Days after the heart-stopping Notre-Dame Cathedral fire in April, Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg trained her eyes on the United Kingdom’s parliament and chastised its meager response to climate change. “I want you to panic,” the baby-faced sixteen-year-old quietly instructed the adults in the room. “Avoiding climate breakdown will require cathedral thinking. We must lay the foundation while we may not know exactly how to build the ceiling.” For those who don’t get the reference, Notre-Dame’s cornerstone was laid in 1163. The magnificent Gothic structure was not completed until 1345, a work of cross-generational faith, common purpose, and, undoubtedly, obedience. This was, after all, the Middle Ages.
The loosely defined proposal for a Green New Deal hits the panic button, American-style, but it does not exactly lay a cornerstone. Which is to say that it avoids prickly issues of land use – generally reserved for states and localities that regularly do battle with sacrosanct private property rights. Yet the choices we make about our land are foundational to any future we construct, low-carbon or otherwise. It has always been so. Just ask the pre-Columbian indigenous peoples, the slaveholders and their human property, the “settlers,” the railroad barons, and the policy architects of postwar suburbanization and urban disinvestment. And consider the fact that sprawling suburban development devoured nearly 31 million acres of agricultural land – cropland, woodlands, pasture, and range land – between 1992 and 2012 alone, according to a 2018 report by American Farmland Trust (AFT). That is an area almost as large as New York State. More than a third of that conversion, 11 million acres, took place on prime farmland blessed with the world’s richest soil. That is an area roughly the size of California’s Central Valley. Protecting such land, and doing so in an equitable manner, is critical not only to our future food supply but also to mitigating and adapting to climate change.
A few others have pointed out the land-use blind spot in the Green New Deal, but they have focused almost entirely on urban land use, practices promoted by the New Urbanist and Smart Growth movements in the 1990s that aim for greater urban density, compact mixed-use, transit-oriented development, and walkability as antidotes to greenhouse-gas-pluming, car-centered suburban expansion. These urbanist measures are important in offering up an alternative to sprawl, of course, and are very much au courant in view of our newfound love affair with cities. But somehow, the inverse—protecting agricultural lands from development – has receded from public discourse in recent years, a casualty, perhaps, of the growing urban-rural divide that birthed the 2016 presidential election results. So has use of the word sprawl itself, that thing going on out there past the decrepit, empty shopping malls, far from the thrum of the metropolis.
As I was told more than once when my book Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World was published in 2012, “sprawl” had become a “dirty word” among nonprofit funders and policymakers. Once smart growth policies gained traction, “sprawl” was viewed as “polarizing,” code for “negative” judgment of suburban dwellers, especially after the 2010 congressional Tea Party triumph that scared the wits out of sustainability-minded liberals. And it wasn’t just the conspiracy-drunk anti-Agenda 21-crowd they risked antagonizing. There were also thousands of first-time, moderate-income homebuyers, many black and Latinx, who were beneficiaries of the shaky subprime mortgages and other financial instruments that underwrote oceans of sprawl until the housing market crashed in 2007, setting in motion the Great Recession. Talk of “sprawl” had become bad publicity. Better, then, to vanquish “sprawl” from our policy vocabulary, focus on the “positive,” and promote “resilient cities” and “healthy communities” – the Sierra Club’s 2005 replacement name for its Challenge to Sprawl Campaign.
The Green New Deal Resolution, while avoiding mention of urban land use, is not entirely mum about agriculture. It calls for “working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible.” The stress is on “supporting family farming,” “investing in sustainable farming and land use [meaning cultivation] practices that increase soil health,” and “building a more sustainable food system that ensures universal access to healthy food.” But missing altogether is language for protecting rural land, the very land that supports the “healthy communities” the Green New Deal aims to cultivate.
The Coming Land Grab
Of course, galloping land development is not only taking place in the United States. A 2019 World Resources Institute study sounds the alarm that cities in developing countries are growing both upward and outward, particularly in the Global South where urban populations are exploding, with rampant land speculation and weak governance structures making growth management all the more difficult. While much of the study focuses on the inequitable results, “the adverse environmental impacts that result from unmanaged urban expansion are far-reaching,” it warns. “Increasing urban expansion consumes prime agricultural land and water, which impacts food production, habitats, and biodiversity. . . . The loss of agricultural land to indiscriminate urban expansion will assume increasing urgency as the global population grows and climate change impacts intensify.”
What the study leaves out is that these conditions—food and water scarcity, desertification, flooding, and rising sea levels—are already leading to climate migration. The degradation of farmland in Mexico and Central America, for example, has contributed to the movement of families north in search of relief. Yet the United Nations and other international bodies have not updated the 1951 Refugee Convention to include climate among the factors contributing to formal refugee status, or made significant efforts to plan for the orderly resettlement of the tens of millions of migrants who will find their homelands environmentally inhospitable due to climate disruption. As a 2018 European Parliament briefing tactfully put it, “So far, the national and international response to this challenge has been limited.”
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Much as experts may try to model where these refugees will land, and in what numbers, MIT’s Technology Review concludes that it’s all an “educated guess.” That’s not surprising. But we can be reasonably certain – with or without overly esteemed data modeling – of a few things. Climate migrants will be drawn to cooler temperatures and food and water sources – that is, northward, including the United States. And within the United States, the entire South will grow hotter and experience more boisterous “weather events.” Rising sea levels, mainly along the Eastern Seaboard through Virginia and in Florida and the Mississippi Delta, will lead to inland coastal migration. How far into the interior and on what time scale is open to debate. But most educated guesses see future destinations clustered around the Pacific Northwest, New England, and states near the Great Lakes, which comprise 20 percent of the world’s fresh water and where the soil is unusually rich. With millions of migrants, climate and otherwise, headed their way, expect a chaotic, speculative land grab to break out unless the Green New Deal makes farmland protection a priority of the highest order.
The stakes are especially high in smaller “post-industrial” metros that have not enjoyed the prosperity bestowed by global finance capital and the tech economy. The legacy cities that historically grounded these settlements have lost as much as half their populations – and even more – to both deindustrialization and what a 2003 Brookings Institution report called “sprawl without growth”: outward expansion of commercial and housing development without regional population growth to absorb it. Lead author Rolf Pendall zeroed in on “the Upstate Paradox” along the New York State Thruway, where sprawl had gone haywire, but the processes he describes apply across the Rust Belt. Compare, say, the Sun Belt city of Houston, where the urban footprint has kept closer pace with its explosive population growth, with Buffalo, New York, where the same population in 1950 now occupies a geography three times its former size. Like Buffalo, most of these older Northeastern, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwestern cities were sited along riverways and on prime farmland – both critical to early industry and commercial development and now to our prospects under climate change. Low-density sprawl in these places eats up essential, irreplaceable agricultural land. It is also fiscally reckless, leaving state and local taxpayers on the hook for infrastructure buildout – sewer and electricity lines, schools, roads, and emergency services – to support new development. And it starves the city’s tax base, already squeezed by population and job loss to the exurban frontier.
The United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Inventory data, on which the 2018 American Farmland Trust report primarily relied, has since been updated through 2015 and now suggests that farmland loss has been somewhat tempered, giving protection advocates some reason to cheer. But there’s little occasion to assume that other trends in the data will abate: metropolitan counties have seen the most fruit and vegetable cultivation losses, along with poultry and dairy. Only in the United States, where commodity agriculture is king, can such life essentials be relegated to the technical status of “specialty crops,” as the USDA does. Moreover, a 2017 report by the Capital District Regional Planning Commission in New York State showed that while the combined populations of Albany, Troy, and Schenectady declined by 0.7 percent since 2010, the region’s suburbs grew by 1.5 percent, with most new multi-family units – a compact smart growth housing approach – also going up in the suburbs. And anecdotal evidence suggests that manufacturing sprawl, long a development spearhead, is still a concern. As I reported several years ago, New York State proudly subsidized a microchip manufacturing “megaproject” to be plopped on prime farmland one-and-a-half times the size of Central Park between Buffalo and Rochester and not unlike the more notorious Foxconn project located between Racine and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As an added kick, those farms are now gone, and both projects have yet to see the promised construction or robust manufacturing employment figures.
Embraced by urban economists Edward Glaeser, Richard Florida, Enrico Moretti, and others bedazzled by “star” global cities and the inevitable march of digital innovation, conventional wisdom has long held that the prospects of cities like Buffalo, Rochester, and Racine are dismal. With the flight of manufacturing, the intensification of industrial agriculture, and the dread “brain drain” sucking out “talent,” “market forces” are unlikely to smile benevolently upon such places for the foreseeable future – if ever again. Paul Krugman recently joined the gang with a New York Times op-ed in which he asked insolently, “What, in the modern economy, are small cities even for?” His answer is that the location of these places was always somewhat arbitrary, supported by an agricultural base we no longer need thanks to industrial farming and land concentration. As we enter the era of climate change, Krugman assumes that things won’t change, that global market conditions will continue to dictate the terms, that coastal megacities threatened with rising sea levels and mega-industrial farms owned by large real-estate equity firms will continue to expand, that the exodus of the so-called best and brightest will continue draining away. Above all, he assumes that the land doesn’t matter. “The modern economy,” Krugman argues, “has cut loose from the land,” and as a result “any particular small city exists only because of historical contingency that sooner or later loses its relevance.” The political parallel to this dumb economistic dismissal of small cities and towns is making the rounds in the lead-up to the 2020 elections. The Washington Post puts it this way: “Should Democrats bother reaching out to rural America?”
In writing off entire communities and productive activities, such musings reflect the folly of modern economic thought. Unlike their twentieth-century successors, laissez-faire political economists Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill viewed land as a third factor in production, along with capital and labor, but one with distinct qualities: it was fixed and immobile, it was scarce, and it could not be produced or reproduced. According to this line of thinking, land eluded laws of supply and demand, leading to monopoly, and therefore required different treatment by the state, including some form of taxation to ensure that wealthy landowners, fattened by inflated land values, did not inhibit economic development and the production of essential agricultural goods. By the twentieth century, such careful parsing was lost. In effect, later neoclassical capital theory folded land value into what economist Josh Ryan-Collins describes as “an all-encompassing ‘fund’ of ‘pure capital’ that is homogeneous across land, labor and capital goods.”
The disappearance of land from ruling economic theory may account for why the collapse of smaller heartland communities is greeted with a shrug by writers for the New York Times and the Washington Post. It also helps to explain its absence from the Green New Deal, for all its social-democratic, capitalist-critical leanings. But rural communities cannot “cut loose from the land” quite so cavalierly. For them, land is all too real, as is its loss.
A longer version of this post originally appeared in The Baffler.