By Clare Michaud
Imagining an ecosocially just world requires us to look at making radical changes to myriad aspects of our everyday (American) lives. Working toward an ecosocialist society would implicate everything from resource extraction and waste disposal to access to healthy food and clean water to the country’s approach to warfare, the consumption of goods, and treatment of indigenous people and lands.
Madisonians love to tout their commitment to sustainable lifestyle choices, and this ability to do so is bolstered by the City of Madison being recognized as the greenest city in the nation and appearing on several lists ranking it as a highly walkable city. Yet, these distinctions are pretty specific to Madison’s isthmus. Heading down South Park Street, or to Madison’s north side shows a very different way of life that does not as easily allow for bike commuting or accessing fresh food. The ability to make environmentally sustainable lifestyle choices is a class issue in Madison, and is something that is attainable for the residents who tend to be white, educated, and with a certain amount of wealth.
The ability to make environmentally sustainable lifestyle choices is a class issue in Madison, and is something that is attainable for the residents who tend to be white, educated, and with a certain amount of wealth.
The ability to live without a car on the isthmus, and instead rely on public transit, biking, and walking to get around, highlights the city’s concentration of resources to the downtown and near west- and east-side neighborhoods, where the cost of living is higher. Isthmus residents have bountiful access to various grocery store options: both supermarkets and smaller, more specialized food shops and co-ops are viable, in addition to a gamut of farmers’ market options that run on weekends and weekdays, throughout the spring and summer as well as with select winter options.
Purchasing food at smaller shops, the Willy Street Co-op, and directly from the producer at farmers’ markets is an excellent way of supporting local food producers and farmers; it helps to sustain those farmers’ and producers’ livelihoods during a time when farming as a profession is becoming less stable. Ten percent of Wisconsin dairy farms had to shut down in 2019 alone, due to China placing tariffs on U.S. agricultural exports as part of a 2018 trade war with the U.S. Ecosocial justice must address both the access to healthy living while also strengthening local economies; global capitalist gain has roots in imperialist exploration and exploitation, and this mindset lives on in actions such as trade wars for the sake of preserving global strength, which impact the livelihoods that are part of our local agricultural economy. Being limited to purchasing food from large-scale producers, too, has environmental impacts related to the shipping and transmission of goods; having better access to more local producers helps to support those producers while also leaving a smaller carbon footprint.
With the city’s plan to expand Madison’s Beltline, Madison-area residents’ ability to access more resources will ease, but at what environmental cost? People who live in parts of the city where it’s necessary to drive to the nearest grocery store, for example, may benefit from the additional lanes, especially during evening commute times. However, building on the expressway encourages more individual drivers to be on the road. Instead of making changes to Madison’s transit options that promote having a car as a primary means of going between home, work, schools, and shopping centers, the city could take an approach that considers environmental impact, and create infrastructure that prioritizes buses, biking, and walking. During discussions about Beltline expansion, Alderman Grant Foster, from the 15th District, argued against the expansion and in favor of alternative transit options; he also brought up the point that if the Beltline is expanded, more traffic will be brought to city streets, an infrastructure that isn’t intended for that volume of traffic. Rather than expanding the Beltline, bus lines could be extended and added to better serve areas further from the isthmus.
Increased traffic on the Beltline means increased fuel emissions, creating a more prominent carbon footprint in Madison; it also means increased noise pollution. The upward trend toward living in urban areas is exacerbated by the way that modern cities are trending toward sprawl. Noise pollution contributes first and foremost to hearing health, but also is a strong factor in heart disease, learning problems in children, and in being a disturbance to sleeping, according to the World Heath Organization.
And Madison could become even noisier. Like expanding the Beltline, housing F-35 fighter jets at Truax Field would bring heavy noise pollution to the field’s surrounding neighborhoods, which are primarily occupied by minority and lower-income residents, including children. In the January issue of Red Madison, Allen Ruff wrote about the presence of F-35s driving the already-existing disparities between the community near Truax and the wealthy downtown and West-side communities. We must resist the use of the Truax Field for F-35s in order to put forth the effort to bridge the quality-of-life gap between Madison’s lower-income neighborhoods and its wealthier bubbles.
The presence of F-35s poses serious and dangerous concerns for neighborhoods near Truax Field, and is also part of the larger problem of the U.S. military’s contribution to environmental destruction. The U.S. Department of Defense is the biggest contributor to pollution nationally and globally. Following in the history of imperialistic expansion and resource exploitation, the U.S. Military impacts environments all over the world, including in our backyard: bringing in F-53s alone would cause annual airfield CO2e emissions to increase by 135%.
Fostering an environmentally-centric society requires that we are able to advocate for fair and just use of the land. In November 2019, Governor Evers signed a bill (Assembly Bill 426) into law intended to criminalize and chill environmental protests and protect energy providers. The Center for Media and Democracy reported that “under the new law, peaceful protesters can now be charged with a felony punishable by up to six years in prison and a $10,000 fine if they trespass on property owned, leased, or operated by companies engaged in the distribution of oil or petroleum.” Wisconsin has followed nine other states in passing a bill that aims to prevent protests like the one that happened over the Dakota Access Pipeline. Assembly Bill 426 shows the Evers Administration’s prioritization for oil and gas companies over the environmental impact of natural resource extraction by these corporations, and is a strong step away from addressing this impact. The bill raised opposition from Tribal Nations, but these are cited as being largely disregarded during public hearings; an ecosocial society would prioritize Tribal Nations’ voices as a way to show respect for, solidarity with, and truly restore sovereignty to the Tribal Nations whose lands were seized and capitalized on by white settlers.
Fostering an environmentally-centric society requires that we are able to advocate for fair and just use of the land.
Envisioning an ecosocialist future for Madison incorporates everything from transit to the consumption of goods to larger-scale initiatives being pushed forward by the U.S. Military and partnerships forged with oil and gas companies. An ecosocialist future should prioritize the health and livelihood of all people, rather than having opportunities to live without certain environmental stressors limited to the liberal bubble that is the isthmus.