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2007's Best: Notes from the Road
Alex Steffen, 31 Dec 07

We spend a lot of time on the road, researching, reporting, speaking at conferences, doing consulting gigs. So it's probably not too surprising that some of our best stories have been reports from the field:

Notes from the Road: Design Indaba and Doors of Perception

Dawn is seeping through the fog outside my window this morning, cheered on by the clatter of birdsong, honking horns and sputtering motors. Morning in Delhi.

I've been sick. Terrible food poisoning. And while being sick alone in a foreign city makes for a lonesome night, it's also given me a chance to reflect on the education I've been getting.

What a gigantic task we face! I don't think I have truly grasped the implications of the billions more people we are welcoming to our world, and of their headlong rush to the emerging megacities of the Global South, until coming here. Delhi is a place completely out of control; dirty wild bedlam and crushing poverty and huge ambition all pureed at high speed, a place where, one of our Indian hosts insisted last night, almost one in ten of the city's 13 million residents is homeless; where the water can kill you (I know -- it's doing its best right to kill me right now); a city which swallows a massive river (the Yamuna) and sends out a smaller river of sewage and industrial waste; a city of unbelievable poverty and vitality and opportunity, where centuries separate the people walking in the same park. And this city, I'm told, will need to find homes for five million more people in the next 23 years.

The same is true, of course, all across the world. Billions of people moving to the cities, or being born there: the largest migration in human history, all disembarking on an unplanned, unanticipated shore -- a world of young people and slums and strained resources and patched-together systems, and people all eager to find some reasonable measure of prosperity and good fortune for themselves. What a gargantuan story!

In my fever-chills, I turn the TV to a best-of-Bollywood station (for the music) and I look out over the blood red sky, with the pollution alight in the glare of the rising tropical sun, and try to get my head around the task we have ahead of us -- a Seattle built every four days. Two-thirds of the world's cities as yet unbuilt.

Seeing the Future from High Above Greenland

Last week, I flew over the coast of Greenland at 800 kph.

As the northern sun glinted off the aluminum of the wing, I watched the ice floes -- at first rare white specks on the Prussian blue sea -- grow gradually more numerous until they ran in great streaks of broken ice where the waves were pushing them together. Gradually they grew closer together still, and more studded with icebergs, until in the distance I could see enormous sheets of ice, glowing white and blending on the horizon into clouds and fog. And then, rising steeply up, the mountains of Greenland, masses of ice and snow and dark brown rock. It was like watching a documentary on global warming in reverse.

Except it wasn't. That footage won't run backwards. I have no idea if massive expanses of broken ice at that location are the norm or unusual at this time of year. But we do know that climate change is driving us towards an ice-free world, more quickly than we expected, and by flying home from Portugal, I was helping fuel that great planetary melting.

As symbols, it doesn't get much better than that: rocketing across the sky in an aluminum tube, nibbling on a "seasonal salad" and casually admiring the way the melting floes below resemble the drifts of apple blossoms covering the sidewalk near my house earlier this spring, while going over my notes from the two conferences I spoken at over the last week on climate change, the sustainability crisis, and how big business can respond.

We are all chained to a paradox: in order to change these things, we must to transform our economy into one capable of thriving within a one planet footprint; we have to continue to use more and more of the very tools which are eroding our planet's atmosphere, ocean and living systems in the first place. No one's hands are clean here.

(see also Alan's excellent examination of the question of travel for change Climate, Conscience, and Atmospheric Carbon.)

Letter from Tällberg: We are about to leave the Holocene

Here at the Tällberg Forum, both daylight and heady discussion about sustainability and global understanding seem to go on around the clock, but the show-stealer so far was the panel on climate change.

"Rogue" NASA scientist James Hansen lead the panel off with a grim pronouncement, saying that there looms a "huge gap" between what is understood (by scientists) about global warming and what is known by the public. In short, Hansen says, the climate crisis is a far more dire and present danger than most of us like to think. "We are closer to a level of dangerous, human-made interference with the climate than we realize. ... We are about to leave the Holocene"

The Option of Urbanism

Barcelona, people here will tell you, is not only the most vital and stylish city in Spain, but the densest city in Europe. Though I've heard this factoid disputed by people who aren't from here, the fact remains that Barcelona is extremely dense: to wander through much of Barcelona is to walk through mile after mile of narrow streets embraced by beautiful old buildings, fronted by small shops.

But to hang out in Barcelona is also to taste a from of urban livability almost unknown in North America. The locals complain of the nuisances, pollution and cost of living (and it is both dirty and expensive)... while they sit for long hours in some of the best cafes and bars in Europe, eating some of the best food in the world, and surrounded by a city designed to make the street a second living room.

If, as I believe, building much denser cities is the lynchpin to any realistic strategy for building a bright green future, we'll need to learn the lessons Barcelona has to teach, and figure out how to make compact communities more vibrant and fulfilling places to live than the suburban alternative.

(more can be read at Berlin - Experiment City, ufaFabrik and the Power of Intentional Communities, Letter from the Streets of Berlin: Anti-Fascism and 21st Century Communities

Sarah's Birding in Dubai

Coming to Dubai from the "evergreen" state of Washington, the dearth of vegetation and wildlife stands immediately apparent. One doesn't take much notice of the squirrels and sparrows in Seattle until going to a city where critters don't have much of a hospitable environment. But if I thought they didn't exist at all here, I learned how wrong I was at 5am a few days ago, when a group of us dragged ourselves out of bed to go birdwatching in several of Dubai's green spaces.

Interestingly enough, one of the most attractive places for birds here is at the turf farm, where fields of lawn grass are raised for installation on the grounds of Sheikh palaces and the tourist golf courses. The shorter decorative grasses grow next to taller stalks which are cultivated as fodder for camels. As Clive Temple, our birding guide, explained, the camel feed is what keeps these turf farms in business, and because camels are now increasingly fed with a different type of high-energy food, decreasing demand for grass has caused some of the turf farms to shut down.

But this one thrives, with vast stretches of flat greenery sitting under huge pivoting irrigation systems that rotate once every few days, hydrating the grass with grey water from residences in Dubai. The grey water comes in on orange tanker trucks which arrive and depart continuously all day.

(check out Dubai's Burj al-Taqa: A Zero-Energy Tower in the Desert and The Walled City of Sustainability as well...)

Letter from Visby: Linnaeus, the Encyclopedia of Life and the Metaverse

There's something wonderful about contemplating the future while bathing in history. To read about emerging technologies, new scientific research, innovative social programs -- the whole cacophony of change -- while standing on ground where Vikings raided, where Hanseatic merchants sold goods, where the piratical Victual Brothers made their base in the 14th Century; it gives one a sense of the long view. Tones things down.

Letter from Davos, Day 1

At the first plenary session, the assembled masses, mostly captains of industry, are asked if they favor mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions and 71% are in favor. Am I dreaming? This could be a tipping point because one year ago this would have been unthinkable. Maybe this winter’s warm weather and the lack of snow here in the Alps has finally gotten everyone’s attention.

Jonathan's Letter from Zurich, Day 2

Bunker Roy, founder of the Barefoot College, gave an impressive presentation. He shared his work to create an educational institution that trains 35-45 year old women in solar engineering and rainwater harvesting. His objectives seemed to fly in the face of development theory: he prioritizes the education of the middle-aged, rather than the young. Roy also focuses on giving people the minimum skills to allow them to remain in their local villages, rather than to empowering them with broader tools to enable migration or self-determination on a broader scale. He also has a series of night schools that educates children and these are actually self-managed by the students themselves, headed up a 12 year old ‘prime minister’ elected by his/her peers. It’s a model that would seem impossible to get right. Yet with over 100,000 students spread among 20 colleges in 13 states throughout India and analogs emerging in Afghanistan and other countries, Roy is an inspiration.

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