Worst Book Review Ever

Book review: Happy City – Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, by Charles Montgomery.

This book was handed to me by my employer as it is tangentially related to my field of work before the holidays for some light reading. My initial reaction – “Are you kidding me with this hippie bullshit? My plan is to be in a permanent state of semi-drunkenness for the entire 2.5 weeks” (editor’s note: a task to which zuuko succeeded brilliantly at). I digress.

On the day before I was due back and killing time on the 8 hour flight, I read it all – cover to cover.

***

Let me first talk about the environment, and more specifically on why environmentalists are bound to lose the war. This is a subject that has obliquely been bandied around this blog for a while. Besides as the resident right-of-center-asshole, I may have given the impression I was against the environment, especially when compared to the resident left-of-center-pussy (editor’s note: enough with the anatomy references). I do want to clarify a little.

Here’s the situation currently: the environment has been politicized and it is now exclusively a left-wing policy. If you actually care about the environment, this should seem insane to you. Let me explain why.

For reasons passing understanding, the Left has decided to run with the environment and the Right against it. People will toss out all kinds of ridiculous bon mots like “people on the right don’t care about the environment” (or its vice-versa corollary), or “Tea Party is against science”… all of this is BS. It’s a plain marketing issue from my perspective. The way the pro-environmental lobby has marketed its issue, it only would appeal to people on the left and would not on the right. So, the left has now monopolized the issue.

You may disagree with any one of the last couple of sentences as overtly broad generalizations, but I don’t see how you can disagree with the last sentence. As far as I can tell, environmentalism is pretty much only advanced by the left wing. Why is this a bad thing?

Well, if you believe, as I do, that saving the environment is a global problem that requires a global response (as opposed to individual governments tackling it haphazardly and in a piecemeal fashion), then in the present conditions that will only happen when every country everywhere elects left-wing governments at the same time and keeps them in power for a sustained period of time in order to enact and implement coordinated policies. I mean, isn’t that the logical end point (in the extreme I grant you, but still…).

Hence, environmentalists may think they’re winning the war by winning policy battles (like a Keystone here or a seal hunt there…), but they’re going to lose the war. There are going to be right wing governments and, until environmentalism is a distinctly left-wing policy, environmentalists are bound to lose policy battles in this situation and it becomes difficult to coordinate a global response. Canada and US are perfect examples. When Bush was in power, we Canadians had a Liberal government. Obama has only exclusively dealt with a Conservative Canadian PM. While this may seem like I’m jumping to conclusions… but I can’t help feel that if nothing is done, the environment will only get worse.

There is an obvious fix to the strategy pursued by the pro-environmental lobby. Have you tried marketing your goods to the Right? And I mean with a little more savvy than Lulu lemon trying to sell yoga pants to women?

Learn to speak our language.

***

This is where Charles Montgomery’s Happy City comes in. Yes, he’s a journo from Vancouver. And yes I bet he may have been a hippie in a past life. But his book is the first I’ve read that clearly articulated how to craft a pro-environment strategy that would appeal to pro-business, money-grubbing, process-oriented, traditional-values-interested…insert generic adjective describing right wingers… right wingers. I bet this statement comes as a shock to Charles Montgomery himself. But his book contains the seeds of crafting a marketing campaign to the Right.

Montgomery’s focused on incentives. He’s focused on municipal planning codes. He’s focused on what people want (translation: what we can sell them… for money… gobs and gobs of money). He’s focused on municipal governments (because all the governing that really matters to people happens there. As an aside, Zolltan once remarked to me that mayors have no powers and don’t really affect anything major, a statement which I found so shocking that I was momentarily stunned. I want to throw this book at his head in the hopes that something sticks). Montgomery’s focused on incremental progress using real policies that may be small in of themselves, but when added up could be transformational (which is the biggest gripe the Right has with the Left currently – i.e. tell me what to do day-to-day to change the environment. Tell me specific policies that work. I don’t think its out of line to accuse many environmentalists today of being more concerned with looking like they’re saving the environment but being bored by the nitty-gritty). Most of all, Montgomery’s focused on properly incentivizing people to do right by the environment.

It will be coordinated self-interest that does the trick (Adam Smith’s famous Invisible Hand), and not endless, platitudinous moralizing that passes for environmental policy these days.

***

If you’re thinking to yourself, “Wait a minute, you didn’t actually review the damn book. Wtf is wrong with you?” Well, look at the title of the blogpost, Einstein.

You get what you paid for. (editor’s note: sigh)

Read the damn book.

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4 Responses to Worst Book Review Ever

  1. zolltan says:

    I agree with all of that except the part where I get smacked in the head with a book (*puts on indian accent* yes, I am also not a pussy). And I agree municipal decisions are super important – I just don’t think *mayors* are all that powerful. Plus, I was only making that point to justify enjoying the Rob Ford thing, (which, by the way, did you see the new video of him Jamaican-swearing at a fast food place?). The weird thing is that you think I would disagree with market urbanism in some way (you read my thing against parking, right?).

    But I think the chance to make the environment a consensus policy via talking to right wingers about incentives and deregulation has sailed. Conservatives want zoning restrictions: http://www.city-journal.org/2012/22_3_snd-los-angeles.html they don’t want deregulated parking: http://seattletimes.com/html/editorials/2017926841_edit09parking.html. George Will wants Americans to buy more gas-guzzling trucks: http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/01/george-will-keeps-getting-nuttier.html Reason, of all places, publishes anti-urbanism pieces: http://reason.com/archives/2013/06/07/why-new-urbanism-doesnt-work . Right-wingers who love Pigovian taxes hate them if their goal is to help the environment. We’ve both talked about how sad “the culture war-ification of everything” is, but it’s what’s happened here. Because suburbia and giant trucks are associated with people who vote right in North America, environmentalism isn’t gonna be part of a right-wing platform. At this point, no marketing campaign will fix that. Whereas, I think, personally, one reason I am an environmentalist is that I am an extremely, extremely conservative (in the sense of hating change, not in the sense of politics, obviously) person, so it’s really bizarre to me.

    • Zuuko says:

      speaking of bon mots, the rest of your comment on that ship having sailed is exactly the problem i’m talking about. no ship has sailed. a coordinated marketing campaign targetting the right over as little as 2 years will radically change the policy landscape. i’ve seen too many dizzying about turns from political parties to believe anything otherwise.

      the more apt analogy is probably something to do with shifting course of a super tanker.

      • zolltan says:

        A coordinated effort by whom? Look, I agree that the environmental movement should reach out more to the right, but it’s not like there’s an Environment Inc. to do that. And again, I’m not sure how useful that’d even be – even though, like we agree, the fundamentals for environmentalism to be conservative policy are all there. To me it seems basically that it’s often pundits that decide which policies go together by what they talk about. So that’s whom I would try to influence if I were an environmental lobbyist. Conservative pundits in America, though,can’t pivot super easily on this because of the cultural connection between rural and suburban lifestyles and conservatism on one hand and harming the environment on the other. This cultural connection to will not change. There has to be some strong counterpressure to balance that. A marketing campaign is not enough.

        But I think in Canada it might be a lot easier, because the not urban = conservative connection is a lot weaker, and also because the biggest environmental concern has to do with resource extraction. In Canada, unfortunately, there’s just tremendous economic pressure to be bad to the environment.

  2. Zuuko says:

    i did read your post on parking. but that post is right up this book’s alley. You want to borrow the book?

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