It is per­haps not sur­pris­ing then that the rhetoric of in­creas­ing choice has be­come more preva­lent in re­cent years.”

The East African - - OUTLOOK -

The ev­i­dence of hu­man-in­duced cli­mate change is clear. At a min­i­mum, cli­mate change will cost us dearly due to its eco­nomic im­pacts and the lives lost from the in­creased fre­quency of ex­treme weather events. At worst, it presents an ex­is­ten­tial threat.

Liv­ing in North Amer­i­can cities of­ten means heavy re­liance on the au­to­mo­bile. Many plan­ners have been call­ing for changes to how we de­velop our cities. They hope to re­duce au­to­mo­bile use and its en­vi­ron­men­tal bur­dens, es­pe­cially car­bon emis­sions that are a fac­tor be­hind cli­mate change.

When it comes to ur­ban plan­ning, the ques­tion is not so much how to phys­i­cally plan our cities and sub­urbs dif­fer­ently. There are many well thought-out plan­ning tools and tech­niques. Rather, the ques­tion is how to per­suade both the pub­lic and our politi­cians to im­ple­ment change.

Plan­ners and politi­cians have pitched pub­lic tran­sit and cy­cling in­fra­struc­ture projects as a mat­ter of in­creas­ing choice to a weary pub­lic still largely de­pen­dent on cars. We built our cities around the car. So it would only seem fair that we should now make pro­vi­sions for those who choose al­ter­na­tive ways of get­ting around.

But how can we ex­pect broad de­clines in car use from the ap­proach of pitch­ing ex­pand­ing choices to the pub­lic, when clearly, our con­sump­tion be­hav­iour needs to be changed and lim­ited?

An un­ex­pected resur­gent philo­soph­i­cal move­ment, ex­is­ten­tial­ism, may pro­vide some as­sis­tance. This phi­los­o­phy em­pha­sises the dy­namic be­tween in­di­vid­ual choice and col­lec­tive im­pacts.

These choices are at the core of pub­lic poli­cies of all sorts. To counter the dam­age of car­bon emis­sions, we need to change the guid­ing phi­los­o­phy be­hind ap­proaches to ad­dress cli­mate change in cities.

Like most as­pects of our lives, plan­ning is shaped by philoso­phies of how we think the world works, or ought to work. It is per­haps not sur­pris­ing then that the rhetoric of in­creas­ing choice has be­come more preva­lent in re­cent years.

After all, we live in an age that val­ues in­di­vid­u­al­ism and where mar­ket-driven views of the world have be­come more dom­i­nant. Peo­ple are in­creas­ingly de­picted as con­sumers, as op­posed to res­i­dents or cit­i­zens, and in­creas­ing con­sump­tion choices is seen as in­her­ently ben­e­fi­cial.

Un­for­tu­nately, pitch­ing al­ter­na­tives to the car as a means to in­crease our choices is likely to un­der­mine the suc­cess of car­bon emis­sion re­duc­tion ini­tia­tives. Pub­lic tran­sit and bike lanes are of­ten im­ple­mented to help at­tract new res­i­dents with pre-ex­ist­ing pref­er­ences for these trans­port modes into pre­vi­ously de­clin­ing or oth­er­wise strug­gling neigh­bour­hoods.

This shift con­trib­utes to what has to be called “green gen­tri­fi­ca­tion.” That is the dis­place­ment of peo­ple with lower in­comes to more car-ori­ented sub­urbs due to the grow­ing de­mand for hous­ing in ar­eas with al­ter­na­tive trans­porta­tion in­fra­struc­tures.

The pos­si­bil­ity of broad re­duc­tions in emis­sions is lim­ited not only be­cause of the dis­place­ment of com­mu­ni­ties but also be­cause these new projects do not serve the large share of the pop­u­la­tion cur­rently liv­ing in low-den­sity sub­urbs. Any­one may “choose” not to par­tic­i­pate in re­duc­ing their emis­sions. A change in the way we view choice may help, and this is where ex­is­ten­tial­ism may hold some po­ten­tial.

Ex­is­ten­tial­ism is a phi­los­o­phy that be­came pop­u­lar in the 1940s, em­pha­sis­ing in­di­vid­ual free­doms in the face of Fas­cism. The root of ex­is­ten­tial­ism as a phi­los­o­phy is of­ten at­trib­uted to the ideas of Husserl, Jaspers and Hei­deg­ger. The phi­los­o­phy be­came more ex­plic­itly de­fined through the works of Kierkegaard, Ni­et­zsche and in par­tic­u­lar Jean-paul Sartre.

Ex­is­ten­tial­ists are of­ten seen as highly prag­matic, which makes it an ap­peal­ing phi­los­o­phy for an ap­plied dis­ci­pline such as plan­ning. Ex­is­ten­tial­ism fo­cuses on ques­tions about the ways we ex­pe­ri­ence life.

In­di­vid­ual free­dom and the abil­ity to ques­tion are two fun­da­men­tal ex­is­ten­tial­ist ax­ioms. Our ex­is­tence is de­ter­mined, from an ex­is­ten­tial­ist view, mainly by our ac­tions, al­though it does also ac­knowl­edge con­straints we can­not con­trol.

Ex­is­ten­tial­ist phi­los­o­phy has seen a bit of re­vival in re­cent years. For in­stance, the im­mense suc­cess of Sarah Bakewell's book, At

named one of the Top 10 books of 2016 by the sug­gests a re­newed ap­petite for ex­is­ten­tial­ist ideas. One rea­son for the re­vival may be the con­gru­ence be­tween ex­is­ten­tial­ist ideas about in­di­vid­ual free­doms and our grow­ing in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic so­ci­ety.

But, im­por­tantly, ex­is­ten­tial­ism also in­cludes a col­lec­tive con­science. As Sartre noted: “Am I re­ally a man who is en­ti­tled to act in such a way that the en­tire hu­man race should be mea­sur­ing it­self by my ac­tions?”

In other words, the phi­los­o­phy ar­gues that in­di­vid­ual free­doms can­not be pre­served if all in­di­vid­u­als are com­pletely free to choose their ac­tions.

The ref­er­ence point for mak­ing de­ci­sions then be­comes the im­pact our in­di­vid­ual ac­tions would have on so­ci­ety as a whole if ev­ery­one else mod­elled their ac­tions after ours.

Mak­ing a come­back

If ex­is­ten­tial­ism is mak­ing a come­back, it may pro­vide pre­cisely the philo­soph­i­cal fod­der plan­ners, and other pol­i­cy­mak­ers, need to help the pub­lic un­der­stand why solv­ing col­lec­tive prob­lems, such as cli­mate change, may re­quire re­strict­ing some choices and not only cre­at­ing new ones.

If ev­ery­one con­tin­ues to drive car­bon-emit­ting cars, cur­rent and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions will face se­vere re­stric­tions on their own choices be­cause of the im­pacts of cli­mate change.

In an in­creas­ingly in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic so­ci­ety, a phi­los­o­phy that helps us val­i­date our personal free­doms all the while em­pha­sis­ing our col­lec­tive re­spon­si­bil­i­ties holds great po­ten­tial to pro­vide mean­ing to a large num­ber of peo­ple.

The ev­i­dence is abun­dant. We can still re­duce some of the ef­fects of cli­mate change by col­lec­tively agree­ing to re­duce car­bon emis­sions now. But the rhetoric of ex­pand­ing choice is not go­ing to get us there.

Ex­is­ten­tial­ism may pro­vide a new un­der­ly­ing philo­soph­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for why peo­ple should care about the col­lec­tive in an age of grow­ing in­di­vid­u­al­ism.

Pic­ture: File

Ve­hi­cles in a traf­fic jam. Car­bon emis­sion from cars is a ma­jor con­trib­u­tor to cli­mate change.

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