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close this bookCities and the Environment (UNU, 1999, 343 p.)
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Open this folder and view contents1. Introduction: Cities and the environment – towards eco-partnerships

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Yukio Aoshima

Japan’s relationship with nature

The late nineteenth-century writer Katai Tayama talked extensively about the relationship between the Japanese and nature. He stated: “There is probably not a people anywhere that lives in as close contact with nature as we Japanese. You can see it from our poems. You can see it from our literature. You can see it from our houses.” As Tayama observed, Japan was once a place where food, clothing, and shelter all came directly from the bounties of nature, where children’s playgrounds were brooks and fields, where nature, untouched and untainted by human hands, played a deep and integral part in our lives. Obviously, the lives of the common people then were nowhere near as materially rich as our lives are today. Indeed, from the physical perspective it was a hard life. But spiritually they were much richer than we are today, because of the bounties brought to the heart by close contact with nature.

Post-war Tokyo: The distortions of urbanization

After the Second World War, there was an influx of people into Tokyo from all over Japan, coming in search of jobs and new opportunities. In the two decades following the end of the war—the years from reconstruction to the peak of post-war growth—Tokyo’s population more than tripled. In this process, we somehow found ourselves living in a forest of high-rise buildings, streets continually congested with cars, and many other blights of urban excess. To put food on the table and achieve remarkable national economic growth, the Japanese sacrificed their home lives to their work, and consciously or unconsciously created, and tolerated, a host of problems that have continued to plague us: garbage, air pollution, water shortages, cramped living conditions, uncomfortable commuting conditions, and a shortage of natural spaces. New problems have continued to sustain the list of concerns. Indeed, more recently, we have been faced with toxic pollutants like dioxin, and endocrine disruptors—“environmental hormones”—that threaten the future of humanity.

Today, the population of Tokyo is nearly 12 million. During the daytime hours, about 3 million people pour in from neighbouring communities to work and study, giving us a daytime population of about 15 million. This huge figure has ecological repercussions. The activities of these people result, for example, in about 5.43 million tons of garbage - ordinary, not industrial, waste - thrown away in the city over the course of a year. That is enough to fill the Tokyo Dome sixteen times over. The average speed of cars on Tokyo roads is 18.6 kilometres an hour, about half the national average. This results in the emission of large amounts of carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides into our air, which both contributes to global warming and damages our health. For the past thirty years, pollution and environment have been the top policy priorities of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. These are areas in which we have been active and assiduous in searching for solutions. Those efforts have paid off. We have substantially overcome industrial pollution, for example. But the solution to urban pollution - household waste and pollution from daily living - is not so easily found, because both the perpetrators and the victims are residents of the same city. We have not even made it halfway to a satisfactory solution. However, Tokyo society is entering a maturation phase, and this presents us with a marvellous opportunity to change radically the directions in which the city has been going, in an effort to address urban environmental problems.

The urban roots of global environmental problems

As we look around the world we can see that all cities, no matter what path they took to development, share many of the same urban environmental problems, such as garbage, toxic waste, and air and water pollution. These are issues of great concern to all involved in urban administration.

In recent years, global environmental problems have become so serious that they have sparked worldwide collaborative efforts to find solutions. The sources of these problems are roughly the same throughout the world: urban development, urban transportation, and lifestyles and production structures that emphasize, and rely upon, the mass consumption of resources and energy.

When dealing with global environmental problems, it is necessary for us to “think globally and act locally.” This holds true for urban environmental problems as well. Urban environmental problems have a significant impact upon global peace and prosperity. Global environmental problems have already become major international political and economic issues that impinge on the peace and prosperity of all humanity, and it is the production and consumption activities that take place in cities that have the largest impact on the global environment.

It is projected that the majority of the world’s population will reside in cities in the twenty-first century. Therefore, how cities deal with environmental problems will, through the impact on the global environment, be one of the largest factors in the future peace and prosperity of our nations and communities. Moreover, these are issues on which the cities of the world must join together in collaborative, sharing initiatives.

Urban environmental problems, and by extension global environmental problems, are a dimension of what is internationally referred to as the “North-South problem” - the gap in wealth and power between the rich industrialized countries and the poor countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific. Likewise, within the “North” and the “South,” economic gaps between cities and rural areas and poverty issues are partly behind environmental problems. From this perspective, therefore, urban environmental problems are a reflection of the domestic and international socio-economic issues that countries face.

Tokyo’s extensive experience in dealing with the “brown agenda”

For the past two decades, the focus of the world debate on the environment has been on ozone destruction, global warming, and acid rain - the so-called “green agenda.” In recent years, however, the growing seriousness of urban environmental problems has brought new attention to local problems of garbage, air pollution, and water quality, issues that form the so-called “brown agenda.” Japan, and especially Tokyo, have long been beset with pollution problems which have afforded them a wealth of experience and achievements. The ethos of “thinking globally and acting locally” sounds attractive, but what does it mean in practice? It means that urban environmental problems are not just something to think about. Cities must take the initiative, they must take concrete steps to solve these problems locally. These issues reflect uncertainty and extreme gravity, and require a shift in attitudes regarding three principles:

The principle of action

Clearly, international networks of cooperation are important in any effort to deal with environmental problems. But our actions as cities are more directly responsible for protecting our own environments and also, in turn, play an extremely important role in the solution of global problems. When we consider the extensive decay that has already occurred in our environment and the enormous amounts of time and effort that will be required to restore it to its original state or at least to some form of balance, the urgency of the situation becomes clear. Discussion is important, but discussion must lead to practical, results-oriented projects. And we must ensure that action is ongoing.

The principle of comprehensive response

It is essential to study problems scientifically and create a policy agenda as comprehensive as possible. This agenda should also be made available to the world at large. Accomplishing this will require stronger “civic governance” - governance which embraces citizens’ participation, so that citizens take an active part in the expansion in our cities’ ability to govern themselves. We must improve the level of our research into environmental technology and make better use of the technology we have. And we must apply the so-called “principle of prevention” by taking preventive measures. A comprehensive approach thus embraces prevention, management, and remedy, with the input of all actors and agencies involved in the urban space.

The principle of partnership

The third principle is partnership. We must be aware that urban environmental problems are extremely difficult, global-scale problems, and based on this awareness we must forge partnerships, networks of cooperation, and alliances among the world’s cities and the United Nations, NGOs, and civic groups. Though Tokyo still needs to address the “brown agenda,” we have much knowledge and experience in dealing with these issues, which we have a duty and responsibility to share with other cities around the world.

Creating an “eco-society”

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has tried to embody these attitudes and principles in a basic policy goal that we call “creating an eco-society.” We are currently directing all our efforts towards the achievement of this goal. Let me outline for you what it entails. What is an “eco-society”? There is no clear, accepted definition of the term. Yet we in Tokyo consider an “eco-society” to be a society that cares for sunlight, air, water, land, greenery, and other natural blessings; a society that restrains the mass consumption of resources and energy and the generation of waste, that endeavours to recycle and use resources effectively; a society that endeavours to return to a natural cycle the waste that is ultimately discarded after treatment to minimize the burden on the environment.

Tokyo has become more convenient and easier to live in - after years of hard work - but the flip side is the environmental burden. Development, transportation, and amenities are available to most inhabitants. Our rail lines are increasing, with more train carriages and stations air-conditioned and given escalators for further comfort. In terms of our personal lives, the size of our homes may still be a problem, but there are more homes available, most of our households have their own cars, and there are televisions and air-conditioners in every room. In the immediate neighbourhood you will find vending machines and 24-hour convenience stores, where you can easily buy food and necessities whenever you wish. Our city has indeed become a more pleasant and convenient place to live. But all this comes at a price: economic and social structures that lead to the wasteful consumption of resources and energy.

It behoves us to consider what is behind our comfortable, convenient urban lives, and whether our valuable resources and energy are being consumed efficiently. Take, for example, the estimated 5.44 million vending machines in Japan. Every day they consume as much energy as 2.6 million households. Then there is our diet. As our incomes have grown, so have our waistlines. But even so, we still put more food than necessary on our tables, and what is left over we find very easy to throw away. When we throw away just one bowlful of miso soup down the drain, it takes about four bathtubs full of water to return the water quality in our rivers to the point where fish are able to live there. When we go shopping, our purchases are wrapped, packaged, and bagged for us, but we bring the packaging home and it immediately goes into the garbage. This is the sort of garbage that clogs our landfills, and when it is burned it gives off dioxin, raising a host of other problems.

These are just a few examples of how, while squandering our resources and energy, we place loads on the environment that exceed its ability to clean and restore itself.

Changing lifestyles is not easy

Having grown used to comfort and convenience, it will not be easy for us to give up these lifestyles. Let me digress for a moment. About thirty years ago I wrote the lyrics to a hit song called Sudara-bushi, which was sung by Hitoshi Ueki. It was heavily promoted, and the saying used to be that you might go a day without hearing the crows caw, but nowhere in Japan could you go a day without hearing Sudara-bushi. At the time, we were in the midst of our growth spurt, and people were much more cheery and open than they are today. The song described, with a slightly comical touch, the saga of a happy-go-lucky salaryman who is unable to avoid the temptations of drink and gambling. One line in the song really rang true with the people of the time: “I know it’s wrong, but I can’t give it up.”

I think that describes us quite well. We know it is wrong, but we cannot give up our convenient, comfortable lives so easily. We have spent several decades creating a society and economy oriented towards mass production, mass distribution, mass consumption, and mass waste. We know something is amiss, but we are so caught up in it that we cannot give it up.

The eco-society seeks to rethink from the bottom up how we live our lives, promoting the reuse and recycling of our valuable resources and handing down the bounties of nature to future generations. The goal is to become so proficient at recycling that we ultimately achieve a “zero-emission” society, a society in which all resources are completely reused and no waste generated. I believe that the twenty-first century will be the time when the world comes together to create an eco-society, a society that is truly able to achieve sustainable development. The twenty-first century will be the age of the people, of those who live in, work in, and support this society.

The Action Plan for an Eco-society

Let me briefly outline for you some of the efforts that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has made so far. The Metropolitan Government has been active in dealing with environmental problems, and particularly pollution, ever since 1969, when it issued the Tokyo Metropolitan Anti-pollution Ordinance. In more recent years, we have witnessed the growing recognition around the world of the gravity of global environmental problems, and, in light of this, we enacted a new Tokyo Metropolitan Basic Environmental Ordinance in 1994, reinforcing and expanding the efforts previously made. In February 1997, the Metropolitan Government formulated a “Priority Plan for a Resident-Friendly Tokyo” in which we list the “creation of an eco-society” as one of our highest priority goals. In February 1998, we formulated an “Action Plan for the Creation of an Eco-society” to serve as the general plan for the achievement of an eco-society.

The draft plan is made up of five sections: (1) resources and recycling, (2) water recycling, (3) energy, (4) transportation demand management, and (5) promotion of environment education. It contains actions for each area that it is possible to take right now. For example, in the field of resources and recycling, the Metropolitan Government has announced its intention in principle not to use anything but recycled products. We will also be taking steps to recycle any waste generated by construction projects ordered by the Metropolitan Government, to reuse any construction-related soil, and to compost the food waste from cafeterias run by the government. We have also asked residents and businesses to cooperate with garbage sorting, resource recovery, active use of recycled products, and selection of goods that will not soon turn into garbage.

In the area of energy, we have long promoted energy conservation, and we are also actively installing and using new alternative energy sources, such as “garbage power,” solar power, and “co-generation.” In the transportation area, we are actively installing transportation demand management systems and building more effective road networks.

The Action Plan for residents

We see these efforts not just as something for the Metropolitan Government. It is extremely important that residents and businesses become involved too. We are seeking opinions and proposals concerning the plan from residents and businesses, and we hope to finalize an action plan that will cover the entire city. The Action Plan may not be decisive in remedying urban environmental problems or solving global environmental problems, but I am confident that it represents an important and certain first step.

As part of this process, certain issues must be addressed:

Market failures

It has been popular lately to talk about “using market principles” or “respecting market mechanisms.” Deregulation and administrative reform are being pursued largely within this context, and that in and of itself is fine. But we must also remember that environmental problems are the result of “market failures” and their solution will require that central and local governments intervene in the markets with regulation and incentives, that they influence the economy of the private sector. Indeed, it was just such interference that enabled Japan to achieve its considerable results in conquering pollution.

Government failures

On the other hand, the collapse of the bubble economy has reduced people’s confidence in the government sector in general. The public has taken an unforgiving view of “government failures.” “Markets may fail, but governments fail too,” is a common sentiment. The environmental policies of both central and local government will thus be held up to close and sceptical scrutiny.

Administrative reform

It is therefore important for us to create mechanisms that minimize and overcome both types of failure. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government is currently moving forward with an overhaul of city government. This reform reaches right down to the basic concepts and organizations of administration, and I will be providing our residents with specific, concrete proposals for reform that will reorient government processes towards the environment and enable us to give a strong and efficient push to the creation of an eco-society.

Culture and eco-societies

The Japanese have always loved nature and lived in harmony with it. We consider mountains, rivers, trees, and plants all to have life and to be worthy of respect. At the same time, nature has also been an object of fear for us. Nature is mighty. It has the power to uproot and erase our lives in an instant. At the heart of our view of nature we have always held to the idea that nature is not something that humanity can dominate. Rather, humanity is itself a part of nature. But we have for a very long time ignored this relationship with nature, and in our lust for material wealth and convenience we have continued to act in ways that violate natural cycles. Indeed, that is what “modernization” is all about; it is the crystallization of “contemporary society.” This, of course, is in no way limited to Japan.

Faced with threats to the global environment, we have a duty and responsibility to adapt our ways of living and our industrial activities to natural cycles, to minimize the burden on the environment, and to strive towards “sustainable development.” We must seek to create a civilization that values nature and spiritual wealth above all else, and we must marshal all the wisdom and power at our disposal to commit ourselves to that goal and act towards its achievement.