May 2017. Smart Urban Growth and Sustainable Consumption

I recently attended an annual conference of a Massachusetts organization called Smart Growth Alliance. There, it became clear to me that if the SCORAI community wants to make an impact in the “action” domain of our name it needs to ally itself with other organizations that work on the issues of lifestyles, community, and provisioning systems. MSGA is the case in point. Despite the unfortunate “growth” in its name MSGA’s mission is to promote healthy and diverse communities, protect critical environmental resources and working landscapes, advocate for housing and transportation choices, and support equitable community development and urban reinvestment The conference was a lively gathering of city officials, urban planners and economic development people, community activists, and related brethren in Massachusetts.

None of these people are familiar with the concept of sustainable consumption. And yet, the conference was largely about that. Speaker after speaker highlighted the sustainability and economic benefits of dense communities that are also livable, diverse and equitable, and about their superiority over the remote, car-dependent, often socially monolithic American suburbs. People talked about strengthening neighborhoods, place making, retrofitting suburbs, and the anticipated impacts of self-driving (autonomous) vehicles on carbon emissions and land development and zoning. It was apparent that in the minds of the conference attendees people-oriented urban development, thriving local economy and reduced ecological impact are seamlessly connected. It is a self-evident fact and therefore does not need to be stated.

This opens a question of strategy for SCORAI, both the research and action dimensions of our work. If we are serious about making a contribution to social change we need to link up with organizations that are not directly speaking to the ecological sustainability imperative or to transitioning to more sustainable consumption. In fact, given the emphasis the environmental movement puts on technological solutions for reducing the demand for energy and materials, this type of organizations might be SCORAI’s most important partners.

Tell me your income and I will tell you your carbon footprint: in US and China

Since last summer I have been writing about the relentless upward creep of household consumption (and carbon footprint) with growing household income. The question that preoccupies me is this: can income and private consumption be decoupled? In my view this is one of the most important challenges for the SCORAI community: the researchers, activists and policy makers. In the August and September posts about the U.S. I saw merit in creating amenities-rich affordable housing communities in low-impact cities such as New York by way of co-operative ownership model. In the November and December posts I obsessed about re-framing the meaning of good life and being green in the post-soviet Europe, which in at least some cases seems intent on reproducing the Western model of social progress based on consumerism. And now I raise the urgency of my question by looking at China, with its 1.3 billion inhabitants aspiring to good life, and with an official government policy to increase domestic consumption.


A few days ago, Dominik Wiedenhofer sent to the SCORAI listserv an article he co-authored ( which shows carbon footprint of Chinese citizens as a function of income. Apart from having the absolute scale on the vertical axis about 6-7 times smaller than in the US (as well as differences in data collection and income metrics) this graph looks eerily similar to the US graph, published by Ummel in 2014 ( In the US the top 10% earners contribute 25% of greenhouse gas emissions from households while the bottom 40% of earners contribute 20% of emissions. In China, the top 10.6% of earners emits 19% of total while the bottom 47% emits 25% of total. The conclusion is rather straightforward: tell me your income or income category and I will tell you what your carbon footprint is (statistically speaking).


There are two ways to look at these two graphs. One is to assume that all socioeconomic classes aspire to emulate the lifestyles of those above them in the income ladder, as is largely the case in consumer society, and view the consumption treadmill among the emerging global middle classes as inevitable, with all its social and ecological consequences. I choose a different perspective. This is an opportunity to figure out how to decouple household income from consumption. And I do not mean the debunked myth of decoupling growth from energy consumption through technology. I mean social and cultural change. With regard to moderately affluent families whose basic needs are met for housing, mobility, food, social identity and other essential amenities for a dignified life what kind of policies, campaigns, incentive and infrastructures will channel their growing income to non-consumerist pursuits of good life.

There is a massive body of research literature, experience and tacit knowledge that can inform this type of inquiry. We just need to focus.