Tuesday, December 19, 2017


Chalk this post up under frustrated rants. It’s no secret that Metrorail, the passenger rail service for Cape Town, has had its share of negative attention over the past several years. A prolonged lack of investment in infrastructure, mismanagement, corruption, theft/vandalism, and lack of coordination between city and national governments are among the many reasons cited as causing the long-term deterioration of a service that is vital for a huge proportion of Capetonians. Efficient, high capacity public transport connecting people to jobs has always been essential in order to overcome the extreme spatial segregation established under apartheid rule and further entrenched in the post-apartheid era (a topic that deserves its own separate post). Black township residents in particular depend on public transport to access jobs, services, and amenities that are not available locally. In theory, Metrorail should be the most efficient, affordable, cost-effective method of achieving this.

The chronic problems plaguing Metrorail and its parastatal owner, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (“PRASA”) have resulted in constant delays and poor service. These issues seem to be on the rise, leading many Capetonians to dub Metrorail as “Metrofail”. Very recently, Metrorail was required to shut down the entire Central Line, which serves the largest township areas in Cape Town. While Metrorail provided some alternative means of transport via vouchers for commuter bus service, many commuters were forced to pay (again) for other forms of transport, most notably the minibus taxi service.

One of my most fulfilling, and (I think) most environmentally impactful, personal decisions has been to go (mostly) car-free for over ten years. I am in the privileged position of being able to choose to live this way, in part because I have the resources to make other choices (e.g. where I live, how I work, which other transport services I use) that mitigate the impact of being car-free. Many people aren't lucky to have this choice, but still rely on public transportation. Of course, depending on public transportation can be aggravating at times, but I often am thankful I don’t have to deal with navigating the issues of traffic, parking, etc. that come with using a car, not to mention the financial costs of car-ownership as well as associated negative environmental and socio-cultural impacts.

I’ve used Metrorail a fair amount while living in Cape Town, but have been burned enough times now to limit my reliance on it and use it selectively. My last two experiences definitely go under the aggravating column, not so much because of delays, but because of my perception about how poorly the problems were handled. On the first occasion in mind, I was traveling for a meeting that required me to leave the main Cape Town Station during the peak evening commute period. When I arrived, I found that train display boards both outside and inside of the turnstiles were not functioning. As a result, it was difficult (impossible for someone without prior knowledge) to tell which trains were arriving at particular tracks, and whether those trains were arriving late or on time. Although Metrorail staff were making audio announcements regarding train departures, these were nearly impossible to hear or understand. As a result, I (along with a majority of the passengers going my direction) boarded one train and waited nearly an hour in sweltering conditions while two other trains on the same line arrived and departed before us.

My second recent poor experience occurred during the closure of the Central Line mentioned above. I arrived at Cape Town Station to buy my ticket, only to find the lines four times longer than usual. The cause of the long lines were ticket holders seeking refunds due to the Central Line closure. The tedious process of filing a refund significantly slowed down the progress of the lines, which were mixed between ticket purchasers and refund seekers. Fortunately, although I missed the train I had originally meant to take, I made the next (and last) train in time. I imagine others did not however, or forwent the train altogether, which probably cost Metrorail additional ticket sales.

In my opinion, both of these experiences could have been mitigated by relatively simple planning and organizational decisions. For example, in the case of the display boards not working, Metrorail could have provided for several floating staff people to direct passengers to the next departing train. Similarly, in the case of the long ticket lines, on-hand staff could have separated lines between ticket purchasers and ticket holders seeking refunds. These sort of steps should be made a standard part of contingency plans for times when elements of normal operations are disrupted. While this might require some additional staff or resources, I would imagine their costs would easily be made up for by the revenue made (or preserved) through ticket sales.

Scheduling delays, frequency, and on-time performance are of course very serious issues that require more profound action, particularly funding and better top-level management. However, these issues are unnecessarily compounded by poor operational decision-making on the ground, which exacerbates Metrorail’s problems and leads to more negative perceptions than would otherwise be the case. While pressuring for more consistent and long-term investment in the rail lines, these operational aspects seem like good places to achieve more immediate returns.

Obviously I don’t full know the full scope and spectrum of challenges that Metrorail management and employees face, and I feel certain that most of them are trying to do their best given the constraints. However, I think it is obvious that things could be better, and that some fresh thinking about how to serve passengers, their customers, would help both customers and Metrorail. Given that public transportation is such a vital component to moving towards a more sustainable urban future, it is critical that we get this right.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Just Transitions

Initially, I had a few very specific foundational thinkers whose writing I had planned to use to outline the meaning of sustainability for me. However, the practicalities of life (and, most immediately, the threat of overdue library books) has led me to start somewhere else by focusing on authors and topics that I had planned on saving for later. In some ways, however, it is fitting that I start my substantive posts by reviewing the work of two local South African authors, Mark Swilling and Eve Annecke, whose contributions to the discussion of sustainability I find interesting and useful. It is also perhaps fitting that I start with their book, Just Transitions (2012), because in it they pay special attention to foregrounding the question of justice in sustainability, an issue that often seems overlooked or ignored in mainstream sustainability discourse.

As Swilling and Annecke state up front in Just Transitions (2012:xiii), “[t]he perspective and argument in this book is inescapably shaped by the fact that we live and come from the most unequal society in the world”, i.e. South Africa. This perspective informs their underlying assumption that socio-economic equality must be a definitional element of sustainability. But how is equality defined? Swilling and Annecke (2012:xiii) point to the principle of sufficiency: “that is, where over-consumers are satisfied with less so that under-consumers can secure enough, without aspiring for more than their fair share.” (See also 2012:119.) Sufficiency, Swilling and Annecke (2012:136) write, “is what everyone (including slum dwellers and over-consumers) should aspire to if they are concerned about the consequences of an increasingly unfair world.”

What a “fair share” means is in turn determined by the amount of energy, resources, and waste each human needs to consume and emit without reducing the earth’s socio-metabolic supplies or sinks. Swilling and Annecke cite the fairly significant and growing scholarship falling under the field of Material Flows Analysis to determine what are these socio-metabolic limits (Swilling and Annecke cite 2.2 tonnes of carbon and 6 tonnes of extracted materials per year as the best current estimate, 2012:119). The resulting numbers show that the earth can sustain the current population of humans at a decent standard of living only if the wealthiest billion or so humans significantly reduce their consumption:

"For about a billion of the wealthier urban dwellers this will entail drastic consumption reduction (from between 15 and 30 t/cap/yr to 6 t/cap/yr) and for the billion who live in slums it will mean significant increases in resource consumption. But for about a billion or so urban dwellers who do not live in slums and who are connected into the mainstream socio-metabolic flows via a set of networked infrastructures that deliver adequate basic services (such as water, energy, sanitation, and waste services, and access of some sort to public and/or private mobility), this is more or less how they live now." (2012:119.)

I did a quick survey on the Footprint Calculator to get a sense of where I stand in terms of consumption. Sadly (and admittedly using rough and very pessimistic estimates), my footprint looked to fall within the low end of the wealthiest billion people that Swilling and Annecke discuss (disclaimer: these two sources were used different criteria for calculating consumption footprints, but they seem to roughly align). According to the Global Footprint Network, I am in line with the average per capita South African footprint, and a number of times lower than the average American. For me, this reality reflects the need for broader societal changes that move beyond individual actions. The "default switches" of life need to be flipped in favor of less resource consumption, not more.

The need to reduce the consumption habits of the wealthiest people is not just an ecological imperative, however; it is also a moral one. For Swilling and Annecke, society’s unjustness reveals itself through the large and growing unevenness in economic and resource wealth. This unevenness, in turn, has developed with and from a modernist ideological framework that emphasizes “a belief in progress, the power of reason, the primacy of the individual, the sanctity of empiricism, the unlimited universalism of scientific knowledge, and the virtues of secularism” (2012:7). While acknowledging the developmental accomplishments that modernization has achieved, Swilling and Annecke signal that it is also the cause of both economic and environmental obstacles we now face. For instance, they write that “[g]lobal warming is, in reality, not just an unfortunate side-effect of the global industrial system, it is an intrinsic part of how this systems is constituted, fuelled and financed” (2012:48).

Fortunately, a new generation of science focused on collaboration and complexity is questioning the reductionist and competition-oriented science and philosophy underpinning modernity. Swilling and Annecke see this shift in science as providing an opportunity to reframe our political, economic, and social ideologies as well: “[w]e have suggested that complexity theory (2012:15-18) helps to create a language for building this culture of ‘conscious evolution’ . . . . [T]his means starting by taking full responsibility for both what has been achieved and the imbroglio that now threaten our existence” (2012:25).

Importantly, Swilling and Annecke are concerned that societies are trying to reduce linear human metabolic cycles and resource and energy depletion without necessarily redistributing the portions of wealth more equitably. Swilling and Annecke associate this potential trajectory with the labels “green urbanism” and “ecological modernization”, perspectives that acknowledge the need to address ecological limits but assert that limits can be addressed by harnessing rather than discarding the economic and ideological underpinnings of modernization, namely capitalism and anthropocentrism (see 2012:128-132). Green urbanism seeks to “decouple” economic growth from growth in resource consumption, primarily through technology that increases efficiency without requiring large changes to consumption, waste, and development patterns.

Swilling and Annecke question whether the assumptions underlying green urbanism and ecological modernism are justifiable in light of actual experience, particularly with respect to ecological realities globally and developmental realities in the Global South (see 2012:132). I read their critique of green urbanism also as questioning the assumption that the change that is required is technical, rather than behavioral. This critical fork explains the difference in assessment of the “‘green mega-projects’ by the world’s design glitterati who want to design autonomous ‘sustainable cities’ for the globally connected elites [in order to] to secede from unsustainable cities and live in safe, carbon-free cocoons” (2012:128). Through the lens of green urbanism such green “techno-fixes” are progress; they do nothing to impact the underlying behaviors perspective that drive the disparities in consumption and resource allocation.

Swilling and Annecke offer an alternatives to the green urbanism and ecological modernization, which they call liveable urbanism and adaptive design. They describe liveable urbanism as sharing green urbanism’s concern for greater resource efficiency, but focusing “on emerging modes of bio-economic diversification that actively includes the urban poor into new networks of production and consumption” (2012: 136). Through these processes liveable urbanism seeks the restoration of life, not merely preservation or mitigation. Adaptive design in turn provides an alternative of sorts to the universalist techno-centric modes of ecological modernization, instead focusing on design solutions that “depend on -- and, indeed, foster -- social co-operation to keep things going” (2012: 286).

As an example of liveable urbanism and adaptive design, Swilling and Annecke offer descriptions of their own community, the Lynedoch Ecovillage, which they co-founded around 2000. Their descriptions offer a fascinating illustration of the practical application of their ideas and principles. While I imagine the authors’ description of this community is biased towards their own perspectives (a point about which I’m sure they would openly agree), such a concrete example, warts and all, is a really useful tool in helping visualize an alternative possibility regarding the path towards sustainability.

Ultimately, Swilling and Annecke are trying to build an alternative framework for conceptualising sustainability, one that can compete with ecological modernization and green urbanism. As they state, “[i]t is not possible to understand our world -- to become visible -- without understanding the language we use and the origins of the concepts that are embedded in the common sense ideas that get mobilised in everyday conversations, in the media and elsewhere, all the time” (2012, xvii). I agree, and for this reason I appreciate their thoroughly researched and systematic approach. This is not to say that I completely agree with everything in the book (I find their descriptions of epochal cycles a little teleological, and their faith in decoupled economic growth through technology perhaps a little too close to the optimism of ecological modernists). I do think, however, that it does make a compelling case for the approach needed in order to balance the socio-metabolic flows of societies more evenly.

In the end, my main take-away from Swilling and Annecke's book is its carefully supported argument that the definition and criteria for "development" must change, for both those living in the developed and developing world. The extreme increase in the ecological footprint of the wealthiest billion people is both a social and ecological threat to the entire planet, one that will not be solved by more of the same reductionist thinking that has caused both. We cannot, and should not, separate our environmental response from our response to societal problems caused by inadequate access to a decent human existence. They are different sides of the same coin.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A Brief (Re-)Introduction

It has been quite some time (nearly ten years!!) since I last used this medium, but the time seems right for me to take it up once again. In its previous form, this blog served as an opportunity to explore through writing my personal and intellectual interests. Similarly, this time around, I hope to use it in the service of considering some important ideas that are occupying my time these days: namely the theory and practice of living sustainably. For now I'll leave the definition of “sustainable” living open-ended, although my sense is that it broadly involves finding ways for humanity to be able to participate in the long-term course of cosmic existence. For reasons I note below, I will withhold further elaboration on the meaning of this tricky concept for now.

The motives for these new thought process meanderings are both personal and professional. Professionally, I most commonly describe myself as a lawyer and, more recently, as a planner. In the past I have acted as a community organizer, program coordinator, researcher, and policy strategist. In all of these capacities, I see myself as working to promote a sustainable future. I enjoy wearing many hats and finding alignment and overlap between my different interests, skills, and experiences. Currently, I am in the process of identifying how I can maintain and foster the alignment between my work and the promotion of sustainable living. Part of this requires mapping out what the concept of sustainability means to me in a workable and practical sense, which is what I hope to achieve here.

Personally, I have long considered myself an environmentalist and proponent of sustainability, but have only recently been provided the opportunity (through my coursework at the University of Cape Town’s City and Regional Planning Masters Programme) to engage more deeply in the theoretical and intellectual basis for living sustainably. I am also at somewhat of a crossroads--or perhaps it is better described as a pause or transition--where I have made a little space for myself to reflect, re-adjust, and re-prioritise how I live and work according to values and principles that I am able to articulate. I figure now is as good a time as any to explore these in a more formal manner.

Throughout my life, and now as much as ever, I have found myself straddling the polarized position of being both idealistic and practical, moral and pragmatic when it comes to addressing humanity’s relationship with the earth. I often oscillate between sense of complete hopelessness and a buoyant sense of possibility regarding the prospects and pitfalls of our shared future on this planet. While I am convinced that individual decision-making is not enough to address the monumental issues we face, and that those who are committed to sustainability must look beyond personal choice as a means of facilitating change, I also feel both a moral imperative to “walk the talk” and a personal predisposition to lead by example. Indeed, when searching for solutions that promote sustainability, I often look towards my personal actions and patterns and see my own life as a starting point for making these changes.

Accordingly, this series of posts also straddle the line between theory and practice, as well as between personal choices and broader social transitions. My hope is that in making sense of the theoretical alternatives to the status quo thinking about our relationship with nature, I can both make a compelling case for change as well as chart my own course, personally and professionally, towards a more impactful and satisfying state of being.

With this background in mind, my purpose in the following posts will be to (a) investigate the insights and teachings of various sustainability thinkers; (b) apply values and theories regarding sustainability in a practical manner to various aspects of my personal and professional life; and (c) explore some of the broader issues affecting communities with which I am associated, particularly those composing the city of Cape Town, South Africa, where I currently reside. Ultimately, I hope that the confluence of these writings outline a manifesto for sustainability that works on multiple levels and perspectives, and that can be used by myself and others to navigate our modern/postmodern lives.

Along these lines, I plan on alternating between posts that dissect the writing of sustainability theorists whose arguments I find most useful, interesting, or compelling; posts that focus on broader social, political, and economic changes and adjustments towards more sustainable living; and posts that reflect on my own personal choices and quandaries. I fully expect and hope that there will be significant overlap of topics between and even within posts, and will strive to make these connections explicit.

One final word on the word sustainability: I’m actually not a big fan. As has been pointed out in many contexts, sustainability can mean everything and nothing, and completely different things to different people. I use it for lack of a better word (perhaps I’ll find one along the way), but as will probably become clear, I believe I have a very specific set of concepts and values in mind when I think about, and advocate for, sustainability. Because the word itself takes some unpacking, and because I think this can be done more usefully through discussion of a range of articulate thinkers, writers, and philosophers, I will withhold from offering my own definition or criteria, aside from the somewhat broad and vague one I provide above. With any luck, this exercise might help me provide a more concrete or comprehensive definition down the road.

Looking forward to the journey!