Saturday, July 16, 2011


This year's Human Development Index (HDI) came out last week and it was full of good news. The HDI started out 20 years ago to provide a way of indexing development and progress that gives a fuller picture of human well being than GDP's shallow economic calculations. This year's report celebrates the fact that over the past 40 years “average life expectancy rose from 59 to 70 years, primary school enrollment grew from 55 to 70 percent, and per capita income doubled to more than $10,000.”

This is great stuff. But the question that the HDI asks is can it be sustained? Can we hope so see similar gains in the next 40 years?


The main threat, which haunts the report, is climate change. By some projections, much of the already wealthy North will not directly feel the negative impacts of climate change until late in the century. But many of the areas where gains have been made in access to education, nutrition and life expectancy are also going to be the most vulnerable to climate change. As the HDI puts it:

“The main threat to maintaining progress in human development comes from the increasingly evident unsustainability of production and consumption patterns. .... The consequences of environmentally unsustainable production are already visible. Increased exposure to drought, floods and environmental stress is a major impediment to realizing people’s aspirations. .... The continuing reliance on fossil fuels is threatening irreparable damage to our environment and to the human development of future generations.”


Cities have an important place in all this. Beyond coastal communities that will face increased flooding, all of the world's ever growing cities are directly dependent on external supplies of food, potable water, and energy that make it possible for such a high density of people to live together in relative comfort.

With 40% reductions in staple grain crops currently expected by mid century (as well as a bundle of other climate related disasters) the spectre of resource conflicts and urban unrest is very real. At the same time, decoupling urbanization from increased energy use could play a huge part in mitigating the intensity of climate change. Unfortunately recent reports on the US and China show that this is – on the whole – simply not happening. There are some innovators. I've written about many of them. But they are the exception not the rule.

This contrast between how good things are and how challenging they will get is a bit of a brain twister. Even if you understand the issues, at an intuitive level it all seems slightly unreal. How can things be going so well if they are really going so badly? (something Andrew Revkin also riffs on over at Dot Earth)


Dr. Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, a close friend and recent graduate of McGill's Dept. of Geography, made waves in September with a paper (pdf) on exactly that dilemma. In the paper, which got picked up by the Guardian and a variety of other international media, she dubs this sticky situation the “Environmentalist's Paradox.” Beyond just supplying a catchy name, she and her co-author's go some way to explaining how – exactly when the HDI show that enormous gains have been made since the 1970s – reports like the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment show that the capacity of the world's ecosystems to provide key services are in decline.

Given the unprecedented burdens we are placing on the planet's resources, projecting forward from past data is tricky. But with that proviso, Ciara and her co-author's argue that on the one hand, agricultural innovations have helped increase human well being despite declines in other areas, and on the other that there is a time lag between the damage we do to our ecosystems and when we feel its impacts. In other words, it takes a bit of time before the chicken's come home to roost.


Going into a century of rapid climate change with already depleted ecosystems is a frightening prospect. But, as the HDI points out, in many ways things are better than ever. To keep that going on a rapidly urbanizing globe means designing urban systems that are more resilient to climatic shocks, resource shortages (and the social tensions they create), and that also impose a lighter load on the ecosystems we depend on.

Concretely, that means more attention to technical projects like decentralized renewable energy that increase the resilience and efficiency of our hard infrastructure. It also means continued progress on social issues like education, health, and equality that build the resilience of our societies. Change happens, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Our cities need to be ready to respond to both.


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