We started publishing 3 weeks ago this series of an excerpt from Samuel Alexander and Brendan Gleeson’s new book, “Degrowth in the Suburbs: A Radical Urban Imaginary”.
The chapter we will be publishing over 4 weeks (Reimagining the Suburbs Beyond Growth) is the first chapter in the book.
Dr Samuel Alexander, is the co-director of the Simplicity Institute and a lecturer with the Office for Environmental Programs, University of Melbourne, as well as Research Fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne.
This book addresses a central dilemma of the urban age: how to make suburban landscapes sustainable in the face of planetary ecological crisis. The authors argue that degrowth, a planned contraction of overgrown economies, is the most coherent paradigm for suburban renewal. They depart from the anti-suburban sentiment of much environmentalism to show that existing suburbia can be the centre-ground of transition to a new social dispensation based on the principle of enlightened material and energy restraint.
“There is nothing that embodies the twisted values of growth-addicted capitalism more visibly than suburban sprawl. Massive matrices of carbon-intensive consumerism, the suburbs reflect the forces that are driving our descent into ecological crisis. But as deepening crises begin to engulf us, Alexander and Gleeson see an unlikely flicker of hope. The suburbs, they argue, hold the potential for a new, more resilient way of living that could help see us through the calamities of the Anthropocene. This is a brilliant, invigorating book, poetically written and full of exciting ideas. A marvellous achievement.’
—Jason Hickel, author of The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions
‘In a world seemingly beset by intractable challenges with potentially dire outcomes, Samuel Alexander and Brendan Gleeson offer a beacon of hope through their sketches of a tantalizing and realistic suburban future in which resource use has been downscaled and localised, and most importantly a culture of sufficiency has taken root. They elaborate a bold imaginary demonstrating how the myriad of initiatives that are already present might form the basis of a radically different suburban future. Degrowth in the Suburbs: A Radical Urban Imaginary sets the compass in a direction that will help steer civil society and government towards the type of world we would be proud to bequeath future generations.’
—J.K. Gibson-Graham, Jenny Cameron and Stephen Healy, authors of Take Back the Economy: An Ethical Guide for Transforming Our Communities
You can purchase the e-book in the following link :
Our Project: A Radical Urban Imaginary
We spoke above about the new map we need in order to chart the course of suburban and of course planetary transition, from a terminal capitalism to a new degrowth dispensation. Another way of think- ing about this is to realise our need for a new imaginary that ‘thinks out loud’ the form of, and path towards, a suburbia beyond growth. We use the rather lofty word of imaginary because it does indeed invoke the idea of the loft, a new plateau for thinking about and journeying towards. It denotes transcendence from conventional thinking about cities which the degrowth perspective demands. This current thinking is largely framed by what we term ‘neoliberal urbanism’, an underlying faith in the ability of markets—reformed, restrained a little perhaps (but not much)—to continue to shape human settlement patterns. Much comes with this thinking that needs immediate abandonment if we are to move forward—hollowed out governance, radical individualism, technocratic determinism, corporate prerogative in the urban process, the mantra of ecocidal growth, an indifference to the injuries of inequality and exclusion, and more besides.
The imaginary we offer in the pages that follow is a sketch outline, with some instructions supplied, for a new suburban deal. We avoid the trap of idealism; that is, casting out ideas without recourse to the material reality that they emerge from and aspire to engage and change. This means our work here is founded in applied scholarship and also the daily urban experiences that shape and inform our lives—lived mostly in suburbia. And we take instruction and inspiration from the work of others that is conducted in the concrete reality of contemporary suburbia. A shining example of this is the work of David Holmgren and his many collaborators on suburban transition, reflected and realised recently in the marvellously instructive and practical manual,Retrosuburbia: The Downshifter’s Guide to a Resilient Future (Holmgren2018). Our own offerings, and in particular this book and its imaginary, are different and are expressed through written argument with recourse to the scholarship we are trained and steeped in—the applied investigations of human prospect in an age of sustainability crisis and the forms of urbanisation and urban living that will provide us with passage to a safer world.
Importantly, our imaginary is expressly rooted in the setting that we think and write from, contemporary Australian suburbia. This is to locate us firmly if somewhat peripherally in what might be termed ‘new world’ suburbia—the extensive, low-density settlements that ring the cores of major and minor cities of North America, Australia, and New Zealand. We address the newer, wealthier regions of the world that were settled by Europeans and later many others, and which quickly embraced and defined the high carbon, low-density suburban model that finds both favour and censure in the rest of the world today.
It is vital to recall that these nations and their suburban landscapes were created through acts of invasion and dispossession that attempted to erase the first peoples who owned and managed these lands for millennia. As part of the transition we advocate, there must be many acts of reconciliation with these surviving first peoples who inhabit our cities and hinterlands. One of these is to respect and draw upon their wisdom in land management and living. In Melbourne, from where we write, indigenous elder Uncle Jack has observed the ‘vertical sprawl’ of poorly designed high-density housing with a critical wistfulness, urging that ‘We need to get back to having our own little piece of dirt to stand on’ (quoted in Kermond 2016: 8–9).
Let it be understood then that the suburban imaginary we offer in this book is one created in and firstly for what we referred to above as ‘new world’ suburbia. We acknowledge further its Australian crucible, cities without the temperatures extremes of North America (certainly the heavy winters) which inevitably conditions the way we think about transition possibilities. Nonetheless, we think there are many postulates, pathways and matters of design in the pages that follow that can be applied with mindfulness to contexts across the suburban landscapes of the new world, and beyond that to the rest of the Global North, especially the countries of Northern and Western Europe. It was the colonialism of the latter that produced the new worlds and changed and disrupted most of the rest of the globe during the centuries of invasion and expansion that immediately preceded and then followed the Industrial Revolution.
Our imaginary engages the Global South by urging a break from the ageing high carbon suburban model that the North has idealised through economic and cultural globalisation in the past half century. Importantly, our degrowth suburbia departs also from the newer offering of the North, the supposedly sustainable model of high-density urbanism that is scarring Australian and many other cities. Just as with indigenous peoples, our imaginary invites a drawing in of wisdom, practical and applied, from the Global South, which has much to teach an increasingly imperilled North about the virtues of self-limitation and the possibilities for good subsistence living.
Our book has been deeply influenced by the work of Ivan Illich, especially his ground-breaking essay Energy and Equity, which in the face of conventional wisdom maintained that energy crises in the industrialised world ‘cannot be overwhelmed by more energy inputs’ (Illich1974: 10). In this spirit Illich theorised a low-energy, convivial society that inhabited the middle way between under-consumption and overconsumption. For the poorest, Illich (1974: 8) argued, ‘the elimination of slavery and drudgery depends on the introduction of appropriate modern technology, and for the rich, the avoidance of an even more horrible degradation depends on the effective recognition of a threshold in energy consumption beyond which technical processes begin to dictate social relations’. Illich saw how a society can be ‘just as dangerously overpowered by the wattage of its tools as by the calorific content of its foods’ but noted ‘it is much harder to confess to national overindulgence in wattage that to a sickening diet’ (Illich 1974: 8). He argued that it is necessary to identify the thresholds beyond which energy corrupts, and our theory of suburban transformation is broadly based on Illich’s insight that we must ‘do so by a political process that associates the community in the search for limits’ (Illich 1974: 10).
Having set the scene at some length, we now offer an outline of this book’s argument to guide the reader through forthcoming chapters. In this introductory chapter (themed ‘Capital’), we have sought to highlight how the suburban form is a function of the underlying political economy of growth and its fossil energy foundations. From this it follows that a new, post-carbon suburbia cannot emerge unless that underlying political economy is transcended or replaced, one way or another. Despite the tired protestations of its defenders, the growth paradigm is proving unable to resolve its various contradictions, especially its ecological contradictions, and thus the crises of growth are destined to intensify, inevitably to unfold most prominently in the cities of our carbon civilisation.
In this book we are less motivated by the increasingly unrealistic goal of avoiding such crises—it seems to us that such an opportunity has already passed. We are motivated instead by the critical and collective task of managing, as wisely, creatively, and as compassionately as possible, the epoch-defining encounter with these urban crises. Our question is whether the descent ahead must be tragic, or whether, instead, there might still be a door, hidden in the wall, through which pathways of descent might still be prosperous. Disconcertingly, this remains an open question.
As globalised capitalism falters, the world is being challenged to reim- agine, in order to reinhabit, the built environment—the built environ- ment that is already with us and, for the most part, will remain with us over the next critical decades. We have highlighted new world suburbia as our point of reference, focussing in particular on our own locality of Melbourne, Australia, while acknowledging that in a globalised economy the analysis must, at times, be global in scope. The suburbs will not be knocked down for them to be built again in a ‘green’ way; instead, the task is to resettle the suburbs according to a new imaginary, which highlights the central inquiry of this book. Fortunately, when approached creatively, the low-density suburban landscape shows itself to be a more promising place to start a transformative retrofit of the built environment than high-density urban areas, in ways we will explain.
We will argue that a degrowth process of planned economic contraction is the most coherent new macroeconomic paradigm for building resilience and solidarity in the face of the urban crises that are developing. Our undertaking is to examine what might become of the suburbs during such a transition, and what can be done in and for suburbia with regards to initiating, driving and managing this ultimately systemic degrowth transformation. Whether this transformation of economic contraction occurs through design or disaster is a thematic question that runs throughout this book, prompting us to shift between utopian and dystopian inflections, in the hope of finding ground upon which to stand and move forward—if not without apprehension, then at least without despair.
In Chapter 2 (themed ‘Energy’) we seek to establish our premise of forthcoming ‘energy descent’, a term we borrow from David Holmgren (2009). This premise directly counters mainstream energy narratives that assume that the energy abundance of carbon civilisation can be globalised and maintained indeterminately into the future. The dominant growth paradigm and the suburban form it has produced are both dependent on the vast energy surpluses of fossil fuels, and it is widely assumed that adapting to fossil energy depletion and mitigating climate change will not affect the aggregate energy supply needed to maintain global economic growth. In contrast, we contend that today’s energy surpluses cannot be maintained in a carbon-constrained world. Increasing urban and suburban resilience in anticipation of this energy shock is a defining challenge of our age.
In Chapter 3 (themed ‘Technology’) we examine the ideology of techno-optimism that seems to inform most urban imaginaries today. Technology, markets, and further growth are typically offered as the means for resolving the energy and environmental problems that growth produces. Within that perspective the affluent, mobile, and globally dependent suburban way of life is rarely questioned, because it is assumed that it can be decarbonised with better design, technology, and ‘smart growth’. To the extent the suburban form is questioned, vertical sprawl is often considered the solution—or at least it is the solu- tion imposed by the market in a world in thrall to neoliberal urbanism.
Although we categorically defend a world powered by post-carbon energy technologies, we argue that the various limitations of nuclear and renewable energy offer further grounds for thinking that a post-carbon future will be an energy descent future, demanding a societal response that energy analyst Richard Heinberg (2004) calls ‘powerdown’. We then narrow our focus by offering a critique of electric vehicles and conclude that a post-carbon suburbia will be a reduced-mobility space, where transport primarily takes the form of walking, cycling, public transport, very infrequent airflight, and more broadly, greatly increased localisation of economy.
Having broadly outlined our energy descent premise and outlined the economic implications in terms of degrowth, we turn in Chapter 4(themed ‘Politics’) to consider a necessary socio-political question: if, as we argue, degrowth is the most coherent response to today’s overlapping crises, what societal forces, if any, can or should initiate and drive such a radical transformation? In considering this question we acknowledge that we live in an age of almost despairing political paralysis, where governments seem to be in the iron grip of an unimaginative ‘growth fetish’ (Hamilton 2003). There is much governments could be doing to facilitate the transition to a post-carbon society beyond growth, but in Australia, and elsewhere, governments seem unwilling or unable to tran- scend the economics of growth and its fossil energy foundations. So if we cannot rely on governments to lead, from where will the sparks of transformation ignite?
This raises important questions about the role grassroots movements and community action may need to play as drivers of societal trans- formation. In this fourth chapter we present a brief ‘theory of change’ which underpins our praxis and politics of suburban transformation. We unpack the implications of a paralysed state, which ultimately takes the form of a defence of a post-capitalist politics that is driven ‘from below’, where citizenries come to regovern their localities through par- ticipatory democracy and household and community action (Gibson- Graham 2006). Waiting for governments would be like waiting for Godo-ta tragicomedy of two acts, in which nothing happens, twice, before the curtain closes.
If it is the case that individuals, households and communities must build the degrowth society themselves from the grassroots up, transforming daily life with political and economic ambitions, then the question that follows is what such action might look like and how it might contribute to the mechanics of deep cultural and systemic change. In Chapter 5 (themed ‘Praxis’), we present a range of household, neighbourhood, and community strategies that could be undertaken to begin building a new suburbia within the shell of the old. By decarbonising and reducing household energy consumption through solar, biogas, and behaviour change; by disconnecting from fossil energy supply; by practicing voluntary simplicity and localising economy; by cycling, participating in the sharing economy, and reducing waste streams, etc: how far can these grassroots strategies sow the cultural seeds of a new post-capitalist politics and economics?
In examining these issues we reflect critically on the limitations and challenges of household and grassroots action. While it is fashionable to dismiss personal, household and community action as politically naïve and as being unable to deal with the systemic and structural nature of our crises, we argue that the apparent sophistication in this dismissal masks its own naivety in terms of how structures change. We recognise and accept the systemic nature of the crises facing our species but maintain that there will never be a politics or economics beyond growth until there is a culture that demands it, and culture is a product of innumera- ble small actions and practices. To dismiss the household or community scale, therefore, is to dismiss the foundation of the polis.
Chapter 6 (themed ‘Vision’) is where we make our most explicit statement of the radical urban imaginary we are developing. Having set up our premises, outlined a theory of change, reviewed the promise and limitations of grassroots and household action, we take this opportunity to present a new narrative of progress based on the notion of ‘degrowth in the suburbs’. We envision a suburban future in which complemen- tary socio-cultural movements inspired by notions of degrowth, soli- darity, and sufficiency have managed to transform the suburbs from the grassroots up, eventually building new societal structures that support the new, post-capitalist modes of living as the old structures wither away and deteriorate. By turns utopian and dystopian, this narrative chapter is motivated by the aesthetic insight that mobilisation for change always depends upon some vision of what alternative worlds are available, what they might look like, and how they might be realised.
Our book does not set out to answer all questions for all suburban con- texts, and we do not provide a complete policy framework for an alternative economic paradigm or urban blueprint. We are seeking to broaden the understanding of suburban futures informed by theories of degrowth and energy descent. Nevertheless, our argument is based on a view of the suburbs that is inextricably linked to the underlying modes of political economy that give shape to the urban form. Accordingly, in Chapter 7 (themed ‘Structure’) we consider some of the main policy areas that will eventually need to be addressed in order to support and facilitate the transition to a just, resilient, and sustainable suburban future. But as implied above when outlining our theory of change, such regovernance of the city, and regovernance of the economy more generally, is more likely to be an outcome not a driver of suburban transformation, which is why this part of discussion is situated at the end of the analysis not the beginning. We close the book in Chapter 8 by reprising our radical urban imaginary and urging its pursuit in a new suburban movement for change.
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