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Monday, September 30, 2019

The Localist Theory of Charles Marohn's Wonderfully Practical Strong Towns

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

This past weekend, I took a group of students up to the annual Prairie Festival at The Land Institute in Salina, KS. I do this every year, as part of my effort to introduce the students to some genuinely radical thinking regarding environmental sustainability, local food systems, and the cultural shifts necessary to make them happen. Afterwards, as I talked to one of my students about Wes Jackson's animated and quite funny discourse, I tried to communicate to him Jackson's insistence upon the "virtues of ignorance"--probably with little success. The moment the conversation was over, I wished I'd thought to make use of Charles Marohn's wonderful book Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity. Particularly this line:

Once we accept that our cities are complex systems, we are forced to come to grips with the reality that we can never fully understand them. More to the point, what we often think of as simple and obvious solutions to the problems we face are simple and obvious only because of our limited understanding. The more we truly know, the less clear things become (p. 120).

Jackson was talking about the damage which reductive, industrial solutions to the problems of food production has done to our farms and natural ecosystems, whereas Marohn's great crusade--one that has involved building a whole movement--is to get America's urban dwellers, and in particular those responsible for shaping the spaces wherein they dwell, to recover the "spooky wisdom" of older urban ecosystems, ones which grew organically and adaptatively, rather than bankrupting themselves in pursuit of "simple and obvious solutions." Both, ultimately, are discussing the same modern predicament. We are people who too often assume that--as Marohn describes at length at the end of the first chapter of his book--if there is a crime problem, we should just hire more police; if there is a traffic problem, we should just build more lanes of road; if the Walmart is stagnating, we should subsidize building another even larger one somewhere else; etc. (pp 13-14). That is, we are frequently bothered by complexity, by the time which incrementally adapting to emergent patterns requires, and by the local, circumstantial knowledge which such adaptations require; our preference, instead, is to build everything, or solve everything, "to a finished state" (p. 19), without much concern to the costs which mount in the absence of the complex stability which once attended the problem at hand.

Of course, one shouldn't deny that those "finished states" have often included among them transformations in food production (the Green Revolution!) and personal convenience (the suburban split-level with a backyard!) which have brought enormous positives into human life. But in pursuing those states, we invariably turn the complexity of tending to the land, or strengthening our communities, into something merely "complicated," begging for ever more technical responses which become ever more disconnected from the lives of all of us who depend upon those communities and upon that land if we are survive and thrive.

All this may make Strong Towns seem like a work of cultural criticism or philosophy, but it isn't--at least not directly. In fact, Strong Towns is one of those rare books (Wendell Berry's classic The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture is another) whose argument itself exemplifies what it advocates for: it builds towards a challenge to the whole way we conceive of its chosen focus by beginning with the most local and particular relevant matters possible. For Berry, like it is with Jackson, the focus is the collapse of traditional farming, and the key relevant matter at hand is the actual lives of farmers. For Marohn, with a focus on the collapsing financial health of America's cities, the most immediately relevant matters are the actual roads, pipes, buildings, and infrastructure that surround all of us who live in cities, and how much it costs to maintain them. Marohn, who worked as a civil engineers for decades, has an expert, intimate knowledge of these materials and processes, in the same way Jackson and Berry know about soil. So from that starting point, Marohn's book--easily the best practice treatise on localism that I have read in a long time--lays out the history and math that he sees as supporting his thesis: that America's cities are addicted to growth, and addicted to taking on debt to finance that growth, resulting in endless Ponzi Schemes to keep cities fiscally alive on paper even as basic maintenance collapses and, too often as a result, the sense of civic connection and confidence which functioning cities help provide collapses as well. The result is a bracing, powerful book which ought to get every reader to sign up a Strong Towns member, if nothing else.

Marohn is neither a historian nor a sociologist, nor as skilled a writer as Berry; his short, smart interventions into the thorny issues of private and public investment, cumulative cash flows, value per acre, and more, are both insightful and persuasive, but they leave some connections unclear, sometimes requiring the reader to supply the narrative thrust. Still, none of his declarations--"Our cities must now intentionally sacrifice growth in order to have stability" (p. 105); "There is no reason for any North American city to build another foot of roadway, or put in another length of pipe, to serve any new property anywhere" (p. 130); "Growth is an old economy objective. For local governments seeking to create successful human habitat, the centrally orienting objective needs to shift to wealth creation" (p. 176)--exist in a vacuum; all are well supported and have an intuitive sense to them. Every one of us, after all, have, no matter what size or type of city we live in, seen local governments hand out tax-breaks, desperately seek state and federal loans, float irresponsible bonds, impose ever-more creative financing schemes, all in the name of building another strip-mall, another restaurant, another office park, with the hope (sometimes fulfilled, but usually not) of landing jobs and generating sufficient additional tax revenue so as to make a few token payments and then start the process all over again. And every one of knows how this addiction is both a product of, as well as a contributor to, the individualism, consumerism, and materialism which rarely produces anything like the traditions, institutions, and beautiful edifices that our best cities--which are, almost without exception, cities whose wealth-creating inner core had grown through a long process of adaptation, and had achieved a stability sufficient to withstand the temptations of rapid, debt-driven growth--are known for.

Michael Hendrix, in his review of Strong Towns, said it described a "conservative vision for community," and he's not wrong to use that label. But we need to be clear on what kind of "conserving" Marohn is recommending. It is one that would follow a very different path than the market-friendly American conservatism of the past three generations. This may not be immediately obviously, especially since Marohn frequently expresses affection of market mechanisms, and accepts market realities in the way in which he tabulates costs and consequences. Yet he also, on my reading anyway, refuses to allow the supposed invisible hand of the marketplace to exercise any kind of formal driving role in his proposals. Instead, he acknowledges that all markets operate in realms of prior determined parameters, amidst a set of values and incentives which reflect affirmative decisions--and it is such decisions that he calls upon America's city dwellers to make. It's not for nothing, I think, that his final chapter ends with a call for us to "work together in an intentional way" (p. 218). What form should those intentions take? Well, clearly sometimes they should take the form of limits upon our lifestyle and socio-economic choices. As he observes (with, I think, just a tiny hint of contempt), many Americans appear to--or at least are said to--"prefer [living] in a single-family homes on a large lot....[and not] within traditional neighborhoods in close proximity to other people"; they "want big box stores, strip malls, and fast food, not corner stores and mom-and-pop restaurants." He responds to this brusquely: "I can respect that some people prefer development styles that are financially ruinous to my city...[but] my local government should not feel any obligation to provide those options"  (pp. 144-145).

Cities have been, likely for their entire history, places of freedom, experimention, and choice--Stadtluft macht frei! and all that. Completely aside from the practical problems of making this transition (and, to be clear, such practical considerations are exactly what takes up the bulk of the book!), an urbanism which can be "stable without growth" (p. 103) would have to be city which theorizes values of freedom, experimentation, and choice quite differently than they have been over the centuries of liberal modernity. What that theory would ultimately consist of is something which many of us are searching for, with no clear solutions yet. In his own, enormously valuable way, Marohn's whole Strong Towns project contributes to this search. In Strong Towns itself, you see echoes of it, though occasionally only in an unexplored and undeveloped way. For example, Marohn's language tiptoes right up to criticizing the wealth and opportunity which industrialization brought into our lives, implying with perhaps a touch of romanticism that our urban communities may have been better places when they were poorer (pp. 60, 126-127). Similarly, the ambivalence which arguably attends Marohn's language when he discusses white flight and women entering the work force might raise concerns among those fearful that re-introducing limits to our urban imagination will likely result in a return to old, discriminatory patterns (pp. 93, 96, 111). But we shouldn't read, I think, too much into these explorations--they are, after all, as the whole approach of the book makes clear, intellectual adaptations of a sense: incremental efforts to understand more about the complexity of urban life, and figure out ways to respond to the way we have both fiscally overbuilt and culturally underinvested in it.

And that is really the main virtue of Marohn's work: he is a man willing to explore. Any small, tactical action to restrict growth, build wealth, improve mass transit, halt needless construction, preserve still functional places, shrink streets, allow incremental denisfication, reduce regulatory burdens, promote walkability, and enable people to engage in commerce and build communities and connections in the midst of the suburban grids which plaque too many of our cities is, so far as he is concerned, is something that he'll likely want to see tried. And that means he'll listen to and weigh arguments without insisting on pigeon-holing them in one category of answers or another. For example, he's clearly not a fan of cities' budgets being dependent upon the national government, but he also allows that some of what the national government does for cities is essential, and doesn't pretend that the national government needs to act just like a city government must (pp. 79-80, 85-86, 88-89). In short, what I think Marohn models, above all, is a democratic urbanism, one that turns to hard data, yes, but even more so turns to city dwellers themselves, as Berry and Jackson turned to farmers, to discover (or recover) the incremental insights that, bit by bit, makes towns strong. Does he have a democratic theory to make sense of all the ways in which cities, and the concentration of interests they represent, potentially complicate local governance? Not really. But he has shown us, through this book and in his whole campaign, just how imperative, and how practical, asking those questions, and incrementally experimenting with answers, really is.

At the end of chapter 5 of Strong Towns, "Growth or Stability"--which is, in more ways than one, the real center of the book's whole argument--Marohn makes a deeply important and culturally rich (whether he realizes it or not) set of observations. He writes (and forgive my interruptions, but it's a rich passage that deserves further elaboration):

Cities are a collection of us; they are they way we take collective action in our communities. [Here "cities" are presented as inherently democratic and civic creations, not market ones; the act of organizing spaces for commerce, art, personal expression, political action, etc., is a form of collective agency, distinct from other historical forms.] Over the past century we've gradually given up this responsibility, deferring the direction of our places to the priorities of others. [Note what is implied by "others"--they are not a single, collective force, but individualized others, others separated from what those in the city collectively attend to.] If the people [invoking "the people," that essential civic construct] are to lead again, if we are to create a prosperous future for ourselves and our neighbors, local government must reassert leadership (pp. 105-106).

This is civic republicanism, participatory democracy, populist self-governance, and fiscal humility all rolled into one; it is a great expression of fundamental localist truths. Marohn may not see himself as a social theorist or historical critic, and his book isn't without its perplexing points. But he's produced here a great, vital work of localist theory, and needs to be honored for such.

Listening to Macca #9: Flaming Pie, Etc.

This month is the Paul McCartney of the mid- to late-1990s, Macca moving through his fifth decade, Sir Paul reuniting (sort of) with George Harrison and Ringo Starr to produce the monumental Beatles Anthology project, and, tragically, losing his wife Linda to cancer after nearly 30 years of marriage. It was a period that saw him diving into his past, and perhaps even turning a little reflective at times--which is rare for a man who has continually insisted over the decades that he has to rely upon his fans to remind him of details of his own history. Unlike what I saw in the undeniable accomplishments of his late 40s-early 50s, with a couple of wonderful, rejuvenating pop albums and a couple of fabulous world tours, I don't quite have a narrative for McCartney at this point in his life. It would be easy to present him as shifting to a lower gear and turning inward...but that really doesn't describe his life at this moment too well.

After all, he remained ridiculously busy. Besides the Anthology project, he released another classical composition, Standing Stone, a work of instrumental and choir music which followed a broad, poetic story, rather than the more specific and somewhat autobiographical one which characterized his Liverpool Oratorio. Stone is, in my opinion, a much better work. The same cannot be said about his second Fireman excursion into ambient and dance music, Rushes, after the fun and intense Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest; my wife described Rushes, while I was listening to it for the first time, as "mediocre yoga music," and after giving it another try, I had to agree with her. He also, as he did with "The Russian Album," felt inspired to get together with friends and cut an album of classic rock and roll tunes, with a few of original compositions thrown in. Run Devil Run is every bit as good as his previous album of covers, and his original 1950s-style rockers--"Run Devil Run," "Try Not to Cry," and "What It Is"--are all solid, especially the first one. The fact is that McCartney can be a pretty brilliant arranger when he puts his mind to it; his vaguely Zydeco take on Chuck Berry's "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" is particularly great.

But for all that activity, there are signs of a slower and reflective pace to Flaming Pie, an album he released when he was 55 years old, and which included songs written at various times over the previous decade, several of which he wrote for his own children or as gifts to grieving friends. It opens with "The Song We Were Singing," which is a Donovanesque folk-pop number with a genuine sing-along quality to it; if I were to learn that various church groups or theater troupes tended to break out the tune around the campfire on retreats, I wouldn't be remotely surprised. This sensibility partly haunts the album; "Somedays," "Little Willow," "Great Day," and the gorgeous number "Calico Skies" all have a lovely, folky acoustic feel. "The World Tonight" is a perfunctory and adequate pop song, as is "Young Boy," "Souvenir," and "Used to Be Bad" (there is, honestly, a contractual-obligation feel to some of this), but a couple of the pop-rock compositions on the album really click: "If You Wanna" has a great, solid drive, "Heaven on a Sunday" is wonderful, by turns both funky and groovy (and with a terrific guitar solo by Paul's son James McCartney), and "Flaming Pie" is appropriately Beatlesesque. "Beautiful Night"--which should have been the final song on the album--is simple but charming (and the video is a delight), the only time McCartney and Starr have shared songwriting credit. So, overall a mixed bag, but definitely tending positive; I would have liked it to have been more thoroughly a product of quiet introspection, but I'll give it a B- nonetheless.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

A Socialist on the Porch

[Cross-posted to DSA's Religious Socialism blog]

There wasn't a prayer at the beginning of the Front Porch Republic's recent conference in honor of Wendell Berry in Louisville, which is a fact that probably at least a few of my fellow leftists--among those that are actually familiar with FPR anyway, that is--might be surprised by. I should have asked the urban agriculture advocate from Indianapolis sporting the Pete Buttigieg button, or the Dorothy Day-quoting malcontent who gave a blistering anti-war presentation, if they'd expected otherwise, but I didn't get the chance. No regrets, though; overall, it was an inspiring--though definitely not sectarian--day.

With the affirmation of "Place--Limits--Liberty" having accompanied the website (and now publishing house and printed journal) from its beginning 10 years ago, the various localist, distributist, traditionalist, and agrarian sentiments which have been expressed in association with the "Porcher" label are often reduced in some observers' minds to "Christian conservatism," and left at that. This reduction is not wholly inaccurate (as any perusal of the website archives will make clear, explicitly Christian and conservative voices have frequently occupied the Porch), but it is unfair. It is unfair, I think, because it fails to reckon with the pluralism which should be part of any project of socialist transformation--and specifically, the plain fact that so much of what these particular localists, agrarians, and other assorted Christian oddballs call for is, if not socialist, than at least pretty damn close. I have no delusions that the sort of approach to democratizing the economy and shifting us away from private capital and towards social goods which one can find (if you look for it) at FPR is going to have much appeal to many at the meetings of my local Democratic Socialist of America chapter; the assumption that such democratization and socialization will and should always liberate people from their places, rather than empower within them, has pretty deep roots. Still, as Wendell Berry always reminds us, look and see.

This gathering--the largest which FPR has ever organized, and one of their best--had Berry's life and work as its centerpiece. The 85-year-old novelist, essayist, poet, farmer, life-long Democrat, supporter of same-sex marriage, self-described "mad farmer," and all-around contrarian was interviewed by his daughter Mary and spoke with the audience at length. He is no socialist in any formal sense, that's for certain. But he is a man who, from his pastoral place in rural Kentucky, has articulated one of the greatest and most persuasive critiques of capitalism, and its ruinous environmental effects, in all American history. A list of his essays, protests, and public denouncements of mountaintop removal mining, of the Vietnam War, of the complicated racism of his own beloved South, of industrial agriculture, and of so much is enormously long. In a recent, lengthy review in The Nation, Jedidiah Britton-Purdy recognizes the idiosyncrasies of, and his deep disagreements with, some parts of Berry's defense of rural culture and the household economy. But the overall thrust of his writings--that, in Britton-Purdy's assessment, "Berry has been straightforwardly and unyieldingly anti-capitalist" throughout his whole career--is difficult to deny. Berry himself didn't speak to directly about such things at the recent conference, but when a man strongly defends economic planning, limits on profits, co-ops and other forms of collective action, and concludes that without such, "farmers are successfully farming themselves into failure," it's hard to go away thinking you've heard just another American conservative at peace with the marketplace.

Berry's challenge to the comfort which so many (supposedly community-loving) Christian conservatives have with present-day capitalism was not alone at the conference. Prominently involved in organizing the event was Plough Quarterly, a journal published by Bruderhof, an international body of devout Christians who have built intentional communities--many of which are deeply committed to environmental sustainable and agrarian practices--all around the world.The latest issue of the journal--revolving around the theme of "Beyond Capitalism"--was prominently displayed at the conference, and copies were available to all those who attended. In that issue one found not only a fierce condemnation of Christians who don't perceive the incompatibility of conservative politics with their own faith--as author David Bently Hart concludes in his essay, "Whatever else capitalism may be, it is first and foremost a system for producing as much private wealth as possible by squandering as much as possible of humanity’s common inheritance of the goods of creation"--but a thoughtful consideration of the communism of John Ruskin, an interview about communal businesses which take Marx's dictum "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" as their basic operating principle, and much more. More Commonweal than Christianity Today (and honestly, it is unlikely even Commonweal would ever go that far), this is, to say the least, not the sort of journal, and not the sort of arguments, one would expect to be commonly shared at a nominally conservative and Christian association.

Which, of course, is exactly the point: Front Porch Republic, like many other similarly contrarian localist associations, isn't any kind of formal friend to Christian conservatism, at least insofar as such a position is assumed to be part of the capitalism-friendly Religious Right in America. (Certainly that is the case for Wendell Berry, no matter how often conservatives try to claim him solely for themselves.) True, because of their talk of tradition, rural life, and community, it is easy for many (not all, but many) leftists to think that there is no place in these kinds of discourses for the diversity, participatory democracy, and economic egalitarianism which animates the socialist argument. As someone who has been part of FPR since the beginning, I won't pretend that your typical leftist might not find themselves somewhat at odds with what sort of material FPR often produces, and what sort of people FPR often attracts. Still, all I can say is: dig deeper.

There is, in the pluralism of America--and of any other free (or at least mostly free) country for that matter--resources for socialist thinking and action all around us, sometimes even--in fact, perhaps especially--in religious bodies, groups, and projects that seem conservative on the outside. Some of these exhibit what I've called "left conservatism" before, but whether or not such bodies or projects bring the different aspects of their belief system together into such an ideological whole, the simple truth, I think, is that anyone who takes community and tradition seriously will be, if they are at all honest, open to critiques of that free market which most thoroughly empties out and destroys local ways of life. And moreover, sometimes that openness results in perspectives that we on the left can benefit from. So, again, take the time to look and see what's there.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Some Notes on the First Mayoral Debate

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

The story of Tuesday night's debate is one of offense and defense. For better or worse, Mayor Jeff Longwell--at least at this early point in the race, and at least on the basis on this remarkably well-attended debate (Roxy's was absolutely packed)--is running entirely on defending his record of the last four years With the exception of one very slight snark about how the city's budgets always balance, unlike the state's (where his challenger Brandon Whipple has served in the Kansas House since 2013), the mayor never attacked Whipple at all. Whereas Whipple went on the attack frequently. Not always effectively; there were some points where he could have forced out into the open some important differences between the candidates, but chose not to, and there were other points where he picked fights over pretty unimportant, even silly stuff. But he was absolutely the one with the energy (so much so that at one point, while swinging his arm to make a point, he knocked over his water class, getting it all over himself and the podium). Mayor Longwell was calm--occasionally sounding a little weary at what probably seemed to him like having to explain the same point over and over again, but still, very much the confident incumbent. He's the one in the mayor's office, defending his place. Whereas Whipple has to make the case for change.

In this hour-long debate, the best expressions of that case came through two fairly solid attacks, both of which came in the first half-hour. The first had to do with development policies--not, unfortunately, the crucial reality that Wichita is an overbuilt city that needs to wean itself away from fiscally unsustainable construction projects, but instead the traditional (and costly) urban questions of enterprise zones, tax abatements, infrastructure improvements, and the like. Here Mayor Longwell was quick to point to new business and residential developments along Greenwich out east, along Maize out west, and along 21st in the north. Which, of course, presented a perfect opening for Whipple, whose legislative district lies in south Wichita, and who has made the lack of investment in the city's poorer southern half a key point in his campaign. (Whipple must of uttered some variation of the phrase "I want to serve all of Wichita, not just its richer neighborhoods" at least a half-dozen times.) After Whipple hammered him about south Wichita residential streets that still lack sidewalks, Longwell tried to defend himself by mentioning how he and the rest of the city council had come up with the plan that saved south Wichita's Starlite Drive-In theater. Whipple came right back at him, reminding him of the city's original plan to close the southeast Linwood library branch. Obviously this, like everything else that comes up in debates like these, is more complicated than minute-long statements and rebuttals can reflect. Still, this was a punch that landed.

The second successful attack Whipple made had to do with what Longwell, as well as everyone else paying attention to the race, knows is the mayor's weak spot--his administration's, shall we say, “failure to communicate” the land deals which accompanied his successful negotiations to get a AAA baseball team to come to Wichita. Longwell admitted the need to be more open in sharing information (at which point chuckles broke out all around the audience), but he insisted that it was a great deal for the city, one which will include a sizable increase in payments for use in the new stadium (which, of course, is itself theoretically going to be paid for the unfortunately typical arrangement of state bonds floated in the expectation of repayment via special taxing districts set up in expectation of property and sales tax receipts following, you got it, more development). Whipple blasted back that the ends don't justify secretive means, and pointed to the news just yesterday about how a deal to give away part of Wichita's downtown Naftzger Park to developers was set to slide though on the city council's consent agenda, without review or debate. Longwell frustratedly insisted that such was the fault of City Manager Robert Layton, and not him or the city council, but Whipple's point about transparency stands.

Can an incumbent mayor (and one who, despite the non-partisan character of the mayoral race, enjoys an automatic if unspoken partisan advantage?) be unseated by a bunch of moderately class-based complaints (Whipple's comments about "rich neighborhoods" is about as far as he seems willing to go; a socialist firebrand he definitely isn't) about development patterns and by a few well-expressed concerns about secretiveness and sweetheart land deals? My first guess is: "probably not," if only because there are a lot of voters along Greenwich and Maize and 21st who like Mayor Longwell, or at least probably don't particularly feel that they have been poorly served by his time in office. When you hear the mayor and Whipple basically say the same thing about funding the police department (give them more money!), exploring options for Century II (engage the citizenry!), retaining a high-skill work force (emphasize manufacturing and support WSU's Innovation Campus!), and a host of other issues, then the basis for the case Whipple needs to make only gets smaller.

For example, it's frustrating that Whipple, whose party membership alone suggests that he supports much stronger action to combat climate change than Longwell, nonetheless chose to pass that issue by when Longwell was asked about it, essentially following the mayor's lead in emphasizing various small-bore actions to assist in shifting to more renewable energy sources. And it's somewhat silly that the debate's discussion about mass transit, with The Wichita Eagle running this very week a long, detailed series on the challenges and problems our bus service faces, was derailed first into a back-and-forth about bike lanes, scooters, and the Q-Line, and then ended with sniping about whether or not the invitation Mayor Longwell's received, as Wichita mayor, to serve on a state transportation advisory committee constitutes him being "appointed" by Governor Laura Kelly. Basically, I would tell the Whipple camp: if these attacks aren't going to produce the sort of information to help voters assess Longwell's defense of his record, then don't make them. If Whipple’s only complaint with the mayor's approach to dealing with Wichita's potential water crisis is that plan the city has in place hasn't been reviewed by state experts, perhaps he should reconsider its political importance. If his defense of the idea that Wichita ought to clearly identify itself as an LGBTQ-friendly city is that important to his argument for retaining young workers, then perhaps it shouldn't be something he tags on at the end of a promise to spend more money on training and entrepreneurship support, and instead make it front and center.

In sum, I think the debate showed a incumbent with real weaknesses, but nonetheless enough confidence in his own record to--for the moment anyway--play nothing but defense, and a challenger who has some real openings to make headway with voters, but whose offense needs to be sharpened if it is to be entirely persuasive. We'll see what the next two months bring.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Climate Change, Dirty Hands, and the Grace (and Hope) of Limits

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Paul Schrader, the famed screenwriter and director, does not make subtle films. His latest movie, First Reformed--the story of a depressed, emotionally exhausted, and ultimately suicidal minister (played by Ethan Hawke), a man haunted his failed marriage, his dead son, his collapsing health, and an overbearing sense of guilt--is very much in line with the rest of Schrader's work. Artists, in his view, should want to "cleave a crevice in the viewer’s skull that they have to somehow close"; in this regard (if not in all others), First Reformed succeeds.

The tool which Schrader uses to open up the viewer's skull in First Reformed is essentially the same one which finally drives Hawke's Reverend Toller, a former military chaplain whose son died in Iraq, over the edge: the question of whether God can (or will) forgive His creation for the immensity of the environmental harm it has done to itself, and the worry, or perhaps fear, over what struggling with that question honestly will mean for ourselves. For someone already as psychologically unbalanced as Reverend Toller--as the complacent but basically decent-hearted mega-church pastor who watches over Toller at one point comments, Toller, unlike Jesus, spends all his time in the Garden of Gethsemane--it meant a descent into jihadist madness. One would hope that would not be case for most of us. But struggle with it we must, however much that cranial opening in our perspectives pains us.

This is not, incidentally, merely a question for those who believe in a loving God who orchestrated our creation. Those who continue to insist that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's desperate warnings about the need to contain global warming to 1.5°C is just Soros-backed nonsense, or that the overwhelming scientific consensus on the terrible threat of anthropogenic climate change is merely an example of paranoid groupthink, or that we're on the cusp of a providential cornucopia of food production once the tundra in Siberia finally all melts, can, of course, continue to believe whatever foolish thing they want (and can save themselves the effort of reading the rest of this essay). But increasingly, the crushing reality of increasing ocean temperatures, extreme weather events, drought-driven refugee crises, and species collapse is forcing most of us to wonder how to navigate this human-made enormity, whether religious believers or not. Just this week, Noah Millman commented in The Week that "the most inconvenient truth of all" about climate change is the realization that we have "no mode of living that allows us simply to exist within an environment in a natural fashion, no spiritual road back to a prelapsarian state," and Jonathan Frazen commented in The New Yorker  that we must "accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope." Their counsel that we must find new ways to orient ourselves and our posterity towards what lays ahead of us, despite the immense difficulties which will almost certainly attend that future, is refreshingly honest. The near-simultaneous appearance of their essays, along with my watching of First Reformed, made a perfect complement to Noah J. Toly's The Gardeners' Dirty Hands: Environmental Politics and Christian Ethics, an unexpectedly deep work of political and theological reflection that I had just finished. Almost providential coincidence of influences, one might say.

I call Toly's book "unexpectedly deep" because, in working my way through it, I did not at first suspect that stakes that Toly was aiming for. His work in environmental politics is important, but not, I thought, the stuff out of which grand theological insights are made. I confess that "ethics" as a discipline does not, for the most part, impress me; it too often, in my observation, gets taught and deployed in the context of already established secular and capitalist practises, and thus usually targets individual practitioners, not the structures of the practice itself. So while I enjoyed his reflections on Malthusianism, his unpacking of the "IPAT" ("Environmental Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology") formulation, and his invocations of Herman Daly and other environmental thinkers who have developed much needed steady-state or slow-growth economic models, I didn't find the book's argument remotely radical enough to be truly engaging. (For whatever it's worth, I teach Daly and similar thinkers as well, but at the present moment it is, frankly, "degrowth," rather than slow-growth, that we really need.)

But beginning with chapter 3, which starts with a brilliant consideration of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in conjunction of the disasters experienced by the village of Macondo in Gabriel García Márquez's famed On Hundred Years of Solitude, Toly moves in the direction of the describing what he calls the "magical realism of climate change." His point is that, unlike every other environmental concern we might face--urban brownfields, polluted rivers, deforestation, etc.--climate disruption is a phenomenon whose structural causes are fundamentally interpolated with the structures of human choices; as he pithily puts it, "climate change originates with the tragic or, more specifically, with attempts to overcome it" (p. 61). As modernity--and, most relevantly, the hydrocarbon-focused "paleotechnic energy regime" of the industrial and post-industrial world--constructed and repeatedly reconstructed itself around the transcending of various ecological and sociological limits, it exposed new limits to the world that would not have been known otherwise. Following a thoughtful review of the relevant science, Toly observes: "What this means is that climate change embodies the tragic dimension of environmental challenges not only because it requires us to navigate tradeoffs and instabilities now, but because the social systems that have fueled the problem were originally generated by impulses to address limitations" (p. 63). Or as he puts it at length at the end of the chapter:

Among other things, climate change is slowly undoing our ability to ignore or deny the tragic structure of the human condition. Perhaps more than any other issue, climate change has exposed the tragic foundations of environmental challenges, the ineluctable guilt that attends acting on those challenges, and the temptations to denial, paralysis, nihilism, and moral skepticism that attend those challenges. Reckoning honestly with climate change, and with the challenge of climate governance, shatters the illusion of a tragedy-free existence, highlighting what we might describe as the enduring tragic climate of environmental politics. (p. 79)

To speak as a Christian, I agree fully with Toly's insistence that recovery of the sense of tragic, or in other words of limits, is essential to any appreciation of those goods which come to us as grace, as abundance. Without a consciousness of what we cannot do, or of what our doing cannot avoid necessarily implicating us also in so doing, then there can be no consciousness of that good which is beyond our doing. This confronts us with problems of agency and sin, of course. Early in the book, Toly commented that "'the tragic' in this sense is neither sinful nor the result of sin"--and I took issue with that. If sin is understood as the absence of, or the state of acting against, God's good will, then how could something experienced as tragedy not be tied up with sin? But later Toly's arguments led me to reconsider the meaning of his words--that is, perhaps we should understand the environmental tragedy of the entwining of human innovation and destruction, and the tragedy of the tradeoffs it forces upon us, as reflections of a "benign alienation." That alienation--for those who accept the Fall, anyway--is both what introduced the possibility of and what contributes to the continuation of sinful acts, of course, most particularly against the natural creation which the Genesis story tells us we were given some stewardship over. But it also--and here Toly draws upon the work of Albino Barrera--"draws us into to Christian discipleship," making "our allocative choices, or our choices among competing goods when we cannot possibly secure all of them...an opportunity to be like God in choice and creativity....Apprehending the tragic reminds us of the enduring goodness of a finite creation and reveals the goodness of our limitations, as well as the goodness of the plurality of potentially legitimate but still not self-justifying ways to respond to the tragic" (pp. 88-89).

Trusting in God's grace in the midst of--indeed, actually though the medium of--our own alienation is a hard theological claim. Unfortunately, it was not the tendency of most American Christians in the 20th century to do political theology with the hardness of finitude, plurality, and tragedy in mind; Billy Graham, rather than Dietrich Bonhoeffer (on whom Toly relies extensively) was our collective preference. Too many of us were captivated by the idols of efficiency, utility, and inevitability, seeing God's will as, if not aligned with, than at least entirely orthogonal to industrial expansion. Of course technological progress and energy consumption must be unlimited; it's impossible to imagine things otherwise, right? The human creature demands it! This is what Wendell Berry trenchantly called "an economic and technological determinism, as heartless as it is ignorant." Toly invites us to realize how things can be otherwise. Not without painful tradeoffs, losses, and sacrifices, of course--but also not without hope for what he calls a "responsible Anthropocene."

What will it look like? Toly doesn't know. He gestures towards what geographer Doreen Massey calls "a politics of place beyond place," which he reads, in light of the finite and alienated fact of our existence, a fact that obliges us to dig into particular places and tend to those possibilities of fecundity graced to us (a possibility which he ties to Biblical cities of refuge), "a politics of place" that also "sees its identity as constituted partly by relations with, impacts upon, and obligations to others beyond its borders." As he concludes his book, "the gardener's hands are dirtied by their bearing the costs for others...because facing the tragic responsibility means giving up, undermining, or destroying one or more goods [one might think here of our ever-responsive energy grids, our industrial food systems, our fossil fuel-dependent addictions to global travel, our too-casual involvements with exploitative supply chains around the globe, and more]...that others may benefit" (pp. 116-117).

One need not rely upon Christian theology to recognize the wisdom of this kind of chastened, resolute, localized hope. Jonathan Frazen, in the aforementioned essay, doesn't advocate abandoning involvement with repairing or strengthening larger political and economic systems entirely--but he does center his own mostly (but perhaps not entirely) non-religious hopes on "smaller, more local battles....a community, an institution, a wild place, a species that’s in trouble," so that he  might "take heart in...small successes." For him, it's a community-supported agricultural operation that gives the urban homeless a chance to farm. Just more upper-class liberal do-gooding, some might sniff--but no one who takes both localism and the projections made by environmental science seriously, I think, can sniff at his final comments: "when the systems of industrial agriculture and global trade break down and homeless people outnumber people with homes....traditional local farming and strong communities will no longer just be liberal buzzwords. Kindness to neighbors and respect for the land--nurturing healthy soil, wisely managing water, caring for pollinators--will be essential in a crisis and in whatever society survives it." Toly, I suspect, would fully agree.

The fictional Reverend Toller, when brought into confrontation with the limits of his ability to respond to the horror and confusion that climate disruption is bringing into all of our lives, thought God was calling him to violently embrace the blackness around him. Toly's work helps us, believers and non-believers alike, to articulate a more hopeful response. It is not a recipe for something that our own contradictions ought to warn us away from deluding us into hoping for, but rather a recommendation for a hope which can co-exist with tragedy, a hope for endurance and grace as we do the hard, difficult work which this planet we have changed calls us to. Not a bad challenge, that.