Eco-Modernism, Meet Opportunity Urbanism

California statehouse.jpg

California has always been friendly ground for new ideas and bold proposals. That was a good thing when California’s economic and social policies encouraged middle-class opportunity, entrepreneurship, and social mobility, way back in the 1960s. But the contemporary California political elite tends to pioneer policies that endanger the spirit of opportunity that once made California great.

Fortunately, some alternative ways of thinking are emerging. An environmental policy think-tank in Oakland called The Breakthrough Institute has been pioneering a new, pro-growth environmentalism called Eco-Modernism, premised on the idea of technological decoupling. That is, it is based on the principle that by intensifying the use of resources, human needs could be met with far less material. If technologies that do more with less were to be developed, more of the environment would be allowed to flourish independent of human exploitation.

The Eco-Modernist’s answer to a problem as vast as climate change would not be to reduce emissions through cap-and-trade schemes or to put limits on the use of fossil fuels. Instead, Eco-Modernists would encourage investments in next-generation technologies capable of replacing fossil fuels. Hydroelectric and nuclear facilities have been providing such clean, carbon-free energy for decades. Eco-Modernists support government-funded construction of nuclear plants and hydroelectric systems to reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change while providing affordable energy. Technological advancement and government investment can both promote prosperity and save the environment, if used properly.

Meanwhile, a Houston-based think-tank, the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, (directed by New Geography's Southern California-based Executive Editor, Joel Kotkin, where I am a research associate) has been suggesting that urban planning and macroeconomic policy ought to be conducted with the goal of expanding opportunities for social mobility and a middle-class lifestyle. The center favors policies that maximize the availability of work and minimize the cost of living. In practice, this means promoting business and development-friendly tax, regulatory, and zoning codes, and investments in effective public infrastructure and education. The goals include removing unreasonable land and energy regulations that drive up the cost of housing and utilities, and investment in quality public education and in infrastructure.

These two philosophies offer compelling, positive alternatives to the reigning green-and-blue consensus. Their shared goal: a wealthy, high-tech society, replete with opportunities for upward mobility, leaving little environmental impact. A meld of Eco-Modernism and Opportunity Urbanism could provide a thoughtful, compelling alternative to the California’s current orthodoxy; a path that would neither stifle economic growth, nor be uncaring towards the environment or the working class.
There are at least two policy areas where the philosophies conflict, however, and if such a synthesis were to become viable, these differences would need to be addressed.

Eco-Modernism doesn't particularly support suburban sprawl, because it takes up more land than dense urban cores, while Opportunity Urbanism strongly encourages suburb formation. And Opportunity Urbanists support fossil fuel use for the indefinite future to provide cheap energy, while Eco-Modernists seek a gradual phasing-out of fossil fuels, and their replacement with nuclear energy.

There’s a fairly straightforward policy compromise evident here. Eco-Modernists ought to accept suburban sprawl as important to economic growth and opportunity, and recognize that human housing needs take up comparatively little land. Opportunity Urbanists, for their part, should accept that nuclear energy can provide more sustainable and lasting energy than fossil fuels, and that a more nuclearized power system would be healthier, provide cheaper energy, and would generally provide a better quality of life for more people than fossil fuels ever could.

If Eco-Modernists gave up their hostility to suburbia they would gain a zero-carbon nuclear platform, while Opportunity Urbanists that gave up on fossil fuels would retain an opportunity society with more advanced energy technology.

Aside from this great compromise, Eco-Modernism and Opportunity Urbanism could complement each other very well. Intensive government investments in infrastructure, technology, and education drive the economy; market principles and expanded economic opportunity distribute its fruits. This strong-government/ market-based synthesis begins to resemble the economic philosophy of Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln, that old Whig tradition that has unfortunately left us for the time being. Perhaps these new ideas will resurrect it.

What better state to articulate new philosophies and a new synthesis based on innovation and opportunity, and put it into practice? California has always been about creating something new, and giving individuals the chance to create themselves anew. The state’s policy should reflect the state’s character. But two recent stories illustrate the lunacy that our political class substitutes for good policy.

In September, a whole raft of Governor Jerry Brown’s anti-climate change legislation was soundly defeated. The boldest of these proposals called for a 50 percent cut in petroleum usage statewide by 2030 (amended later to 2050). The agenda was clear: bring California’s carbon emissions down to lead the fight against climate change through the force of example. An earlier drama occurred in June, when the Los Angeles City Council passed, nearly unanimously, a resolution to raise L.A.’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by the year 2020. Almost immediately, the move was condemned by business leaders and policy wonks across the state and nation on the grounds that it would raise the cost of doing business and drive industries out.

This heavy-handed regulatory mode of problem-solving — a crucial component of what commentator Walter Russell Mead calls the “Blue Model” — dominates areas of California policy from water quality to food prices to pensions.

The Republican alternative isn’t much better. Out of power and lost in the wilderness since the follies of the Pete Wilson administration, California Republicans typically unload pseudo-Reaganite market-based ideas when asked significant policy questions. In the above two cases, their solutions would be don’t put restrictions on carbon emissions, and don’t raise the minimum wage. But the problems still would not be fixed.

New ideas need to be out there in response. Perhaps it's time for Eco-Modernists and Opportunity Urbanists to enter into a dialogue and establish a common policy agenda for the Golden State. The dominant Democratic Party and the floundering Republicans don’t have these ideas. Someone needs to show them the way.

Luke Phillips is a student studying International Relations at the University of Southern California. He has written for the magazine The American Interest and is a research associate at the Center for Opportunity Urbanism.

Flickr photo by Jim Bowen: Sacramento, the California Statehouse.