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Surviving on Spaceship Earth

One Planet Living seeks ways for us all to live well, but within our fair share of global resources. China will play a big part, writes Maryann Bird, who met OPL’s manager for the country.

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“What planet do you live on?” Clearly a rhetorical question. The literal answer, of course, for all of us – the clued-up and the clueless alike – is Planet Earth. It’s the only planet we’ve got, and if we exhaust its resources there will be no rescue vessel leaving for some pristine, deep-space Eden. Earth is our self-contained spaceship, sustaining us in a hostile universe.

As the visionary designer R. Buckminster Fuller wrote in his 1963 book Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, regarding fossil fuels: “[W]e can make all of humanity successful through science’s world-engulfing industrial evolution provided that we are not so foolish as to continue to exhaust in a split second of astronomical history the orderly energy savings of billions of years’ energy conservation aboard our Spaceship Earth. These energy savings have been put into our Spaceship’s life-regeneration-guaranteeing bank account for use only in self-starter functions.”

Three years later (and 40 years ago now), the philosopher-economist Kenneth E. Boulding noted -- in his essay The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth -- the seemingly limitless resources of a reckless, exploitative “cowboy economy”. He added: “The closed economy of the future might similarly be called the ‘spaceman’ economy, in which the earth has become a single spaceship, without unlimited reservoirs of anything, either for extraction or for pollution, and in which, therefore, man must find his place in a cyclical ecological system.”

The ideas of Fuller, Boulding and others are critically relevant today, as climate change accelerates. One initiative designed to promote life in a 21st century cyclical ecological system is One Planet Living. The vision of OPL -- a joint initiative of the environmental group WWF and BioRegional, a British organisation dedicated to developing practical solutions for socially, economically and environmentally sustainable living – is a world in which everyone can live happily and healthily within their fair share of the earth’s resources. Addressing consumption, supply and values, its 10 holistic principles are: zero carbon, zero waste, sustainable transport, local and sustainable materials, local and sustainable food, sustainable water, natural habitats and wildlife, culture and heritage, equity and fair trade, and health and happiness.

Sumeet Manchanda, the international programme manager for OPL communities, notes that, “as a species, humanity’s ecological footprint has gone over the sustainable limit.” WWF’s biennial Living Planet Index, an indicator of the state of the world’s biodiversity, has been declining. From 1970 to 2003, the index fell by about 30%. WWF’s Living Planet Report 2006 confirms that the planet’s ecosystems are being degraded at an unprecedented rate in human history.

As is often remarked these days, if everyone in the world lived as western Europeans do, three planets would be required to support the earth’s population (and five if the United States is the measure). OPL argues that humans need to reduce their impact, their ecological footprint, to a “sustainable and globally equitable level”. To move in that direction, then – to help make the vision a reality -- the organisation aims to build a global network of OPL communities, representing every continent. By 2010, OPL plans to establish the first of such communities in Portugal, the UK, North America, Australia, South Africa and – of course – China. Feasibility and site studies are under way in several places with large ecological footprints.

Xiaohong Chen -- who grew up in northeastern China’s Liaoning province -- is the One Planet Living country manager in China. A structural engineer in Nanjing’s building industry for eight years, she moved to the UK seven years ago and worked for a property and investment company. Chen joined BioRegional – a partner in developing the UK’s innovative BedZED eco-community -- in 2005. As Bioregional and WWF move toward building an OPL flagship community in China, Chen’s role is to talk with potential developer partners, and she has done so in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Details on OPL projects in China have not been finalised, and some non-disclosure agreements are in place. But among the four projects on the drawing board is a development for about 20,000 people at Panyu, a district of Guangzhou – possibly with an open-air opera facility. And in Shanghai, a 700-home design is being worked on, with construction to begin in the next couple of years. Another Shanghai project, as well as one in Beijing, is under discussion.

(Globally, the furthest-along OPL site is the pioneering Portuguese project, the Mata de Sesimbra eco-tourism development, meant to be the world’s first integrated sustainable building, tourism, nature conservation and reforestation programme. The 8,000-unit project, which is approaching the start of construction and could eventually house 30,000 people, is on a 5,200-hectare site south of Lisbon. A key goal is forestry redevelopment, with a return of 4,600 hectares of degraded land to native woods.)

“I think everybody knows China has very high-speed economic growth and China consumes the highest percentage of natural resources in the world,” says Chen. “When it comes to the average person, it doesn’t look like a lot, but as a whole China is using more and more resources. Now it’s come to a crisis. China needs more resources to keep up economic growth.”

“At the moment,” she adds, “China has a problem with water for northern cities and has already found out that there’s not enough energy for the big cities, electricity and other resources. It’s more urgent for the Chinese government to find a sustainable way to develop a new city. Before you develop, often you’ve found out there’s nothing left. So it’s very important to develop in a sustainable way.”

Says Chen: “The biggest environmental problems facing China are energy and water. Chinese people have a higher living standard now and are starting to consume more energy. We have a shortage of electricity and the water is not clean enough. We have a lot of water, but it’s not drinkable.”

Pollution, Chen notes, presents a serious health problem in many areas of China. “The government has policies to encourage industries to produce in an efficient way, especially in the building construction industry,” she says, “and there are new regulations saying new buildings have to be 50% more energy efficient than in the past. The problem is that, in reality, I haven’t seen anything very good in practice. There are government and university research-study projects, but they are not in the industry-mainstream practice. So we want to bring this idea into the mainstream.”

“All the developers – private, state-owned -- can do it, and it doesn’t cost them more,” Chen adds. “They still get the benefit, and the people who live there get benefit, too. We want to show people that it is possible to live in a zero-carbon community and at the same time enjoy a high quality of life.”

In promoting sustainable development, OPL also advances the concept of ecological footprinting – a measure and management tool for estimating the gap between humanity’s resource demands and the planet’s biological capacity. As a planet, the earth is in ecological overshoot. From 1961 to 2000, China’s footprint has grown considerably; in net terms over those four decades, the country has moved from using about 0.8 times its domestic biocapacity to twice that amount, according to the Global Footprint Network.

“Average Chinese people are using one planet,” Chen points out. “It sounds like we’re sustainable. But if you look into the cities, the people living there are using more than average European people. For example, Shanghai is consuming more than three planets by itself, and this figure is still increasing. Shanghai is higher than European levels. Most of the population living in the countryside hardly consume any energy. So when it comes to the average, we are using one planet. But more and more people are going to live in cities.”

And as China becomes more urban, the problem increases. Cities are booming, Chen says, but growth is difficult to plan and difficult to accommodate. People in cities commute, creating greater problems in transport and other areas. Developers – with profits in mind -- are copying that model, Chen says, but “the best thing is to take good experience from others, but not to copy them.”

“Our aim,” she explains, “is to use our experience to help local people to develop a zero-carbon community, and using local knowledge and local resources as much as we can.” That way, impractical and inefficient practices can be avoided. For example, Chen says: “A lot of private developments don’t put the environment issue into their projects, and also their land use in the past has not been very well organised. They have taken agricultural land to expand, to become city land. They should think more about how to use the land efficiently and keep the ecological value of the land, not destroy the existing value. And use wasteland to build their new buildings.”

Also, adds Chen, “we need to think about how to reduce carbon dioxide.” Building housing, shops and workplaces in areas where people can travel on foot or by bicycle, rather than by car, is one way. “Another issue is how to change people’s attitudes about well-being – not to have a car to show off that you’re rich. What is a good life? What is a comfortable life, a happy life? Chinese people, once they have money, first go and buy a house and a car. In the past, we’ve used bicycles a lot. This is a good aspect of our culture and people should not lose it.”

Chen is pleased that China will be hosting the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, which she views as an incentive toward improving Beijing’s air quality. “We want to show good things to the outside world,” she says. “I think the Olympics will help China, in a way, to develop a green beauty, and green technology.”

In her days as a structural engineer, Chen says, Chinese developers met building standards but were not thinking very much about insulation, or how to use natural resources, or how to develop their own energy sources. “We didn’t have this kind of element in our design.” But Chen herself thought about the environmental aspects, she says, and how things could be done differently. She dreamed back then, she said, of future buildings with “an intelligent green beauty”.

Now, as OPL’s manager for China, Chen has her chance. Having last worked in the country in 1990, she is keen to be involved with developers who share her vision, and OPL’s. “I feel this is a fantastic opportunity – it’s my dream,” she says. “I’m really looking forward to seeing a real sustainable community being built in China -- and we’ll show it off to the whole world.”

Maryann Bird is a London-based journalist with a special interest in environmental and human-rights issues. A writer and editor, she was previously a staff member at Time magazine (Europe), The Independent, the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times.

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


这的确让我想到人类在世界各地的生活方式以及他们的足迹。我刚刚对中外对话网页链接关于生态足迹的问答题作出解答。我居住在英国伦敦, 而我的生态足迹则是星球的2.3。那其他人又是多少呢? 我真的想知道一位中国都市人的积分是多少… SL

Ecological footprints

This really got me thinking about different lifestyles around the world and their footprints. I just took the ecological footprint quiz linked at the bottom of the chinadialogue homepage. I live in London, UK, and my ecological footprint was 2.3 planets. What were other people's? I'd be interested to know what a Chinese city-dweller would score...

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


我的生态足迹指数是1.7。但当我认真地做了一次测试,我的指数变成了2.7。 我生活在一个寒冷的气候中,但我已经不再驾车了。我使用三轮车。我只购买当地生产的食物,而抵制所有的全国连锁商店。我从当地的二手店购买很多物品。对我来说,这是一个好方法,可以让我不把钱花给大的可控制商业的商家。catnapping


My footprint was 1.7, but then when I took it more carefully, it was 2.7.

I live in a cold climate, but I no longer drive. I use my three-wheeler to get around. And I only buy my food from local people.

I boycott all national stores, and buy much from second-hand stores, locally. For me, this is also a good idea. It keeps my money out of the hands of monopolies.


Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



我在北京的生态指数是4.5, 远高于中国平均的1.5。 这其中最大的原因是交通的问题。因为我需要每天乘车去很远的地方工作。

我在伦顿的生态指数是5.1, 相反却低于英国的平均指数5.3。我的指数中的最大因素是交通和食物。因为我还是得需要每天乘火车和汽车很长时间去上班;在英国,大部分食物都是进口的,我没有选择。


1。 测试的不人性;

很多时候你的生活状况不是个人可以改变的。如果你工作在大城市,而住在郊区, 你有选择吗?





My ecological footprint index is 4.5 in Beijing

It is interesting to take the ecological footprint test available at the bottom of chinadialogue homepage. But my test results are surprising.

My index in Beijing is 4.5, much higher China's average at 1.5. My long journey everyday to work is mainly blamed for the high index.

Well, I get an index of 5.1 in London, lower than the UK average of 5.3. The reasons are similar that I have to take train and bus to travel a long way to work in London everyday. Meanwhile, most food sold in the UK is imported. I have no other choices.

Comparing the two test results, I have two thoughts:

First: the test does not take individuals' actual situation into consideration. If you work in the downtown but live in the outskirts, how can you do with it? If only imported food is available, you have less choices.

So the economy and social system of a certain country have basically set the tone for the living style of individuals. Even an individual could do something to help improve the ecosystem, but it should be a target for the whole nation and society.

Secondly, you could tell average ecological footprint index in developed countries is much higher than that in developing countries. So the rich countries do need to take actions now, otherwise, it maybe indicate that advanced economy, higher ecological footprint index. This runs in the opposite direction of the sustainable economic development.

So, sustainable economic development is a big topic for researchers.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


如评论3所说, “一些国家的经济和社会系统已经对个人的生活方式制定了节奏”。多么的真实! 欧洲国家消耗了这么多资源是无可避免的。在中国这可有分别。然而,令人震惊的是上海所消耗与欧洲平等或更多。从中让我寓意到的是21世纪的城市生活大量的消耗资源。西方国家对资源的消耗有增无减, 而我们现在的生活正是如此。为了保存这个星球,西方国家必须改变他们的态度。若他们希望中国跟随他们的步伐, 就必须设立好榜样, 否则中国人将抱怨 “你要我们对生活方式作出牺牲, 然而自己却不原意这么做。”

What the West must do

As comment number 3 says 'the economy and social system of a certain country have set the tone for the living style of individuals'.

How true! It's unavoidable in a European nation that you will use many resources. In China this is different. But it is shocking to find Shanghai use at European or higher levels.

The moral I draw from this is that 21st century city living anywhere on the planet draws heavily on resources. And the lessen is more for westerners as we are the ones who are living like this now. To save the planet westerners must change their ways. They can only hope that China follows suit if a good example is set, otherwise Chinese people will say 'you want us to make sacrifices and change the way we lead our lives but you are not willing to do so yourself'.