?

I always answer: queerly. Asymmetrically. In fits and starts. Non-linearly. Start with where you are. Don’t wait for a new city. Transform what you’ve got.

Buckminster Fuller always said that it’s easier to create alternatives and magnetize the world to the new innovation than to battle antiquated ideas. We have to actively make the old ideas obsolete by making the new ones simply more sexy.

But how do we make silence sexy? How do we make the tao sexy? How do we make sitting around and doing nothing (meditation) sexy? How do we make things sexy without the manipulative strobe-light grab you by the eyeballs and ears approach of hype-media that has come to be the dominant carnie form in late capitalism?

We do this by fairyrings of trees, solidarity circles of silence, nested neighborhoods of stillness. Dedicated communities upon communities showing the shades and nuances and varieties of silence, stillness, quietude, tranquility. We show the 1001 ways of doing silence. The abundant variety of nuance. We help people downregulate from numb dumb shouting blaring beeping to listening to jazz, then classical, then kora and koto, then the water in the river, the wind in the leaves, their own breath. We take people down in stages. We titrate with waves of in and out, so it doesn’t have to be all or nothing, so severe. But it does become all-encompassing in a non-cloying, non-forced way. Like the unforced force of the better argument – which only works under the auspicious conditions of listening and self-reflection and openness – silence can be won. It can be wooed.

For if we don’t have places to think, what good are our cities? Without silence, how do we think? How do we enter conversation, if not from a place of knowing our own thoughts? How can we truly join a crowd or a team if we don’t already know the beautiful solitude of trusting our senses, by living in places of beauty and the song of the elements?

The Failure of COP25

I recently read – from afar – the sorry state of the UNFCCC #COP25 in Madrid. According to 350.org, instead of barring fossil fuel companies from engineering the COP, the security guards at the UNFCCC forcibly removed hundred of activists and scientists who aimed to bring gravitas to an otherwise hypocritical and superficial discussion.

LIVE feed from the #COP25 UN climate meeting pic.twitter.com/KukPvMAtVx
— Dr. Lucky Tran (@luckytran) December 15, 2019

The de-badging of climate activists, who refused half-measures and rhetoric as adequate given the current hundreds of billions if not trillions of dollars of damages each year due to corporate- and government-induced climate chaos and decades of enforced ignorance, is not surprising–but it is the first time this has occurred on this scale at the UNFCCC.

As The Onion burlesques the denialism,

In response to the attention she was receiving for her vocal objections to international leaders’ refusal to address global warming, critics in the 2030s asked why teen climate activist Elisa Garcia-Reilly wasn’t in an abandoned school bailing water and shooting enemy foragers. “Instead of constantly screeching about how all our policies are selling out her generation and dooming them to unavoidable suffering, maybe this little hussy ought to spend more time in the remains of what was once a high school choosing which infants to save and defending her family’s food cache from scavengers,” said television pundit Caden Williams of the 16-year-old climate activist, voicing the sentiments of critics who declared that she had no clue what she was talking about and was trying to catastrophize being constantly starving and up to her waist in water.

A cinematic cityscape depicting a destroyed city.

Having myself attended the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2002, in an action with AdBusters, I too was de-badged as US representative to the meeting Colin Powell obfuscated effective action. That was 17 years ago. Things have gotten even worse since then, and now climate chaos is felt in every part of the world.

The question remains: what will it take before we prioritize life over profit?

Will the currents have to stop? Massive crop failures from extreme weather events? Heat waves that kill millions? Dikes cracking from prolonged droughts? Wild fires destroying trillions of dollars of real estate? The end of business as usual as commodity chains break down?

The problem is, in our current system, there simply is no circuit breaker. There is nothing that could happen – within our current dominant mindset – that would force action. It’s like the person bleeding profusely who swears they’re healthy until they fall over and die, instead of getting the help they need and interceding on the “inevitable.”

This clip is an apt metaphor for Capitalist Realism.

Climate chaos is a spectrum. The more we double down with ignorance and denialism, the worse it gets. The sooner we clean up our act, the less possibility that doomerism will be correct. The irony of deterministic ideas such as “Well, we destroyed the climate, so might as well enjoy the luxuries before they’re all gone,” is that the path is made by walking. Yes, we have created since the industrial revolution, a tremendous amount of path dependency, creating ozone holes, the 6th great extinction, and making life on earth very difficult for the next hundred (or thousand – our choice) years.

But, what we do now crucially influences whether we get to keep some of the goods of human civilizations while jettisoning as soon as possible the bads; or, if we take out the majority of complex life on earth out with our species. It’s our choice. But it requires completely reorganizing society according to our interspecies interdependence, and revere the processes of nature which human artifice and systems of control and domination have swerved into dysfunctional and perverse fragmentation.

Science and Politics of Glyphosate Workshop June 6, 2019

My Erasmus University Rotterdam colleague Alessandra Arcuri and I are organizing a day-long workshop on the most used pesticide in the world: glyphosate. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp, Monsanto’s flagship herbicide, has been linked with cancer by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2015.

For more information, registration, and to submit a paper to present at the conference, please visit our website, at the Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity Initiative.

IARC and EFSA’s differing views on glyphosate

New Article: Environmental Justice as a Potentially Hegemonic Concept

As part of my project on land rights in Latin America, a recent paper titled “Environmental justice as a (potentially) hegemonic concept: a historical look at competing interests between the MST and indigenous people in Brazil” appears in Local Environment.

Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability is associated with the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), the international environmental agency for local governments which evaluates and present the methods and tools necessary to achieve local sustainable development worldwide.

My article suggests that by understanding the origins of the Movimiento dos Trabalhadores Rurais sem Terra (MST) as a government-driven clash between the state-sanctioned land claims of indigenous peoples (the Kaingang, in this case) and landless peasants,  groups mounting environmental justice campaigns can fruitfully work together in solidarity with other groups. Through analyzing this case study, the weakness of environmental justice movements, I claim, arises when marginalized groups are willing to accept land or other concessions not at the cost of those best off, but off the backs of groups even more marginalized than themselves.

The tendency for government concessions responding to successful protests by borrowing from the resources of the poor to redistribute them to those most fervently clamoring for change, rather than disrupting the status quo and redistributing concentrated land and wealth holdings among the rich, is precisely the problem many environmental justice movements historically and today face.

Hegemony serves as a useful analytic through which to process of distal transfer of resources (from periphery to center) indicative of colonialism. Many environmental justice crises arise from the same properties that arose during historical colonialism and its aftermath, but are not confined to it. Resolving unequal distributions of labor according to gender is another aspect which environmental justice movements such as the MST have aggressively sought to ameliorate, even if such entrenched hierarchies still are actively being deconstructed.

Hacia la paz y la justicia ambiental

 

 

 

Electric Cars are Not Enough for Life

As the New York Times recently reported, State SenatorScott Weiner’s California Legislature bill to increase density allotments along transit corridors is a much-needed method to solve both housing and environmental burdens. Driving, no matter how you slice it, takes more energy than public transportation, so getting people on high-quality and convenient public transportation, is a sustainability priority.

Unsurprising, however, is that many of the bluechip environmental groups, like Sierra Club, oppose higher density housing zoning near transit centers because their members may be negatively affected by, say, decreased property values from higher density. Such self-serving agendas are understandable, if misguided. Those who got in early in a housing rush, enjoy their peace and privacy, and higher density changes the feel of the neighborhood. On the other hand, a commitment to sustainability, which really means finding a livable way to continue business as usual as much as possible without too much discomfort (like cataclysmic climate change), requires simple measures like smart zoning in order to make it happen. The very notion of a transition town, or a sustainable city is based on accessible public transportation. We shouldn’t fail to see the forest of preventing climate change through the trees of inconvenience. Sustainability means that we all make some small sacrifices now in order to prevent much larger ones down the road.

Sharing the sacrifice is a fundamental principle of democratic societies. For too long, women, people of color, and the poor have had to make sacrifices (living further from work, paying more than half of their paycheck in rent, etc.) while the middle-class and wealthy have serially insulated themselves from as severe costs. Having mixed neighborhoods is a small but important gesture from those who comprise well-funded environmental groups. Overcoming internal resistance to change will allow greater accessibility for those in need of convenient housing. Higher density live/work areas (like any major city in Europe) is smart, low-carbon planning. It is effective because it obviates the need for a car. Sustainable cities are resilient because they have redundancy (more than one way to get to work), flexibility (if one option is closed, take the other), diversity, and slack (abundance, more than enough niches for everyone). California can achieve this much better with more environmentally-sound zoning. One can only hope that the major, private donor-funded environmental orgs can get on the right side of history.

A Systems Approach to Dysfunction

capitalism

One of the things that resonates the most about systems theory, is that it focuses on how different pieces of large puzzles interrelate and interlock. For, it is the inter aspect that gives phenomena movement, gusto, dynamism, spark. Speaking of things, essences, stuff, or problems, tends to slump description into the corner of inexorability, and worse, resignation.

When we look at climate change, war mongering, oil interests, urban design, transport diversity, and factory farming in concert, then suddenly, the intractable problems of each become much more tractable. The haze lifts, and the easy solutions abound. Instead of the Sisyphusian task of unravelling Gordian Knots (to mix my Greek metaphors), like Alexander the Great, we simply cut through it. With systems thinking, we cut through the lies, the bad habits, the greed, excuses, and story. We take care of what calls for attending, without the oppositionality, the rage, hate, or anger. We don’t even resent the system of destruction that has killed millions, and will likely kill billions more (not to mention the thousands of species extinct, priceless waterways despoiled, mountains detonated, etc.).

No, instead, a systems view asks: what is the most opportune point of intervention? Where can I (and we, because it is always a we, this I) most skillfully intervene now? What is the first step? And then: what is the next step after that?

Having a goal is important. We don’t want to make great time in the wrong direction, to paraphrase Yogi Berra. But, planning without action does little good to soothe our own anxieties, nor to shine as an examples. Nor does it form good habits, to think without acting, for we shall too soon grow content with such a pattern, forgetting the thrill of satisfaction when we follow through with a dedicated plan.

Paul Hawkins’ new book and ground-restoring Project Drawdown has made this plan, indicating the best points for intervention in our anthropo-patriarchal-colonialist-scene. This blueprint shows the problem, in its glorious complexity, and details what interventions will produce what results. México, the first developing country to take the lead in reducing emissions through a carbon trading plan, is working on an important component of drawing down CO2 from industrial producers. Of course, a carbon tax is much smarter policy than a cap-and-trade system, as most climate policy scientists agree. Nonetheless, such leadership as México’s will no doubt have a cascading effect on other developing and BRIC countries, as the rest of the world gains more power as climate leaders in the vacuum left by the Trump presidency. Brazil and China are already stepping up, in various ways, and the US may soon be an island, exceptional only because no other country wants to trade with it until it institutes strong sustainability policies.

Understanding the changing dynamics of international politics through US abdication of responsibility despite its role as the world’s largest economy, and 2nd largest polluter (likely first largest, when we include Chinese imports), helps contextualize the contemporary situation. While from a media-saturated point-of-view, Trump and co. are dead-set on bringing about the apocalypse, from an international perspective, the long-overdue transfer of power to Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America is simply being accomplished as these areas reduce trade with the US and stop looking to the US for guidance. What emerges from this transition will be exciting to watch. Perhaps an improved UN? Perhaps planetary citizenship, doing away with the need for climate refugees, instead implementing climate justice? Perhaps a new healthy form of regionalism? Perhaps reduced consumption? These exciting times promise nothing, but offer many exciting paths.

 

A new review for our edited volume, The Greening of Everyday Life

Greening of Everyday Life.jpg

The 2016 Oxford University Press book The Greening of Everyday Life: Challenging Practices, Imagining Possibilities I contributed a chapter to on “Bicycling and the Politics of Recognition,” has received a kind review from environmental philosopher Robert Paehlke.

Paehlke writes,

Two chapters on mobility, Chapter 13 on automobility (John Meyer) and Chapter 14 on cycling (Yogi Hendlin) were particularly interesting to me…

Hendlin brilliantly conveys cycling’s ethos and challenges. Cars rule the roads ‘granting cycling little latitude to freely compete as a viable form of mobility’ (p. 232). Redesigning roads is a complex undertaking. I hold Copenhagen and Amsterdam in awe and my nephew’s wife is an environmental engineer doing cycle route design in Maryland. Hendlin shows the ways most cyclists in North America are still second class citizens – and why this may not be entirely a bad thing in terms of motivating needed change of many kinds…

Overall this volume is academically important because it grounds greening in theoretically-grounded case-based research. Simultaneously, it is also helpful to those considering the personal and political implications of greening their own everyday existence.

 

It’s gratifying to see this volume, which emerged from an invite-only conference at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, be recognized by our environmental political theory peers as a book bridging the theoretical and practical through applying theoretical analysis to environmental case studies.

If you haven’t read the book yet, do ask your library to acquire it!