Are livable cities just a dream?

[The following talk was presented at the Climate Change | Social Change Conference in Sydney, April 2008.]

When one sees a modern city from the air, especially at night, it is a truly awe-inspiring spectacle. What always strikes me is the immensity of the project, a testimony to the power and creativity of human beings. However, on the ground and actually living and working in this wonder, things are quite different and the social and ecological problems crowd in and fill one's view.

The truth is that our cities have always been dominated by the rich and powerful and built and operated to serve their needs — not those of the mass of working people who live and toil in them.

Problems of urban life

And today the destructive effect on the quality of urban life of the capitalist pursuit of profits before anything else is growing alarmingly. Here is a short and far-from-complete list:

1. Modern capitalist cities are absolutely dominated by cars and the trucks. This leads to massive, life-threatening pollution and a vast network of roads and car parks which scars the urban landscape. People live on islands surrounded by seas of asphalt and concrete — 40% or more of the city surface is asphalt and concrete. The city creates its own, warmer climate.

2. Motor vehicles also directly kill and maim large numbers of people each year; still greater numbers die from the pollution. Vehicle emissions are also a major contributor to greenhouse gases and the climate change which threatens the human race with utter catastrophe.

3. The corollary of this is that public transport systems are weak and take second place to the motor car. Similarly, the great bulk of freight is carried by trucks not rail.

4. Developers aided by governments have created the appalling urban sprawl with all its ecological and social consequences (erosion of farmland, huge distances between home and work, etc., etc.). The word "developers", of course, is an appalling euphemism — capitalist sharks would be a more accurate description.

And now, in the name of urban consolidation, these same developers are being encouraged to build their often crappy blocks of units anywhere and everywhere. In Melbourne this has led to a great deal of angst in the suburbs. And one result is no better than the other.

5. Then let's look at what the developers actually construct. Modern houses and buildings are generally not only hard to maintain but ecologically wasteful and often extremely unhealthy (emissions from building materials, plastics and cleaning agents). They could be designed differently — we could easily have ecologically sensible houses instead of the current extremely wasteful "McMansions" favoured by the building industry.

6. In the cities, public land — modest though it is — is constantly being alienated by greedy developers in league with councils and city and state governments.

7. Not only are house prices soaring beyond the reach of most workers, but homelessness is growing sharply (estimated to be over 100,000 nationally) as governments refuse to build public housing and rely on the market to solve everything (preferring to give subsidies to people to rent from private landlords).

8. Shopping centres (malls and supermarkets) dominate much of city life. They kill most of the neighbourhood shops and force people to rely on cars to do their shopping. But these juggernauts are purely the result of the capitalist thirst for profit — they appear before us as facts of life; people never get to discuss what is really needed. Moreover, the ubiquitous shopping mall represents a serious privatisation of social space — we all have to use them and they thus fulfil a social function but access and control is wholly in the hands of the private owners.

9. And as the supermarkets and malls kill off many of the neighbourhood shops, their place is taken by chain outlets (7-11, Coles Express, petrol station shops) all offering emergency supplies — at much higher prices.

10. Within the city we have the hypertrophy — a monstrous swelling — of the city centre (full of truly ugly buildings all jostling for position) and the bleak wasteland of the sprawling suburbs.

11. In the sixties, "decentralisation" was a buzzword. Governments encouraged a modest movement of services and industry to regional centres. But today country towns and villages are dying as governments cut services and jobs and banks close branches. This has a multiplier effect. People move to the city (or at least to the big regional centres) and the rural crisis intensifies.

12. There is a movement back to some regional centres but — under the wonderful capitalist system we have — it becomes ghastly caricature of what is really needed. The rich and middle classes build holiday homes in coastal towns forcing up prices and making life impossible for ordinary people (working-class pensioners and renters) who have to move elsewhere.

Peak oil and climate change

On top of the all the above, as the concept of peak oil and the eventual end of this finite resource laid down over millions of years gains currency, the fragility of the modern city is suddenly laid bare. The movie The End of Suburbia demonstrates very well how the American suburbs have been built on the automobile. If the motor vehicle as we know it goes — i.e., can no longer serve as mode of mass transport — then the urban sprawl becomes even more untenable and an alternative way of living becomes desperately urgent.

Similarly, climate change has put a big question mark over the modern city. Effecting a drastic and rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is a life-and-death question.

In Australia, perhaps the most dramatic manifestation of climate change for the cities is the question mark over water supplies. Achieving water security and sustainability is a burning issue. To date, the main response of state and federal governments has been to go for big-budget projects (in Victoria, a desalination plant and a diversion pipeline to take scarce water from the equally drought-affected Murray-Goulburn irrigation area in the north).

Arguably, such responses do not address the real problem and will actually make it worse. (For instance, Victoria’s projected desalination plant will be a major emitter of greenhouse gases.)

All in all, climate change calls into question so many aspects of our current urban existence.

1. The motor vehicle culture which big business has foisted on us is no longer viable (if it ever was). If declining fuel supplies and ever-more-expensive petrol costs don't kill it off, surely climate change will. Public transport systems will have to be developed to replace it.

2. The urban sprawl especially characteristic of Australian capital cities — which compels people to travel vast distances to get to work — will have to give way to some form of consolidation. The hypertrophy of the city centre and the bleakness of much of the suburbs needs to be overcome. A much better spread of jobs would mean that people didn't have to travel vast differences to work.

In my opinion, over time the fetish of the ¼-acre block — the equivalent of every family owning its own car — would start to ease and eventually disappear as people realised that denser living with radically improved public amenities (parks, transport, services) had a lot to offer (c.f. some European cities).

3. As currently constructed, our houses and buildings embody huge amounts of water and energy and considerable greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, their actual operation is characterised by a high and unsustainable energy and water consumption.

4. Climate change will put our food supply under extreme pressure. What foods we eat, how they are transported and distributed will become burning questions. As well as finding ways to guarantee our food security, reducing the water and energy consumed in the whole process will be vitally important.

5. We need a much more uniform distribution of the population over the countryside. At the very least, the cities must get smaller and the country towns grow. But, unlike what is happening today, this needs to be done in such a way that jobs and services move out also, transport access is maintained and actual living communities are created. In time, the traditional isolation of the countryside would disappear along with the swollen capital city with its bloated centre.

In this regard socialists reject the current developer-driven model whereby greenfields housing estates gobble up precious farmland and create McMansions-style ghettos on the fringes of the city, isolated and with few amenities, a trap for housewives and the elderly and a terrific burden for those who have travel vast distances to work. We can surely work out something much better.

Abandon affluence?

As an aside, Ted Trainer, in his noted 1985 book Abandon Affluence, had a lot to say on the modern city. But his non-Marxist, radical green framework marred a lot of the useful points he made.

He saw "overconsumption" by the West as the source of the global ecological crisis. In his book he bases everything on reducing consumption.

Marxists, of course, see the fundamental problem not as "overconsumption" but the capitalist drive for profits ahead of all else; achieving a relative material abundance is essential if humanity is to leave class conflict behind and achieve full communism. With modern technology, it would be quite possible to achieve relative material abundance and — by improving production processes and eliminating the wastefulness of capitalist production and society — at the same time actually reduce our ecological footprint massively.

One can say generally that the West consumes too many resources but this obscures the reality that these are class-divided societies and a large proportion of the population doesn't consume very much at all. For example, in the United States there is a huge internal Third World which radically underconsumes the necessities of life. They are not responsible in any way for the profligacy of the US — that should be sheeted home squarely to the ruling capitalist plutocracy.

While we oppose the wasteful use of resources and while we too are opposed to capitalist consumerism, posing the problem in terms of reducing consumption as such is wrong and would be political suicide for the socialist movement. For instance, supermarkets, for all their capitalistic form, are actually a tremendous labour- and time-saving convenience. The liberation of women and the whole working class has many aspects; a key one is reducing drudgery to the minimum. We want to go forwards from capitalism, not backwards.

Ted Trainer’s city of the future has a very definite reactionary, feudal, labor-intensive feel to it, but even allowing for this rather basic weakness, he does paint a thought-provoking picture of the new city, with the old freeways and roads dug up, with vegetable gardens where the factories once stood, etc.

Monstrous beast in the room

Making our cities livable and grappling with peak oil, climate change and sustainability are really one and the same thing.

Ideally, we would have a big discussion, develop a rational plan and then organise ourselves to implement it. If we were, say, a small community living in ancient times before the development of class society, that is exactly what we would have done.

But today, the problem is not that the population has grown but that the economy on which we all depend — the productive apparatus and everything associated with it — is not owned collectively by society but by a tiny handful of capitalists. Working people’s labour operates the means of production — in that sense it is social — but a few per cent of the population privately own it.

This is the monstrous, slavering beast in the room. At every turn of the wheel it has to be fed. Its ravenous appetite must be satisfied ahead of any human need. What it wants — profits and ever more profits — is not what the rest of us want — i.e., meaningful action on climate change and other social problems.

For example, look at what is happening in Victoria right now. The big-business-oriented Brumby ALP government is moving at high speed in the opposite direction to what is needed to confront peak oil and climate change:

1. Rather than a massive program of fitting all dwellings with water tanks and recycling systems, imposing conservation targets on industry and agribusiness, and establishing the infrastructure for large-scale stormwater capture, it has signed off on the desalination plant and the northern pipeline — bonanzas for big business but a disaster for the rest of us. Water bills for ordinary households are projected to double within five years.

2. Rather than a program to phase out our disastrous dependence on brown coal and make the switch to renewable energy, the ALP government is intent on pursuing the mirage of "clean coal" technology. (As someone said, this will turn the Earth into a giant soda fountain.) Power prices are also set to double for ordinary users over the next few years.

3. It refuses to put the necessary resources into public transport which exists in absolutely infuriating and permanent crisis; instead its program is roads, more roads and still more roads. Now it is inching towards a truly insane monster road tunnel under Melbourne's general cemetery. Not even the dead are to be left to rest in peace!

4. It is going ahead with a radical dredging of Port Phillip Bay which, among other things, threatens to lead to the flooding of low-lying suburbs at high tide. And all this is so that bigger ships — laden with yet more consumerist crap — can transit the bay.

5. It has given the go-ahead to GM canola. Brumby's utterly ludicrous comment was that this was giving the consumer "choice"! The consumers don’t want this sort of fake "choice" — they want safe foods. GM was given the green light to give a profit bonanza to Monsanto and a few big exporters; the rest of us will pay the price (an increase in allergies and who knows what other long-term health damage).

Public ownership and planning

In order to grapple with the crisis of climate change we need a total mobilisation of society and a drastic and rapid reorientation of our entire economy. But to imagine that anything can compel a horde of profit-crazed corporations to be "responsible" is utterly fanciful. The commanding heights of the economy must be in public hands.

1. Socialists call for the nationalisation of the entire energy sector (coal, oil, gas, the power stations and distribution systems, wind farms, etc.). This vital infrastructure must belong to the community — whether it is in federal, state or municipal hands. The charter of this sector must be to phase out the fossil fuel power plants and make the "big switch" to renewable energy as quickly as possible.

2. The public transport and freight systems must also be in public hands. The aim must be to achieve a drastic and rapid reduction in the use of motor vehicles. The roads should be kept safe; apart from that, massive investments must be poured into rail, trams and feeder bus systems.

3. The automobile industry should likewise be nationalised. The car plants should be retooled to produce public transport stock and renewable power equipment.

4. As the crisis of climate change bites deeper, food security will become a big issue for society. We can't leave the bulk of the distribution system in the hands of profit-gouging supermarket chains like Coles and Woolworths, that exploit small suppliers and consumers alike. They too should be brought under public ownership.

5. The banks, which underpin the capitalist economy, should be nationalised and a single state bank created. This would guarantee bank workers jobs, provide services and generate funds for the reconstruction of the economy.

Economic planning based on public ownership of the means of production has tremendous power. Here is just one example.

In 1967 Isaac Deutscher, the renowned biographer of Trotsky, published The Unfinished Revolution, his well-known study of the Soviet Union. He pointed out that if you allowed for all the years the USSR took to simply get back to pre-war levels of production (following the World War I and the Civil War and then World War II), then in the equivalent of a mere 25 peaceful years — from a very low base — it had created the second most powerful industrial economy in the world.

Put aside Stalinist bureaucratism and repression, the deliberate neglect of consumer needs in favour of heavy industry, and the damage to the environment — this example nevertheless shows the enormous power of collective labour, once it is freed from the shackles of capitalism and allocated according to a conscious plan.

Fight for the future

Of course, the capitalist class has immense power and wealth and will not give it up without a tremendous struggle. Only the growth of a vast popular movement, solidly based on the great working-class majority, can succeed here. The development of a movement to fight for meaningful action on climate change will at the same time prepare the political conditions for a workers government which will finally bring the economy under collective ownership and control.

This — and only this — will enable us to begin to construct a society based on the fulfilment of human needs and living sustainably in harmony with nature.