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.

“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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