USP 514 – Sustainable Development
- Summarize what you learned from each and every session in this course. You are required to refer to each session separately and individually with the name of the session on top of each part of your answer.
Session 1 “Introduction”
There was a lot of metacommentary in this session. We talked about how to talk about the topics. We learned for the first time that the professor preferred students to interject and interrupt, rather than using tools like “raise hands” on zoom. This made me think about which student groups in the class are privileged by this policy and which are marginalized. I had previously taken a class on the topic of the way that professors set expectations in classes which typically favor extroverts and make things harder for introverts. This seemed like a good example of that.
We also learned that the professor would be requiring everyone to attend class synchronously without recordings to refer back to. At this point the professor indicated that during the spring semester, nearly all the black students had dropped as a result of these and other policies in this class. This comment was what inspired me to reach out to CFA (California Faculty Association), SFSU RRS (Race and Resistance Studies Department), and other organizations in order to set up a service-learning internship next year. I will be researching the topic of how choices by professors in different departments have led to different outcomes for the success of students in marginalized populations during the covid pandemic.
We also learned about one another’s expectations for a safe classroom such as “speaking from I,” allowing people to articulate their point before reacting, and as one student put it, “appreciating one another’s valid subjective opinions even when they’re different.” We finished the first day of this session with an open discussion where the professor asked everyone to explain what they think sustainable development is, and then the professor explained that none of us know what sustainable development is. This is when I learned that the tone of the class would be deeply ideological, with all references to the personal beliefs of the professor portrayed as absolute facts from a universal and objective perspective, rather than within the broader dialectical context of the many valid alternatives to each conclusion offered. Given the context of the previous comment about institutionally racist policies in the class, and the disregard for ameliorating the outcome of “all black students dropping,” plus the fact that this comment came just after a discussion about respecting people’s subjective experience, I almost dropped the class at this point because I find it difficult to have patience when claims are presented this way. It did lead to many tense moments later on, but I’m glad I stuck around because we ended up learning many interesting things as we will see on future pages.
This session was split into two days. On the second day, we discussed the top challenges and “to-dos” within this field and around the world. The mention of reducing consumption motivated me to think more deeply about previous research I had done on de-growth and sent me into a podcast spiral where I learned a lot more about this idea and later presented these findings in class. We also discussed the way social justice is fundamental to the implementation of the solutions to these challenges. I think this was the first time I had reflected on the implementation of infrastructure policy as a means for ameliorating disparate impact. This would become a major theme of the class later on.
We also discussed the definition and foals of development and sustainable development. We learned for the first time several foundational concepts that we would be using in this class. First, that sustainable development considers the externalities of the development process and tries to internalize them or minimize them. This motivated me to reflect on past environmental justice classes I’ve taken and notice that regeneratively was absent from the discourse in this class. The concept of sustainability in this class seemed to lack the idea of doing more than just “being possible to sustain” and going beyond that to actually regenerate what has been lost in order to ameliorate disparate impact as an externality of past unsustainability. I learned and noted this limitation of the sustainable development concept as presented.
Session 2 “Challenges in Cities Around the World”
We started by reading about the ten most important issues facing cities according to their mayors. The most significant thing I learned that BRT was widely seen as a good option in place of higher volume and higher sex-appeal modes of transportation like light rail. This was in conflict with what I learned in the Urban Planning classes I had taken at Portland State University where I had learned that affluent American communities generally refuse to adopt bus systems because they view them as an option for poor people. Learning about this different perspective on BRT opened my eyes to the possibilities of BRT which we would learn more about later on.
We also read about five big challenges facing cities around the world. Three of these in particular struck me as highly salient as I watched my cohort continue to lose its diversity; the intersection of environmental threats like pandemics with technology and inequality. One example given in the reading was education and the lack of internet infrastructure in marginalized communities. This motivated me to think more deeply about what was happening to my missing BIPOC classmates.
I really enjoyed reading the five toughest challenges facing cities. In particular the piece about the extreme need for agriculture innovation motivated me to think more deeply about xericulture and desertification, the democratization of food production, and the tipping point we are rapidly approaching when our messy system will suddenly become a totally untenable system. I wrote several essays exploring these issues in greater depth and learned a lot from the rabbit trail this reading sent me on.
Session 3 “Urban Design Principles”
One of the first things we learned from the readings in this session was that urban design should start by engaging the community to learn what they actually need and want. It’s easy to find examples where this has not happened, and gentrification is basically the epitome of not doing this. Instead of displacing, demolishing, and otherwise gentrifying communities, we learned that we should start by reaching out to the people who actually live in communities to close knowledge gaps and learn what kind of urban design they actually want and need. We learned that these findings should be quantitative and empirical.
I liked the phrase from the reading, “Opportunities come from overlap,” discussing how nonprofits working together can produce the kind of local change that communities want and need based on the values of the nonprofits and their outreach to the communities they serve. I really liked this concept. This motivated me to think more deeply about the opportunity for housing partnerships at the community level between nonprofits which represent the interests of communities rather than luxury condo developers. I had heard a lot about TLDC (Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation) but that’s only one part of the city. As a nonprofit whose mission is affordable housing in their community, they stand as one element in the set of overlapping organizations which produce the kind of opportunities the reading was describing. I was curious why other neighborhoods don’t have some analog of TLDC, so I reached out and met with several of the boards of directors for the arts districts in San Francisco. All of them highlighted that they are trying to launch NDCs or Neighborhood Development Corporations for their respective districts in order to create the missing partner that could fulfill this ideal from the reading in their communities.
I also reflected on the concept from the reading that reducing transit time adds value for people in cities. This motivated me to reflect on the fact that one of the central concepts of The Portland Plan was measuring the commute time for people in different districts with regular surveys, and then leveraging light rail infrastructure to reduce the commute time across the city to meet the plan’s goal. This is just a night and day difference from the bay area, where there is just no broad regional transit planning on any functional or sane level.
We learned that “Urban design is the entire set of processes that go into creating an urban space.” And we broke this out into class discussion of the points I already mentioned above. This class was also the first time I had heard the NIMBY alternative term BANANA: Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything. Lastly I believe this class was the first time the concept of not sacrificing long-term interests in favor of short-term interests was introduced. This motivated me to reflect on my degree in social justice, and the concept of the bad patriarchal bargain from second-wave feminism. This is essentially the same argument but about workplace sexual harassment; women in the workplace had previously been socialized to expect groping, catcalling, etc from male coworkers in exchange for being allowed to work, but second-wave feminism rose up to interrupt this widely-held belief by calling it a ‘bad patriarchal bargain” because in the long-term, it hurt women, despite presenting the appearance of some short-term employment benefits.
Session 4 “Sustainable Development in Historical Context”
This class was framed in the context of post-war economics in America. It was a very interesting way to frame this topic. America came out of WW2 as the only intact industrial power. This was followed by a long period of reconstruction in the rest of what had previously been the developed world. This period of industrial reconstruction gave America a huge but temporary manufacturing advantage. This advantage was leveraged to create new global institutions like the UN and the international banking and finance system including the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and two other now defunct institutions. These new institutions were intended to leverage the long period of industrial reconstruction in order to give the US ultimate and enduring economic power around the world and to prevent any other nation from ever challenging them again.
We learned that the new US-based global financial system gave out loans and aid with extremely pro-US contingencies such as structural adjustment which transferred ownership of public institutions around the world to wealthy US investors while also saddling those nations with immense and functionally eternal debt. This is also the point at which the US built hundreds of military bases all over the world in order to occupy essentially every nation and leverage direct military control in addition to economic control.
We also learned about the rise of the Chicago school/ neoliberalism/ neoclassical economics at the same time. Reactionary capitalist demagogues like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher dismantled the social safety nets, enshrined the wealth gap into public policy, and set us on course to most of the widespread economic crises we face today. We learned that these demagogues popularized the idea that natural resources were infinite and we should maximize exploitation and cut down or burn everything we can find in order to unleash unlimited eternal capitalist growth. This motivated me to reflect more deeply on whether any informed person could have ever really believed this, and whether it was always a bad faith argument from the neoliberals because they knew they would be dead before the real problems arose.
We learned about the Brundtland Commission and the UN’s decision to define the goal of sustainable development not in terms of eternal and unlimited economic growth as the neoliberals had, but rather as working to improve quality of life for the people. This is still considered radical by the neoliberals decades later. Brundtland’s expanded concept made me reflect on my past notes about the bad patriarchal bargain and second-wave feminism, “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future.”
We also learned the professor’s personal definition for this class, “The term sustainable development is used differently by different groups and organizations. In this class we will use the term to encompass urban planning and policy approaches that can be used to minimize a city’s negative impact on the environment while providing urban residents with the infrastructure and services they need to sustain a high quality of urban life.”
This motivated me to reflect back to my previous critique of the lack of focus on regenerativity. For example, if we “minimize” the ongoing destruction of the ice caps and rainforests, that does nothing to replace what has been lost, or to move towards a future homeostasis that will allow us to avoid human extinction. We are in a car with a foot on the gas pedal and the car is already so far past the edge of the cliff that moving the foot to the brake pedal just does not strike me a serious response to the situation we face.
We also learned the definitions of the triple bottom line and learned two mnemonics. First the three Es (Economy, Environment, Equity), and second the three Ps (Profit, Planet, People). This was part of a discussion on the legacy of the Brundtland Commission. Today we have a list of 17 UN SDGs with hundreds of subcategories explaining how to talk about the problems which sustainable development around the world is trying to solve. This motivated me to reflect on a conversation I had several years ago with a friend who is an environmental M&A consultant. It’s been a major challenge for decades for quantitative analysts, actuaries, and other industry professionals to articulate arguments about sustainability because there was no common set of terms and priorities and no common understanding of how to measure sustainability when analyzing a particular stock, bond, etc. This led to many loosely equivalent sets of priorities and measurements among institutional lenders, pension funds, etc. But now with the SDGs, a widespread consensus has emerged and even reached the point that ETFs are being sold by companies like Vanguard which mimic the makeup of indices like the S&P, only with more sustainable alternatives to the S&P companies. This means these ETFs actually outperform the S&P, and creates a huge dual financial incentive for corporations to improve sustainability under the context of the SDGs while also demonstrative the incentive for investment capital to move to those more sustainable alternatives to unsustainable incumbent institutions.
The class did not reach many of the points in the session outline, but one interesting thing I learned from a reading we did not cover is that the definition of the Anthropocene era in geological terms is the presence of radioisotopes in soil strata, because of humanity’s historical proclivity for detonating hundreds of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere.
We did discuss the legacy of slavery in Haiti and the way that the international community forced the freed slaves to reimburse the French slavers who had enslaved them after the revolution. I had not previously heard about this, and it motivated me to reflect more deeply on the way that this situation closely mirrors the US-centered global financial system’s efforts to do basically the same thing to all the countries of the world through QE, contingent loans, etc.
During this session, we also learned for the first time about the distinction between the double bottom line and the triple bottom line; that distinction being social justice. Without social justice, environmental and economic progress are not valid, they are just green capitalism. The people most affected by environmental and economic crises are the same people who are left out when social justice is not a part of the plan. These three parts of the triple bottom line are tightly linked together. We later saw the professor reject one student presentation for this very reason. The development in the presentation was green and profitable but it was for rich people, not for people; it satisfied the double bottom line but not the triple bottom line.
We also briefly touched on the difference between economic and ecological cities. I had not previously heard these terms contrasted in this way but it struck me as a perfect example of SF vs Portland. An economic city prioritizes cars, wealth for the wealthy, maximum housing prices, regressive transit prices, and allowing wealthy developers to violate the law with only trivial fines; this is San Francisco in a nutshell. In contrast, an ecological city makes it inconvenient and expensive to use cars instead of transit, it prioritizes affordable housing and refuses to allow developers to violate the law with impunity; Portland in a Nutshell.
Lastly, we learned the class definition of Equitable Development, “Equitable development is an approach for meeting the needs of underserved communities through policies and programs that reduce disparities while fostering places that are healthy and vibrant. It is increasingly considered a strong place-based action for creating strong and livable communities.” This tied in with shock doctrine and the way that things are changing today because of covid, the collapse of the biosphere, the wildfires, the jobs and housing crises, and all the other disasters we are enduring simultaneously. The example was given of the Oakland Moms saga, and the exciting progress that has started happening for housing affordability in Oakland.
Session 5 “Equitable Sustainable Development”
The class skipped this session, but I had already done all the work so I’ll talk about what I learned even though this session didn’t actually happen.
In the ted talk with Stiglitz, I learned about the case study of the town of Gary Indiana which parallels the economic story of the larger country. We learned about the example of rent-seekers as a way to critically analyze issues like poverty, inequality, and discrimination not only in Gary but also in the broader national economic context. The example that Stiglitz gives is that of a pie. The problem with the Chicago/ neoliberal/ neoclassical economic perspective is that while the smallest players work to make the pie larger, the largest players work to get a larger slice of the pie without making the pie larger. Stiglitz effect is not just that most of the wealth goes to the right, but that essentially no new wealth is created, and therefore over time there is a widespread redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich.
I had not heard this concept phrased this way before and it caused to reflect more deeply on Marx’s Crisis Theory and the way that countervailing forces must build up a certain momentum until a crisis, when they can finally overpower prevailing forces. The current economic situation and wealth distribution is not tenable. It will change one way or another.
Stiglitz points out that the problems multiply because for example only wealthy people have access to education, and therefore entire generations are forced into castes with essentially no potential for vertical mobility, and essentially no one doing better now than their parents were doing at their age. This argument makes sense and gave me a lot to think about.
Stiglitz finishes with the claim that in the past, we have faced many other crises and always pulled back from the bring. He suggests that we must do that again. This caused me to reflect on how that might be possible, and conclude that it seems extremely unlikely that neoliberalism will somehow address these crises that are in reality a product and side-effect of neoliberalism itself.
Session 6 “Sustainable Development for Whom?”
In this session, we learned about what the green economy is; a way of describing the cause of our sustainability problems – neoliberalism – as somehow actually the solution to these problems while also ignoring the social justice aspect of the triple bottom line. In short, the green economy fulfills merely the double bottom line instead.
We learned from the reading “Sustainable Development for Whom,” that the Franciscans were arguing for a new definition of Sustainable Development. Their core claim was that while SD often advertises itself as beneficial for everyone, it’s generally not. This caused me to reflect on the lessons of Session 4 on the difference between the double bottom line and the triple bottom line. In fact, argue the Franciscans, there are a set of myths that undergird the idea that economic development is always positive. Chief among these myths is the claim that people who live in subsistence economies are somehow backwards or uncivilized.
In reality as we learned in class, this is basically the opposite of the truth. People in subsistence economies are far more resilient to economic crises than those who rely on global supply chains for things like food and water. We also learned that people in subsistence economies have far more free time for art, family, and enjoying life. This mirrors the Brundtland argument that quality of life is more important than economic growth, and from that perspective, a subsistence farmer is actually living a more sustainable life than someone working 40 hours a week under fluorescent lights in a cubicle and relying on Walmart for their meals.
Next we read and discussed, “Green Economy – The Next Oxymoron?” I really enjoyed this reading. In particular I pasted in bold the following quote into my notes, “the concept of a green economy seems to promise an attractive orientation out of the crisis of neoliberalism that became manifest in 2008 and has hit vulnerable countries and social groups.” Of course, as we already learned, this is the opposite of the truth. Focusing on economic growth within the context of environmental sustainability leaves out the fact that neo-liberalism is the cause of social injustice not just under solutions like “The Green Economy,” but also under the widespread conditions that need solving. Neoliberalism is not the solution to neoliberalism.
A better solution we learned about in the article is De-Growth. I gave the example in class that the oxymoron here is like saying “The solution to climate change is to buy Teslas or Priuses” when in reality the solution is to end cars. There is no product to buy to solve the problem of buying too many products. Instead, we need to buy less, consume less, grow economies less, and stop turning to the problem like it’s somehow actually the solution
Other solutions proposed in this article include internalizing externalities into product prices. The professor gave the gas pricing example; if gas was priced to include all its costs, it would be more than ten times the price it is now. This should be true for all products, because as we learned in the class discussion, these costs are today merely being paid by people in developing countries who are forced to foot the bill while we see steep discounts for the products we buy.
Session 7 “Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Plans”
At last, the SDGs! In this session we learned about the current set of sustainable development goals from the UN. I won’t list them out here since for me this is not something I am learning about in this session. I have hosted book clubs and taught workshops about this topic in the past, and the instructions say we’re only supposed to talk in this essay about what we learned.
In the reading “Cities Are the Environmental Solution, Not the Problem,” I learned that the US’ population is projected to grow by about a third in the next two decades. This caused me to reflect on how slow our population growth is compared to other countries seeing much higher growth, and particularly in the context of our anti-immigration stance despite our responsibility for many of the humanitarian crises causing mass migration.
The article goes on to argue that we must reinvest in cities, making them a place where the tens of millions of new Americans will be able to live. This led me to reflect on the RHNA forecasts for the bay area. Many of the cities in the bay area are currently forecasting that they will meet their 2016 housing needs in just a few centuries, with some forecasts saying it will take up to eight hundred years to meet their 2016 housing needs based on their current rate of development. A lot is going to change one way or another because a hundred million people are going to have to live somewhere.
Session 8 “Urban Infrastructure”
We learned that we will use the World Bank definition of Urban Infrastructure in this class, “Infrastructure refers to the long-lived engineered structures, equipment, facilities, and services that are used by economic production and by household.” The professor elaborated that long-lived means more than fifty years and engineered means using modern technologies.
We were asked to reflect on our Assignment 1 submissions and list the things we did not think to include. Mine were parks, post offices, and factories, though none of these are present in my neighborhood as we are deep within decaying 1950s sprawl here.
There was also a lengthy and passionate discussion about the problems with Assignment 1. There were a number of undeclared expectations for the assignment which naturally no one fulfilled. I checked with several other students and confirmed that we did not cover the material from the course outline, and skipped this session just like session 5.
Session 9 “Sustainable Urban Water Management”
In the homework for this session, we learned about the topic by logging all the ways we used water on a daily basis and then discussing it together. I was surprised to learn how much less water I use on a daily basis than others. This seemed to highlight the fact that we need to all be consuming a lot less. There was a discussion about the embodied water cost of buying manufactured goods, plus the distribution chains before and after manufacturing as well as the sourcing of the materials.
We learned from Dr Kalanithy Vairavamoorthy’s Ted Talk about when the Dr went home to Sri Lanka after a Tsunami to help them recover, specializing in water and sanitation services. We learned about the religious connotations of water in the culture of Sri Lanka where water is considered sacred and loved. We heard a story about how because of the extreme scarcity of water in Sri Lanka, the families must work to reuse water multiple times for things like drinking and washing vegetables, then washing clothes and the floors, then watering plants. The Dr described Sri Lankans as having a custodial relationship with water.
The takeaway principles we learned are doing more with less because every drop is valuable and no water can be wasted; all water must be reused. This caused me to reflect on xericulture subsistence farming in places like Taos, where Earthships with rainwater capture systems allow people’s earthen homes to contain large greenhouses which grow food crops while also regulating temperature and providing humidity for healthier air. With 2/3 of the US forecast to desertify within a few decades, this is going to be a skill we all need to learn. Another principle we learned in this discussion is that all water is good water and merely needs to be matched with an appropriate use rather than discarded.
We learned that fresh water is distributed inequitably around the planet. This was the first time I had heard the statistic that 97% of Earth’s water is salinated with just 1% available as fresh water and a further 2% locked in the ice caps.
We also learned about the way that urbanization, industrialization and economic activity destroys fresh water supplies by polluting, salinating, or otherwise contaminating fresh water. We also learned about aquifer collapse which I had not previously heard about. I did further research on this topic and learned that until very recently, the entire San Joaquin Valley was an inland lake. After a series of fairly recent cataclysmic geological shifts, it dried up, and has been desertifying ever since. Within the last century, the last parts of the valley which had still been lakes were deliberately drained to create agricultural land, leading to an acceleration in desertification and an end to the last remaining sources of evaporation which had fed rainfall in the Sierras. This would have been interesting information to include in this session since it highlights the fact that basically all of the disasters we face today are our own doing, and that most of them can not be undone at this point no matter how hard we try.
Session 10 “Sustainable Urban Waste Management”
In this session, we talked about the different kinds of waste which must be managed in an urban setting. This led to a discussion of waste management strategies and the social and environmental impacts of these strategies. I learned for the first time that all breastmilk on Earth now contains dioxin, and I learned that this is the most toxic substance known to exist. I also learned that the waste stream is becoming more toxic as long-lived inorganic substances continue to accumulate.
This was also the first day we learned about the professor’s conceptual hierarchy of terms with “approach” being the highest and most broad category. In this case, we talked about the urgency of moving to a resource recovery approach rather than a waste management approach. We learned that currently, 40% of the waste going into landfills could be composted. This alone presents a huge opportunity to divert and recover these valuable resources which are currently going to waste.
We also learned for the first time about the concepts of cradle to grave and cradle to cradle. For example, if there is no safe way to dispose of a product because it is toxic, then maybe we shouldn’t make it; if there is no plan for the grave, then why are you planning the cradle? Conversely, a good cradle to cradle example would be closing the loops for inputs and outputs; dead plant matter can be composted to feed future plants.
We also learned about RRRR or reduce, reuse, recycle, rot. This incorporates similar principles but adds the idea of de-growth. For example, today most of the food we grow goes to waste. Why are we growing all that extra food? Because the system is inefficient. There are lots of problematic side effects to growing more than we consume while also consuming more than we need. We can do all four Rs, just with food.
We learned about upcycling and downcycling. Upcycling is basically thrift stores or something like that where we can reuse things for new purposes instead of disposing of them. Downcycling means deconstructing things to reuse them for their raw materials, such as plastic or metal.
One topic we learned about in the book but not in the class discussion for this session was the idea of putting the responsibility for pollution, disposal, and recycling on both consumers and producers. So for example, we have CRV on cans and bottles, but that’s only on consumers and it’s not clear that it’s enough to actually incentivize recycling. Maybe it would make sense to have a much higher CRV plus internalizing the cost of recycling in the price that producers charge, so that they are paying the cost of later recycling the materials.
In the video “Story of Stuff” there was a lot of interesting statistics about the topic. One that I found fascinating was the fact that 80% of the forests are now gone. This is sort of terrifying and I had no idea this number was so high. Another interesting fact is that while only 5% of the world’s population lives in the US, we consume 30% of the world’s resources and produce 30% of the world’s waste. It keeps going back to the RRRR. We need to consume less and take better care with the way our outputs are managed in close loops.
Session 11 “Sustainable Transportation Management”
In this class we made a very long list of all the types of transportation that we could think of. We also discussed progressive vs regressive ticket pricing. I was a little frustrated with the conclusions we reached so I reached out to a friend who is a Principal Transportation Planner to learn more about the practice related to this topic. He seemed to agree, feeling that progressive ticketing has a low impact on ridership, where better routes and service will have a higher impact and be a better target for new spending, but I keep going back to the point that was repeatedly made in class, that economic concerns are not the only concerns and just because it makes economic sense does not mean it’s the right thing to do. I look forward to taking transportation planning in the fall and learning and reflecting more on this important topic.
We also learned about legitimate reasons for using cars which I had not really reflected on before. For example, people with disabilities or anxiety disorders could ethically argue that cars are a better option for them.
We learned about the Fruitvale development. I had heard about this but not in this much depth. I have always been very interested in Transit Oriented Development, but this class really got me to reflect deeply on this topic for the first time. It seems like a very compelling opportunity for high density projects just like we saw in Curitiba along the arterials. It makes sense as a parallel.
It was also very interesting to learn about the Curitiba BRT system in the YouTube video we watched. I had always heard BRT described as a half-measure that rich people would not adopt. It was interesting to see a whole city built on BRT and with such high ridership. This caused me to reflect on whether what I’ve heard about BRT was potentially inaccurate or incomplete. The idea of doing elevated platforms with people paying before they get on seems particularly helpful for the speed of the system. It will be interesting to see how BRT works out for the new East Bay BRT line.
The line that stuck with me most from the Curitiba case study was “Adding population without adding infrastructure and planning to support the additional population will result in a lower quality of life and an increase in social problems in the city.” This seems to be close to where we are at today in America. The idea that we are already in such a housing crisis plus we are adding another 70 million people in the next few decades presents similar sorts of challenges to what this quote is talking about. We will either make changes now or we will make them later, but the way things are just isn’t going to keep working.
One thing that raised my eyebrows in this case study was in “Bogota: Building a Sustainable City”(3:15-5:20) when Penolosa seemed to argue for broken windows theory; that people will decide what kind of life to have based on their surroundings, and so eliminating the negative cues about the kind of neighborhoods you have will cause people to choose to live in a better way. He said this gave people more self esteem which solved urban social problems. This idea is directly responsible for a huge number of social problems in America. I have repeatedly reflected deeply on this segment of the video since we watched it. I think it would take a great deal of research to reconcile these arguments, and I may do that at some future point.
We also learned about the problem of connecting centers rather than connecting people to where they need to go. This problem seems like one of the most challenging unresolved issues in urban design; how can you build infrastructure for the future when the future is in flux? The example of the Chicago trains radiating like wheels on a spoke was very interesting. When the system was built, it made sense, but today most people are commuting from one suburb to another and there is effectively no simple and fast transit option for them using the existing infrastructure.
Session 12 “Sustainable Urban Energy Management”
In this class we talked about energy types and sources. We learned about some interesting anecdotes. For example, the story of Moreno glass blowers switching from biomass to coal in the fourteenth century was interesting. They were able to do more work, but with the negative side-effect of an increase in pollution.
We also learned about the asymmetry of future consumption growth in developing nations. The United States uses a lot of power per person compared to developing countries. This means two things. First, the US needs to move to more sustainable energy sources through government subsidies and investment in a green smart power grid. Secondly, the global south is currently not electrified like the global north is. We need to help developing nations produce more-expensive renewable energy instead of allowing them to make the same unsustainable mistakes we did by burning coal to power their development. We also learned that aside from the fact that burning fossil fuels for energy exposes the population to the equivalent of six packs of cigarettes per day, the biosphere can’t handle the CO2 that would be produced during this process.
Based on this fact, we learned about how energy infrastructure development is currently being funded around the world. Bonds and government investment are basically it. So we need better policies around how they make those decisions in order to move to things like photovoltaic instead of coal.
Session 13 “Cost Benefit Analysis and Precautionary Principle”
This was an interesting session. We learned about two alternate approaches to evaluating the relative good and bad between different options in urban planning: cost benefit analyses versus the precautionary principle.
In the first reading, Pricing the Priceless, we learned about the principle of cost benefit analysis analyzed through the perspective of a moral argument about society. The claim of the paper was that a cost benefit analysis offers a deeply flawed method which biases economic value above all other concerns. Within this framework, there is no way to argue for social most justice issues and environmental issues, because there is no clear, direct economic measure to compare with these kinds of concerns. On the other hand, some social justice and environmental issues can be addressed under this framework. If we have a long-term financial incentive not to destroy the biosphere, then there is a rational cost-benefit reason not to do that. If it’s cheaper to give homeless people housing, then there is a rational cost-benefit reason to do that.
In the second reading, The Precautionary Principle Puts Value First, we learned about the precautionary principle which argues that rather than basing decisions on economic interests, we should require evidence for a lack of potential harm from those entities who wish to undertake any action in society. It argues that instead of just being a profitable endeavor, products and enterprises should have to demonstrate proof that they will not harm people in the process of what they want to do.
The way this dichotomy was presented led me to reflect on whether this is a true dichotomy or perhaps rather a case of people with different epistemologies talking past each other. Both of these concepts are based on different ideas about how to decide what’s true and right, and both of these concepts have problems. The cost-benefit analysis is often the only possible language which our institutions and businesses can legally interact with. Maybe that should change, but it’s not clear that the precautionary principle is up to the task, based on the readings.
It’s not possible to prove a negative. The idea that every entity should be required to prove it will not cause harm before taking any action would not only be logically impossible but also essentially outlaw all harms. Certainly there are egregious harms from some entities which should be addressed, but a certain amount of risk is part of life. If I want to open a café, how can I possibly prove that I will harm no one? What degree of risk is acceptable? Should we institute a worldwide ban all products containing peanuts because of the risk to someone with an unknown allergy? Under the precautionary principle as stated in this class, yes we should.
This session poses a false dichotomy where neither option works all the time. The missing attempt at reconciling these ideas leaves any underlying truth uninterrogated and demonstrates only that neither of these options works in all situations, while only one of them can even approach those with the power to actually make decisions on these topics. Towards the end of the session, the professor said we “should be thinking conceptually rather than theoretically or practically.” Indeed, that’s the only way I can rationalize the argument made by session is by starting with the assumption that’s right and not thinking too deeply about it.
Session 14 “Green New Deal”
In this session’s first reading, “Blueprint for Europe’s Just Transition,” we learned that austerity can not be a solution to the collapse of the biosphere. In fact, progress of any kind of expensive, and you can’t get progress with austerity. There are many related side effects which are both cause and effect of the biosphere’s collapse. These include economic inequality and the collapse of democracies.
Tying back to earlier sessions, we learn that the blueprint calls for community-level outreach and action supported at the federal level through spending by federal and global governments and institutions. The blueprint argues that this can facilitate “a just transition” to a sustainable future which simultaneously resolves the causes and effects of the collapse of the biosphere, while mitigating the worst effects of climate change and preserving some kind of possible future for humanity.
I was excited to learn that one of the main points of this plan is moving to a 4-day work week with a 3-day weekend while maintaining livable wages. It was a surprise to learn that the plan also includes a basic income for people in industries being phased out, in order to help them retrain for a new sustainable career.
In the second reading, “Green New Deal Report, Data for Progress,” I was surprised to learn that the GND is actually quite popular among Americans. It made me reflect on the way these goals would impact America, and it makes sense when you consider that the most popular career in most states is truck driving and there are already many companies with self-driving trucks on the road. The GND could solve many of America’s problems while helping push many of our problems in the right direction.
We also watched a video called “The Green New Deal: Putting the climate at the heart of global policy” in which we learned that insect and animal populations are already collapsing around the world. I was excited to learn that this source also contained the argument that GND policies need to be implemented at the community level with lots of outreach. It strikes me that democratizing the GND in this way would allow private capital and investment money to buy into some of the efforts, creating a whole new green startup industry dedicated to doing ethical work preserving communities around the nation and around the world. Imagine tech bros competing to do the most good for once?
It was also interesting to learn that the GND would be the first ever attempt to meet the scale of the challenges of the climate crisis. This fact caused me to reflect on the terrifying fact that despite the scale of these problems, no one has ever really tried to deal with them on their own scale; it’s just too big and terrifying to grapple. I hope to see us try before we go extinct.
Session 15 “The Covid 19 Pandemic”
In this session, we learned about the disparate impact of covid on marginalized populations. We had already all done research projects about this so most of the information was review, and most of my notes were the dramatic graphs showing huge differences in covid impact between privileged and marginalized groups.
In the first reading, “The Fullest Look Yet at Racial Inequality of Covid 19,” we learned about the racial disparities between Black, white, and Latin populations. As you may expect, we learned that the white population is doing significantly better than the Black and Latin populations. In July when the story was published, the Latin infection rate was about double the white infection rate, with the Black infection rate in between.
In the second article, we learned that a similar pattern was playing out across groups based on income and the hierarchical position of workers. Wealthy people and managers were doing great, while front-line workers and the poor were bearing the brunt of the infections. The readings and class discussion did not include a comparison of whether the income patterns in Europe were also true in America but it seems reasonable to assume there might be a strong similarity in the expression of that pattern here.
The Black New Deal reading was a very exciting glimpse into activism in my own community. I was not aware of this document before reading it in this session. I learned that the black community in Oakland had put together a very long and comprehensive list of demands for a new-deal-style investment in the black community to ameliorate not only the impacts of covid, but centuries of impacts which the black community has suffered. I have often cited this document since reading it during this session. It’s a great example of a fairly comprehensive list of examples of what’s wrong and how to fix it.
- What have you learned in this course about the concept of “sustainable development”?
This question is hard. I’ve worked on this issue for years so most of this was review for me. Some of the most valuable and interesting things I learned in this class were concepts that challenged things I had held to be true based on my past learning. For example, the idea that BRT can be a sexy and functional alternative to trains and that they can find adoption by wealthy citizens, in direct contradiction to what I learned in Urban Planning classes at PSU.
Another example of valuable lessons learned in this class is the elaboration on historical connections between concepts from my past degrees in Sociology and Social Justice and the fight to represent these issues within the context of sustainable development, on par with economic concerns rather than subject to economic concerns.
Also valuable was the idea of a triple bottom line being in contrast to a double bottom line. The EEE and the PPP will come in handy during my future work, and I’m sure I will often cite the argument that these things should be treated equally rather than placing economics as the ultimate concern, particularly with regard to privileging short-term interests over long-term interests. If there’s not going to be a biosphere to do business in, then economic concerns become irrelevant, after all.
Lastly, choosing deliberately from the available futures requires first articulating the options. If we don’t’ learn about what kind of future is possible (sustainable) then there isn’t any chance we can get there. David Harvey argued that urbanism is a process, and if we don’t choose how to do it, then we will do it wrong. This is a bigger argument than just cities. Nations and global institutions face the same challenge. If we don’t articulate how we want to live in the world and what possible future we want to move towards, then we will instead move away from a possible future and towards extinction. The choice is ours but only if we keep PPP/EEE in mind and use it to articulate the just and possible future we want to build.
- What are your five main takeaways from this course?
The first main takeaway is the concept of PPP/EEE and the way this course tries to articulate a moral argument for placing social justice and environmental sustainability on the same level as economic concerns. This makes sense intuitively, but a coherent epistemic and logical framework for discussing these things together seems to still be under development to some degree. I think the recent publishing of the UN SDGs is a huge step forward towards unifying the language and conceptual understanding of how these things are related, how to measure the impacts and duties we have, and how to talk about them in a coherent and more objective way.
The world is turning to a desert. Most of the United States is already desert. Even if we do a 180 today and get every person on the same page about doing a Green New Deal, it’s too late to stop most of what’s coming. The prescient fact that most of the world is going to be a desert very soon gives us a huge advantage in taking steps today to prepare while it’s still relatively easy for the future that is now inevitable. Xericulture subsistence farming just seems like the most obvious thing after taking this class. Those weirdos in Taos building earthships were right, and the rest of us need to start learning before we run out of food and water, because it seems basically impossible that the collapse of the food and water system is not just around the corner. To that end, I’ve actually already started looking at funding sources and sites for building an experimental desert farm focused on minimizing water costs and maximizing nutrient-rich crop production. Even if everything ends up being fine, the people who go to Mars are going to have to learn this; that whole planet is a desert just like this one is about to be. We’ll need to develop the tools to grow food both here and there, and we can start now.
The accomplishment that is the Black New Deal document can not be overstated. Honestly, this should have been its own unit. I feel like we glazed over it in this class, when it’s a verbose and prolific list of examples of exactly what’s wrong and exactly how to fix it. I have already started constantly citing this document, and I will continue doing that as I try to find any way I can help check off anything that’s on that list.
To that end, number four on my list is the lack of action on “almost all black students dropping all their courses when the lockdown started.” This anecdote is a textbook example of institutional racism in a class and program and university that’s ostensibly about not doing that. If antiracism at SFSU and USP is more than greenwashing, then this should not have happened. I get that it’s inconvenient to do the outreach to these students and make the concessions that are necessary for social justice to happen for our classmates, but that’s literally what this class is about. This department failed to live up to the values we learned about this semester. As I said before, I am already launching an internship research project in collaboration with CFA to investigate what happened and why and what we can do about it. This situation in our department and school is not acceptable, particularly in the context of this class literally about not doing that.
Lastly has to be the final discussion of the semester. Based on what we’ve seen and learned, is any of this working or is there any reason to think it will ever start working? The answer I heard from both the professor and the other students was a resounding “no but it makes us feel better,” and that’s what I find most frustrating about this class, and especially its inattention to intellectual laziness in many of the topics we discussed. The fact that there were so many points when we were told things like that we “should be thinking conceptually rather than practically,” or the example I raised in the previous point about nothing being done about “all the black kids dropping their classes” just makes the idea of considering a career in this field impossible. We raise so many important concerns in this class, offer conflicting or absent solutions, and “[focus on concepts rather than practical]” things like the footnote that was the Black New Deal with its list of specific, local, actionable demands that could actually be worked on today. I find this extremely frustrating, and we have to do better. If this doesn’t work then why are we doing it? If we can’t articulate possible futures using real-world, non-conceptual calls to action, specific policy recommendations, etc then why are we doing this? The cognitive dissonance and frequently self-refuting moral arguments at the core of this subject are the biggest thing I am taking away from this course.
- How has this class impacted you professionally?
I left my previous career in Software Engineering with a degree in Computer Science. My primary academic goal is to get and MBA and then start working on a PhD in Strategy. I decided I wanted to get a broad undergraduate background in social sciences on the way to my primary goal, as a way to develop a strong understanding of social problems and the way they relate to different communities in cities. In three years on a triple full time workload, I got six associate degrees in Sociology, Social Justice, Women’s Studies, Behavioral Science, Arts and Cultures, and LGBT Studies and Queer Studies. I always knew I wanted to study Urban Planning for my Bachelor, but the reason I came to San Francisco to study the topic of what’s wrong with cities is because there is nowhere in the world where problems with housing, transportation, wages, equity gaps, and institutional racism are worse. This city is the capital of doing things the wrong way, so it’s naturally the perfect place to study these social problems in depth. I’m also doing three minors along with my Bachelor: Race and Resistance Studies, Queer Ethnic Studies, and Philosophy. The purpose of all of these is to tie together a strong understanding of the way that social problems effect many different types of communities in cities.
My ultimate professional goal is to develop nonprofit solutions to social problems in cities. I’m planning to start working specifically on housing and then eventually on food as well. This class has impacted my professional development by providing many important connections between the topics I chose for my many other degrees as background for understanding the state of these communities and the problems they face. For example, the PPP/EEE concept puts the many social problems on the same level as the economic concerns of the luxury condo developers who have been erasing whole neighborhoods in the Market/Octavia district, on the same level as the collapsing biosphere, and urges that these three concerns be solved together.
Being able to articulate these problems in this way means being able to take action and make progress actually happen. This is why I have been so frustrated with the conceptual and non-practical approach to analyzing many of the topics in this class, because I’m interested in actually doing something about these problems. I think perhaps that frustration is the most valuable takeaway for my professional career, because it gives me the context to process these conflicting ideas and parse out the practical, pragmatic, possible solutions from sources like the BND or the GND in order to argue for their implementation. It’s also why I’m looking forward to the Alternative Urban Futures class which seems much more practical and less abstract.
- How has this class impacted you personally?
When I got my Sociology degree, I did an internship looking at student success gaps based on demographic permutations; how is one population doing compared to another and why? I interviewed a researcher at the time who had conducted a qualitative analysis of the success of a particular ipop (impacted population) and he said the number one indicator that a student will succeed is whether someone would miss them, whether another student knows their name and would notice if they were gone. For this reason and others, cohorts are one of the most important factors not just for success but also for resiliency.
Many undergraduate programs cohort their ipops for their core classes. For example, Latin students are placed in a cohort which uses culturally relevant texts in their English classes. The same is often true for Black students, and other ipops. This has been a major personal resiliency factor during the covid crisis. I have personally relied heavily on strong relationships with other students in the cohort, and we have leveraged tools for collaboration and mutual support like group chats, shared collaborative study guides, discords, and other things that have allowed us to succeed together in a way that we just could not without the close-knit group we have become during this crisis. I can see many of these relationships continuing long after we graduate. This difficult year has certainly been made much easier than it would have been without these relationships, not just as a student and professional but also on a personal level.
Lastly, I should assume good intent. This is something I have been working on all my life, because I can often come across much more strongly than I intend to. I’m sure there have been points in this semester or this essay when I should have dissimulated more or should have worded something more subtly, and I’m sorry for that. I recall a tense conversation about the homeless population in Berkeley in particular. Looking back, I realize that erasing the hardships of the people who have suffered so much was not the intention, and my frustration with the city’s hostility towards its citizens should be more clearly separated from the discussion in the class and the positions that were taken by those I disagreed with. Overall, it was a great semester and I would do it again. Thank you for your labor, and I look forward to working with you in the Spring.
- What was your experience taking USP 530 classes on Zoom?
I hate zoom. I hate that it is not accessible to so many people. I hate that it reinforces structural racism by excluding so many marginalized students, and also I don’t see any alternative. This year has been a nightmare and no part of it was ideal. I hope that it spurs someone somewhere to invent a better option, and I hope most of all that SFSU finds a way to offer online options to students who don’t feel able to follow the president’s demand that we start looking for jobs and apartments “starting now” in spite of the stay at home order.