Yes, we can save the world . . . if we want to

Chris Luebkeman asks whether we are ready to change everything

We can now do just about anything when it comes to the design and construction of the built environment. We know how to make buildings of all sizes that cover their own energy consumption; we know how to make wonderful spaces and places for people to thrive in; we can make materials that essentially last for ever, as well as materials which decompose on demand; we can fly faster than sound and trap molecules in optical "tweezers". Yet, how often do we pause to ask: "Should we do this differently?"

For many, this question is simply too hard. Yet rapid urbanisation demands that we ask it. It is expected that by 2030, 60 per cent of the world's population will be urban dwellers.

This poses a considerable infrastructure problem. What kind of growth could it be? Is it possible to make an urban centre not just carbon-neutral, but carbon-positive? Can new cities be planet-friendly? Our future is very tied in to how we resolve and manage growth of our cities. Their health has to be top of the global political agenda.

The traditional city is a great consumer of energy. City life requires electricity. Urban dwellers use cars. There is no way of tackling the problems created by climate change without looking at the rapid increase in cities.

This is why Arup, the civil engineering company responsible for the Sydney Opera House, the Pompidou Centre and Tate Modern, is creating Dongtan, the world's first eco-city, on an island off Shanghai.

Dongtan represents the response of some of the world's best brains to the problem of climate change. It will be a city for hundreds of thousands and as close to carbon-neutral as is possible today. All housing will be within seven minutes' walk of public transport. Most citizens will work within the city, which will produce sufficient electricity and heat for its own use, entirely from renewable sources. There will be no emissions from vehicles. Food will be produced on the island. Buildings (of local materials) will use traditional and new construction technologies.

And yet it is not good enough. We know that it is the best achievable based on contemporary knowledge, but we also know that we have to do better. Dongtan is a holistic, systemic view of a city - something unfortunately rare. It is easier to hide behind departmental boundaries and targets than to deal with uncomfortable issues. But holistic, systemic thinking is now vital.

Someone calculated that if every Chinese citizen drove a car, the world's known oil supply would be consumed in six months. One need only visit any major city to grasp the cruel reality and sheer enormity of this truth. Traffic jams are a ubiquitous urban experience. At some point, the clogging of these arteries, the deep blockages, will reach a critical point. The question is not if, but how soon?

IMF data reveals that as an economy moves from the agrarian stage through industrialisation to full consumption, there is an equal rise in energy consumption. There are three crucial things to note about this. First, that there is a one-to-one relationship between the availability of energy and the viability of an economy. Second, that the nation which has been the greatest consumer of energy per person, the United States, has also used up most of its internal energy sources. Third, that the two most populated nations in the world, China and India, currently low users of energy, are intent on moving up the ladder.

China is on the way to becoming the most polluted country in the world. Simultaneously, it is the most aggressive in setting more eco-friendly design standards. In this ambivalent role, it represents many of us.

Population shifts, increasing scarcity and the wanton consumption of arable land and natural resources (renewable and non-renewable) are pushing us ever closer to global disaster.

This is a crucial and sobering point in history. Despite setbacks and mistakes, progressive national and local governments are taking the initiative. There is still time for corrective action.

Our future is very much ours to decide. It will not ultimately depend on technology or the economy. What we leave to those that come after us will be determined by us, and whether or not we rise to the challenge we now face.

Chris Luebkeman is a director and leader of Arup's global Foresight and Innovation initiative

Read more from this climate change special report

No time to lose by Tony McDermott
The world must urgently face up to the global violence and conflict that would result from rapid climate change, warns Tony McDermott, adviser to Al Gore

A matter of security by Josh Arnold-Forster
Why is the MoD so seriously concerned about global warming? Josh Arnold-Forster on the social collapse we are not prepared for

The green rush by James Harding
Businesses are vying to save the planet, and getting rich. But does it matter, so long as they deliver the goods? By James Harding

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Climate change

Show Hide image

The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times