The need for urban shift from cosmetic to deep sustainability

The post-industrial era has enabled many humans on this planet to live with unprecedented economic and technological prosperity delivered through corporations. At the same time, global issues like climate change, socio-economic inequality and exhaustion of natural resources have also been unprecedented. Corporations are tackling some of the global issues through their corporate social responsibility programs. In many ways, as we will see in this blog, such initiatives address only the effects not the root cause of the problem. Systemic changes are required to address the root cause of the global issues. I attempt to discuss the path of sustainability as one such systemic change in this blog.

In recent times, going “green” has become an emerging theme among multi national corporations to fulfill their corporate social responsibility. Through various media outlets, oil and gas corporations portray energy efficiency improvements and minor portfolio investments in renewables, while the retail and food corporations showcase going green through recycling, ban on plastic bags etc. From a carbon footprint reduction perspective, these policies are considerate to the environment but they can be very misleading and superficial in respect to being sustainable. For example, Apple talked about a robot which can recycle materials from used smartphones in one of their launch events. It may be seem “green” on the surface, but reduced frequency of smartphone upgrade is significantly greener than recycling of materials from used smartphones. However, reduced frequency of upgrades comes with reduced profits for these corporations. It is fair to say most of these corporations are greenwashing the public for profit making without factoring in sustainability and the public is misled to believe they are being “green” in their consumeristic activities as illustrated in the graph below.

Triple R’s energy graph

My interest in sustainability came after my visit to Sangatya, an almost self-sustaining farm in rural Karnataka, India. I will elaborate on the need for sustainability through my learnings from my farm visits and explore the shift towards a natural, ethical, sustainable, yet modern lifestyle. The diagram below is a reference illustration of the three sustainability models to be analyzed in the rest of this blog.

Sustainability models

In most countries, fiscal public debt is rising steadily and pursuing higher GDP (growth centric) has become a necessity to reduce the fiscal deficit. This implies, effectively, federal or provincial governments need to collect higher taxes through infrastructure and energy expansion projects. This translates to corporations in those countries constantly seeking industrial growth and people working most of the time to meet that growth. This can come at the expense of the lower section of the society and environment. The classic example of this is electronics companies using factory workers in Asia and conflict minerals to satisfy the consumer demand in the developed world. Such an economic setup results in trickled flow of the money from the corporate owners to the middle class in the service sector while the lowest economic class continuously works for survival. Also, in such a setup the middle class is constantly encouraged to spend more by the mainstream media and by banks (through credit card limit hikes) to meet their annual growth targets. Thereby, middle class is susceptible to consumeristic lifestyle and they have to keep their full time jobs to maintain a certain standard of living. This vicious growth cycle has brought about the global issues mentioned earlier. Some of the issues are being tackled by foundations set up by few altruistic billionaires but why create this dependency on them to tackle the issues when the masses can act at the grass-roots level to resolve most of them? This is because masses are distracted and disempowered to resolve them.

Off late, governments and industries are trying to shift towards the second model where environment and the society are given more consideration alongside economic growth. On the environmental front governments are using carbon tax and development of renewable energy sources to bring about this shift. However, carbon tax gets ineffective on two fronts:

  • The carbon footprint metric is a good indicator of energy or emission efficiency. However, for any industrial process, it does not account for the resource usage (productive land, water, mineral deposits etc) relative to their availability to achieve higher energy efficiency or lower carbon footprint. The ecological footprint metric is more comprehensive for carbon tax estimation and for assessing the ‘greenness’ of industrial technologies.
  • Most of the big oil and gas corporations find it economical to pay off the carbon tax (or pursue carbon capture and storage projects)and continue with their expansion plans. If you tax the consumers instead of corporations, the local government may get voted out in the next elections! Also allocating the revenue from carbon tax towards renewable energy diversification implies treating the effects and not the cause of the problem. In other words, the emphasis is on energy replacement and not on energy conservation.

On the renewable energy side it is important to see the concerns masked by the marketing from green energy companies. The typical marketing information from these companies, especially solar based, entail:

  • The land area for a solar farm to power the entire country’s energy requirements is only a small fraction of the country’s total land area.
  • The electric cars have higher overall energy efficiency or lower well to wheel emissions than gasoline or diesel powered cars.

The above merits for green energy development are true but the following concerns are masked:

  • When the electric cars go mainstream, initial wave will be in North America and Europe (not Asia) where the population with disposable income is high. At the same time, these places already have better air quality index due to lower automobile emissions (lower population) and better emission standards than Asia. Hence, air quality improvements is not being achieved in the places where you need the most making the environmental argument in favour of electric cars bit weaker.
  • Lithium used in the electric car batteries is non-renewable in the long term to meet current automobile demand of the world. Current economically extractable lithium supplies will only last 15–20 years if global demand for electric cars hit 100 million EV’s per year. This calculation is done assuming no lithium is recycled from the batteries.
  • The popular argument against the limited lithium supplies is that technological improvements in battery technology and discovery of alternative electrolyte materials will solve the problem. It may, but the general attitude is to keep moving from one energy commodity to another and rely on technology to satisfy the consumeristic lifestyle. In addition, the bulk of the rapidly increasing middle class population in Asia is aspiring for this lifestyle to aggravate the energy and resource extraction crisis.

On the society front the second model gives some importance to organic foods and third world workers rights through fair trade policies instead of monopolistic GMO food production policies. But still the high price of organic foods in the developed world limits its consumption to upper middle class. It is ironical to see that people working in organic stores cannot afford the groceries around them. Ultimately, the approach of pursuing constant economic growth on a planet with finite resources and not being socially inclusive of the lower economic class are two major flaws in the first two models.

The transition to the third model is an attempt to reduce the ecological and social imbalance by rectifying certain aspects of our post-industrial lifestyle. When I discuss the shift to the third model with my friends, I usually get confronted with the immediate mental extrapolation to primitive living, toiling on the fields and reduced material comforts from the current western standard of living. Their extrapolation is partially true but it misses the wellbeing picture for the society and environment on the other side of the coin. There is more to it than meets the eye. Let’s look at the third model from multiple considerations:

Core ethic:

The underlying principle in the third model is that human wellbeing is inherently taken care of if planetary wellbeing is ensured.We make an attitudinal shift from “nature at our disposal” to “being part of nature” in the third model. The ethic of no “overshoot” by using natural resources at or below the rate of regeneration is the most important aspect of the third model. The need for this ethic is eloquently put in this anonymous quote:

We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children

By following this ethic we ensure that our footprint do not outgrow to the point where society or environment gets compromised. To achieve this we need to get a better systemic understanding of our food production and urban energy usage:

Food production and delivery:

The third model primarily questions our current approach on the food production and delivery system. How does GMO produce obtained through industrial path (mechanization,artificial alterations to soil, cold storage and long distance transport followed by centralized supply chain setup) compare with fresh organic produce obtained from local farmers market? As most people may agree, fresh local organic food trumps industrial food on taste, less pollution and higher social engagement. Also the long term yield rate of organic foods compare favourably with conventional foods (80% of conventional). More importantly, organic farming is regenerative in regards to soil fertility. Unlike conventional farming, organic farming has lower short term yield rate, longer certification trial period, internalized environmental costs and lower allotment of subsidies and research funding. These factors have contributed to the relatively high price of organic foods, limiting them for mass adoption. However, this can be reversed in the third model when more people purchase groceries in farmers market, volunteer on the organic farms and push for fairer regulations and friendlier policies at the government level. Even with an average yield of organic being 80% of conventional yield, we can still solve the global food insecurity by reducing food wastage and through land reclamation and remediation effort to free up land for organic farming. Human patience for natural mechanisms becomes a pre-requisite to shift towards higher participation in communal living practices for organic farming.

Energy usage principles in urban areas:

In the pre-industrial times, the energy usage by the humans was limited to the metabolic energy gained from food production. With the arrival of steam engines and subsequent fossil fuels we got access to high concentrated source of energy for mobility and expansion. This has resulted in energy usage in post-industrial era to be two orders of magnitude higher than pre-industrial times. Knowing that the fossil fuels are derived from decomposition of organic matter accumulated from thousands of years, present rate of usage of fossil fuel energy reserves is higher than rate of replenishment of the organic matter. This energy overshoot is creating the ecological imbalance. In the third model, as more people get involved in food production it would be a double win in restoring this imbalance. More time and metabolic energy get invested into enhancing soil fertility and less time and energy expended on fossil fuel based expansion. With time, enhanced soil fertility reduces the dependence of manure, reducing the input energy requirements for food production. By following such a path, we move towards energy conservation and eventually regeneration. Another aspect of the third model is that the circular energy principle replaces linear energy usage from the first model. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” mentality becomes the key to implement circular energy principle in urban areas. A community growing foods would have a local bio-digester to decompose human waste and kitchen waste to get biogas for cooking and compost for field nutrition. This in contrast to some of the modern day landfills just storing biodegradable waste alongside non-biodegradable waste. Overall it has to be ensured that the economy generated from production and transaction of goods and services in the third model is kept to a size where it does not outgrow nature.

Technology selection principle:

The third model reframes the scope of technology by keeping ecological constraints in mind. To begin with, hypothetically, a global resource database could make the technology companies compliant in preservative use of natural resources. The goal of the technologies is to promote the common interests. Green technologies like solar cooker, biomass gasifier etc are given importance. Development of technologies with planned obsolescence built in to milk profits are not favoured as they are deviant of the third model principle.

Quality downtime:

In the current inflationary economic model, most people have to work full time(8hrs a day if not more) in order to make a living. Sometimes, the corporate principles are not in alignment with personal principles, but the burden of financial insufficiency or uncertainty from part time jobs prevents people to pursue what they really love or stand for. In contrast, in the third model, there is more free time for people to explore new ideas after completing their share of community work( field work and kitchen work). After a critical mass is attained in a given community, people may only have to do few hours of community work and rest of the time can be spent on personal projects. Quality of downtime can be very different too in the third model. In my recent visit to Sangatya, I realized the value of idyllic time in natural environments when you are able to reflect on daily activities with deeper appreciation. Idyllic time (not to be confused with free time)can go missing in the first two models due to preoccupation with deadlines, distraction from gadgets, lack of proximity of nature spots etc.

In essence, as more self-sufficiency is attained through circular economic principles in the third model the dependence on money is reduced giving more freedom and time for self-exploration. The socio economic inequality is also greatly reduced with non-hierarchical division of labour for community work. Also, people develop jack of all trades skill set doing community work instead of narrow specialization developed in corporate life. There is a strong possibility of multiple like-minded communities or interest groups forming within the deep sustainability model where the community work principle remains the common thread. People can migrate to other communities and can stay for as much time as they need as long as the community work is not comprised. This allows people to thrive on the planet instead of survival mentality in the current corporate setup. The local economy created from the pursuit of new ideas in multiple communities is much more vibrant and resilient than the current model.

Sometimes it is disbelieving to think that humans on this planet were living in the third model only 167 years ago and considering how old the planet history is, our post-industrial lifestyle is an aberration on the planet’s timeline. The shift to the third model can be motivated either by ethics, higher quality free time and freedom for self exploration, self-sufficiency in food and energy or for all of these reasons. Ultimately, it is a systemic shift and it needs our humility, faith in natural processes over industrial processes, patience, voluntary participation and creativity.

I can identify the following challenges in the transition to the third model:

  • Lack of general awareness on sustainability and desensitization towards sustainable practices
  • Implementation of ecological economics instead of growth economics
  • Uniting related practitioners (environmentalists, permaculturists, economists, policy makers, farmers, social workers) for accelerated transition

I am myself in the transition so I will update on how to address these challenges after I develop concrete ideas from volunteering work. I appreciate your comments and feedback on this blog. For readers who are already working in this transition and is looking for collaboration on their projects, I look forward to interact with you and see how I can contribute to your project. For readers who are interested in further exploration of the third model more resources can be found in the links below:

TED talk by Johan Rockstrom

Posts by Daniel Christian Wahl

Sustainable and In Search of Balance: Documentaries on Netflix

Technical paper on sustainability by Dr.Shreekumar