The (not failing!) New York Times had two extensive articles recently on the chronic environmental challenges faced in two of the world’s largest cities, Mexico City and London. From Mexico City, the Times details the extreme water shortages that threaten a city already known for its challenges with air pollution. The water shortage problem is forcing more and more reliance on fewer and fewer functional aquifers; this in a city that, when 300,000 Aztecs occupied it (instead of 20 million people today), was literally a city of lakes. Worse, the depletion of aquifers appears to have an even more problematic side effect: the city is sinking… and not at a slow rate either. A Times graphic suggests much of the city sinks 5 to 9 inches per year.
Even worse, the sinking has affected the so-called “Grand Canal,” which is designed to remove all the waste water from the central city. The problem? The sinking means that in some places, gravity no longer does its work, and so the canal doesn’t flow or has to be “helped along” by massive (gas-guzzling) pumping stations.
the city, with a legacy of struggling government, has no large-scale operation for recycling wastewater or collecting rainwater, forcing it to expel a staggering 200 billion gallons of both via crippled sewers like the Grand Canal. Mexico City now imports as much as 40 percent of its water from remote sources — then squanders more than 40 percent of what runs through its 8,000 miles of pipes because of leaks and pilfering. This is not to mention that pumping all this water more than a mile up into the mountains consumes roughly as much energy as does the entire metropolis of Puebla, a Mexican state capital with a population akin to Philadelphia’s.
Even with this mind-boggling undertaking, the government acknowledges that nearly 20 percent of Mexico City residents — critics put the number even higher — still can’t count on getting water from their taps each day.
Meanwhile, in London, a government initiative to combat climate change by encouraging diesel vehicles has resulted in an unanticipated (though it should have been anticipated) rise in local air pollution that is so bad, people are talking of gas masks, fighting off illnesses, and facing levels of toxics that match or exceeed the worst third-world cities.
London last month was put on a “very high” pollution alert for the first time ever, as cold air and a stationary weather pattern failed to clear the toxic air caused by diesel traffic, as well as by the high use of open fires, which contribute to about 10 percent of pollutants in winter months.
“The time will come when we’ll start wearing masks like in China,” Ray Hussain, 73, said as he waited for his bus on Brixton Road one recent morning. At nearly any point during the rush, 16 double-decker buses lined the road. Traffic was snarled, and whiffs of acrid air stung the eyes.
Mr. Hussain checked Airvisual, an air pollution tracking app on his smartphone. Brixton’s air quality that day was called “Good,” in green lettering. Just below, Hyderabad, a city in India, had a red “Unhealthy” label and a picture of a person wearing a face mask.
One option being considered is a massive government subsidy for people to purchase new vehicles – not exactly something that helps global climate change, since about a fifth or more of a car’s lifetime emissions may come from its manufacturing process.
These stories are depressing. What they should suggest is that sustainability requires much bigger changes that we might like to admit. One may in fact be a recognition that some cities, in particular places, can become “too large.”
But perhaps a more important lesson is to give the lie to a conventional claim made by pro-market environmentalists. PME’s claim that care for the environment is a luxury good – that is, people don’t want to spend money on it if they are worried about more basic things like food security, basic health care, and the like. Thus, economic growth is important for environmental progress, especially in less-developed countries. While China may experience toxicity for a while, all those factories will produce more wealth for the society as a whole, some of which citizens will eventually expect to be spent on cleaning up the air. This is the pattern followed in Europe and North America, and the same thing will happen the world over… but we need conventional economic growth for it to occur.
Let’s set aside the (big) problem that such an argument only holds for things like toxics in rivers, dirty smokestacks, primitive emissions systems in vehicles – there is nothing in the world that can remove carbon dioxide from smokestacks or tailpipes. Thus, this argument holds for some problems, but not for others.
What the stories from London and Mexico City suggest is the argument may not even hold, in the longer run, for conventional environmental problems. In both of these cases, the biggest problem involves waste sinks; for various reasons, systems that might be used to clear out the enormous amount of waste that is necessarily produced by all our urban activity are failing to keep up.
At some point, people will realize: we need lifestyle change. Period. Well, at least there’s the shining light of Burlington…