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.


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