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This Changes Everything: Why place is critical to confronting climate change

13 March 2015

Michael Harris

I’ve been meaning to write about Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything for a while, and have been prompted again by its publication this week in paperback after the hardback edition came out last year. The New York Times Book Review has described it as: “A book of such ambition and consequence that it is almost unreviewable …the most momentous and contentious environmental book since [Rachel Carson’s] “Silent Spring.” As you might expect for such a wide-ranging and significant work, it has some important implications for planners and planning.

Climate change is also surely one of the strongest fundamental arguments for planning – that decisions about place and how we use space can’t only be private decisions (if that were ever actually possible) because they affect us all

As the book’s subtitle (“Capitalism vs. the Climate”) indicates, Klein’s core argument is that climate change represents a fundamental challenge to our current high consumption, carbon hungry model of capitalism (hence the rise in climate denialism among the most ardent proponents of unfettered ‘free markets’). Market-based ‘solutions’ to climate change, such as trading carbon credits or big technological ‘fixes’ such as atmospheric re-engineering, are then in this argument distractions from the increasingly urgent need to re-think and restructure our economies towards lower consumption and much lower carbon emissions.

Whether you agree with this or not, most of us can acknowledge that climate change represents a (probably the) major challenge we face this century (which is of course why it was a prominent issue in our Centenary Planning Horizons series of papers published last year).

But what particularly struck me reading through the book’s rich but always readable 566 pages was the recurring importance of place in Klein’s analysis. This is apparent in numerous ways, at both global and local levels:

  • The way that climate change challenges the ‘death of distance’ assumptions inherent in high consumption globalised capitalism, for example, the reliance on hugely long carbon intensive trade linkages (most obviously China’s role as the ‘workshop of the world’), and how this has allowed western nations to effectively ‘transfer’ their carbon emissions to countries such as China;
  • Further, how this global trade system has shaped development in countries such as China, for example the rapid increase in coal-fired power stations, electrification systems and its forms of urban development generally;
  • The need for high density, energy efficient affordable housing, low carbon public transportation systems, land management that discourages sprawl, pedestrian and bike-friendly cities, accessible local public services and amenities, local community-controlled renewable energy generation, and so on;
  • From this, how local policy- and decision-making is crucial to the transition to a low carbon society;
  • How the Transition Towns movement, which started in Totnes in Devon, offers a model of local economic and environmental sustainability, as well as community engagement (something I'll return to later on).

Climate change is also surely one of the strongest fundamental arguments for planning – that decisions about place and how we use space can’t only be private decisions (if that were ever actually possible) because they affect us all, and that uncoordinated markets on their own can’t produce the economic, social and environmental outcomes that we want and need, including most crucially for our collective health and wellbeing. But as Klein notes, this can’t and shouldn’t be confused with various twentieth century attempts at 'central planning' (in the sense of Soviet-style command-and-control economies), which were often much more environmentally destructive than western capitalist societies.

Rather, in discussing the need for more localised energy, water, food production and transportation systems, Klein argues that:

“[The] relationship between power decentralisation and successful climate action points to how the planning required by this moment differs markedly from the more centralized versions of the past. …There is a clear and essential role for national plans and policies …Some programs [sic], like national energy grids and effective rail services, must be planned, at least in part, at the national level. But if these transitions are to happen as quickly as required, then the best way to win widespread buy-in is for the actual implementation of a great many of the plans to be as decentralized as possible.”

There are important implications here for localism and neighbourhood planning, alongside national and city-regional devolved decision-making. Of course, it’s at this point that pessimists (or realists) will express their doubts that we will take the necessary steps – that people are so invested in and attached to the current model of choice and consumerism that they (we) won’t change our ways, and that politicians, subject to the short-term demands of winning elections, won’t be inclined to ask them to. Further, isn’t localism more often a barrier to the changes we need to introduce, for example, renewable energies?

But again, Klein suggests that place could play a crucial, positive role here. She notes that not only are many of the practical solutions essentially local, as already noted, but so are the reasons why people take action. Discussing in particular the anti-fracking protests and campaigns that have sprung up in many countries, Klein notes that what motivates communities to organise is not some abstract notion of ‘environmental sustainability’, but rather that people want a say in what happens in their towns and villages – that they care about their immediate environment and don’t take kindly to being told that they have no power to decide how local land (sometimes their own land) is used. Moreover, such protests often develop from being against something (fracking near their homes), to being for more sustainable and environmentally sensitive alternatives, for example local renewable energy schemes or the community ownership of natural resources.

It makes sense then, as Klein describes powerfully in her book, that it's often been indigenous groups (for example, First Nations communities in Canada and the US) who have been at the forefront of these protests, since historically and culturally these groups typically have a closer attachment to land and place than non-indigenous peoples. Nonetheless, what these campaigns also suggest is that, whoever we are, most of us have a deep need for attachment to place, however latent this might be, and that this attachment is universal. Equally universal, it should be said, are many of the impacts of environmental degredation (for example, as Klein notes, urban pollution in China affects everyone irrespective of their wealth and class, which is why it has become such a major political issue in the country).

Of course, it was the desire to make places more hospitable for all – cleaner and healthier in particular – that spurred the development of professional planning in the first place. Klein notes that Britain, as the nation that invented the coal-fired steam engine, has been emitting industrial levels of carbon for longer than any other nation on earth. In recognition of this, of the need to take urgent action, and our history of rising to challenges, wouldn’t it now be fitting if we took a leading role in the transition to the post-carbon economy and society as well?

About Michael Harris

Dr Michael Harris is Deputy Head of Policy and Research at the Royal Town Planning Institute, where he leads on the RTPI’s research activities. Previously he was a senior associate at the new economics foundation (nef) think tank, and Director of Public and Social Innovation at Nesta (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts). He has also worked in local government and academia. Michael has an on-going interest in localism, health and wellbeing, and community engagement.