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National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service
Smart Growth
Sustainable Development in Coastal Regions and Small Islands
Urban Environment: Challenges to Sustainability

"If everyone around the world lived as those in America, we would need five planets to support us" (Ben Blanchard,, 10/25/06).

"Something quite unexpected happened in the US a year ago. Ten mayors, more in hope than expectation, proposed that in the absence of presidential leadership on climate change, US cities should adopt their own targets and timetables to reduce global warming pollution--just like European and other rich nations had agreed under the Kyoto protocol. So they wrote to 200 other local government leaders and waited for a response.

"It came, and how. Within two months 46 cities had joined them. In September, with a little help from actor and environmentalist Robert Redford, who offered his 6,000-acre ranch for a mayoral summit, a further 50 were signed up. As of last week more than 230 cities in the US--representing more than 100 million people--had effectively adopted the same targets that President Bush's America had fought hard to prevent other countries from agreeing to.

"To the embarrassment of Washington, organisers of the Mayors Climate Protection agreement say that it is possible that a combination of citizen pressure, economic pragmatism and a dose of common sense in the wake of oil price shocks could mean that all major US cities will be committed to significant energy cuts with a year...

"For the optimists, the US mayoral initiative is just one part of a burgeoning new urban sustainability philosophy that is beginning to transform cities around the world. Having become seriously polluted, places such as Mexico City, Bangkok, Bogot&aacuute;, London and many other national and regional capitals have taken the initiative back from government.

"This has been easiest to see in the way that cities are trying to tame the car by using technology, pricing and pedestrian areas. But many are finding that what starts with an attempt to reduce pollution or increase traffic flow leads directly to wanting to waste less, recycle more and impose less on neighboring areas.

"Singapore, the one city state that more than any other has led a war against the car, litter and lawlessness, has now almost priced private cars off the streets during the day, introducing a cheap, popular public transport system. It claims its economic success is based on its clean, safe environment, which has attracted more than 7,000 multinational companies to set up their regional HQs there.

"In Latin America, where the populist left increasingly runs national and local politics, many cities are trying to redesign themselves around the needs of people who don't have cars rather than those who do. In China the concept of the eco-city--almost entirely self-sufficient, zero-energy communities--is being developed to counter the breakneck rush for industrialization..."

"But higher environmental standards are not enough. Wal-Mart, the $256bn-a-year retailer that operates 5,000 mainly giant stores in 10 countries, has recently pledged to massively reduce its energy emissions. But the second-largest employer in the US after the government is still considered one of the least responsible in the world, accused of driving the intensification of farming, urban sprawl, low wages and car dependency, as well, it is said, as undermining the manufacturing base of the US by buying almost all its products from places such as China" (John Vidal. "Seizing the sustainability agenda." Guardian Weekly, April 28, 2006: 3).

"The Germans make the cars, the Italians make the clothes, the French make the wine, the British make the pharmaceuticals--and then they all buy and sell from each other...

"That's the theory. According to the UK Interdependence Report, it doesn't quite work out that way.

"Take chocolate-covered biscuits. Each year the UK export 1,145 tonnes of these delicacies to the Germans. The Germans meanwhile export 1,728 tonnes to the UK...

"The NEF says there is a serious side to the statistic showing that the 465 tonnes of gingerbread coming into the country is matched by the 460 tonnes exported. It argues that the environmental impact of "lorries passing in the night" is not included in the price of the goods in the shops, and that much of the trade that is going on is actually ecologically wasteful.

""Shipping vast quatities of identical goods backwards and forwards around the world matter for three big reasons" said Andrew Simms of NEF. "First, it is a towering monument to inefficiency, as wasteful as a job-creation scheme that pays people to shift a pile of rocks from one end of a worksite to another and back again.

""More profoundly, it matters because we face upheaval from potentially irreversible climate change due, in large part, to the burning of fuel, whilst at the same time there is rising conflict over access to dwindling oil supplies. The third reason is that a global economy built on, and blind to, its own fossil fuel dependence simply cannot survive in its current form"" ("Chocolate biscuit paradox." Guardian Weekly, April 21, 2006: 27).

Colby Glass, MLIS