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New Bottom Line Volume 14.6 – Urban Futures: A Tale of New Cities

Monday, August 1, 2005

Speaking of urban futures (as I’ve been doing recently, in several recent blog postings)…

Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times was surprised by the juxtaposition of Portland’s ‘stunning reductions in carbon emissions… while booming economically.’

I’m not. This has been the secret hiding in plain sight, throughout the economy. The other ‘secret’: local governments have taken the lead in US energy policy, joined by a growing number of business leaders — large and small — who see a convergence of self-interest and national interest in a renewables-based energy independence strategy.

As I observed in a recent speech to the Commonwealth Club (soon to appear in Corporate Strategy Today):

Change is made more difficult by deep and pervasive errors in thinking — the assumption that we can’t afford it, and the belief that our economic well-being is separate and autonomous from the living systems that sustain us — and by a serious and unrecognized gap in management methodology.

The assumption that ‘we can’t afford it’ is held in common by business people, environmentalists and government — people who disagree on so much, yet find common ground in this fallacy. Business people say ‘we can’t afford to be environmentally responsible, because it will hurt profits.’ Environmentalists say ‘You should sacrifice some profit for the good of the planet.’ Government officials say ‘Let’s use taxpayer dollars to persuade business to do the right thing,’ assuming that they won’t do it otherwise. Fortunately, these views are being replaced — outcompeted.

I’m committed to demolishing the ‘can’t afford it’ assumption, and replacing it with profitable good sense. It’s examples like Portland’s that help make it possible.

It’s not just Portland where this new perspective is sinking in, as WorldChanging readers know. As of July 15, 173 cities have signed on to the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, anchored by Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels — pledging to ‘meet or beat the Kyoto Protocol targets in their own communities.’ (We’ve just completed a ‘regional metabolism assessment’ for one of those cities — Albuquerque NM — to guide economic development strategy that minimizes ecological footprint, and hope to bring that capability to other signatories as well.

The international urban front is active too, of course. (ICLEI provides a focal point for urban sustainability efforts worldwide.)

Jamais Cascio wrote recently of the quite divergent approaches to sustainability being taken by China and India.

India’s approach seems quite similar to that of the West — lay out some semi-official ground rules, then encourage (but not require) builders to meet them. China’s approach, conversely, seems to be more revolutionary than evolutionary — build sustainable cities from the ground up.

It’s exciting stuff. Energy efficiency standards for buildings, and for cities. Entirely new ‘cradle to cradle’ cities on the drawing boards in China. Distinct leapfrog possibilities.

Other the other hand, Robert Collier at the SF Chronicle reports that ‘The good life means more greenhouse gas.’

Collier’s two-part story recounts the new ‘China Dream’ – ‘fancy car, very big house’ – that’s chasing the ‘American Dream.’

The same economic boom that is catapulting millions of Chinese into the middle class has made their country into the world’s fastest growing source of the greenhouse gases linked to global warming.

Sobering details, in a long-for-the-Chron story (from Collier, who seems to do some of their most substantive reporting). A very different perspective and trajectory than Portland’s .

‘As Maine goes, so goes the nation,’ US political pundits used to say. I’m thinking: ‘As China goes, so goes the planet.’ And therein lies the bigger challenge that we collectively face. For all the recalcitrance of the current US administration (whose rhetoric, at least, has recently shifted ever-so-slightly toward reality), and the initiative of business leaders (whose concern over the net present value of future cash flows increasingly trumps any ideological commitments to a particular political party), it sure seems like the planetary game will be won and lost in the moves chosen by Team China. So far, the signs are very, very mixed, with great momentum in both directions.

What do you think are the most effective ways to influence the direction of the next #1 superpower? (You know, the one that finances the debt of the current #1 with the revenues from all our Walmart purchases from the future #1’s manufacturers?)

One distinct lever — perhaps our main one until US national policy shifts — is with the market pull strategies that have been so successful in the green building marketplace. Growing ‘green’ market demand in the US can prove attractive to Chinese producers that are rapidly evolving from low-cost providers to technically sophisticated competitors.

Which is one of the reasons we’re seeing renewed interested in environmentally preferable purchasing policies, sustainable supply chain management, and ecolabelling schemes for companies as well as products. But that’s a story for another day.

(c) 2005 Gil Friend. All rights reserved.

New Bottom Line is published periodically by Natural Logic, offering decision support software and strategic consulting that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise.

Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is President and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc.

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