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Dr. Michel Pimbert

Michel Pimbert believes that 'virtuous circles' offer answers for our planet's urban areas (© IIED)
Michel Pimbert believes that 'virtuous circles' offer answers for our planet's urban areas

End of the line for the linear economy?

Dr. Michel Pimbert is Principal Researcher and Team Leader for Agroecology and Food Sovereignty at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). He's also one of the editors of Virtuous Circles: Values, Systems and Sustainability, reviewed in New Agriculturist in January 2012. The book uses examples from rural Nepal, Ecuador and Peru, plus peri-urban Cuba, to illustrate 'circular' production systems - a sustainable alternative to our normal 'linear' models that deplete resources and create waste and pollution. But do these 'virtuous circles' offer answers to our planet's urban areas? Indeed they do, believes Pimbert.

New directions for sustainable urban living are urgently needed as cities are increasingly affected by climate change, peak oil, and shortages of food and water. Cities such as London and Paris, with their affluent, high consumption lifestyles are particularly vulnerable to disruptions in the steady supply of food and energy sourced from all over the world. Should the petrol stations run dry, the trucks would stop rolling and the supermarket shelves would be bare within days.

This unprecedented risk for the food and energy security of urban dwellers is, in part, a direct consequence of our dependence on systems that are linear, centralised and globalised. In the linear approach, it is assumed that at one end of a system there is an unlimited supply of energy and raw materials (which there isn't), while at the other the environment has an infinite capacity to absorb pollution and waste (which it hasn't). The inevitable result is resource shortages on the one hand and waste, climate change and air pollution problems on the other.

In Virtuous Circles, we argue that for both urban and rural areas, an alternative to the current linear model is to develop circular productive systems that minimise external inputs, pollution and waste while also reducing risk, dependency and costs. Such circular economic models, in which management of water and waste is integrated into food and energy production, also generate jobs and income, ensuring that wealth created stays within the local and regional economy.

Redesigning the city

The principles of such 'virtuous circles' can be applied at the level of an urban neighborhood, a sub-urban development, or an entire city. Village Homes* in Davis, California, is a pioneering example of what can be done when human settlements are designed to reduce resource consumption, recycle and re-localise food and energy production. A 70-acre subdivision located in the affluent city of Davis, Village Homes was designed to promote sustainable living, such as solar-powered homes, pest management, ecological land use, runoff management and consumption of locally grown food. Local residents obtain a significant share of fresh, seasonal food from the Village's 23 acres of greenbelts, orchards, vineyards and vegetable gardens.

At the other end of the spectrum, the City of Malmö* in Sweden is aiming to be climate neutral by 2020. Parts of Malmö now run solely on renewable energy, including wind and solar, while organic waste from the area is turned into biogas; by 2030 the whole municipality will run on 100 per cent renewable energy. Encouraging sustainable agriculture is a key part of Malmö's strategy for resilience in the face of climate change. More land is being converted to organic agriculture in the city, bringing food production closer to the doorstep of urban residents. Pesticide-free zones in the agricultural landscape benefit biological diversity and reduce the spread of toxins into the watercourse and groundwater.

Three thousand other cities around the world have joined Malmö in a commitment to reduce carbon emissions by at least 20 per cent by 2020. This is a significant shift in thinking, which opens up the possibility of reducing the ecological footprints of urban areas by adopting the principles and recommendations made in Virtuous Circles. Re-localising and re-integrating food and energy production with water and waste management in circular systems that are nested at different scales - house clusters, municipal districts, whole cities or peri-urban belts linked with nearby farm land - will increasingly be seen as a way of enhancing the quality of life of urban dwellers, improving public health, adapting to climate change, and ensuring a more reliable supply of food and energy.

Responding to crisis

Over the last three years, governments have indeed been scared by the politically destabilising influence of food scarcities and the ensuing urban food riots in many countries. This is partly why food and agriculture are back on the international agenda after decades of neglect by the international community. However, the new 'food security' discourse is likely to emphasise a mix of approaches, from legitimating land grabs in Africa in order to feed and fuel city dwellers, to more progressive policies, such as encouraging shifts towards locally sourced food and decentralised food production.

With new food crises on the horizon, Virtuous Circles invites a discovery of the liberatory potential of eco-technologies that put the very means of life - food, energy, shelter, water - under the democratic control of communities. This is perhaps the best antidote we have for the dead end of corporate-induced consumerism that is harming people and planet on an unprecedented scale.

Date published: March 2012


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