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Back on the rails

Can the environmental movement — and our collective imagination — be rewilded?
Published onDec 31, 2023
Back on the rails

Ending the year on a different subject than my last few posts…

Matt Reynolds published a nice article in Wired UK gently rebuking elements of the left for ecological hypocrisy. The article centers on a 2021 poll that found that most people in rich countries think the most meaningful climate actions they can take are actually some of the least impactful. Here’s the author’s conclusion about one reason why that’s the case:

Part of the problem is that the way we talk about climate action tends to emphasize nature and the nonhuman world. We think of organic produce as the “green” option and cotton tote bags as more “natural” than plastic alternatives—but when we really look at the numbers the benefits are much less clear. A hulking, high-tech nuclear power plant hardly conjures up images of bucolic hills, but nuclear energy is one of the safest and cleanest ways of producing electricity. Jumping on a crowded, dirty underground train might not bring you any closer to nature, but mass transit is one of the greenest ways to travel.

For full disclosure, I came across this article in the Slack of Open New York, a pro-housing organization of which I’m a member. And it especially resonated with me because I’ve spent most of the last year living either out of the country or with my wonderful in-laws1 in the beautiful Hudson Valley while waiting out a long renovation to our place in New York City.2 I know, poor me.

Most of our upstate family and friends live where they do precisely because they want to be closer to nature and farther away from other people. I feel differently, but I understand and respect their decisions. That said, I have, at times, felt tension when my reactions to more rural ways of life run against the prevailing wisdom of what Reynolds terms “vibes-based environmentalism.”

For example, one of the nicest new features of the area is the proliferation of “rail trails,” abandoned train lines that have been converted into forested walking and cycling paths. While I enjoy using them as much as the next person, I can’t help but feel a little sad, knowing what could have been, every time I set foot on one. When I point out that you must drive to walk or bike on most rail trails, I’m often met with blank stares that ask “how else would you get there?”

Personally, I’ve come to think of this “vibes-based” approach to naturalism as a sort of environmental LARPing. It’s fun (and good for you!) to go play in greener spaces, but we shouldn’t pretend that trails people like so much precisely because they were engineered to be wide, flat, and gently curving are particularly natural, and we especially shouldn’t pretend that having a new place to walk is better for the environment than being able to get around by train. To be fair, I don’t think most people would make that argument – but I do suspect the majority of folks mostly understand developments like rail trails as improvements without considering the opportunity costs. The same faulty logic and lack of imagination is how environmentalists find themselves opposing projects like wind farms and increased urban density — often with the help of oil companies and conservatives

This collective failure of imagination is a major obstacle for the modern green movement. Rather than embracing research and pragmatism, many environmentalists seem to be stuck playing the same old conservationist hits that Reynolds critiques in his article. Unable to fully come to terms with the scale of adaptation that will be required to live well in the anthropocene, many are instead choosing to deny that it exists.

To take just one example, as the Wired piece documents, and recent research has shown, rural and suburban living produce significantly more emissions than urban living on a per-capita basis, for precisely the reasons many people prefer to live outside of cities: residents of bigger houses on larger plots of land use more energy in the form of HVAC and transportation than those of denser dwellings, a gap which appears to be growing as cities electrify. The problem doesn’t end with emissions. Even when we fully decarbonize, the idea that most human beings should live “close to nature” will still be inherently contradictory, and an ecological disaster when considered on a planetary scale. Today’s cities, which house over 50% of the world’s population, take up just 3% of the world’s land mass. If you truly want to preserve natural spaces, spreading out humanity’s inevitable impact instead of concentrating it is exactly the wrong approach to take. And yet, time and time again, all across the country, left-leaning groups have used environmental arguments to vociferously oppose the very development required to support denser communities.

At this point, you might expect me to argue that everyone — or at the very least, all my friends and family — just needs to get over themselves and move to New York. But I don’t think that’s an effective argument, even if it is the greatest city in the world. I meant it when I said that I genuinely respect people’s choices to live differently than I prefer to.

In reality, the main environmental problem we face is no more rural living than it is urban living. As I wrote above, I believe the problem is truly society’s collective failure to imagine healthy, efficient, and pleasant ways we might want to live in all kinds of different environments. The more I’ve dug into the politics and history of housing, the more I’ve begun to suspect that this failure is a feature of the way modern society is structured.

After World War II, America radically redesigned its residential development pattern to prioritize automobile access. Although this change was sold to the American public as post-war industrial progress, as Strong Towns, an urban planning advocacy and consultancy, has documented, it was in fact an unprecedented experiment that upended thousands of years of collective human urban planning wisdom to serve automobile sales rather than human needs. The result is the ubiquitous modern suburb, with its ghastly environmental and health consequences.

Why can’t we imagine alternatives? Well, as Strong Towns notes, now in its third generation, the suburban pattern is the only one most of us have ever known. But I think there’s something else going on, too.

As I’ve written about before, French philosopher André Gorz argued in a 1973 essay that cars are self-perpetuating. They make themselves inevitable by forcing us to build our environments to accommodate them, which results in noisy, smog-filled, slow-moving concrete hellscapes we can’t wait to escape by the only means possible: hopping into our cars and driving to rail trails. As a result, in most of the country, the car is the only mobility choice anyone has anymore. In this way, they’re perfect avatars for the ideology they rode in on. To remix the well worn phrase made popular by philosopher Mark Fisher: it’s as impossible to imagine life without cars as it is life without capitalism.

Car culture mirrors broader society in another important way, too. In the same way we can’t imagine a future without cars, in the same way environmentalists can’t imagine futures where we adapt to the anthropocene, you’ve probably noticed that mass media is having trouble imaging new futures, too. Music, movies, television, novels, etc. all seem to be stuck in an endless cycle of retreads, reboots, and sequels of past genres, stories, and franchises — most of which either romanticize the past or describe dystopian futures.

Futurist Jay Springett, a leading voice of solarpunk, one of my favorite social movements, gave what I think is the best explanation for this phenomenon in a brilliant 2019 speech. He argued that the internet, which gave everyone the ability to create and access unlimited amounts of content from any era, paradoxically lead to an excess of creativity that destabilized our shared cultural grammar. Because everyone can now find exactly what they want on the internet, new ideas struggle to find an audience beyond the small niches of people who specifically seek them out. As a result, the only way for mass media companies to make a profit is by rehashing the shared popular culture that came before the web, so nothing truly new is elevated to mass popularity. And the vicious cycle continues.

Although the internet and post-war development patterns are two very different phenomena, I’ve come to believe the cause of both our cultural and built environment paralysis is very much the same. Like the internet did to our shared cultural grammar, the suburban pattern significantly destabilized our shared geo-social grammar. Whereas pre-automobile development patterns meant most people, even in more rural areas, interacted with neighbors consistently, today, because our houses are spread out and set back, and because we travel to and from them almost exclusively by car, we largely go about life without ever directly interacting with the people who live closest to us. In addition to being profoundly isolating, this lack of common interaction patterns between neighbors — no matter how well you might know them individually — makes imagining different ways of living with them impossibly frightening. Without our fenced-in fortress-houses and imposing tank-cars, we feel dangerously exposed to the strangers living all around us. Perhaps that’s one reason why Americans are increasingly geographically sorting by political alignment.

Given the self-perpetuating hostility we’ve built into our everyday living environments, it’s no wonder that environmentalists have become reactionaries, embracing a false dichotomy of nature as good and development as bad. If the best we can do is suburbanization, which we’re increasingly inflicting on our cities, too, it’s logical to want to resist any attempt to build more of it.

So how do we move beyond this rut in the road? Simple: we imagine our way out together. That may seem glib, but when you consider the impact science fiction has long had on science and culture, it seems natural that the cure for our ills is a better imagination.

This prescription is the purpose of the solarpunk movement Springett describes in the second half of his talk. Solarpunk is essentially a new speculative fiction genre that asks us to imagine what enjoyable life looks like in a climate-adapted present and future, rather than assuming our only options are the post-apocalyptic dystopia offered by mass media franchises or the preservation of a human-free state of nature that doesn’t really exist that many environmentalists advocate for. Although I suspect they wouldn’t consider themselves entirely ideologically aligned with solarpunk, Strong Towns takes a similar approach by focusing on bringing neighbors together to imagine the achievable steps they could take to improve daily life in their towns, and then organizing to implement those improvements.

Though solarpunk is relatively young and only loosely defined, fascinating ideas about how we could live are already beginning to emerge. One of my favorite examples to date is Becky Chambers’ Monk and Robot series. In the first two novellas, Chambers describes a world of rich city, suburban, and rural life only slightly more technologically advanced than our own where humans have learned to live comfortably alongside nature by making one huge concession: they’ve deliberately concentrated human development to just a portion of their planet, leaving the rest untouched to be rewilded. The implications of this decision that Chambers explores are fascinating, and many — like the disappearance of entire species from the human parts of the world — would probably appall modern environmentalists. Which is exactly the point of solarpunk: to engage with the reality of the choices we face. As Springett said in a 2021 Motherboard article, “you can't LARP Solarpunk because LARPing Solarpunk is going out and planting a garden.”

In the comment thread that followed the recent Wired article being posted in the Open New York Slack, one member argued that replacing conventional lightbulbs with LEDs is a winning strategy despite its low impact because it requires no personal sacrifice and has no downside. Although I agree with this assessment on its merits, it’s symptomatic of just how trapped we are in a dysfunctional present, facing only dystopian futures, that it’s so difficult to let ourselves imagine ways of living that might make people not just willing, but eager, to make substantive changes to their lives to save the planet and themselves. The future has become another suburb: we’ll all inevitably move there because it’s the only real option we have, telling ourselves we like it for its convenience even as it slowly kills us.

Now we are the conservationist, debating which marginal improvements are the best strategies to preserve a present that doesn’t really exist, and that nobody really likes, while denying the true scale of action required to adapt to the future. We can keep pretending that preservation is effective, or we can, to borrow yet another idea from Springett’s talk, rewild our future by giving ourselves permission to imagine better towns, better cities, better environmental movements — better ways of living that actually induce people to want to make the changes needed to grapple with the problems we face.

I lied when I wrote that I enjoy rail trails. Every time I walk on one I grieve for the present we could have built where quaint walkable towns are still connected by trains. And then I imagine what would happen if we re-connected all the trails, and added covering, and lights, and dedicated lanes for e-bikes — and, heck, why not as long as we’re dreaming, solar powered bunny-slope-esque pulley systems that could clip onto bikes or wheelchairs or wagons and pull them from town to town, and the conversations you’d have at all the cafes that would spring up at the exits, and the demand for car-less access from trails to town centers that would follow — and as I walk, I start planning for the future that’s still possible.

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