I went to a very stimulating talk by urban futurist Alex Steffen at the LSE on the ‘hidden future of cities.’ Like all TED speakers, his talk was engaging and for much of it he caught me in his spell. The jist of his argument is that more people living together in tightly packed cities is environmentally friendly, and if we do it right we can keep fuelling the economic growth machine and save the planet aswell. Problem is, he hasn’t quite worked out the details yet.
Behind his argument was another, more compelling line of thinking. He says that humans are hot-wired to think of the short term and we have difficulty thinking in terms of systems – what he calls ‘bounded rationality.’ This silo thinking allows the climate change deniers (like my Mama) or the anti-climate change lobby to avoid looking at the totality of the system. This is a similar argument to a recent article in The Economist arguing that the financial crisis happened because the silo thinkers didn’t see it coming. I particularly like this line of thinking because it claims that anthropologists, of which I am one, are particularly well suited to looking at the y complexity of cities (and the financial crisis, which I covered in my former guise as head of the economic service for AP Paris).
But back to climate change. Steffen argues that thinking of climate change as an environmental problem is a way of not solving it. (Hurrah! I said – justification for my not having specialised in sustainability: my argument being that sustainability should be part of all urban planning and not something tacked on at the end by the sustainability expert). He says we need to change the way we do everything and had a host of cute examples: for instance many car drivers say they don’t have time to walk places, but studies have shown that the time they use up walking instead of driving is time they gain in their lifetime that otherwise would have been spent dead.
Interesting as the talk was, all these cute measures don’t add up to a solution. But as Steffen told me, he is just one man trying to change the way the whole world does things…..That might not be enough to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million – the amount scientists say must not be exceeded to avoid runaway global warming.