State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Past This Absurd Election and Toward the Sustainable City

While this train wreck of a national election comes to its long awaited conclusion, I keep thinking about how the world is changing and how little this election reflects the reality of the world around us. Technology has changed our economy, communication systems, society, and lifestyles, a set of facts unobserved by our national politics. Human history is in many ways a story of the evolution of our social interaction and the development of the technology that affects our daily lives. How we behave toward each other reflects our values and ethics and they have evolved as we have learned to meet our basic and other-than-basic needs. Over the last two centuries, the pace of technological change has increased dramatically, influencing every aspect of work and home life—climate control, refrigeration, telephones, radio, electric illumination, televisions, autos, jets, computers, the internet, smart phones, search engines, industrial agriculture… The list is virtually endless and its impact on how we live, how we work, and how we spend our time is nearly impossible to calculate and understand.

In the course of transforming how we live and how we spend our time we have gained greater mastery over our ability to affect our immediate environment. At one time most people spent most of their time struggling to obtain food, clothing, shelter, water, and safety. In the modern world, those resources are assumed. Despite America’s obsession with guns, most people do not hunt and do not need to defend themselves against dangerous enemies. Most, but by no means all, people spend a relatively small amount of time and effort trying to obtain the basic necessities of life , and for those who do continue to struggle, in the modern world we consider them to be poor or extremely poor. We all talk about putting food on the table but very few of us are involved in growing or producing that food. The middle class in America feels insecure about their ability to continue its way of life and the press of downward economic mobility is real and felt. Still, most Americans would not trade their lifestyle for the one lived by their grandparents or even their parents.

But in the process of building this technological marvel, a world unimaginable to people born at the start of the 20th or 19th centuries, we have damaged natural systems ranging from groundwater to climate. We have introduced human-made chemicals into ecosystems that do not have the ability to absorb them without being damaged. These ecosystems produce the air, water, and food that our species requires to stay alive. With the human population of the world exceeding 7 billion and likely to peak at about 9 billion, we need to figure out how to manage the impact of our species on the planet. We need to do this while increasing the output of our high throughput economy to ensure that poverty is ended and a global social safety net is put in place. This must be built on an understanding of the importance of the market economy and of individual rewards and sanctions for individual behavior. A regulatory and management system must permit individual accomplishment while preventing environmentally destructive organizational and individual behavior.

This requires a deep understanding of earth systems science and the impact of human-built technological creations and systems on ecosystems and on the global biosphere. To achieve this, we need to:

  • Fund and pay for earth systems science research and impact projections/analyses.
  • Develop sophisticated public-private partnerships to make the transition from a one-time finite resource based throwaway economy to a renewable resource based sustainable economy.
  • Concentrate as much human population as we can into densely settled areas while ensuring those places are attractive, exciting, healthy and productive places to live, learn, develop, work, and play.

The key to a sustainable, renewable resource-based economy is the sustainable city. Let’s explicitly draw the connection between sustainable production and consumption processes and sustainable places. Sustainable economic processes require sustainable local places. To do this we must develop a deeper understanding of human designed technologies and the impact of those technologies on the living systems of living places.

Sustainable cities will not emerge all at once, or without false starts. We need to learn how to create and maintain these places. It seems obvious, but worth repeating, that these cities must be built to attract residents and visitors. They need to deliver high quality of life and a sense of place and space that makes them unique and distinctive. Every city will have some sort of trade off. Some will have better weather, some will have better museums, others will have better bars and others will have better health care. But all should do everything they can to reduce the impact of their population on the quality of ecosystems and the air, water, and food that we require.

The social or cultural move toward a new type of economic consumption makes thsustainable city not only possible, but also necessary and probable. Young people want some of the things their parents have but want other things as well. They want experiences as much as they want possessions. They want to share and communicate those experiences with others. The growth of the World Wide Web and the lower price of communication and computing have changed the nature of information sharing and of social interaction. Your circle of friends is no longer limited to those you live in close proximity to. The extent of electronic communication has increased the demand for live interaction. We do not know what shape that will take, but we know that live human interaction takes place in cities.

The social, economic, and technological changes we have experienced in the United States over the past half-century provide the foundation for the changes that are now underway. The nature of work has changed and our role in families and communities has changed as well. Feminism, the move to eliminate racism, changing norms of child rearing (being a parent used to be a status; parenting is now a verb), gay rights and marriage equality, physical fitness, wellness, enhanced psychological and physical health care—I could go on, but the point is that we live in a different world than the one I grew up in. It makes it possible to think about quality of life in different ways. People care deeply about the food they eat, the air they breathe and the water they drink. That often leads to a path of advocating environmental protection and trying to live a sustainable, less resource consumptive lifestyle.

Communication, education, social interaction, culture, art, music, theater, comedy, and the media allow you to observe, interact and reflect. They do not require ownership. You need not buy the painting to enjoy it. Your entertainment can be streamed rather than recorded on a disc and played back. Your books can be stored in the cloud rather than a case in your living room. The connection between the mind and physical objects has been reduced, as has the relationship between quality of life and material possessions. We require food, water, clothing, shelter and other material comforts, but those items are increasingly assumed commodities and while we may be fooling ourselves, we spend less and less time pursing those items and more and more item acquiring and digesting information and ideas.

That is the world we are now creating. If we can keep from blowing ourselves up, it is a world of boundless possibilities. Hillary Clinton may understand that world now being created but Donald Trump can’t even imagine it. Over the past hundred days, very little of the change now underway was discussed by either candidate. The political and policy issues it raises were ignored. Our politics has become nasty, fact-free and depressing. This past week five million people in Chicago celebrated the Cubs championship and over a million people watched 50,000 others run the New York City Marathon. Our cities can bring us together in wonderful shared experiences; now it’s time for our political processes to reflect rather than refute that reality.

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