Excerpt from chapter 1
Energy and urban sustainability in the 21st century

"The secret of great wealth with no obvious source is some forgotten crime, forgotten because it was done neatly."
— Balzac (quoted by Manning, 2004)

Our time has been declared the age of cities. Urban centres are heralded as the engines of the global economy. A large library of books and articles hails cities as drivers of national prosperity and home of the classes leading in creativity and innovation (Florida, 2002; Castells, 2000; Hall 1998; Sassen 2000, 1994 and 1991; Mazza, 1988; Jacobs, 1985; Hall, 1977; Friedman, 1976). The genre has fuelled a worldwide urban marketing frenzy, while wasting no thought on the most basic and most tenuous of all present growth drivers: cheap and abundant fossil fuel. Among the best researched and most thoughtful of these, Saskia Sassen’s editions on Cities in a World Economy (Sassen, 1994/2000) attempt to describe the global economic system without reference to its underlying fossil energy economy: the very engine that propels the much-admired global financial industry. Examined critically, the financial sector is but the froth on the churning, petroleum-rich global resource consumption and value-adding streams. And Peter Hall’s definitive tome on — Western — Cities in Civilisation (Hall, 1998) did describe the electrification of Berlin as contributing to its cultural ascent, but misses altogether the larger nexus of the 20th Century fossil fuel revolution and the rise of contemporary urbanity and urbanism. There are, however, several soberer and specialised studies emerging, on cities, energy and greenhouse gas emissions, providing reference to broader urban policy and institutional change, such as a policy evaluation study examining urban energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing and Shanghai, produced at the Japan-based Institute for Global Environment Strategies (IGES) (Dhakal, 2004).

But in general, dreams about attaining city salvation in the nirvana of comparative advantage have distracted urban observers from facing the sobering reality that the urban world spreads on a rich Petri dish of only temporarily plentiful petroleum nutrients. Conceptually, both the Modern ideal and its post-modern critique drift blindly on the vast, warm ocean of wasteful abundance that has been engendered by the empowering regime of coal, petroleum, natural gas and uranium during this last century. The amplifying force of these new power facilitators helped to dramatically accelerate the exploitation of natural resources, feeding the present dogma of massive and conspicuous consumption as the global religion of progress (Sloterdijk, 2005). Given the all-encompassing nature of fossil power determination the energy blind spot in urban literature — typically focused in rather narrow ways — may be understandable.

Iranian oil refineries burn in Abadan. The city and its oil installations were a major target in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988: it was annihilated in Iraqi assaults. All modern cities are fossil-fuel constructs and intimately linked to the mounting, global battle for oil, and all are vulnerable in this infernal dependency, directly and indirectly.

photo © Henri Bureau