Resilient Cities Conference: Paul Hawken on innately resilient cities, eco-porn, and peak energy
The first morning of the Gaining Ground, Resilient Cities conference concluded with a presentation by Paul Hawken, renowned author of Natural Capitalism, the Ecology of Commerce, and Blessed Unrest. His remarks followed up on Mayor Gregor Robertson’s introduction of Vancouver’s Greenest City Initiative, so he opened by teasing Vancouver about our good-looking and charismatic mayor, whose work he takes seriously.
Hawken’s hopeful message is that resiliency is innate to cities, which are the most effective and natural epicenters of change. Humans’ most complex creations, cities are resilient for the same reason that ecosystems are resilient – with complexity comes efficiency. Culturally, cities are the roots of civilization, and ancient cities like Jerusalem have withstood every kind of trauma.
Cities are “biological arks” – places where humans have the least impact on the planet individually and through lower birth rates. Addressing the contentious issue of population, Hawken predicts that world population will peak between 8 and 9 billion people – later this century! – and then start to decline. Consequently, cities will face the simultaneous challenges of overpopulation along with demographic shift and an aging population. Human culture needs cities, so the project of reimagining cities is also the task of saving civilization.
At present, popular culture is suffused with “eco-porn” – shallow feel-good images and messages promising us that low-flow showerheads and recycled packaging will “save the earth”. The most effective context for fostering resilience is not eco-porn in the marketplace, or even national or international agreements, but, fundamentally, in the functioning of cities.
Cities reply on three types of energy:
Long energy – fossil fuels
Slow energy – glaciers, topsoil,
Fast energy – rainfall, sunshine, crops
We are now losing all of these types of energy, and using long energy to subsidize the others. Clearly, the world’s remaining oil reserves are very limited, and increasingly prohibitive to access. The rising price of oil will spur the retrofitting of our cities. However, it is also important to recognize that other resources needed to run our society are also becoming more scarce, such as copper, zinc and rare earth metals.
Furthermore, depletion and degradation of the environment is often undertaken to replace human labour: a billion people are unemployed, yet our work as a civilization is far from done! This is fundamentally an economic problem, which is why it is so important that economic policy learns from ecology. Hawkens credits the work of Herman Daly in reimagining ecological economics, as well as the writings of Emerson for visioning the interconnectedness of humanity.
While many people find the state of our cities and natural environment to be depressing, Paul Hawken’s exuberant optimism is abundantly obvious. He believes that we are on the cusp of fundamental transformations, as detailed in his most recent book, Blessed Unrest. Here’s hoping that he is right!