Environmental Heresies

Stewart Brand has an article, "Environmental Heresies", in the May, 2005 Technology Review, suggesting ways the environmental movement needs to adapt to changing demographics and technology.  I liked this piece so much I had to drop Mr. Brand a note to tell him so, along with a few questions.  I like what he responded with so much I asked if I could post it here.

At 2:47 PM -0700 4/14/2005, Rob Carlson wrote:

Dear Stewart,

Well done on the Tech Review piece.  I like and agree with most of what you said, though I am still on the fence about nuclear power.  Disposing the waste is the sticking point for me.  So is the tendency to offload the real costs onto the back end, which corporate interests tend to escape.  Everything near the reaction becomes deadly radioactive, so the fuel isn't the only problem.  The volume and the mass are not small.  I think the long term solution to this is the space elevator, but that is another conversation.

I do have a question about one of your points, however.  I appreciate the observations concerning urbanization, though my drives through California's Central Valley come to mind.  As you know, farmland, some of which is fallow, is being sacrificed for housing.  Wetlands are under threat all over the place.  This is the sort of sprawl we are fighting in the NW, too.  How densely can we convince people to live?  Sarah and I made the conscious choice to buy a small townhouse within walking distance of work, grocery stores, a kayak launching point (which I walk my boats to on a small cart), etc.  But I am not sure how many other people will choose to live like this.

Perhaps my scale is completely out of whack, as my lifestyle is much closer to the Central Valley McMansion than to that lived by all but the most wealthy in central and east Asia.  I suppose the question is how density in American cities is changing as a function of distance from the urban core.  That is, are people actually moving to the core, or are the tails of the distribution just reaching further away as people move to the burbs?  What do the figures look like for big Asian cities?  And are all those increasing numbers of city dwellers as well off as the generally well-educated Indian women, or are there just a lot more urban poor -- those billion urban squatters?  Is the number density of rural populations decreasing, or are we just getting a whole hell of a lot more people being born and living their lives in the cities?

More questions than answers, as usual.  Once I get going, it's hard to stop.

- Rob

Here is what Stewart responded with:

There's a fair amount in this summary of a talk I gave last week in San Francisco to the Long Now crowd.  Two books:  THE CHALLENGE OF SLUMS (from the UN), and SHADOW CITIES, by Robert Neuwirth.


I started with a spectacular video of a stadium in Philadelphia being blown up last year.  The announcer on the video ends it, "Ladies and gentlemen, you have just witnessed history!"  Indeed demolition is the history of cities.

Cities are humanity's longest-lived organizations (Jericho dates back 10,500 years), but also the most constantly changing.  Even in Europe they consume 2-3% of their material fabric a year, which means a wholly new city every 50 years.  In the US and the developing world it's much faster.

Every week in the world a million new people move to cities.  In 2007 50% of our 6.5 billion population will live in cities.  In 1800 it was 3% of the total population then.  In 1900 it was 14%.  In 2030 it's expected to be 61%.  This is a tipping point.  We're becoming a city planet.

One of the effects of globalization is to empower cities more and more.  Communications and economic activities bypass national boundaries.  With many national governments in the developing world discredited, corporations and NGOs go direct to where the markets, the workers, and the needs are, in the cities.  Every city is becoming a "world city."  Many elites don't live in one city now, they live "in cities."

Massive urbanization is stopping the population explosion cold.  When people move to town, their birthrate drops immediately to the replacement level of 2.1 children/woman, and keeps right on dropping.  Whereas children are an asset in the countryside, they're a liability in the city.  The remaining 2 billion people expected before world population peaks and begins dropping will all be urban dwellers (rural population is sinking everywhere).  And urban dwellers have fewer children.  Also more and more of the remaining population will be older people, who also don't have children.

I conjured some with a diagram showing a pace-layered cross section of civilization, whose components operate at importantly different rates.  Fashion changes quickly, Commerce less quickly, Infrastructure slower than that, then Governance, then Culture, and slowest is Nature.  The fast parts learn, propose, and absorb  shocks; the slow parts remember, integrate, and constrain.  The fast parts get all the attention.  The slow parts have all the power.

I found the same diagram applies to cities.  Indeed, as historians have pointed out, "Civilization is what happens in cities."  The robustness of pace layering is how cities learn.  Because cities particularly emphasize the faster elements, that is how they "teach" society at large.

Speed of urban development is not necessarily bad.  Many people deplored the huge Levittown tracts when they were created in the '40s and '50s, but they turned out to be tremendously adaptive and quickly adopted a local identity, with every house becoming different.  The form of housing that resists local identity is gated communities, with their fierce regulations prohibiting anything interesting being done by home owners that might affect real estate value for the neighbors (no laundry drying outside!).  If you want a new community to express local life and have deep adaptivity, emphasize the houses becoming homes rather than speculative real estate.

Vast new urban communities is the main event in the world for the present and coming decades.  The villages and countrysides of the entire world are emptying out.  Why?  I was told by Kavita Ramdas, head of the Global Fund for Women, "In the village, all there is for a woman is to obey her husband and family elder, pound grain, and sing.  If she moves to town, she can get a job, start a business, and get education for her children.  Her independence goes up, and her religious fundamentalism goes down."

So much for the romanticism of villages.  In reality, life in the country is dull, backbreaking, impoverished, restricted, exposed, and dangerous.  Life in the city is exciting, less grueling, better paid, free, private, and safe.

One-sixth of humanity, a billion people, now live in squatter cities ("slums") and millions more are on the way.  Governments try everything to head them off, with total failure.  Squatter cities are vibrant places.  They're self-organized and self-constructed.  Newcomers find whole support communities of family, neighbors, and highly active religious groups (Pentacostal Christians and Islamicists).  The informal economy of the squatter cities is often larger than the formal economy.  Slum-laden Mumbai (Bombay) provides one-sixth of India's entire Gross Domestic Product.  The "agglomeration economies" of the burgeoning mega-cities leads to the highest wages, and that's what draws ever more people.

So besides solving the population problem, the growing cities are curing poverty.  What looks like huge cesspools of poverty in the slums are actually populations of people getting out of poverty as fast as they can.  And cities also have an environmental dimension which has not yet been well explored or developed.

There has been some useful analysis of the "ecological footprint" that cities make on the landscape, incorporating the impacts of fuel use, waste, etc. but that analysis has not compared the per-person impact of city dwellers versus that of people in the countryside, who drive longer distances, use large quantities of material, etc.  The effect of 1,000 people leaving a county of 1,000 people is much greater than that of the same 1,000 people showing up in a city of one million.  Density of occupation in cities has many environmental advantages yet to be examined.

At present there's little awareness among environmentalists that growing cities are where the action and opportunities are, and there's little scientific data being collected.  I think a large-scale, long-term environmental strategy for urbanization is needed, two-pronged.  One, take advantage of the emptying countryside (where the trees and other natural systems are growing back fast) and preserve, protect, and restore those landscape in a way that will retain their health when people eventually move back.  Two, bear down on helping the growing cities to become more humane to live in and better related to the natural systems around them.  Don't fight the squatters.  Join them.


Next month, Friday, May 13, Will Jarvis, author of TIME CAPSULES: A Cultural History, will speak on "Time Capsule Behavior."  There will be more about the vibrancy of squatter cities on Friday, June 10, with Robert Neuwirth, author of SHADOW CITIES, talking about "The 21st-century Medieval City."  Jared Diamond, author of COLLAPSE, will speak on a Friday this summer still being determined.

--Stewart Brand

I still wonder whether that increase in the urban population is from people "moving to cities", or whether they are being born there.  I guess I have some reading to do.

Here is the link to the Long Now Foundation Seminars.