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How Can Bright Green Cities Thrive Without Capital?

Alex Steffen, Worldchanging
What do you do when things are booming but your credit’s dried up? Perhaps you begin to invent new ways of doing business.

U.N. Habitat recently released a report showing that the pace of urbanization is increasing, with “200,000 new dwellers flooding into the world cities and towns each day.” That’s like a new city the size of Seattle, Washington D.C. or Copenhagen springing up every three days. And while it is true that in the Global North, some industrial areas have become home to shrinking cities and others are in line for massive climate troubles, the trends suggest that most cities that are growing today are going to see long sustained booms in population.

But our cities are not only growing quickly, they’re getting younger. We live on a young planet, with two billion people under the age of 15 and a median age of only about 27, worldwide. Already there is a massive unmet demand for jobs, housing and services. Youth unemployment is at its highest level ever in many countries, but that doesn’t mean young people stop living. Indeed, while some of their energy is channeled into destructive outlets, from gangs to terrorism, evidence suggests that there’s been a much larger explosion of activity in the so-called “informal economy” — everything from “gray market” trading to casual labor to microbusinesses and community efforts. A faltering economy doesn’t mean an end to enterprise.

Bright green innovations are generating all sorts of new business frontiers as well. Green building and design innovations spur new possibilities for development and renovation. Smart technologies drive new ways of looking at shared goods and spaces. Attention to foodsheds and footprints enable new models of feeding and clothing ourselves. The list goes on.

So on the one hand, we have the material for a remarkable boom: rapidly growing cities full of energetic, young people with unmet needs but access to a wave of bright green innovations.

On the other hand, we have a worsening credit drought…
(20 Oct 2009)
The full PDF of the UN Habitat report can be accessed here.

A Blueprint for Restoring the World’s Oceans to Health
Sylvia Earle, Yale Environment 360For nearly half a century, Sylvia Earle has been exploring the world’s oceans, taking part in more than 400 expeditions and spending thousands of hours under the sea. An explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society and former chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Earle has broken many barriers in the world of deep-sea exploration.

In 1970 she led the all-female Tektite II expedition during which she and four other women spent two weeks living in a small structure under the sea. In 1979, she descended to 1,250 feet in a dive suit, setting a women’s depth record and also walking untethered on the sea floor at a lower depth than any person ever has. In addition, she holds the women’s record for a solo dive in a submersible vehicle, reaching a depth of 3,280 feet.

Now, drawing on decades of oceanographic work, Earle has written a book
Sylvia Earle in which she reflects on the profound changes she has witnessed in the world’s oceans and offers her thoughts on how to restore the health of a badly over-taxed marine environment. In The World is Blue, Earle describes the two-pronged assault on the seas: what we are pulling out of the oceans, through unfettered industrial fishing, and what we are putting into the oceans through pollutants, fertilizers, and growing amounts of carbon dioxide that are leading to a dangerous acidification of the sea.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Earle discussed how humanity needs to begin looking at fish in the same way we view wild creatures on land, how the current system of aquaculture — in which carnivorous predators such as salmon are raised — is folly, and how the massive influx of carbon dioxide into the world’s oceans is altering a precious balance that has existed for millions of years.

…e360: I wanted to talk about what is increasingly looming as this great problem of the acidification of the oceans, the changing chemistry.

You point out in your book that by pulling all these fish out of the ocean, that we actually are affecting the oceans’ buffering capacity to absorb carbon dioxide. Could you explain how over fishing can play a role in the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide?

Earle: We need a great deal more in the way of exploration, of doing the calculations, but it is simple. This is a no-brainer. Fish, every living thing, is a carbon container. By extracting millions of tons of ocean wildlife, it’s like clear-cutting forests. You have removed the carbon-based units…
(12 Oct 2009)

Nudging Recycling From Less Waste to None

Leslie Kaufman, The New York Times

At Yellowstone National Park, the clear soda cups and white utensils are not your typical cafe-counter garbage. Made of plant-based plastics, they dissolve magically when heated for more than a few minutes.

At Ecco, a popular restaurant in Atlanta, waiters no longer scrape food scraps into the trash bin. Uneaten morsels are dumped into five-gallon pails and taken to a compost heap out back.

And at eight of its North American plants, Honda is recycling so diligently that the factories have gotten rid of their trash Dumpsters altogether.

Across the nation, an antigarbage strategy known as “zero waste” is moving from the fringes to the mainstream, taking hold in school cafeterias, national parks, restaurants, stadiums and corporations…
(19 Oct 2009)

The Second Wave of Mining

Ugo Bardi, The Oil Drum: Europe
The author with a group of Romani people (also known as gypsies) in front of a pile of scrap iron, collected for recycling. That pile has been there for more than a year. The recycling activity carried out by the Romani in Italy has been halted, in large part because the government forbade it and forced the recycling cooperatives to close down (governments don’t like things they can’t fully control). But, also, recycling stopped because of the collapse of market prices of scrap iron. This may be a symptom that the “second wave of mining”, recovering mineral resources from waste, is late in coming. Will it ever arrive?

Human civilization started when humans learned how to exploit those concentrated mineral sources that we call “ores”. After centuries of mining, most of these ores have been badly dented or even completely exhausted. The first wave of mining in human history will be over at some moment in the future. Will there be a second one in which we learn how to reuse the minerals that we have discarded?

The problem is felt everywhere and waste recycling is often presented as the miracle solution: it frees citizens from costs and bad smells, it saves the environment, it provides the economy with raw materials and people with jobs. But is it possible to “close the cycle of production” (the “cradle to cradle” (C2C) strategy)? If it were so, we would solve once for all the problem of depletion.

Unfortunately, recycling remains a cumbersome task that keeps going only by means of government subsidies and a set of laws that force citizens and companies to do it. Recycling is especially difficult if it is necessary to restore the initial quality of the materials being recycled. In practice, recycled materials that can compete in a free market are often of poor quality and suitable only for some specific processes. Recycled plastics, for instance, can be used only for some low price applications; such as fruit crates. Recycled steel contains plenty of contamination in the form of different metals and can be used only for some specific tasks.

…These considerations have led to revisit the concept of waste recycling performed by individuals or by cooperatives: a concept that is called participatory sustainable waste management. The idea is that of a different paradigm in mining: not the heavily mechanized method that are typical of the mining industry, but low cost methods based, mainly, on the work of human beings. If this work is performed with appropriate precautions for the health of the workers, and if they are paid enough, then it is a win-win strategy: it recovers precious materials for society and it provides a way of living to people who, otherwise, would have none. In the figure, here, you can see Jutta Gutberlet, of the University of Victoria, Canada, working with the catadores of a landfill of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

So, perhaps, the second way of mining is coming, after all. But it will be nothing like the first. Whereas, once, finding a rich ore was a good way of making a lot of money, not many people are going to strike it rich by mining landfills. It will be hard work and little pay, yet, it may be a way to face our uncertain future…
(28 Sept 2009)