London Rising

One of the World’s Greyest Cities Could Be Transformed into one of the Greenest

By George Monbiot. Published in the Evening Standard magazine 29th June 2001

A few years ago, New Scientist magazine asked a team of biologists and engineers to work out what would happen to London if a catastrophe forced its inhabitants to flee. The city, they found, is rather less permanent than it looks.

Tree roots would soon smash the pavements and drag bricks and mortar apart. As dead leaves accumulated, lightning fires would reduce most of the buildings to rubble. Within a decade, the Thames embankments would be undermined, and most of central London would become marshland. Escaped wolves from London Zoo would prowl the streets, hunting for wild dogs and feral pigs. Salmon would be spawning in the Thames, while sparrowhawks and rough-legged buzzards would nest on the pipes and stairwells of the Lloyds building.

If humans returned to London after 400 years – and this is the really bad news – they would find only one building still standing, albeit leaning heavily and covered in ivy. Canary Wharf, thanks to its massive foundations, would probably be the last obvious sign that anyone had been there before. The end of life as we know it is one thing. That our civilisation should be marked only by that monstrous carbuncle is a prospect too hideous to contemplate.

Fortunately, it’s unlikely to come to that. Human beings are resilient creatures, capable of adapting to the most extreme conditions. There is a slight possibility that, as a result of climate change, the Gulf Stream will grind to a halt, in which case the whole of northern Europe would become uninhabitable. But, barring this calamity, life in London will trundle on.

But there’s no question that if we don’t address some of the environmental problems the city faces, we’ll continue both to damage the quality of our own lives and to devastate those of many others. This month is perhaps the most important there has ever been for deciding how we treat the planet. George Bush, who refuses to accept responsibility for climate change, will be confronting a hostile European Union, determined to do something, however feeble, to defend the world’s atmosphere in Bonn. Soon afterwards, hundreds of thousands of anti-globalisation protesters will be gathering in Genoa. Their movement is, in terms of numbers, the biggest political force in human history.

For the new environmental and anti-corporate campaigners, it’s no longer enough to urge that Brazilian loggers stop cutting down the rainforest. Ultimate responsibility, they point out, rests with corporations and consumers in the richest and most powerful places on earth. London, as one of the cities with the greatest impact on the life of the rest of the world, is coming to be seen as a testbed of modern environmentalism. Creative, cosmopolitan, teeming with new ideas and solutions, this concrete desert could, with enough popular will, be transformed into the greenest city on earth within the first decade of the new century.

London’s impact on the planet is out of all proportion to its size. The city ecologist Herbert Girardet has calculated that an area of land 125 times as big as the metropolis is required to produce its resources and absorb its waste. Every week, according to the Sustainable London Trust, the capital consumes enough oil to fill two supertankers. The city uses over one billion tonnes of freshwater each year: 143 tonnes for every one of its inhabitants. We each consume, on average, 314 kg of paper, 300 kg of plastic, 170 kg of timber and 170 kg of metal every year. And London is one of the most wasteful places on earth, recycling a smaller proportion of the resources it uses — just 4% — than any other city in Europe.

As one of the world’s strategic centres, London’s impact extends far beyond its own consumption. Decisions made in the City and in the capital’s corporate headquarters affect almost everyone on earth: forests fall or remain standing according to the whims of the stock market, oil companies can write off entire ecosystems when they decide to open a new field.

London was the original unsustainable city. It was the first settlement on earth with a million inhabitants. In the 1840s the German chemist Justus Liebig begged the city authorities not to pump their sewage into the Thames, but to treat it and return it to the soil, so that the nutrients it contained would not be lost from the land: he recognised that where London went the rest of the world would follow. He failed, and returned to Germany to invent artificial fertilisers.

Yet, while London’s air was once much more polluted than it is today, in other respects the city was more sustainable. As Herbert Girardet has pointed out, most of the fruit and vegetables London consumed came from market gardens just a few miles away, many of them from a small village in Berkshire called Heathrow. Today, Heathrow remains the source of much of London’s food: but it has been flown in from other parts of the world at a vast cost in noise, pollution and the depletion of resources.

The impact of this profligacy on the rest of the world is immense. Environmental refugees (people driven from their homes by climate change or the loss of their resources) now outnumber war refugees by five to one.

Because Londoners, by comparison to most of the world’s people, lead comfortable lives in a relatively stable climate, we tend to imagine that the deterioration of the planet’s resources is something which affects everyone but us. We perceive “the environment” as somewhere else, and find it hard to see why we should become involved.

But there are plenty of selfish reasons for seeking to change the way we live. Those aspects of our consumption which are bad for the planet are also bad for us. Though only 17% of the city’s commuters travel to work by car, they damage the health of everyone else. The two most carcinogenic (cancer-causing) compounds ever recorded both come out of the back end of a diesel engine. Some scientists have blamed traffic fumes for the massive rise of Britain’s commonest form of blindness: pollution particles, they believe, accumulate on the back of the eye.

Studies conducted in San Francisco show that the heavier a street’s traffic, the fewer friends and acquaintances the residents have, and the greater their chances of succumbing to mental illness and heart disease. People living within ten kilometres of an airport consume 14% more anti-asthma drugs and 8% more sedatives. One study shows that the reading ability of 12-14 year olds whose schools lie under flight paths is impaired by 23%.

When we burn or bury our waste, toxins contaminate the air, the soil and the water supply. Dioxins from incinerators have been linked to cancer and to the rapid rise among British women of the cripplingly painful disease endometriosis. Climate change caused by burning oil and gas is likely to bring us more freak weather: heatwaves, storms, even hurricanes. Droughts will reduce the quality of our water. Diseases formerly confined to the tropics will spread northwards as the temperature increases: some people have predicted that malaria could reach London this century. As the sea level rises, the Thames barrier will become ever less capable of preventing the city from flooding. While the chances of a truly cataclysmic event are low, they are a good deal higher than the chances of winning the lottery.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. The technology, the ideas, the initiatives which could transform the city’s impact on both the planet and our own lives exist already. We simply need to apply them more widely. In some ways, George Bush has done us all a favour. His flat refusal to accept any responsibility for America’s impact on the rest of the world means that the environment is suddenly centre-stage. His surrender to the interests of the oil industry means that the US will become ever less competitive as new energy technologies are developed elsewhere. The United Kingdom could, if it chose, exploit this gap in the market by becoming the world leader in carbon-free technology.

The potential for transformation is enormous. A report by the London Transport Activists Roundtable shows how green commuter plans, safe routes to school and home deliveries by shops could reduce London’s traffic by a third within ten years. Greater London, which incorporates a surprisingly large area of farmland, could even produce much of its own food. Forty per cent by value of the food produced in the United States is grown in urban areas. The city of Hong Kong has twice as many farmers per head of population as the whole United Kingdom.

Turning London green could stimulate the biggest employment boost the capital has ever seen. Public transport employs one and a half times as many people per passenger mile as private transport. Recycling employs nearly three times as many people per tonne of waste as rubbish disposal. Small shops trading in local produce create five times as much employment per pound of turnover as superstores trading internationally. The Green Party estimates that moving towards a sustainable economy in Britain could create a million jobs almost immediately.

None of this will be possible until the public has more say in the way the environment is used, and big business and the financial markets have less. We need to start shifting taxation away from employment and onto the use of resources. We need to allow communities more of a say in the way their neighbourhoods develop: the Sustainable London Trust has drawn up plans for both greening and democratising the city.

These things won’t happen unless we demand them. As the environment becomes one of the world’s hottest topics, this month offers us the best opportunity we’ve ever had to call for a city that’s fit for its people.