While you’ll find my comments throughout the main page blog roll, these are some of my longer pieces.

Post Carbon Landscape Architecture


By Steve Austin

originally posted on Land8.com – click to see embedded links


Here in early 2019, we find ourselves in a terrifying time. The evidence is astoundingly clear that the effects of climate change are worse than previously predicted and accelerating. If humanity is to avoid catastrophic, perhaps even unsurvivable climate change, we must end the use of fossil fuels as soon as possible.

However, if we were to do that, the resulting energy and civilizational transition would be the most dramatic ever undertaken by our species. Everything about our current way of life would change greatly.

But scientists are emphatic about the need to end using fossil fuels now. Prof David Reay, of the University of Edinburgh, says we must “act now or see the last chance for a safer climate future ebb away.”

The end of fossil fuels will usher in a “post carbon” era. It is “post carbon” because we can no longer do anything that releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, especially through burning fossil fuels.

Landscape architects must accept this reality.

Please understand that this is absolutely different than things labeled “green,” “sustainable,” “low carbon,” or even “net-zero.”

Post carbon landscape architecture means that there will be no use of fossil fuels for construction, transportation, or even the creation of many of the materials commonly used by landscape architects.

Obviously, this will fundamentally change our work.

Reaffirming what we do

Yet we must assume that the need for our work will only increase in the future. Therefore, it is imperative to state exactly what it is that landscape architecture should do.

Below is an initial attempt at descriptions of the broad ways in which landscape architecture will be essential in the post-carbon era.

We are needed to design and build beautiful places that will nurture the healing and growth of authentic human communities and individual spirits.

We are needed to help protect and restore systems that will help life to recover and flourish.

We are needed to share our understanding of the earth’s cycles, processes and bioregions to sustainably meet our elemental needs.

We are needed to help us creatively adapt to the challenges of the Anthropocene, such as rising sea levels, fires, droughts, human migration, habitat loss, pollution, (and unfortunately), etc.

I’m sure there are some other categorizations as well as many subsets.

The key thing is this: None of these activities intrinsically require fossil fuels.

Landscape architecture has been practiced for millennia. Certainly, much of that work was in the service of power, and the benefits were directed to elites. Nonetheless, there have been significant positive interactions with the land that did not require the use of fossil fuels. My point is that it is possible.

Take Central Park, for example. America’s greatest public space was built without fossil fuels. Instead, Olmsted’s vision of democracy-made-visible was built primarily with the muscles of animals (human and otherwise).

It was not perfect, as demonstrated by the removal of Seneca Village, one of New York City’s few African-American middle-class communities, to make way for the park. We must never repeat such injustices. But as a symbol of what is physically possible without using fossil fuels, we can do no better than to study Central Park.

Reframing how we work

Fossil fuels have only been fully embedded in the work of landscape architecture for 100 years or so, and then only as a means to our desired ends. Our profession must now reframe our understanding of the means used to create our desired ends. What a wonderful creative challenge!

Understanding the limits of the post carbon era should be our first response. First, we will have much less energy to use. Ending fossil fuels will eliminate 80% of our current energy supply. While renewable power will no-doubt increase, it cannot replace all the energy of fossil fuels. We must break out of our 20th century “have-it-all” mindset: future energy supply will not meet our wants.

Renewables produce electricity, not fire, and only intermittently. There will be many claims on the resulting electricity distribution. This energy-limited future will require us to embrace both radical simplicity and radical sufficiency.

Next, the post carbon era will mean an end to most of the construction methods and material choices we now take for granted.

Today, landscape architects rely on fossil-fueled machines to do most of our heavy work for us. We rely on large amounts of materials, such as concrete, metals, and plastics, all of which cannot be produced without large emissions of carbon dioxide. In the post carbon future, we will have neither those machines nor much of those materials.

We must rediscover low energy and labor efficient methods. Think clever low tech, and locally sourced, appropriate materials.

All this will require us to reimagine design.

First, we must design for only those things that must be done.

In the post carbon era, we will do well to heed Olmsted’s direction that “service must precede art…” (To quibble, I would rearrange that somewhat to say that we should engage in “artful service.”)

And then we must be creative in planning and specifying construction that can be built without emissions of any sort.

Perhaps we should emulate birds. Many species build intricate, beautiful nests with only what is near, and with only what they are able to carry.

We too should practice a “small, light, and local” design and construction philosophy.

Perhaps too, we should emulate beavers – nature’s ecosystem engineers. Beavers certainly build to suit themselves – like us – but their work also benefits the life and life support systems around them. Their work is a eco-positive, unlike, too often, ours. To paraphrase and expand on Milenko Matanovic’s vision, we must work for “multiple victories” on every project.

Further, we must ensure that our projects incorporate copious plant material and soil building activities. That is not to offset our own project’s emissions, but to be able to sequester some of the excessive carbon dioxide now in the atmosphere. This is “Drawdown,” and it will be an operative principle for us from now on.

Landscape architecture education must change to facilitate this. We need an increased focus on integrated ecological design, fossil fuel free materials and construction, and the research that will support the post carbon profession.

Landscape architecture practice will necessarily change as well. In the lower energy future, distance will matter a great deal. This will not only affect our practice sheds, but our material supplies and labor force.

Finally, our ethics must evolve. Ending fossil fuels will mean a return to the use of muscles in much of our needed work (human and otherwise). We must be very aware of this reality and create the ethical standards by which to value and protect those that do the work. ASLA, for example, does not have an explicit position on labor (human and otherwise).

Additionally, we must hold ourselves accountable to more exacting standards of social and environmental justice to ensure that what we are doing is for the greatest benefit for all communities.

What won’t work

The alarms are going off. But many people, landscape architects included, assume that “solving” climate change will not require dramatic changes. There is a belief that technology can be employed to enable us to basically continue as we are now.

Unfortunately, there is no technology on the horizon that will suck from the atmosphere – at the needed scales and time frames – the excess carbon dioxide that is causing us harm and then safely lock it away deep underground, for thousands of years.

Nor is there any realistic type of geo-engineering that could somehow deflect the sun’s rays to keep us cool. Anyway, we’re already performing one scary experiment with the climate, we don’t need to add another.

So, if technology is not riding to the rescue, what other options are there?

Simply hoping for a something to work out is irresponsible. Ignoring the threat is morally indefensible. And our current baby steps to reduce carbon emissions will, to quote Alex Steffen, “guarantee defeat.”

The only realistic ways to avoid climate catastrophe are to immediately end fossil fuel use, stop deforestation, and begin vigorously restoring carbon sinks. Doing this will also give us a chance to reverse the existential damage we’ve done to the rest of life on this planet.

But what if no one else quits fossil fuels? What should landscape architects do?

Kathleen Dean Moore puts it best in reference to all of us as citizens: “If we don’t respond to the emergency, we become part of the storm itself.”

Which side of history should landscape architects be on?

Moving forward

Landscape architects are desperately needed for the future we are entering. We must recommit to do our needed things with great imagination, courage, and justice. We must support each other and our communities as we undertake this challenge. Let’s be leaders for the world as it must become.
Lead Image: © Steve Austin (used with permission)


The Climate Report That Changes Everything for Landscape Architecture

By Steve Austin

Originally published at Land8 Landscape Architects Network

On October 8, 2018, the UN released a bombshell report whose implications will shake the profession of landscape architecture to its core. The report lays out clear evidence that if world governments don’t take drastic action to end the fossil fuel era over the next decade, in the very near future humanity will witness severe food shortages, climate related poverty increases, and massive ecological destruction, all leading to unprecedented human migration.

This is ultimate proof of the destructiveness of fossil fuels and the first time we’ve definitively been presented their needed expiration date.

“This report shows that we only have the slimmest of opportunities remaining to avoid unthinkable damage to the climate system that supports life as we know it,” said Amjad Abdulla, an International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) board member, in a release. Debra Roberts, co-chair of one of the IPCC working groups, is quoted as saying of our situation: “The next few years are probably the most important in our history.”

In order to maintain that slim opportunity, the report argues that the nations of the planet must soon stop burning fossil fuels to keep global temperature from increasing no more than 1.5 Celsius (C) above pre-industrial levels.

If landscape architecture is to be a vital part of the future, this report means that our work, which is now utterly dependent on fossil fuels, must change completely during a time when it will be needed more than ever.

Where things stand now

The planet has already warmed by 1C (approximately 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) and continues to increase. “Climate change is occurring earlier and more rapidly than expected. Even at the current level of 1C warming, it is painful,” says Johan Rockström, as quoted by The Guardian.

To stay below the 1.5C maximum tolerable temperature increase, global annual carbon dioxide emissions must drop by about half by 2030 and then be at essentially zero by 2050.

Basically, this report says that the world has 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe by rapidly weaning ourselves off fossil fuels

If we do not meet that goal, it is likely that global temperatures will continue to increase by at least 2C. That amount is considered the absolute outer boundary of civilization’s safe operating zone. To not cross that 2C boundary, we must completely stop burning fossil fuels not long after 2050. Thus there is no scenario in which we can continue to burn fossil fuels for much longer anyway.

But we do not want it to get that far. The UN report shows the immensely negative impacts of the difference between 1.5C and 2C warming.

With a 2C temperature increase, instead of 1.5C, sea level rise would affect millions more people. Ocean acidity and oxygen loss would cause 99% of coral reefs to disappear along with much needed food fisheries. Insects, vital for food production, are twice as likely to lose half their habitat at a 2C increase.

An increase to 2C would add more extremely hot days in summer, which would cause more forest fires and heat related deaths. Global population exposed to water stress could be 50% higher at 2C, and millions more people would be at risk of greater food scarcity and climate-related poverty.

Finally, an increase of 2C means that there is the possibility that large areas of permafrost will thaw, which would release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, leading to runaway climate change which might not be survivable.

It should be frighteningly clear, then, that while a 1.5C increase is dangerous, the impacts of 2C or even higher global temperatures are absolutely terrifying.

What it means for landscape architecture

To avoid that 2C future, the world needs “rapid and far-reaching” changes in energy systems, land use, city and industrial design, transportation and building use according to the report.

It is here that the report speaks to landscape architects. Those “rapid and far reaching” changes mean that within 12 years our profession must use 45% less fossil fuels than currently, and no fossil fuels at all within 30 years.

Landscape architects, like most professions and our whole society, are absolutely unprepared for this reality. For us, not being able to use fossil fuels will radically alter the materials and construction methods we take for granted. This in turn will have dramatic implications for design and professional practice.

For example, there will be little concrete and steel in a zero fossil fuel world, as they not only require fossil fuels for their creation, but their manufacture expels carbon dioxide. Ironically, this will also mean not being able to use those materials in efforts to adapt, say, to the effects of climate change. (Read more here)

Perhaps more importantly, building our projects without using fossil fuels will demand of us not only a new creativity, but also honesty and equity in how that is accomplished.

There appears to be little hope in technology scaling up fast enough to let us continue to burn fossil fuels without consequences. Nor is it likely that we can continue to use fossil fuels but attempt to offset them in some way by planting trees or geo-engineering, for example. This report shuts the door on wishful thinking.

It is possible, of course, that we as a profession will choose not to eliminate fossil fuels from our work. The argument might be that if the rest of the world does not, how can we?

However, if landscape architecture is to grow in relevance in the coming years, we cannot continue to be complicit in what is now unmistakably the destruction of the only ecosystem in which we can live. We must lead by example if we are to survive. To do that, it is urgent that landscape architects begin a discussion of what it will mean for us to be fossil fuel free.


2 questions about the climate crisis for institutions and organizations

By Steve Austin

The climate crisis is accelerating.  The only way to avoid the worst impacts is to end fossil fuel use as rapidly as possible while drawing down excess CO2 in the atmosphere.  There are no other solutions.

In light of this reality, institutional and organizational leaders must ask themselves one of the following questions:

How will the institution or organization function without using any fossil fuels? The implication of this question is that the institution or organization will find a way to continue without fossil fuels.

If that question is too difficult, then the other question is:  how will the organization or institution function in a world being devastated by climate catastrophe?

That’s it.  Those are the choices we have. There is no middle ground, no “un-extreme” options, no way to simply ignore the reality. It will affect everyone, eventually.


….and now back to normal….

Screen Shot 2019-07-01 at 6.38.27 PM

By Steve Austin

Many believe that the climate crisis is now the greatest threat to civilization, surpassing nuclear war.  At least with nukes, we have had 74 years of not using them as well as actually working to reduce their sheer numbers over time. With climate change, we have been making it worse every year and we are ramping up our CO2 emissions even as we know what is causing the crisis.

In an attempt to address the crisis, certain well meaning people have made calls for a World War 2 type mobilization, (see here too)where the might of government and society are put to full use to solve the crisis. This sounds great:  everyone working together to defeat evil.   No doubt, there is a deep connection to the idea:  once we’ve defeated evil, we can get back to “normal,” just like in the 1940s.

Except it won’t work that way.  There will be no “and now back to normal.”  Ending the climate crisis will require us to mobilize and fight, not for a short time – less than 4 years in the USA’s case during World War 2 – but for decades, if not centuries.  We have made such a mess of our habitat that it will take that long to restore any sort of balance.

Mobilizing for World War 2 required government control of everything – rationing food and fuel and other things, managing industrial production, drafting human lives.  I have not heard of anything like that proposed to fight the evil of climate change.  This could be  due to the fact that no one really thinks it is that bad.  Indeed, even the well meaning come across as using the climate crisis as a political ploy in order to introduce other – albeit rightfully needed – reforms.  And that is another key point: mobilizing for war means that everyone is this country at least must agree that there is a common enemy.  Yeah….right.

No, fighting climate change will be nothing like World War 2.  If we are to succeed in fighting the evil, it will require us to understand that the cause is us – the way we live now makes us our own enemy.  And if we mobilize, it will be to change everything about how our civilization works.  Victory will be to live surrounded by the decay of the society that we built.  This will not get us parades and peace dividends.  We might get a saner, less destructive way of life, but with none of today’s conveniences let alone “necessities.”

There can be no “back to normal” and it is irresponsible to let people assume there can be.  If this is the ultimate crisis of civilization, then we must be honest about what surviving it entails.  There will be no short term push to victory, instead it will be a slog, every year doing with less than the last, until at some point the impact of our past actions have abated. This will require government – in a democracy, technically “us” – to agree to limit everything about our current lives.  And it will mean that there will be some clear losers, those whose life and business are built upon pollution and greed, and what about them in a democratic system?

At best we are living with a chronic condition: the disruption we’ve caused to the climate system will take a long time to undo.  At worst, this could be fatal: runaway climate is a distinct possibility and the tipping points into that condition are unclear.  We must mobilize, to be sure, not for a typical war’s duration, but for the rest of our lives.  I am personally in favor of everything related to Green New Deals and all the rest.  It’s just important that we know what we are in for.

Or, I hear there Netflix has some great stuff coming soon.


Will Peak Oil Save Us From the Worst of Climate Change?

By Steve Austin

The IEA 2018 World Energy Outlook (executive summary here) suggests that peak oil – the time when oil returns begin an inexorable decline – is here and that a significant supply crunch could occur within the next 4 years. Alice Freidemann – the Energyskeptic – has reviewed the latest report which shows “a civilization crashing 8% decline rate that the IEA hopes will be brought to an also civilization crashing 4% rate with new oil drilling projects.”

This is very scary news. Our current growth oriented industrial economies cannot function with a dwindling supply of oil.  But that is precisely what is needed to mitigate the worst effects of the climate crisis. It is perhaps naive to expect that we will voluntarily end the industrial era by limiting our use of fossil fuels.  But it may be that nature will do that for us.

On page 159 of the IEA 2018 World Energy Outlook the following graph can be found:

What this shows is a gigantic gap between what we want – demand – and what will be available within 20 years.  In order to fill that gap, new discoveries would need to come on-line within that time frame. Those discoveries would have had to happen by now in order to enable the infrastructure to be in place to exploit them within the next 20 years.  Yet there have been no significant discoveries that would fill this gap, nor are any forecast.  (see chart below)

The gap between supply and demand will likely cause massive economic disruption, perhaps even sending the interlinked global economy into a ravaging depression.   Such a thing will be extraordinarily destructive, for we have no plans in place to deal with the end of the fossil fuel era – either voluntarily or forced.

While I do not welcome the pain and disruption we are facing, the silver lining may be that this forced end to the industrial era could also end the annual increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  This would be very welcome – nature’s way of keeping us from letting CO2 in the atmosphere get too far out of hand.   This would leave us at a manageable point to begin drawdown.  Ultimately, it would ensure that we would have a chance of building the next economy – an economy not predicated on ecocide and injustice – within a livable climate.  A livable climate in which to do this is not assured AT ALL under the current trends.