Scampering downwards below the ridge, my hiking partner found riparian wonder he never before knew existed. Each previous trip to the park constrained this California preserve to rolling, grassy, oakland – whereas schist canyons and rumbling gravelpans and time-pressured wildflowers populate the valleys below.

The following naturo-typic mantras filled several miles of stream-crossings:

‘How lucky I am’
‘It’s wonderful this has been preserved’
‘There’s so few people’
I couldn’t have agreed more. ‘You know’ I said, ‘tree-lined streets don’t just feel better they’re safer too.’

He strummed his buckle in disbelief. Gently, with nary a few logical hiccups, he accepted the premise and returned to his more generic appreciation of rivulet-dancing-tadpoles.
Not again did I raise the topic, but the purpose of our visit to the park quickly clarified; not only is the natural landscape accessed by the socioeconomic few, but its facsimile, its virtualization, is increasingly divergent by dint of changing financial and class pressures. That is, as income inequality grows and cities lose population intermixing by economic class (and ethnicity), fundamental access to nature will become skewed.

In certain respects, this is already true: national parks report that racial minorities visit in far less numbers (proportionally) than do white travelers. The aforementioned peaceable tree-lined street is more common in wealthier neighborhoods, whereas the lonely street-lined tree predominates poorer geographic zones. While environmental justice movements have interpolated such statistics into broader arguments, more significant environmental tremors are soon to surface.

First is the catholic, uniform acceptance of Virtual Emplacement: the re-creation of imagined nature either digitally, partially digitally, or in such a limited fashion as to displace original attributes. In truth, this process is not entirely new – imagined geographies unify the grandiose human ambitions of Versaille, Central Park, and even Yosemite Valley. Digital technologies offer a scope previously considered hyperbolic to even the most strident naturalist cassandras. One extreme is the total immersion in computer-generated natures; this is the programmed imagination of previous experiences (a visit to virtual wonderlands may exhibit programming bias in the display of forms, temperatures…).

This is a potentiality.

Increasingly commonplace, however, is the projected imagination of digital sources onto actual places, and the progressive devaluation of natural environments and revaluation of manmade environments. Media infrequently depict the places-in-between; as firsthand natural experience diminishes in the face of digital exploration, the icing that once accentuated the cake replaces the center entirely, and that supposedly boring filling is relegated to liminal status. The process of ordinary-elimination is endlessly pervasive. Even good intentions can run afoul. It’s not by accident that recent construction of Silicon Valley buildings anticipates nature-deficit disorder through the design of gardens – but these emplacements are all, oddly, similar, as if witnessing nature is less desirable than is exposure to a very particular category of spectacle.

As digital omnipotence gains normalcy and further colors environmental experience, its concomitant technological prowess further shapes individual expectations. Take a recent Silicon Valley construction, the corporate Apple campus in Cupertino, California. That designers pride themselves on their use of renewable energy is unsurprising, perhaps more notable is the attention paid to hiding the conduits of 19th and 20th century technologies (automobiles, cabling, sewage). A precedent, a lineage, extends backwards into various aesthetics: the burial of electrical and gas conduits, the sanitation of bathrooms through flush toilets, the demotion of coal to basement furnaces – by those who could afford to do so.

Though as energy production shifts away from fossil fuels, the virtualization of place will promote a very specific, obvious, and detrimental type of socioeconomic divergence. We will call this Carbon Poverty: an example of leftover development, in which lower-income persons and places are excluded from friendlier practices by dint of their socioeconomic status, a result of environmental injustice.

Carbon poverty will be habitually reified by the bifurcated visions of higher-income individuals and socially-excluded lower-earners. Lack of bargaining-power led to the destruction of black neighborhoods for highways. Water protection is consistently undervalued or ignored in traditionally neglected populations. If government continues to pursue environmental regulation through a largely trickle-down approach, carbon poverty will accentuate and demarcate populations with a literal black stain.

If Virtual Emplacement will create narrow tree-lined avenues of diverless, electric vehicles passing by solar-powered houses, its physicality will have been accomplished through a twofold mechanism: incentives offered by taxpayers or the desire of cultural capital, and the distinction between virtual holism and physical speciesism. A stereotypic indicator of environmental injustice is when all citizens pay for a benefit that just a few accrue: electric car subsidies are deterministically regressive par excellence. But the second mechanism of virtual emplacement is more powerful yet. When development razes nature and then chooses to reimagine the environment as a less-expensive version of higher income designs (themselves just imagined, streamlined nature), it forgets that nature is always affordable…Affordable without the constraints of technology or income.

The danger is, therefore, not merely reduced access to nature, but a carbon poverty that relegates persons to dirty fuels – and streets, homes, playgrounds – that negatively affect communities in the selfsame ways that renewable fuels improve life. A positive feedback loop will further continuously exclude those populations from participation in jobs, benefits, medical care, and transport.

When this occurs – and it is already happening – the mal-effected generation will become carbon-rich, but otherwise impoverished.

[Creative Commons Photo]