By Joe McKinney
In 2017, the environmentalist movement looks bleak. With Trump in the White House and Rick Perry heading the Department of Energy, new environmentalist regulation is extremely doubtful. America is not alone. The world is moving towards right wing populism and global isolationism. In this landscape, national self interest is prioritized over environmentalist concerns or the international cooperation it requires to address them.
But environmental activists do not have the luxury of conceding defeat. They know the consequence is death for millions and the wholesale destruction of the ecosystem. Action is a foregone conclusion. The real questions is: what type of action should be taken?
The common method is electoral politics in order to, “throw the bums out”. But ecological apocalypse is time sensitive. Presidential campaigning will not get off the ground for another three years. Even if the green movement wins in 2020, entrenched financial interest and Trump’s emerging political order will slow any progress. Any success will be marginal, enough to satiate activists, but not to change anything substantially.
If working within the existing system will not suffice, we must build our own. This is not as ludicrous as it sounds. Currently there is a movement towards “startup societies”. Startup societies are any new, experimental form of governance in a small geographic area. As a general definition, it includes a large swath of experiments including microstates (Liechtenstein), city states (Singapore), communes (Marinalenda), and special economic zones (Hong Kong).
Startup societies can be an effective tool for environmentalism as well. Increased urbanism and new green infrastructure can radically reduce CO2 emissions. Moreover, green startup societies can actively repair damage! Instead of compromising within a system, activists can start building their own.
Urbanization and Density
Urbanization is an environmentalists best friend. As Edward Glaeser, the author of The Triumph of Cities, quipped, “there is nothing greener than blacktop”. Instinctually, this appears absurd. Environmentalism brings to mind forests and wild animals, not skyscrapers and sidewalks. However, urban density is crucial to fight CO2 emissions.
For example, density reduces carbon emissions through increasing energy efficiency. Urban living space are more efficient because economies of scale. Since living spaces are in a compact area, power can be more effectively provided by a few large generators, rather than many, smaller generators in less dense areas. According to the University of Toronto, low density areas produce per capita 3.7 times more emissions than high density cities. The University of Texas asserts that 50% of this difference is due to more energy efficient housing in cities. The other half comes from car emissions. Cities are compact enough for walking and often have more public transport. In contrast, commuters in less dense suburban areas almost exclusively use cars. Moreover, higher densities also produce less land waste. Suburban homes and highways raise the price of agricultural land and reduces the amount of natural reserves.
Importantly, this is not just a U.S. problem. Density will be more crucial in developing countries with large populations. China and India are accelerating their standard of living. If their per capita energy consumption reaches the same level as the U.S, carbon emissions will increase by 139%. Especially since both countries are abandoning rural living, it is important to promote dense cities in order to mitigate damage. In fact, Chinese startup societies are already reducing carbon emissions. According to the World Bank, mainland China emits 7 metric tonnes of CO2 per person. In contrast, Hong Kong only emits 6.3. Furthermore, Macau (China’s most dense SEZ) only emits 3.8 per capita! Clearly, it is important to continue progress by creating even more dense startup societies.
Leap Frog Effect
Fans of sustainable energy have been disappointed: clean energy has not been widely adopted. Old energy infrastructure is the problem. Because the U.S. grid was built for fossil fuels, sustainable energy is less efficient and therefore not cost effective. Unfortunately, building new infrastructure is costly relative to the status quo. As a result, energy companies will continue to use the old grid and fossil fuels.
However, the developing world does have this problem. Since their grid is young or non-existence, they can build energy infrastructure specifically geared towards renewables. Similar to how many developing countries have skipped land lines and went straight to mobile phones, they can “leapfrog” straight to sustainable energy. For instance, according to the
International Energy Agency, more than 80% of Africa’s energy can come from renewable sources. Because it is more practical to create new energy infrastructure than update our old ones, environmentalists should establish startup societies to accelerate the process.
Regeneration & Restoration
However, startup societies do not simply reduce environmental damage, they can even restore the ecosystem. Eco villages are defined as communities that use technology to reduce or improve their environmental impact. They usually practice organic farming, permaculture, and other methods to promote ecosystem functions and biodiversity. An interesting, new example is the ReGen Villages, who call themselves the “Tesla of Eco-Villages”. They are a real estate development startup that creates “regenerative villages”. According to ReGen’s founder James Ehrlich, “regenerative means systems where the output of one system can actually be the input for another.” In other words, resources are in a closed loop and all waste is used for other purposes. As Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome, observed, “Pollution is nothing but resources we have not harvested yet. We allow them to disperse because we are ignorant of their value” . The exact process was explained to Business Insider:
In ReGen villages, household food waste is composted and fed to flies, which in turn feeds fish, which then fertilizes aquaponic gardens (multi-layered systems that combine fish farming and hydroponic agriculture, with plant roots submerged in nutrient-rich solution rather than soil). Those aquaponic farms grow produce for residents to eat, as do seasonal gardens, which are be fertilized by waste from livestock raised to feed residents. Rainwater is harvested and filtered for use in the farms and gardens, and on-site solar panels power the homes.
While this sounds, RenGen is already constructing their first development in Almere Netherlands and expect to finish in 2018. RenGen is also in talks with Denmark, Germany, and Belgium for future projects.
Seasteading is another compelling, positive alternative. The Seasteading Institute just finalized a deal with the French Polynesian government to explore seasteading as a way to save citizens from rising sea levels. As coastlines begin to shrink and islands disappear, seasteading can be an important way to maintain cities and save lives.
But mere adaptation is not their primary goal. According to Joe Quirk of the Seasteading Institute, “Sustainability is not good enough. We must restore the environment.” Seasteading provides many way to do so. One example is biofuels from algae, which can actually remove carbon from the atmosphere while harvested. Also, many seasteaders plan to use desalination plants for the dual purposes of removing salt and cleaning the surrounding water of pollution. Historically, fish habitats thrive around these types of platforms, and can serve as artificial reefs to replace polluted ones. Like ecovillages, seasteads will be “closed systems” and will reuse waste.
For too long the green movement has been on the defensive. Even “radical” proposals like carbon taxes are just a way to slow down environmental degradation, not restore it. Moreover they do not address core causes and solutions like density and energy infrastructure. Instead they fight a sisyphean battle in electoral politics. They work within systems whose goals are diametrically opposed to their own. Political parties who use environmentalist rhetoric do so only to build their voter base. If they are victorious, they are purposely ineffectual and only act enough to keep environmentalists loyal.
Not all environmentalists will use startup societies and not all startup societies proponents will be environmentalists. However our differing ideologies share the same method. We build, not argue. In a world where our voices will not be heard, we will communicate with action. You do not have to compromise. You do not have to settle for small changes or a “less bad” future. You can build and restore this world. You can start up your own.