Wednesday, September 3, 2014

What's right with cities? Lecture 1, Urban Ecology, Mercy College

For the next 2500 words I'd like to talk about cities. Cities – where only about 30% of humanity lived when I was born and where today more than 60% of our species live. And counting.
As the population swells from today's 7 billion up to the 9 billion we expect when most of you who are in college today are my age, we already see a planet in which there are more people living in cities today than existed on the planet when I was in high school. Think about that for a second and contemplate this graph:
(Population curve)

That's us for most of human history, this is us in 1900, this is us when my parents were in high school, when I was in high school, when most of you were in high school.
Now we have a situation – if cities are conceived of as problems, 60% or more of us living in them is a BIG problem. (For developed countries the figure is actually up over 80%).

Cities are where almost all resources are consumed and almost all wastes are produced. You could boldly argue that as many, if not more problems are created by our pesticide laden factory farms, ploughed and harvested by smoke belching fossil fueled tractors, filled to the brim with methane belching manure generating cows and chickens and pigs crammed together in CAFO's – Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations
(Picture of CAFO)

But this would be a false way of conceiving of today's farms which are not so much part of the countryside as an appendage of the city, created to serve the cities' rising populations
(picture of Mcdonald's over 6 billion served sign)

and therefore to be accounted for as an essential part of what we call the urban ecological footprint.
(Picture of footprint)

Your ecological footprint is the amount of land and resources and impact each person has, the amount of land you are basically stomping on in order to get what you think you need to survive. Arguably people living in cities have a radically larger ecological footprint than people living in the real countryside who actually live off the land – transportation alone – of food, raw materials, inputs – accounts for 28% of energy consumption.

And let us speak for a moment about inputs to factory farming and how the city robs the countryside through farming.

Back at the turn of the last century, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel's predicted the “degeneration of agriculture” because all of the nutrients from the fragile soil of the English countryside were being shipped in food products to the city where they were then consumed and either thrown into garbage pits or flushed down toilets, making their way down the Thames to their final burial place in the ocean. ( Marx and Engels reasoned that if the nutrients were not brought back to the farms and replaced, the soils would eventually give out.
This grim prognostication has indeed come to pass all over the world, with the American “dust bowl” tragedy illustrating the danger. The antidote has usually been the very expensive process of using fossil fuels to manufacture fertilizers which are then transported from industrial center to farm at more expense to try and grow more food. With topsoil eroding the result is a diminishment in the nutrtional quality of our food and a much lower carrying capacity for the land. (Picture of dust bowl).

Whether we are talking about the mining of the soil, the mining of mineral reserves, or the mining of forests, the consequence of city living is to drawn down the capital reserves of our farms and fields in an unsustainable way.

 As the economist E.F. Schumacher pointed out in “Small is Beautiful” in the 1960s, nature is like a giant banking account and our income is the amount of sunlight we receive and its immediate transformation into food and heat and wind and moving water.

 Our fossil fuel reserves and our soil and forests and coral reefs and mountains and ore deposits are our savings accounts.
The city, with its dense population and eco-system blind construction, can not live off of the income its land-mass and surface area consume so it uses up our savings faster than they can be replenished.
Hence cities, as we know them, are inherently unsustainable.

But need this always be so?

Can we imagine a city that generates enough income to be sustain itself?

One of the fun ways I like to answer that question is to turn negatives into positives. 

Many so-called “environmentalists” are angry at human beings, and perhaps rightly so. They will tell you that people are stupid and selfish and greedy and can not be convinced to do the right thing.

 My response to that is to accept people as they are and see how we can make best use of our less endearing traits.
So let's be crude for a moment and consider that people are... well.... a$$-holes. Literally. And let's consider that the more people there are in a location, like the city, the more a$$-holes there are. Literally. The city is full of a$$-holes.

Is this necessarily a bad thing?

To answer this question we have to answer the question, “what does an a$$-hole do?”.
Essentially an a$$-hole gives us Sh!t. More a$$-holes means lots and lots of sh!t.
And what doesn't come out of the...let's be more polite and say “anus”, city dweller's tend to throw into the garbage. 

Between 40 and  60% of the food coming from the farm doesn't even make it into people's mouths, much less all the way down the tube we call our body to the anus. Most of that energy goes into smelly garbage bags and eventually makes its way to landfill or into the ocean. Just as Marx and Engels' described.

Major tragedy. 

An even worse tragedy that urbanization wrought was the horrible diseases those organic wastes visited upon human-kind before they ended up in the ocean. On the way from our houses and apartments and restaurants to the dump or the river the fecal material too often contaminates drinking water leading to deaths and illnesses from cholera, typhoid and other water borne diseases. Meanwhile the organic wastes from plant and animal material that didn't pass through our bodies attracted rats and flies and feral cats and dogs and racoons and pigeons and innumerable other mammalian, avian, insect and other consumers who became vermin and vectors of disease. The fleas on the rats that came into our cities in search of the left-overs we threw away caused the bubonic plague that killed tens of millions in Europe in the middle ages and continues to wreak havoc in poor communities today.

And yet, all of this could have been avoided. If we had simply designed our cities to turn all that accumulated material into energy and fertility to grow more food and create more products there would have been nothing for the so called “bad guys” to eat and grow on. All kitchen and toilet wastes could have been turned immediately into energy and safe fertilizer without ever leaving the community or neighborhood much less the city, and without endangering anybody. But for some strange reason very few people talk about this, preferring to try and throw or flush problems away and causing misery downstream for somebody else.

Imagine going back in time and having the power and influence to convince rulers, policy makers, engineers, architects and city planners, and most importantly, the men and women who live and work in cities, that kitchen wastes and toilet wastes are only problems because they are being wasted. That they are only problems because they are being used in the wrong way – thrown out and flushed away instead of put back into service.

Imagine if you could go back in time and convince others that there should never have been any wastes at all – that the city is actually a huge accumulator of energy and fertility, not just a way-station on the path toward increased entropy where everything we consume turns into some form of difficult to manage and hazardous pollution.

I'm here to tell you, at the start of our class, that civilization's greatest triumphs and greatest tragedies revolve around kitchens and bathrooms – something most of you have and take for granted, and something that so many many others around the world have never had the privilege of having.

We all need water, food and shelter, in that order of importance, and we all need some place to safely deposit the results of our consumption of food and water.

The problem is that most people in the world still dump their organic wastes, those coming from the parts of the food they didn't eat and those coming from the parts that passed through their bodies, into streams and rivers and lakes and oceans, or into ditches. A huge number simply dump them in the street or into somebody else's back yard.

Pathogens and vermin get into the water supply and into homes and kill and sicken people – my good friend Hanna Fathy, from Egypt, for example, tells the story of how his baby niece was killed in her crib, bitten and infected by rats that were attracted by the food waste in the garbage but found it easier to eat the baby's ears and nose than try to tear through the sealed plastic garbage bin.
They had done everything they could to keep rats from the food waste they could not eat, but the attempt at hygiene backfired in a city where the rats and roaches and other creatures trying to compete for a living on a planet with less and less living space find the city to be the best place to try and survive.

Thee tragedies could be avoided by proper attention to what organisms are after through the lens of urban ecology. All of us -  humans and non humans alike -- flock to and  live in cities because there are tremendous advantages to accumulation – we call some of these effects “agglomeration economies” and others “untradeable interdependencies”.
Agglomeration economies are the utilities or benefits that come from coming together or “agglomerating”. The more people there are in an area, the more wealth, the more ideas, the more accumulated resources and of course the more so-called “wastes”.

Untradeable interdependencies are the values we gain that we don't have to directly pay money for (they are thus called by economists “untradeable” as they have no financial market, not because we don't actually trade them in some way) and they come from our being together “interdependently”, as a result of sharing space. The learning and information sharing and deal making that goes on in the cafeteria, outside of class, in the elevator, by the water cooler, riding the subway – all of these are the untradeable interdependencies that make coming to school and paying high tuition worth more than sitting at home doing an online class – if you take advantage of them.

 They explain why people will suffer the daily commute into the city or some other densely populated area to go to school and work and shop even when many of the actual goods we need can be obtained more cheaply and with less stress outside the population centers and urban cores. They explain why the Zabaleen garbage pickers of Cairo moved with all of their animals from the countryside to build an informal slum on the outskirts of the city only to live in piles of garbage – they knew that they despite the poverty and the filth and indignity they could make a better living in or near the city where resources have pooled and agglomerated and people are densely packed, than out in the fields and farms and villages.

Other, non-human animals feel the same way.
And so everybody, everything moves to the city. It is where the action is.
But of course this creates huge problems.
The question again is, “DOES IT NEED TO?”

I have a certain answer to that question from my years of working with and living among the so-called “poor” in general and the Zabaleen trash recycling community of Egypt in particular.

 My answer is “the city can solve all of its own problems if the people in the city recognize the city as the solution space that it really is and stop looking at it as merely a consumption space. The city needs to be seen as what the futurist Alvin Toffler called a “Prosumer” environment.

A Prosumer environment is one where people (and other creatures) produce as well as consume, so that each citizen acts as both producer and consumer, hence “prosumer”. The operating ethos of the prosumer environment is what we now call “industrial ecology”. In Industrial Ecology we model our cities after Natural Ecologies found in the larger environment we call “Nature”. In Ecological Systems the output from one process becomes the input for another and everything that can be recycled is recycled in as close to a closed loop system as is possible.
The Zabaleen trash recyclers taught me that there was no such thing as garbage. They come to the city to find metals and plastics and wood and paper and minerals and carbon and other organic materials and transform them, through their labor and intelligence, back into industrial inputs that can be put back into service.

The Zabaleen men gather and sort trash and clean and sell most of the inorganic materials to factories around the world. They also run their own small factories. They also keep pigs in the city, in their apartment buildings and on their rooftops,  along with goats and sheep and cows and rabbits and ducks and chickens, and these creatures help to turn the organic wastes into nutritious meat and useful leather and bonemeal.
What the Zabaleen didn't know how to do, or couldn't afford to do,  given their poverty, was  safely contain all the organic wastes so they would not be available to undesirable organisms or how to create energy and fertilizer from all of this activity.  Thus the toilet wastes of their animals and their own bathrooms, and the parts of the food waste that even their animals wouldn't eat, created problems, caused odor and diseases and infestations of rodents and insects.

But I maintain to you that this isn't as difficult a problem as it seems once you look at it the right way.
The mere presence of rodents and insects and disease causing microbes is a powerful indicator that there is a lot of gold still there in them there hills! If the so-called wastes weren't valuable, the other non-human beings – the one's we don't necessarily want living around us, wouldn't be there, would they? They are only there because we are giving them things to eat. They are only there because we are supplying them with resources.

Once you have an urban ecology perspective you begin to see things differently. You begin to see signs of possibility and hopeful solutions everywhere. Imagine vermin and disease being mere indicators of riches to be found! The trick then is to design processes and systems to capture those hidden values that all these non-human creatures can see. And how do they see the world? In terms of ENERGY.  All living things, including humans, are in pursuit of energy, most of it from the sun. Food is solar energy stored in a kind of transportable battery – the chemical bonds that make up plant and animal tissues, carboyhdrates, proteins and fats. Oil is also solar energy stored in the chemical bonds of petroleum – long dead animals and plants.

And so it turns out that the worst problems caused by cities are really there because we are actually throwing away organic batteries that are still filled with energy. Even the smoke smog and pollution from our trucks and buses and cars and factories are merely indicators that we haven't used up all the energy in those chemical bonds. And all we have to do to turn cities from problem causers to problem solvers is capture that energy and put it to work.

 In this class we will explore how this is done.


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