Category Archives: Big Back Loop

Stewart Brand on How Cities Learn

On WorldChanging Chris Coldeway discusses a recent talk by Stewart Brand on how cities learn. In 1994, he wrote the excellent book How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built:

The redoubtable Stewart Brand gave a talk at GBN last night on global urbanization, expanding the “City Planet” material he first outlined at a Long Now talk and [WorldChanging] covered in detail. As we stand in 2006 at a point where the world’s population tips from mostly rural to mostly urban, Stewart considers this a good time to ruminate on the nature of cities and the causes and implications of a rapidly urbanizing world.

In typical Brand form, the talk swept from the beginnings of civilization — with a view of one of the oldest continuously occupied areas and discussion of how Jerusalem has been sacked or taken over 36 times — to the future of the world, with a look at the largest megacities of 2015. While the largest cities one hundred years ago were primarily in the US and Europe, these 21st century megacities are profoundly global. With cities such as Mumbai, Sao Paulo, and Karachi dominating the list, Stewart noted the similarity to another era of international cities — 1000 AD.

In asking himself how cities “learn” over time in the way that buildings do, Stewart found that while cities do learn, they also teach: they teach civilization how to be civilized. He discussed Levittown as a counterintuitive example, with its lenient do-it-yourself home customization policies actually facilitating the development of community. Squatter cities in the developing world were another example, with the view that squatter cities are what a population getting out of poverty ASAP looks like: self-constructed, and self-organizing, and vibrant.

Stewart sees cities playing out the same patterns of “pace layering” that he sees in civilization overall. Nature changes the slowest, with culture, governance, infrastructure, commerce, and fashion as progressively faster changing “layers.” Cities specialize in acceleration, in the faster cycles of commerce and fashion, but must balance those with the slower layers at the risk of collapse.

I previously mentioned Stewart Brand on cities in Feb and Sept 2005.

Partha Dasgupta vs. Jared Diamond

Partha Dasgupta, a Cambridge economist, recently wrote a sympathetic yet critical book review of Jared Diamond‘s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive in the London Review of Books. In it Partha Dasgupta critiques the book for its failure to adress tradeoffs and advances the concept of inclusive wealth.

Dasgupta critiques Diamond for not being more explict about tradeoffs among ecosystem services:

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Climate of Man

Recently the New Yorker published “The Climate of Man” an excellent three-part series on climate change by Elizabeth Kolbert.

She covers ecological change, adaptation, flexible infrastructre, and global (and US) environmental politics.

Below are links and excerpts from each of the three articles. I suspect it will be a good book next year.

Part 1: Disappearing islands, thawing permafrost, melting polar ice;

By the time I got to the lookout over Sólheimajökull, it was raining. In the gloomy light, the glacier looked forlorn. Much of it was gray—covered in a film of dark grit. In its retreat, it had left behind ridged piles of silt. These were jet black and barren—not even the tough local grasses had had a chance to take root on them. I looked for the enormous boulder I had seen in the photos in Sigurdsson’s office. It was such a long way from the edge of the glacier that for a moment I wondered if perhaps it had been carried along by the current. A raw wind came up, and I started to head down. Then I thought about what Sigurdsson had told me. If I returned in another decade, the glacier would probably no longer even be visible from the ridge where I was standing. I climbed back up to take a second look

Part 2: The curse of Akkad;

“I gave a talk based on these drought indices out in California to water-resource managers,” Rind told me. “And they said, ‘Well, if that happens, forget it.’ There’s just no way they could deal with that.”

He went on, “Obviously, if you get drought indices like these, there’s no adaptation that’s possible. But let’s say it’s not that severe. What adaptation are we talking about? Adaptation in 2020? Adaptation in 2040? Adaptation in 2060? Because the way the models project this, as global warming gets going, once you’ve adapted to one decade you’re going to have to change everything the next decade.

“We may say that we’re more technologically able than earlier societies. But one thing about climate change is it’s potentially geopolitically destabilizing. And we’re not only more technologically able; we’re more technologically able destructively as well. I think it’s impossible to predict what will happen. I guess—though I won’t be around to see it—I wouldn’t be shocked to find out that by 2100 most things were destroyed.” He paused. “That’s sort of an extreme view.”

Part 3: What can be done?

“The amphibious homes all look alike. They are tall and narrow, with flat sides and curved metal roofs, so that, standing next to one another, they resemble a row of toasters. Each one is moored to a metal pole and sits on a set of hollow concrete pontoons. Assuming that all goes according to plan, when the Meuse floods the homes will bob up and then, when the water recedes, they will gently be deposited back on land. Dura Vermeer is also working to construct buoyant roads and floating greenhouses. While each of these projects represents a somewhat different engineering challenge, they have a common goal, which is to allow people to continue to inhabit areas that, periodically at least, will be inundated. The Dutch, because of their peculiar vulnerability, can’t afford to misjudge climate change, or to pretend that by denying it they can make it go away. “There is a flood market emerging,” Chris Zevenbergen, Dura Vermeer’s environmental director, told me. Half a dozen families were already occupying their amphibious homes when I visited Maasbommel. Anna van der Molen, a nurse and mother of four, gave me a tour of hers. She said that she expected that in the future people all over the world would live in floating houses, since, as she put it, “the water is coming up.”

The series ends:

“It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing”

Nature uses fiction to communicate global risks of Avian flu

The 1918 flu pandemic killed 50 million people across the globe. This weeks Nature is devoted to the potential of an avian flu pandemic and contains both news and scientific reports on the subject. To highlight and communicate the risks involved story telling is used in the form of a future weblog, written by a made up freelance journalist.

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MA Biodiversity Synthesis released

Ecosystems and Human Well-being: the Biodiversity Synthesis Report, the first cross-cutting synthesis report from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) has been released at an event at McGill University. The report can be downloaded from the MA web site for free (its 13.4Mb).

Key findings of the study are:

+ Biodiversity benefits people through more than just its contribution to material welfare and livelihoods. Biodiversity contributes to security, resiliency, social relations, health, and freedom of choices and actions.

+ Changes in biodiversity due to human activities were more rapid in the past 50 years than at any time in human history, and the drivers of change that cause biodiversity loss and lead to changes in ecosystem services are either steady, show no evidence of declining over time, or are increasing in intensity. Under the four plausible future scenarios developed by the MA, these rates of change in biodiversity are projected to continue, or to accelerate.

+ Many people have benefited over the last century from the conversion of natural ecosystems to human-dominated ecosystems and from the exploitation of biodiversity. At the same time, however, these gains have been achieved at growing costs in the form of losses in biodiversity, degradation of many ecosystem services, and the exacerbation of poverty for some groups of people.

+ The most important direct drivers of biodiversity loss and ecosystem service changes are habitat change (such as land use changes, physical modification of rivers or water withdrawal from rivers, loss of coral reefs, and damage to sea floors due to trawling), climate change, invasive alien species, overexploitation, and pollution.

+ Improved valuation techniques and information on ecosystem services demonstrates that although many individuals benefit from biodiversity loss and ecosystem change, the costs borne by society of such changes are often higher. Even in instances where knowledge of benefits and costs is incomplete, the use of the precautionary approach may be warranted when the costs associated with ecosystem changes may be high or the changes irreversible.

+ To achieve greater progress toward biodiversity conservation to improve human well-being and reduce poverty, it will be necessary to strengthen response options that are designed with the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystem services as the primary goal. These responses will not be sufficient, however, unless the indirect and direct drivers of change are addressed and the enabling conditions for implementation of the full suite of responses are established.

+ An unprecedented effort would be needed to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss at all levels.

+ Short-term goals and targets are not sufficient for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystems. Given the characteristic response times for political, socioeconomic, and ecological systems, longer-term goals and targets (such as for 2050) are needed to guide policy and actions.

+ Improved capability to predict the consequences of changes in drivers for biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, and ecosystem services, together with improved measures of biodiversity, would aid decision-making at all levels.

+ Science can help ensure that decisions are made with the best available information, but ultimately the future of biodiversity will be determined by society.

Positive Steps for Resilient Ecosystem Services

Although much of the mainstream press attention to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (see State of the World’s Ecosystems posted 31 March 2005) has emphasized the losses of ecosystem services and the adverse trends, a substantial fraction of the MA technical reports is devoted to positive, feasible steps that can be taken to improve ecosystem services in the future. All of these proactive steps are grounded in policies that are presently in place somewhere in the world today. A few examples:

• Increase the use of economic instruments and market-based approaches, e.g. assignments of property rights for ecosystem services, user fees for externalities, payment for ecosystem services, and mechanisms to express consumer preferences through markets (such as certification schemes)

• Explicitly include ecosystem services in poverty-reduction strategies

• Connect environmental management across ministries and sectors, instead of isolating it in a single ministry

• Create co-management systems to maintain reserves as part of regional mosaics

• Include local and indigenous knowledge, as well as technical knowledge, in decision-making

• Expand information available to individuals about how ecosystems affect them, and how their actions affect ecosystems

• Expand environment-friendly technology, especially in the areas of agriculture (water, nutrient and land use), urban design, and energy efficiency

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The Environmental Limits to Globalization

In a new paper of David Ehrenfeld (Conservation Biology 19(2): 318 -326) the environmental consequences of globalization are discussed. Ehrenfeld argues that

Criticisms of globalization have been largely based on its socioeconomic effects, but the environmental impacts of globalization are equally important. These include acceleration of climate change; drawdown of global stocks of cheap energy; substantial increases in air, water, and soil pollution; decreases in biodiversity, including a massive loss of crop and livestock varieties; depletion of ocean fisheries; and a significant increase in invasions of exotic species, including plant, animal, and human pathogens. Because of negative feedback from these changes, the future of globalization itself is bleak. The environmental and social problems inherent in globalization are completely interrelatedany attempt to treat them as separate entities is unlikely to succeed in easing the transition to a postglobalized world.

The interesting perspective is proposed that globalization is a non-resilient temporary process but still rapid and effective enough to disrupt various social and ecological processes and states.

State of the world’s ecosystems

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) has started to release its reports. A statement from the review board and the main synthesis report have been released at a press conference and on the web.

The MA report shows that its undeniable that the human impact on the world’s ecosystems is large. For example, agriculture covers roughly 1/4 of the Earth’s land surface.

cultivated area of world
The extent of cultivated ecosystems across the globe.

There are a whack of news articles on the MA (e.g. BBC, Christian Science Monitor, SciDev.Net & Guardian)However, most of the focus is on the eco doom and gloom side of the reports (which is real) but is neglecting the more positive side of the report, which talks about what people can do and are doing to make things better. In particular how changes in ecological management can improve the economic productivity of ecosystems as well as the human well being of people who live in them. Also, I think, is the discussion of the strengths & weakenss of different approaches – and where and in what way technological and institutional changes appear to be most likely to be successful or unsuccessful is novel and useful. This issue is discussed further in a post on WorldChanging

For example, the MA scenarios present four different stories about the future. In several of the supply of many ecosystem services are improved (See figure blow).

Changes in Ecosystem services across MA Scenarios

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