There are a few words that make me physically uncomfortable. It's a phenomenon I haven't really tracked, but I'd imagine that it points to a discrepancy in my life where I both agree basically with the concept but really wish there was a way of separating it, either from multiple meanings that share the same word or from other connotations that have been built up previously. Right now two words that make me grind my teeth are 'sustainable' and 'community.' Together, they instantly turn me off of any subject they happen to be attached to.
Sustainable - so the average knowledgeable jerk could point out that nothing, in fact, is absolutely sustainable owing to the second law of thermodynamics which means the universe will one day burn out and die. I am not that jerk, however I do think there is good reason for giving a time line for sustainability and thinking about it as more than a by-word for 'good.' There are some things like anything based on fossil fuels (coal-fired power plants, internal combustion engines) whose sustainability is measured in decades, there are some things such as mono-cropped bananas whose sustainability is measured in years, there are some things for which sustainability hasn't really been determined, such as industrial (or even further, agricultural) civilization. The word 'sustainable' seems to have entered our lexicon as the product of well meaning visionaries who wish for things to be capable of remaining unaltered for centuries or millenia, but was almost instantly corrupted when the term gained mass usage by capitalism wishing to cash in on desire for a softer edge, a feeling of betterment, ultimately, I would argue, an assuagement of guilt from the violence and domination inflicted on the planet. Hence: greenwashing!
Maybe it's just a question of societal literacy. Maybe as the term circulates and is modified, society will begin to think beyond the fad of sustainability and more towards how it's implemented. Maybe. I somehow really doubt it because the habits of exploitation are there. The habits of consuming a new (more sustainable) thing at the expense of an old, still useable, thing are all there. The urge to wipe the slate clean and start all over is misleading and harmful to...
Community - My father is a civil engineer, I'm an aspiring urban homesteader and environmental builder. Social subjects such as gentrification, urban planning, blight, power are pretty much always on my mind. Environmental subjects are not far behind. God and religion, though dear, somehow aren't as translatable into the absolute standards you can measure any worldly project against. It just doesn't use that kind of language. What I mean is that there is no standard of measuring how Godly, or of the spirit, something is. And even if there were would you call solar power of the spirit? Anyway, when dealing with those subjects there is always always tradeoff. There is absolutely no such thing as a win-win. For example, development, whether overtly hostile to established condition (such as a new high rise) or seemingly benign (such as planting trees) is usually based off of a perceived need to 'clean things up' and is usually highly selective about where they happen. Not that planting trees is secretly a bad thing, making sure that all the streets are tree lined has to start somewhere and is a relatively equitable and low-cost project with high benefits, but there should be an accurate assessment of risk and possible loss. What will putting this art gallery here do to the immediate vicinity?
Take this article:
It focuses on a group called the New Kensington Community Development Corporation. The cover is telling. A bulldozer emblazoned with "Clean and Green." The idea of the group is to 'build community' (literally, geographically, there is an Olde Kensington, a Kensington, but no "New Kensington") in the place of an area that has seen much much better days. So far, they've established art residences and studios as well as coordinated with the new "green" developments in the neighboring neighborhoods. Hooray for them I guess. It's positive thinking in a relatively new way, it's worked so far, but the overall effect is like a boutique. It raises all sorts of questions about how these ventures are funded, what the long term economic vision of the area is (artists are not exactly known for their purchasing power or tax base stability) and who gets to live there. It's common practice to introduce artists and "urban pioneers" to an area in order to slowly work up towards professionals and consumer based lifestyles, it's the story of gentrification. The bulldozer says much more about what is pushed out than what is built upon. And that stings me as a Quaker and a radical and a Christian. I am called to live among the poor and outcast but will my presence help bring more people to live among the poor and outcast? I am called to right living, but does that include participating in really positive, but in some ways damaging, projects?
In part it's hard because there are very few role models. An alternative to NKCDC would be something like ABC No Rio (mentioned by the magazine in connection to a similar project: LAVA Zone) but the lower east side of Manhattan is rapidly gentrifying. As soon as capital and speculation got involved, hoo-boy did that take off. Kensington Welfare Rights Union may be another in that it features a strong presence in the neighborhood but not much outside of it. Try to name an ideal community. It doesn't exist! And that's kind of my point. For all this talk about building community and sustainable community, there's a remarkable unrecognition that part of the project is breaking down existing communities of privilege and power. The revolution will not be sold at Whole Foods.
"We need to be clear that there is no such thing as giving up one's privilege to be 'outside' the system. ONE IS ALWAYS IN THE SYSTEM. The only question is whether one is part of the system in a way which challenges or strengthens the status quo. Privilege is not something I take and which I therefore have the option of not taking. It is something that society gives me and unless I change the institutions which give it to me, they will continue to give it, and I will continue to have it, however noble and egalitarian my intentions."
--Harry Brod, quoted in "Privilege, Power, & Difference."