HARD CONSTANTS: Sustainability and the American City

By Tony Favro
Published by Ciry Mayors Foundation, London, U.K.
ISBN: 978-0-615-69950-9 184 pages

This is a book about the fixed and seemingly immutable forces that motivate Americans;the “hard constants” or received notions of how power ought to be used, and of what makes a place matter, and that compel our allegiance to capitalism, the engine to which we have been hitched for about three hundred years, and which has made the modern world possible.

The world desperately needs to move toward sustainability. But in America, the hard constants stand in the way. Here are some of them: In major American cities, people are segregated according to income and have levels of inequality as high as Third World cities, while poverty and racism persist. Workers are suborned in the perpetuation of racism by the insecurity of their employment. Corporate boards are closed to employees, mayors of cities, consumers and others who might broaden the principles by which firms operate, and make them more accountable. Neighbourhoods are regulated to protect property values.

Americans like to believe they achieve prosperity by virtue of their abilities, the author says. But people are formed ultimately "socially by family, schools, and work…True equality of opportunity depends on equality of family resources, impossible with capitalism…The geographical separation becomes an expression of material and moral superiority…We are judged by what we own…What does democracy mean when geographic separation is a way of life, when society segregates itself along economic lines and judges moral status by material status?"

Tony Favro, the author of Hard Constants, was intimately involved in a radical urban experiment from 1994 to 2006-that of Neighbors Building Neighborhoods (NBN), in Rochester, New York. It was the project of a black populist mayor, William (Bob) Johnson, for whom the author worked. Johnson’s answer to inner city decay was to involve the inner city residents in planning incremental improvements to their neighborhoods-giving them, in effect, real power to change their environment. NBN, writes Favro, “prioritized local needs over the needs of global and corporate interests.” The experiment was so successful that property values rose and it was recognized around the world as an effective way to empower and motivate a city’s dispossessed to bring about substantial improvements to their urban environment.

Regrettably, most local governments are run by a handful of people, representing a coalition of economy-first interests. Not surprisingly, the successors of William Johnson were unwilling to share power and NBN was dismantled.

America’s dominant standards for normalcy, Favro says, sustain arbitrary classifications of people, which, in turn, sustain prejudice and inequality, and these notions are reinforced by the media, whose depiction of reality is governed by consumerism--promotion of the new, gratification through change, and generation of cynicism and mistrust --all of which boosts advertising revenues, while reducing everything to the same dimension and eroding trust in authority: "Our deep distrust of the motives of others coincides with our high anxiety over disorder…one feeds on the other. Privileged Americans surround themselves with people they trust and isolate disorder geographically." Capitalism, Favro says, "provides social equality only in the minimum measure necessary to maintain economic productivity and growth."

While the world is ready to put its faith in a sustainable future, the progress of sustainability in America is tentative. Whether in food production or in building cities, sustainability involves not only responsible use of resources and a concern with local rather than global, but also a return to the ideals of ancient craftsmanship--to durability and aesthetics; and in architecture, a return to human dimensions. Favro muses: "A sustainable world in which people satisfy many of their needs locally and feel less compulsion to migrate would likely be quite different from a capitalist world in which masses of people have to move for necessity."

Hard Constants shows, America is at a distinct disadvantage. In the past, capitalism has stood in the way of resolving the contradictions in American society, such as racism and poverty. Now it stands in the way of a sustainable and secure future, and justice for all Americans. How does America deal with these hard constants in order to join the world in creating sustainable societies? Favro does not pretend to have the answer. But he points out that John Rawls, in A Theory of Justice, tells us: "When truly given the choice, people will choose justice, defined as equality. Specifically, people will choose to 'maximise the expectations of those most disadvantaged' as they try to make a better life for themselves, for the acquisition of wealth is justified only if it results in prosperity for the poor."

Without the cooperation of those who wield political and economic power, Americans will never be given this choice. Socrates tell us "the unexamined life is not worth living." If soul-searching has a place in the life of nations, as of individuals, this is the time for America to examine its soul. America is at a crossroads. The contradictions that need to be resolved constitute perhaps the greatest challenge the United States has ever faced. The road ahead is uncharted. But If America can find a way to navigate it, the American dream might at last be realized—for all Americans, without exception.

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