Shareable is partnering with Tufts University on this special series hosted by professor Julian Agyeman (Co-chair of Shareable’s Board) and Cities@Tufts. Initially designed for Tufts students, faculty, and alumni, the colloquium has been opened up to the public with the support of Shareable and The Kresge Foundation.
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Below is the transcript from a presentation delivered in October of 2020 “Labor Centered Eco-Design? Should the Green New Deal champion a design politics for labor, a design politics by labor or a design politics with labor?” with Damian White. Learn more about his work by visiting: www.risd.edu/people/damian-white.
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Julian Agyeman: Welcome to the Cities@Tufts Colloquium, along with our partners Shareable and the Kresge Foundation. I’m Julian Agyeman, and together with my research assistants, Meghan Tenhoff and Perri Sheinbaum, we organize Cities@Tufts as a cross-disciplinary academic initiative which recognizes Tufts University as a leader in urban studies, urban planning, and sustainability issues.
And in our colloquium series, we bring in fabulous people doing fabulous things and no more fabulous than Damian White, I’ve known Damian for a long time. And he’s a sociologist, political theorist, with teaching and research interests in the sociology of design, architecture, adaptive reuse, urban, and environmental sociology. And he’s got a particular interest in urban political ecology. He does historical and political sociology studies. He looks into critical theory and he’s into urban studies and photography as well. He’s got a first-class honors degree from the University of Keele in the U.K. in political science and American Studies. He’s got a master’s in political sociology and political theory and has his Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Essex. I particularly noted that next semester he’s teaching a class called “Designing Post-Carbon Futures, Political Ecologies of Hope, Solidarity and Possibility.” Damian, I’m coming to your classmate, all right? And today he’s going to talk to us about labor-centered eco-design. Should the Green New Deal champion a design politics for labor, a design politics by labor, or design politics with labor? All Damian, all the above.Damian White: All of the above.
Julian Agyeman: Damian, thanks. And looking forward to your talk.
Labor, Just Transition, and the Green New Deal (Lecture)
Damian White: Wonderful. Thanks very much. So, I’m delighted to be here. Thank you very much, Julian, for inviting me. Just to say I’m deeply in debt, Julian, for many reasons. Just a little anecdote. Many, many years ago when I was first applying for jobs, out of the Ph.D. world, I got a job interview in the United States. And the only person, the only professor I knew, the proper adult in the United States who was British, who had a job in the United States, was Julian. So, I rang him up and said, look, help me, I don’t have a clue. And he coached me through the whole interview process. And it was very, very nice of him and I got the job. So that’s a nice little moment. Then a few years later, we connected. So, I owe Julian all my academic activities.
But today, I want to talk about a few things. I want to talk about labor-centered design for just and sustainable transitions. So that’s what I’m trying to think about in the last few years. And this really comes out of a series of papers that I’ve written over the last two years or so, which have really been kind of building out of the tradition of the just transition, and discussions about just transition, and trying to connect that to design and then connect that to labor.
So in this little talk, I’ll talk for about half an hour. And what I’d like to do is really firstly talk a little bit about this frame discourse, the just transition. And I want to really kind of just give you a sense of its strengths and its limitations. Then I’d like to go on to talk about reasons why I think just transition could fruitfully engage with the fields of eco-design, design for sustainability more broadly c-design studies, just environmental studies, and sustainability studies. And so I’m interested in this broad area. And then I’d also be interested in thinking about how a just transition framework influenced by what’s an emerging field known as environmental labor studies, might allow us to just ask some interesting questions, I hope, about design for sustainable futures. And then I want to go back to the Green New Deal and then just pose a set of questions to the Green New Deal and to discussions about the Green New Deal.
So that’s what I want to do today. So, let’s just talk about the just transition, to begin with. So just transition is a body of thinking, which has a really interesting genealogy. It really emerges, quite surprisingly, out of the American labor movement around the early 1970s where a range of labor unions were really trying to think about ways in which anti-toxics and emerging concerns about toxic pollution might be thought through a labor-friendly agenda, whilst trying to avoid some of the tensions that exist between jobs versus environmentalist conflict — which was very central to the relationship between labor and environmentalism in the 70s, as environmentalism emerged in the United States, but has become an ongoing concern that environmental sustainability, post-carbon futures might impact jobs and might be ultimately detrimental to working people who built off the backs of working people. So this discussion emerges in the 1970s, and it’s a current, really a subordinate current, that starts to move through various attempts to construct red-green alliances between the 70s and the 90s, mostly in North America.
This moment, historic moment has fairly limited success, which I’ll just talk about a little bit more in a minute. But during the late 90s and as the Obama moment occurs and as the first talk of a Green New Deal emerges, you start to see a kind of a resuscitation of the just transition discourse as people like Van Jones are starting to talk about a green collar economy and trying to imagine a kind of productive green political economy which could address the moment of the financial crisis and the Great Recession of 2008 eight. But just transition’s had an interesting kind of trajectory since this North American moment. Most notably, it started to percolate through a range of social movements more broadly. It started to be internationalized through the international labor movement, predominantly, as they brought this discourse into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the global negotiations around climate change as a discourse. And it’s probably reached its high point as a kind of global discourse in the most recent climate change global meeting that occurred in Katowice in Poland, wherein 2018, the whole frame of the meeting was focused around just transitions at least.
So the just transition then is a discourse that has got many parents, if you like. But labor-focused just transitions, as I have intimated, have always had some issues and controversies surrounding them. Most notably those sections of the labor movement that are very much either embedded in extractive or fossil fuel economy sectors or simply are more conservatively predisposed, have often kind of looked at the transition and called it, to quote Richard Trumka, a fancy name for a funeral. So some sections of the labor movement have looked on the term as fundamentally problematic. Some sections of the environmental movement have similarly looked upon the transition as too little, too late, we might say, the more doomsday or apocalyptic view.
But there’s been more interesting critiques made of the just transition by people like Dimitris Stevis, who have long suggested over the last decade that there’s an interesting tension emerging within international labor discussions around what actually constitutes the politics of just transition. Is this some kind of rebate, third-way centrism of the Clinton- Blair era? Is it an attempt to envisage a kind of almost German-style green, social-democratic, corporatist institutional framework that can start to guide post-carbon thinking? Or is it allied with a broader project of the Green New Deal? Or even more radically still, does it affirm some sort of systemic change vision, ecosocialism, etc.? So, these disputes have gone on within union circles and just transition’s been used in different ways by different groups with different kinds of politics, from the center-left to the more radical left.
It’s also the case that the just transition has also been observed by analysts that it’s become — there’s often a gap between rhetoric and reality. And that the sheer complexity of thinking through the just transition and concrete material examples of how this can be done well are more than on the ground than the actual discourse. So people have pointed to examples in South Africa where there have been mobilizations around just transitions. But then when the rubber has hit the road and government policy has attempted to be enacted on these premises, it’s often had backsliding occur, simply because of the power of the fossil fuel industry and the carbon lock-in of various economies more generally.
So the concept then is contested. It’s certainly diversified. It certainly ranges in its kind of politics. But at the same time, as it’s diversified and as controversies have emerged around it, it has expanded more broadly, just transition, and different social movements have taken up as a frame, as a discourse for thinking about just and equitable forms of decarbonization. So, there’s been mobilizations around gender and feminist mobilizations. Most strikingly, there’s been a whole series of mobilizations around indigenous movements and indigenous activists who have used the transition framework and have found that productive, as have black activists and struggles trying to intersect between black lives and carbon issues. So just transitions have then really unleashed a kind of an interesting range of different forces that have tried to use this concept and found this concept productive and generative, despite the fact that it certainly comes with issues and tensions.
So what are, broadly speaking, some of the issues and tensions that exist in the concept. Well, clearly, the concept itself, you know, opens up further issues. So they just transition in its first framing, as I suggested, was very much directed towards workers and workers in industries that might have to effectively transition to facilitate other possibilities. So it was very much focused on fossil fuel workers, on energy sector workers. But social movement actors have filled out this discussion and said, well, what about frontline effects on communities? How do they relate to the transition? That we need a broader understanding.
There’s been interesting debates occurring about the relationship between just transitions and climate justice, just transitions, and economic development. There’s been interesting debates about the relative differences between northern and Southern understandings of just transitions. There are ongoing concerns about the extent to which a social democratic, settler-colonial understanding of just transitions might not actually produce that kind of outcome for colonized people or indigenous peoples. And more generally what constitutes just is an ongoing point of tension between, shall we say, climate hawks who might want to decarbonize using all the tools that we have at the moment, including nuclear or entertaining the possibilities of geoengineering, and more traditional environmentalist understandings of just transitions which are much more focused on, say, renewable energy sources and so on.
So there are certainly tensions there. But diversification, I think what makes it interesting, I think, as a concept, is that it’s really opened up the debate about how we think about decarbonization. And I think what makes it interesting and exciting is how it’s kind of expanded a range of possibilities and literatures that we can connect the question of the just transition of decarbonization to. So there’s been some really important work done by people like [Unknown Name] and Kate Aronoff, who have talked about the ways in which in a pure focus on kind of green-collar- blue-collar jobs transitions really needs to be expanded to think about the full range of work now, that is done under the so-called pink-collar premises, the caring economy, the service economy, and the extent to which that kind of employment involved in caring, health care, teaching, could be understood as low carbon work, which needs to be expanded. There’s also been really important critiques by these authors made of the gender blind nature of green-collar discourse and the ways in which it might be reliant on, or render invisible, all the forms of social reproduction work and labor — gendered labor — that is involved in maintaining our current high carbon society and needs to transition. So obviously domestic labor, carrying labor, gendered labor, etc.
A range of really important indigenous writers like the [Cassidys] or scholars coming from places like Tunisia, such as much [Algy], have drawn out some of the interesting and important implications about the limits of just transitions based on a kind of northern European or North American foci, that is mainly just focused on just a roll out of renewables and not addressing exploitive supply chain questions that can displace environmental bads onto southern or front line or fence fenceline communities in the global south or minority communities or dispossessed communities in the global north. And that just transitions clearly can’t be based or premised on offloading the environmental bads to the kind of lithium mines and coltan lines of people living in Chile or Congo or other such places. So this has been an important intersection.
There’s an important set of questions which I think have yet to be fully explored about how the just transition discourse in labor movements can engage with a much more long-standing discussion of urban environmental justice practices and planning, which Julian Agyeman populared, [Polow] many others have been developing alongside this tradition. Much of the work of urban environmental justice anticipates is sympathetic to and has certainly a whole set of discourses, practices, and interventions which essentially are profoundly complementary to just transition discussions and labor movements. But urban movement and the labor movement have been kind of disconnected somewhat. So it’s interesting to talk about how we could connect those relationships.
There’s been some really important work done about the nature of green jobs, the importance of facilitating not just any kind of green job, but well-paid green jobs, which are informed by a kind of rigorous anti-racist analysis, that is attentive to the ways in which environmental negatives of renewables in particular can be outsourced. And then there’s, I think one of the things that’s been about just transition as it’s diversified and hybridized, is that the account of labor in this literature has become much more queered, hybrid, expanded as we’ve come to recognize labor as classed, gendered, racialized, involving issues of ability, that labor comes in many different forms. It’s formal, but it can also be informal, it’s direct and material, but it also can be cognitive and emotional. So all kinds of workers who are part of the multiracial and multi-gendered working classes are involved in multiple kinds of labor, which needs to be captured in any credible account of the green just transition.
So let me just kind of sum up by saying, well, what are some of the strengths of the just transition, too, and what attracts me to this discourse? One of the things that I really like about this course ultimately is that it’s a discourse that’s emerged through struggle and campaigning, not just academia. And so this is a point that’s made by colleagues of ours, Edouard Morena, Dunja Krause, and Dimitris Stevis in a new book that they’ve just done on the just transition, which I really like. And they talk about the just transition is a living concept, which is very much kind of rooted in the experience and frontline and working communities, frontline communities and working people struggle. So it doesn’t really — it hasn’t emerged out of academia. It’s emerged somewhere else. And despite the contestations and tangles around it, it still has the capacity to connect disparate groups. So, it’s interesting in that respect.
The other aspect of just transition I think that is increasingly interesting is the way in which it’s created a more international discussion than possibly the Green New Deal has to date, or the Green New Deal is shifting itself, and colleagues such as Daniel Aldana Cohen and Thea Riofrancos are doing some amazing dialogue with movements in Latin America around the Green New Deal. But nevertheless, the Just Transition has a literature which thinks across multiple scales from the national to the regional to transnational. And so it’s not as focused at the moment in a kind of methodological nationalist frame that most green new deals are. So green new deals are obviously mostly concerned in kind of quite pragmatic, national-based strategies for decarbonization, very important. But there can be a certain amount of methodological nationalism there to quote Ulrich Beck, whereas the just transition discourse flings you out into the international tensions and dialogues.
So point three, for me, the attraction is that it opens up to environmental analysis, urban ecological analysis, to different stories, different narratives, different ways of making connections, which I’ll to elucidate a little more in a minute, but particularly the histories of environmental and labor struggles past and present, the dangers and the tensions. So I think that’s really interesting and it’s particularly interesting that these are connected to struggles around the labors of racialized labor, gendered labor, and indigenous labor.
So finally, I think two final points. It’s an interesting, complexifying discourse in that much of the literature just transitions implicitly starts to kind of force us to acknowledge that just transitions are going to be messy, complicated, inconsistent and possibly antagonistic at different geographical scales. So this is a point made by Dimitris Stevis, that a decarbonizing project pursued at a local scale or at a city scale might have knock-on effects, unintentionally, that are not necessarily producing just transition for other communities or actors elsewhere. Just transitions might be marked by some level of winners and losers. There might be conflicting outcomes. And it’s an imaginary that in contrast to perhaps some environmental narratives, which are very much focused on kind of consumption and the consumption of the global north as the central problem, starts to direct our attention to production-consumption networks and the importance of thinking about the way in which production and consumption are organized together, as opposed to purely focusing on consumption, which I think is possibly delimiting.
[00:21:22] And so in this respect and in kinds of broader environmental discussions, I think what attracts me to it as well is that at the moment, in our decarbonizing debates, we’re often presented with a very binary and singular set of debates, which present to us either degrowth or eco-modernization as the only singular ways of moving forward. And whilst both of these literatures, I think, have real insights and have accomplished a great deal, it seems to me that what just transitions firmly bring into focus is the issue of combined and uneven development that exists both within the global north and south and between and within the global north and global south. And so this requires us to think in more geographical ways about the extent to which decarbonization is going to involve, at some level, growing of certain sectors, degrowth of others, recomposition of others. And this is a messy, complex debate which may well ultimately require a kind of shrinking of material throughput to facilitate decarbonization, but needs a language that is complex enough to map the very different typologies of how that is going to occur. And sometimes I think we fall into a very simplistic dialogue about growth or degrowth in these eco, more degrowth arguments, and so we don’t map the trajectories of composition and recomposition that needs to occur.
So these are some of the virtues of the just transition. But there are also there are some certain limits to the discourse, to be sure. Most notably, it can be still quite carbon-centric and energy reductionist. It’s not entirely clear how planetary it is as a discourse. It has a global frame, I’ve suggested, but to an extent it might be seen as predominantly circulating in a kind of Anglosphere, Spanish language sphere, possibly. But I’m not entirely sure how much it expands into the East Asian world at the moment, for example. Much of the literature can be more descriptive rather than prescriptive, interested in typological activities rather than speculative.
But the issue that I really want to grapple with here today is the extent to which a lot of the just energy transition emerging out of political science, drawing from the just transition, is really important, really valuable, essential, but it’s somewhat left the questions about the material, cultural, social, technological, and aesthetic forms of decarbonization — hasn’t really engaged with this. So the argument and the pitch that I want to make to you is that clearly just transitions are in part going to involve a shift in our material culture, our infrastructure or urban forms or design forms. And so necessarily they are going to have to enroll design, architecture, and planning in a politics of design.
[00:24:30] And so, you know, the just transition then needs to have a more expansive vocabulary. It needs to have a set of more expansive imaginaries to think about post-carbon pleasures, a hegemonic cultural, materialist politics of just transitions, and it needs to think about the material economies, the material cultures and the production-consumption networks that would sustain a just transition. So that’s what interests me, beyond the nuclear renewables — that’s very important. But isn’t there a whole set of other material praxises which are related to this deeply embedded in this discussion, but not necessarily reducible all to energy?
So over the last couple of years, down at RISD (Road Island School of Design), I’ve been trying to convene a few discussions around these issues. And here you can see a beautiful set of posters that was done by my colleague, [Anastasia Rhiner], for our first symposium that we did in 2019. And then here was a later one that we did about 10 months later, just last November. So I want to focus here now on the question of design. What does design offer for the just transition? What could it do now? Obviously, design, understood, you know, in its conventional, mainstream fashion is an ideological and material facilitator of fossil capitalism, surveillance, capitalism, algorithmic capitalism, Taylorism, empire, etc.. So we know all this and obviously the history of design architecture planning is not reducible to this either. So design is not to be trusted, as I said in a recent paper, but I really tried to emphasize in this paper that post-carbon futures are not simply going to emerge through protest and policy shifts alone.
So this is my bid for a founding claim. Just transitions will have to be struggled for and produced through political struggle, but through the struggle, they will also have to be imagined and built, fabricated and realized, coded and created. And this is going to involve the channeling of enormous amounts of creative labor and inventive practice. And it’s also going to involve the construction of public spaces and public institutions where new knowledge practices can meet and different kinds of labor-friendly eco-designs can flourish. So what do I mean by that? That’s a very kind of big fat theory statement that needs a little unpacking. I’ll try to do that. So why should the fields engage more broadly? Well, I think I’m speaking to planners and designers, so I don’t think I need to underline this issue too much. But obviously, design is ubiquitous. It’s a central way in which we make ourselves and the world around us. This is a nice turn by Tony Fry. We as humans are made by what we make. We design the things we design, design us. So the relationship between design studies nicely draws out the dialectical relationship between our material culture and our ongoing attempts to think politically and politically in the world.
I think it’s interesting as well, if you link just transitions to design, you can get an interesting concept of how to think about sustainability. Most notably, some of the most interesting design theorists that I follow, like Cameron Tonkinwise, are constantly emphasizing the importance of thinking about the ways in which design reveals a world that needs to be made and made and made again. And Cameron Tonkinwise most of the great paper down at RISD, many years ago now, where he said Sustainable design has to be done again and again and again. So it’s not a once-all fix. It’s not the design of ecotopia. It’s not a singular design form, a planning form that just lands as post-carbon. It’s going to be iterative and ongoing and constant, particularly as we deal with ongoing warming earth from one to two degrees. So we’re going to have to have a a literative understanding of design. And then design can draw our attention to the ways in which design is interested in everyday life as a source of potential experiments, different ways of living. It might help us think about those activities and just transition might help us aggregate these kinds of thinking.
So where can we go for this? Well, obviously, there’s a really important tradition of ecological design, which has done a great deal since the Whole Earth Catalog and the radical technology movement to the rise of cradle-to-cradle, closed-loop production, [emotionally durable] design, project draw down service design. All these traditions have made a huge contribution to how we can think about design for sustainability, and it’s certainly the case, more recently, there’s been even more exciting work where people have tried to think more systemic and comprehensive still, moving beyond green design to adaptive design, systematic retrofitting of urban areas, [eliminative design], ways in which we might have to design out products, processes, and services that high carbon, prefigurative design, post-material design, from objects to services. So design theory is full of interesting and important insights that can inform the Green New Deal and the search for just transitions.
Design theory as well is full of desires to embark on a speculative futuring. So design is one part of the academy that as skeptical postmodernism descended, it was the one part that did not give up on speculation and on the future. And it’s not surprising that suddenly now a whole range of people are turning to design futuring to think about other possible futures. So ecodesign, service design, transition design — there’s a gamut of really important traditions now in design, which are helping and trying to think about ways in which our material culture could be transformed.
One of the things that interests me, or started to interest me, about these discussions is the extent to which much of this radical design tradition really has increasingly had less and less to say about the labor of design. Who’s doing the designing, the labor conditions of designers, but also who is enrolled in broader sustainable design projects, and whose voice, knowledge, and labor is enrolled in these multiple kinds of green design. So labor, I think, has gone missing in a lot of contemporary radical, critical, transition design discussions. And I’ve also argued in a paper recently, that I can say to you, that there’s also significant gaps in radical, critical design imaginary. There are institutional, political, economic, scalar gaps in how design has thought about change over the last two decades or more.
So, where might we go to rethink these relationships? Well, one of the things that I’ve been trying to do recently is really just try and argue that there are actually a whole set of traditions of design that have taken labor, the workplace, and other spaces very seriously. And have really tried to think about the relationship between design, labor, and ecological futures. And one such key person here, as I’ve written about in a recent paper, is William Morris, who wrote this really fantastic essay called
A Factory As It Might Be.” And Morris was trying to conceptualize a factory of the future, which both allowed working people the full gains of a more cooperative, sumptuous form of living, but at the same time allowed them to be actively empowered in the shaping and crafting of the production processes. So Morris is really interesting and well worth thinking about.
Ebenezer Howard is really interesting in the ways in which his Garden City project certainly tried to think about cooperative forms of work as part of his confederal vision of the future. And then there are many other traditions that I’ve been trying to excavate recently, from Scandinavian traditions of worker-centered design, which erupt in the 1970s, which are trying to empower the knowledge of workers so that they can control their own technological transformations, to feminist traditions of design, urban design represented by people like Dolores Hayden, who are trying to think about gendered labor being rendered central and visible in the forms that the city could take. This is a wonderful book, “Grand Domestic Revolution,” talks a lot about non-credentialed designers trying to think about community restaurants, co-housing, wages for housewives, communal kitchens, urban and municipal infrastructure owned by women.
And then we have an eruption most recently of a whole set of scholarship that has really tried to draw attention to the extent to which the labor of indigenous people, in terms of the landscape of this country, has been systematically rendered invisible. But also, the ways in which stories of design history have tended particularly to focus on the great white male designer and ignore the labor, often the racialized and gendered labors of the draughtsmen and women, the model makers and construction workers, who play such a central role in all kinds of design. So a kind of devaluing of the class, gendered, and racialized labors of maintenance and repair conducted by all manner of design practitioners, mechanics and milliner’s tailors and janitors, that are central to social and ecological production.
So much of this literature then, and I’ll just kind of wrap this up here, has really kind of tried to draw our attention then to the extent to which a much more expansive account of design can allow us to think about how design competencies have been enacted around the 20th century by many people who were not formally understood as designers, who drew from their knowledge, often extractively, they envisaged products and designed schemes and designed futures which were profound and emancipatory in many respects. So here are some images, in the corner here, of the Black Panthers free food program, which is a really interesting example of what now what many people would call a kind of service design intervention. Yet, it was done at a scale and had an impact well beyond most contemporary service design today.
So let me just wrap up then by raising questions that these kinds of interventions pose for projects like the Green New Deal at a national level and just transitions for decarbonization at a more global level. I think the question that they kind of raise are really questions about design by whom, with what social and ecological impacts and what modes of displacement. What kinds of labor do we want to bring into view, what kinds of ecological design and what kinds of scales of design interventions. And essentially, I think we need to start thinking about power relations, both within design, around labor in particular, but also between design labor and the labor of publics.
So I think what I’m trying to think about is a political sociology of design, which is really trying to think about how design itself is often entangled in exploitative labor relations, neoliberalized relations and market forms, which can limit its capacity to transform the world. But also, diffuse design by lay publics is often undercut by all kinds of exploitative gendered and racialized power dynamics. So radical designers can rely on a level of labor which can often be exploitative in its own way. So when we’re thinking about Green New Deal, when we’re thinking about just transition, you know, how are we thinking about this and who’s got a voice? We can think about design politics for labor, which would be building beautiful urban spaces for working people. But here we confront the issue of technocracy and paternalism. But then we might want to draw from traditions emphasizing a design politics by labor, which wants to emphasize the multiracial and multi-gendered working class, having the capacity to design and be involved as self authors or participants in making urban, ecological and social-ecological locations. But this can fall back on romanticism in particular.
So how can we think about these two moments together? How can we think about a design politics for labor, for just transitions? How can we think about ways in which designers can join alliances? How can we institutionalize these alliances? What might we learn from previous moments in design and planning in particular to help us think about how just transitions and design might come together through traditions of community planning, advocacy, planning, stakeholder planning. And so just to finish off then, how could design for just transitions foreground racialized gender labor? How can it place it at it’s center? What would it mean to think about that? What would it mean to think about sustainable, just, and multipurpose infrastructures that facilitated not just human, but multi-species entanglements more generally? What would it mean to put foreground in the just transition a nonsexist, equitable, and antiracist green urbanism that really took on the problem of green gentrification? What would it mean in design futuring to step beyond a Western-centric or Eurocentric or settler colonial gaze and take plural alternative modernities seriously? So I think I’ll shut up there because I’ve said enough and I’ll invite your critiques and comments.
Labor, Just Transition, and the Green New Deal (Discussion)
Julian Agyeman: Well, Damian, thanks always. I remember at the American Association of Geographers a few years ago, I just sat back in my chair and I listened to the breadth of your thinking and scholarship and it never ceases to amaze me. Great. I’m going to take moderator prerogative here. And something I’ve been thinking about, goes right back to the basics. Why are we talking about a just transition? Why not a just transformation? Because I could see a transition from one unsustainable state to another unsustainable state, whereas transformation implies just, queered, gendered, it implies all of those things. Why are we talking about just transition?
Damian White: I suppose I would just say that, you know, social movements themselves generate terms that they use and I kind of run with what they’re using. And I think that within the concept of transition at the moment, this is where people are in that discourse. So I can certainly see your point, but to constructive dialogue with those groups it helps to use their language, I suppose I’d say.
Julian Agyeman: Yeah, this is one of the things that you and I, as people who sort of work in the real world, we have to be cognizant of ideas that have come up from the ground and help expand them, rather than maybe criticizing the wording. But it’s just, yeah, it’s a very interesting thing. Okay, we’ve got some questions. What do you perceive to be the connection between a just transition and an abolitionist vision to deconstruct all forms of oppression and invest in community care, mutuality, and reciprocity?
Yeah, thank you, Catherine. That’s such a great question. I suppose I think that the abolitionist turn now is not only undergirding the need to kind of recover the racialized histories of design that have been obscured by the kind of white male design history fetish, but also to think across institutional forms, which, you know, perhaps have been quite limited by the just transition. So most obviously, you know, I didn’t talk about the prison in this presentation. I didn’t talk about most surveillance in the city. I didn’t talk about the ways in which other institutions, police, etc., are fundamentally used to subordinates certain groups. And I think that there is a great opportunity for a much more expansive turn still through that kind of intersection. And certainly, you know, then we could start to look at not only the unjust implications of the prison industrial complex, its insane carbon and other entanglements, and how much it’s linked to a kind of multiple forms of subordination and human misery as well as ecological negative outcomes.Julian Agyeman: Another question, can you speak to the just transition with regard to renewable energy both upstream and downstream, the gendered labor of e-waste versus construction?
Damian White: Yeah, well, that’s a great question, to be sure. I mean, there are people that are much better positioned than me to talk about that. So I would direct people to the work of Lennon and Thea Riofrancos. I think that there is a really important debate going on here now about the upstream and downstream impacts of renewables. I think the first stage of this debate has been mapping and acknowledging those impacts. I think what interests me about Miles and Thea’s work, and Dustin Mulvaney’s work in this area, and Clark Miller, as well, out in Arizona, is that they’re trying to not just acknowledge the impacts, but indicate or suggest ways in which these might be ameliorated. So, you know, we are certainly going to have a massive ramp up of renewables. This is going to have material impacts, but it’s not given that they necessarily result in unjust outcomes. That really depends on the the configuration of labor, the configuration of supply chains, the capacities for workers in the global north to ally with workers in the global south, the capacity of us to have just trade relations, and the capacity for us to have kind of reflective community planning. I think all those thinkers that I’ve mentioned are really trying to add that second term to that discussion, which I think is really important.
Julian Agyeman: Another question, what will it take to finally kill the workforce skills gap discourse? Is there a city you know of which is eschewing the typical business demand-driven labor supply development model? Thank you for being here, we appreciate it.
Damian White: That’s a great question. Thank you very much for that. That’s really hard for me to answer there. I would always be tempted to go to see how Denmark has been addressing these issues. I remember in the paper looking at that, maybe six months ago, but to tell you the truth, it’s not really my field. So I would have to defer to better placed people than that.
Julian Agyeman: And we’ve got another question. Design is expensive and frequently paid for by the client. I’d love to know a bit more about who pays for and commissions designs in a just transition.
Damian White: Yeah, thank you. Another great question. I think, you know, this is certainly the case under forty years of neoliberalism in particular, that design has become progressively attached to, and embedded, particularly in the United States, in a kind of private client market context. But I think part of the intellectual work that we need to do is really to draw out other historical models. So up until the 1980s in the UK, something like about 60 to 70 percent of architects work for public bodies and public councils. And there have been other models of thinking about how design could relate to public institutions, so I think that is really the critical issue of the moment.
And I think that someone like Billy Fleming has really tried to think about your question, probably in the most impressive way. So, Lindsay, I would really encourage you to Google an essay by Billy Fleming called “Design and the Green New Deal.” And he really kind of looks at the way in which landscape architecture in particular has been massively delimited by its relationship to private clients and private market actors and real estate development, leading it, he argues, to be a kind of prettification discourse. Whereas it’s got this vast, ambitious history of landscape transformation. And part of his argument for the Green New Deal is really to say that the state could be enacted through a green new deal to employ designers for the public good, as it did through the Civilian Conservation Corps and the WPA (Works Progress Administration) and the other agencies of the first New Deal. So, he’s very much got an argument that says design could put people back to work and it could create a public set of institutions that designers are focused on to decarbonize. I think that’s a really important question. The interesting supplementary question is, how do we do that without repeating all the old problems of high modernism that sometimes followed from that.Julian Agyeman: Okay, and our last question, is there anything we can learn from the European Green New Deal and its implementation of just transitions?
Damian White: Yeah, I mean, that’s a really good question. It’s my sense at the moment that the European Green New Deal is embodied in many conflicting kinds of politics, where it’s not entirely clear how much a broadly technocratic and market driven vision of the Green New Deal will actually deliver. So it kind of throws us back to, you know, the beginning of this talk, which was talking about how, you know, the just transition is this contested and some would say sometimes co-opted conversation.
And so I suppose what we can learn from the European Green New Deal is that the Green New Deal is going to emerge. It will be co-opted, it will be imperfect. But we still need to find strategies to push for more democratic, more public versions of this while it’s being co-opted. So, similarly to developments like the circular economy in the EU, which at one level is highly technocratic, highly institutionally limited, but at the same extent, providing kind of material possibilities that could be reprogrammed, prefigured, remade in different fashions. So I think it’s the question of how do we engage in an ongoing politics that acknowledges co-optation is inevitable for Green New Deals and just transitions. But how do we fight the fight to keep publics democratic accountability and just outcomes as an ever present kind of issue? And I think that’s a question of political organizing and political messaging and having clarity about the project that you’re pursuing.
Julian Agyeman: Great. And last question, and it relates to your, I think, poignant point about certain economies like Asian economies, considering the rate of development in Asia in particular, are there other models that are likely to be more popular in these parts of the world that could deliver similar to the Green New Deal, just transition ideas?
Damian White: Yeah, I mean, that is such a good question. I think one of the reasons why we have to think about combined and uneven development is that we have to acknowledge that there are certain parts of the global south that need to address ongoing issues of poverty, rural displacement. And so I think this is really one of the central questions for the just transition in the future. And I think it would be, how the center of global manufacturing now, which is largely occurring in Asia, can implement a just form of decarbonization. I mean, I think this is a huge challenge and I will leave that thought for another day to think about that, because it’s such a big question. I really appreciate you pushing me on that, that’s a real tough one.
Julian Agyeman: Well, Damian, again, as usual, thanks to these expansive thoughts, they’re not everyday thoughts in urban planning, but these are allied to futures that we are going to be planning in. And a lot of this is just super relevant, Damian. And I really want to push you on the book, Damian is going to write a book in my Just Sustainabilities book series, aren’t you, David?
Damian White: I am, sir. I’m signing now.
Julian Agyeman: Thank you, ok good. Right with that, can we give a warm UEP sendoff to Damian White?
Damian White: Thank you so much. I really appreciate.
Julian Agyeman: Thank you, everybody.