Cities of the future

IF A TREE GOES UNSEEN IN A FOREST, DOES ANYONE CARE ABOUT IT?

In this blog, I am attempting to make a case for showing positivity in the face of climate crisis, and seek to illustrate the plethora of possible solutions thereof. But why should we care about environmental issues? This is an entire debate in itself and the associated responses strike a dividing line through the environmental movement.

One response commonly made in the face of climate change is the argument of shallow ecology. Shallow ecologists* value nature by its instrumental use for humanity and are therefore motivated to act towards its protection whenever its degradation or destruction impinges on our prosperity. For the shallow ecologist, a tree is valuable by virtue of the fact it can be made into a table or doorframe; a dog is valuable because it can assist with hunting and guarding property; natural gas becomes valuable when one realises it can be burnt to cook a pan of beans or to generate electricity.

Along this line of argument, a shallow ecologist might campaign against the mining and burning of fossil fuels because these resources are diminishing, take millions of years to regenerate (meaning they will soon be unavailable for future generations to use as we have) and the greenhouse effect resulting from their use threatens the continued existence of the human race. For the shallow ecologist, the extinction of the dodo and the impending extinction of the great panda are issues of no great concern, since these creatures are of little practical use in maintaining or improving our quality of life.

Shallow ecology seems at first to be at odds with the recognition that we humans are not separate, but part of nature. This is not necessarily the case. For instance, a shallow ecologist may support their belief that the extinction of the great panda and dodo are not important by remarking that it was largely mankind who caused these extinctions and, at the end of the day, we just play a part of nature’s process. In this view, the urban landscape exists not only suspended within, but as an inextricably bound component of the natural environment. One might argue the growth of a city should therefore be allowed to continue undamped, paving over fields and ripping up forests for the sake of economic prosperity. It is easy to see how these can be potentially ruinous positions when extrapolated to a global scale. The main motive behind an extreme shallow-ecological approach to nature is possibly an attempt to absolve responsibility.

Shallow ecologists such as Peter Singer argue the expansion of cities is largely independent of the true nature. In his book ‘Practical Ethics’, Singer advocates the preservation of world heritage sites. These unspoilt parts of the world, such as the tropical rainforest, acquire a ‘scarcity value’ as they diminish over time. By preserving heritage sites, it is possible to ensure their survival for future generations to enjoy. In this way, Singer prefers to leave future generations to decide whether they prefer unspoilt countryside or urban landscape. In the case of the rainforest, deforestation to make farmland is in many cases a pointless exercise, since the soil is often unsuited to monocultures after millennia upon millennia of very niche evolutionary development.

On the other side of the fence are the predictably named deep ecologists. A deep ecologist sees value in natural entities beyond their use for humans. A cow, for instance, has value beyond the milk, meat and leather it can provide. A deep ecologist will motivate their tackling of climate change by the claim the ‘natural world’ itself is worth saving, regardless of the fact humanity forms part of it. The millions of years of evolution that have developed the rich diversity of life forms found today should be held with utmost respect, rather than disregard for the sake of mere human worries. After all, on the timescale on which life has existed on Earth, all human history is a mere blink of an eye.

A deep ecologist is more likely to be interested in conservation independently of protecting resources which are useful for our sakes; more likely to campaign to keep fossil fuels in the ground full stop rather than to reduce their consumption; more likely to  reduce meat consumption for animal rights reasons, rather than environmental ones.

WHERE IS THE LINE?

In the above paragraphs a problematic term has crept in, one which is crucial in evaluating the spectrum of approaches to ecology: what is nature? Is a garden nature? A house plant in a pot? The Amazon rainforest? In a lot of ways, nature is a rather poorly defined word. Most people would agree that cities are not natural places, and that areas largely untouched by humans, such as desert plains, the Arctic tundra and the deep rainforest are the best examples of natural places – the world heritage sites Singer refers to. But what about the places ‘in between’ these two extremes, such as farmed countryside, national parks and the valleys surrounding ski resorts?

As with much philosophy of language, the solution essentially lies in a personal choice of definition, disappointingly. What you or I mean when we use the term nature need not be wholly consistent for us to have a meaningful conversation. What is important however is one’s attitude towards whatever it is that is defined by ‘nature’. Many today see nature as something outside of everyday life, whereby engagements with nature occur only on a camping trip or on a Sunday walk. Certainly embracing the natural world in these ways is beneficial on one’s outlook of the environment, but is it really healthy (for humans or for the planet) to think only in such terms?

The distinction between civilisation and untouched nature has been blurred for some time now. As Joshua Molyneux writes in Untrue blog,

“We resist nature in order to survive, building material and social protections that we hope will insulate us from the harsh weather. The dream of times past was that human progress would mean that we could civilise nature, delivering a utopia where people would be emancipated from the unending toil of survival.”

Everything we have we owe to nature, including our own existence. If all plants on Earth were killed, humans would die out too. We rely on plants, animals and bacteria for the air we breathe, the food we eat and the continued sustenance of ecosystem we inhabit. Without all of these components our civilisation, too, would fall apart. We are intrinsically a part of nature and therefore should see it permeating throughout everything we do.

The problems of climate change faced today make it clear that humankind does not have the full dominion over Earth that was once assumed. As James Lovelock argues in his influential book The Revenge of Gaia, the Earth will ensure we repay the damage inflicted upon it one way or another. The question is, how we are to both reduce the damage inflicted upon the planet and also mitigate the disastrous consequences for humanity (thereby fulfilling the desires of both deep and shallow ecologists)?

LIVEABLE CITIES

Last month there was an excellent photography exhibition on at Somerset House, London, called Grow/Conserve. The common thread running through the constituent pieces was an examination of the dependencies of humankind on nature and of plants and animals upon the urban landscape. One such study was provided by the British-Chinese artist Yan Wang Preston (see header image), whose photography centres around the reintroduction of trees to major Chinese cities which have become vastly over-polluted and are in dire need of some CO2 being absorbed. Like a boulder that slowly gains unstoppable momentum when pushed from its steady state atop a hill, by cutting down more and more trees to expand the world’s cities we are implicitly contributing more to the devastating greenhouse effect by creating a negative feedback (without even necessarily releasing more greenhouse gases).

A powerful statistic stated in Grow/Conserve is that every second the cities of the world gain two more inhabitants, be that through birth or migration. That is, 77 million new city-dwellers, per year – an annual exodus greater than the entire population of the UK. Clearly this means either cities need to expand rapidly to cater for their new inhabitants, or face the consequences of becoming extremely densely populated, with associated issues such as heightened crime, extreme pollution and homelessness. The extreme scenario image of a city-planet like Star Wars’ Coruscant is both infeasible and highly undesirable.

Surely there is an alternative to simply expanding cities upwards and outwards in the conventional way? Grow/Conserve seeks such alternative solutions, with a large emphasis on future sustainability.

A particularly vogue solution is the concept of a vertical garden. Numerous projects across the world aspire to re-think the conventional approach to gardening and vegetable growing. Most such projects have the aim of absorbing more CO2 than is required for their construction, thereby combatting climate change and local air pollution. In addition, they are usually more pleasant on the eyes than the many concrete nightmares of the past.

Building materials are much more important than they are given credit for. The majority of the environmental debate focuses around electricity generation and transport, with little time for thought left for the carbon footprint of concrete, for example. For every tonne of concrete made, a whopping 150kg of CO2 is released into the atmosphere. But, as is clear from the efficiency ratings of modern-style glass buildings, the environmentally-friendly choice does not lie that way either.

As Geoffrey West recently said in a very interesting seminar at University of Reading,

“the fate of the planet is now entwined in the fate of our cities”.

Cities give opportunity; cities promote diversity and innovation. Yet modern cities require vast amounts of externally farmed, mined and harvested consumables, contributing asymmetrically to environmental problems. As such, cites provide both the problem and the solution.

To help reach the solution faster, what is needed is increased innovation into technological developments like carbon capture and storage (CCS) and sustainable building materials, more international projects like Felix Finkbeiner’s childhood-dream-on-the-way-to-becoming-true project to plant one trillion trees** and more public involvement with, engagement in and discussion about achievable solutions to the problems posed to humanity by climate change.

Next time you find yourself at the heart of a big city, revelling in is almost chaotic busyness, take a moment to ask yourself whether this state of being is really sustainable in the long term.

 

NOTES

* : To be a shallow ecologist is a rather unfortunate title, don’t you think?

** : Bear in mind, there are only approximately three trillion trees on Earth, and Finkbeiner isn’t yet 20 years old. This project is one of the most impressive environmental efforts I have ever come across.

 

[Header image: Yan Wang Preston]

4 thoughts on “Cities of the future

    • Thanks! As may be predictable, somewhere in the middle! But tending more towards the deep end. I feel there is a lot of inherent value in nature and think it is arrogant to say that if we didn’t exist then nothing would matter. However I recognise it is near impossible to completely avoid placing value using the prism of our human experience and needs. Also, it is difficult to motivate action on climate change, for example, purely from a deep ecologist argument. Most people are not sufficiently stirred by ‘save the polar bears’ type arguments to change their lifestyle very much and so we should seek to point out the more human issues, such as the impact on future of society and future generations, etc.

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      • I agree, I would probably say the same – I believe elements of each viewpoint. It’s a really tough one, everything has to have a balance and whatever happens in the future will draw upon both approaches of thinking.

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  1. Pingback: Are you imprisoned in Plato’s cave? | Cut waste, not trees (down)

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