City, Arts and Public Spaces: Jennifer Wolch

The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is participating in the ongoing campus initiative Global Urban Humanities: Engaging the Humanities and Environmental Design, which aims to bring the humanities into closer connection with disciplines that study the built environment to help address the complex problems facing today’s urban areas. To jump-start conversation for an upcoming working session, participants have been asked to “reflect upon a keyword that provokes, confuses, inspires, and/or annoys you in current thinking about urban and/or urban arts engagement.” This posting is by Jennifer Wolch, Dean of the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley.

Keyword: Carbon Hoofprint

Cities are centers of consumption, and especially in the west, their ecological footprints however measured are enormous. Buildings energy use and the fuel use of transportation systems are typically the focus of urban sustainability studies, along with urban form and the conservation of habitat within and beyond urban limits. Far less attention is paid to ‘stuff’ and the cultural detritus of modern life, and even less attention is paid to the role of food in the carbon economy. By any measure, animal products are the most carbon intensive forms of food and yet are rarely seriously addressed as such. When the issue is raised (as when, for example, a former IPCC scientist urged vegetarianism due to the carbon consequences of meat), controversy ensues, but questions of diet, culture, and supply chain impacts – not only on carbon emissions but worker welfare, other forms of environmental damage, and animal welfare – are quickly dropped like a hot potato. Moreover, amid the rising popularity of urban agriculture as hip and cool, there is no mention of animals and how their welfare can possibly be protected in the backyards of inexperienced ‘farmers’. Apart from large questions of animals and political economy, both locally and globally. I am interested in the cultural and subjective bases that allow urban residents who ‘know’ things about the impacts of their consumption behavior, to essentially ‘unknow’ them and resist changes to habitual behavior, however damaging such behavior may be to health, environment, and other sentient creatures with whom we share the planet.. I’m also interested in how urban sustainability policies and plans can surface the ‘stuff’ problem, including food products, and encourage a sharing economy committed to transspecies justice.