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Cities are where most humans live, with more people moving to them every day. As anyone who has lived in a big city knows, existence in urban environments is a challenge. This challenge is greater the less money one has. Like everything else, the advent and growth of the neoliberal economy has exacerbated the challenges associated with urban life in a multitude of ways. In response to these challenges, various movements have arisen. Perhaps the most important of those movements is the one involved with creating a just and sustainable existence. A multi-faceted movement, this movement has almost as many interpretations as it does participants.
Many of its most vocal proponents tend to emphasize an approach that fails to fairly address issues of race and class, focusing instead solely on environmental issues and solutions that are often expensive. As a result, many poor and working-class people do not see the movement as one for them, leaving them at the whims of corporations motivated by profit and governments that cater to them.
Julian Agyeman, director of the Department of Urban + Environmental Policy + Planning at Tufts University and co-founder of the Black Environmental Network, places much of his work into this seeming divide. In his latest book, Introducing Just Sustainabilities: Policy, Planning and Practice, Agyeman presents the issues involved in the movement, specifically as to how they relate to other social justice movements more focused on race and class. In the process, he provides an important, essential and convincing challenge to modern sustainablity movements and their approach to questions of race and class. It is to his further credit that he presents this challenge in a manner likely to move efforts inside those movements toward a synthesis that encompasses the intent of the movements while expanding the breadth of their base.
Introducing Just Sustainabilities divides the current situation into three elements. Those elements are food, space and place, and culture. Agyeman presents these elements by pointing out that they serve dual purposes; they are points of contention and also of potential unity. They have all been affected by the capitalist hegemon, for better and worse. These effects have been exacerbated the past couple decades as the neoliberal stage of capital attempts to wipe out any and all opposition to its profit driven pursuit of the end of human time.
Much of his explanation is provided by graphs and statistics, as one might expect from what is essentially an economic and social examination of the where the earth stands now and where it needs to go if humanity wants to truly provide for every human instead of just the relatively privileged. These statistics are enlivened by observations that make the book a good read for those who are not statisticians and economists.
One such observation discusses the role race plays in the creation of bike lanes. While pointing out that non-white bike riders ride because they have to and not because it is a lifestyle choice, Agyeman quotes a Portland bike activist who remarked, “It’s only an issue of safety now that whites are the ones riding bicycles.” He continues, by discussing how the identity of “cyclist” must be expanded beyond the current characterization of the cyclist as white and young. By changing this perceived identity, only then can the discussion of the role bicyclists play in urban transportation be evaluated and addressed. Furthermore, the discussion on bicycles is one that Agyeman replicates in each aspect of modern living.
Agyeman’s text argues for a holistic approach to establishing a sustainable environment that not only encourages social justice but insists on its necessity for such an environment to be established. His writing examines how the poison of historical inequality has been exacerbated by the growth of neoliberal policies and structures, making the challenge faced by sustainability and social justice activists substantially more difficult. This book is written for the classroom and community activist organization, but is just as useful to the individual trying to get a handle on how to go forward in creating a world that is not only sustainable but just. One wishes that city planners would take its lessons to heart more often.
Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.