Mariona Tatjer | Fundació ENT
Recently, the word collapse has gained presence among environmental experts to describe the paradigm shift in which we are entering. Collapse, understood as “the decrease or loss of complexity of a social structure” (Fernández Duran and González Reyes, 2018) is a systemic process that develops over a relatively long period of time and that, unlike an economic crisis, implies a transformation of the political and economic relations of a society. The climate crisis and biophysical limits are the two main factors that allow us to conjecture the depletion of the current social model based on perpetual economic growth.
Climate change, brought about by the volume of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, is leading us to extreme climate events with a strong impact on citizens’ quality of life, food production, the loss of biodiversity and alterations to the water cycle, with unwanted impacts such as water scarcity in periods of drought or heavy floods due to torrential rains.
In this sense, a series of political measures have been implemented aimed at increasing the resilience of cities to deal with the impact of climate change (Ajuntament de Barcelona, 2022). The new policy, framed under the slogan of sustainable growth, proposes a transition from the current production and consumption model based on fossil fuels to a model promoted by renewable energies, with a greater digitization of the goods and services that are subject to consumption, and a greater circularity of the resources extracted from ecosystems and incorporated into the productive system. However, this perspective is ignoring the second key factor mentioned above: the biophysical limits that augur the depletion of non-renewable resources, including the resources necessary for the deployment of renewable energy technologies and digital processes.
The depletion of fossil fuels heralds the end of an era in which there has been cheap access to energy sources with the highest concentration of calorific power, with a high capacity to control their availability and great versatility in their uses. Renewable energies, by contrast, cannot replace these characteristics. Their power is much lower and requires large areas of land to be able to produce only electricity. Also, their availability is irregular (it depends on environmental cycles), they cannot replace the current mobility model (on which the global market depends on), and they cannot replace the petrochemical industry and all its derivatives. Additionally, to build them scarce minerals and metals and the consumption of fossil fuels for extraction, transformation, transport, and installation are necessary (González Reyes, L., 2022). Mineral resources and metals whose demand are continually increasing as they are also necessary for digital systems that are being installed in a wide variety of goods and services, from everyday appliances to digitized public services.
One of the first symptoms of a change in trend dates back to 2006, the year in which the peak of conventional crude oil extraction was reached (IEA, 2010). Since then, the production of this energy source has begun to stagnate unlike its demand. This situation, coupled with the inability of renewable energies to replace the current production model, leads us to consider the plausibility of the scenario of eco-social collapse, where the decrease in material consumption would occur due to a biophysical imperative.
In this context, the urban lifestyle is in a particularly vulnerable situation. Studies on urban metabolism confirm the high dependence on the foreign market to meet the general needs of the city. These needs are explained not only by the demand for material resources that are not found locally but also by the inability of the territory to absorb the management of the waste generated. In addition, at the climate level, the high concentration of the population has contributed to an urban design that instead of dissipating the temperature in situations of heat waves has the opposite effect, absorbing temperature creating what is called the heat island effect, and where on the other hand, the level of infiltration of rainwater is also very poor, increasing the risk of flooding and reducing the ability to store water for urban and agricultural uses.
Nevertheless, although the connotation of the collapse scenario may seem negative, it is also an opportunity to rethink the political-economic system, the consumption model and the management of local resources in greater harmony with the ecosystems on which we are dependent.
Although this paradigm shift would require cooperation between all social and economic agents in society, at the local level, City Councils can play an important role in adapting cities in terms of resilience not only climate but also economic and social. To achieve this goal, it would be necessary to introduce systematic thinking in the development and approval of urban projects. Systematic thinking implies understanding the complexity of the system, the interconnection of the measures to be carried out and introducing medium and long-term analyses to incorporate scientific forecasts on climate change into urban planning.
As indicated by the FAO (Albrecht, Crootof and Scott, 2018), the basic needs for guaranteeing life, which are highly dependent on each other, are food, water and energy. Better local management of these three variables would contribute to reducing external dependence in order to minimally guarantee access to these basic resources.
Measures such as upgrading residential buildings to improve their energy efficiency, or increase the vegetation of urban space, aim to improve the temperature and quality of life of citizens while reducing energy consumption. Likewise, the transport sector is the largest consumer of energy, and for this reason, progress should continue towards urban mobility that provides the necessary infrastructures to promote walking, cycling and public transport. On the other hand, as mentioned above, transport not only affects the mobility of citizens but is also the sector that allows the high exchange of goods at an international level. Relocating industry and supporting local trade would contribute to a more efficient use of energy and material resources, as well as making available to citizens spaces for repairing and exchanging second-hand objects to extend the life of goods already produced.
The reduction in energy consumption can also be transferred to the food sector, which is currently highly dependent on both fuel consumption and oil products. Agriculture based on regenerative techniques is an alternative that is gaining more space every day thanks to the non-toxicity of its products, the low dependence on external resources, improvements in soil quality, and the contribution to infiltration and retention of water. The infiltration of rainwater is an essential element to increase the safety of the city with respect to this basic resource. Greater and better water management, not only in the agricultural area but also in the urban and forest area, would contribute to filling reserves, reducing the risk of flooding, the risk of drought and, therefore, fire, and protecting the salinization of aquifers.
Finally, it is interesting to remember that cities already have many resources, some of them can be found in the waste we dump in bins. Improving the recovery of recyclable materials and reintroducing them into the production system not only brings us closer to achieving the objectives established at the European level, but also contributes to reinterpreting the source of resource extraction. So much so that one of the most necessary infrastructures in the near future will be what is known as urban mining, the recovery of minerals and metals among urban waste necessary for the energy transition.
In conclusion, the last few decades have been characterised by a high global exchange of goods and services at relatively low prices. It is plausible to think that these conditions will be gradually reversed in such a way that populations that have not made a transition to reduce their external dependence will be those that are most affected. Anticipating this situation would entail starting to establish measures at the local level in order to increase and improve the management of local resources, favoring the local market, and reducing material and energy consumption; a more local and slowed-down lifestyle that would have a positive impact on the environment and climatic conditions.
Ajuntament de Barcelona (2022) Barcelona resilience hub. Available at: https://www.barcelona.cat/mobilitat/en/about-us/barcelona-resilience-hub
Albrecht, T.R., Crootof, A. and Scott, C.A. (2018) ‘The Water-Energy-Food Nexus: A systematic review of methods for nexus assessment’, Environmental Research Letters, 13(4). doi:10.1088/1748-9326/aaa9c6.
Fernández Duran, R. and González Reyes, L. (2018) En la espiral de la energía. Volumen I. Historia de la humanidad desde el papel de la energía (pero no solo). Libros en Acción i Baladre.
González Reyes, L. (2022) ‘Presentació de l’informe “Caminar sobre l’abisme dels límits” d’Ecologistes en Acció’. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtl77Nr46Tc
IEA (2010) ‘IEA World Energy Outlook Report 2010’, IEA Annual Report, 51(6), pp. 4847–4862. Available at: www.iea.org/Textbase/about/copyright.asp.