Dream the impossible dream

Our greatest challenge is to live sustainably so it's time for us to set up our cities and towns to do just that. But just how could it be done?

Climate change is our second biggest challenge, and is a large subset of the first... sustainability. Trouble is, the word has been so overworked and poorly defined that it has even become possible for some to use it in the oxymoron ‘sustainable mining’.

We can reasonably expect that the earth will continue to allow life to flourish for zillions of years (perhaps tens of millions) until the sun gets too hot. If we want to go along for the ride, and in some comfort, we simply have to get our head around the rules for an indefinite existence on our one and only very finite planet. (Lovely placard slogan:  "there IS no planET B".)

Here are some of the rules:

-- Stop using up non-renewables.

-- Stop over-harvesting fragile renewables.

-- Nurture the land, waters, air, and almost all species.

As with sin, the wages for breaking these is death – of our species.  Not the planet; if it were a sentient being I think it might quite like to see the back of us.

We break all those rules, in spades, nearly all the time.

Tired of the doom stuff? Let's cut to some key problems, and see if there are some reasonable solutions.

Cities and huge suburban conurbations are the major, though not only, issue. They demand massive infrastructure: roads-bridges-tunnels, public and private transport, fuel, storm drains, sewage systems, reservoirs-pumps-processing-reticulation, distant and fertiliser-dependent monocultural agriculture. Take away the oil, and cities would become morgues.

People talk of food miles. There are more: water miles, work miles, waste miles. Quite simply, in pursuit of so-called efficiency, we have placed everything too far from everything else.

So... Decamp to a 5-acre farm? Grow veggies, raise chooks, work your tail off from dawn to dusk?  Not so clever when kids come along and need schooling, or someone gets sick.

We are a gregarious species that works best in groups, with most people specialising. Problem is, we have allowed the existence of fossil fuels to put us into groups that will prove to be way too large once we wake up to the fact that we dare not burn carbon fuels any longer, or worse, that we have used them all up.

Renewable energy is essential, but not sufficient.

There may be a middle way.

Consider a medium-sized town, of say 15,000 residents. How might it be constructed and run to minimise its infrastructure and fuel needs, as well as providing a place of peace and contentment, even if no utopia.

Do the maths.  Such a town's domestic area could easily fit into about 3 kilometre diameter, eminently walkable/cyclable. So no cars, and no through traffic. Anyone whose occupation takes them out of town might own or rent a car kept at a garage located next to the highway.

All toilets: composting. These take the kitchen scraps as well. The large hoppers are collected when full and the processed contents taken to the food lands which surround the town. The nutrients are indefinitely and totally recycled. No peak phosphate crisis looming here.

Beyond the food lands would be areas for fibre (such as industrial hemp – not the waccky baccy type!), forestry to grow wood for eventual housing replacements, and finally wilderness areas, linking with those from neighbouring towns to create trans-continental wild life corridors.

Thanks to the toilet, house waste water is light grey not black, so dispose of by garden sub-surface irrigation.  No need for sewers, pumps, processing stations, river or ocean outfalls.

Water comes from the roofs, so no need for reservoirs, pumps, purification stations, or reticulation systems.

The water is heated by solar thermal panels, and electricity collected by PV panels. Perhaps hybrids will catch on.

The only mains services are: electricity from wind and solar thermal storage stations, backing up the PV and providing the mechanism for feed-in of PV surpluses; and fibre for all fixed communications – telephony, TV, video conferencing for work, socialising and the occasional medical consultation, Internet access, and educational video on demand. 

A lot of cerebral occupations could be performed mainly at home.

The roads are about half the normal size, and are almost exclusively for walkers and cyclists.

Run-off is minimised, thanks to the tiny roads, the lack of driveways, and total collection of roof rain.  So there are no storm drains.  Instead, roadside swale drains absorb the minimal run-off.  Fruit trees grow there.

Population size ensures excellence is achievable in both health (clinics, a modest hospital, most medical specialities covered) and education (K to 12 at a total of about 8-10 form entry).  Almost all children would be able to walk or cycle to school by themselves or with an older sibling or friend, in total safety.

Some things you might have to forgo completely: traffic pollution, road deaths, car costs, water bills, obesity, high blood pressure, mum's taxi. 

Hmmph, what a dreamer! But then none of the above is rocket science or outrageous social engineering. It's just getting ready to live (and comfortably at that) in a world where waste must become a historical term, and all non-renewables must be totally recycled forever, or eventually gone without.

After a chemistry degree and a career in international computer network engineering, Nick Sharp now volunteers for Beyond Zero Emissions, and invites you read much more of the above in his "A Zillion Year Plan ... for humanity", http://bit.ly/djT522.