City of the future?

Alex Steffen has delivered a TED talk in Edinburgh looking at the shareable future of cities. It is essentially a summary of views from the excellent but defunct Worldchanging website – If we can’t generate enough clean energy to replace fossil fuels then we must stop and think of alternative solutions. For Steffen, one such solution is walkable urbanism. He advocates planning, building and refabricating cities so that they are high-density and, by virtue, more sustainable.

The problem I have with Steffen’s utopian vision for the city of the future, is that it is top-down and prescriptive. It provides answers to some important questions but fails to countenance the possibility that people may not want to live in high-density areas.

Top ten green books

Here are my top ten green books. Some of the choices may seem rather tenuous and they feature in no particular order.

1. Amartya Sen – The Idea of Justice

Sen proposes a fundamental shift in the focus of economics, from the means or material wealth of individuals, to the actual opportunities they possess in order to do things they value. Factors such as age, gender, disability, one’s physical environment and social climate can have an impact on the quality of life or capabilities of individuals and entire communities. The idea that GDP can act as the sole marker of success is finally laid bare.

2. Nassim Nicholas Taleb – The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

For Taleb, Black Swan Events are unforeseeable, they have major, wide reaching repercussions, and after having been recorded, many people attempt to rationalise the event with hindsight. It is the randomness of events, and our inability to predict outcome that animates Taleb the most. Ultimately, he advocates a society that is able to weather such events.

3. James Scott – Seeing Like a State

The ‘high-modernist’ ideology and resulting policies of the previous century were top-down and harmed many of the people they were supposed to help. Scott argues that in order for schemes to improve the human condition to flourish, they must consider local conditions and specialist knowledge, or metis.

4. Rachel Botsman – What’s Mine Is Yours

Botsman has tapped into the times with this book. She describes an explosion in sharing, swapping, trading and renting due to the internet and peer-to-peer technologies. This new way of consuming, according to Botsman, is very similar to how we did things in the days before ultra-consumerism. At last, ‘we’re becoming smart and social again’. Once you’ve finished reading this book, register with the CC website and ‘recycle’ it for others to enjoy.

5. Ayn Rand – Atlas Shrugged

The Randian hero, personified by the character John Galt in Atlas Shrugged, is I suspect the antithesis of what most environmentalists would aspire to. But it’s important to know your enemy. And better the devil you know etc. Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism completely rejects the idea of altruistic behaviour – ‘rational self-interest’ is king. Frightening stuff.

6. Ryszard Kapuściński – The Soccer War

Kapuscinski takes us to the heart of countless revolutions, coups, civil wars and hotspots across the emerging ‘Third World’ of the 1960s. Many of these conflicts are the result of disputes over who controls what natural resources. Kapuscinski writes a ‘new kind of literature’ – one ‘by foot’. He dismisses the traditional ‘fabricated narrator describing a fabricated reality’ and favours an explicitly personal style. For Kapuscinski, writing is only authentic if it is being lived. I wish there was more of this style of writing from contemporary environmental correspondents.

7. Cormac McCarthy – The Road

The Road affirms belief in the tender pricelessness of the here and now. In creating an exquisite nightmare, it does not add to the cruelty and ugliness of our times; it warns us now how much we have to lose.

8. David MacKay – Sustainable Energy (Without the Hot Air)

Where are we going to get our energy from in the near future? This book probes this question with plenty of numbers and data. An entertaining and informative primer.

9. Jonathon Porritt – Capitalism as if the World Matters

Porritt holds an unashamedly reformist position. If capitalism is still the only economic game in town, then we need to make it work. Our fixation with growth is unhealthy and Porritt offers some compelling solutions to the current free-market approach.

10. Stewart Brand – Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto

Some of the holy cows of environmentalism are demolished in this book. Brand is refreshingly solutions-orientated and therefore offers prescriptions as well as diagnosis to issues. A welcome manifesto that rebukes the glut of pessimistic material that has prevailed in recent years.

The (green) case for AV

James Murray of Business Green has put forward an eloquent (green) case for voting #YES2AV in today’s referendum on electoral reform. He calls it a “once-in-a-generation chance to move towards a voting system that would raise the profile of environmental issues by making green votes count.” How?

AV would force the mainstream parties to campaign harder for the second preference votes of environmentalists. As a result of this relatively minor change to the electoral system, green issues are likely to be forced a couple of notches up the political agenda.

Unfortunately, most polling in recent days has predicted a big win for the “No” vote. Exit polls should provide an indication of the result around midnight.

On Gandhi

Gandhi prophesised that an economy built on material consumption would cause a serious threat to the environment. In recent years, many greens have sought to capitalise on this anti-industrial message. But what exactly is the Gandhian remedy and how useful is it for the present day?

This article was originally posted on Bright Green. Read it in full, here.

China, climate and growth; a shift?

Quoted on Climate Progress, the Chinese Premier, Wen Jibao:

We must not any longer sacrifice the environment for the sake of rapid growth and reckless rolll-outs, as that would result in unsustainable growth featuring industrial overcapacity and intensive resource consumption.

The environment minister, Zhou Shengxian:

In China’s thousands of years of civilization, the conflict between humankind and nature has never been as serious as it is today. The depletion, deterioration and exhaustion of resources and the worsening ecological environment have become bottlenecks and grave impediments to the nation’s economic and social development.

The Glass Shard

In 2001, Ken Livingstone struck a deal with the “Corporation”, the Square Mile’s local authority. It went something like this: the then London Mayor would relax restrictions on developers and allow them to build skyscrapers outside of the City in return for substantial investment in deprived inner London boroughs – paid for via a new planning levy.

As a result of the relaxation of planning laws, a glut of skyscrapers have been built outside the perimeters of the Square Mile. The most recent and eye-catching skyscraper to appear is the Shard in London Bridge. It is already the tallest construction in the European Union and dwarfs all around it. Designed by Renzo Piano, who had a hand in Paris’ Pompidou Centre, the Shard is apparently inspired by Canaletto and London’s maritime past.

One prerequisite for major new building projects under Mayor Livingstone’s tenure was that they be based in areas of pre-existing and high-functioning transport hubs. Certainly, the Shard developers would argue that by building in such close proximity to London Bridge rail, bus and underground terminals, they had chosen a very practical site. One major problem, however, is that – and I am sure many people who commute to or through London Bridge will testify – the pre-existing infrastructure is already creaking. How will London Bridge cope when the Shard is at full capacity and all 72 of its inhabitable floors are in use? The knock-on effect for the entire London Underground system could be severe – many more commuters using the tube at a time of cuts to staff numbers and a lack of investment.

In a city like London, where space is precious, we should always keep an eye on the long-term social impact of grand new building projects. We might value a building’s aesthetic design or its green credentials. We might favour creativity and innovation. We might even support more skyscrapers being built in order to help the City keep its competitive edge over other centres of global finance. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that London is a living, working city.

Building vast glass-panelled monuments is all very well, but without the accompanying infrastructure and investment, projects such as the Shard may face real resistance from Londoners in the future.