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.” 


Thanks for stopping by.   I treat this blog like a sketchbook where I can try out ideas and record the world around me.  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 Education: Between Two Worlds

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 

Watch a presentation on these issues by Temple Landscape Architecture Rob Kuper and me for the Pennsylvania/Delaware Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects

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


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 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.

A Globalised Solar-Powered Future is Wholly Unrealistic – and our Economy is the Reason Why

SA: This commentary about the myths of a renewable economy, from Alf Hornberg, is powerful, and most likely very unwelcome to adherents of a Green New Deal. While undoubtedly their hearts are in the right place, the idea that somehow fixing what we’ve got to run on renewably generated electricity and interjecting more “justice” into the current system will allow us to keep all the mod-cons we enjoy is extremely misguided.

The crux of Hornberg’s argument: “Despite good intentions, it is not clear what Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and the rest of the climate movement are demanding should be done. Like most of us, they want to stop the emissions of greenhouse gases, but seem to believe that such an energy transition is compatible with money, globalised markets, and modern civilization.” Spoiler alert: it is not.

And further: “Take the ultimate issue we are facing: whether our modern, global, and growing economy can be powered by renewable energy. Among most champions of sustainability, such as advocates of a Green New Deal, there is an unshakeable conviction that the problem of climate change can be solved by engineers.” Spoiler alert: it can’t be.

The final line of the piece lays out our fundamental challenge: “Climate change and the other horrors of the Anthropocene don’t just tell us to stop using fossil fuels – they tell us that globalisation itself is unsustainable.”

I agree with Rupert Read that at this time we are facing three possible outcomes to the crises we find ourselves in:

  • This civilisation could collapse utterly and terminally, as a result of climatic instability (leading for instance to catastrophic food shortages as a probable mechanism of collapse), or possibly sooner than that, through nuclear war, pandemic, or financial collapse leading to mass civil breakdown. Any of these are likely to be precipitated in part by ecological/climate instability, as Darfur and Syria were. 

  • This civilisation (we) will manage to seed a future successor-civilisation(s), as this one collapses. 

  • This civilisation will somehow manage to transform itself deliberately, radically and rapidly, in an unprecedented manner, in time to avert collapse.

The first two cannot be avoided or aided by Green New Deals. It is the last prospect to which Green New Deals are presumably addressed. The transformation Read alludes to must be to an extremely low energy, bioregionally localized, regenerative society of sufficiency. That means the end of the current era and will require an entirely different set of adaptations than are currently proposed by Green New Deals.

If we want to salvage a livable future, we must give up clinging to the thought that we can just “green” up our current arrangements and inject more “justice” into them. The current system is inherently unjust and cannot be “greened” by its very nature. Instead, we must strive to imagine what it means to live regeneratively, in small scale, local places, where social and environmental justice is intertwined within our everyday lives.

Read the entire piece here.