Seeing hope in an urban planet

This is a summary of a talk last week at the Royal Geographical Society by Alex Steffen, followed by a conversation with Ellen MacArthur. It was a big crowd in a formal space reminiscent of a RSA lecture, with not much time for audience questions, but it was still worth the night-time outing and missing my dinner. Alex Steffen is known for the Worldchanging website which he archived last year to concentrate on writing and speaking. He is a very fluent speaker with a good line in neat fresh aphorisms. For speed, I’m documenting in short what he said, as he said it, rather than analysing and commenting. Imagine quote marks round what follows, with the caveat that it’s not verbatim. Also you’ll have to picture some great images.

Our problems are systems problems so the tools we have now won’t solve the problems. We only have silo tools, in a culture of bounded rationality. We think the way things were are the way they’ll be. We don’t want to switch our investments. We’re too attached to ‘sunk cost’: we’ve spent $2 on one thing so we have to stick with it even if we’d get a $10 return elsewhere. We think we can put off until the future what will affect us in the future. We’ve been overly optimistic about the problem. The 350 movement is a good thing. But there are two problems with it. One is that we’re nearly at 400 ppm already. The other is the exponential rise of the impacts of concentrations of emissions – we’re releasing methane as well as CO2, and the more the forests are drying and burning the less able they are to sink the gases. We have no means to deal with these exponential curves. Prudent action is to avoid getting into these curves in the first place. The typical response to the 350 initiative is to say ‘that’s not realistic’. But is it more realistic to go ahead and melt the icecaps? What we think of as normal doesn’t match up to the reality so we have to rethink what we mean by realistic. What we thought of as renewable resources, such as land and oceans, are no longer renewable as we’ve strained them too much.

Everyday 200-250 thousand people are born in or move into cities. We are likely to become an entirely urban species. People will rise out of poverty. Cities are the leverage points where we can transform our world into a sustainable one, as cities become more the default mode for living. Many people think that climate change is just an energy problem. Thinking like that is the key to not solving it. Yes, we need clean energy but if it’s combined with ‘business as usual’ we’re still heading for collapse. When we switched from measuring footprints based on energy emissions to looking at our complete consumption patterns, it showed a massive increase in our footprints. We need to think about the whole system. It is possible on an ‘urban planet’ to imagine very different ways of meeting our needs. For example, thinking differently about transportation. The critical thing about this problem is not mobility but access, having what you need right there without having to travel. Vancouver has managed to increase urban density and reduce car ownership, and it’s a great place to live. There’s a phenomenon called Transit Leverage: If you don’t have a car but use public transit, you travel fewer miles because you plan your journeys differently.

Densification also has benefits for health: Fewer road deaths, less pollution, less obesity. There’s the longevity leverage: You don’t lose time when you walk in the long run because you eventually gain that time by living longer! Tentpole density is a model for understanding how urban density works – you gain access to benefits at the centres of density. The UK is about to see a big boom in urban density, so we should also see the benefits.

Retrofitting is very important. Buildings are a major source of emissions. Developers assume people want people big houses but actually, when asked, we want not space but comforts and smooth-running functions. We need to think about reskinning and rethinking rooms, including outdoor rooms. We should build to the Passivhaus standard, using insulation and natural light to heat and cool, not fighting off nature with air con and heating. Urban density helps by providing shared walls and shared systems.

Another tool is smart metering. There is the effect where a car with a fuel gauge has better mileage than one without. Measurement begets transparency, which begets comparison, which changes behaviour.

On ‘walkshed technologies’, our cities are like the internet before Google. We still compare places by going to them but we don’t need to anymore. We’re the last generation to know what it means to get lost as we now have locative devices. The most web-connected people have the most real world friends, are most likely to go out, explore and socialise because they have the ability to make more small and useful connections.

Some inspiring things that connected people have done or things that are now possible: The Earth Sandwich (two people putting pieces of bread on exact opposite points of the globe), the I-nap (your phone alarm goes when you get somewhere unfamiliar you want to get to), Endossa (a tiny mall, shops in boxes where you can feel the goods but then order them online and have them delivered) and Packstation (safe neighbourhood package delivery vendors).

On ‘surplus capacities’: We buy objects because of their capacities. The typical power drill is used for 2-20 minutes in its entire life. They have capacities to drill for 10,000 hours. We could use it for more things, but we don’t, so we could instead use tool sharing services. (Otherwise known as ‘collaborative consumption’).

On ‘post-ownership’: Access to something is better than owning it. We can now float in a cloud of available access. For example, we now have car piloting, where you not only share cars but leave them at your destination so you don’t have to pay for parking. We’re also seeing more temporary uses of empty space, for example with pop-up shops.

On ‘effective wealth’: Some forms of consumption add to your capacities but don’t add further monetary wealth.

On ‘vertical emulation’: Because of consumerist media, we now compare ourselves to the richest people we see in the media rather than the Joneses next door.

On ‘skin, skeleton & guts’ or longlife designs: We’re surrounded by stuff that already has one foot in landfill when it’s made. We need to use electronic devices where all the parts are visible, replaceable and reskinnable. or, for example, objects that are customisable into the shapes you want and then which decompose when not needed. Look at little bits, a growing library of pre-assembled circuits that snap together with tiny magnets.  We’re now seeing ‘recombinant manufacturing’ – fabricators and laser cutters, to make replacement parts. Thingiverse, for example, is recipes for making stuff with these fabricators.

Innovation zones are places where we can share these bits of equipment and this knowledge. Hacker spaces magnetise attention. When people work together they become ‘attention philanthropists’, working out together what needs doing most urgently and what works with what.

On ‘farmland preservation’: It’s important to keep food in production around cities. On ‘closed loop production’ – we need to channel city waste back to the wild and to farmland. We need to nurture ecosystem services, for example, we need to create ‘pollination corridors’ which are channels of wildflowers that bees and butterflies can surf along.

On ‘carbon sequestration’: It’s possible to imagine a city that takes back its emissions. We know it’s possible but in a world full of limits the only limit is time.

Concluding with: A comparison of Czechoslavakia which invested in culture and tourism after the fall of the Iron Curtain, with Albania which invested in building 70,000 bunkers. Don’t build bunkers!


After the talk, Ellen MacArthur engaged Alex in a conversation which, interestingly, as he hadn’t mentioned it at all directly, focused on education. She referred to the experience of her own foundation in working in schools to help learning about a ‘circular economy’, asking him “what do you talk about when you go into a classroom?” His answer was that young people don’t really need to be told, that they understand more than we give them credit for, but that they feel disconnected from the ability to do anything. You have to encourage them to develop their passion. He said it was helpful to look at the generation gaps in perception as people in college now have never not learned about the environment as a pressing problem and that when young people express what they want to be doing, it’s always really visionary. However, even the best institutions provide no opportunities for them to realise their visions.

I suspect that his experience is of talking to students in relevant subjects in HE, whereas Ellen was referencing her own experience in schools where environment issues are not tackled politically, regularly or right across the curriculum. (There is also the language difference where ‘school’ in USA means college, and means compulsory education for children in the UK.)

I would have loved to hear a bigger discussion with Ellen and others about education but this wasn’t the occasion for it. Their conversation went on to cover issues about the directions that businesses must take, about the ‘sociopathic deliverables’ of our economy and about lobbying (or lying) for corporate interests and growth. I could cover much more, but I will just end on Alex’s final point: Environmentalists should stop using the term ‘growth’ to mean the ecocidal increases in energy and material use that we’re seeing now. Growth of prosperity is not necessarily a bad thing if it is managed in the ways he described in his talk. I totally agree with that suggestion: Too many debates between the ‘degrowth’ and ‘ecoinnovation’ camps are fights when they could just be working out solutions together. There is one non-sequitur in his talk that bothers me slightly, however, when he referred to the exponential curves of runaway climate change but next said that people will rise out of poverty. All curves are exponentially upwards, if global temperatures go up, access to resources goes down. What seems more likely is that some cities, where they have their local resource supplies really sussed and sustainable, and where they are least threatened by climate change, may see a rise in more equal prosperity.


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