SCARP's Honorary Professor Dr. John Friedmann was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree from York University on June 17, 2016. John, who turned 90 this year, is a well respected expert on sustainable international development and planning theory. He delivered the convocation address at the School of Environmental Studies at York which is posted below.
Shrinking the Urban Footprint
Remarks on the occasion of receiving the Honorary Doctor of Laws degree at York University, Toronto, ON, 17 June 2016
It has become common knowledge that our century is the historical moment when planet Earth—the planet we inhabit and hope to continue to inhabit forever—will become completely urbanized, thus bringing to an end a process of full-on urbanization that began two centuries ago and is still ongoing. Less than a century from now, assuming a world population of 10 billion, the estimated urban proportion will be about 85 percent of this, which is close to Canada’s present level of 82 percent. So in case you are wondering what a fully urbanized world will look like, think Canada. We are nearly there, a fully urbanized society, though we are only beginning to understand the implications of what this simple fact means for us.
These numbers are not very significant in themselves. For example, what it feels like to be urban depends very much on where you live and what you do for a living. However, concentrated as it is on a small portion of land surface, the world’s urban population places growing pressure on the natural environment and the critical resources on which we all depend. Though I am not at ease in my role as Cassandra predicting worst possible outcomes, I do believe that we would all be a great deal better off if we found ways to reduce humanity’s pressure on global resources and on the immediate environment in the places where we live. I want to put a name to this belief in the possibility of shrinking the urban ecological footprint. I call it the de-materialization of the city or more accurately, the de-materialization of urban life.
You will have heard of the Anthropocene, the geological age, as some have argued, in which the physical conditions of Planet Earth—its soils, oceans, and air—have become humanity’s exclusive responsibility. Our inventiveness and creativity have superimposed an artificial environment on the stony ground–the lithosphere—on which we stand that affects the very health of Mother Earth. And we now have clear, convincing evidence that we are using up the globe’s finite natural resources at a pace that will lead to the gradual attrition of the very conditions which, until recently, have enabled us to flourish. The interlude of “economic growth without limits,” which began in 18th century Britain and has become planetary in its reach, has thus come to an abrupt halt. As ecologists such as Bill Rees and others have argued, we have reached a condition they call “overshoot,” meaning that we are irrevocably destroying the very foundations on which we are dependent for our lives and livelihood. Overshoot thus comes with a mandate: consume less, or we are doomed.
How shall we respond to this challenge? How can we de-materialize urban life and opt out of the tread-mill that leads us further into overshoot and ultimate collapse? How do we work towards a smaller ecological footprint?
To respond to this challenge, creatively poses critical issues of sustainability and social justice. But my time is short, and I will focus on only one answer, which is: to opt out selectively—and I stress selectively—from the life the corporate world has designed for us. I place my hope in the creativity of ordinary people to find ways that will lead to a meaningful, satisfying, and rich life beyond consumerism in a parallel economy based on the production of use values.
I’m not saying anything new here. Four decades ago, the radical writings of Ivan Illich such as his Tools for Conviviality and Towards a History of Needs stirred debates over alternative life styles, as did E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, a book that in 2000 was re-published in a 25th anniversary edition and can be bought on amazon.com for a couple of dollars. Let me give you some examples of what I have in mind by living beyond consumerism.
Kate Black has come up with a matrix when considering a purchase. To help us remember them, she has coined the acronym of V.A.L.U.E or “value” where V stands for vintage or buying second-life; A stands for artisanship and do-it-yourself crafting; L stands for local origin; U stands for up-cycling or repair and re-use; and E stands for an ethically sound purchase. But the basic question behind “value” is this: do I really, really need whatever it is that strikes my fancy at this moment, and why?
Here are some other examples of a parallel economy.
- Community gardening and urban farming, which is a movement that has caught many people’s imagination. They are joining with others in planting vegetables and flowers for self-consumption or neighborly exchange.
- Participating in the sharing economy, such as car and bike rentals; cooperatives; tool libraries for home repairs, and more.
- Active transportation such as walking and biking.
- Cooperative projects that involve people in a virtually unlimited variety of collective activities such as creating public art, providing services to house-bound seniors, food banks, re-naturalizing urban stream beds, park clean-ups, and teaching colloquial English to recent immigrants are but a few of the countless ways we have for making communities better and more livable.
- Street festivals, collective music-making, community theater groups, farmers’ markets and the like.
Sceptics will say that these are but tiny baby steps. Very nice, to be sure, but they won’t save our planet. We need big, system-wide changes that transform everything all at once! How do you respond to this dismissal of an alternative economy?
Leonie Sandercock long ago argued that even small steps add up, that if enough of us change our lives today, and keep on doing so, transformative change is the result. The city gradually adapts to walking and biking, cars are electrified and shared, public transit no longer loses money, weekends are no longer spent gazing at the flickering screen, urban neighborhoods celebrate their local saints, people take over the streets for tai-chi or dancing, local craft fairs draw children and adults who come not only to enjoy but to practice their skills in plain view, second-hand markets pop up, local competitions sprout local heroes, the city reinvents itself.
Is this a modern romance, or what? It is the vision of a parallel economy in which use value trumps market exchange, and the city is remade and given a more human face where sharing, reciprocity, and face-to-face relations predominate. To arrive at a city informed by this vision depends on nothing more than on our own decision.