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Synthesis/Regeneration 48   (Winter 2008)

Seize the Moment

by Jeff Howard and Kent Hurst

The advent of global climate chaos produces a historical moment in which, with the proper prodding, Americans can see their modernist project — especially the relationship between politics, environment, and economy — in a new light. Because it is the first widely recognized global environmental crisis, and because its primary chemical driver, carbon-dioxide, is deeply rooted in the very DNA of the industrial political economy, climate destabilization prepares the way for crucial conversations that previously have been difficult or impossible to initiate. Climate chaos presents an historic, and unprecedented, opportunity to restructure the American mind and American life.

We must nudge the climate change dialogue beyond technocratic issues of CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards, mass transit, and carbon sequestration. When the concentration of atmospheric carbon-dioxide reaches 390 ppm, then 395 ppm, it will have something to do with architectural design, World Bank policies, and the way tomatoes are grown. When the next Katrina slams into the American shore, it’ll have something to do with labor history, the trajectory of industrial production, and the insidious fiction of corporate personhood. When the remainder of the Larsen Ice Shelf collapses, it will have something to do with economic globalization, health care system dynamics, and real estate developers’ influence at city hall. When the Gulf Stream begins to falter, it will have something to do with planned obsolescence, conspicuous consumption, and gender relations.

Because it points to a fundamental and systemic failure in an entire system of governance and political relations — and rot at the core of an entire system of assumptions about “the good life” and “the American way” — the moment demands a redrawing of modern economic, technological, social, and political history, a thorough reevaluation of who we are, what it means for a society to succeed, and what it takes for a society to do so. Not every aspect of modernism has been wrong-headed, but the moment obligates society to begin systematically sorting out the good from the bad. This, it seems to us, was the implicit premise of the St. Louis roundtable. And a crucial role for greens of all stripes, it seems to us, is threefold: first, to point steadfastly toward this failure, this rot, and this obligation; second, to offer analyses that will help the public more deeply understand our situation and its history; and third, to offer models for reassembling society in a new, healthier, more democratic way as wave after wave of climate chaos creates wave after wave of opportunity for deep rethinking and deep reform.

For decades, US society has dogmatically marginalized this kind of deliberation. Working on the margins, however, greens have developed the grass roots networks and organizing expertise that are essential to engaging these three roles. We have advocated for policy alternatives that directly address the environmental challenges that climate destabilization presents as well as the political, economic, and cultural dysfunction in which this destabilization is rooted. The St. Louis roundtable demonstrated that we understand the language of power that characterizes our dominant — and dominating — political-economic institutions and can engage them on constructive terms.

Jeff Howard teaches at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he researches the role of urban planners in responding to global climate change. Kent Hurst is a Doctoral Candidate in Urban Planning and Public Policy and is researching the role of planners in meeting the challenges of climate protection.

[17 dec 08]

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