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Welcome!

Thanks for stopping by.   I treat this blog like a sketchbook where I can try out ideas.  Scroll down to see the possibilities.  

Here are links to some of the writing I’ve done over the last couple of years:

Landscape Architecture and the Green New Deal 

Post Carbon Landscape Architecture

Landscape Architecture and the Zero Generation

Climate Science Demands A Post Carbon Landscape Architecture

In The Climate Crisis, A Vision of Shade Cities

The Climate Report That Changes Everything for Landscape Architecture

Can We Get To Zero? Landscape Architecture Magazine

The Most Important Chart for the Future of Landscape Architecture

Pretty is not Beautiful: Reflections on Becoming and Landscape Architect 2ndedition 

Zero Emissions Means The End Of Concrete: What In The Hell Will We Do?

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© Steve Austin (used with permission)

By Steve Austin, JD | ASLA | Clinical Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, Washington State University

The enormous carbon emissions associated with concrete are now forcing us to reckon with our urban future.  For 100 years we have used concrete to reshape the planet to suit the immediate needs of rapid urbanization.  Its use is so prevalent that it is, after water, the second most used substance on earth.  Concrete is so ubiquitous that it also seems that our imaginations have been encased in it as well, for few can imagine life without it.   Yet we must, because concrete is incompatible with the zero emission era. 

Over the last 100 years global urban population rose from under 10% to over 56%.  It is projected to grow to nearly 70% of humanity by 2050.  In the past, concrete was like magic in accommodating this explosive urban growth; there was almost nothing it couldn’t do. It is not an overstatement to say that concrete made the modern world. Without concrete, there would be few significant bridges, dams, large buildings, storm drainage, floodwalls, ports, and so much else.  As Jonathan Watts has written in The Guardian, concrete puts “roofs over the heads of billions, fortifying our defenses against natural disaster and providing a structure for healthcare, education, transport, energy and industry.”

But this has come at a great climate cost.  If cement – concrete’s prime ingredient – production were a country, it would be the world’s third largest CO2 emitter after China and the U.S., accounting for as much as 8% of annual global emissions.  There is no way for this number to improve much and it certainly cannot get to zero.  While there are some tweaks to lower emission intensity, cement cannot be made without carbon emissions. There is nothing– no technology, new material, or chemistry – that will miraculously appear and enable us to replace anywhere near the amount of concrete we use today. 

Cement emissions must end because the climate crisis is rapidly accelerating.  An April 2020 study found that, without massive changes to our current emissions trajectory, 2°C of global warming is likely to be reached sometime around 2040. According to climate scientist Joëlle Gergis, “the implications of this are unimaginable – we may witness planetary collapse far sooner than we once thought.”  Climate science is absolutely clear as to how to avoid this fate:  we must end all CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, land use change, ruminant animals and cement.  And further, we must rapidly draw down excess CO2 in the atmosphere.    

Obviously, we have a significant conundrum.  

Our civilization can decide that we cannot live without the benefits that concrete confers and that the devastating impacts of increasing global heating might be ameliorated Continue reading “Zero Emissions Means The End Of Concrete: What In The Hell Will We Do?”

Landscape Architecture Education 2020: Between Two Worlds

© Steve Austin (used with permission)

By Steve Austin, JD | ASLA | Clinical Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, Washington State University

For over 30 years in various capacities, I have taught the profession and craft of landscape architecture to university students.   Sharing my love and passion for landscape architecture with students has been one of the great joys of my life. The academic, professional, and community recognition they have received for their individual and team work gives me great personal satisfaction.  Yet with all this, I now wonder if I am adequately preparing my students for their future. 

Our current students will face challenges unlike any faced by previous generations. Anthropogenic destruction of life and life-support systems has pushed the planet into an ecological emergency.  Mass extinctions are accelerating.  Human encroachment into the last wild places has given us the global pandemic.  And from the ecological emergency arise social emergencies. The botched US response to that pandemic coupled with an already wildly unequal economy is likely to have created a depression that could last a decade.  At the same time, the protectors and purveyors of systemic racism in the US seem hell bent on ensuring the country disintegrates into violence and hatred rather than see any challenge to White rule for the benefit of corporations. 

Oh, almost forgot: 2020 is trending toward being the hottest year in recorded history, following the hottest decade in recorded history. Global heating has already triggered 9 of the 15 known tipping points of the planetary regulating system, potentially leading to a cascade of unstoppable, devastating climactic events. 

These could destabilize living conditions over large swaths of the planet, causing immense human suffering and likely leading to sustained global military conflict over the coming decades. Leading climate scientists recently published a paper in the journal Nature which concluded that “this is an existential threat to civilization.”

So yeah, today’s students got all that going for them, which is not nice. 

How are we addressing this as landscape architecture educators?  

While much of landscape architectural education is timeless, I fear it is not evolving as urgently as the emergency demands.  Much of today’s curriculum would be recognized by students of 50 years ago or longer and is suited for a planet and society that no longer exists.  The Anthropocene is not just another issue to address, rather it is a new era that requires new responses.   Continue reading “Landscape Architecture Education 2020: Between Two Worlds”

“Low Carbon” is still carbon: calling out mitigation denial

By Steve Austin, JD | ASLA Clinical Asst. Professor, Washington State University @postcarbonsteve

Is it possible to fully acknowledge the climate crisis and its human causation and still be reluctant to embrace what science says is the solution? Many climate leaders exhibit the symptoms of this condition, described by climate scientist Kevin Anderson as “mitigation denial.”  Mitigation denial is evident in those who otherwise would never deny the reality of the crisis, but yet are not ready to accept the blindingly obvious answer: completely eliminating fossil fuels.  This is possible because “we fear the solutions more than the impacts,” says climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe.  Anderson claims mitigation denial is “far more dangerous” than the denial of climate science. 

Mitigation denial is demonstrated by the emerging ubiquity of the term “low carbon.” (“Net zero” is another prominent one, but that’s for another time.) “Low carbon” implies that there is a way out of the crisis that includes fossil fueled carbon emissions, but just less than the current trajectory.  Examples abound of the term’s use, sounding similar to this podcast invitation:  “We’ll discuss the path to rebuild our cities and state in beautiful, imaginative, low-carbon ways.”  

In all this, “low carbon” is never defined, much less how it is to be achieved.  Instead, well-meaning folks share visions of a future that looks lot like an idealized present, where nothing needs to fundamentally change.  Essentially, the term “low carbon” signifies wishful thinking: “yes there is a problem, but we can get out of it by using somewhat less of the thing that got us into this problem and then we’ll all be better off.” 

Landscape Architecture and the Green New Deal

Image © Steve Austin. Used with permission.

By Steve Austin, JD | ASLA | Clinical Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, Washington State University

Overview 

As we enter into a new decade, humanity, and thus by extension, landscape architecture, is at a critical point.  We face unprecedented enormous and wicked ecological predicaments including rapid loss of biodiversity, increasing pollution, diminishing resources, mass extinctions and most immediately, the climate crisis.  To address, and hopefully end, the dreadful impacts of our destructive patterns, people around the world have begun formulating plans under “Green New Deal” banners.  As the predicaments we face are systemic and intertwined with land and people – landscape architecture’s essence – it is vital that landscape architects should be supporters and participants in framing the evolution of these Green New Deal plans. 

Continue reading “Landscape Architecture and the Green New Deal”

Elizabeth Kolbert outlines the real Inconvenient Truth

This is from a review (from 5 years ago) of Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything: Capitalism v. The Climate” in the New York Review of Books:

“To draw on Klein paraphrasing Al Gore, here’s my inconvenient truth:
when you tell people what it would actually take to radically reduce carbon emissions, they turn away. They don’t want to give up air travel or air conditioning or HDTV or trips to the mall or the family car or the myriad other things that go along with consuming 5,000 or 8,000 or 12,000 watts. All the major environmental groups know this, which is why they maintain, contrary to the requirements of a 2,000­watt society, that climate change can be tackled with minimal disruption to ‘the American way of life.’ And Klein, you have to assume, knows it too. The irony of her book is that she ends up exactly where the “warmists” do, telling a fable she hopes will do some good.”

U.S. Military Could Collapse Within 20 Years Due to Climate Change, Report Commissioned By Pentagon Says

From Vice:

According to a new U.S. Army report, Americans could face a horrifically grim future from climate change involving blackouts, disease, thirst, starvation and war. The study found that the US military itself might also collapse. This could all happen over the next two decades, the report notes.

The senior US government officials who wrote the report are from several key agencies including the Army, Defense Intelligence Agency, and NASA. The study called on the Pentagon to urgently prepare for the possibility that domestic power, water, and food systems might collapse due to the impacts of climate change as we near mid-century.

The report was commissioned by General Mark Milley, Trump’s new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, making him the highest-ranking military officer in the country (the report also puts him at odds with Trump, who does not take climate change seriously.)

Read the full report here

Greta at the UN: “How dare you!’

SA: Very powerful. It such a shame that a young person has to plead for a future at the United Nations. This is what intergenerational injustice looks like.

“You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us I say we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”

Read the whole speech here.

UPDATE: A tweet from a vile man who fears the message.

UPDATED UPDATE: Greta for the win!

“Renewables” are Neither Clean, Nor Renewable

SA: So much hope these days centers on the dream of replacing the fossil fuels that are killing life on this planet with solar panels and windmills so that we get to keep the way that we currently live basically the same. Fuck, no one wants that more than I do. But it cannot happen.

There are many, many reasons why it is an utter myth that “clean, renewable energy” is the pathway to our best future but I’ll lay out three prime ones here.

The first reason is the reality of renewable energy: it provides electricity. At this time, electricity only amounts to around 20% of all the energy we use. Even an enormous scaling up of electricity production and transforming much of the realities of modern life to function on electricity will not come close to replacing what fossil fuels do for us. The vast majority of our modern world is created or enhanced by fossil-fueled fire, from transportation, to manufacturing, to everyday materials. Electricity is not a substitute for so much of that. So a renewable world will be a fundamentally different one.

The second reason is that the fabrication of renewable generators involves socially and environmentally unjust mining of non-renewable resources. The mined material is then transported, fabricated and installed using fossil fuels. They are not only unjust, they are vastly dirty.

The third reason is a corollary of the second. Renewable energy technologies are not at present able to reproduce themselves using only the energy they generate. That is, neither solar panels nor windmills generate the energy needed to mine, transport, fabricate, install and maintain themselves. They are not self replicating

There are many more “clean, renewable energy” myths exposed is this fine piece by Don Fitz at Resilience.org. His summation after exposing those myths: “Every form of energy production has difficulties. ‘Clean, renewable energy’ is neither clean nor renewable. There can be good lives for all people if we abandon the goal of infinite energy growth. Our guiding principle needs to be that the only form of truly clean energy is less energy.”

While undoubtedly unpopular with Green New Deal folks, this is the reality we must be planning our living arrangements for: A future with extremely low energy, and that is bioregionally localized focused on a regenerative society of sufficiency.