Barry Weisberg on global cities and the ecological crisis

September 29, 2010

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Mercat de la Boqueria in Barcelona, Spain (Photo by Gveret Tered)

As part of Worldview's “Global Cities: Challenges and Choices” series, today global cities contributor Barry Weisberg examines how the “earth share” footprint of global cities contributes to our current eco-crisis.

Cities are at the epicenter of the global ecological crisis. The issue is not how to handle episodic crises such as a “natural” disaster, epidemic or violent conflict, not even how to curb global warming or energy loss. This can be illustrated by walking through the isles of a global city premium food market. Whether in Shanghai or Sao Paulo, these markets carry an amazing variety of high end products that come from countries on several continents. The ecological cost of this form of globalization can be estimated by the footprint of the food market or city, which is the land area required to feed, insure resources, produce energy, assimilate waste and re-absorb the C02 output of carbon fuels.

The core of this idea is to measure the fairness of the consumption rate of natural capital against the actual carrying capacity of the planet. In the last 30 years, natural ecosystems have been depleted by 33 percent, but consumption has increased 50 percent. The growth of the global city depends upon the disparity between the actual geographical area and the area required to sustain the growth.

For example, London, ranked second among global cities, obtains fresh fruit and vegetables from about 80 countries everyday to maintain a food supply of only three days. In September, apples came from 4,700 miles away in the United States, onions from 12,000 miles away in Australia, and carrots from 5,000 miles away in South Africa. If arriving by air, products require 40 times the fuel of sea transport. The actual footprint for London in the year 2000 was 42 times the size of its bio capacity and 125 times the geographical area. That is an area the size of the United Kingdom or Spain. In other words, residents of London consume three times their equitable earth share while one in five people live in poverty. The earth share is the equitable footprint that an individual, city or country can utilize without depriving others both today and tomorrow of a fare share.

The high-end food markets of the global city represent in microcosm, the challenge of the city as a whole. The metabolism of the city consists of a variety of human and natural systems on the local, national, and global scale. The infrastructure of the city depends upon both the inputs and outputs of its hard infrastructure (such as agriculture, buildings, energy, food, greenhouse gases, land, materials, transport or waste) and the soft infrastructure (such as culture, economy, markets, politics, services, technology, or trade). The principal drivers of this process are both internal and external capitalist forces.

We can return to London to begin to understand the political challenge. One estimate is that London could be “sustainable” by 2050 if its footprint were reduced by 35 percent. This would include reducing meat consumption by 70 percent and insuring that approximately half of the food was unprocessed, locally-seasonally grown.

Nowhere is the footprint more disproportionate than in the United States. The average American, not counting the military, requires 24 acres to supply all the energy, food, paper, building materials, and consumer goods. This is four times the global average. If the United States were to act in an equitable and ecological manner, it would be required to dramatically reduce the global footprint.

One indication of how little is understood about the ecological crisis is the Shanghai World Expo, which has a huge “Footprint Pavilion” that entirely ignores the depletion and destruction of natural capital. The narrative about “sustainable urbanization” or a “green economy,” serves to ignore the politics of the ecological crisis, which is not primarily about accounting for and reducing the carbon based economy, but curbing the geometric growth and redesigning the economic system required to sustain urbanization in general and global cities in particular.

Barry Weisberg's commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Worldview or 91.5 WBEZ.