BOOK EXTRACT: Three Cities: Seeking Hope in the Anthropocene

Business journalist Rod Oram examines what fundamental changes need to be made – and how – if “ten billion people are going to live well on this planet in 2050.” With special feature audio.

See also: Rod Oram: Oscillating between hope and despair

Extracted from Three Cities: Seeking Hope in the Anthropocene by Rod Oram, published by Bridget Williams Books, RRP: $14.99. Reprinted by permission.

Business journalist Rod Oram has a new book out  in which he examines what fundamental changes need to be made – and how – if “ten billion people are going to live well on this planet in 2050.”

Published under Bridget Williams Books’ BWB Texts imprint – “short books on big subjects by great New Zealand writers” – it’s available in both paperback and e-book formats for $14.99.


With economies stagnating, politics polarising, societies shattering and ecosystems suffering, I felt an urgent need to go walkabout last September.

It was my best chance of making some sense of the news from around the world. Most crucially of all, the ominous signs of the onset of the Anthropocene, the first geological era in which humankind is the dominant driver of planetary change.

I was also deeply worried by the accelerating rate of change. Not the speed itself. Rather, people’s inability to cope with it. Increasingly, we are spectators not players.

Seeing, reading, discussing are my ways of making sense of things. I needed deep immersion in them all. Since I couldn’t afford an odyssey, a short packaged tour would suffice. As a journalist I’m a tourist. I flit between people, places and situations, sending back postcards. I’m no treatise-building academic.

To construct my itinerary I deployed an old journo’s ‘Five Ws’ trick for writing intros:

  • Who? I wanted to talk with deep, radical and practical thinkers – people in business, academe, science, government and politics, all well grounded in their respective societies.

  • What? I wanted to ask about the nexus of economy and ecology ten years from now. Will we figure out how to grow our economies in ways less damaging to the ecosystem? Or will more growth mean more damage to our life-support system?

  • When? September 2015 seemed a good month to go, close enough to the Paris climate negotiations in November for people to focus on local solutions to global issues; and a pleasant time to visit the northern hemisphere after a very hot summer triggered by climate change.

  • Where? Beijing for the enormity of China’s challenges as global frontrunners; London for the depth of knowledge about the world issues; and Chicago for its clean-tech transition.

  • Why? The choices were also personal. These three cities had profoundly shaped my life, as much so as Auckland has these past twenty years. On the trip, reflecting on the past helped me understand the future – and to retool myself for it.

London because it was there in the 1960s when I began to learn about cities. While I was born in Birmingham and completed my schooling there, my family moved to the capital when I was thirteen. It became my holiday playground for four months of the year. Confronted by the end of industry and empire, the city was struggling to remake and redefine itself.

For example, only with the Clean Air Act of 1968 did the UK finally banish choking smogs. With particulate levels two to three times worse than in Beijing today, the Great Smog of December 1952 killed 6,000 Londoners. On a bad day in Birmingham my 7-mile bus ride home from school was a ninety-minute crawl through the acrid, preternatural darkness.

Back then I only knew the ecosystem in two contrasting forms, manicured by humans and wild by nature. Back gardens and parks were there to provide relief from the city; mountains and coasts were places of adventure.

I returned to London in 1979 after ten years studying in the US, beginning my career and marrying – to list them by time rather than importance. It had become a very different city, ever more international and confident, yet its urban environment was increasingly stressed.

In my 18 years at the Financial Times – two stretches of seven years in London with four in the New York bureau between – I learned a lot about business but little about the environment. The two realms were separate, as they largely remain today.

Chicago because it was there I went to university or to be precise in Evanston, its first neighbour to the north of the city, which has been home to Northwestern University since 1851. For the first four years I revelled in a classical American liberal arts BA, enhancing my major in politics and economics with courses in science and the humanities.

The leafy campus on the southwestern shores of Lake Michigan, my sea-substitute, was where I found my lifelong companion, friends and purpose. Actually, the last happened at Miami Beach during the 1972 Republican National Convention. I was hanging out there with one of my college roommates, Patrick, an intern at a local TV station. This was the summer halfway through our college degrees. I was working as a carpenter on a vast subdivision and enjoying staying with his family.

My eureka moment came at the convention while I watched journalists report Richard Nixon’s triumphant nomination for re-election as President. What a brilliant way to earn a living! Being paid to explain.

As the youngest child, I was always the annoying one asking those same five questions. That’s how I made sense of my surroundings. As a journalist, I’m still doing essentially the same selfish thing. But with a caveat: if I’m useful, I get paid, and I get access to interesting people. This I learned in my master’s in journalism at Northwestern.

Beijing because it was where I was first confronted by the enormity of humankind and the world. Up to that point I’d led a privileged, cosseted life in the UK and North America. The moment was on an old coach late one cold January night in 1979. I was among a handful of journalists accompanying a Canadian trade mission. Only months before, the Communist Party, under its newly elected leader Deng Xiaoping, had decided to open up China to foreign trade and investment, under a new slogan: ‘Make China a modern, powerful socialist country before the end of this century.’

Riding in from the pre-war airport we were struck by how dark and deserted the city seemed. The only life we saw was mahjong players congregating under a few dim streetlights. Each Beijinger was using only one-quarter the electricity each Wellingtonian consumed at the time.

When we stepped off the bus into the threadbare, oppressive opulence of the Friendship Hotel, just east on Chang’an Avenue from Tiananmen Square, we found it almost as gloomy. Built in 1917 as Le Grand Hôtel de Pékin, its ornate ballroom was where Mao Zedong and his closest comrades partied the night they gained power in 1949.

In 1979 Chang’an Avenue had one lane in each direction for vehicles and six for cyclists, the city’s population was five million and the country’s GDP per capita was one-40th of the US on a purchasing parity basis. Today one lane is for cyclists, with the other six choked with vehicles, the city’s population is 21 million, and Chinese are a quarter as wealthy as Americans.

When I was born in 1950, I joined 2.5 billion people on the planet. We equalled today’s population of China and India, with the rest of the world uninhabited, as it were.

Today we are 7.4 billion and heading for ten billion by 2050, when 80% of us will live in cities. I think about that a lot. What kind of life we will make for each other? One way I wrestle with this is by returning from time to time to Beijing, London and Chicago to check their progress.

Anything is possible. If we are mindful of past, present and future we can choose what to keep, what to recover and what to create.

‘The city is a fact of nature, like a cave, a run of mackerel or an ant-heap,’ Lewis Mumford, the American historian and sociologist, wrote in his 1938 book The Culture of Cities. ‘But it is also a conscious work of art, and it holds within its communal framework many simpler and more personal forms of art. Mind takes form in the city; and in turn, urban form conditions mind.’

With this slim book I make no attempt at a deep, integrated roadmap of our future. Better qualified are the people and their books I seek inspiration from, some of whom I quote in the following pieces and notes. (And an editorial aside – all dollars cited are $NZ unless otherwise identified.)

What follows are merely three postcards offering some flashes of the future.

Extracted from Three Cities: Seeking Hope in the Anthropocene by Rod Oram, published by Bridget Williams Books, RRP: $14.99. Reprinted by permission.

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