WAF Newsletter Paul Hyett May 2019

In practice

Paul Hyett, 30 May 2019

The Effluent Society

During the 19th century Britain taught the world how to produce, in the 20th America taught the world how to consume. In the 21st century, it surely falls to China to teach our world how to sustain.

In saying this, I recognize that with a population of 1.4 billion, China only represents some 18 per cent of the world’s population. Its proportion of the world’s population is also diminishing: it is anticipated that by 2050 its population (despite relaxation of the ‘one child’ policy) will only grow by 25 million, whereas India’s is expected to grow by 400 million. By then, India’s population will exceed that of China and the USA combined, albeit within a land area that is only one third of that of China. And the world’s population will have reached 9.8 billion. It was a mere 2.63 million when I was born.

This exponential growth cannot, of course, continue. And it has been exponential as the following facts reveal: It took 1 million years for the population to grow from 2.5 million to 5 million in 8000 BC. The population thereafter doubled roughly every 1,000 years until 10,000 years later, in 1650 AD, when it reached 500 million. It then doubled to reach 1 billion people a mere 200 years later in 1850 AD.

The next doubling (to 2 billion in 1930) took only 80 years and thereafter it took a mere 43 years to double to 4 billion. Quite a curtailing of ‘doubling times’: 1 million years, 1000 years, 200 years, 80 years, 43 years. But at last the rate of growth is now (just about) slowing – despite the enormous size of the next doubling to 8 billion people, this is anticipated to occur in 2024, ie over a 51-year period.

Nevertheless, if population growth continues at this rate, we will have 60 million billion people on the planet within 900 years (that is about the time that Durham Cathedral has been standing). This represents 100 people per square metre over the entire globe, both earth and sea. That won’t happen as our old enemies – famine, war and pestilence – will step in long before to ‘save’ the world from us, its most virulent virus.

Unless, of course, we can it ourselves.

To achieve this, two things are needed. First, we need a coordinated political response that crosses boundaries and time. That is, a coherent set of policies that set economically sustainable programmes which will curb and contain population growth, shift our reliance from carbon to sustainable energy sources, and establish ‘cradle-to-grave’ responsibility in manufacturing methods. We know this, but our political systems are currently simply not up to the task.

Which is why I look to China, from where I have recently returned after living there for three years. For despite its own high levels of pollution, this extraordinary country (which has existed for 4000 years), has the will, the discipline, and dare I suggest, the political culture to contain the inevitable excesses of unbridled freedom to which the West is so wedded.

There is, despite the bleak news that cascades daily, at least a glimmering of hope. On 22 October 2015, an American and Chinese group of architects came together to sign what they have called ‘The China Accord’. At its simplest their remit is ‘a commitment to plan and design cities, towns, developments and buildings ….to low carbon / carbon neutral standards’. Many have contributed to making this venture a success but I single out one of its founders in particular; that is the American architect Ed Mazria, whose profound and simple inaugural comment is a call to arms for all involved in architecture and building: ‘We understand our moral and professional responsibility.'

The significance of the China Accord, particularly at this time of political discord and dearth of leadership, cannot be overstated. Consider this: over the 20 years to 2035 some 80 billion square metres of new buildings will be built globally. This is equal to 60 per cent of the current global building stock. Some 53 per cent of that 80 billion will be in North America and China. Well over half of it – some 38 per cent – will be in China. Looked at another way, this means that the equivalent of 60 per cent of the current world’s entire stock of building will be built in less than 20 years by a single generation. If we can get that right in terms of reconciling land-use planning strategies, public transport infrastructure, and ecologically responsible architecture in every aspect of its delivery and operation, we will have a profound and positive impact.

That won’t solve the challenge of population growth, but if we can get half-way towards designing and building responsibly we will make a significant difference to use of resources.

We cannot do that without political intervention in terms of regulation and financial incentives. But political interventions alone cannot work. I am sure Ed Mazria would agree. We must indeed understand and deliver against our moral and professional responsibilities.

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