At first glance, the two traits don't really go together, and there is a sense that they are not bound by any particular logic. They simply coexist in a certain generation's consciousness, in Hyde Park and in other urban places across the country.
But such juxtapositions have a way of becoming contradictions as circumstances change. And all it has taken to bring these two traits into open contradiction is one circumstance in particular: global climate change. It's the equivalent, in terms of ideological watersheds, of Khruschev's 1953 speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party denouncing Stalin's Reign of Terror: it was hard to be Stalinist after that. Less dramatically, one might point to being a Southern Democrat after passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964; it was hard thereafter for many southerners to remain in the Democratic Party. Ideologies are intellectual coalitions, and if not updated, they fall apart.
So it is with old-school Liberalism and climate change. The environmental movement has many sources, and many of them (but not all) have been aligned with the American Left and the Democratic Party since the 1960s. This is the heritage that is so well established in Hyde Park. Refracted through the neighborhood's particular experience of Urban Renewal, with the latter's post-war faith in grand technocratic solutions to complicated social problems, the environmental consciousness of the time was steeped in distinctly anti-urban attitudes.
It could make sense, therefore, to be for civil rights, desegregation, unions, and withdrawal from Vietnam, while also wanting the built environment around you to be like a cross between Haight-Ashbury and Harper Avenue: low-slung, two-story commercial districts with quaint gingerbread Victorians along the back streets. One could fight each and every proposed mid-rise or in-fill project secure in the conviction that one was fighting the good fight against City Hall, just as one had done with civil rights and every other Big Project sponsored by Big Capital.
It turns out, however, that this particular type of urban model, and the militant resistance to making it more dense, may be fatal to the planet.
And that's a decidedly un-Liberal possibility.
We've seen this play out in any number of Hyde Park neighborhood controversies over developments, both real and hypothetical. The old-school mentality finds its voice with airy references to "viewsheds," a sometimes uncritical fondness for "open space," and a phobia for tall buildings. Traffic will be horrible, children will be run over, and pollution will kill us all -- when, in fact, just the opposite will most likely be true.
This train of reflection was triggered by a recent essay in a Bay Area newspaper ("You're Not an Environmentalist if You're Also a NIMBY," Robert Gammon, East Bay Express, July 1, 2009). Given the Bay Area's Liberal credentials, it's worth quoting the piece as a sign of the contradiction between earlier Liberal environmentalism and its uneasy NIMBY partner.
Global warming is changing far more than just the climate. It's altering the way environmentalists view development. For years, city dwellers who consider themselves to be eco-conscious have used environmental laws and arcane zoning rules to block new home construction, especially apartments and condominiums. In the inner East Bay, liberals have justified their actions by railing against gentrification and portraying developers as profiteers. But the lack of urban growth in Berkeley and in parts of Oakland during the past few decades also has contributed to suburban sprawl and long commutes. And all those freeways choked with cars are now the single biggest cause of greenhouse gas emissions in the region.
There are always contradictions in any particular political agenda, right, left or other. But it is hard to argue that climate change has not emerged as a political priority that trumps anything else one might care to identify as part of the Liberal portfolio, at least as understood in Hyde Park. Labor? Nope. Racism? Unfortunately not. Feminism. Still secondary. That nice suburban feel with the open spaces left over from Urban Renewal? Definitely, categorically, Not.
Referencing the East Bay again:
[F]or the inner East Bay to grow the way it should, it will have to overcome the region's well-developed not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) sensibilities. In Berkeley and North Oakland, in particular, liberals who view themselves as environmentalists have been blocking dense housing developments for decades. They have complained about traffic, overcrowding, and the potential destruction of neighborhood character. But among those who are paying attention to the causes of global warming, there is a growing realization that no-growth activists have to step back and look at the bigger picture. Climate change has forced a paradigm shift in the environmental movement. If you live in an urban area, you can't call yourself an "environmentalist" and continue to act like a NIMBY by blocking new housing.
This all sounds very familiar. And in truth, it has started to change, even here in immobile Hyde Park. An older generation is passing from the scene, one for whom complaints about "traffic, overcrowding, and the potential destruction of neighborhood character" were right and honorable reflexes in their day. They are also now in full contradiction with what needs to happen in order for Liberal -- or any other -- ideology to adjust to a new reality, so that there is at least some chance of slowing down what might be the greatest shock humanity has faced in its short time on earth.
A final quote from the author, Robert Gammon:
[P]eople who ... consider themselves to be liberal environmentalists ... need to finally start thinking globally and acting locally. The coming global warming crisis demands that they do more than just eat organic, install solar panels, or buy a Prius. They also need to realize that dense development will make their neighborhoods and their cities better — not worse.
The realization is starting to sink in here in Hyde Park -- though it has taken some doing. But it can't be encouraged enough.