Why Do We Hate Limits?

September 21, 2007

by Nelson Harvey

As I see it, the central challenge for those of us interested in creating a liveable and prosperous world is to reconcile the need for growth with its historically harmful consequences. More specifically, we need to find a way to provide the benefits of growth–material prosperity, the right to an education, and many others–without actually growing, at least not indefinitely. The problem is that at least in the U.S., the idea of limits has not historically been a part of our national mythology. In fact, it is a powerful American cultural narrative that we are a nation of industrious and increasingly productive citizens, destined to ride the wave of expansion off into the sunset.

In Break Through, a new book that has been getting a great deal of buzz lately in environmental circles, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus (the authors of the controversial 2005 paper “The Death of Environmentalism,”) argue that appealing to the American people to act on global warming cannot be couched in terms of limits, but rather should emphasize Americas own glorified vision of itself , which holds that, as they put it, we are great at “imagining, experimenting, and inventing the future.” Our spark should be encouraged, not constrained.

That spark, or whatever you want to call it, keeps burning even as we argue over what do do, and it manifests itself as growth. I’ve been seeing its consequences everywhere I turn lately. Close to home, my own university, NYU, is initiating a long-term planning process to prepare for the next 20-odd years, in which its planners project it will need 6 million square feet of additional space, and will grow by abouut 5500 students. One of the school’s strategies for controlling the student population around the central campus is to double the percentage of students who study abroad by 2031, essentially externalizing the impact of their presence across national borders.

Our growth is also manifesting itself on the scale of cities. Los Angeles is currently in the throes of its driest year on record, and has grown by 3 million people since 1990 the lack of local water nothwithstanding. Encouragingly, the Metropolitan Water District is supplying the same amount of water annually that it was in the year 1990, despite the millions additional customers. As the population has grown, per-capita consumption has fallen sharply, thanks to efficiency standards that the city imposed after past droughts. But the future looks less bright. By the year 2050, California is expected to grow by 77 percent, to nearly 60 million people. Against this background of continued growth, improvements in efficiency can only work for so long.

What do these examples teach us? Neither the university nor the city are sinister creatures; they exist to provide education, basic material well being, and jobs for their members and citizens. They are simply growing to accomodate a growing population. And while we can certainly de-materalize our economies while continuing to grow, it seems unlikely that we’ll ever achieve “sustainability” without confronting the population question head on.

But how can we frame the need to stop growing in aspirational terms? How can we inspire people about the need to impose and respect limits, in the same way they are inspired to open new factories and penetrate new markets? I certainly can’t say, but I suspect Shellenberger and Nordhaus may have some advice. That’s why their book “Break Through” will be next on my reading list when it comes out October 4th.

 By Adam Brock

A couple nights ago, a friend and I were wandering around Williamsburg, trading summer adventure tales and picking wildflower bouquets from vacant lots. We rounded a corner and came upon the old Domino Sugar Factory, a hulking brown edifice on the waterfront just north of the Willamsburg Bridge. Personally, I’ve always found it comforting that Domino, one of the last major relics of the neighborhood’s industrial past, is still around. As the rest of the once-scruffy W’burg waterfront begins to take on the glitz and glamour of the skyline across the river, the Domino complex remains, stubbornly resisting the inevitable.

No more. According to Atlantic Yards Report, the site has been bought by a developer and is now slated for a gargantuan redevelopment plan – 2.8 million square feet, to be exact. Turns out that the very lot I was picking flowers from, currently surrounded by modest walkups and 1-story warehouses, is slated to be a 120-foot tower. No wonder the Atlantic Yards folks are paying attention – the “New Domino” is looking like a sequel to Bruce Ratner’s vilified megadevelopment a couple miles to the south.

Now forget, just for a moment, that the real estate industry has this town in the palm of its hand. Forget the fact that the development plans are already underway and, as Curbed put it, “prying it loose at this point will take an effort of herculean force—not to mention hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars, presumably from city coffers.” Let’s just take a moment to think about what, hypothetically, could be done with this building: a major waterfront landmark in a diverse, rapidly growing cultural district, in a city that (in theory, at least) is finally beginning to support the development of green, walkable communities. If this were Europe, the municipal government wouldn’t let developers anywhere near a site with this much potential.

But this is New York, and so it’s up to us, the concerned citizens, to convince the city that the Domino site deserves more than another set of towers. A group of local artists have begun doing just that, rallying to put up a giant “save domino” sign on a nearby apartment and putting together an alternate proposal calling for a massive cultural center in the vein of London’s Tate Modern.

Sounds like a good start to me – but integrating culture into the development plan is only the half of it. I see acres of potential for agritecture, providing the neighborhood with jobs and fresh produce. I see a native plant green roof, attracting wildlife and absorbing stormwater. I see those two industrial chutes turned into children’s slides, like in Germany’s acclaimed Landschaftspark. And I still see plenty of room left over in the six-square-block site for affordable housing, overpriced yuppie housing, a museum, and performance space.

Part of the philosophy of ecodesign is to harmonize the many interests at stake in a project – those of the developers, the artists and the working class, but also those of the waterfowl, the climate, and future generations. Sounds idealistic? Look at nature. Natural systems are constantly maintaining a balance between seemingly opposing forces, creating a dynamic equilibrium that works to everybody’s benefit. Extending that approach to social systems means sitting down with all the interested parties (or their human representatives) and getting people talking.

In the case of Domino, I have no doubt that it’s possible to provide both housing and cultural amenities, to design a development that enhances the community while still turning a profit – but only if everyone involved is willing to work together. Can Domino be saved? At this point, probably not. But as an exercise in imagining what our city could become with the right support, it sure doesn’t hurt to try.

By Adam Brock 

The phrase “sustainable design” is often associated with things like bioplastic, solar-powered flashlights, or cradle-to-cradle office furniture. While these and other innovations continue to push the green design envelope, even the most forward-thinking ecoproducts can’t honestly be called sustainable quite yet: they’re still nowhere close to eliminating their negative impact on the planet.

The good news, though, is that actual sustainable design is entirely possible. The trick is in redefining our notion of what “design” is: just like electricity generation and food production, the most sensible approach to design from an ecological standpoint is to decentralize. Contrary to what corporations would have you believe, there’s no reason we need to rely on mass-produced stuff to meet our needs. It might take a little more work, but putting design into our own hands is cheaper and more rewarding than getting something from a store. It can often be more effective, too; after all, nobody knows the clients better than the clients themselves.

With these values in mind, me and my fellow volunteers at ROSE decided to undertake the design challenge of cooking food completely sustainably: using only recyled materials and the power of the sun. No fossil fuels, no embodied energy, no money. It was a high benchmark, and from the beginning, we knew we probably wouldn’t meet all the constraints on the first try. But we were just as interested in the process of designing and building the cooker as we were in the final product.

We based the oven’s design on one described in Aric McBay’s Peak Oil Survival: Life After Gridcrash (a great resource guide to becoming more self-sufficient, even if you don’t subscribe to the apocalyptic predictions of the peak oilers). Basically, the design consisted of an insulated wooden box with metal lining on the insides, and a glass top tilted at 30 degrees for maximum solar exposure. Around the top was a sheetmetal funnel designed to channel more of the sun’s rays into the box. Food was to be inserted through the back, which folded down like an oven door.

We sized the cooker around a sheet of old window glass that Jeevan had lying around, which we had trimmed in the Kanda market. The box itself was constructed out of sheets of used concrete formwood, and we employed ash, collected graciously by Jeevan’s wife from around the village, as an insulator. So far, so good – we had almost all the materials we needed, and still hadn’t spent a rupee (or a kilowatt hour). But we couldn’t source any used metal sheeting, which was an essential component of both the inside lining and the funnel on top. In the end, we caved and got it new at the market. It was an unfortunate compromise – metal is one of the most energy-intensive materials to produce and transport – but a necessary one nevertheless.

Constructing the oven proved to be at least as challenging as designing it. I hadn’t picked up a saw since 7th-grade stagecraft class, and the tools we had to work with weren’t exactly top quality. As is always the case, there were plenty of unexpected challenges we had to solve on the fly as the design came together: the nails kept bending, some of the boards split, the metal wouldn’t blacken in the fire, and the ash kept leaking out of the seams in the wood. But, little by little, the challenges were met, the oven took shape, and after a solid three days of sawing, cutting, nailing, trimming, grouting, and adjusting, we had a pretty decent-looking solar cooker in front of us.

To put the oven to the test, we decided to see if we could bake some challah. After collecting all the ingredients and kneading and braiding the dough (a design challenge in itself), we put the loaf in the oven on a hot afternoon and waited. After a couple hours, we opened the oven door and cautiously felt around. It was hot, alright… but not hot enough, probably only 200 degrees or so.

What went wrong? After some examination, we decided that the box hadn’t been made airtight enough – we could feel several places where the hot air was leaking out. Fixing it would’ve required temporarily dismantling the metal funnel and finding a better sealant than the cement we’d been using – certainly possible, but not in the two days we had left at Kanda.

In the end, then, our sustainable solar oven wasn’t quite sustainable, and it wasn’t much of an oven, either. But was it a failure? I don’t think so. For me, the learning process alone was enough to justify the financial and ecological costs of the project. And it’s entirely possible that another ROSE volunteer will improve the cooker in the months to come, making the design fulfill its intended purpose. For now, then, I’ll see it as a collaborative work in progress – and a valuable lesson in forest green design.

ROSE and Thorn

June 26, 2007

 By Adam Brock

Nestled in a verdant valley in the lower Himalayas, the remote Indian village of Kanda seems, at first glance, to have barely changed in centuries. The hillsides, mainly given over to terraced rice paddies, are dotted with stone farmhouses, Hindu temples and patches of forest. The glacial streams that provide the village’s water are free of pesticides, mine tailings, or contamination by pathogens. It all feels eerily dreamlike, a living incarnation of some myth of India’s rural past.

But then a Bollywood song begins to blare from a pair of tinny speakers. A closer look at the ice-blue stream reveals a trail of discarded biscuit wrappers, and as the sun sets, the valley becomes a necklace of incandescent lights, blocking out what would be a spectacular night sky. Indeed, my very ability to observe this lifestyle firsthand betrays the inevitable truth: Kanda, like everywhere else on Earth, is engaged in a dialogue with modernity. Consumer goods from the village market, pop-cultural ideals intercepted from TV and the internet – and, yes, the occasional well-intentioned western volunteer – have all worked their way into the fabric of daily life here, and there’s no turning back. The global economy, and the promise of affluence it brings, hangs in front of Kanda like the moon: mesmerizing, but astronomically distant.

For the last 25 years, Kanda resident Jeevan Verma has been working to bring that promise a little bit closer. Through his volunteer program, the Rural Organization for Social Elevation (ROSE), Verma has initiated a number of programs to guide Kanda’s development in an equitable and sustainable manner. Since it was founded in 1981, ROSE has constructed hillside roads to resist erosion, rebuilt homes for the village’s poor, and promoted permaculture techniques amongst local farmers. Currently, Verma is building a farm shop to sell tools to his neighbors at a fairer price than they can get at the market, and when that project’s finished, he aims to start a goat breeding business to give Kanda residents access to valuable sources of income and nutrition.

In many ways, Verma and his program are a model for how rural sustainable development can work in the Global South. Rather than relying on corrupt and inefficient large-scale aid programs, Kanda, thanks to ROSE, is taking the forest green route: solving local problems with local knowledge. Yet for all of ROSE’s accomplishments, it remains to be seen whether it can provide Kanda’s residents with the means for self-sustanence implied in its name. Thus far, Jeevan hasn’t been able to figure out a way to leverage outside money to produce a reliable source of income; instead, he relies on program fees and donations from volunteers to keep things running. The goat breeding program will give ROSE another shot at self-reliance, but for now, the program’s fate remains at the mercy of generous westerners.

Even if it was self-solvent, it’s unlikely that ROSE could ever solve all of Kanda’s problems. As in the rest of India, the population growth here is exponential, which means that the limited land available for cultivation is continually being divided into ever smaller portions. And for every needy family Verma is able to assist, there’s ten more that lack proper nutrition or sanitation.

Perhaps the greatest threat to Kanda’s future, though, comes from the potential consequences of its success. As its residents begin to emerge from a subsistence lifestyle towards one of increasing income, they’re afforded ever more opportunities for dialogue with the outside world – a world which, at the moment, has little to offer in the way of guidance. The challenge for Kanda, and indeed the rest of the developing world, is to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities that development can bring, while steering clear of the disastrous cycle of consumption that the overdeveloped world has become caught in.

It takes the careful guidance of a million small-town leaders like Verma, and the targeted technical and financial assistance of westerners involved in the regeneration. But when programs like ROSE succeed, they send a message that’s impossible to refute: truly sustainable development is possible. There is a middle path between the cycle of poverty and western-style reckless consumerism. If Jeevan Verma is successful in navigating that path, he might find that he won’t be seeking advice from westerners – he’ll be giving it.

 Image credit: ROSE

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