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Unsustainable cities

Books on urban environmentalism may be trendy, but feel-good activism only goes so far

By Pieta Woolley

Montreal journalist Taras Grescoe opens his latest book — about urban public transit as global saviour — with a gorgeously nuanced scene. Readers follow a young couple at the glitzy Shanghai Auto Show, the same week as the worst smog on record has enveloped China’s most populous city. He exposes the couple’s desire for status, the inefficiency of urban automobile traffic, the rise of public spending on car culture in China. And he allows us — progressive, bike-riding, fair trade-buying Canadians — the chance to feel pretty swell about ourselves in comparison.

As Grescoe puts it at the end of Straphanger: Saving our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile, “I believe the place you choose to live says a lot about who you are.” He glowingly describes his own highly walkable, no-car-needed neighbourhood: Outremont. He and his wife share a condo — the value of which has tripled in recent years, he notes. They’re expecting their first child and plan to eventually bike him around.

Sustainability, Grescoe implies, is the purview of professional-income urbanites who ride bikes, take transit, support independent grocers and raise small nuclear families in tiny condos. “As the era of cheap fossil fuels . . . comes to an end, the ideology of growth for growth’s sake has also reached its limits,” he hammers. “Bigger is more McMansions; bigger is subdivisions so sprawled people never get to know their neighbours; bigger is ever longer, ever more soul-sucking commutes. Bigger is stupider.”

I’m being a bit hard on Grescoe, of whom I have been a loyal fan since I encountered his book Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood in 2008. Straphanger, which takes readers on a visual, visceral journey through transit systems in New York, Moscow, Bogota, Paris and elsewhere, is a revelation.

But it also fits neatly into an emerging Canadian library designed to elicit warm feelings among consumers of small-effort sustainability movements such as transit, cycling and balcony gardening. When people feel this good about what they’re doing “for the planet,” it makes me nervous. Given the swift rate of climate change and the hobbled response of governments, shouldn’t we welcome bad feelings, such as the four highly motivating horsemen of fear, grief, panic and lament?

Consider Edmonton writer Jennifer Cockrall-King’s recently published Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution, documenting the popularity of community gardens and pro-chicken legislation.

While Cockrall-King acknowledges the trendiness and self-branding inherent in some strains of the urban agriculture movement (including a friend who e-mailed “glamour photos of [her backyard] laying hens”), she pushes beyond that. She notes that the most successful urban agriculture movement is not in Toronto’s Cabbage-town or Vancouver’s Davie Village, but in Cuba. There, she argues, people changed because a genuine food crisis erupted in 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved and stopped subsidizing Cuba’s energy.

“As any Cuban over the age of 30 will tell you,” she writes, “it’s like someone turned off the lights, shut off the gas, and emptied the fridge. . . . Without electricity, factories shut down. Tractors rusted in the fields where they were abandoned. Crops unable to be harvested began to rot. And tens of thousands of livestock starved to death on the poor, native pastureland.” Over the 20 years hence, she writes, urban agriculture and farmers markets became so common, grocery stores are nearly nonexistent in downtown Havana.

Will it take a Cuba moment in Canada to shift society onto a greener path? One hopes not. And yet it’s hard to see how a self-centred, consumer-focused model of sustainability will help us avert the coming shocks of climate change.

In 2004, University of Toronto philosophy professor Joseph Heath teamed up with Andrew Potter, now the managing editor of the Ottawa Citizen, and produced The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t Be Jammed. The book slams consumerism-based counterculture movements for offering choice but not change. Buying a backyard chicken may be better than buying factory-farmed eggs, for example, but it does absolutely nothing for the millions of chickens that remain confined to cramped cages in Canada and around the world. Change, Potter and Heath argue, requires sustained, united, strategic political action, rather than simply choosing a bike or a bus ticket over a car.

“Countercultural rebellion is not just unhelpful, it is positively counterproductive,” states Rebel Sell. “Not only does it distract energy and effort away from the sort of initiatives that lead to concrete improvements in people’s lives, but it encourages wholesale contempt for such incremental changes.”

Ecological economist William Rees, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, also breathes a chill on the sunny positivity of the cloth-bag-carrying, Prius-driving, sheltered environmentalism of the North American upper-middle class.

Most Canadians do not understand the basic science behind climate change and are in no rush to educate themselves, he suggests in the short video Why We’re in Denial. “We have a culture that is naturally habitual, that is comfortable,” says the co-creator of the ecological footprint, a measure for calculating how many Earths it would take to support your lifestyle if everyone lived like you. “Why would we be surprised that people resist ideas that suggest all of this is driving the destruction of the planet? And that if we really want to survive as a civilization, we’re going to have to change our ways dramatically.”

Obviously, you can’t denigrate someone for simply growing basil or taking the bus. And maybe change requires that people start from a place of feeling good. But I have trouble visualizing the connection between small acts like commuting by subway and the much more sweeping changes that Rees and others say are needed.

Will the woman e-mailing glamour shots of her backyard chickens to Cockrall-King be ready to lobby in favour of better poultry-farming regulations in Canada and beyond? Are Grescoe’s stroller-pushing neighbours prepared to adapt
to a Canada stripped of much of its resource sector?

Perhaps. Or perhaps these small, feel-good movements help block the anguish that might ultimately save us where back-patting perkiness has failed.

Pieta Woolley is a journalist in Powell River, B.C.

Author's photo
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
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