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Yours sincerely...

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technical & practice - In the run-up to the Delivering Sustainable Communities Summit, AJ's technical editor conducted an email conversation with Bill Dunster of BedZED on the merits of it all

Dear Austin, I like the idea of John Prescott: a man with the time and resources to provide the great and good assembled in Manchester with a strategic overview of the built fabric and infrastructure of this overcrowded country. John understands that climate change is accelerating; that summer 2003 will become the norm; that rising sea levels could flood the capital; and that global fossil-fuel demand will exceed supply next year. He is worried that UK stocks of North Sea gas and oil will be almost exhausted within five years, leaving the majority of our national electric grid vulnerable to trade agreements from South America and Siberia. He understands that there is little point in designing low-environmentalimpact new communities if cheap air travel is still promoted, or trying to reduce car dependency if there is no money left in the pot to fund public-transport infrastructure because billions have been spent fighting for long-term access to fossil fuel in Iraq.

John particularly feels for the loss of Green Belt and agricultural land to volume house-building programmes, believing that there is more or less enough brownfield land to provide the majority of the three million new homes required over the next 10 years. His friend Gordon even flew to Africa recently to remind us that we must stop importing more than three times our fair share of limited global resources, and trade fairly with the Third World - otherwise we cannot be surprised if underprivileged millions want to improve their quality of life by swelling our affordable housing lists.

The only trouble is, his mate Tony has to hold an election this year.

This is tricky because the voting public only wants to hear good news.

UK plc does not want to hear that it is a small, overweight, aggressive nation, requiring an additional land area the size of Spain to meet its hunger for natural resources, at the same time as making little discernible effort to curb an unhealthy addiction to fossil fuel. Instead of being sensible and going on a low-carbon diet and steadily reducing demand with low-risk proven strategies, we are being softened up to be resold 'carbon-light' nuclear energy. This is a bit like being asked to forgo sugar in your tea for an artificial sweetener with known carcinogenic long-term risks.

Just because nationally we are interviewing applicants for the post of state nanny, it doesn't mean we can ignore the doctor's advice that a calorie-controlled/carbon-controlled diet and an efficient exercise/ infrastructure regime is the best way to improve our collective quality of life. The Manchester urban summit should be a revelation and I look forward to learning how John's plans are going to sort everything out.

Yours faithfully, Bill Dunster Dear Bill, Well, where do I start? Firstly, regardless of your particular preferences in the personality clashes within government, I have to dispute your interpretation of events and attempt to rein in your fears about the future.

The notion that there is a tsunami of disasters out there waiting to punish us for our profligate lifestyle is a worrying starting point for a rational exploration of the problems facing the world.

I have to admit that my reading of sustainable development 'theory' echoes your statements:

seeing mankind as being responsible for changing the world for the worse rather than for the better.

Apart from the fact that this turns evidential history on its head, it is a particularly miserablist and anti-humanist way of seeing things, don't you think?

Moreover, viewing people as a potential danger often results in a barrier to change, progress, material betterment and social development.

Pulling up the drawbridge to protect our 'overcrowded country' has dangerous overtones, and wanting the Third World to be traded with fairly primarily because you want to stop them 'swelling our affordable housing lists' is the logic of a philosophy that privileges the environment over humanity.

You advocate that we rein in our material aspirations. If this is a vision of the future, I don't want any part of it. I want to see developmental aspirations fulfilled, not quashed.

Yours sincerely, Austin Williams Dear Austin, Self-denial that there are limits to the human consumption of natural capital is perhaps collectively our biggest problem.

The ability to think ahead and plan a survival route that avoids unnecessary human suffering and loss of life is perhaps one of the key ingredients in our civilisation. It isn't rocket science to work out that our species is currently a bit too successful for its own good. If you were really a good humanist, you would accept this and concentrate on developing a vision of the future that avoided the 'endgame' of consuming till resource exhaustion.

Unfortunately, the climate-change feedback loop is too slow to provide the melodramatic natural catastrophe that you seem to need as an incentive to reduce material consumption; sadly by then it's too late to make much difference to global warming.

Since when has excessive material consumption ever equated with a high quality of life? Will the 'Supersize Austin' really feel comfortable as the news reports famine in the Third World caused by climate change, or really enjoy his SUV as thousands more Iraqi civilians bite the dust?

Why not work towards a fresh cultural initiative that uses human ingenuity to produce cities, lifestyles and workstyles that can harvest renewable energy sources and replenish scarce natural resources rather than fight for the right to create pollution and landfill. A conservative source such as the Lancet estimates that 100,000 civilians have died in Iraq - this is not that far off the scale of the tsunami. There is a direct connection between our ordinary everyday UK existence and some scary geopolitics. John is going to show us next week how the Great British public can start to salve its conscience and feel good about life again.

Yours, Bill Dear Bill Please. You really must stop imagining what I am saying. I don't fight for the right to create pollution - who does? - but I do argue against 'pollution' being used as an excuse for slowing down the rate of social advance.

Especially when, in general, air quality is better than it was 50 and 100 years ago. Some people have a paranoia inversely proportional to reality. We, in the guilty West, are living longer, healthier lives than ever before. If you are so concerned about the lives of the starving in the Third World, maybe elevating their standards of living might be a good starting point.

Actually, I am always intrigued by this notion of 'excessive' consumption. I'm concerned about insufficient consumption.

So who decides what is excessive or not? Presumably a light bulb is OK, but not a fridge? An SUV is morally bad, but a Ford Fiesta is ethically sound? A supersize McDonald's is evil, but a tofu salad is righteous? Don't you see the imperious logic of your position? What if people in the Third World really want to get off their bikes and travel by car?

Following the logic of your environmental authoritarianism, maybe we should invite them to realise their folly and educate them in the joys of walking. Have you noticed that obesity isn't a problem in the Sudan: is that something to celebrate?

Best wishes, Austin PS. You may have seen in the paper recently (there was quite extensive coverage) that it wasn't motorists but military intervention that killed thousands of Iraqis. And climate change didn't cause the tsunami, it was an earthquake.

Dear Austin, With 10 per cent less sunlight now reaching the earth's surface than experienced by pre-industrial society, and the window within which it is possible to prevent irreversible climate change limited to around 20 years, your attitude is identical to a smoker denying any correlation between cigarettes and lung cancer.

There also appears to be good evidence suggesting that crop failure and low rainfall in Sudan could be closely connected to atmospheric air pollution from Europe. The Chinese may wish to advance industrialisation and adopt Western levels of material consumption, however the advancing desert is only 20km from Beijing. So will building the 40 or so large-scale, coal-fired [high CO 2 output] power plants, planned to fuel conventional extractive economic expansion, provide an overall benefit to that great nation or contribute towards the legacy of climate change with long-term crop failures, drought and further human misery. Surely the best thing to do now is support John's heartfelt plea to create new resource-efficient, car-free, low-carbon urban communities in the UK that provide an aspirational, workable role model.

It only takes around 3 per cent of John's annual sustainable communities programme to be built to zero-carbon standards to create sufficient economies of scale to make building integrated micro-wind and solar renewableenergy systems become a cheaper, safer alternative than the fossil fuel and nuclear status quo. If we reduced defence spending for a decade and invested in building integrated micro-generation from renewables, we could meet or exceed the government's targets of a 60 per cent CO 2 reduction by 2050, never fight for fossil fuel again and Tony really could lay claims to being a world leader. If that isn't an election issue, I don't know what is.

Regards, Bill PS. Just for the record, I enjoy enormously the rich cultural mix in the UK that has been achieved over centuries of immigration; it is just important that you understand that wealthy nations skimming the best resources from the limited stocks in the developing world makes conditions worse there and better here - making it important to tackle poverty at source, rather than endorse the inequality that fuels Sangatte. I think that's why Gordon went to Africa.

NB: My magnanimity is such that Bill gets the last word here, but contributions to the debate are welcomed. Email austin. williams@emap. com

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