Ever-Smaller Apartments

Before cash, there was land. The family held some, and grew rice on it. It was passed to the children — the sons anyway. Divided among them. They passed it to their sons in turn, and the soil split into fractals. But the people didn’t get smaller too, and so they began to starve. This process is still going on in places like Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Laos.


Yet we in the industrialized world seem astonished that our parents could afford the houses that we cannot.

The economics of sustenance farming in the face of rising population are immediately clear, yet we do not take the general lesson. We still act like we have infinite resources. Our population is still increasing, yet land, water, oil, and every single mineral is finite and running out. A 2007 article in New Scientist discusses this more cogently than anything I’ve ever seen, including the above chart “How Long Will It Last?”

We need to apply the same thinking to energy. I am not talking about running out of oil. The oil will run out, of course, and not before we do tremendous environmental damage — I, for one, am planning on hitting the world’s great beaches sooner rather than later. But when the oil is gone, it’s simply gone. Unlike copper or plastic, energy cannot be recycled in any way (in fact energy is the limiting input in recycling everything else.) We have no choice but to switch to sunlight for our ongoing power needs. And sunlight, like land, will have to be divided smaller and smaller among more and more of us.

I’m currently looking for an apartment in Hong Kong. On my own I can afford about 200 square feet. I saw a place where the Indonesian nannies live; there were six people in this space, crammed into bunk beds barely narrower than the one tiny room. I was shocked, until I realized that I had arrived in the future. It’s not going to get better. We’re already out of space, but soon we will feel the energy pinch. One day soon, electricity, transport, and hot water are going to be just as rationed as real estate (by each of us individually, because of the cost.)

An engineer named Saul Griffith has done the calculations. To meet the current world population’s current energy requirements, we would need to collect the incident sunlight over an area about the size of Australia. That’s a stupendous amount of solar power to build. It will be a very long time before it is built, if ever. More fundamentally, the physical relationship between incident sunlight and land area brings us right back to passing ever-smaller fields to our children. (By the way, nuclear power won’t help: even without building more power plants we will run out uranium some time in the next century. And wind power, wave power etc. are actually solar driven.)

We will never see the easy material affluence of our parents; we have entered the zero-sum game phase of land- and energy-measured wealth where the only way to get more is to take from someone else (as evidenced by the increasing wealth inequality in industrialized countries over the past few decades.) We can no longer teach our children to expect more than their parents. It’s all a lie; barring insane technological shifts or catastrophic population reduction, the future is high density.

The big house of the American Dream, which is also the big house of the aspiring middle-class everywhere in the world, is over.

“Home” is Beautiful, Idealized

Home is a new film about the global environment, and it’s undeniably gorgeous. It’s a stupendously global piece in the tradition of Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi, but unlike these silent poems, Home features melodramatic narration throughout (by Glenn Close in English, Salma Hayak in Spanish.) It’s something between art, environmentalism, and propaganda, and everyone should see it.

I’m going to repeat that, lest this point get lost in my comments below: go watch this film. It’s as good a summary of the state of civilization as I have ever seen. In it are many of the lessons that took me years of travel to discover, and many more things I did not know. This film is necessary, but I’m also going to critique the way in which it delivers its message.

Director Yann Arthus-Bertrand is much better known as an aerial photographer than a film-maker, famous for the best-selling book Earth From Above. Home is essentially the continuation of that project, a 90 minute montage of slow aerial photography over hundreds of locations in dozens of countries. What makes the film exceptional is its choice of subjects. Active volcanoes and rippling sand dunes are obvious images, but Home also includes the macro-geography of human activity: industrial agriculture, oil refineries, container ships at sea, high-density cattle ranches, and not only the shining downtowns but the endless repetitive suburbs of a dozen mega-cities. Although every second is stunning, not every shot is pretty.

The subject is sustainability. Home is at its best when it documents the global cause and effect of environmental destruction. We see the still smoking fields of ex-Amazonian rainforest, slashed to produce soybeans for (and we cut to) European high-density cattle farms. We watch the reciprocating oil pumps of Los Angeles give way to the ecological disaster that is Canadian oil sands extraction. And we fly over the painfully disappearing Himalayan glaciers and then the homes of the billion people who will be without fresh water by 2035.

Home is particularly good at drawing the connection between oil and just about everything else. “A litre of oil generates as much energy as 100 pairs of hands in 24 hours. …  New York, the world’s first megalopolis, is a symbol of the exploitation of the energy the earth supplies to human genius, the unbridled power of oil.” And you should see what Home says about Dubai.

In one incredible shot from Nigeria, we see the hovels and scratchy fields of the subsistence farmers who toil literally in the shadows of an oil refinery. “The wealth is there,” Glenn Close tells us, “but the people don’t have access to it. Today, half the world’s wealth is in the hands of the richest 2% of the population.”  After a century of industrialization fueled by cheap oil, fully half of the world’s people are still subsistence farmers.

Except that low-tech, traditional ways of life are also idolized in Home as implicitly good. Here is where the film is confused and ideological. It is most certainly a badly needed critique of civilization, but that criticism is framed within a yearning for something that never existed: a “pure” state of humanity in balance with nature. There is a beautiful fly-over of a mud village on the banks of the Niger river, Mali. “Across the planet,” says the narrator, “one person in four lives as humankind did 6000 years ago, their only energy that which nature provides, season after season.”  We follow to wooden pinasse boats and the grass huts of herders, and African women hulling rice with sticks. The music swells, cue sunset.

I’ve been to these African villages — curiously, to some of the exact towns pictured — and lived for a little while in something like the ancient way of life. Like the Amazonian tribes, these traditional villages are revered among a certain segment of Western idealists for their simplicity and sustainability. This is rubbish. Perhaps their ecological footprint was lower, but that’s not because pre-industrial people had a finer philosophy. Today the world’s villages are uniformly ringed with empty water bottles, coke cans, plastic bags — the much-revered inhabitants of primitive places turn out not to have any better sense of the value of nature than we do. Besides, you wouldn’t want to live there. The world’s traditional societies were mostly a mess, socially. They tended to be patriarchal and intolerant, illiterate and constantly skirmishing with their neighbors. Life expectancy was short, disease was (and still is) widespread without access to clean water and antibiotics, and depending on caste, race, and gender you might well expect to be a slave. Nor are the 1.5 billion people ostensibly still living pre-industrial lives particularly untouched by the modern world: there is television and radio and phone service even where there is no electricity (via generators and appliances that run off of car batteries). Emulation of village life is not the way forward for humanity.

This is why Home’s critique of cities is surprising. “Faster and faster. In the last 60 years over 2 billion people have moved to the cities. … In the United States only 3 million farmers are left.” Cities are pictured as the modern, resource-guzzling, desperate alternative to the green fields of vanishing Nature. Long shot of Lagos, Nigeria, with taxis and rickshaws and humans like ants crowding the streets for block after block after block, endless.

Well, okay, except for this: cities use far fewer resources per capita. If everyone in the world is to be supplied with clean water, food, electricity, transit (even public transit), communications, sewage treatment services, medical care, etc. etc. then centralization is far more efficient, and therefore easier on the environment and closer to sustainable. This is completely aside from the fact that cities have historically always been centers of learning and the birthplace of social and political freedoms.

And then there’s the pseudo-spiritual language. Home tries very hard to reach something deep within us, to inspire us with big themes and the beauty of the natural world that we are destroying. The photography succeeds, but the narration descends into cliché: “All living matter is linked — water, air, soil, trees. The world’s living magic is right in front of our eyes. Our cells talk the same language. We are of the same family.” This is to a soundtrack of nondescript indigenous culture song, complete with throat-singing. All of which makes me say: Whatever, hippie. Forty years after the birth of modern counter-culture, is this really the best language we have to talk about why the Earth’s ecosystems are worth nurturing? Whoever are we going to hold up as an icon of sustainability when the last remaining tribesman loads 50 Cent onto his knock-off Chinese iPod? (And if you think I’m being facetious, it’s probably because you haven’t discussed MP3 players with well-informed rural Africans.)

Home is weaker still when it veers into global social justice. If the film shows great depth and understanding in global ecological issues, the awesome disparity between the world’s rich and poor is treated with a strange shallowness. At one point we are asked, “how can there be justice and equity between people whose only tools are their hands, and those who harvest their crops with machines?” Is the implication here that humanity should abandon industrial agriculture? That we should donate combine harvesters to poor countries? The question gets into a whole mess of tricky economic, political, and developmental issues; it is the wrong question. We’re even fed the old platitudes of Marxist economics: “The biggest headache now was what to do with the surpluses engendered by modern agriculture.” Not exactly. It became profitable to produce these “surpluses” to feed cattle when meat became a status symbol for one industrializing country after another — a fact which Home also shows us, quite eloquently.

Having said all of this, I cannot disagree with the overall message of the film. What we are doing is unsustainable. It’s just that Home discusses the errors of our industrialization in terms of  a clash between an ugly urban present and a pristine agricultural past. Where it presents facts it succeeds brilliantly; but where it makes an ideological pitch it uses shallow and washed-up language. It adopts wholesale a certain recidivist strand of Western leftist ideology, an ideology which values rural over cities, hands over machines, traditional over progressive, and “natural” over all else.

And that’s the disappointment of Home. After all the incredible effort and dedication of the people involved, it still sounds like a Greenpeace press release and screens like an Oxfam infomercial (“Save the children! Save the planet!”). It could have been so much more; it could have tried for a new language of sustainability that avoided the tired old stereotypes of evil big-business versus mystic naturalist. The value system of Home leaves no place for the concerned (sub)urbanite who really likes their electric lights and their car and burning charcoal to grill burgers or tandoori in the back yard — in other words, most of us in our daily lives.

But Home also speaks the truth: “We know that the end of cheap oil is imminent, but we refuse to believe it … We haven’t understood that we’re depleting what nature provides.” Yes. Our global web of resource consumption really does interlink air, water, oil, agriculture, industry, biology, and people, and Home is a clear and surprising exposition of this web. It is a web we are all intricately involved in, yet it is so large and pervasive that we usually cannot see it. Minus ideology, this is the big picture that Home shows us, and this is why it is an important film.

Press play, go see it.

Home will be available free online until July 14th.