Hollow voices proclaim it can’t be done.
The imperatives are the same for all of us, and not merely limited to those people and places that face the most immediate dangers. If we are to prosper in the longer term we need to rebuild a new economy that is based on restorative development; we must look after the ecosystems that support our entire way of life; and we have to strengthen communities as the key to unlocking more human potential and energy.
There is plenty of room to make a profit in a zero-carbon, circular economy, but profit alone is not the motive for this great civic transformation. There is plenty of room to co-exist with nature, but shrinking humanity’s footprint is not the rallying cry. There is plenty of room to be more equitable, but that is not the catalyst for our collective preservation. The hope and the goal of a civic revolution are for lasting social and economic vitality locally, for civilisation as a whole.
There may be three broad reactions from those resistant to the new narrative, to its aspiration and the call for massive change. These voices carry a particular notion of expertise and where that expertise resides. The first is the “In the real world…” opposition to challenging the status quo, from people and companies who present themselves as experts by virtue of their everyday success in the current paradigm. The second reaction is the “Breakthrough technology is the real answer!” alternative to changing our behaviour, from well-intentioned innovators and technology gurus, who are experts because they appear closer to the technicalities. The third repudiation is the “Global solutions for global problems” attitude from people who are not necessarily attached to a particular place, and consider their expertise as seeing the bigger picture. Let’s address each dismissive voice in turn.
In the real world, change is a constant. There is a point at which oversized organisations and imagined communities simply become too complex to hold everyone together. Perhaps this point has been reached, which would go some way to explain our multifaceted crisis. Like past revolutions, the result is likely to be a shift of power away from where it is currently concentrated and enjoyed. There is inevitable tension between rising urban power locally on the one hand, and the established powers of nation states and multinational corporations on the other. Tethered by independence and competition respectively, these two incumbents may be unable to rise to the challenge of a new world that is defined increasingly by more local and very real forces that are collaborative and networked.
Many technologists have argued convincingly for the positive impact of breakthrough technology on society and its welfare. However, there is a distinct difference between thinking of technology as an enabler and thoughtless reliance on technology. There is a gulf between what has driven us to exceed planetary boundaries and a belief in eco-technology as the solution to extend these finite boundaries. Our tendency to expect the continuous invention of new technologies to overcome our limitations is missing the bigger point, as it removes invention from people’s behaviour and diminishes their personal responsibility to change. The arguments for breakthrough technology are not the exclusive arena of those with the technical details, but are much broader and more complex as they necessarily involve altering people’s attitudes and changing their habits. It is the human technicalities that ultimately determine the outcomes.
As for leadership in solving global solutions, no one level of society has a superior view or a monopoly. Citizens have formidable potential energy because cities are the focal points in implementation. As former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg said, “the difference between my level of government and other levels of government is that action takes place at the city level”. They are the places that are the first to experience trends and the first-responders in a crisis. Engaged city residents and independently minded cities can move faster than their sprawling nations, and this is a critical advantage given the urgency of some of the social and environmental challenges we face.
If cities have a future – economic, social and ecological – this future begins with a deeper appreciation of the shared leadership role we play. Invariably there will be people around us who proclaim it can’t be done. In truth, their doubts ring hollow.