A reporter from Dubai phoned last week and asked, “Can Dubai become a sustainable city?” and specifically, “could the tourism industry be sustainable?” In age of global warming and declining fossil fuels, the entire airline industry is probably not sustainable. Dubai, of course, is not even remotely sustainable.
Between 2002-2008, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and partners invested $600 billion in Dubai, creating the world’s tallest building and largest shopping mall, man-made islands, and an indoor ski hill. Dubai has a beach “designed” by Versace, with chilled sand. Meanwhile, sections of the city have no sewage system, so sewage is collected by truck convoys and driven into the desert, where it seeps back through the sand and reappears on the Versace beaches.
On the artificial islands, $20 million villa properties sit empty, without power or sewer systems. Developers will eventually have to protect the faux-island real estate from the rising seas caused by global warming. So, no, Dubai is not sustainable, but neither is any other city.
The sustainable cities are small, modest, usually poor, semi-rural centres, closely linked to local food and energy sources. One of the most ecological western consumer cities is Lingköping, Sweden. In the 1980s, Lingköping’s seven political parties agreed to pursue a non-partisan “Environment Path.” They replaced oil and coal heat with electricity from municipal waste and reduced city CO2 emissions by 40 percent. The city offers free recycling, public transportation that runs on electricity and waste-biogas, bicycle paths, and reduced taxes due to income from the public waste-energy utility.
Even so, Dubai, Lingköping and all cities rely on goods, services, energy, and resources from around the world, delivered by fuel-guzzling transport. We hear a lot these days about “sustainable cities,” but let’s look at the reality.
Cities in history
Hunting and gathering is a sustainable lifestyle. We know this because all animals live this way, and humans lived this way for several million years. Early human fire-making hunters caused local extinctions and disturbed natural habitats, but the real problems with sustainability began with urban concentration.
Four thousand years ago, Sumerian cities on the Euphrates River plains required intensive agriculture and irrigation, causing erosion and salt accumulation. Sumerian texts describe barren soils and “earth turned white.” The communities migrated north along the river seeking new fertile soils, leaving abandoned cities to disappear under the sand.
By 500 B.C., deforestation and soil erosion had left most cities gasping for food and resources. In 460 BC, as the population of Athens swelled with war refugees, filth piled up, and a plague (probably typhus) killed over a third of the population. Cities everywhere began to experience similar plagues, and the human population growth rate began to decline for the first time in history.
Forty thousand years earlier, in Cro-Magnon communities, human population growth remained extremely slow, a few thousandths-of-one-percent each year. But this rate climbed steadily, and by 500 B.C., the growth rate reached 100-times higher, over a tenth of a percent, about 0.13%, per year. However, cities became population drains, and by about 200 A.D., the population rate had dropped below zero, and total human population decreased for the first time in history.
This growth rate did not recover to the 500 B.C. level, for two thousand years, until about 1750 A.D. During those two millennia, cities – centres of filth, disease, toxic smoke, and conflict – killed off more people than they produced. Lewis Mumford explains in The City in History that small, rural Medieval towns remained relatively clean and functional, but between 1200 and 1500 A.D., large cities became centres of death, and human population dropped incessantly. Meanwhile, burgeoning empires required ever more resources from distant lands.
The forests of Europe had been devastated by 1550, which provoked the use of coal fuel and an industrial boom in Europe. Burning coal increased urban air pollution, causing more death and disease. In 1661, John Evelyn described sections of London as “suburbs of Hell.”
Smoke inhalation, typhus and cholera killed urban citizens everywhere. In the twentieth century, with the additional toxic effect of leaded gasoline exhaust, thousands perished from “killer fog” in London, and U.S. cities, including Pittsburgh, Chicago, and St. Louis. Four thousand died in London in December 1952 and hundreds died in Los Angeles in 1954. But modern industrial empires, like their ancient predecessors, still sought more resources from greater distances.
The biophysical city
Dr. William Rees at the University of British Columbia, who developed the “ecological footprint” analysis, points out that most cities require the environmental services from a land base 300 to 1000-times the city area. Rees points out that a city is a “biophysical entity” that includes the complex of land, water, atmosphere, resources, and waste sinks required to support the human population.
Rich consumer cities of Europe and North America require the most ecological space, but all modern cities carry an ecological debt to nature. I live in Vancouver, Canada, which prides itself as being a fairly “green” city with bike paths and urban gardens, but even so, Vancouver requires a global biophysical area about 390-times the city itself.
In the study, Ecosytem Appropriation by Cities," published by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Carl Folke and colleagues estimate that the 29 largest Baltic cities – including Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, and Helsinki – appropriate for their resource consumption and waste an area of forest, agricultural, marine, and wetland ecosystems over 560-times the area of the cities themselves. New York requires a total eco-footprint almost 1000-times the city’s geographic area. Tokyo requires twice the entire domestic biocapacity of Japan.
The Folke study shows that the 744 largest cities worldwide require more CO2 sequestration than the entire world’s forests could provide. “If the goal,” write the authors, “is sustainable human settlements, the increasingly limited capacity of ecosystems to sustain urban areas has to be explicitly accounted for in city planning and development.”
Meanwhile, human activity continues to degrade the ecosystems that keep cities alive. Each year, we loose about 13 million hectares of forests and 6 million hectares of arable land, while adding some 75 million new humans – the combined populations of Mexico City, Mumbai, Seoul, and Sao Paulo.
“These data show that, in material terms, ‘sustainable city’ is an oxymoron,” says Rees. “Modern cities are entropic black holes sweeping up the productivity of a vastly larger and increasingly global resource hinterland and spewing an equivalent quantity of waste back into it."
Dubai may be one of the more obvious examples of reckless urban consumption, but it is not alone. Most Modern cities remain vulnerable to distant food supplies, degraded cropland, declining fossil fuel resources, and climate change impact, including rising seas and human migrations.
“To act consistently with our best science may well require a planned economic contraction,” says Rees. He believes the wealthy nations “should plan to reduce their ecological footprints by almost 80 percent” to consume only an equitable share of global biocapacity.
Peter Victor, in the book Managing without Growth, believes this is possible, that human society can dump its untenable economic ideas about growing consumption. The only way out of our dilemma – ecosystem “overshoot” – is to consume less stuff. There is no magic technology that will allow us to continue consuming at current rates, much less a growing rates. But Victor, Rees, and others believe we can live higher quality lives with less consumption, particularly if we turn urban density into an advantage.
Here are some things we need to do to make cities less destructive and more sustainable. Many modest, small rural communities already do these things, which is why they are already more sustainable:
· Reduce per capita demand for land and water resources (consume less stuff).
· Reduce fossil energy consumption, and all energy consumption.
· Preserve farmland and grow local food for local consumption.
· Share: create co-housing, public transport, and food cooperatives.
· Be satisfied with second hand clothes and furniture, and make simplicity, modesty, justice, and ecology your fashion statement.
· Improve urban infrastructure, water, sewage systems, and recycling.
· Gain efficiencies with neighbourhood scale technologies, such as heat pumps, electricity co-generation, district heating/cooling, using industrial waste heat systems.
· Create low throughput and closed loop industries, in which waste energy is captured and waste materials become feedstocks for other uses.
· Eliminate planned obsolescence in product design; build things that last.
We have to rethink cities as complete ecosystems that fully account for their consumption. “The aggregate effect,” says Rees, “would be global sustainability.”
This was posted on Monday, September 14th, 2009 at 7:51 am and is filed under Ecology . You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
Thanks for this clarifying picture of the debt that cities have to the earth. It further calls us to change our habits, instead of desperately searching for nonexistent resources to prop up our current pattern of life.
Here’s an example of the current ludicrous attempts at solutions: “For Italy to meet the EU requirements to have 5% of it’s gas and diesel be biofuel by 2010 will require 69% more land to be farmed than is available in the entire country and require 102% more water and 40% more chemicals. The UK has set targets of 2.5% of fuel to be biofuel by 2008, rising to 5% by 2010. Compulsory biofuels are a recipe for disaster. It is a case of the cure being worse than the disease.” (Vandana Shiva, Soil not OIl)
Our entire conception of life subverts daily bread to speed. There is no justice in a solution that requires the land that some need to eat for a temporary quick fix leading no-where.
On a more personal note, I have been living with second hand clothes almost entirely for 2 years now. From the amount of second hand clothes that friends share I am not even making a sacrifice. We have so much stuff here in Canada that we have no idea how easy it is to begin to live with less. All we have to do is begin.
Finally, though hunting and gathering was sustainable at some point in history, is it remotely sustainable now? I assume that our population has grown too far and would decimate species such as deer and buffalo.
Thanks again Rex,
Rex Weyler: Correct, 7 billion fire-wielding, pleasure-seeking primates grazing the planet for food and fun are not sustainable, now or ever, but let’s put this in perspective: we’ve already decimated the deer and buffalo.
All that’s left are the remnants. I’ve lived in places where the deer appear to be plentiful, garden-wrecking pests, but even this is a delusion. We’ve so vastly destroyed the world’s forests and wilderness habitats, including the oceans, that we’ve reduced all major species — except our domesticated slave and food animals, cows, pigs, chickens, etc. — to mere remnant herds and isolated clusters. The marine mammals that survive exist at about 1-10% of their peak numbers prior to the 17th century. So yes, without massive agriculture, 7 billion + humans are not remotely sustainable. However, with massive industrial agriculture, we continue to erode the natural ecosystem support for all of life, so we are only making the problem worse, daily. And keep in mind, over a billion people live in chronic hunger, and 24,000 of them starve to death every day. A thousand humans per hour dropping dead from starvation, so we are already suffering the consequences of overshoot.
The techno-junkie growth advocates tell us there is plenty of food and that it’s just a “distribution” problem. Yes, I suppose you could say so: 2% of humanity gets about 50% of everything, but it’s not a “distribution” problem, it’s a fundamental “system” problem: We’ve built an economic system on a biophysical impossibility: endless growth; and on the most shameful and destructive of human instincts, namely: greed. Build a system on private greed and endless growth and bingo: you can overshoot a planet in a few centuries. We are Easter Island writ large. But the status quo, the bankers, corporate whiz-kids, and their hired henchmen, have no idea how to change, so they are trying to sell more ”green” junk and “sustainable” resort holidays. This is why we still desperately need ecologists, biophysical economists, and all the modest people with common sense to remind the herd of humanity that it has already reached the cliff, that half of humanity is already falling off the edge, and no amount of Priuses or hemp fashions are going to reverse the mad stampede.
Here is what will reverse overshoot: use less stuff.
Folks: please see Andrea’s Living Without a Fridge website — http://ditchyourfridge.blogspot.com/ — for inspiration about living with less. Andrea is an authentic pioneer of the real sustainable future.
Thanks for catching my language around the deer and buffalo. Of course, I realize that the buffalo have already been decimated. But, what I increasingly realize is that no animal species is thriving because of the massive human population at this level of consumption. As David Suzuki says, there are more humans on this earth than there are rabbits and rats. (http://www.howtoboilafrog.com/, scroll down and click on David Suzuki’s image)
Every time I see even a squirrel or an animal killed on the side of the road from cars now it has a different meaning for me now. What remains in the animal world are often forced to cross our car paths – most people are likely more accustomed to seeing road kill than any other kind of living animal. I am not making a statistical point here, but rather, that it is common to assume that animals come from somewhere (where?) and exist in greater numbers than us. There is something heartbreaking to me about how our culture just shrugs off the car as a necessity and literally forces every animal that is near a road (so, likely most animals) to cross at their own peril. It happens daily without even the blink of an eye.
On a different note, humans cannot possibly imagine the historic fecundity of the natural world prior to our massive take over. A particularly telling example for me is of the Wadden Sea which runs across the Northern Edge of Europe. “Up to 1000 years ago it was a fabulous, interconnected system that was home to grey and white whales, porpoises, dolphins, seals, astounding three-dimensional oyster beds, eagles, pelicans, flamingos, egrets, herons, and other huge birds. Massive cod, haddock, halibut and rays temed in its waters, while metres-long salmon and sturgeon swam from river to sea…As rich as the Wadden seems now, it was once almost unimaginably richer.” (Alanna Mitchell, Sea Sick)
What passes for diverse ecosystems now are merely remnants of the past.
Thanks for the reminder, and it is further inspiration to act – to trace new paths where all can walk or swim.
We’ve had over 2000-3000 years of evolution of a system that has led us to the current state that we’re in. How do we change our collective lifestyles to live in small self-sufficient communities?
It seems like things have spun too far away from the mystic truths of nature.
Rex Weyler: It helps me to remember that we had several million years of sustainable hunting, gathering, and living in communities in which people took care of each other. Those instincts remain with us.
Well, hope springs eternal. Sometimes I feel that perhaps it’s time we’re naturally deselected as an evolutionary mistake. On the other hand perhaps something big is around the corner, that will drastically change the currently accepted paradigms.
Either way, I surrender completely to the infinite. Doing what I feel is right (and constantly inspired by legends like you).
My recollection of Dubai is that it’s the least sustainable city in the known universe!
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