After many years of following and taking part in discussions, plans, and projects for sustainable cities, I find myself yearning for some focused, long-term thinking about where the stable endpoint for our cities really lies. While I see much work towards incremental improvements in resource consumption, green-house gas emissions, and reduction or re-cycling of waste, I cannot help thinking that these improvements are at best marginal. While I read and hear much about laudable goals at the city, regional, and national levels, I cannot help feeling that they resemble planning a manned flight to Mars without actually knowing how far away that is. What I am confident about is that driving electric cars and replacing incandescent light bulbs with LEDs are not going to solve the problems of this civilization over the coming century.
I know directly of only two people who have stopped to wonder what the likely endpoints of these sustainability initiatives are likely to be. One is David Owen, a journalist with the New York Times, who has written thoughtfully in "The Green Metropolis" about what it would take for the United States to approach long-term sustainability. The other is David Good at the University of Cambridge, a psychologist, whose prescription for sustainable living runs somewhat as follows:
- Stop flying
- Eat meat only once per week
- Eat local food
- Consume only 70 l / day of fresh water
- Occupy only 30 m2 of residential space
- Consume only 2000 W of power
- Drive a car that weighs no more than the passengers
But even these views consider only individual consumption. Individual consumption is certainly important, but it is merely one of the more visible aspects of the complex systems that make up our civilization. We cannot, at scale and for long periods, adopt behaviours that are significantly different from local norms unless we also change other aspects of our civilisation's many local and global systems. So what I am searching for is thinking on what adjacent and reachable operating points are possible for these global systems are conceivable, would offer long-term sustainability over centuries if not millennia, and can be reached over the coming century with the minimum of suffering on all sides, though this may be far greater than we would wish.
I am also fairly convinced that we will not, collectively, break our addiction to consuming energy. The history of our civilizations going back many millennia shows a steady growth in the use of various sources of energy to supplement our physical strengths. Economists shudder even at the thought of reducing our energy consumption. We may however succeed in this century in weaning ourselves from the use of fossil fuels, a primary source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Similarly I find it hard to imagine that we will dispense with cars in some form. Individual, on-demand mobility is another powerful addiction that will continue to shape our cities. But I am slightly optimistic that we may be able to separate satisfying that addiction from the actual ownership of cars that have duty cycles of less than 10% and spend the rest of their lives cluttering up our streets.
But these approaches may be the tail of the challenge, rather than the dog. For better or worse, we are a techno-centric civilisation. Faced with a challenge our impulse is to look first for a technical solution - green energy, desalinization, self-driving cars. There is some sense in this. Things that get invented and become commercially successful are created and sustained because they enable us to satisfy some powerful desire. Desire, if not necessity, is the mother of invention. But as with any addiction, these technologies return the favour and lead to a re-invention of our lives, our societies, and our civilisation. They change the structures of our cities, our industries, and our environments. The structure of our civilisation is strongly related to our technologies and so to some degree we should be looking to technology for solutions.
But I believe that the dog does nevertheless wag the tail. Meaning that at root, change will need to come from how we live as individuals and societies, what we value and desire, and how we satisfy those desires. These are harder to change than technology. Nor is it easy to decide in what direction to change. Sustainability is full of paradoxes. For example it is argued that the British should rather consume lamb reared in New Zealand and transported half way around the world, rather than lamb reared no more than a couple of hundred kilometers away in Wales or Scotland. So what changes should we be aiming for over the coming century and how will such changes be produced?
Our civilisation is a global system of systems, the most complex set of systems constructed by humankind, and it touches the lives of all but a very few isolated communities. We think of it as modern and as the most highly developed civilisation the world has known, but we should not think of it, or of ourselves, as the ultimate end point. As Jared Diamond describes in Collapse, there are many earlier civilizations that collapsed after hundreds or even thousands of years. Moreover many of its component systems, such as communities and cities, systems of justice, or the expression of knowledge through arts and rituals, have origins going back many millennia. Systems of that age are evidently very resilient and have survived many challenges. What we experience today is the current survivor, a survivor that has achieved dominance through both the conquest and the absorption of many regional civilisations. We may hope that through absorption it has achieved a highly diverse "gene pool" that increases its resilience to the challenges that lie ahead.
Resilience here implies a system of systems that can accommodate quite large changes in its sub-systems - environmental, social, political, economic, technological - by shifting to new operating points, that is anthropological niches. Resilient civilisations are able to make successful transitions to new operating points that can sustain a roughly equal or an expanded population. From an admittedly Western perspective, recent examples of events that have lead to such changes include the last Ice Age, the Dark Ages, the Black Death, the "discovery" of the Americas, the Thirty Years' War, the Industrial Revolution, the 19th century's political revolutions, the 20th century's World Wars, and the early 21st century's globalization. Note that these changes are both regressive - the Black Death - and progressive - the Industrial Revolution, reflecting on the one hand the decline or collapse of a major pillar of civilisation or on the other hand the emergence of a new pillar.
But resilience also means that - up to some tipping point - a given operating point is highly stable and hence difficult to change. I believe that we value stability even more highly than wealth, peace, democracy, or justice, not to mention the environment. Transitions between operating points are often extremely costly in terms of lives, political power, and wealth. Civilisations would not endure for thousands or even hundreds of years if they were constantly adapting to new operating point points.
Hence it is my view that the reform of our present civilisation will not occur through the well-intentioned, but marginal, efforts of those of us who recycle. It seems more likely to occur as a result of powerful forces beyond the control of individuals or nations. Indeed it is hard to think of a major change that was produced solely through good intentions. The intention to abolish slavery in Europe and the Americas can be traced back to 1542. But real emancipation did not begin until Britain passed the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 and the United States passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and the advent of steam power and mechanisation may have been the proximate cause. Likewise, the progress of women's suffrage owed much to the need for women in workforces during the Second World War. Successful systems are very hard to change.
So my question in systems terms becomes: What adjacent or nearby operating points could exist, which could be the most attractive, and what would be the costs (humanitarian, social, environmental, economic, political....) of reaching them? Which, if any of them, could sustainability support a system of systems that meets David Owen's or David Good's prescriptions?
To say that these are difficult questions is an understatement, but we are making progress towards being able to tackle such questions. Initiatives such as the Global Systems Science initiative are bringing together researchers across relevant disciplines (economics, finance, climate, energy, urbanisation...) who are able to apply new sources of information and new analytical techniques to enable us to understand where we are today. From these insights we may hope to progress to studies of alternative global systems. In a more practical approach, The Ecological Sequestration Trust (TEST), lead by Peter Head, is attempting real-world experiments on how to facilitate transitions in several cities from high-Carbon to low-Carbon economies.
By the end of the 21st century, it seems quite likely that forces already at work today will have produced a significantly different world:
- Climate change leading to disruptions in agriculture, resulting in disruptions to supplies of food and political instabilities related to water, access to arable land and fish supplies, leading in turn to large-scale migration.
- Instabilities in the global financial systems leading to recurrent economic crises.
- Volatility in the global supplies of minerals leading to political and economic instabilities.
- Inequities in the sharing of wealth in developed and developing economies, leading to social unrest and political instabilities.
- Instabilities in developed economies due to ageing populations leading to unsupportable retirement benefits, social and medical services, and the inability to maintain investment in productive infrastructure and education.
- Under-employment as automation takes over ever broader swaths of occupations leading to social and political unrest.
Under these and other, as yet unknown, forces, 22nd century civilisation will be different from today. We will move from A to B, but where might B lie and what choices exist for the route?
A number of thoughtful groups, such as TEST or the IPCC, are proposing voluntary or conscious changes to our civilisation that seek to mitigate or adapt to such forces. My own, reliable prediction about the future is that it will be different from the present and therefore I do not believe that we should be seeking to preserve today's status quo, which is but one, brief resting point along the evolution of our civilisation. I am not suggesting that we can today predict the actual impacts that these forces might produce. Instead I suggest that we begin large-scale global research projects like GSS and TEST that will over a few decades enable us to make such predictions.
Our ability to develop understanding and predictive abilities of such massive problems as been growing strongly in the last decades. When I grew up in the North of England in the 1950s and 1960s, our weather forecasting was based on ships stationed in the Channel, the North Sea, the Atlantic, and the Irish Sea. These ships would report their local conditions daily via radio and based on this limited information the UK Met Office would attempt to forecast the next day's weather. My father, an intelligent man, still believed that the weather was whatever God chose to send and lay beyond human prediction. Certainly climatology and atmospheric science were fairly primitive, lacking in both sufficient meteorological data and verifiable theories. But in the 1960s the supply of data increased dramatically from satellite images, high-altitude aircraft, radar, and the deployment of terrestrial weather stations. At the same time computing power began its exponential growth allowing the flood of data to test and validate theories of the atmosphere and climate and so began a virtuous circle that today provides useful weather forecasts up to several days in advance.
While the weather and climate are extremely complex systems, they are at least grounded in thermodynamics, a hard science. When it comes to the social sciences (anthropology, economics, politics, sociology...) we are on much less firm ground. But through the combination of rapidly expanding Big Data and the development of cognitive computing, virtuous circles are beginning to appear in many areas of these sciences. Equally our ability to observe what is going, for example by using satellite images to monitor conflicts, displaced populations, industrial pollution or individual consumption, offers new tools for inducing or forcing behavioural change.
While the preceding centuries have manifested economic, social, and political changes at the scale of nations or regions, in the 21st century we seem highly likely to face large-scale challenges at the global level. Finally everything is connected to everything else. We may therefore need to hope, among other hopes, that we will have time to assess adjacent and reachable operating points for our civilisation and to at least aim to avoid the worst among these possibilities. Time to begin work!