Interview with Geoffrey Bowker

[By default videos are displayed in low quality. Settings can be changed above.]

Video transcript: "There's a marvelous book by Timothy Mitchell called 'The Carbon Democracy'. The central argument he makes is that most of the social theories that we've got from the 19th century and the early 20th century - Marxism, Kantianism, for example - also much many the political structures, the democratic structures that were built up, the rights for workers during the 19th century, were based on a carbon economy which would grow infinitely over time. It's just unrealistic nowadays, we can't be thinking it terms of constant expansion and that's partly the point of the Earth Overshoot Day.

If we keep expanding our use of resources, we're basically gobbling up the past and we're gobbling it up, every year we gobble up four hundred years of the complete animal and vegetable production of the Earth, in terms of the oil and the carbon that we're burning. So we're burning through the past, we're gobbling up time. This really, really doesn't work. Again, what we need to do is get that shift in a way in which we think, get that understanding that things can't go on the way that they're going on at the moment. There are innumerable examples I can give you of cities that need to retract in size at the moment.

One of the most famous examples in the United States is Detroit after the bottom sort of fell out of the car market several years ago, where it goes down about four or five times in size, but it's still got the same fix cost of infrastructure. That means that it's incredibly expensive to get water, electricity, gas, whatever you need, because you need to maintain all those pipes that were actually built for several million people for three hundred thousand people. That's an economical example. Let me give you another example in Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. We're drinking down the water table, the water table will basically be gone sometime over the next thirty or forty years, and there's a huge town out there with millions of people that go to Arizona. Because there's infinite sun there and it's the nice lifestyle that you get there. So, the cities that we have now are not necessarily going to survive into the future. The ecosystems that we have now are not necessarily going to survive into the future, we certainly can't survive at our current rates of population.

So what we need to be thinking about doing right now is not only how to grow or how to maintain our lifestyle, while being good green bunnies and doing all the good green things we should be doing, it's how do we realistically think about downsizing, about new forms of social and political interaction. And that's not just a case of... I can convince you of this scientifically n-times over, that's not where the work needs to be done right now. The work needs to be done in terms of changing our expectations, changing our stories about the future, changing our perceptions of the present in such a way that we adapt to changes as they occur: we make cities smaller as necessary, we make our lives smaller as necessary, we don't fly as much. There are innumerable things that we need to do, which involve scaling back. But not scaling back in a negative sense as 'you can't have that and i'll slap you on the wrist', but scaling back in the sense of - infrastructure needs to adapt, our cities need to be able to adapt in real time, cities are really like living creatures.

Geoffrey West wrote a brilliant book about scale, where he discussed that cities pretty much scale in the same way that organisms scale, and organisms are actually pretty good at that. A camel has to go without water for a while - well, it stores up some water, we have to go without food for a while - well, we just get skinny for a bit. But we don't build our cities that way, we don't build our cities as living organisms - they are living organisms! And if they are - they're living organisms of which we are part, and if they are - we need to care for them as living organisms, and we need to allow them to adapt in the same way as we hope to allow ourselves to adapt in the future."

Other interviews with Geoffrey Bowker

Related tags: Theory, Growth, Climate Change, Energy,