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Recycle the Skyline

Obviously, we need to be wary of multinational alternative energy companies tied to the old neoliberal globalization model of resource extraction. We need to radically overhaul the energy infrastructure and construct vast systems of solar panels and wind turbines. However, we need a shit ton of minerals to do this.

Under the current model, solar panel production piggybacks off the mining and trading infrastructure of the fossil fuel industry. Basically, solar panel production is only possible through the continued production of oil and gas and involves other forms of heavy resource extraction. But we don’t have to rely on this pipeline to create the solar panel infrastructure we need. Sustainably, it doesn’t even make sense to mine for Coltan and rare earth minerals to create solar panels. A critical component for solar panel construction is quartz,  the most abundant mineral on the planet. And due to natural erosion processes, sand itself could be used to construct them.

Let’s go back to the Law of Conservation of Matter. All of the minerals, fuels, and resources that have been extracted over the centuries have been used to create everything from Iphones and laptops to cars and skyscrapers. All of the matter we need is already within our reach.

In America’s sacrifice zones, some of the poorest cities have resorted to selling off scrap metal to make up deficits. In Camden, New Jersey the scrap metal business is the second most profitable industry behind the open air drug markets. Cargo ships from all over the world come to Camden’s port to be loaded with copper, concrete, and other metals that have been harvested from the guts of the city. While this process tragically shows what poverty has done to our cities, we can flip this to reflect a positive implementation of the same idea. If we construct a similar process with other cities we will have enough materials at our disposal to create solar panels.

We can de-urbanize the environment while simultaneously building alternative energy structures. But instead of scrapping the dilapidated and impoverished parts of cities, we should primarily focus on the edifices of bourgeois power. The City of New York is currently constructing the largest apartment complex in the city on 42nd street and Eleventh Avenue. The absurdly named Sky building will house 1,175 housing units complete with two large pools, a putting green and a cafe. Upon its completion, Sky will join One57 and 432 Park Avenue as the largest and most expensive residential buildings in the city.

Our method to create so-called sustainable cities should focus on dismantling and breaking down the material structure of these skyscrapers, luxury condos, and bureaucratic office buildings for the creation of a new green energy infrastructure focused on reviving blighted communities. Eric Sanderson argued that ideally cities should incorporate 80% green space consisting of parks, plazas, community gardens, and forested paths with all man-made structures built around these central features. We can switch up our values, where anthropocentric modes of living become second to ecological systems. We  should prioritize greenery over the gray corporate landscape of human structures.

In essence, breaking store windows on 5th Avenue and setting fire to Time Square has a purpose. The anger expressed during rioting demonstrates a deep psychological rejection of the dominant patriarchal worldview. The entire Earth has been enclosed by this violent mentality that sees ecosystems, flora, fauna, and traditional human communities as subjects to be conquered and controlled. We need to reorient our values to an ecological-working class perspective that puts environmental systems and blue collar culture above that mainstream paradigm that places man over nature. Imagine the new structures we could create, which would essentially cause a total restructuring of our economy as well as the very ways we relate to each other as a species. Granted, this seems pretty radical but not as radical as decimating indigenous communities on far away continents to rape the land of resources we don’t even need.

Warning: Austerity may be Disguised as Sustainability

Climate Change has become a mainstream issue on the left in recent years. While Republicans continue to be beholden to the oil industry, Democrats and other liberals have formulated plans to address the existential crisis facing the planet. Despite this flicker of hope, upon listening to the rhetoric coming from celebrities, entrepreneurs, and activists in the environmental movement, it seems sinister intentions lay beneath their veil of concern. As a movement that has historically represented white upper-class yuppies, it should come as no surprise that the policies and solutions they lay forth will inevitably affect poor people. I’ve written about this issue before, commenting on what I find as bourgeois individual solutions to a collective problem.

Sustainability has become the staple buzzword of the mainstream environmental movement. From the top-rated green universities to the largest environmental NGOs and even your neighborhood composting program, eco-friendly folks centralize sustainability as the primary action people can take to curb their carbon footprint and do their part to avert climate catastrophe. With global temperatures expected to rise to 4 degrees, dramatic weather events exploding across the world, and seemingly zero-hault expected from both the military-industrial complex as well as the mass extractivism of the major fossil fuel companies, the task at hand seems incredibly daunting.

So, what solutions do eco-liberals suggest to combat such overwhelming circumstances? Recycle! That’s right, if we establish recycling programs in major cities and suburban communities than we can significantly lower human contribution to climate change. The only problem with this is that most consumables are not recyclable. For this to actually work, we’d need to revamp the entire production process. Another solution is energy efficiency. Remember to use LEED-certified light bulbs and to unplug all electronics! Even if they’re off, plugs drain a miniscule almost non-measurable wattage of electricity from the circuits. Nevermind that your local mall uses 4000 times that amount of electricity. Other solutions range from driving exorbitantly expensive hybrid cars made from coltan mined in the Congo to reducing the amount of water you use in the shower. We engage in these frantic obsessive activities to build the illusion of ethical contribution. Notice how all of these solutions target consumers, off the assumption that we can continue to live with the same standard of living as long as everything is labeled “green.” These individual contributions affirm the selfish notion that they’re doing their part while doing nothing to stem ecological devastation from the larger extractivism driven by corporate institutions. As stated by cpsoeller’s Iron Law of Sustainability, the more a society discusses sustainability, the less sustainable that society. Hunter-gatherer cultures did not have a term for sustainability. It was simple just the way they lived.

In the Western industrial context, sustainability means energy austerity. You can’t save the world by unplugging your refrigerator yet these are the very solutions mainstream environmentalists peddle to poor and working class communities.  These eco-conscious yuppies are totally divorced from the social and economic realities of everyday people so they are oblivious to the ways in which their “solutions” actually sound like austerity. So much focus goes into curbing individual habits instead of challenging larger institutions that their commitment to battling environmental catastrophe sounds disingenuous.

Take the California Water Crisis for example. The combination of climate change in conjunction with heavy resource extraction struck California with one of its worst droughts in years. Governor Jerry Brown announced the first ever rationing program after revelations that the state only has a year’s worth of fresh water left.  The rhetoric sounds familiar with Brown emphasizing that all Californians will have to make do with using less. However, the big agricultural giants are strangely exempt from this rationing program leaving the burden to fall upon small farmers and predominately Hispanic communities. Even though Big Agro accounts for 80% of the state’s water consumption, they were given a free pass to continue draining California of the last of its life force. In fact, evidence suggests that the extractivist mentality of agriculture, oil and gas businesses led to California’s current drought crisis even though there were many signs in the past decade that this would spell doom for the region. Now, poor families are forced to “live within their means” or move out of the state because aggro-business profits are more important than life. And this is all committed under the guise of sustainability. Nothing could be further from the truth plus it exposes the liberal environmentalists as racist ignoramuses that are totally disconnected from working class experiences.

As sustainability becomes a hip new trend with twenty-somethings, universities seek to cash in on this golden opportunity. College sustainability programs represent hipster capitalism at its worst. With so much focus on energy efficiency and recycling, the school effectively shut out debate over systemic economic factors contributed by the school’s financial investments. Even though the current student-led Fossil Fuel Divestment movement coalesced to address this concern the main focus still revolves individual consumption habits. Granted, some schools like the University of Edinburgh have a more intersectional approach to their movement linking ecological devastation, economic austerity, labor and feminist issues together. Students there even occupied the university finance building to directly confront and call out the bourgeois forces pulling the strings at the school. However, movements like Edinburgh’s are the exception, not the rule.

American university movements still seem beholden to the financial sector, not seeking to offend potential “allies” working in college finance departments. In Carlisle Pennsylvania, for example, Dickinson College has a cozy relationship with the US Army War College and its investment portfolio is supplemented with hordes of contracts with the Defense Department as well as the top fossil fuel giants. Given that the Pentagon uses 400,000 barrels of oil a day, any support of the US military through financial grants goes against the college’s mission of sustainability. Like plenty of other universities, Dickinson is aiming to be carbon neutral by 2020, which is a pipe dream. The obsession with obtaining carbon neutrality obscures the insane logic behind such a move. Its impossible to offset pollution. Just because a school invests in renewable energy and grows its own food does not offset the energy consumption used by the college nor the pollution emitted through its transportation infrastructure.  As long as  a university maintains investments in environmentally exploitative business ventures, it will continue to be culpable in the destruction of the planet. Dickinson, in fact all American colleges and universities, should follow the Edinburgh model and adopt direct action tactics under the banner of a radically diverse movement.

The fossil fuel divestment movement is part of the anti-austerity movement and until white eco-yuppies figure that out they’ll continue to support half-assed measures in an attempt to save the civilization that brought about this ecological crisis in the first place. On top of this, these “solutions” are marketed as the ideas of highbrow suburban entrepreneurs when in fact many of these innovative techniques are actually centuries old. In that late 1970s, the radical black liberation group, MOVE, preached an ecological lifestyle. They wore their hair in braids, walked around naked and recycled excess food scraps back into the garden from which they came. That’s right, black people pioneered composting. Now its exclusively the domain of bourgie white hipsters. Yuppie environmentalists appropriated the sustainable practices of black and indigenous societies into white culture so they can be mass marketed as consumer lifestyles. Just as every major industry profits of the global drug war, every major industry profits from the destruction of the planet. It is absolutely impossible to make capitalism sustainable, let alone “environmentally-friendly.” Yet, the message from the mainstream environmentalists seems to support continued military imperialism through organizations such as the Center for Climate & Security that seeks to unite military leaders and security professionals to create a climate-resilient world. The heaviest polluters in the world want to be in charge of handling security issues as the world undergoes catastrophic climate change? We have a term for that: ecofascism.

Let’s thank the radicals for morphing Occupy Wall Street into the anticapitalist anti-racist movement that we call Black Lives Matter. This current social movement represents exactly the type of mindset activists of all stripes need to adapt. Notice how as much effort is going into discrediting the Toms of the black middle class and faux allies of the political leadership class as is going into dismantling institutions of white supremacy. Your rank-and-file Black Lives Matter activist is not calling for electing anybody or advocating for a particular reform. They are calling for an end to mass incarceration, a permanent end to the racialized caste system that has been at the foundation of American history. Why do white environmentalists struggle so much with creating a similar radically intersectional approach to climate change? In December of 2014, a BLM rally gathered in New York’s Union Square just a few feet from a Climate Change rally organized by a different organization. Despite opening a dialogue between the two rallies and the climate activists’ insistence at cooperation, they did not march with the Black Lives Matter protestors when the time came.

The environmental movement let itself become institutionalized. The People’s Climate March, while an excellent opportunity to radicalize newcomers, was still sponsored by the industrial elite. BP was allowed to march with the indigenous peoples they helped decimate. And environmental celebrities like Al Gore and Bill McKibben still peddle the myth that there is nothing inherently wrong with capitalism that can’t be fixed with a good election. Enough of the bullshit. If this crisis is half as bad as these celebrities make it out to be, then we need to totally remake society from the ground up or else risk a century of resource wars and neofeudalism.

Earth Can’t Become Coruscant

In mid-July, Ram Realty Services acquired over 125 acres of formerly protected endangered forest in Florida after negotiations with the University of Miami. These South Florida pine rocklands are home to some of the rarest plant and butterfly species and represent some of the last patches of Florida’s dying everglades. With only 23 percent of native species declared safe, Florida’s biodiversity crisis serves as a microcosm for the larger biodiversity crisis affecting North America.

Ram plans to use the space to build apartments, restaurants, fitness centers, and a Walmart while promising to set aside 40 acres for a preserve. The company’s CEO cited that demand for “high-quality rental housing, shopping, fitness and dining options,” along with Walmart’s backing, helped decide location. In other words, gentrification.  Such ‘high-quality’ residences , trendy fitness clubs and fine dining options will drive up real estate prices as well as the cost of living. On top of that, Walmart’s presence will force out the last small businesses that remain. This isn’t urban development, its urban sprawl. Not only does urban sprawl inflict violence upon our communities it also inflicts violence on the environment we inhabit.

The Pacific Northwest contains 6% old growth forests, the largest for any region in the United States. In the Northeast, there remains less than 1% old growth. Old-growth refers to the oldest living forest ecosystems usually hundreds, even thousands of years old. Why does this matter? Why am I focused on these forests when the Earth has largely recovered from the ecological devastation wrought by colonial history?

Learn more about Old-growth Forests

Its true that second and third growth forests have replaced the original forests destroyed by colonial settlers. Bill McKibben calls this the “great environmental success story of the United States.” Despite this comeback for mother nature, original forests possess the quality of age and thus represent the most evolved and developed ecosystems on the planet.

The Definition of Symbiosis

Time allows for forests to develop complex systems of mutual aid between organisms. Trees, plants, and animals don’t evolve in a vacuum. These species evolve together. Over time, various species eventually form ways to benefit each other. For example, a species of lichen will grow in 100-year-old forests that provides nitrogen to the trees.

Old growth forests have the most biodiversity since they have been alive the longest. In the Pacific Northwest, many old growth forests contain mycorrhizal fungi which makes connections between soil fungi and plant roots thus assisting in absorbing and distributing nutrients to a larger network of ground plants. The destruction of trees break these connections disrupting an entire system of symbiosis.

Symbiosis is the basis of ecosystems. Ecosystems are what distinguish a tree farm from a forest. The longer a forest survives, the more resilient it becomes. Old growth tend to be significantly more fire resistant than second and third growth. When these original forests were blighted with wild fires, the trees that survived grew stronger bark. The forest grows stronger after each subsequent burning to the point where some trees won’t even scar. Trees are necessarily the keystones of the forest.

A healthy forest produces healthy ecosystem services. These are the natural services and products that the forest creates that benefit local species. For us, ecosystem services come in the form of rivers, fruits from the canopy, and shelter. Humans, as bipedal creatures with opposable thumbs, need to manipulate lumber and rock in order to build the appropriately habitable shelter. This isn’t necessarily bad as humans are by far not the only creatures that manipulate the environment for their own benefit.

However, just as the beaver dam can inadvertently disrupt the flow of a river at the expense of other species, humans can cause irreparable harm to forests. This is why the environmental movement takes such a strong stand against clear-cutting. Most people accept the view that some trees need to be cut down, but they also believe we shouldn’t cut down what we don’t need.

Lumberjacks and tree-sitters generally agree that the majority of forest needs to remain in order to continue the viability of ecosystem services. Problems arise, not from individual workers, but from decision-makers in the Bureau of Land Management.

“Manhattanizing” the World

Urban centers certainly provide a plethora of opportunities and services. Yet, these services don’t necessarily foster healthy communities. In fact, urbanization requires the smelting of ore powered by fossil fuels and destroys the self-correcting symbiosis that maintains the environment. Cities cannot self-correct. There isn’t any symbiotic relationship between skyscrapers and streets. Clean urbanization requires the constant maintenance of the urban landscape through human activity which in turn requires fossil fuels.

Think about it this way: Cities wouldn’t need water treatment plants if urban pollution didn’t destroy the capability of the river ecosystems to provide a constant flow of clean water. Human progress pushes the myth that natural ecosystem services need to be destroyed to make way for the construction of urban human services. This results in policy makers and land grabbers prioritizing urban expansion over ecological protection thus endangering species and accelerating the destruction of human viability. Where do the fruits at the farmer’s market come from? How did that steak get from the farm to your plate? Urbanites take human services for granted without realizing that they essentially rely on external ecosystems. If we cut down all the forests and replace them with shopping centers, then there will be nothing with which to fill these supermarkets. Cities exist within the natural environment. We ultimately need ecosystem services to survive.

This is clearly an existential crisis but its gentrification that remains the gravest evil in this scenario. As younger generations move back into the cities, they bring with them the suburban culture that lies at the root perpetuation of urban expansion. Well-intentioned white people failed to correct the unsustainable and elitist practices of the privileged culture they came from and inevitably drive out poor people of color turning their historical communities into playgrounds for the rich.

Gentrification destroys diversity and turns urban centers into some of the most culturally detestable places to live. Every time a white progressive opens up a vinyl record shop or an expensive Whole Foods store, they drive up the cost of living in the area. Realtors appeal to white people by renovating former public housing projects into apartments ex-suburbanites would feel comfortable inhabiting usually forcing out the poor communities that used to live there. Eventually, loitering and vagrancy laws are passed to keep the former residents from “offending” the new hipster elite. So, congratulations on your choice to live in historic Brooklyn! Your presence and the culture you peddle ended up making a whole generation of black New Yorkers homeless.

Green Urbanism: The Sustainable Way to Move Back to the Cities

We can’t go back to nature. Humans have adapted to live in urban environments and vast swaths of our populations have lost their instinctual survival skills. We rely on the human services of urban centers for food, shelter, and social sustenance.

The question then becomes, how do synthesize human services with natural ecosystems? The answer lies in the ecological faction of the New Urbanism movement. While realtors have used New Urbansim as a way to peddle gentrification, many of the movement’s advocates actually work very hard to come up with ways to “Green the Ghettos” and make city life sustainable.

The success of New Urbanism relies on the creation of functioning urban ecosystems along with social programs that include the historically marginalized. The goal is to encourage people to abandon the suburbs by offering a community that promotes positive opportunities centered around human need and ecological health.

Green roofs, community gardens, and building materials constructed of solar cells are just a few of the ways cities can be transformed to provide all of the necessary services human rely on. Large urban parks should also be constructed and numerous. New York’s Central Park is a prime example of this kind of land use in which traditionally human constructions become integrated within a vast tract of nature. In essence, apartment complexes and even entire neighborhoods could be constructed in such a way that they become synthesized with the very park itself.

There are numerous possibilities of how to engage cities from an environmental perspective. The key is to harness the political and social will to make such a future a reality. So instead of buying land to open up a record shop, next time plant a garden. You might just end up providing food to the hungry communities that remained invisible through your privileged mentality.