Where there is no vision, the people perish 2

In this sequel to Part 1, Bill Becker lays out some key goals and principles for a sustainable future.

We are on the edge of a carbon revolution. Everything is going to change. This will matter to you”¦ There is no high-carbon future.
– Peter Mandelson, Secretary of State for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, Great Britain

When we give voice to our visions, we identify the destinations we want to move towards. And by describing the steps we can take, we prepare ourselves for action.
– Rob Hopkins, The Transition Handbook.

In many ways, the future is an intensely personal thing. Every person, family, neighborhood, community and region is unique. A one-size-fits all plan for progress would be profoundly unsatisfying. It would impoverish us culturally by stifling invention and ignoring the richness of our diversity.

But what if the many communities engaged in envisioning America’s future, and the many organizations helping them, rallied around a common set of criteria for the society we must build for the 21st century? Not a common blueprint, mind you, but common goals that must be met society-wide if we are to successfully survive the economic, climate and energy crises?

Individuals and communities would invent their own ways to achieve the goals, but common goals would help us achieve necessary national and global objectives. They would guide local investments, including the new infusions of stimulus money going to states and communities for work on energy and climate. In the bargain, each participating community would become a laboratory and demonstration project for all the others.

What would that common set of goals look like? One list is being considered by the U.S. Green Building Council in its new LEED for Neighborhoods rating system. Neighborhoods win points by fulfilling as many as possible of these criteria:

  • Proximity to water and water infrastructure
  • Protecting imperiled species
  • Conserving water and wetlands
  • Conserving farmland
  • Avoiding development in floodplains
  • Redeveloping brownfields
  • Reducing dependence on automobiles
  • Creating bicycle networks
  • Designing so that housing is near jobs and schools
  • Avoiding steep slopes
  • Restoring wildlife habitat
  • Compact development
  • Diversity in uses, housing types and housing affordability
  • Walkable streets
  • Reducing footprints for parking
  • Providing good access to public spaces
  • Ensuring accessibility for people of all abilities
  • Local food production
  • Involving the community in neighborhood development
  • Preventing pollution, waste and site disturbance during construction
  • Achieving high levels of energy efficiency, water and materials efficiency in buildings
  • Reusing historic buildings
  • Reducing in urban heat islands
  • Achieving good wastewater management and comprehensive waste management

Smart Growth America proposes 10 principles for community development:

  1. Provide a Variety of Transportation Choices
  2. Mix Land Uses
  3. Create a Range of Housing Opportunities and Choices
  4. Create Walkable Neighborhoods
  5. Encourage Community and Stakeholder Collaboration
  6. Foster Distinctive, Attractive Communities with a Strong Sense of Place
  7. Make Development Decisions Predictable, Fair and Cost Effective
  8. Preserve Open Space, Farmland, Natural Beauty and Critical Environmental Areas
  9. Strengthen and Direct Development Towards Existing Communities
  10. Take Advantage of Compact Building Design and Efficient Infrastructure Design

If I were chief adviser to all the architects of our future, my list would be similar in many ways, and tougher in others. It would include these goals:

  • Beauty, a goal too often neglected as we talk about new technologies;
  • Levels of resource efficiency so high that waste becomes an obsolete concept;
  • Designs, zoning, and building codes that minimize the use of nonrenewable and carbon-rich energy resources;
  • Use of distributed renewable energy systems wherever possible – for example, building integrated and community-scale solar, wind and geothermal systems;
  • A community-wide goal of zero greenhouse gas emissions, with regular performance measurement and reporting;
  • Equal and abundant opportunities, manifesting not only as diverse employment, education, cultural and housing opportunities, but also as diverse mobility options that allow all residents – including those who are too young, too old or physically unable to drive — easy access to vital services and opportunities;
  • Local business climates that attract and nurture the goods, services and industries essential to a green economy;
  • Development patterns that maintain each building’s access to sunlight;
    An emphasis on environmental restoration as well as conservation – for example, natural corridors to accommodate wildlife forced northward by climate change and creation of “urban forests”;
  • Features that enable communities to cope with the effects of climate change that already are likely. An example would be community shelters for those who need them during natural disasters and heat waves;
  • Changes in behavior as well as technology – for example, community agriculture and food production;
  • Ample social gathering places;
  • Additional measures to reduce vehicle miles traveled, including incentives for location-efficient development, progressive parking policies and facilities for e-government, remote learning and telecommuting;
  • The use of natural systems for infrastructure – for example, replanting watersheds for flood control, using swales to guide storm drainage, and constructed wetlands for water treatment;
  • Features that maintain the connection between human beings and nature;
  • Ample recreational and cultural opportunities for all ages;

Some will argue that specific goals such as these would stifle local initiative and creativity. I don’t think so. These are goals important to national and global well-being, in effect a responsibility of citizenship, and they leave enormous room for innovation and localization. But if you believe this list is too detailed and prescriptive, what would you subtract?

Others will judge these lists to be woefully inadequate to achieve desirable communities and quality of life in a time of energy insecurity and climate change. If you’re in that category, what would you add?

Some will argue that any list is bogus and that there is no climate crisis or energy crisis ahead. But as I’ve argued before, solutions to climate change are beneficial whether or not you believe in global warming. You need only believe that wasting money, childhood asthma, mercury poisoning, traffic jams, skyrocketing gasoline prices and seeing your energy dollars go to terrorist organizations are bad things.

Whether the list gets longer or shorter, it would be a good thing to “imagineer” around a common set of basic goals that are sufficiently bold to meet the challenges of this time. With your help, perhaps we can construct a list that meets the test.

5 Responses to Where there is no vision, the people perish 2

  1. paulm says:

    Britain, a forward looking green nation? just did its budget.

    On review all the oil left under its jurisdiction is going to be extracted. I hope BO has the steel to overcome this tendency.

    It’s a so-called green Budget, but with a coating of crude oil
    The tax concessions for the North Sea oil and gas industry are likely to dwarf any of the green incentives.

    The Government said that it wanted to ensure the extraction of an extra two billion barrels of oil that would otherwise be left under the seabed.

  2. Steve H says:

    ” In the bargain, each participating community would become a laboratory and demonstration project for all the others.”

    I know way too much evolutionary behavioral psychology for own good, but this is the MOST important statement in Part 2. The biggest hurdle that we face in the US right now is we don’t have a good model for a sustainable city. This means that nobody has the exposure needed for sustainable communities to propagate. The evolution of group behaviors comes into play at this point, and the efficient mechanism for the propagation of a better behavior is for one distinct group to adopt it in such a manner that the other groups they interact with will recognize the novel behavior and be able to attribute the successes of that group to this behavior (warranted or not.) To really get this going, we will need the help of a top-down initiative to redevelop existing cities into sustainable cities. That said, these cities must also be heavily invested in its community organizations such that they are willing to play a role in spreading the sustainability message. We know darn well that local governments are going to be hesitant, rightfully so, to try and demand sustainability. However, they should demand green building codes, an enabling infrastructure, and incentives for adoption of sustainable behaviors. Once we have in place example sustainable communities, it will come easier to others. Also, within the example community, I think that sustainable neighborhoods will be vital to the propagation of sustainability to other parts of the community.

  3. The above suggestions are like the answer car owners get when they ask how to
    make their cars last longer: “Wash and wax it.” Meaningless. Pointless.
    The truthful answer is: “We rigged it so you can’t do that.”

    Meaningful action the common person can take: Get a new attitude on nuclear
    power because nuclear power is King Coal’s only meaningful competitor.
    Every time you dis nuclear, you are working for the coal industry and shooting yourself in the foot. What the coal companies know that most people don’t:

    As long as you keep messing around with wind, solar, geothermal and wave power, the coal industry is safe. There is no way wind, solar, geothermal and wave power can replace coal, and they know it. Hydrogen fusion could, if it worked. Hydrogen fusion has been “hopeful” for half a century so far. I don’t expect that to change any time soon.

    If you quit being afraid of nuclear, the coal industry is doomed. Every time you argue in favor of wind, solar, geothermal and wave power, or against nuclear, King Coal is happy. ONLY nuclear power can put coal out of business. Nuclear power HAS put coal out of business in France. France uses 30 year old American technology. So here is the deal: Keep being afraid of all things nuclear and die either when [not if] civilization collapses or when H2S comes out of the ocean and Homo “Sapiens” goes extinct. OR: Get over your paranoia and kick the coal habit and live. Which do you choose? I put quotation marks around “Sapiens” because it is not clear that most of us have enough brains to avoid extinction when it is clearly predicted and the safe path has been pointed out. Nuclear is the safe path.

    PS: Nuclear is the cheapest and safest source of electricity. Nuclear life cycle CO2 output is the lowest per kilowatt hour because it takes a huge number of windmills or solar collectors or wave machines or whatever to produce the same power as a nuclear power plant. All of those windmills or whatever have manufacturing processes that make CO2. Hydro power requires an enormous amount of concrete. The first step in making concrete is heating limestone to drive off the CO2. That is one of the sources of CO2 from hydro power. The price for electricity for the various sources of power include the total life cycle costs. The cost to build the reactor is not much different from the cost to build a coal fired power plant and the money comes from the same source. See the next post of mine. Whoever would pay for the reactor is the same person who would pay for the coal burner. LOOK at the price for the electricity. It is the total life cycle cost. Nuclear is the cheapest and the only full time replacement for coal. Nuclear power would be much cheaper than it is if nuclear were allowed to be as unsafe as the other sources of power. Nuclear power plants are self-insured. Tax money is NOT involved and would not be mentioned if it were not for the civil disturbances caused by coal company shills, alias protesters. The nuclear industry needs and deserves protection from people who are obviously very misinformed. When tax money is mentioned with respect to nuclear power, the money is the extra money that is wasted because of pointless protests.

    I DO NOT work for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. I am a retired Department of the Army scientist and engineer. I have never worked for the nuclear power industry.

    There is NO SUCH THING as nuclear waste because nuclear fuel is recyclable. There is fuel that is being wasted for political reasons and because the coal industry has driven you paranoid. The coal industry’s reason for doing so is the $100 Billion per year cash flow they receive as long as you remain afraid of nuclear. If you remain afraid of nuclear and prevent the conversion from coal to nuclear, we all die. The cure is for you to go to start acting like the French people with respect to nuclear power.

  4. John Robert says:

    Great series, Bill Becker. I’m glad to hear some are looking below all the technological fixes to see what values and dreams will help us move beyond the deadly cycle of cynicism and sameness.
    Are you collecting visions for the 2009 State of the World Forum? I’m glad to see that this conference is organized around a wholistic vision. If ecology teaches us nothing else, it is that everything is intertwined: our economics, our technology, our education, our science, our ethics, our art, our understanding of ourselves are all intimately, inextricably connected. We need a new dream beyond having more stuff, even beyond the best technological fix.
    I dream of an America renaissance. A land in which the good life is defined by deeper and more generous values — respect, appreciation, hope, honesty, and celebration — not by having more things. I dream of an America in which art, learning, children, and spiritual awareness are more important in public conversation and private action than economic growth and military prowess. I dream of American energy streaming home from our 732 (and growing) foreign military bases and posts, with a can-do attitude informed by those deeper values.
    In other words, I dream of a new understanding and practice of being human. At the end of Al Gore’s TED talk presentation posted April 2008, he says We need a new consciousness.
    I think that’s how deep our visioning has to go.
    As for examples of visioning, but not solely about a post carbon future, I recommend the eco-spiritual international township in South India called Auroville. It just celebrated its 40th birthday and is thriving. One of the speakers for the World Forum, Ervin Laszlo, was recently a member of Auroville’s International Advisory Council. It’s an incredibly vibrant place. I lived there between 2006 and 2008. I think some of the best visioners there are an architectural group called dreamcatchers. I watched a presentation that dreamcatchers David and Mona gave on the future of the city that was stunning, visionary in so many senses of the word. Here’s a link to another dreamcatcher project:

  5. Bill Becker says:

    John, thanks for the suggestions and link. No, we hadn’t been planning to feed into the State of the World Forum, but we should.