Unpacking the 100% sustainable wine: Sonoma


All the effort to understand the climate change -its causes, the phenomena itself, and the future scenarios- forces us to think in the world as an entire system. Is remarkable how explicit is the issue of scale in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report:

“Climate change has the characteristics of a collective action problem at the global scale, because most GHGs [greenhouse gases] accumulate over time and mix globally, and emissions by any agent (e.g., individual, community, company, country) affect other agents. Effective mitigation will not be achieved if individual agents advance their own interests independently.”

I think it –focused on climate change- redefine the concept of sustainability in its roots: whichever definition we use, there can’t be a sustainable city, region, or country itself. Not if it is part of the global system while the entire global system is unsustainable: there is no ‘closed systems’. In the ecological dimension, there is no escape because ultimately the entire planet is an ecosystem itself. And it seems to be the same in the economic and social dimensions.

Under that viewpoint, I will try to unpack some aspects from the “Sonoma 100% sustainable wine region” program, mentioned in Mathis Wackernagel TEDx talk in 2015, and give some comments about the ‘Ecological Footprint’ concept presented by him.

The key argument of the Global Footprint Network is the measurement: the metrics –“Having a measure, you have a voice”- I totally agree with that, and is a great merit. It is reductionist? Absolutely. Measure, compare, and process data require reductionism. But where I think is the big merit is in their capacity of translate to simple easy-to-understand metrics, the problem of the sustainable development in the global scenario. Is very illustrative the comparison between the equations behind the methodology, and the data that is shown in the Ecological Footprint Calculator.


Some equations in the method for estimating the Ecological Footprint and biocapacity of nations.



Simplify and reduce the problem maybe is necessary in order to reach as much audience as possible, but the model should be very explicit and transparent about all the information, all the interactions that is disregarding.

Now, it is based on a very anthropocentric view, measuring the ecosystems exclusively in their productive aspect. This approach is very limited: there is no way to separate or isolate the “available resources”, from the ecosystems that support these resources –like imagining just the edible fishes in an area, without the other animals, algae, microorganisms and interactions between them. It would be remarkable if Global Footprint Network consider in the metrics and methodology, the complexity that is within each ecosystem and the interrelation between them. I doubt it.

I doubt also about the real sustainability of the ‘intensive agriculture’. And the researches that have been made in the field of the ecologically sustainable agriculture –specially the agroecology- support that doubt. Even more, Wackernagel make a direct correlation between this intensive agriculture and the regenerative capacity of the ecosystems.

Sonoma County

I question if “Sonoma 100% sustainable wine region program” just shouldn’t use the word “sustainable”. It is focused mainly in the vineyards and wine production and sustainability is, by far, much more than that. I illustrate that in 3 main points: the scale of the measurement, the leadership of one industry –wine-, and the equity situation in Sonoma.


  1. Scale and boundaries of the ecological footprint

As I proposed at the beginning, I think we cannot use anymore the concept of sustainable, attached to territorial or administrative boundaries, as a closed system. If we think about “actions”, for sure administrative and territorial boundaries are necessary, but the inputs and outputs have to be measured and tracked –just to illustrate that, let’s say that is much easier to be sustainable in ecological terms, if all the industries that produce what we consume, are in other regions.

Accordingly, is someone measuring the ecological footprint of each wine bottle produced in Sonoma, exported to Europe or Japan? Just the idea of a container full of Sonoma wines crossing the Atlantic in a ship, travelling to France; make me think in high ‘ecological footprint’. Being sold in countries where already there is wine production! I don’t want to say that the frontiers should be close to exportation; but start measuring it.

Californian markets are full with European, Australian, South American wine. Similarly, European markets, where you can find Californian wines sharing the rack with French wines, in the middle of France. As well as many other places in the world. “Buy local” is one of the Californian mantras that I hear permanently. If the Sonoma’s wine industry is part of a global market, the metric will have to be made at that scale: global.


  1. Centralization in one industry

One of the metrics shown in the program is that vineyards use only the 6% of the land. Everybody agree that the monoculture is unsustainable, therefore Sonoma would be going in the right direction, sharing the territory with other land uses and rural activities. But is not only the land what should be diverse; the economy have to be diverse too. The focus on the wine industry could weak other productive activities –farming, ranching, diary production, among others- revoking their representativeness in the decision making.

The decision-making of a sustainable program shouldn’t be leaded by one-product company’s aggrupation. It should integrate all sectors: farmers, fishers, urban services, among others.


  1. The equity is a ‘must’

It is difficult to advocate for the social dimension of the sustainability, within a program leaded by the private sector. The civic participation has to be in the roots of any program or plan to be implemented. In a county with a 87.4% of white population –some of them, Latino-white population-, and where the minorities ownership is very low from the California average, there is still a great deal of work to be done in terms of social equity.


“The top 1 percent of households in Sonoma County saw their average annual income rise 40.8 percent between 1989 and 2013, while the remaining 99 percent of households saw their average incomes decline 10.4 percent during the same period” (www.pressdemocrat.com) Maybe that requires, again, a greater scale of metrics and actions: look at the entire bay area population and make questions about equity, environmental justice, and well-being.


Wine companies are in their right –and should- to implement more ecological practices, think in long term, incorporate good practices with their workers. But if these actions want to be conducted in a sustainable path, will have to be part of a bigger and much more comprehensive plan or initiative. Otherwise, it would be more responsible to find an alternative to the word “Sustainable”.




IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 151 pp.












Yangon at a Development Crossroads


In the United States, resource inefficiencies and economic/racial inequities are already deeply entrenched in the built environment of many cities because major development and land use decisions were made before planners (or society at large) agreed on the need to minimize our ecological footprint or pursue equity as a desirable goal. On the other hand, cities that are in the early stages of development have an opportunity to learn from our mistakes. According to Scott Campbell, “We cannot undo urban-industrial society. Rather, one must continue to innovate through to the other side of industrialization, to reach a more sustainable future.” Unfortunately, in countries where city governments lack transparency and accountability, planning focuses first on economic growth, with environmental sustainability and social equity as distant afterthoughts.

Yangon, the largest city and former capital of Myanmar, stands at a critical point in its development. Years of political and economic isolation protected Yangon from the wave of urbanization that swept through South Asia, but Myanmar’s recent liberalization is causing unprecedented urban and economic growth. The city’s population as of 2013 is 5.7 million, but this is expected to increase to at least 10 million by 2040. Already, only 42% of residents have running water in their homes, and less than 10% of the population is connected to sewage infrastructure. Although official estimates are much lower, UN Habitat estimates that 40% of Yangon’s population lives in informal settlements. Some towns on the periphery, where most of the informal settlements are located, are experiencing population growth rates of 15% per year. GDP per capita was only $1,465 in 2011, but is expected to reach $10,000 before 2040.

Historically, Yangon has engaged in little long range planning, but in order to accommodate projected growth, the city enlisted the help of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to develop the “Strategic Urban Development Plan of Greater Yangon”, completed in 2013 and intended to guide the region’s development until 2040. JICA professes to focus on “human security” and the needs of socially vulnerable people, but the Strategic Plan seems to be much more concerned with situating Yangon as a “global city” to attract investment, similar to the Nairobi 2030 Plan we discussed in class. JICA specializes in providing technical assistance to feasibility studies and master plans and Yangon’s municipal urban planning authority is split amongst several departments with divergent goals and responsibilities.

Yangon New Town RenderingGlossy renderings of modern towers, luxury residential developments, and futuristic transportation infrastructure are now all over the Internet, but citizen participation in the planning process was nonexistent. The two “stakeholder meetings” during the year long planning process only involved representatives from various city departments. The plan recommends the building of affordable housing to accommodate slum dwellers and low-income residents displaced by rising rents, but the hot real estate market and lack of transparency suggest that this will not be prioritized.

Yangon New Town Rendering
One of the primary recommendations of the Strategic Plan is to build seven new satellite towns over the next 25 years. Although necessary to alleviate pressures on the CBD, reduce congestion, and manage anticipated population growth, the plan is also clearly an opportunity for wealthy investors to capitalize on their government connections. The building of the first New Town was suspended for months due to a corruption scandal over the awarding of development rights with no public process to a shady company with direct ties to city officials. Meanwhile, office rents in the CBD have risen to $100 per square foot, higher than Manhattan, resulting in rapid displacement of the poor from the main areas of the city. Because Myanmar does not have an adequate banking system, wealthy individuals and businesses store their capital by buying up land, further spiking property values. In anticipation of the development of satellite towns, property speculation is spreading out into the periphery, where informal settlers live on previously unwanted land. Now, city officials and private developers are engaging in large-scale forced evictions and land grabs.

Land Grab Protest
The sign to the right reads “Immediately give us back our ancestral land of 90 years that you confiscated from us unlawfully by force”

In the Strategic Plan, sustainability is defined as the financial and institutional feasibility of continuing to carry out the plan over the intended time period. This definition is similar to Peter Marcuse’s suggestion that operational sustainability should be a criterion for long-term policies, but he clearly did not intend for this type of sustainability to be completely divorced from concerns for equity or the environment. The Strategic Plan mentions the need to balance conservation and development, but also warns that too much emphasis on the environment may result in the “energy of the city being lost.” According to the plan, development is synonymous with “activating the economy and accruing income for Yangon residents.”

In this planning story, the conflicts described by Campbell that cause tension between the three E’s of the planner’s triangle are all too visible. Between economy and equity, the property conflict is exemplified by slum clearance and land grabs. Between environment and equity, the development conflict is exemplified by plans to build housing to accommodate growth in New Towns built on greenfields. The resource conflict, between economy and environment, is the only one that is explicitly acknowledged in the Strategic Plan, but it is obvious which objective has been prioritized. None of this is surprising, given the lack of transparency or public participation in the planning process, but it is frustrating to see Yangon’s officials choosing an unsustainable and unjust development path.

Havana: Sustainable Today, Sustainable Tomorrow?


While looking for communities that have actively contributed to the sustainability discourse, or have been associated with the movement, I came across an unlikely candidate to write about. Havana, the rolling car museum, and more broadly Cuba, has been hailed as one of the regions to be actively living a sustainable lifestyle.

This title, interestingly, was not a result of environmental progressivism. The American embargo followed by the cutting off of trade from the soviet bloc, created an atmosphere of instability, famine, and poverty in the nation. Stemming from the lack of export markets and curbing of import goods, the Cuban government, in the 90s began instating measures to first create a localized agrarian base. Heavy machinery that symbolized the green revolution in the country was replaced by peasant labor, organic seeds and local foods replaced cash crops. Cooperatives were formed with the intent to create a framework that worked towards equitable distribution of food resources. The video below is a BBC on urban farms in Havana.

This brief glimpse into the recent history of the region provides a pleasant segue into discussing modern day Havana, the capital of the country. Julio César Pérez Hernández is one of the foremost planners for the city, having received both a Cuban and American education. He’s been responsible for envisioning a 21st century Havana. According to published research, housing and transportation are key issues that a planner would need to reconcile with. The sustainability aspect is but a green veneer in various planning documents proposed for the city. It mainly consisted of creating tree filled corridors and open parks, an idea that reflects ideals of the global north. It doesn’t, in my opinion, speak to the unique culture of resilience that has sprouted in Havana. Urban greening, whose definition changes with location, was described quite aptly;

“Urban greening projects are appealing for more than economic reasons. They are connected to peoples’ desire to be useful, to contribute to their communities, to be self-sufficient, and to promote projects which are conducive to socializing across barriers of age, gender, race, etc.” – Elin Zurbrigg

This understanding of the urban greening movement reflects the Cuban spirit, while speaking of inclusiveness and sustenance.

There are positive aspects too, though, of adopting ideas from the west. Pedestrian corridors, polycentric city structures are a good beginning to exclude a lifestyle that’s carbon-intensive. It also ties in perfectly with the food systems’ measure of market location. They prefer using a much smaller unit of meters instead of miles/kilometers to decide accessibility to locally grown food. (1 meter = 0.0006 miles)

Yet, the impression I gleaned from the amorous tone towards the colonial architectural relics and emphasis on old Havana, is one of a lost opportunity. It aims to attract both foreign tourists and investors, laying the seeds of an economy that puts the needs of the outsider over the needs of the domestic. My impression maybe unfledged, having not had found information regarding the cities plan for sea level rise, or planning for resilience of the changing climate. The food industry, a beacon of hope in the success of the sustainability discourse worldwide, does face threats due to higher tropical temperatures. Also given Cuba’s location in the Gulf, it is vulnerable to hurricanes, a phenomenon that is predicted to increase in frequency as this century passes by.

It’s interesting to revisit the planner’s Equity, Economy and Ecology triangle, keeping Cuba in mind. The relevance of economy, in our case, is debatable. Till 2011, the state handled all services and sectors, and the standard competitive model striving for continuous growth and promising economic progress indicators held no significance in the nation. From a purely sustainability perspective, the growth in the country appears to be paradoxical. Prior to 2011, while international organizations (including the video above) hailed Cuba as the model for sustainable living, domestically, a desire to be able to live on their own terms was inoculated amongst the citizens. The nation was physically abandoned by its wealthy, and the remaining populace had to survive under a regime that quelled personal wealth accumulation, in an atmosphere that gave few opportunities for growth anyway.

Cuba underwent economic reforms in 2011, giving individuals the capacity to be self-employed. With the country taking baby steps towards privatization of markets, it’ll shape up to be the ideological battlefield between sustainability and the modern capitalist economy. Interviews conducted by Al Jazeera indicate that the new model is revisiting Che Guevara’s conception of the “New Man”, one who imagines a system drastically different from the normative redistributive socialism which envisaged material wealth. This debate should be had again, in the nation that seems to have escaped the ills of modern day capitalism, and is constantly questioning the Castro regime. Only this time, instead of the anthropocentric view of socialism, it should begin to locate itself on the planner’s sustainability triangle; one that speaks equally about equity, economy and the environment.

As an afterthought, I would also be really keen to see more academic work that studies modern day Havana.

Is it still sustainability if you don’t have a choice?


Before I came to Berkeley I spent a few years managing an environmental remediation and community gardening project in Rio de Janeiro called Green My Favela. Through this work, I became very familiar with the conditions in Rio’s favelas, informal settlements that low-income residents and rural migrants built over the past century as a response to the city’s affordable housing shortage. About one fifth of the population lives in these neighborhoods, and they are the fastest growing segment of the city. In most favelas, residents build piped water and sewage systems, hook up electricity, create transportation networks, and build roads, with minimal assistance from the government. Because of the piecemeal nature of self-built infrastructure, favela residents are accustomed to conserving their resources carefully and sharing them when they can. Many residents save water in buckets to prepare for shortages, do their laundry by hand during blackouts, and cultivate small gardens or raise chickens to supplement their groceries.


Informal infrastructure in a Rio favela: rooftop water tanks for rationing water, self-built electrical wiring, and roof gardens

The daily environmental practices I encountered in Rio went far beyond what I thought of as a sustainable lifestyle. Growing up in San Francisco, I was raised to see myself as a staunch environmentalist and to view conservation of natural resources as one of my most central personal values and political convictions. My elementary school inculcated great concern in its students for the rainforest and the whales, and taught us that recycling and picking up litter were our civic duties. The environmental consciousness I was familiar with framed environmental concern as a moral imperative: you should care about reducing your carbon footprint simply because you’re a good person, not because it affects your life, your health, or your livelihood. It ignored the fact that people around the world–as well as in our own city–have no choice about whether or not to conserve resources because they have so little access to begin with. This made it difficult for me to grasp that ecological destruction and societal injustice are deeply intertwined. Scott Campbell identifies this snobbery as “the ‘environmental elitism’ that besets many suburban, white-oriented environmental organizations.”

The comparison with liberal, environmentally aware cities like San Francisco is interesting because Rio’s favelas achieve many of the goals that US cities strive for. To use Graham Haughton’s characterization of sustainable urban development types, they combine elements of the self-reliant city and the redesigned city. Like self-reliant cities, favelas have limited resource consumption, raise some food locally, and produce relatively little waste. Because many of them are built on hillsides at the edge of the rainforest, they are closely integrated with nature, and residents coexist with a host of other species (whether they like it or not!). Migrants from the countryside bring extensive knowledge of agriculture and herbal medicine. Social organization is very participatory, and people work together on public works projects in lieu of government assistance.


Residential density

Favelas also adhere to the principles of redesigned cities (which are similar to smart growth): they are extremely dense, walkable, and incorporate a staggering array of mixed uses–the same building might contain apartments, a nightclub, a pet store, a doctor’s office, a restaurant, a community center, and a tattoo parlor. Hardly any residents own cars and many ride bicycles. Although favelas can be far from the city center, they are well served by formal and informal public transit. Best of all, since favelas were built this way, they do not need to be redesigned to correct the mistakes of the past.

Catalytic Communities, a media watchdog and human rights organization, produced a documentary called “Favela as a Sustainable Model” in 2013, showcasing the environmental infrastructure in favelas and profiling prominent neighborhoods activists and practitioners. The documentary premiered at the Cúpula dos Povos, a parallel summit to the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development.

I love how this documentary showcases the incredible environmental work being done in the favelas “to shed light on the aspects of favela life that the broader society could and should model in terms of sustainability.” This approach is especially important because Rio’s government often uses environmental justifications for illegally demolishing favela communities. Favela residents are at the forefront of integrating dense urban neighborhoods and natural habitats, with dozens of projects on reforestation, eco-tourism, food security, permaculture, and water management flourishing in the city. The low-impact lifestyle common to favela residents offers many important lessons for city planners, and elements of it should be adopted elsewhere.

However, I feel uneasy about celebrating Rio’s favelas as sustainable communities because of the deep social and economic inequality that underlies their development. Unlike the self-righteous environmentalists that I meet in San Francisco, favela residents do not give up luxuries purposefully; they had no access to them in the first place. Favelas are dense and walkable because the government confines the poor to small plots of land that must accommodate migrants pouring in from impoverished northern Brazil, and this density can lead to high levels of stress and tuberculosis. They are well-served by informal public transit and buses because Rio’s metro primarily serves wealthier neighborhoods. Residents consume less water because supplies are strictly rationed, and the government does not provide enough for the community. In the face of this deprivation, the functional and sustainable aspects of favelas are a testament to the residents’ resourcefulness.

Despite residents’ best efforts, favelas face severe environmental challenges. Government negligence leaves neighborhoods to contend with open sewers, trash build-up, and flooding–all of which exacerbate public health crises like dengue and zika. In the past few years, protesters have attempted to leverage the mega-events in Rio to bring more attention to the infrastructure needs in their communities, but to little avail.

Without diminishing the considerable accomplishments of environmental practitioners in Rio’s favelas, I question how sustainable these communities really are–socially and economically as well as environmentally. The phenomena that connect the favelas to Haughton’s models of sustainable cities do not correspond to equity–in fact, they stem from severe inequity. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals directly address equity by including poverty eradication and the reduction of inequality, although references to racial or ethnic discrimination are notably missing. The Principles of Environmental Justice, developed at the People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, make it clear that sustainability must strive for the “political, economic and cultural liberation that has been denied for over 500 years of colonization and oppression, resulting in the poisoning of our communities and land and the genocide of our peoples.”

As Chantal pointed out in her post, current inequity has deep roots in history. Brazil is one of the world’s most economically unequal countries, and its history is marked by horrific institutional racism. It was the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery, in 1888, and more kidnapped Africans were taken to Brazil than any other country in the Americas. The legacy of slavery and colonialism are clearly visible in the environmental conditions in Brazil today. Of the 77 million Brazilians who lack a reliable source of water, 67% are mixed race (of African or indigenous descent). Favelas populations have lower incomes, lower education levels, and higher percentages of people of color and Afro-Brazilians than the rest of the city. Much like in the US, black youth in the favela are targets of police harassment and violence. Favelas are at constant risk of displacement, violating their human rights and undermining their ability to amass wealth through home ownership. Although favela residents are rightly proud of their communities, the stigma associated with living there (combined with racial prejudice) can restrict their access to job opportunities and maintain generational poverty.

I believe that true sustainability requires those with more power and greater access to give up some of what they have and work towards a more equitable distribution of resources. The environmentalists I knew in San Francisco are willing to part with small luxuries like driving a car every day, but they do not recognize the extraordinary privilege that allows them to make such choices. Favela residents are consuming less, but what does this matter if the rich in Brazil and beyond are eating up much more than their fair share? This places an unfair burden on an already overburdened population. Environmental practices in favelas provide a stellar example for planners everywhere. But without addressing the underlying power structures that confine low-income and Afro-Brazilian residents to informal settlements with inadequate services, they cannot truly be called sustainable.

Active and Temporally Introspective Sustainability


What do you get when you mix social justice, sustainability and equity? Unfortunately, (or fortunately) it depends on whom you are asking. Like many liberal buzzwords, the definitions of these words are slippery and standardized, meaningful interpretations are near impossible. The widely defined principles of social justice and equity are multidimensional as they attempt to cover the range of –isms that marginalized communities experience on a daily basis. Deciding which parts of these dimensions to include/fold into sustainability is dangerous because bad decisions have a nasty way of coming back to haunt us. SocialJusticePicture .jpg

Rather than grappling with definitions, I would rather focus on the characteristics of social justice and equity I would like to see in sustainability. Reading Haughton’s principles of equity for sustainable development, I was most intrigued by “procedural equity” because of all the principles it was most likely, in theory, to be practiced (pp 236). This is not to say that the other principles are not worthy of our attention but that there is so much lip service paid to what social justice principles should look like in sustainability yet so often are not observable.

To me, a sustainability framework that embeds principles of social justice and equity must be active. Even the usually meek United Nations states “social justice is not possible without strong and coherent redistributive policies conceived and implemented by public agencies” and though we may query the level of implementation, there is an understanding that social justice can and must be a verb. Martin Luther King said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” but we must also remember that it is does not bend on its own. But this ‘bending’ is difficult to do and if we agree with the UN then just the word “redistributive” will make our work an uphill battle.

A just and sustainable society needs to be actively built and rebuilt as its history continues to evolve. Ageyman et al. argue that a “truly sustainable society is one where wider questions of social needs and welfare, and economic opportunity, are integrally related to environmental limits imposed by supporting ecosystems“ (pp. 78). Yet I still find this definition to be slightly passive and missing an integral piece. There is an inherent assumption that sustainable communities are constantly and only looking to the present and future. However, during class, we discussed the importance of a community’s institutional history in addressing equity issues. Our vision of a sustainable community as we journey to address inequity is not complete without its history.

Cape Town, a city with a long history of institutionalized racism has suffered through spatial apartheid that is still painfully apparent to this day. However, the city’s development plan and organizations such as Future Cape Town have gone to great lengths to advocate for an equitable and inclusive Cape Town by not just tracing its past but by actively using the institutional history to imagine, develop and build a sustainable Cape Town. Cape Town is a good example of the use of institutional history but given its recent and horrific past, it is no surprise that it is integral to their sustainability framework. In addition, it is worth noting who the ‘winners’ were in this case. However, what happens when the history we need to address is almost intangible and written over by the those who benefit from maintaining the status quo? Being introspective and inquisitive about a space’s history is not something every community is allowed.

After some thought, embedding social justice and equity into my framework has brought me to ‘active and temporally introspective sustainability’. Yikes! The complexity of this kind of sustainability may be more painful to find than what I have decided to name it. One has to wonder what this would look like in practice. As an International Development Design Summit organizer, it would be amiss for me not to give honorable mention to organizations like IDEO and IDIN. Their work is now labelled human-centered design but can be traced to the 1970s participatory development approach. They actively center problem definitions on stakeholder and institutional narratives and produce ‘benders’ or what they call innovators in each of the communities (usually marginalized) they engage with.

Yet as we have discussed in class, sustainable communities do not exist in a vacuum. I worry that community-level active and temporally introspective sustainability does not address national, regional and global drivers of inequity. Therefore, even as we empower one sustainable community at a time, are we doing these communities a disservice by not address sustainability at other levels? In a rapidly globalizing world, organizations like IDIN and even my own definition will have to come to terms with the fact that our versions of sustainability will have to be able to bridge these gaps to build a just and sustainable world.


Haughton, G. (1999). Environmental justice and the sustainable city. Journal of Planning Education and Research. 18:3, pp. 233-243.

Agyeman, J., Bullard, R.D., and Evans, B. (2002). Exploring the nexus: Bringing together sustainability, environmental justice and equity. Space & Polity. 16:1, pp. 77-90.

United Nations., & International Forum for Social Development. (2006). Social justice in an open world: The role of the United Nations. New York: United Nations.

Sustainability for whom?


On Friday, February 5th, 2016, I went to hear Dr. Camara Jones speak at the Berkeley City Club about achieving health equity and addressing racism, the same talk she gave at the University of Washington School of Medicine a year prior in the video above (I suggest starting the talk 14 minutes into the video until 40:48 minutes, for those not interested in the health context). Although Dr. Jones’s talk focused primarily on the health sector’s ability to work towards equity and social change (and more explicitly, to combat racism), the concepts hold true across disciplines and sectors. The concepts of social justice and equity are thrown around a lot in today’s society; however, how these concepts are defined changes significantly depending on the context resulting in little being done to actually create truly equitable societies.

Within sustainable development equity is often discussed in terms of fairness between current and future generations and sometimes, though often less explicitly, within and between nations (Agyeman et al., 2001; Campbell, 1996). Taking a step further than the Brundtland Commission’s definition, Agyeman et al. (2001) define sustainable development as a focus on ensuring “a better quality of life for all…in a just and equitable manner, whilst living within the limits of supporting ecosystems” (p. 78). But what is considered “just” and “equitable”?

For me equity is more than just about fairness – it is more than making sure that all individuals and populations receive equal treatment. Equity moves past equality, recognizing and addressing the historical and current levels of advantage and disadvantages experiences by different groups in society that lead to social, political, economic, and environmental disparities. Graham Haughton (1999) defines this as intra-generational equity, which has a “wider conception of social justice – that is, seeking to address the underlying causes of social injustice, not simply dealing with redistributive measures” (p. 235).

Our current system of inequity is deep-seeded, with deep roots in the foundation of our institutions and social, economic, and political systems – from slavery and colonialism to our  mass incarceration of people of color and the fact that the poorest countries in the world are predominantly African nations. It is not one that can be fixed by just “raising all boats” or providing “equal opportunities for all.” It requires explicit and targeted actions that protect and provide opportunities to populations historically and currently disadvantaged, while at the same time requiring groups historically benefiting from systems of oppression to relinquish their unearned privilege (whether it be due to their race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or class). To me, equity is not just a goal it is a system. Although all forms of equity (e.g. inter-generational, geographical, procedural, intra-generational, and inter-species equity) are interconnected, without explicitly addressing intra-generational equity, we stunt any possibility for true equity. The question we are left with is who are we trying to sustain? All people or just those already benefiting from the current system?

Even within the Brundtland Commission’s definition of sustainable development the authors’ state that “a world in which poverty and inequity are endemic will always be prone to ecological and other crises.” Equity and social justice are central to sustainability, and without explicit actions to ensure an equitable system, communities of color, poor nations, and different species, will continue to bear the brunt of the world’s pollution (as demonstrated in the Majora Carter TED talk below) while more affluent populations and nations of the human species continue to live beyond the world’s ecological means.

Majora Carter’s, “Greening the ghetto,” outlines environmental racism within the South Bronx in New York, demonstrating the history of her community that has led to its degradation (and many community of colors across America) that then impacts the health and wellbeing of its residents (providing another clear example of the intersection of different levels of racism discussed in Dr. Jones’s talk mentioned earlier in this post). In her example of integrating equity into sustainability, Carter discusses the importance of environmental justice communities and grassroots movements, demonstrating a human-centered side of sustainable development, along with community-based participatory planning. The strengths of this approach are in its inclusive design: it is both community-centered while also encouraging the participation of universities, the private sector, and government officials. Furthermore it aims to be holistic approach to local level sustainable development – incorporating economic opportunity through green job creation, while preserving the environment through community gardens and environmental restoration projects, and finally ensuring equity through a “people-first agenda” that focused on all people not just the influential few. More than just bringing stakeholders to the table, it recognizes the different power dynamics each stakeholder holds and their impact on sustainable change. It pushes for populations that are historically disadvantaged and neglected to be at the forefront of change initiatives while other stakeholders play a more supportive role. However, as much as this is a strength, it can serve as a weakness: the sustainability of “Greening the Ghetto” requires external support and financing making it reliant on outside donors – a fact that Majora Carter mentions when she ends her talk asking the audience to not waste her, her energy and her experience, and to use their influence to make these issues a priority. Although Carter does push the audience to question their privilege, this approach does not require affluent members of society to relinquish their unearned privilege in the name of social justice. Nonetheless, it begins a discussion that much of America, and the world, continue to shy away from.

Although Carter’s approach focuses on the U.S., it mirrors other bottom-up approaches born in urban poor populations across the globe. Before coming to UC Berkeley, I worked as a program office for an international organization called Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI) in Cape Town, South Africa – website: http://sdinet.org/. SDI is a network of urban poor community-based organizations, called federations, across 31 countries and hundreds of cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America, all dedicated to bottom-up approaches to slum upgrading where slum dwellers themselves are central to the planning process from design and implementation to monitoring and evaluation. Similar to the “Greening the Ghetto” initiative, SDI focuses on building the capacity and resources already present in the community in order to ignite social change and sustainable cities, while also acknowledging the need for governmental, private sector, academic, and international organizational assistance and buy-in.

Both “Greening the Ghetto” and SDI draw from grassroots, people-centered approaches that value marginalized communities as much as the environment in which they live. Despite their focus on intra-generational equity, these approaches begin to address issues in geographical and procedural equity, demonstrating the relationship between the different equity principles and the path towards true sustainability. However, their sustainability is also reliant on systematic change within society that adopts these frameworks as crucial elements of sustainable development.

Nevertheless, are these efforts enough to create true equity? Although both call for marginalized communities to stand up for their health, social, and environmental wellbeing, they do not require those already profiting from their oppression to relinquish some of their power and unearned privileges. As one of the countries that signed the International Anti-Racism Treaty created during the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination in 1965 (which the U.S. later ratified in 1994), we have an obligation to eliminate all forms of discrimination, racial and otherwise. Despite this fact, any formal institutional efforts to rectify the legacy of former oppressions have been few and far between. Instead grassroots organizations and oppressed populations are often forced to take these efforts into their own hands in an attempt to even the playing field between and across populations, through actions such as the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Movement, the Environmental Justice Movement, LGBTQ Rights Movements, and more recently the Black Lives Matter Movement. Unfortunately these efforts have yet to break down our current system of inequity both locally and globally.

Without more radical steps towards change, I fear that we will remain with the inequitable, unsustainable system we see today; leaving us with my original question: under our current definitions of sustainable development, who is sustainability for?

Article references:

Agyeman, J., Bullard, R.D., and Evans, B. (2002). Exploring the nexus: Bringing together sustainability, environmental justice and equity. Space & Polity. 16:1, pp. 77-90.

Haughton, G. (1999). Environmental justice and the sustainable city. Journal of Planning Education and Research. 18:3, pp. 233-243.

Our Common Future: report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. Chapter 2: Towards Sustainable Development. http://www.un-documents.net/ocf-02.htm

The Rise of Sustainability


The very first time I encountered the concept of sustainable development was after another disenchanting quarter of economics courses at UCLA. It was my third year in undergrad and a degree in economics seemed inevitable. A friend mentioned the interdepartmental discipline of International Development Studies and it felt like stumbling into the best kept secret at school.

My conviction in the virtues of sustainable development and all its distant promises brought me to some of the most far-flung places on earth. There was passion, belief, and absolute certainty that this was what the world needed.

To be honest, the people in Bird Village weren’t the ones pushing the world to the brink of catastrophic climate change. These villagers, and about slightly less than half of the world’s population that still live in the rural environment, embody many practices that we would label sustainable.

(Minus ranchers that are razing rain forests for pastures/palm oil producing trees and other egregious exceptions)

So then it must be the cities where the concept of sustainability must be implanted. Imagine the mass of humanity in mega cities, with 20+ million people living, consuming, disposing, and reproducing. In an era which the preferred mode of living was in the urban setting, what did it mean to have sustainable development anymore?

The city of Berkeley deploys the Brundtland commission’s definition of sustainability, “A sustainable community is one that meets its existing needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (link). However, like many of those who encounter this definition of sustainability (including me), the planners of the city of Berkeley leave out the important qualifications to this definition of sustainability, as pointed out by Wheeler:

  • the concept of “needs”, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
  • the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.”

In preparation to apply to CED for the MCP program, I worked on the No On Measure R campaign, specifically directed at the preservation of the Downtown Berkeley plan (which was also previously called measure R). In engaging with the hyperactive public of Berkeley, their notion and concept of sustainable development as it relates to downtown Berkeley and the entire city were quite different. The voters that were in support of redeveloping the downtown Shattuck area (voting No on Measure R in 2014) did not have particularly strong feelings about the measure one way or another, and generally thought higher density, more housing and increased public transportation were positives. However, the people who were voting yes were adamant about limiting any kind of change to the area, regardless of meeting the housing needs of the local poor had a garden variety of reasons ranging from historical to environmental. They obviously had no desire to spare any of the city’s resource to help lower income residents.

The following op-ed is a fairly standard political piece on a position to take on an upcoming vote, but browsing the comments section is what makes Berkeley a unique environment as even trolling can be mistaken for a short history lesson:

Op-ed: Vote no on Measure R — it’s a misleading initiative

At the end of the day, Measure R was defeated by a wide margin (74% voted no). Yet it did not mean that the issue of sustainability has been resolved. A vocal minority continues to hold that sustainability is to protect the urban environment the way they found it, decades ago. The argument is not dissimilar to those between conservationists and preservationist, it is only lacking the personification of the urban environment that Merchant described as equating nature to a mother figure.

The development of downtown Berkeley lurches forward, with the backdrop of heavy gentrification pressure, as pointed out by the urban displacement project, will those units built in the downtown ease the housing pressure on the area’s poor? Most signs point to the fact that it will not as rents and real estate values continue to rise.

The current downtown Berkeley development plan calls for the development of 5-8 high rise mixed-use establishments, adding about 1,000 additional units to the supply starved east bay housing market (numbers were provided as an estimate in 2014). Parking would be decoupled from these high rise units and they would be built to match LEED gold standards. New investment would be brought to spruce up bus stops and increase bike lanes, density would be increased, and the affordable housing requirement currently sits at a pittance of 10%. I have yet to hear about the soft programming to accompany this development to provide training for future jobs or requirements by the city to locally source materials and labor.

The leadership in the city of Berkeley is seen as progressive by attempting to tackle climate change by doing what it can to limit the small amounts of CO2 produced in the city. From applying climate warning labels at gas stations (link) to creating an Office of Energy and Sustainable Development, the city cannot be faulted for not taking action on climate change. However, the end result in which the vast majority of pollution has long been relocated away from city limits, what can be done to accomplish sustainability in a city like Berkeley? A ten percent requirement of affordable housing will not do much to quell the explosive demand for housing, especially with the amount of lower income families and individuals in the region. It is as Agyeman stated that true sustainability does not merely address the symptoms of and unsustainable system, but rather at the causes from a social justice perspective.

Erik Swyngedouw gave a Marxist critique of the concept of sustainability in his article “Apocalypse Forever?”, the fixation of the public over terms such as sustainability prevents the discourse to question the fundamental way that we should organize societies.  How can we hope to address taming consumerist culture when we continue to believe that we are a technological fix, or a market oriented solution away? The challenge only becomes murkier as different groups co-opt the word sustainability as it fits their world view.