One of the great challenges of our time is that of climate change. Since time immemorial, we have been told that the need of the hour is sustainable growth. The idea is that a balance had to be struck between capitalist notions of growth and the negative consequences that come with the relentless pursuit of this goal. The United Nations has sustainable development goals (or SDG’s) through which they aim to control a range of issues- from climate change to global poverty by 2030. However, not unlike most United Nations endeavours, these ‘SDGs’ have been reduced to lip-service. Leaders across the world may use them in campaign speeches or when they address a press conference, but the ground reality is that these goals are far beyond our reach. Urban sustainability in this regard also appears to be beyond our reach.
In the 21st century, we live in a capitalist realm dominated by large multinational corporations that often have the governments in their pockets. Think tanks like ALEC design bills and ensure that most legislation that passes through the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate suits corporate interests, even at the expense of the environment. It is here that a strong and independent government, free of corporate bias, can go ahead and make a tangible difference. In the past, as noted by former EPA administrator Carol Browner at Northeastern University, changes in legislation can play a role in creating a new market for corporate interests. For example, after chlorofluorocarbons were banned in the United States, the market for air conditioners and refrigerators didn’t cease to exist. On the contrary, innovation and change to cleaner and less polluting versions of these machines were facilitated.
The creation of a profit incentive is often a prerequisite to stimulate innovation. Legislation can mandate such a change and force the realignment of corporate interests. Many consider this realignment to be unavoidable if we are to effect actual change. However, critics of the move can argue that it is unlikely to ever come about. Independent governments are close to impossible to find anywhere in the world and corporate lobbying won’t just disappear. However, even if that does happen, the ideological concession that we must rely on the charity of those whose actions perpetrated the climate crisis is difficult to stomach. Personally, I agree that strict legislation may not always operationalise and enact change, but at the very least it represents a step in the right direction in our quest for urban sustainability.