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Smarter Planet, the Swap and the Surrealism of Now
Alex Steffen, 27 Jan 10

We're deep in editorial work right now, in case you were wondering about the comparative radio silence. But here's a quick rant to chew on.

While I was taking a break from writing about cities of the future, a friend sent me Jon Hiskes' post about the new Smarter Planet site and asked me what I thought about yet another site that seems to pick up on Worldchanging's solutions-based, future-focused vibe.

I've gotten more than a little jaded about the uptake of green techie futurism in the media. See, I've covered sustainability since 1990, and so I know that what was the next wave of green ideas then (hybrids, energy-saving appliances and CFLs, biofuels) is still "hot" now. Widespread media uptake of 90s green ideas would be great, if those ideas were not now woefully insufficient.

Many of these ideas are still being presented as support for the idea that we can conveniently retrofit North American 20th Century suburban life for the 21st Century. We still see hundreds of stories a day promoting the Swap -- the idea that we can change the components of suburban, high-consumption, auto-dependent lives without have to change the nature of those lives -- but that idea itself is non-reality-based.

Feedback loops, near-exponential curves, accumulated damage (and better science) mean that the magnitude of change we need has grown, while our idea of "going green" hasn't. We're still talking about hybrids, back yard gardening and energy retrofits and so on like they'll transform the half of N. America that's suburban into something that's not both ecologically catastrophic and profoundly brittle in the face of change. They can't. The Swap won't work. Unless it's part of a larger transformation, it won't even help much.

But the idea we that can swap the parts and keep the form is a necessary fiction: otherwise, business as usual would be seen (correctly) as a series of crimes against the future. Building a new freeway now, with what we know, is crossing the line from stupid to evil, but as long as we believe electric cars will somehow transform the whole system, we can pretend it's sensible and realistic.

The worst thing is that the need for change is accelerating. Smart places that in next 20 years undergo the kind of rate of innovation we've seen in the last 100 years, we'll call bright green. The others, we'll call disaster zones. I don't think this is a good thing.

The one bright shining note in all this is that our capacity to innovate and invent is now profoundly greater than it's ever been. The number of people working on envisioning practical, adaptive yet transformative solutions to the problems of cities is mushrooming; and many take for granted that they'll have to work against the economic grain. It's thrilling to be even a small part of the brave, creative work they're doing.

The somber bass note underneath it is that there's no sign our political leadership is willing to risk much of anything to try to change the subsidies, tax laws and old regulations that have America and Canada building lots more of the problem, and almost none of the solution. The tide is still flowing strongly against progress.

So we live suspended in a surreal now, where the vast majority of media coverage is focused on the (irrelevant) Swap, our political systems are rusted into position (trying to keep cars, coal and cul-de-sacs going as long as possible) and yet the exploration of bright green cities has never been more exciting or the people exploring them more energized.

I've learned that whenever you see a small group of really smart people with strong track records doing something everyone else thinks is crazy, it's either a sign that they've all drank the Kool-Aid or that a big, worldchanging shift is coming, and I haven't seen any paper cups being passed out. In fact, bright green urbanists I've met are some of the most hard-headed, practical-minded people around. I don't think anyone underestimates the challenges we face. They're just determined to succeed anyway, by treating those challenges as design constraints and innovating around them. That's the thing that makes me most hopeful. Clear-eyed optimism is never a bad stance towards the future.

I have to get back to work. More soon...

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Very said. The unsustainable economics of the current American landscape will eventually be crushed by the reality of the world. We can choose to make the major changes to prepare for that now or wait until the world thrusts them upon us (which will not be pretty.) The choice is ours.

Posted by: Elliott @ Austin on Two Wheels on 27 Jan 10

I am someone who agrees that the "Swap" is insufficient bordering on irrelevant. But one of the things that the Swap has going for it is that it makes people feel empowered on an individual level to do something, anything. If you take away our one thing to cling to, then the tendency is to fall into pessimism, exacerbated by the fact that our political systems are moving in the wrong direction.

There are plenty of us stuck (for whatever reason) in suburbia who would engage and further the bright green urbanist vision, but we need to know what that "crazy" work looks like, what that "crazy" message is. I can start a community garden project, change my lightbulbs and forsake my car for a bicycle. But if those things are irrelevant, then what do I replace them with? What does it look like to engage with bright green urbanists in a daily, personal and self-empowering way?

Posted by: Jess @OpenlyBalanced on 27 Jan 10

Jess- I totally respect your opinion, and understand where you're coming from. I guess part of what I've been trying to argue on WC for the last year is that the sentiment:

"the Swap... makes people feel empowered on an individual level to do something, anything + if you take away our one thing to cling to, then the tendency is to fall into pessimism"

is symptomatic of a gigantic need to reinvent engagement. Because the brutal truth is that a million people doing small things to do something is just not that different than a million people overcome with pessimism. In fact, it may just be pessimism w/ a more attractive wrapper.

The opposite of pessimism is whole-hearted engagement with systemic reinvention.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 27 Jan 10

This resonated with me, so excuse the rather lengthy coment.

The "swap" is a huge issue, and along with it is the contemporary focus on individualism. Talk of the "swap" is seductive because it is so often tied to the role of individualized consumers that many of us have become some comfortable with over the past 3 decades. It's about what "you" can do. Recycling (as opposed to reducing waste at source) follows a similar logic.

Two notes of hope linked to the fact that we are in fact all parts of larger communities and organizations:

--First: Hands on experiences, however small their actual impact, give people a more direct connection to any given issue. Direct involvement also gives rapid tangible rewards that political engagement often doesn't. But the two don't have to be separate. You can use the momentum gained from small largely symbolic projects to mobilize constituencies to push for larger change.

There are great examples of this. ReCode Portland's successes so far in changing some state level legislation comes to mind. Or, in another area, Grandmothers For Africa's successful campaign to modify Canadian patent law to make it easier to provide generic AIDS medications to African countries. In both cases, more limited and concrete project provided the foundation for larger systemic changes.

--Second: There are more and more examples of people finding ways to innovate within outdated and ossified systems. I've written a bit about this in a discussion of my work in Durban (South Africa). The story in a nutshell is that many of the barriers we face are organizational - particularly the inertia that builds up within an organization after years of operation. []

But once you break that inertia and make room for innovation it can unleash powerful creative forces. Ones that often re-energize the organization itself, that is to say increase productivity and people's sense of wellbeing in the workplace. As well as meeting their main objectives of reshaping cities to fundamentally reduce emissions and vulnerability. Here again you have projects with that give participants direct personal rewards (as well as many challenges) - but that also go beyond simple swapping to reach for larger systemic change.

Both these types of projects are almost always the exception, not the rule. Perhaps this is obvious, but I think focusing on ways to scale up from these exceptions that we all are experiencing to "the shift" that we need is one place where good ideas and guidance could be very productive.

Posted by: Alex Aylett on 27 Jan 10

Thank you so much for your response!

I completely agree with you that the end result is not that different. But what does whole-hearted engagement with systemic reinvention look like? Does it not involve taking some sort of action? What does that action look like? Incrementalism isn't the answer (and very well may be a harmful distraction), but how do you engage in the alternative?

I guess I would love it if someone would write a Bright Urbanists Handbook along the lines of The Transition Handbook. While I do not agree with Hopkins' end vision, I think he does a good job of outlining the steps towards individual and community engagement in a way that also treats the existing system as a design constraint. And I do think that helping people to feel empowered is an important part of fostering optimism and building momentum. (I should say that I'm still working my way through the Worldchanging book, so maybe that is it and I just haven't gotten to that part yet.)

Posted by: Jess @OpenlyBalanced on 27 Jan 10

It takes far less effort to redirect a wheelbarrow already in motion than to start one up from a dead stop.

Isn't it often those little, more manageable tasks that get us to pull the wheelbarrow out of the shed in the first place?

Posted by: Bobbie Stacey on 28 Jan 10

I love this concept of the swap. When I read it, I immediately thought about how it applies to the small, comparatively insignificant steps in green living taken by my fellow Atlantans while we continue to live in -- and build further onto -- a toxic pattern of unsustainable development.

Many Atlantans live in single-family houses and keep recycling bins in their driveways. The bins seem like a kind of penance for the sin of being part of the sprawling, car-dependent residential development pattern that dominates the land space.

But the good done by recycling glass and plastic doesn't make up for the harm done by sprawling suburban requirements for miles of asphalt -- contaminating the rain -- and more miles of utilities disturbing the natural ecosystem.

In fact, green consumerism and recycling can serve as a panacea that leads to inaction when it comes to making big, significant changes to the built environment. Shrinking the footprint of our developments and living more compactly would be a huge change in the way we live and would do a great deal more good than the small green steps taken now within an overall destructive development pattern.

Posted by: Darin on 28 Jan 10

This post appears to support the 'end of suburbia' argument common on the peak oil network, with which I generally agree. However, most suburbans will have no other housing option but to stay in their foreclosed houses, either by renting or squatting, and will have to refashion the suburbs to fill their basic needs: food and shelter.

The post includes backyard gardens in the 'insignificant steps' category. However, a 1/10 acre garden can provide enough food to feed a family for a year, feed a pig, or a few chickens, which provides cooking fat and protein supplement, and manure for fertility. A backyard can grow rabbits exclusively on a grass diet. In the Northeast, gardens can easily produce basic staples - potatoes and field corn - that have sustained agrarian subsistence communities for millennia before the fossile fuel era. Composting of garden, kitchen, and humanure waste streams closes the nutrient cycle and sustains the food production system.

All this requires a major change in knowledge and use of time on the part of suburbans, but hunger is a great motivator, and many commuters' jobs will be obsolete anyway, so they will have plenty of time to learn new skills.

We are in for the end of suburbia as we know it, but of necessity it will live on, inconveniently, until its residents recreate it as more or less sustainable communities, or it won't, and people will starve.

So, is a subsistence garden an 'insignificant step'?

Posted by: Karl North on 30 Jan 10

I love(and am challenged immensely by)this topic. Echoing Karl North's idea of a 'subsistence of necessity' suburbia, I too, believe in the idea of reprogramming the burbs.
I am a contractor by trade and am vexed at the challenges put to me in terms of my own contribution to this mess and how to meet the ideals of Green while still providing for my clients and my family.
I recently needed to travel to the hinterlands of Mukleteo, and, instead of damning the built environment that exists there (and a million other places like it), could only see the possibility of gardens and garage doors open on cul-de-sacs with artisans working inside.
Of course, I didn't see a soul around but thought of the ease that such a shift could occur....

Posted by: Jason Thomson on 31 Jan 10

I agree with the broad strokes of this piece, but as with most drastic change, isn't it best to work on reforming within the system ("Swap") while also working to create a parallel, better system? Aren't both necessary? As an example, if nobody swaps their cars for bicycles, where's the political will for the city to build bike friendly infrastructure? Inasmuch as we need a clampdown on waste and a bevy of new regulatory policy, any government attempting to implement truly radical measures would face riots without a little bit of Swapping to help push people's minds in the right direction. (Though perhaps the bulk of the necessary "swapping" has already been done, the consciousness has been built: now it's time for the real change.)

Posted by: Chris L on 3 Feb 10

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