I’ve moved a lot, by anyone’s standards, over my life. The reoccurring theme I’ve found in suburban landscapes is that it’s built for the driver. One’s home is an island within vast tracks of MAMBA. We can do it better. We have done it better. We’ll need to make human landscapes better if we’re ever going to make genuine headway on climate adaption and mitigation as well as increase resource security and waste reduction.
I found this video an interesting piece in the puzzle before us.
In light of the recent news about the potential loss of jobs in the Oceans and Atmosphere and Land and Water divisions of CSIRO, I thought I should repost these videos I made several years ago. At that point, I was working as part of a national network called Ozflux.
It was an incredibly rewarding experience and one that I’ve regretted having to move from ever since. Many of my mentors came from this division of CSIRO and it’s them who come to mind now.
I only hope that enough people recognise the immense value CSIRO is to Australia and that whatever changes are deemed necessary do not negatively impact CSIRO’s role in improving the lives of Australians as well as our understanding of this unique and wonderful landscape.
Globally, there is intense discussion about the future of urban life through the World Urban Campaign. The central proposition is that:
… the battle for a more sustainable future will be won or lost in cities.
Presumably, this is predicated on the fact that 54% of the world’s people live in cities, where 70% of global GDP is generated. By 2050 the urban population will have risen to 66%.
In parallel, following the Paris climate agreement, major cities are committing to measures designed to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The poster for this campaign should read “Coming to your city soon”.
It is clear 2016 will be the “urban year” as the global community prepares for the Habitat III summit in Quito, Ecuador, this October.
At Habitat III, governments will agree an urban agenda to guide global urban development over the next 20 years. The agenda is taking shape through preparatory meetings (the next one is in Indonesia in July), as well as regional and thematic meetings.
A series of 28 urban thinkers campuses has been organised across the globe, running until February 2016. One of the last of these is in Melbourne, Australia.
A world of challenges
We are all too familiar with the problems cities commonly face. These include rising house prices putting ownership beyond the reach of many, suburban sprawl, long commutes, traffic congestion, social problems, isolation and polarisation.
Melbourne leads the pack of Australian cities that rank highly for liveability, but they rate much more poorly for sustainability. AAP/David Crosling
At the same time, Australian cities have real strengths. This is reflected in their performance in various rankings on liveability and quality of urban life. But we ought not assume that this situation is sustainable, or that we can lock in liveability.
Globally, cities face even greater challenges. In the global south, if you live in a city there is a one-in-three chance that you live in a slum.
Also, despite progress on the Millennium Development Goals, poverty is still our greatest urban concern. It is not limited to the south and has been growing across cities globally since the global financial crisis. Limited financial resources constrain the capacity of city administrations to respond to these challenges, especially in the face of austerity measures.
While that may seem like a pretty glum picture, there are reasons to be hopeful.
In a survey of 20 cities last year for the UN Global Compact Cities Program we identified many examples of civic leadership and urban innovations.
Related to this, in the US, Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley at Brookings have described these innovations as a “metropolitan revolution”. They argue that local leaders are doing the hard work of growing the job market and making their communities more prosperous. They cite examples in New York, Portland, Houston and Miami.
Across the English Channel, Bristol is seeking to transform the economy by introducing a local currency. The Bristol pound is designed to strengthen business relationships within the city and to build trust.
What these cities and their leaders have recognised is that “business as usual” will not get us to where we need to be.
Technological innovation, institutional reform, financial investment and regulatory change are all part of the answer, especially as we seek to achieve development goals while ensuring we do not undermine our environmental sustainability. However, we may need to dig deeper. Something that we neglect is the need for changes in values at both the societal and individual levels.
Twisting Einstein’s famous quote somewhat, it is possible to assert that “we can’t solve problems by using the same value system that created them”.
Here is where the notion of the ethical city comes in.
What is the ethical city?
Ethics is concerned with what is “right, fair, just or good”, not necessarily what is most accepted as normal or expedient.
Most people will have heard of the term ethical corporation. It suggests that such businesses place certain key values and practices at the centre of their operations. This could include fairness, integrity, respect for the environment, elimination of discrimination, and so on.
Internationally, some of these key values are elaborated in the ten principles of the UN Global Compact. Thousands of companies have signed up. Mayors of cities and governors of regions can also sign up to these principles by sending a letter to the UN secretary-general.
Yet the term ethical city is rarely used, even though ethical considerations underpin how we plan and manage our cities. And the ethical values underpinning the vast majority of our decisions about city life are rarely made explicit.
Even so, in most cities we already see various measures designed to support ethical governance. These range from internal commissions to audit and check on performance through to measures to promote transparency and community participation in decision-making.
Urban leaders, administrators, planners, engineers and others are aware of the ethical ramifications of their work, have guidance to refer to and training when needed. Although sometimes people fall foul, the vast majority do not because they are seen to be doing the right thing.
But we must recognise that there is a dominant view of “business as usual” based on an embedded set of values. Good examples include how most cities are designed primarily to accommodate the car, how we work in the CBD and live in the suburbs, or how homelessness is seen as a fact of life in many cities.
How do we create a more ethical city?
Thought leaders like Peter Singer have done a lot to elaborate the importance of ethics in everyday life, especially with his book Practical Ethics. However, we live in utilitarian times.
More than ever, our cities need ethical leadership – good governance, transparency, public trust building and fairness. They need ethically based planning to deal with the complex challenges facing our communities. This depends on our willingness to tackle the tough questions around sustainability, resilience, economic vibrancy and inclusiveness.
There is also our role as citizens. What are our expectations of ourselves as ethical, engaged citizens? What do we expect and deserve, and what are we prepared to commit to each other in the ethical city? What kind of citizens do we need to be?
Most of all, if we end up agreeing that we need a city that cares, how do we navigate to this end in a world where private profit and consumption are kings and where the tenets of the ethical city – social inclusion, climate action, gender equity, rights of children and youth, and myriad other rights and needs – are lacking?
If this sounds like a new year dose of utopianism, think of cases that you could envisage in your city – from participatory budgeting, to crowd-funded social enterprises, to any number of people who decided “what should we do?”, then acted on it.
The Ethical Cities Urban Thinkers Campus, to be hosted at RMIT University in Melbourne on February 16, will explore the ethical city in relation to urban development, inclusion and rights, and resilience.
[Mike, from Watching the Deniers, has moved to a new location. I’m really enjoying his new work. With his permission, I’m planning to repost much of it. Originally posted here]
“The modern day external shocks are clear: energy depletion, climate change, ageing populations and migration. They are altering the dynamics of capitalism and making it unworkable in the long term…” Paul Mason, The End of Capitalism has Begun (The Guardian, 17 July 2015)
As the planet burns, wealth has been rushing up, not down
Three pieces of recent news should give all of us pause, as they tell us something about the nature of capitalism and the state of the world in it’s present form.
That’s not the most shocking thing about their report though: since 2010 the wealth of the 1% has been growing at an exponential rate while the wealth of the bottom third of humanity has decreased by trillions of dollars.
As we take a moment to ponder the implications of this massive transfer of wealth from, let’s consider a piece of “science” news.
The global average surface temperature in 2015 broke all previous records by a strikingly wide margin, at 0.76±0.1° Celsius above the 1961-1990 average. For the first time on record, temperatures in 2015 were about 1°C above the pre-industrial era, according to a consolidated analysis from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO)
The future, should we fail to act decisively now looks grim:
“We have reached for the first time the threshold of 1°C above pre-industrial temperatures. It is a sobering moment in the history of our planet, ” said Mr Taalas. ” If the commitments made during the climate change negotiations in Paris and furthermore a higher emission reduction ambition level is reached, we still have chance to stay within the maximum 2°C limit,” said Mr Taalas.
As the planet burns, wealth has been rushing up, not down.
Humans have produced enough concrete to thinly pave the entire surface of the Earth, while carbon dioxide emissions are rising 100 times quicker than at any time during the past 800,000 years.
Such dramatic transformations of the planet are showing up in the world’s sediments and warrant the declaration of a new geological epoch – aptly known as Anthropocene to reflect humanity’s role – according to a new paper published in the journal Science.
The research, compiled by two dozen scientists and academics, identified planet-wide impacts ranging from nuclear fallout from weapons testing to mining that displaces 57 billion tonnes of material a year – or almost three times the amount of sediment carried by the world’s rivers.
What is one to make of these reports?
Welcome to the Anthropocene: where economics, environmental collapse and politics collide
Typically these pieces of information are presented separately, often buried among the middle pages of the remaining print newspapers in their op-ed sections.
Taken together they paint a picture of the world today: that of rising temperatures, rising inequality and burgeoning conditions for social upheaval.
Journalist Eugene Linden in his work “The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather and the Destruction of Civilizations” notes this repeating pattern throughout history. From the collapse of the Greenland Viking colonies, the climatic chaos of the Little Ice Ages or the fall of the Mayan kingdoms due to extreme drought, shifts in climate and weather often preempt and drive significant disruptions to human societies.
The concern is that we may not be adequately prepared for it:
“We have not been tested by climate change. Moreover, humans have a tendency to fit new information into familiar patterns. This may explain why so few people have noted that the climate began changing during the past two decades, and even fewer more have become alarmed…”
What is true of the climate, is also true and the growing disparity in wealth and the ecological destruction around us.
The best of times, the worst of times: conditions for social disruption?
This wealth transfer, and the stealthy takeover of the planet by corporations, has been in progress for decades. It is a process that individually we have not noticed, nor seen how it was effected. And yet we are now living with the results of the free-market extremism of neo-libralism.
Greece’s former finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, recently summed up this state of affairs in a recent TED talk:
“Democracy.In the West,we make a colossal mistake taking it for granted.We see democracynot as the most fragile of flowers that it really is,but we see it as part of our society’s furniture.We tend to think of it as an intransigent given.We mistakenly believe that capitalism begets inevitably democracy.It doesn’t.
Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and his great imitators in Beijinghave demonstrated beyond reasonable doubtthat it is perfectly possible to have a flourishing capitalism,spectacular growth,while politics remain democracy free.Indeed, democracy is receding in our neck of the woods,here in Europe.
Earlier this year, while I was representing Greece —the newly elected Greek government —in the Eurogroup as its Finance Minister,I was told in no uncertain terms that our nation’s democratic process —our elections —could not be allowed to interferewith economic policies that were being implemented in Greece.At that moment,I felt that there could be no greater vindication of Lee Kuan Yew,or the Chinese Communist Party,indeed of some recalcitrant friends of mine who kept telling methat democracy would be banned if it ever threatened to change anything…”
We live in an era of rapid technological, economic and social change. Some of these changes are empowering the individual and society, while others constrain them.
As the Anthropocene dawns we witness the conditions the proceeded the great revolutions of the past.
In this I am reminded of the French Revolution, and Dicken’s famous opening lines: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
About a decade ago, I had nearly completed a Bachelor of Science, majoring in biodiversity and conservation. It was on these subject too, where I excelled, based entirely on my passion for the subjects.
I even completed a third year project with a report titled, Fennel, (Foeniculum vulgare); an unappreciated weed in South Australia. I was inspired by a love of hiking which had left me acutely aware of how much of an impact weeds had on the SA landscape.
I despaired for the loss of our wonderful and fragile arid landscapes rich in colour and life to anyone willing to look beyond the “Scrub”.
Today, I grow fennel in my garden.
It was a slow yet inevitable fall from the concept of conservation for me.
Sure, where possible, we should protect remnant vegetation and, ideally, establish corridors between these islands – that is and forever remains sensible. But a devotion to a pristine landscape isn’t even remotely possible.
Avoiding goats in protected mallee woodlands and first-hand witnessing of olive seed dispersal by birds throughout SA has continually reinforced the immense scale of effort that would be required.
Conservation for conservation’s sake favours no species; ours included.
We already fight for access to water, land and other resources. No matter who wins these fights, eventually we all lose a quality resource.
Take for example water allocation on the Murray Darling system. Over time more and more water has been used for agriculture. We can’t fault this because agriculture ultimately feeds us.
However, every drop taken away from the system is one that is no-longer available to the surrounding environment. The only option with less water is to do less. Less evaporation from the waterways + Less evapotranspiration from the surrounding environments = less rainfall recharge. We have a compounding water reduction system that no management scheme could possibly improve.
The realisation that I finally reached is that the commons itself is actually also a player in ‘the tragedy of the commons’ concept and not simply a bank.
We need to accept that old regimes cannot persist with existing criteria and so, for environments to prosper, new species and new ecosystems will need to be introduced to improve biodiversity, biological services and improved resource quality and quantity.
An edible “weed” that will happily grow in a heavily degraded environment is immensely valuable. We have food in an otherwise barren landscape.
Nowadays when I hike, it’s a lot slower. I have two pairs of tiny feet walking with me.
“Look!” my eldest daughter points out suddenly. “It’s fennel! It’s a licorice plant!”
I snap a few pieces off, handing one to her, one to her little sister and I keep one for myself to chew while we walk.
Fennel is, in my opinion, still unappreciated. But not as a weed.
Instead, it is an incredible plant that grows remarkably well in poor soils with very little effort. My own fennel was grown from a fennel seed tea bag that I tore open and sprinkled into a seedling tray (and one a being from a dropped seed that grew straight in the hard clay soil of my yard).
Looking towards the future, with an appreciation for the difficulties and uncertainties around our climate and resource security, species that ask the least of us, but serve a function (be it carbon sequestration, food production or water quality) will gain centre stage. They are our safety net.
Making the news over the last couple weeks as been that geologists are now saying that our impact is so great that it could be recognised in the geology in distant times as a distinct change – enough to make a change of times. From the Holocene to the anthropocene.
It’s better last than never, I guess.
At the end of the day, these geological eras are artificial creations that are agreed upon to define certain fragments of Earth’s history; all with shared long-term trends of some sort, beginning and ending with a break from this trend.
When did the Anthropocene actually start? Our species have dramatically altered landscapes, species distributions / genetics (and even extinction) as well as the atmospheric chemistry for longer than recorded history.
What I became interested in when I moved to this blog was not simply the recognition of the human-era, but instead the acknowledgement and ownership of the fact.
We can continue to deny, denounce and vilify the human influence on our biosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere and atmosphere or we can become worthy of our status as a force of nature. The former is to keep the blindfold on, press down harder on accelerator and ignorantly hope for the best. The latter can lead to a prosperous, entrepreneurial and unimaginable future.
I wanted to start to paint a picture of what the latter could look like. Unfortunately, I allowed myself to fall into the rabbit holes of insular thinking and politics. While a natural progression, as climate change influences both, it still wasn’t helpful.
We are a force of nature and one that has thus far remained blind and detrimental. I want us to own up to it and find the possibilities exhilarating, as I already do.
Now that the case is strong enough for the Anthropocene to be “official”, let’s rush from that to a new one; one that we create with the focus on a thriving, prosperous planet.