A Website Celebrating Car-Free Culture

Unlocking Sustainable Cities

Art: James Mckay

12 April 2023:

I have just read Paul Chatterton’s book Unlocking Sustainable Cities, published in 2019 by Pluto Press, and wanted to share my thoughts on it.

Firstly, it’s a great website, and I encourage you to check it out if only to marvel at it. It’s got lots of great art by James McKay, such as the image featured here, and the overall design is fabulous.

Second, it’s worth noting that Paul Chatterton is a genuine grassroots kind of guy, and has been working on social and environmental projects for years. I don’t know him, we’re not buddies or anything, but I think it’s worth noting an author’s credentials, especially when we’re dealing with a subject matter that is full of greenwash and deception. This is definitely not an example of that. It’s a really honest and genuine analysis of what is required of cities if they are to successfully evolve into the post carbon ecological and socially just era that we all hope they can do, and it’s written by someone who is genuinely grounded in that approach.

So with that aside, let me get on with the book. The first thing that really struck me was the lack of any analysis of whether the word ‘sustainable cities’ is not an oxymoron. I mean, we have seen now several decades of high brow philosophical writings from many in the green anarchist/primitivist/anti-civ movements critiquing cities as inherently unsustainable and a prime manifestation of a profound alienation from nature, that is, from that which is natural. In other words, that cities and city living are fundamentally unnatural.

So I was disappointed to see that not even acknowledged, and felt that that was a poor show. Okay, I understand that this book takes it for granted that cities can be sustainable, that such a thing is possible, and I also understand that this book is mainly about showcasing all the work being done around the world to try and make cities sustainable, but even so, not to even mention the whole green anarchist movement and its critique of cities…? I mean, it’s an obvious omission that demands an explanation, and in the absence of one, I can only assume that Paul considers such arguments as superfluous, so superfluous, in fact, that they aren’t even worth mentioning.

So that felt deeply disrespectful to the deep ecology, green anarchist, primitivist, and anti-civ movements, movements that have made huge contributions to the environmental movement and environmental thought over the last several decades. Paul mentions Richard Heinberg a few times in the book, and says of him that he is one of the world’s leading exponents of the post carbon city. He is certainly a leading green analyst and thinker, and Paul obviously respects Richard Heinberg a lot, so, just for Paul, let me present here Richard Heinberg’s excellent 1995 essay The Primitivist Critique of Civilisation. I hope Paul can read it and digest it and then contemplate why these ideas are not worthy of being mentioned in a book about sustainable cities.

So that was my main gripe. That aside, I really liked the way the book was divided into The Car Free City, The Post-Carbon City, The Bio-City, The Common City, and then a couple of other chapters at the end tying it all together. I like those subject matters, and it makes the book really easy to read and digest. Each subject is like an extended essay, so each one is not too different to reading a really long blog. I found myself spending an hour each evening after dinner quietly reading each subject night after night, and after a week the book was read. I like books like that, they’re not huge tomes that weigh you down, but nice light and informative reads.

Plus the ideas are all really useful. I mean, as an organiser, it’s a really useful book to have, and one that I will no doubt come back to again and again in the future for ideas and inspiration. That was my main reason for reading it in the first place.

I also liked the James McKay artwork in the book. To me, that is of great value in promoting the idea of sustainable cities, and of the profound changes that are required for us to get there. Having artists create visions of where we want to be makes a huge difference in generating motivation and interest, and in bringing people along. So top marks on that score, Paul has created a book that really gets you excited about sustainable cities, and keen to get involved in helping to manifest that future.

Mostly the book was about showcasing the various projects and ideas that are being put into motion around the world to help manifest sustainable cities. Whilst that is definitely really useful, it does make the book a little trying to read, as it does become at times paragraph after paragraph of this is happening here and so and so is doing this there, and so forth. I found myself speed reading a lot of this kind of content, as it doesn’t make for high brow or interesting reading, but at the same time I was bookmarking it in my head so that I know where to come back to when I am keen to find out about all the details. But like I said, from the perspective of reading a book, that can become a little monochrome, a bit like reading a dictionary or encyclopaedia, you can only do a bit at a time before you get weary.

Another omission in the book was the thorny issue of behaviour change and demand reduction. Paul really avoids addressing these topics, topics that might be considered ‘the hard problem of environmentalism’. That is, how to bring people to change their behaviour and their demand for resources to a level that is sustainable. This is totally avoided in the book, but unlike the green anarchist critique of notions such as ‘sustainable cities’, it is at least mentioned a couple of times as the vital element in the journey to sustainable cities. But the lack of any discussion of it really irked me, because without a discussion of this the book could justly be accused of being somewhat delusionary, rather than visionary. After all, if your vision ignores the ‘hard problem’, what Freud called ‘the reality principle’, then it can justly be said to be delusional rather than visionary.

And that brings me on to my final point, and that is that although Paul talks in the book about how the journey to sustainable cities will require profound transformations in our day to day interactions and behaviour, to such a degree that they can be said to be unrecognisable to what we have now, although he does mention this several times in the book, he does not say how these will be different. I mean, if we are going to envision what a sustainable city might look and feel like, then we need to have some idea of what we will be doing in it, and how our relations will be transformed. I felt that not really addressing that was another subtle avoidance of the ‘hard problem’.

After all, what if the radical changes in our behaviour and interactions that sustainable cities will require are tantamount to the kind of behaviour that typify hunter gatherers and so called ‘primitive peoples’? Isn’t that a kind of confirmation of the whole green anarchist/anti-civ/primitivist argument? And could that journey then actually lead to the abandonment of cities themselves, as people seek more natural places to live? In which case, the journey to a sustainable city actually ends up as a journey to a green anarchist future.

I fell that Paul missed a trick here in being able to unite various strands of deep green thought to present a more coherent philosophical overview of the sustainable city and of what kind of human being is at the heart of it. Perhaps the fear of ridicule from those in the so-called professional classes who generally hold derisive views of anti-civ and primitivist philosophies such as green anarchy played a big part in that.

Well, maybe, but whatever the case, overall, this is a good book to have and to read and to reference regularly for the practical organiser, but maybe not so much for the deep green thinker.

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