Acid Tests for Sustainability: Does it Work, and What's the Alternative?


Image credit: Sami Grover

I thought I'd illustrate this post with some rare footage of me doing something practical. Because I'm increasingly convinced that practicality and pragmatism are the order of the day. Having explored whether greens really are anti-progress, and asked how we distinguish between contradicting scientific claims (and no, I am not talking about a few stolen emails!), it occurred to me that deciding whether or not a particular environmental action or technology is a step forward boils down to two simple questions...You see all too often, folks shoot down ideas because they don't fit with their own ideological view points or cultural biases, or because they don't fix the whole problem (aka the perfect as the enemy of good). Sure, when I write about electric cars as part of transition towns movement, commenters can point out that "technology solutions fail in respect to global justice. They only work well if our lifestyle stays exclusive." And absolutely, when I write about high-end green condos, folks can ask what the point is of "building sustainable design that only 5% of the population can afford.

But ultimately no single solution is going to get us anywhere close to where we need to be. That's why we need millions of people working at millions of different solutions. And we need to critically evaluate each of them according to whether they are :

a) a step in the right direction.
b) whether there is a (viable) alternative.

Take my post on the Greenbridge condos, for example. Yes, there may have been legitimate concerns about the siting of the apartment, and those concerns are a matter for relevant debate—preferably during the planning process. But asking what the point is of building green luxury homes misses the mark completely—unless you can offer up a realistic vision of the world in which there are no luxury homes being built at all, and at least some kind of idea of how we get there.

The fact is that the rich have some of the largest footprints on the planet, so creating a scenario where they choose to live in small downtown apartments, not 10,000 square foot McMansions in the country, is a step forward. Or to put it another way, it works.

Similarly, by all means we can lament the fact that a world where electric cars are affordable or viable for the global population is unlikely, if not downright impossible. But meanwhile we live in a world where a huge proportion of humanity is dependent on the motorcar, and shows little willingness to reduce that dependence. And if electric cars can cut carbon emissions, and possibly help create a more reliable grid, then they are a step forward. Again, they work.

To argue against electric cars because they don't solve the global justice issue puts the onus on the critics to suggest an alternative. How do we create a world where the car is unnecessary, and how do we get there? To be fair, many critics are doing just that—promoting everything from public bikes to urban density to bus rapid transit. But to my mind, unless you can offer up a vision where the electric car becomes unnecessary, you're better off embracing it as part of the solution—and put your time into promoting car clubs, not knocking folks who are working on a different part of the puzzle.

Tags: Activism | Biking | Carbon Footprint | Car-Free | Consumerism | United States

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