5 min read

The Ravenous City

Many years ago, I read a book that made the case that every civilization that had existed on earth had buckled under the weight of one of two problems:

  1. how to get all the goods and services that residents needed into ever-growing population centres
  2. how to get all the waste that those products produce out of those population centres  

While the book clearly missed out on a third problem - being colonized by civilizations looking to solve problems one and two - it did leave a big impact on me that echoed through my time elected to public office.

The first half of the book's thesis is one most of us are familiar with through our time in K-12 social studies and listening to contemporary public policy makers. In local governments, the first problem plays out in debates about transportation planning, goods movement, industrial land use and preservation of agricultural land. This isn't the whole story of what keeps cities ticking but these are the parts that local governments have some control over.

A newer innovation for local government is to develop food policy strategies with an eye to food security or tp create economic action plans that put thought into local manufacturing.

In case you're wondering what defines "newer": Vancouver only created strategies in these two critical areas during my time in office and it is one of the few cities in Canada that has either, let alone both.

The second half of the twin challenges outlined in the book - waste - is rarely given any thought at all. Though it is something that local governments have a lot of control over and which residents deal with every day, the policy framework for discarded or surplus materials is the poor cousin of policies being brought to bear on the first challenge of how to get stuff into cities.

That's a huge mistake. Civilizations that can't take care of their shit - literally - have been as susceptible to collapse as those that couldn't figure out how to get food into population centres to feed people.

The climate emergency itself is at it's core a waste issue with carbon pollution being the discarded surplus of the energy processes we use to produce all the stuff we think we need to make our civilization work. That's a topic for another newsletter though.

All that stuff we think we need also creates a lot of solid waste and while we might think about how to recycle it, we rarely think about how to diminish or get rid of all the stuff in our lives all together.

Where to start? I got my in-depth education on solid waste and the complex politics that come along with it by fighting to stop an incinerator that the Metro Vancouver Regional District wanted to build while I was a director on the Metro board. It took several years to kill the project but ultimate success came from focusing on reducing the production of waste altogether, as well as recovering whatever materials we could (think recycling 2.0), so that the economics of a mass burn incinerator were no longer viable.

In the process, Metro Vancouver has become a global leader on innovating zero waste approaches and the National Zero Waste Council they founded is a good place to start your own investigation.

The City of Vancouver also wrote a Zero Waste Plan during my time on Council that is a great way to learn more about what it takes to reduce our waste. The process that led to this plan brought together leaders from affected industries, experts and community activists alongside thousands of everyday Vancouverites to create a best-in-Canada initiative, and in some cases best in the world. Unfortunately the current council subsequently voted to slow down implementation of the single use item phase out but hopefully it won't get delayed any further.

All the more reason to learn more and get involved in changing the way cities think about waste.

HOT TAKES

Last month, the Recycling Council of BC invited me to interview Leanne Kemp, CEO of Everledger, former Chief Entrepreneur of Queensland and brilliant futurist to talk about how a circular economy  could change the world by 2030 (more on circular economy below). The hour I spent talking with her is one of the highlights of 2021 for me (so far)!

SOME JOBS

THINGS TO CHECK OUT THIS WEEK

One way to rethink the problems of consumption and waste is through the concept of the ecological footprint,  a concept created by UBC scholar Bill Rees and updated for personal use by Jennie Moore. Check out her work at  https://www.jenniemoore.ca/ecocity-footprint-tool

Another good organization to check out is One Earth which has great resources to support people and organizations to reduce consumption and waste.

Two other key concepts to learn around: Zero Waste and the Circular Economy. The easy explanation of the latter is an economy in which everything we currently think of as waste is recovered and reused. Zero waste probably seems intuitive but it gets complicated quickly. Understanding the Zero Waste hierarchy is a good place to start.

If you're looking for what to do with materials that are no longer of use to you or your family, check out your local Facebook Buy Nothing group. Here in BC we are also fortunate to have the Recyclepedia, a comprehensive resource for material recovery provided by Metro Vancouver.

There are so many book recommendations it's hard to know where to start. Two that have left a big impact in addition to the book I mentioned above (but can't remember the name of - ugh):

  • Doughnut Economics: 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist by Kate Raworth
  • Cradle to Cradle – Remaking the Way we Make Things by William McDonough and Michael Braungart

THINGS I LEARNED IN THE PANDEMIC

One of the projects I took on during the pandemic was getting my own household  as close to zero waste as possible. Here's the article I wrote about it for the National Observer.

THE LAST WORD

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