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Envisaging a sustainable future for a city requires a stretch of the imagination, a leap into the unknown, and putting unconventional ideas forward.

Writing this piece is to walk that intellectual tight-rope Thomas More and H G Wells once walked: they wrote of a utopia as a thought experiment to test their own ideas of what a good society would look like.

As Wells (he was a member of the Fabian Society - circa 1884 - founded by prominent literary figures like George Bernard Shaw and others and which promoted reformist socialist ideals) remarked in the introduction of his book, A Modern Utopia, the exercise is worth it if it helps "clear up the muddle", especially when sustainability as a concept can be such a foggy marshland of contradictory ideas and its garnering of a mismatch of interest groups all claiming it as their own mantra.

Barring Wells's eugenist views, all the themes he covered are of relevance to current debates about sustainable cities and societies.  What Wells promoted was an idea of a new society based on simplicity and frugality in material acquisition.

Some of the central ideas running through Wells's work are: the need to cultivate universal toleration in human relations; the importance of local authorities in the management of natural resources and essential services; non-uniformity in exchange for diversity; the fostering of a culture of experimentation as there are no absolute truths and blueprints; and the exercise of humility in the face of failure because that is how we learn.

But to arrive there, Wells would want us to get rid of the universal disease that inflicts us all, he writes: "If we are to have any Utopia at all, we must have a clear common purpose, and a great and steadfast movement of will to override all these incurably egotistical dissentients.  Something is needed wide and deep enough to float the worst of egotisms away."

Both More and Wells were looking deep into the future, not a retrospective utopia that it draws on from a recreation of an idyllic past.

Michel Houellebecq in his novel Atomised throws scorn at the utopian back-to-the-past movement.  One of his characters, Martin Ceccaldi, transmits to us his feelings of nostalgia for the good things of the past.  He sinks into his deep existential melancholy and unease with the state of the present.

Houellebecq writes: "…Martin Ceccaldi seemed destined for the undistinguished life of a farmer, which had been the lot of his ancestors for countless generations.  It is a way of life long since vanished, and is fondly remembered only by a handful of radical environmentalists.  A detailed description of his pastoral 'idyll' is unnecessary."

Houellebecq's Ceccaldi only dreams of the future in the romanticisation of the past as something pure and original - there is still a resonance of this in some of the environmental discourse today.

This is not that sort of utopia one envisages, where the present is swept clean by the redeeming purity of the past.  Rather we should focus towards having a conversation about how we can attain a certain point that is better than what we have today.

A conversation that is conscious of the fact that all that happens in the future is tenuous on what we do with what is given to us as the reality of today.

All those things that seemingly delay our advance: economic inequality, imperfect knowledge, uncertainty, the effect of elite power over ideas, and the lack of voice and political mobilisation of the economically disenfranchised.

These challenges should not exasperate us, but stir our collective ingenuity.  Indeed, these conditions are the infinite source of South Africa's diversity, and gutsy approach to social experimentation.

There is nothing more that threatens a sustainable future than our time's impatient society - solutions must be immediate, and perfect.  And, in this rush for answers politicians often make the mistake of promising utopian when it has no grounding in reality.

The instant remedy is a part of the sinew of modern culture - fast foods, fast cars, fast money govern our social relations.  If we are sick, we also want fast medicine.

When the Earth is sick, none of the remedies of fast culture will do, because the Earth, as James Lovelock has so convincingly articulated through the Gaia theory, has a life force of its own.

The Earth, in that self-correcting and self-adjusting way, reacts upon us in opposition to our own actions against it.  It is more the case that under Gaia humans will suffer the threat of extinction first than the Earth itself.

Shifting the very way we organise our political and economic life, which is at the heart of sustainability, takes generations.  What is critical is how we seed the vision of the future in the actions and ideas of today.

Some things we know with certainty, and we should act upon - like the preponderance of scientific evidence that the earth is warming and humans contribute significantly to the stock of green house gases which are the cause of this warming and no doubt, amongst other things, contribute to climate change.

Signs of this sudden and inopportune change mock at us ominously.  Cape Town, like Durban, could be faced with the threat of surging seas, storms and unprecedented climatic variability.

Everything we envisage for the future is tied-up in the way committed resolve and responsiveness of human agency to threats are mediated.

All beginnings of change starts by how we treat each other.  No society can mobilise collective will where there is a class, a racial and an insurmountable divide over ideas.  Often our recourse to technological fixes is a sign of avoidance of confronting human conflict.

Getting along seems the hardest thing to do especially when one class of humans want change, but not without the loss of privilege.

The need for human co-operation is becoming more and more evident in the arena of water.  Water scarcity will surpass all other resource scarcity problems as the major source of human conflict in the future. In some parts of the world this is already the case.

A similar situation is evident in the energy sector - there are both questions of efficiency and identifying alternative sources.

For Cape Town dealing with energy and water sustainability goes without question - they already have scarcity value and will affect Cape Town's future economic progress and meeting basic needs.

Revolutions in sustainable management of water will not come out of technological ingenuity, but what the Canadian scholar, Thomas Homer-Dixon, once wrote lay in the secret annals of the ingenuity gap: the social sphere.

Human institutions will have to develop high levels of co-operation and adaptive behaviour to both resource scarcity and dramatic climatic change challenges in the future.  What will sustain us is not technological adaptability, but social adaptability or as Well, so eloquently put it, we must "humanise the conflict" between us.

Ideas are the essence of a sustainable future. No singular idea is sufficient.  A plurality of ideas and knowledge systems will shape the definition of that future.  For instance we cannot just have a romantic debate about renewable energy as the only source of energy that will solve the city's energy crises.

We cannot exclude the potential for small (Pebble Bed Modular Reactor) and large nuclear facilities as an essential mix to the city's energy security.

Much of the debate on energy alternatives and security becomes an ideological one between opponents and proponents alike - both colour the milieu with an anti-intellectual climate where reasonable debates for pragmatic outcomes are locked up in this chasm between irreconcilable ideologues.

Why should a handful of special interest groups decide for the whole of society what is good or bad for them?  In reality no energy source is mutually exclusive from the other.  What matters is what quantity is reasonable, practical, safe and affordable.

The concept of sustainability concept need not be rigidly applied, but should be viewed as something rather flexible.

The concept does not suggest either that we settle on all three pillars - the economic, social and environmental pillars - in total equanimity.  It is entirely erroneous to assume that it should be so - and, in fact, our own social and economic context dictates that for a period of time we have to envisage rapid economic growth as being absolutely essential.

The issue is not the dangers of economic growth per se, but how capital accumulation as a result of growth is channelled into social up-liftment and investment in the environment.

Here the question is how the proceeds of wealth, captured largely by the state, are used for the purposes of environmental and social benefit.

The announcement by the government that it plans to invest close to R400 billion rand in infrastructure development under the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative of South Africa (Asgisa) resulted in a knee-jerk reaction from environmentalists - instead of an opportunity it was viewed as a threat.

They had visions of irresponsible development and more of the environment will be subjected to irreparable damage.  It is hard to tell whether this will happen or not.  At its core was a distrust of the state.  Without growth we cannot raise the necessary capital base that will enable us to fund an adequate environmental programme.

Some of these ideas of capturing a share of wealth proceeds have already been mooted by the Treasury in the release of a far-reaching discussion document on social security and retirement reform.

Some of the proposals in the document include that of a wage subsidy in sectors where there has been a general downward pressure on labour costs.

There is yet to be something like a national grant scheme for the environment.  We are a long way from that eventuality.

However, the City of Cape Town need not wait for some signal from national government to embark on innovative initiatives independently.  It can devise its own instruments of capture on behalf of the public good.

For instance if national government is to subsidise large energy programmes, then the city could establish Public Benefit Funds (PFBs) as other cities, states or countries do, to invest in those areas where there is a lack of support and underfunding.

A levy on energy and water, like the province had secured for transport, can be used to invest in alternative energy sources, improvements in sanitation and implement innovative rain-water harvesting techniques to meet certain water usage requirements at a household level for both rich and poor.

The fact that these small ideas are being implemented elsewhere in the world suggests that they are replicable provided there is the right mood, incentive and support structures in place.

Simple ideas can make for revolutionary shifts in lifestyle quality.  Some ideas can entrench the shape of the future by doing them now rather than later.

A small step in the right direction is already being made: the city issued draft regulations for obligatory solar water geysers installations for new buildings.

The achievement of the targets that the regulations have set will lend themselves to the logic that more ambitious things can be attained and be carried by the momentum of small breakthroughs, like increased use of solar geysers will have over conventional geysers.

Sustainable pathways are dependent on getting four things right:

  • Political and social institutions to facilitate dialogue and the flourishing of new ideas.
  • These institutions investing in social capital for social solidarity.
  • The big economy (formal) designed to connect with the small economy (informal).
  • Increased wealth being used not only to preserve society, but also nature.

    The participation of citizens in the city's plan(s) are essential to creating the climate where the city is owned by all rather than a few - robust debate rather than stirring from the barricades of anti-intellectualism ensures that the sustainability of ideas feeds the sustainability of practice.

    Saliem Fakir is senior lecturer School of Public Management and Planning, University of Stellenbosch