Jan 05 2010
As the world witnesses the completion of the latest heaven-scraping tower to grace the skyline of a city of golden dreams, a tiny, niggling question arises: why isn’t Dubai getting raked over the coals by the same eco-warriors that like to trash Canada for environmental crimes against humanity?
To illustrate the paradox, just imagine that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes a break from — well, whatever he is doing while parliament is prorogued — in order to make an unexpected announcement: “We will build a city of the future in Yellowknife!” he shouts with a wild look in his eye. The hastily-assembled reporters move as a unit towards the back of the room and look to the exits.
“We will build gleaming towers, glamorous hotels and eight-lane expressways to serve this new jewel of the Northwest,” he explains, tears of joy running down his cheeks. “This small town in the frozen tundra will become a city of millions and a trade hub for the planet.
“Now, I know the Al Gore crowd won’t like this, but the oil sands development in Alberta will double its production capacity to fund this gleaming northern metropolis. Not to worry, taxpayers — to ensure that this city is built as fast as possible while getting the best value for your money, Yellowknife will be designated as a special economic zone. The developers will be able to employ slave, er, ah, inexpensive foreign workers not subject to Canadian labor laws. Oh, and did I mention we’re going to build a commercial and residential tower more than twice the size of the Empire State Building?”
Sounds utterly ridiculous, right? The only question is which group would tear Harper apart with their bare hands first: the David Suzuki Foundation, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, or his own caucus. The environmental damage alone for building a huge city in a fragile and largely frozen ecosystem would be obvious to a small child. Add robust oil sands development into the mix and there’s a good chance the United Nations Security Council would authorize military intervention to topple the Harper regime.
A Cautionary Tale for Urban Planners
So why is this scenario actually playing out in Dubai with so little attention paid to the environmental damage it is doing to the planet? Just so we’re clear about the scale of the problem in the world’s least sustainable city:
Dubai consumes more resources per capita than any other country in the world, including the US. The city is a monument to indulgence, luxury, and, thus far, utter disregard for ecological footprint or sustainability: for example, Dubai currently consumes a whopping 250 million gallons of water per day (around 97% of which is desalinated sea water) to sustain a city of less than 1.5 million people.
Of course, all those seawater desalination plants require tremendous amounts of energy, which comes from the burning of fossil fuel, namely oil. One would think that a desert kingdom with such challenges would try to conserve some of its precious resources. Instead, the scorching hot desert city plans to literally evaporate its wealth by building the world’s biggest water fountain:
The fountains, which has yet to be named, will be capable of shooting water over 150 metres into the air – the height of a 50-storey building – and stretch over 275 metres – the length of two football fields. The $218 million project will be 25 percent larger than the iconic fountains at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas.
The 828 meter-tall Burj Dubai building will only add to the city’s troubles. It essentially added a city on top of the existing city. All the Vancouver city planners in the world — and Dubai certainly tried to get all of them — won’t be able to fix the basic problem: they built a decadent, modern city in a place that lacked enough natural resources to properly provide for a small medieval town.
Sour Grapes and Sweet Crude
Some will characterize my analysis as a bitter, sour-grapes rant of a patriotic Canuck motivated by the demotion of the CN Tower to second-best status. Others will point out that cities in North American are filled with skyscrapers — why can’t the Middle East aspire to this kind of prosperity and engineering feats?
But let’s remember that the West built up most of it’s cities at a time of cheap energy and no general consensus on the threat of global warming. We may have developed and achieved high levels of prosperity at a high cost to our environment. But until the last few decades (and for most of the population, until the last few years), our society did not understand the potential link between our industrial development and environmental degradation. Now that most of us are clear on the connection (and the dangers), we now aspire to incorporate environmental sustainability into everything we do. We are horrified by urban nightmares of places like Los Angeles and Atlanta. Freeways are out, bike paths are in. We may still fail most of the time in achieving sustainable cities — even Vancouver doesn’t yet come close to being carbon-neutral — but at least we’re aiming for a greener future.
As for Dubai, they have access to exactly the same data on environmental degradation and climate change that we’ve got, but the simple fact is that they don’t care. To oil shiekdoms like the United Arab Emirates, phrases like “peak oil” don’t frighten. They conjure dollar signs in their eyes. All the better to help them get rich and have some fun.
Prosperity and fun are are not intrinsically terrible things. But when unaccompanied by sustainable planning (which at this point, would entail massive forced depopulation of Dubai and other parts of the UAE), these all-encompassing aims are terribly irresponsible. They’re bad for Dubai citizens. They’re also potentially dangerous for the rest of the world.
In the absence of a technology revolution involving renewable resources like solar energy, places like Dubai will be overtaken by the desert, probably sooner than later. The difference is that when Las Vegas finally goes down, the citizens of that doomed mirage will be able to take haven in other parts of the USA. When Alberta dries up, parched cowboys will flee to the rainy west coast.
But when Dubai goes down? Will their people run to the other sun-blasted parts of the Arab world when their own ecosystem has been used up? Or will they come here? This brings up the bigger picture problem: is the West destined (and obligated) to become a life raft for cities and nations that destroyed their own ecosystems?
The Wealth of Nations and the Movement of Peoples
As the Copenhagen summit demonstrated, the Third World wants the “rich and decadent” West to transfer massive amounts of wealth, no questions asked, so that they can keep running their countries into the ground. Many Westerners are quite happy to hand over these suitcases full of unmarked hundred-dollar bills out of a misplaced sense of guilt towards countries that have in most cases been the victim of their own internal corruption, political intransigence and fanaticism.
These wealth transfers will occur, likely starting in 2010, if the frenzied one-upping promises of politicians at Copenhagen is any indication. So we will continue to invest in the environmental degradation of what we might call rogue nations, ecologically speaking.
It’s unclear whether places like Dubai will be the eventual recipients of this climate change prevention fund. It’s hard to imagine Canadian taxpayers forking over millions so that Dubaians can keep their desalination plants running, so that they can keep operating their water slides. Then again, no one will be keeping track…
But that’s not where the story ends for places like Canada. Eventually, no amount of cash transfer will be enough to support artificial nations that have literally pissed away their wealth and built their cities on a foundation of sand. That’s when we will be asked to take in people from Dubai and other arid parts of the world — again, no questions asked, since that would be cruel and clearly racist. Will our society, already coping poorly with a stream of immigrants from certain parts of the world where “Canadian values” are poorly understood, be able to cope with the coming flood?
Can we simplify this problem? Imagine, in the course of gaining some temporary measure of prosperity, a man you know destroys his own house and damages the property of his neighbors. Are you ethically bound to give him shelter? Is your decision based on generosity, or the idea that if you deny him shelter and force him to sleep rough, he will instead attempt to break into your basement?
In the bigger picture, when it comes to dealing with the waves of climate refugees, these questions will not remain hypothetical for long.
Where Are the Eco-Warriors?
The well-heeled public relations squad for Dubai has certainly earned their keep. In all the coverage of the biggest building in the world, I saw no condemnation of this engineering monstrosity by the usual green pundits. In fact, the only criticism I’ve seen leveled at Burj Dubai is that owing to the economic downturn, it may not have been timed right in order to guarantee full occupancy.
Are the greens worried about “offending” certain ethnic sensibilities? Perhaps they don’t want to be tarring Dubai’s powers-that-be with the same brush as the one they use to smear colonial, or so called neo-colonial Western nations. Hitting Dubai over it’s big useless tower standing in the bleached desert just doesn’t give the same sense of satisfaction as beating up Canada over the oil sands, or even rising star China over building a new coal plant every week.
The Burj Dubai hides in plain site from environmentalists and gets a free pass this week. Meanwhile, we’ll see if a news cycle can go by without some environmental organization slamming Canada as the real planet killer.
Dubai’s Wild Wadi Water Slide. Dubai’s Vaunted Wealth Goes Down the Drain. So Much for Sustainability