Post-geographic pollution: Debunking the eco-city
Looking at Shanghai and Vancouver, it’s easy to think that there is a sharp difference in environmental practice is going on here: coal-generated electricity and overpopulation make Chinese cities dirty, while solar power, bicycles and environmentalism make Vancouver clean — and ethical.
Sorry BC, but for the most part, what’s really happening is displacement. All the pollution generated by the manufacturing of goods consumed by the Global North – electronics, clothing, vehicles – occurs within the manufacturing country, which nowadays means the Global South. Displacement over space and time (so over borders and generations) is what makes global warming and other environmental problems incredibly difficult to find solutions for.
Clearly, displacement presents political and legal problems, but what Rees seems most concerned with is the psychological problem. When you’re breathing in fresh air in Stanley Park, it’s hard to truly appreciate how the simple act of buying stuff is ecologically destructive, and this problem is compounded when the myth of successful sustainability emboldens consumers in BC, California and elsewhere.
I think Rees is oversimplifying, for effect – it is still important for cities to minimize their local ecological footprint, since transportation and infrastructure still make up a substantial portion of greenhouse gas emissions, plus the kind of reform needed to internalize the full cost of an iPod can’t really be expected from a municipal government. Nonetheless, his message is important. In all the press coverage the environment has received over the past year, I think that the thorough examination that comes with life cycle analysis – compiling the total amount of resources needed for a product over its lifetime – has been underplayed in favour of the much easier reductions in transportation and power use.
For example, at a conference I was at last fall, Green Party deputy leader David Chernushenko wryly pointed out people can hardly pat themselves on the back for buying a hybrid vehicle when half of all the emissions from cars comes during their manufacturing. As usual, the environmental solution is a hard one: instead of making better cars, we really need to make fewer.
When reading up on New York City, I repeatedly came across congratulatory statistics on the low per-capita impact of NYC residents, since the city’s density means its electricity and water use are (again, per capita) the lowest in the US. As life cycle analysis would show, this is incredibly misleading: when you factor in the ecological impact of the many, many manufactured goods consumed by New Yorkers, eco-city this ain’t.
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