As people flock to the cities in search of opportunities, and societies become more urbanized, they also become more affluent, and their energy systems more efficient. At the same time the demands of people for material wealth, comfort and convenience increase rapidly, causing the increase of industrial energy demand, which in turn often outstrips all energy efficiency gains. Generally the cities are the places where money is made, and which become the home of the wealthy, while the countryside is the place where resources are taken. Urban centres thus become sinks of rural resources and energy (Various authors 2007).
Many growing urban metropolises are reaching their limits of domestic resource availability or environmental pollution, while at the same time further efficiency improvements become costly. By increasingly drawing on cheap resources and energy beyond their borders, facilitated by an increasingly globalized international trade, they export their environmental pressure into resource-rich, but often technology-poor, low wage regions. The domestic resource hinterland turns into the global resource hinterland.
Human civilization is thus a story of urban civilization which, over the past 300 years of industrialization, has become rich and successful on the back of energy exploitation, almost exclusively by combusting fossil fuels that accumulate in form of embodied energy and atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. This development has now led to the prospects of diminishing oil supply and runaway global climate change. Thus the affluent citizens of the world's cities are responsible historically for this situation, and are now central to any future prospect of retreating to safer conditions.
I n these affluent, urbanized societies, direct energy is less important than embodied energy. More so, the latter has been increasing so strongly that it appears that measures aimed at improving technology on their own have not been able to counteract trends of looming resource depletion and climate change (Trainer 1997).29 Combining this with the fact that the overarching driving force for the magnitude and the rate of increase of energy
28 For comparison, Australian inner city centres have about 2000-4000 km-2.
29 Caldwell (1976) has argued that, given the structure of social institutions of modern industrial societies, a cheap and inexhaustible energy supply may pose far greater problems than energy shortages: 'There is no quicker way to destroy a society than to confer upon it power that it lacks wisdom, consensus, restraint, and institutional means to handle.'
consumption is personal affluence, we conclude that the urban energy transition can only be effective if technology transitions are complemented by far-reaching lifestyle transitions (Trainer 1995) .
It is possible that such lifestyle transitions are doomed to failure. Cities seem to have escaped, for the time being at least, the physical dependence on their immediate hinterland, which may have led to a feeling of invincibility where people' s aspirations have transgressed natural limits and are now driven only by human ingenuity. Thus, having formally escaped physical realities, city dwellers fail to read the danger signs of their existence and may even deny those signs totally. This manifests itself in the missing knowledge-concern-action link: By and large, people become concerned once they know about an environmental problem, but there appear to be no signs whatsoever that concerned people cause less environmental impact than people who are not concerned, or do not even know about environmental issues (Kempton 1993; Stokes et al. 1994; Vringer et al.; Hastings 2007; Wilby 2007; McKibben 2003).
To consider transforming the escalator of aspirations, from one that is forever outrunning unhappiness, to one that allows fulfilment, beggars belief as to what drives a modern city resident in a time-poor and globally connected world. Changing the storyline of the century just gone will require focused social engineering for many human generations.
Like most of the general public, public policy in developed countries has also failed to appreciate, or deliberately avoided addressing, the link between affluence and energy. This is evident in policies focused purely on energy efficiency without constraints on total energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. As we have shown, once the cost of energy efficient infrastructure is paid back, the dollar savings allow for more production or expenditure, thus setting in train the requirement for more energy, either directly or indirectly.
It is understandable why policy has more readily embraced supporting technological change rather than promoting lifestyle change. After all, what can be achieved by new technology is easy to sell to the consumer: no one has to give up their habits, and governments do not need to risk losing votes, because they do not need to initiate a potentially painful and difficult public discourse, let alone intervention into consumers' choices. In a functioning democracy, convincing the public to forgo certain types of unsustainable consumption now for the sake of future generations is without doubt a formidable challenge, prone to resistance, requiring respected leadership (Beekman 1997).
Decades of unabated and unrestrained economic growth, nurtured by advertising affluent, material lifestyles to an ever-growing portion of the world population makes one wonder whether some sort of lifestyle change is indeed unavoidable. One would hope for such changes to be brought about by conscious and collective decisions rather than by involuntary and unilateral force, or perhaps worse, by natural and socio-economic circumstances.
A compelling reminder of the latter option is Ronald Wright's recount of the fallibility of human civilizations in his book A Short History of Progress (Wright 2004, p. 79) as he describes the collapse of the Empire of Ur around 2000 BC located in what is now Southern Iraq:
The short-lived Empire of Ur exhibits the same behaviour we saw on Easter Island: sticking to entrenched beliefs and practices, robbing the future to pay for the present, spending the last reserves of natural capital on a reckless binge of excessive wealth and glory. Canals were lengthened, fallow periods reduced, population increased and the economic surplus concentrated on Ur to support grandiose building projects. The result was a few generations of prosperity (for the rulers) followed by a collapse from which Southern Mesopotamia has never recovered.
In spite of their impressive technological underpinnings, modern cities such as Sydney display many of the fragilities that could in the long term lead to their decline, and then the collapse of what were pre-eminent civilizations in their day. The challenge for the modern city-state is to learn from lessons of the past millennia, and to begin the transition process at least one century before physical problems become intractable. The one thing that has changed from the Empire of Ur is that the problems of tomorrow will be driven by global dynamics rather than local or regional ones.
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