Indicator city - Page 5

If cutting edge San Francisco can't meet the challenge of climate change and related environmental issues, are we all doomed?


"In the world we grew up in, our most ingrained economic and political habit was growth; it's the reflex we're going to have to temper, and it's going to be tough." Bill McKibben writes in Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. "Across partisan lines, for the two hundred years since Adam Smith, we've assumed that more is better, and that the answer to any problem is another burst of expansion."

In a telephone interview with the Guardian, McKibben discussed the role that San Francisco could and should be playing as part of that awakening.

"No one knows exactly what economy the world is moving toward, but we can sense some of its dimensions: more localized, less material-based, more innovative; these are things that San Francisco is good at," he told us, noting the shift in priorities that entails. "We need to do conservation, but it's true that we also need to build more renewable power capacity."

Right now, CleanPowerSF is the only mechanism the city has for doing renewable energy projects, and it's under attack on several fronts before it even launches. Most of the arguments against it are economic — after all, renewable power costs more than coal — and McKibben concedes that cities are often constrained by economic realities.

Some city officials argue that it's more sustainable for San Francisco to grow and develop than suburban areas — thus negating some criticism that too much economic development is bad for the environment — and Radulovich concedes there's a certain truth to that argument.

"But is it as green as it ought to be? Is it green enough to be sustainable and avert the disaster? And the answer is no," Radulovich said.

For example, he questioned, "Why are we building 600,000 square feet of automobile-oriented big box development on Hunters Point?" Similarly, if San Francisco were really taking rising seas seriously, should the city be pouring billions of dollars into housing on disappearing Treasure Island?

"I think it's a really interesting macro-question," Jennifer Matz, who runs the Mayors Office of Economic Development, said when we asked whether the aggressive promotion of economic development and growth can ever be sustainable, or whether slowing that rate needs to be part of the solution. "I don't know that's feasible. Dynamic cities will want to continue to grow."

Yet that means accepting the altered climate of new world, including greatly reduced fresh water supplies for Northern California, which is part of the current discussions.

"A lot of the focus on climate change has moved to adaptation, but even that is something we aren't really addressing," Radulovich said.

Nutter agreed that adapting to the changing world is conversation that is important: "All of the development and planning we're doing today needs to incorporate these adaptation strategies, which we're just initiating."

But environmentalists and a growing number of political officials say that San Francisco and other big cities are going to need to conceive of growth in new ways if they want to move toward sustainability. "The previous ethos was progress at any cost — develop, develop, develop," Myers said, with the role of environmentalists being to mitigate damage to the surrounding ecosystem. But now, the economic system itself is causing irreversible damage on a global level. "At this point, it's about more than conservation and protecting habitat. It's about self-preservation."

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