Sunday, September 9, 2007

Sustainable Communities and the Challenge of Environmental Justice, Chapter 2: The Sustainability Discourse and Sustainable Communities

Reaction to Readings-
Sustainable Communities and the Challenge of Environmental Justice by Julian Agyeman
Chapter 2: The Sustainability Discourse and Sustainable Communities

As suggested, I tried to start reading Chapter 3: Just Sustainability in Theory, but I found the acronyms so confusing that I had to go back and read Chapter 2: The Sustainability Discourse and Sustainable Communities first. In fact, in order to get through the readings I had to make myself a chart of frequently-used acronyms. Once I was comfortable with Agyeman’s terminology, I was happy that I had decided to read Chapter 2 because it was an informative and interesting treatment of historic and current strategies for environmental sustainability (NEP), environmental justice (EJP) and the emergence of just sustainability (JSP).

Julian Agyeman used this chapter to discuss how sustainability initiatives must go beyond environmentalism to include social justice. With a particular focus on recent US federal government sustainability policies, he discussed how institutions are learning how to become sustainable. Political processes are informing sustainability ventures both in America and abroad, but the author was highly critical of the current Bush administration’s backwards, hypocritical approach to sustainability. In contrast to the Clinton administration’s action-based and collaborative recommendations published in the President’s Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD) report from 1996, the 2002 Working for a Sustainable World (WSSD) report spoke only of throwing money toward sustainable programs outside the United States. Agyeman used this and many other American social customs to show that there is an “equity deficit” in many US sustainability initiatives.

The vast majority of local American sustainability policies do not even mention, let alone properly address just sustainability. While Agyeman was often critical of American attempts (or lack thereof) of environmental justice, he also mentioned several useful tools for informing local just sustainability policies. Sustainability inventories, the Dutch “environmental space” concept, San Francisco’s Sustainability Plan and ecological footprints were suggested because they all incorporate some concepts of resource allocation and community empowerment.

Agyeman briefly discussed a need for a radical change to American economic thinking, but spent more time in this chapter on other applied policies that could help communities move toward just sustainability. Some of the suggestions include better transit systems, community agriculture, eco-taxes, affordable housing, and Local Exchange Trading Schemes (LETS) such as the “Ithaca Hours” program. It was interesting to note that it seems that smaller communities are embracing such policies much more easily than large ones and that it is often the cities that are most polluted and full of disenfranchised populations that do not take sustainability seriously.

While I found the entire second chapter to be fascinating. I was most engaged by the section toward the end of the chapter that compared narrow and broad-focused environmentalism. This section was highly applicable to some of my most recent work with the Downsview Park project in Toronto. Having just stepped out of a job where I was helping to build a sustainable community, I was able to critically examine some the policies and institutional attitudes that were informing that project. I have been struggling to see where some of the friction within that project has been coming from, and this chapter showed the need for many such projects to break through into a new kind of “third generation environmentalism.” I now know that some of the major tensions that Downsview has been experiencing could be attributed to its presently narrow focus land restoration without a true balance of community cooperation.

Granted, massive projects take a long time to implement, but perhaps Downsview is wrong in aiming toward land restoration before attempting to address some major community-based hurtles. It appears that Kenneth Reardon will be addressing such issues of community cynicism toward government-led projects and so I hope to learn more strategies for dealing with this.

Should all sustainable initiatives look first toward community justice in order to be successful? This question also ties in with the community garden project that we are working on with Keith. Do grass-roots sustainability projects (gardens and otherwise) have a higher level of success because they are initially informed and powered by a broad-focused community approach?

I was interested in the author’s mention of the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW) as a new and more appropriate measure economic stability. I will have to read further chapters of the book in order to learn more about this Index. I am hoping to get some more information on this topic because I would like to compare it to other alternative economic tools. In fact, I was surprised that no mention was given to Howard T. Odum’s concept of Emergy accounting, which is another alternative systems evaluation tool that combines ecological and economic thinking. Emergy accounting and the idea of “embodied energy” is currently being used to inform permaculture design principles and practices around the world, but is it applicable here?

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