The inner crisis in environmental politics today is precisely the lack of bold concepts that address the challenges of poverty, energy, biodiversity and climate change within an integrated vision of human progress. At a micro-level, of course, there have been enormous strides in developing alternative technologies and passive-energy housing, but demonstration projects in wealthy communities and rich countries will not save the world. The more affluent, to be sure, can now choose from an abundance of designs for eco-living, but what is the ultimate goal: to allow well-meaning celebrities to brag about their zero-carbon lifestyles or to bring solar energy, toilets, pediatric clinics and mass transit to poor urban communities?
– Mike Davis, “Who Will Build the Ark?”[i]
The advent of the modern city deserves particular attention on the timeline of anthropogenic climate change. The forms which the city has taken during the last two hundred years of human existence have made it an increasingly noteworthy contributor to the building climate crisis. Today up to 45 percent of global carbon emissions can be attributed to heating and cooling the urban environment, and as much as a further 40 percent are the result of urban industries and transportation.[ii]
Along with the novel problem of climate change, the age-old issue of poverty also finds itself attached to the idea of the city. The manifestation of poverty in urban centres is quite unlike rural poverty in that it often appears alongside terrific amounts of wealth. While rural poverty, which is often deeper, can at least in part be attributed to scarcity and isolation, urban poverty is more starkly a product of injustice. Families nest inside hovels built in the shadows of skyscrapers. Children suffer from treatable diseases in close vicinity to hospitals. The homeless stand shivering in the cold while standing next to stores full of countless articles of warm clothing. Currently one billion people live in urban slums that dot the planet. This number is forecasted to triple by 2030.
Finding itself at the confluence of the climate crisis and intense inequality the city may yet realize redemption. Inherent within the idea of the city is a feature which makes it a solution, rather than a contributor, to climate change. The concentrated population density of the city seems essential to a societal low-carbon footprint recipe. As for the issue of inequality, bridging the gap between the rich and poor may not only be complementary to a solution to climate change, but it will likely also be essential to it.
The paradox of the accumulating climate crisis is that it will affect most harshly those who had the least part in creating it. Changing weather patterns will affect the South much more severely than the North. The latter, in fact, may gain in some ways as a result of warming temperatures: for example, while annual agricultural output for a number of Southern countries is expected to fall by 20 percent or more, it is anticipated to increase for the North by an average of 8 percent.[iii]
This incongruity puts an intractable obstacle in the path of the current means to address the problem. Negotiations on climate change hold as their hope for success a triumph of global solidarity in the face of a common challenge. Unfortunately, however, the challenge is not as universal as it is often portrayed. Even if the impact was not going to be as disproportionate as it will be, the North has considerably more resources to protect itself against it. And the history of global relations has shown that it would hardly feel inclined under any circumstance to appropriately compensate the victims of its crimes.
The trends, in fact, have already been set in this direction. Rich countries will continue to derail negotiations to come up with meaningful measures to counteract global warming. Individuals and communities that can afford it and have a “liberal” disposition will set about changing their lifestyles to be more environmentally friendly, patting themselves on the back as they do so. The poor and the marginalized – whether in New Orleans or in the villages of Sindh – will be left to face the brunt of the impact. More self-back-patting opportunities will routinely arise for the rich in the form of extreme weather events, such as the ongoing drought in East Africa, giving them reason to dole out some charity for some of those suffering most acutely.
The international, and the various national, political arrangements under which we live are obviously leading us in the wrong direction. A similar realization needs to be made about the reigning economic system. The reasons were many for believing such a thing before the onset of the climate crisis. Now it should seem all the more obvious. In The Enigma of Capital social theorist David Harvey explains that
The current consensus among economists and within the financial press is that a ‘healthy’ capitalist economy, in which most capitalists make a reasonable profit, expands [in terms of the total output of goods and services] at 3 per cent per annum. Grow less than that and the economy is deemed sluggish. Get below 1 per cent and the language of recession and crisis erupts (many capitalists make no profit).[iv]
Harvey goes on to write that following the recession if “normal” growth were to return to the world economy from 2011 onward “there will be over $100 trillion in the global economy by 2030. Profitable outlets would then have to be found for an extra $3 trillion investment. That is a very tall order.”[v] Indeed, especially when one considers the environmental consequences.
There is no forthcoming technological quick-fix for climate change. The solution will require addressing the causes at the root level. Measures relating to technology will be ultimately unsuccessful unless they are adopted within an arrangement that is itself compliant with the idea of sustainability. A system under which production is controlled privately for the basis of maximizing profit does not have room within it to reform to the degree necessary to offset the climate crisis that it has created.
“The bold thought first,” observed the twentieth century anarchist-philosopher Peter Kropotkin, “and the bold deed will not fail to follow.”[vi] The solution to the climate crisis will, first of all, require a bold reimagining of our current social arrangement. The city can serve as a centrepiece and starting point of such a reimagining. Mike Davis contends that “the egalitarian aspects of city life consistently provide the best sociological and physical supports for resource conservation and carbon mitigation.”[vii] With equitable distribution of wealth and political power, and minimal amounts of coercion, individual liberty can reign. Moreover, with democratic (worker) control of production we can organize society in a way that does not require infinitely-increasing levels of consumption and investment to sustain. Having removed the basis under which human beings seek to exploit and compete against one another, we can reconstitute power relations within, and in between, our societies in a way that allows solidarity to triumph over narrow self-interest.
All this likely sounds impractical, perhaps even utopian. Be that as it may, that which is deemed practical is not getting us anywhere good. It’s high time we stopped sticking to it.
[i] Mike Davis, “Who Will Build the Ark?”, New Left Review, 61:1, p. 44
[ii] Ibid., p. 41
[iii] Ibid., p. 40
[iv] David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital : and the Crises of Capitalism (Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 26
[v] Ibid., p. 27
[vi] Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread
[vii] Ibid. 1, p. 45