The City as a Guzzling Beast

Stark images like those in One Planet Many People: Atlas of our Changing Environment by the UN Environment Programme can sear into your mind.1 Everywhere you look there is cityness. It has invaded our landscape, so shaping our mindscape. Comprised of time-series satellite images of the globe over the last few decades, the images provide powerful visual testimony to our increasing dominion over the planet. Considered ecologically, these images should sound alarm bells: industrialization and agriculture sweeping over indigenous flora and fauna, water resources shrinking, deserts increasing. Most strikingly, they show the irresistible growth of urban areas.

While half of us now live in cities, this will reach two-thirds of a 9 billion world population by 2050. While the city can signify a triumph over nature, urban dwellers exact more of the Earth's resources than their rural counterparts. In fact, there is not enough planet to support the Western lifestyle.

We will show below the implications for resources of running a London lifestyle, which requires three Earths to meet its demands. The Los Angeles population, meanwhile, with their meat-heavy diets and car-embracing culture is, per capita, even more voracious. Six billion people living like Los Angelinos would require five planets. Living like Dubai perhaps ten.2 Even many rural existences need more than one planet, and indigenous lifestyles are in the minority in terms of being sustainable.

The city is a massive logistical endeavour. It as an overwhelming input/output machine, a voracious beast guzzling in, defecating out. It stands at the apex of the global nexus of goods distribution. Like any living organism, the city consumes food and water, expends energy and produces waste. Cities require bricks, mortar, cement, lime, steel, glass and plastics to generate and renew their physical presence. Then manufactured goods - fridges, clothes, televisions, washer-driers, books, CDs, cars - are used, exhausted and eventually expelled as carbon dioxide, ash or simply junk to be buried out of view. Increasingly, too, goods travel greater distances between their places of origin and consumption end points, using a complex global distribution system of massive supertankers, lorries, airplanes, trains, containers, warehouses, cranes, forklift trucks, pipes and wires, not to mention a workforce coordinated by increasingly sophisticated and powerful logistics companies.

In the following sections I have used quantitative measures to get the feel of the urban endeavour across viscerally. Throwing these figures at you might give you a headache, but please bear with me. They reveal the folly of our lifestyles, the irrationality of our production systems and built-in inefficiencies, notwithstanding ecological impact. They starkly raise the question, 'Can civilization continue in this way?' And the answer is, 'No.'

Everything we do is implicated in the consumption of resources reliant on supply chains. Consider a morning routine: (1) having a cup of tea; (2) morning ablutions; (3) having breakfast; (4) putting out the rubbish; and (5) taking the metro to work.

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