Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What I think environmentalism's number one priority should be

We urgently need a radically sustainable alternative development pattern, characterized by low consumption, local production, and cooperative economics. And we need a mass political movement to remove obstacles to it, especially at the municipal level.

Practically speaking, this means mobilizing massive local support for allowing composting toilets, allowing raising of chickens and goats, allowing the construction of radically simple multi-family dwellings using bamboo, rammed earth, cob, and other natural building techniques in the middle of the city, and a thoroughgoing overhaul of antiquated codes and regulations that were implemented at the onset of the age of sprawl, before there was much ecological awareness. If need be, we should take to the streets, and chain ourselves to the doors of the municipal building, and shut down city traffic for days on end, provided our local support base numbers in the tens or hundreds of thousands. The planet must no longer be held hostage to codes and regulations expressing the ideals of the 1950s.

To date this has NOT been a major focus of the environmental movement. As an example, the Rhizome Collective in Austin labored for FOUR years just to get a composting toilet approved, and today this cutting edge community dedicated to demonstrating radically sustainable city living is essentially out of business BECAUSE a mass movement did NOT get behind them to change obstacles in city codes to their projects.

Forty years of environmentalism has failed because it has not focused its energies and resources on the key battles where there is the greatest leverage for positive impact. Instead, too much energy has been absorbed in advocating incremental tweaks to our existing patterns of living, or relatively cosmetic changes such as New Urbanism proposes, which, even if implemented widely, cannot credibly be shown to be sufficient to deflate the war machine, preserve Arctic ice, etc.

But If environmentalists FOCUSED their energies on OVERCOMING REGULATORY OBSTACLES TO RADICALLY SUSTAINABLE LIVING, and on making communities like the Rhizome Collective the norm rather than exception, with the FOCUSED INTENSITY of the Civil Rights movement, then all sorts of problems would be greatly reduced:

1) It would dry up the corporate economy / imperial war machine, because our communities would be locally self-sufficient.

2) GHG emissions which cause global warming would come to a halt. Coal-fired plants and coal mines could be retired, because total energy needs would be 90% less and met by community-scale production using renewable resources.

3) We would no longer need cars, because abundant economic, cultural, and other opportunities would be within walking distance or a short bike ride.

4) Our food would no longer be produced with fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and poisonous pesticides, but would be produced close to home applying sound organic and permaculture design principles.

5) Huge swaths of land would be freed for wildlife and natural habitat restoration.

6) Total human impacts would be a fraction of what they are today, because total material consumption would be reduced by some 90%, people would occupy much less space (living in more compact dwellings and not having redundant built space for living, working, educating, etc.). People would travel much less because lives and relationships would be so rich in the communities where they produce most of what they need within a few feet of their compact multi-family dwellings with shared tools, toys, books, etc., with lives full of nonmaterial satisfactions such as community theater, music, poetry, etc.

The degree of change called for is really scarcely any greater than that which occurred when they built the destructive pattern of oil/cars/sprawl/consumerism in the first place. But in order to mobilize an effective social and political movement to radically transform the physical environment around us, we must overcome a lot of psychological and cultural baggage and come to spiritual awareness within. We must re-define "wealth" to mean not material excess but the richness and resilience of symbiotic relationships in communities of people, plants, animals, etc. And we must ramp up the degree of material simplicity and cooperative lifestyle that we are willing to aim for, way beyond what "mainstream" environmentalism advocates, and way, way beyond anything our own personal experience has prepared us for. We must find the faith to venture out of our comfort zones into uncharted waters, knowing that in this journey all that we will lose was just holding us down anyway, and what we will gain is true riches, true community, and justice and well-being for all.

Considerable educating needs to be done before a massive political movement along these lines can be mobilized. The best one-stop resource I know of for understanding the specs of the new pattern of development we need is Ted Trainer's "The Simpler Way" at http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/12b-The-Alt-Sust-Soc-Lng.html. It prints out as some 25 or so pages. 25 pages, I would venture to submit, that if the environmental movement had read and made their manifesto 25 years ago, we'd be in INCALCULABLY better shape today. Another resource which defines and demonstrates what radical sustainability looks like is the book Toolbox for Sustainable City Living: A Do-It-Ourselves Guide, by Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew, co-founders of The Rhizome Collective. There is an abundance of good materials, videos, etc. explaining the planet's plight, but there is precious little like the above that explains and promotes solutions that are sufficiently thoroughgoing and radical to make a significant impact. We urgently need to develop materials and media and political platforms that do an end run past the distraction of incremental tweaks and that define an agenda for radically simple and cooperative ways without which we cannot possibly prevent the worst damage of modern industrial ways.

Let's not wait until 2050 when most of the damage will have already been done! Let's create a new mass movement NOW that is focused on this KEY LEVERAGE POINT of developing radically sustainable communities and living systems and removing legal and regulatory obstacles to them!

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