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Rooted in Green: Public discourse is key to maintaining environmental resources for the future, professor says

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If you’ve ever lived in Austin, Texas, you’re familiar with the phrase “Keep Austin Weird.” If you’ve visited the city, you’ve undoubtedly seen those words displayed in psychedelic colors across bumper stickers and ball caps or on tattooed biceps and triceps.

What is sustainability?

“Meeting our current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”

—Brundtland Commission

It’s a place where techno geeks and Armani-suited legislators, doctorate-driven students and Willie Nelson look-a-likes sip their Starbucks coffee while philosophizing over the Marxist sway of the Beatles. Or where the same group might be found standing in one of the city’s many postage stamp-sized music venues, soaking up tunes by groups with names like Greezy Wheels and Band of Heathens.

It’s a laissez-faire attitude that makes Austin weird. And that mindset has helped propel Austin recently to numerous national Top 10 lists dedicated to sustainability and green living. For example:

  • The Green Guide recently ranked Austin as the nation’s #2 Top Green City. Austin was noted for its commitment to solar power and green building, offering its customers one of the highest solar power rebates in the country. The ranking was based on air quality, electricity use and production, environmental perspective, environmental policy, green design, green space, public health, recycling, socioeconomic factors, transportation and water quality.
  • The U.S. Department of Energy ranked Austin Energy’s top-selling renewable energy power program as #1 in the nation for the fifth straight year. About six percent of Austin Energy’s power comes from renewable sources such as wind, solar and biogas (methane gas used as fuel).
  • SustainLane, a green media company, ranked Austin #1 in the country in clean technology and #6 in use of renewable energy such as solar, wind and hydro electricity. A partnership between Austin Energy and The University of Texas at Austin’s Clean Energy Incubator promotes companies involved in incubating everything from Internet-controlled irrigation to wind and geothermal energy technologies.

Unless you’re a news neophyte you are, perhaps reluctantly, familiar with words and phrases such as sustainability, global warming, green building and envirosystems. If not, grab the nearest newspaper or turn on your TV. Check out the headlines. You can’t miss it.

While the terminologies are relatively new to mainstream conversation, the principles behind them are centuries old around the globe and decades old in the U.S. and in the aforementioned Texas Hill Country oasis situated between Dallas and San Antonio.

Steven A. Moore
Steven A. Moore is the Bartlett Cocke Professor of Architecture and Planning. His latest book, “Alternative Routes to the Sustainable City: Austin, Curitiba and Frankfurt” (Lexington Books), was published in fall 2006.

“Public discourse about the environment and our resources began to truly take form in Austin back in the ’60s,” said Steven A. Moore, co-director of the Center for Sustainable Development at The University of Texas at Austin. “There was a proposed nuclear plant which began a public debate that galvanized citizens to look at environmental issues.

“However, if you look back at the city’s history, the belief in a healthy and environment-friendly city existed way before that. People living in the city had already, for a very long time, been having conscious conversations about quality of life in Austin. In the ’30s, there was the Works Progress Administration. In the ’40s, the dam system was built, creating beautiful lakes. Austin, very early on, developed a reputation for being a good place to live.”

According to Moore, in 1947 the Austin Chamber of Commerce, chaired by C.B. Smith, hired a consultant from New York City, Richard Wood, to transform the city’s image and to give the economy a boost. Although Austin had the reputation of being a good place to live, it was devoid of the economic refinement of her affluent sisters, Dallas and Houston. The chamber members felt the city needed to raise its stature. And they were determined to find out what Austin needed to propel itself to compete in the major leagues of economic development.

Wood provided chamber members with an answer, albeit, not necessarily the answer they expected to hear.

The difference, he said, was that Austin was lacking in manufacturing and industry.

Unlike Dallas and Houston, whose economies were based largely on industries such as gas, oil and agriculture, Austin was a community of professors, bureaucrats and hippies. Although they were an entertaining and even engaging group, they weren’t going to help tip the scales on the city’s quest to join the ranks of the rich and famous.

Austin Energy and The University of Texas at Austin’s Clean Energy Incubator host the first Clean Energy Venture Summit, May 14-16, at the Hyatt Regency Austin.

The summit brings together clean energy entrepreneurs, potential investors, experts from Austin Energy, and industry and government leaders, to help promote the advancement of clean energy technologies and markets.

Even though the lack of manufacturing was hindering the socio-economic impact of the city, Wood told council members he couldn’t support bringing heavy industry into Austin because of the environmental pollution that would accompany it.

Wood noted that the city was, at the time, a great place to live with no pollution, no dirty streets and few transportation problems—issues that manufacturing would deliver to Austin on a huge smoke-stained platter. His recommendation to the council was that if they chose to entice any manufacturing, it should be clean industry.

Fast forward a couple of decades.

Now we know why all those techno geeks are in Austin and why the city has just been voted the nation’s top U.S. city for clean technology.

But Moore knew that Austin’s history wasn’t the sole factor contributing to the green city phenomenon. He was interested in a more pragmatic approach to the question of why some cities are more committed to sustainability than others. Subsequently, he spent six years studying and comparing the similarities between Austin and two other cities known for stellar sustainable practices: Frankfurt, Germany and Curitiba, Brazil. He began his research with the preconceived notion that sustainability and democracy go hand in hand. In studying the three cities, he learned that sustainability and democracy were closely intertwined—just not in the way he had envisioned.

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s mission is “to increase the sustainable use and conservation of native wildflowers, plants and landscapes.”

The center’s numerous research projects affect sustainable practices not only on a local, but a national scale.

Watch a video on 'Sustainability 101'video icon WATCH A VIDEO on “Sustainability 101” (opens in a new window).

“Sustainability 101” video running time—8:29.

“Before I visited Brazil, I believed democracy was a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for sustainability to emerge,” said Moore. “Then I visited Curitiba, which is one of the most sustainable cities in the world and found that the mayor of the city was put into power by a military junta and that sustainability basically came at the point of a gun.

“What I began to realize is that these three cities were a good match for the three ‘historical dispositions’ of democracy identified by political philosopher Benjamin Barber. And given such different histories, let alone ecosystems, it is unlikely that they would travel the same path to sustainability.”

Moore describes the Curitiba political structure as a “top down” democracy—an elitist form of government that is consistent with the Brazilian idea of democracy. He describes the Frankfurt political system as a “socially cohesive” form of democracy where citizens are very much involved in the political spectrum. And he summarizes the Austin political structure as an “anarchist form of democracy,” where autonomy is valued above all else.

Although he still believes democracy and sustainability are innately intertwined, Moore says the various forms of democracy that exist are not as important as the political dispositions of a community’s citizens. In all three cities he studied, the people were very much involved in public discourse about political, environmental and technological conditions. Conversations about sustainability began long before the word even existed. And regardless of whether it was at the point or a gun or at their own behest, citizens were talking.

“People talk about what is meaningful to them,” said Moore. “In Austin, we talk a lot about water. I’m from Maine— another democratic state—and we talked about forestry and agriculture.

Austin Energy hosts one-day workshops that teach residents how to reduce utility bills, develop low-maintenance landscapes, choose energy-efficient appliances and choose environment-friendly designers and builders. Find information about upcoming workshops at Green By Design.

“It’s the conversations that matter. It’s HAVING the conversations that matter. When enough people talk, change occurs.”

Although Americans, and Texans in particular, value personal freedoms above all else (reinforcing Moore’s idea of the anarchist democracy), change is not always easy. It often requires social conflict and a reassessment of values and (often perceived) sacrifice.

“Years ago,” Moore said, “buildings only had one way out and when they caught fire, people died. It was decided that buildings should have at least two doors—allowing for more fluid movement—so that people could enter and leave a building more quickly. Architects and builders argued that the practice would cost far too much and that the new regulation would put them out of business. It didn’t. It’s saved countless numbers of lives. We, as a population, decided that people shouldn’t get trapped and die in burning buildings. It was a political choice that affected society as a whole.”

Citizens have made choices about how they want to live and what is considered acceptable in society. And the issues they face due to global warming and limited and/or disappearing resources will require making choices.

Get more information on what The University of Texas at Austin and the city of Austin are doing to promote sustainability.

Check out a list of books to learn more about sustainability.

“People believe that society is within the larger realm of the economy,” said Moore. “But it’s not. The economy lies within the bigger realm of society. And society lies within an even larger realm that is our ecosystem. We cannot have a healthy society and a healthy economy unless we have a healthy ecosystem.”

You can disagree with the politics, the sciences, the moral implications and/or the economics behind global warming and the push for sustainable living. But skepticism isn’t an excuse for ignorance. Regardless of your views, it’s a fact our planet has limited resources. And it’s also a fact that at this time it’s the only planet that can sustain human life.

Many Austinites are committed to keeping Austin weird, but even more are focused on maintaining an environment that will ensure a healthful and sustainable future for generations to come.

BY Amy Maverick Crossette

PHOTO of Dr. Moore: Christina Murrey

VIDEO produced by Christopher Palmer and Mason Jones

MUSIC for video: Tim Kerr

BANNER PHOTO: Philip Hawkins

ON THE BANNER: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s
green roof demonstration project
at Starbucks Coffee at Circle C Ranch

How is The University of Texas at Austin promoting sustainability? How is the city of Austin promoting sustainability? Books on sustainability:
  1. “Alternative Routes to the Sustainable City,” Steven A. Moore
  2. “Cradle To Cradle,” William McDonough and Michael Braumgart
  3. “Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution,” Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins
  4. “Local Politics of Global Sustainability,” Thomas Prugh, Robert Costanza and Herman Daly
  5. “Design on the Edge,” David W. Orr

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  Updated 18 December 2007
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