“Economy is simply the Greek word for housekeeping,” Rowen Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, reminded a conference of trade unionists in 2009. “Remembering this is a useful way of getting things in proportion, so we don’t lose sight of the fact that economics is primarily about the decisions we make so as to create a habitat that we can actually live in… Practically speaking, this means that at both the individual level and the national level we have to question what we mean by growth.”
Ironically, perhaps, significant numbers of Americans first began to question the meaning of growth by questioning how and where they built their homes.
Sometime around the early-1970s, the terms blight and sprawl entered the American vernacular, as the abandonment and dereliction of land and buildings in central cities were matched by the construction of disconnected residential subdivisions and commercial strips in the suburbs. The visible links between the two poles of regional growth were roads which became more and more congested.
Empirical studies suggested a causal relationship between America’s prevalent development patterns and increased air and water pollution, higher infrastructure and energy costs, endangered agricultural and natural lands, and entrenched social division and economic inequities. Concern over the built environment joined the environmental movement’s traditional concern with the natural environment to spawn the sustainability movement.
Sprawl and blight, of course, are worldwide phenomena, consequences of increasing automobile ownership and global market forces. Tumultuous rural to urban migration in developing countries of people seeking jobs and opportunities has created megacities of populations and proportions unprecedented in human history.
But nowhere in the world has sprawl been more planned and premeditated than in the United States. Unlike the unplanned development in the third world, sprawl in America is clearly a conscious effort with a formal legal and regulatory foundation.
Several years ago, a series of exhibitions at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. reviewed the major federal legislation that enabled the expansion of suburban America:
In 1913, the U.S. Congress passed the Underwood-Simmons Tariff Act which established the federal income tax. The law contained a provision which allowed taxpayers to deduct mortgage interest and property taxes from their federal tax liability. The mortgage deduction essentially provided a federal subsidy to homeowners only; renters received no deduction.
In 1921, the federal Bureau of Roads was created to plan a highway network to facilitate automobile travel between all major cities in the United States. Federal matching funds were also made available to improve main roads. No such subsidies were offered for railroads.
In 1926, in a lawsuit know as the Village of Euclid v. Amber Realty, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that communities could use zoning to exclude multi-family housing and other uses from neighborhoods. This gave rise to single-land-use districts — residential-only or commercial-only or industrial-only zones — as opposed to the mixed-use neighborhoods that were typical of cities. Euclid v. Amber also allowed suburbs to specify minimum single-family home sizes, which, along with the ability to prohibit apartments, discouraged affordable housing for lower income families.
In 1931, the Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership, convened by President Herbert Hoover and attended by representatives of the real estate development and design industries, created a federal housing policy that promoted the single-family detached house, the careful planning of subdivisions, and the deconcentration of industries and residences from cities.
In 1933, the federal Home Owners Loan Corporation established the practice of making long-term mortgages available to homebuyers. It also standardized the methods of appraising homes, categorizing them into A, B, C, or D zones. This appraisal system made it much easier to obtain a mortgage in a middle-class suburban neighborhood (A zone) than in a lower-income or African-American urban neighborhood (D zone).
In 1934, the National Housing Act created the Federal Housing Administration, or FHA. The FHA insured mortgages by private lenders, enabling buyers to finance a home with only a ten percent down payment and extending long-term mortgages from 20 to 25 or 30 years. For many buyers, this made it as cheap or cheaper to buy than to rent. FHA insured mortgages were restricted to white homebuyers in the suburbs.
In 1935, FHA building codes mandated rigid construction standards for lighting, heating, air circulation, and other design criteria. The new standards made it more profitable for builders to invest in new construction than improve existing structures. The new standards also encouraged intensive energy consumption by consumers.
In 1935, the Interstate Commerce Commission began to regulate the trucking and railroad industries as separate and competing industries. By encouraging the trucking industry to deliver goods inexpensively to places railroads did not go, this act enabled stores, shopping centers, and industries to move virtually anywhere outside cities.
In 1938, the FHA began to provide nearly risk-free construction financing for builders of large suburban subdivisions. As long as a subdivision’s site and house plans met FHA standards, the FHA would insure mortgages for all qualified buyers in the subdivision.
In 1944, the Federal Highway Act began the design of a national system of interstate highways. The style of highway design often destroyed or divided urban neighborhoods, but greatly facilitated suburban commutes.
Beginning in 1945, utility companies were allowed to provide gas and electrical services to new suburbs at rates averaged throughout a utility’s service area, rather than calculated according to delivery distance. Thus, the existing and predominantly urban customer base underwrote the cost of supplying utility service for new suburban construction.
The Housing Act of 1949 established “a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family” as a basic goal of federal housing policy. Two sections of this act had a profound effect on metropolitan areas. Section I authorized federal loans to cities to acquire blighted areas for redevelopment in a process that became known as urban renewal and that, in practice, destroyed many stable, low-income, ethnic, and African-American neighborhoods. Section III authorized loans for low-rent public housing projects, which often became incubators for social problems and crime. Officially, these public housing projects were known as “Negro housing”.
In 1954, the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka outlawed racial segregation in schools, housing, and public transportation, and was the first in a series of court rulings that led to federally-mandated bussing of children. Many whites in cities reacted to the mandatory bussing of school children to achieve racial balance in urban public schools by moving to suburban school districts which were under no such mandate.
In 1956, the Interstate Highway Act authorized the construction of a 42,500-mile interstate highway system. The federal government paid 90 percent of the cost. The massive investment greatly facilitated the movement of commuters and shoppers between suburban homes and downtowns and encouraged the relocation of homes and businesses outside of cities. No money was allocated to improve or expand public bus, subway, or streetcar systems, which were considered local responsibilities.
In the 1960s, urban race riots instilled fear in many white Americans that cities were unstable and dangerous, exacerbating the white flight to the suburbs. The reality, however, is that, by the 1960s, it had become financially unwise for investors — in homes or businesses — not to locate in the suburbs. The massive public subsidies of suburban roads, sewers, schools, utilities, and mortgages rendered cities non-competitive. Moreover, most of the people most likely to vote now lived in the suburbs. Suburbanization had acquired a momentum, economic and political, that was impossible to stop.
The key question becomes: Why would the federal government create a redundant infrastructure in the suburbs and allow its cities to become obsolete?
The dynamics of capitalist competition provide a partial but powerful explanation.
Businesses need certain regulations, infrastructure, and services to survive, which they are unable to provide for themselves: public education; public health; roads, bridges, sewers, and water systems; national defense; fair trade practices; a money supply that is neither inflationary or deflationary; and laws protecting the health and safety of workers and goods. These are all fundamental to the development and generation of business, but are provided by government. What consumer would buy a foodstuff or pharmaceutical without government assurance that it was inspected and safe? How would firms move products quickly and cheaply without public roads?
Consider, for example, education, which is essential to modern economies. Education, like many other rights and protections we take for granted in advanced societies, simply cannot be provided consistently and extensively by employers. A worker is free to change employers; therefore, training workers for skills that are in demand may not be the wisest investment for a firm. Once trained, the employee may take his or her skills to another firm, representing a transfer of resources from the firm that did the training to a competitor that reaps the benefits of the previously-trained worker.
Moreover, education is linked to economic prosperity. Most American parents are determined to see their children receive the best possible education so they can compete for the best paying jobs. Americans choose where to buy or build their homes based, in large measure, on the quality of the public schools in a community.
Certainly, the market can and does provide education. Private schools and universities are among the best in the nation, and also among the most expensive. If all education were private — or all fire fighting, policing, recreation programs, road construction, basic scientific research, mail delivery, and other services we associate with government — few citizens would be able to afford it.
Government makes sure that capitalist relations function smoothly, that businesses can expand, create jobs, and remain profitable, because it needs the revenues that employers and employees provide in taxes to pay its school teachers, soldiers, and librarians, to build public works projects like roads and schools and water treatment plants, and to keep voters happy by keeping them employed and well-served.
Government and business in America may seem antagonistic towards one another, forever arguing over their proper role or size, but, historically, they have worked together to grease the wheels of capitalism. Real estate is perhaps the foremost example in the United States.
Businesspersons don’t build factories unless they are in locations where money can be made; workers don’t want housing unless it is reasonably close to jobs; and retailers don’t open unless there is a sufficient density of workers and residents within a specific trade area. In virtually all types of real estate transactions, government has the ability to make land valuable to businesses and individuals and entice them to invest in that land. Governments in the U.S. routinely use public undertakings to increase private profit. Road and sewer construction, shovel-ready industrial sites, property tax abatements, residential mortgage subsidies, airport expansions, and a myriad other publicly-provided appurtenances and incentives fuel real estate speculation and development, benefit truckers and retailers, increase travel, fill office buildings, and sustain car manufacturers and home builders.
American suburbs are part of the same dynamic of enhancing the locational qualities of businesses. In early industrial America, railroad, steel, and mining companies built “company towns” to provide low-cost housing, schools, and other amenities for their employees. In the first half of the twentieth century, the U.S. government assumed this role. Suburbia was essentially the U.S. government’s way of providing endless company towns for U.S. industries. Massive public investment reduced the cost of doing business in the suburbs, catalyzing private investment, creating jobs, expanding the tax base, and allowing suburban residents to accumulate wealth, mostly in the form of property. As President Eisenhower wrote in his 1963 memoirs about the publicly-financed national highway system, “Its impact on the American economy — the jobs it would produce in manufacturing and construction, the rural areas it would open up — was beyond calculation.”
Also beyond calculation at the time was the advantage of scale that suburbs would gain over cities in the competition for residents and jobs because of government financial subsidies and legal protections.
In the United States, at least, the bottom line has replaced the number nine as the mystical number. Every action is expected to have a payoff that is measurable and, preferably, profitable. This attitude is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it inspires businesses, governments, and individuals to strive for efficiency. On the other hand, it encourages lowest-cost solutions and immediate return on investment. The higher initial costs to build a “green” building, for example, are weighed against the long-term savings to operate the facility, but rarely against the long-term benefits to the natural environment. And sometimes it’s difficult to prove that any additional costs lead to savings over time: thicker building insulation is a net cost benefit only if the thermostat is set properly; permeable pavement prevents polluted storm water from running into streams only if it stays unclogged. In virtually all human endeavors, there is now a tension between the short-term and the long-term, and people spend a great deal of time trying to reconcile these considerations. Indeed, an industry has developed of professionals dedicated to the built environment who do little else – urban planners, real estate market analysts, transportation consultants, and environmental engineers, to name a few.
The tension between the present and the future is at the core of sustainability, which asks us to re-think how our economy expands. But sustainability remains a small voice trying to be heard over the great growth-rumble of capitalism.
The history of capitalism is the story of relentless growth – growth of production, growth of worker productivity, growth of consumption, and growth in the demands placed on nature. In a capitalist economy, producers of goods and services are forced to compete with one another, and the pressure to survive results in a self-reinforcing cycle of technological innovation, productivity increases, new products, and the marketing of these products to ensure their sale: new technologies reduce labor costs by increasing worker productivity; production costs are thereby lowered, which means prices for consumers can also be lowered; people therefore have more disposable income to purchase new products; and, eventually, the labor forced out of old lines of production can be re-employed in the production of new products. Thus economic growth generates more growth.
The reproductive cycle of capitalism is not always smooth or steady, but it has churned without cessation for the past four centuries and shows no sign of stopping. Capitalism is the universe, the cosmos of modern human economic existence. We long ago passed the point where we could parse the world around us in noncapitalist terms, where we could justify our endeavors as other than good business. Today, we process actions, events, objects, and what happens in our lives according to the norms of capitalism: natural resources, community assets, human capital, private life, winning advice, educational standards, marketplace of ideas. A child who performs well is complemented for doing a good job. An authoritarian person is bossy. And on and on.
The bedrock need for capitalists to produce more and more at minimum cost in order to remain competitive and stay in business has profound and not always benevolent impacts on the fundamental ecological cycles – water, nitrogen, carbon – upon which life on earth depends. Briefly considering how these ecological cycles are affected by the reproductive cycle of capitalism permits us to see sustainable development in its full economic context.
Basically, water, nitrogen, and carbon are constantly recycled from one form to another, from one storage area to another. Water is stored in ice sheets, oceans, lakes, rivers, subterranean aquifers, and the atmosphere. Nitrogen is a major constituent of the atmosphere and is converted to nitrates through processes in the soil, which are then absorbed by plants. Carbon is stored primarily as coal, oil, natural gas, dead organic matter such as humus in the soil, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and as living organisms themselves.
There has always been, and always will be, the same amount of water, nitrogen, and carbon on earth. Nature, in its wisdom, maintains the proper balance between storage areas to sustain terrestrial life for the long-term.
Water is transferred from one state to another through evaporation and condensation: ice melts and water freezes or boils. Human beings ingest nitrogen, essential for the production of proteins, directly by eating plants or indirectly through the consumption of animals which feed on plants. Photosynthesis utilizes the energy of sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into the organic matter of plants, algae, and plankton, whereby carbon enters the human food chain, since animals cannot photosynthesize carbon directly. The burning of fossil fuels returns carbon directly to the atmosphere, where it regulates earth’s temperature.
This, in a nutshell, describes the fundamental natural cycles that have sustained life since the Big Bang, or shortly thereafter. As capitalism evolved, however, human intervention in the ecological cycles has become more pronounced. People permanently settled in large numbers where there was too much water or not enough water, for example, and crops were planted which depleted the soil of nutrients faster than nature could replenish them. Advances in engineering, chemistry, and technology empowered us to overcome such obstacles by shifting the balance between storage areas from what nature seemingly intended to what is most expedient and profitable for humans.
For example, the depletion of aquifer, the drawing and damming of rivers, and the pollution of waterways to accommodate the growth of large cities and the agricultural lands which feed them, has dramatic repercussions. Water pumps now run dry in some places in the Great Plains, threatening the agricultural future of America’s bread basket. The amount of fresh water flowing into San Francisco Bay has been reduced by nearly half because of diversions of the Sacramento River, allowing salt water intrusions from the Pacific Ocean and pressuring fisheries, crop lands, and the drinking water supply of San Francisco and Oakland. The Ganges, Yangtze, and Nile Rivers are thoroughly fouled for much of their courses by human, commercial, and agricultural waste, yet serve as mostly untreated water sources for hundreds of millions of people, including those in the cities of Calcutta, Shanghai, and Cairo.
For almost three hundred years, nitrogen, in the form of grain stubble, pea vines, bean plants, leaf litter, clover, and animal waste, was plowed under by farmers to replenish soils. Replenishing the nitrate reservoir in the soil with vegetable matter and animal excreta, together with crop rotation, formed the backbone of the agrarian revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, without which the industrial revolution could not have occurred.
Today, poultry and livestock are raised in small areas, sometimes unconscionably small, and animal manure is a problem rather than a solution. Crop farms, on the other hand, frequently confront nitrate deficits, which are made up by artificial fertilizers. Storm water runoff containing nitrates often contaminates aquifers and human drinking supplies. Excess nitrates reduce the ability of blood to carry oxygen; consequently, the nitrate content of drinking water must be monitored to avoid health risks to infants, nursing mothers, and those with heart and lung disease. Fertilizer use also releases high levels of nitrogen into the atmosphere where it falls back to earth as smog or acid rain, killing fish and forests. Another consequence of human intervention in the nitrogen cycle is that our entire food chain has been “stretched” in the sense that food purchased in a supermarket was likely produced many, many miles away. “Food miles” now refer to the distance food has to travel to the consumer; the greater the food mileage, the greater the environmental costs.
As with other natural cycles, carbon is transferred from one storage place to another, and the big problem at the present time is that more carbon is put into the atmosphere than is taken out of it. According to a United Nations’ study, “Concentrations of methane (CH4), carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrous oxide (N2O) are now far higher than their natural range over many thousands of years before industrialization (1750)”. Human activity is incriminated, especially the burning of fossil fuels and tropical rain forests. Since carbon dioxide is transparent to light but rather opaque to heat rays, solar radiation can arrive unobstructed to the earth’s surface, but its radiation back into space is hindered, creating a greenhouse effect.
Average global temperatures have risen steadily since the end of World War II. Many glaciers are receding, and many subtropical flora and fauna are moving further north to avoid heat and drought and are reproducing earlier in spring.
Climate change is worrisome because of the uncertainty of the consequences. If glaciers continue to melt, there will likely be a substantial rise in sea levels. Many of the world’s major cities, including New York, London, Amsterdam, Miami, Buenos Aires, Mumbai, Guangzhou, Osaka, and Alexandria to mention but a few, would be under increased risk of flooding. Moreover, the cold glacier melt water entering into the warmer Atlantic Ocean could disrupt the Gulf Stream, which now ensures relatively moderate temperatures in Western Europe and eastern North America. Agricultural practices worldwide would be severely stressed by continued climate change, and major adjustments would have to be made.
When considered in terms of the water, nitrogen, and carbon cycles, the current outlook for sustainability is not promising. When a person buys a house or drives a car or shops at a supermarket, he or she impacts the ecological cycles which sustain all life. The cumulative impact of millions of people performing the basic motions of contemporary life creates an imbalance, a disequilibrium within the natural cycles.
We place our faith in the logic of supply and demand of the capitalist market to restore some ecological balance. As oil and coal supplies are exhausted, for example, we expect prices of these resources will increase, providing incentives for businesses to harness nonexhaustabile forms of energy, such as wind, solar, and tidal power. Similarly, as gasoline prices increase, market incentives will prompt commuters to shift to mass transit and developers to shift to higher-density, energy-conserving forms of development. Or recycling will provide the answer. Or emissions trading to reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere. Or other market-based attempts to balance supply and demand.
Unfortunately, balancing supply and demand is not the same as balancing the fundamental ecological cycles. All of the things people demand and which the market is determined to supply – automobiles, homes, appliances, vacations, and so on – require huge resource inputs. Furthermore, capitalist enterprises will continue to degrade the environment as long as they are not forced to fully pay for the environmental costs they impose. The clean-up of water pollution and toxic wastes become corporate operating costs, which are passed on to consumers as higher prices. Government expenses to enforce anti-pollution laws get passed on as taxes. Human suffering as a result of foul air, contaminated drinking water, disturbing noises, increased truck traffic, and noxious odors – as well as associated medications, doctor and hospital visits, and stress – are not compensated. Nor are the costs of global warming compensated: constructing defenses against rising sea levels, adjusting agriculture, migrating to less harsh climates, and so on. Capitalism is able to expand in part because many of the benefits that accrue to individual industries are paid for collectively through, for example, taxes to support environmental cleanup and public health insurance.
Capitalism, in essence, cannot reproduce itself without constant expansion and is therefore inimical to sustainability. Energy may be renewable, but other natural resources are not; unless you can overturn the laws of physics and create something out of nothing, expansion will lead to depletion of the resource base for human life. Ideas of slowing global growth in the absence of war or calamity or recession, smoothing the uneven development of different geographic areas, and converging incomes between the haves and have-nots are oversimplified. The less-developed nations and regions may have human and natural assets, but the more-developed areas make all the rules for production and consumption and create all the metrics for measuring progress, based on what best serves their interests.
Similarly, many opponents of suburban sprawl in the U.S. advocate for a full accounting of the costs to extend and maintain infrastructure, utilities, schools, and services for new development, particularly the potential impact on property taxes. They argue that any costs that would lead to tax increases should be borne by developers and users. The cost-benefit analyses or financial impact analyses, however, apply the growth-centric assumptions and mathematics of neo-classical economics to decision making and have yet to incorporate the new patterns of living envisioned by sustainability.
The hundred year history of the mass produced automobile in the United States is an example of what sustainability is up against. Each decade of automobile manufacturing brought innovations so a driver could drive longer distances, more safely, and in greater comfort. Extensive paved road systems now connect just about every destination and are lined with gas stations, restaurants, motels, and other conveniences. Today’s cars have navigation aids, entertainment devices, and built-in safety features. With each passing decade, a driver was able to use a gallon of gas far more economically than previously. American car makers bought parts and raw materials overseas to keep the price of automobiles low to sell more vehicles. In other words, as innovation and efficiency increased the productivity of automobile travel, businesses and governments reinvested the gains in more consumption. As a result, transportation became overemphasized in public decision making in the United States (something we will explore later), the global market for cars exploded, and pressures on the environment soared. New fuel sources and engine and body designs are being developed, but no one sees a viable alternative to personal cars.
Cars, after all, represent better access to work, school, friends, medical care, and leisure opportunities. And who doesn’t want to improve the quality of their lives? This is a goal of both capitalism and sustainability, but, in the case of automobiles, we see how easily sustainability becomes subservient to capitalism.