I first read the work of Herbert Girardet in Undercurrents in the early eighties, and his short book Creating Sustainable Cities – published in 2006 by Green Books – was fundamental in shaping my view of the planet’s urban boom. This was the book where he calculated that London’s ecological fooprint was 125 times larger than the city itself, and so larger than the UK. So when I found that he was talking at the LSE as a guest of the LSE Cities programme, I made sure I could go along.
The story he told, based on his book, Creating Regenerative Cities, published last October, is that we are on the cusp of a transition to the third age of the city – or at least we’d better be, if we are going to avert the worst effects of climate change. The first age he called Agropolis; the second Petropolis, and the third, Ecopolis. In this post, I’m going to talk about the first two; in the next post, I’ll look at Ecopolis.
I don’t often use this blog to summarise single articles, but a recent New Scientist has an article in it which is in urgent need of summary (the full article is behind the NS paywall).
The piece, called Global Warning, written by Michael le Page, observes that if the 2007 prognosis of the IPCC was gloomy, the next one ought to be even grimmer. Le Page offers seven reasons why: in a nutshell, our earlier climate change models didn’t have sufficiently strong system-wide feedback loops in them, and despite our knowledge of climate change science we’ve done nothing meaningful to change our behaviour. Here’s a summary of the seven reasons.
I was prompted by a post on the Smithsonian blog a few months ago to go back to read The Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. The Smithsonian post had evaluated the Limits’ 1972 main case projections against actual consumption to 2000, and found them impressively close. Since the most common outcome of the model is “overshoot and collapse”, in a bit more than a decade’s time, it seemed a good idea to understand it a bit better. Quotes and page numbers are from the 30-Year Update edition, published by Earthscan in London in 2005.
In the early 1970s, the architect Theo Crosby wrote a book called How to Play the Environment Game in which – in the days before the ‘environment’ was associated with biosphere or sustainability – he picked apart the ways in which planning and development had become a ‘game’ in which developers and planners managed the system for their mutual benefit and excluded the public.
His book has been in my mind because I’ve been watching, close-up, the machinations of Hammersmith and Fulham Council as it appears to collude with developers in rebuilding large chunks of the borough as highrise while trampling on the requirements for affordable housing laid out in the Borough’s core strategy (opens pdf), “that 40% of all additional dwellings built between 2011-21 should be affordable”.
And while, of itself, this is only the subject of local grief, there are some wider lessons.
By slowing business down, just for a moment, the volcano has allowed us to imagine how we might live differently
As the ashcloud settles, at least for the moment, it’s worth reflecting quickly on some of the things we’ve learnt in the last ten days. There’s huge amounts of commentary all over the internet, so I’ll pick up three points which seem less well covered:
- The aviation industry is all but doomed – it’s only a matter of time
- Moments of disruption allow us to imagine change
- And if it’s nature against humankind, nature will win. (more…)
“We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it”. Stewart Brand’s brand of eco-pragmatism, spelt out in his new book Whole Earth Discipline, is prefaced with his knowing nod back to the Whole Earth Catalog, this time with added urgency. And being god-like involves solving the accelerating climate and resource crisis by adopting nuclear power, learning to love GM crops, and indulging in quite a lot of geo-engineering. A review by Jon Turney in The Guardian seemed to welcome Brand’s vision of “a new generation of science-led, environmentally aware ecoengineers who recognise that the state of the Earth is now in our hands”. I haven’t finished the book yet, but it’s worth unravelling some of this. The first point is that as the triple impact of resource scarcity, climate change, and increasing global population becomes more apparent, and as we continue to do little to mitigate them, the clamour for technology-based solutions grows louder. But they’re unlikely to be successful.
What does a post-industrial relationship with the land look like? There are emerging clues
Walking recently to the top of Sugar Loaf, the hill that overlooks Abergavenny, brought my grandfather to mind. He died about 20 years ago, and had a lifetime’s love of walking, though living in Co. Durham he was more a creature of the the Lakes and (especially) the Dales. He wouldn’t have thought much of the walk (barely an hour from car to trig point) or that we drove to the car park, about half of the distance from the A40 to the top, or even of our comfortable modern walking boots: he once told a cousin of my mother’s, after a day hiking together, that it wasn’t a real walk unless you had blood in your boots. So far, this perhaps sounds like a set of nostalgic North(East)ern cliches, but wrapped inside it is a set of questions about the land and our relation to it which are coming back into our minds at the end of the long ascendancy of industrialism.
The photographer Chris Jordan is the Breughel of waste, bringing us face to face with parts of our civilisation we’d prefer to look away from. I blogged about his work a couple of years ago – which he builds up, digitally, image by image, to try to represent visually the sheer weight of rubbish from our consumer culture. More than 400,000 mobile phones are ‘retired’ in the US every day. 2.4 million pieces of plastic enter the ocean every day. (‘Everything’s gonna be plastic‘ sang Woody Guthrie, 60 years ago). Each picture attempts to be a digital representation of a particular element of consumerism. Since I wrote the earlier post, the waste has got worse, and he’s published a book, Running The Numbers.
The start and the end of the documentary The End of The Line, which has now been released on DVD at least in the UK, (and which I blogged about when it was first shown in the cinema), is dominated by traditional ‘National Geographic’ type images. You know the sort of thing; sunlight streams through the water showing the richness and diversity of the sea, illuminating the many different and brightly coloured species below. It’s filmed in one of the few Marine Protected Areas, which together comprise about 1% of the ocean area, where fishing is not allowed. For the rest of it the story was dismal.
Blaise Pascal’s ‘wager’ was a pragmatic response to arguments about religious belief: if you believed and God didn’t exist, you hadn’t lost much, save your Sunday mornings. If you didn’t believe, and God did exist, you would burn in hell. Now there are obvious differences between this and climate change; we simply don’t know if God exists or not, but there is an overwhelming body of science which suggests that climate change is real (and which doesn’t vanish at the stroke of a hacker’s keyboard). But in the face of people who continue to assert that the science is flawed or even the product of conspiracy, the wager seems a good model.