The Price of Sustainable Cities

Valid criticism for the four leading posts would have to include a level of redundancy. In fact, the more redundant the reader found them, the better.

Such fundamental arguments, from my experience, seem to be discussed casually, if at all when sustainable planning is ever the agenda. Efficiency is demonised as an industrial tool for increasing production. Our footprints are apparently the best indicator we have for societal wealth. Greenwashing is merely an irresponsible corporate sales pitch. To thrive we must find a way to expand and procure ever more resources.

Such points should be well known to be wrong (it could be, in the case of greenwashing), however, their persistence hinders genuine sustainable development, which mark them all as major hurdles for planning in the coming century. How we overcome such hurdles will have to start with our definition of value.

Take, for instance, the hotly debated topic of pricing carbon currently playing out in Australia. The opposition leader, Tony Abbott, has played on the fears of the citizens with such slogans as, “It’s a big new tax on working families!” and “the price will only going to go up and up…”

At the same time, advertisements play on the similar note by pointing out how living expenses are going up… Therefore, buy their product to save money.

The current wasteful linear processing pathways will of course lead to ever increasing living expenses (as previously discussed, through resource exclusion and separation) and such fear tactics will make societies too scared to do anything new (promoting business as usual – which of course is the idea), inevitably leading to a continuation of increasing living expense.

This is what worries me most – especially now that I’m on brink of starting a family of my own.

While I refer to human societies as human ecosystems (and truly believe them to be just that), currently they act more like giant lumbering organisms, way too mammoth for their landscape, producing gigatons of unresolvable waste and only see food as always available, without external cost. It’s like trying to keep a herd of brachiosaurus in place of cattle in a standard paddock.

It just cannot last.

While natural ecosystems rely on competition of limited resources to achieve equilibrium, we of course want ours to be designed on less brutal rules with greater emphasis on fitness of each member of society. Therefore, we require something else to control our use of limited resources (for all resources are limited regardless of the common misperception). Economy has become our main mode of resource transfer so of course becomes the prime candidate for setting the frame work for resource management.

Nothing is free, nor should the cost of resource extraction alone remain the only costs associated with its initial availability. There are numerous costs to the landscape from resource extraction as well as a loss (especially in the case of non-renewables) to the natural resource stock of the landscape. These values should be translated into a “price” on natural resources.

Waste too, as we currently produce it, is largely unresolvable hard, liquid and airborne pollution. It might be invisible or buried, but it remains a deficit in the natural resource stock and so, just like extraction, should be “priced” according to its storage as a useless product within the environment.

“This is going to place a massive strain on already struggling families,” I can almost hear Mr. Abbott already replying.

Sure, it would. If the plan was to maintain business as usual such a suggestion would not be viable at all.

But that is the whole point of this discussion!

Business as usual has let us down. It has promoted deregulated activities to degrade environments and exacerbate resource exclusion, in other words, inequality. Business as usual cannot be made to become sustainable nor has it ever factored in the properties most important to a happy and healthy society. Pricing resource extraction and eventual storage will make business as usual very difficult but it will also open up new opportunities for prosperity that can be sustainable.

It can be said that resources in natural ecosystems are like a kite caught in an updraft. Whilst it is held aloft by the breeze (ie. energy source) it is able to do work. When it is broken or removed, that potential is gone. Finding ways to maintain it in useful mediums (generally passing between composers and decomposers) allows transfer of energy and building blocks amongst the community – effectively “keeping the kite aloft”. This is the basic principle behind economic resource management.

Where increased costs are associated with resource extraction or waste, naturally efficiency is encouraged. No longer is an item wasted after a short lifespan, but is firstly designed in such a way that, following this initial use, it is valuable, or at least reclaimable in other processes. Rather than losing the “kite” to landfill, we engineer it in ways that it can serve multiple functions before returning again to similar point in which it started.

This efficiency too will come to play on our footprints. The initial shock will be inevitable, when we collectively realise just how much waste is involved in the heavy, developed footprints. However innovation will be inspired by the challenge of achieving a comfortable (and affordable) standard of living within these new confines. New industries will emerge.

As I stated in the previous article, I believe that we will need to develop communities that are truly wealthy not through exclusion, but rather availability for resources for all.

Corporate involvement will be fundamental and where they work with their customers in open and honest “greenwashing” they will achieve the best possible outcomes for their own activities (ie. sustainable and prosperous business design) and for their customers. It will also be an invaluable educational resource in promoting further improvements in sustainability (eg. future generations hardwired from childhood to wonder how they can get the most from limited resources and cyclic processes).

Ultimately the term “sustainable growth” will be forgotten and replaced with “sustainable prosperity” where expanse and resource exclusion is no longer the focus, but rather resilience based on natural resource investments and reclaimable resource pathways.

There are two points that would need to be addressed.

The first is that the price on extraction and waste cannot be put into a state’s revenue, for it is not a state tax, but a global account. The money raised should go only towards natural resource management; either direct natural landscape management or a universal research and development fund to further efficient resource use, cyclic processing and resource recapture.

Secondly, there is an obvious danger in placing a price on natural resources; that their “worth” might be seen as less than could be achieved through landscape conversion. As ecosystems are complex and often overlap, a basic rule of thumb should remain that biodiversity should be protected above all else and whatever developmental plans are proposed, they need to integrate within the landscape rather than convert it.

If we can develop societies which attempt to cycle limited resources among various activities, to maximise achievable work from those resources, with an emphasis on reducing extraction and waste, then we will have begun the process of developing sustainable human ecosystems in which our species can truly flourish. Such societies should bring down the cost of many essentials and with availability the main focus, they should improve the average standing of living and work / life balance. The ‘brachiosaurus herd in a paddock’ would be replaced.

Again, the more redundant this seems, the better. Such arguments should be obvious, but from the tone within parliament and advertisement as well as the general tone of most related discussions, this is clearly not the case. Only through proper pricing of resources can we hope to give sustainable prosperity a meaningful value.

[Also found at The Sustainable Cities Collective]

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