Surviving Human Nature

Some Topics

Cities and Sustainability

William Rees, an economist at the University of British Columbia takes and ecological approach to economics. He is concerned that cities are growing too large to be sustainable. Cities are centers of consumption and depend on the surrounding environment to supply energy, food and to accept and disperse waste. Rees has measured the ecological footprint of cities and his results are not encouraging.

At the end of the 20th century, 1.1 billion people lived in large cities with populations in the millions; their carbon dioxide emissions are greater than the capacity of all the world’s forests to process the gas. One city person requires at least five square hectares of high quality land to support him or her. The 500,000 people living in the city of Vancouver on 11,400 hectares of land actually require the output of 2.3 million hectares of land. The real capital is not money but air, water, food and other natural resources.

City states are depleting these resources at an alarming rate – fish stocks are depleted; soils are depleted, washed or blown away; fresh water supplies are marginal, depleted or contaminated; the air is polluted and ozone depletion combined with global warming from increased greenhouse gases threatens progressive and erratic climate changes. Climate changes threaten agriculture, as we know it. Many scientists have imagined major disruptions of city-states with civil disobedience and armed conflicts arising from the competition for scarce resources. Solutions are available but are improbable, given our basic tendencies.

A sane, rational city-state would limit its growth; limit its pollution and progress toward food, water and air sustainability. If all long-distance supplies were blocked could the citizens of a city continue to live comfortable, healthy lives? One criterion of a sane city would be self-sufficiency. Water is essential and availably is decreasing. A city must secure adequate, sustainable water reserves and limit population growth.

To make cities more livable and less polluted, car use would be reduced to less than half of current levels and car-free zones would restore healthier living conditions for many citizens. For some urban dwellers, advanced electronic networking would reduce the need for commuting and long-distance travel would be considered a luxury and rationed. The need to transport food and goods would be reduced by increased local production. The transportation of goods would be streamlined into centrally controlled supply lines that achieve maximal efficiency. We could advance toward intelligent distribution systems such as large pneumatic or electromagnetic tubes that send containers between city centers at high speed with minimal pollution. It is absurd to have goods distributed in trucks, in traffic, chaotically with no cost effective distribution plan. Food can be grown and processed within a city by returning some of the land area to market gardens and intensive greenhouse technology.

Each city would have to renew and support a surrounding agricultural zone. Cities would essentially backtrack about 100 years when food supply lines were shorter and farmers living adjacent to the cities could supply most of the food. Cities, like cancers have grown unchecked, metastasized and destroyed much of the support system they used to enjoy.

The humanity of a city can be restored by creating living arrangements that promote a return to groups of individuals that know each other and can relate to each other – small communities. Local groups can relate to their natural environment and can return to an understanding of how to supply their own needs.

If a group does not have a natural environment that they relate to, then the group will be dysfunctional and members of the group will be sick animals. If a group grows too large for individuals to know and relate to each, then the group will be dysfunctional – sick humans.

In poor countries the images of attractive, well-dressed people whose main job appears to be enjoyment and adventure create immediate dissatisfaction with local life. The happy and adapted poor become the dissatisfied and disenfranchised who abandon traditional ways of life for jobs that are often transient, demeaning and fail to deliver the wealth necessary to achieve the glamorous movie-magazine lifestyle. Humans continue to have basic needs – shelter, food, safety and sexual privileges. Getting connected to affluent media in a poor village in Africa is counterproductive without opportunities to apply new desires, knowledge and ideas.


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    The author is Stephen Gislason MD. The date of publication is 2017.

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