My first class in India

Today I taught my second full class of Urban Planning and Sustainable Environments, and my first class in India. It was also the first class where I started to address content in a deep way. I lead off the class with a bit of a whirlwind introduction to climate change, urbanization, and sustainability. It was a great return to my work at FES and before. In addition to some very basic mechanics, I got briefly into the carbon cycle, the increase in atmospheric concentrations of CO2, and addressed some specific consequences: particularly the implications of climate change to impact snowpack runoff in the himalayas, and thereby impact water supplies in the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra rivers–flooding when the rain+melting snow comes too fast, drought when early melting leaves little snowpack for the summer and fall months. We also added adaptation and mitigation to the word bank and gave passing reference to geo-engineering, and the single state actor problem.

Moving to urbanization, we looked at the concentration of consumption in cities, the limited land area, but the large teleconnections to hinterlands. We also looked at the impacts of cities on biogeochemical cycles, UHI, water tables, etc. in the immediate urban vicinity. I was a bit disappointed with the students’ enthusiasm for the “hope” part–how cities can be an ally in sustainability, or perhaps it’s just something we have to address.

In sustainability we introduced environmental kuznet’s curves, I=PAT, and did some more term defining. We also quickly unpacked the Bruntland definition of sustainability, leading in to…

Our exercise! This was one of my proudest teaching moments (I was also proud that I was able to cover all of the above ground and only be 5 minutes behind). I had divided the class into five groups (the Indian Government, UN Environment Programme, d.light a small social entrepreneurial tech startup, Tata a major Indian conglomerate, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Adivasi indigenous community). Over 45 minutes these groups had to craft and agree upon a definition of sustainability (or sustainable development). If they could agree upon a definition then they would all get to share a giant pile of cookies. If not, then no cookies. The UNEP group was responsible for facilitating the negotiations, and the Tata team had secret information that if no agreement were reached, then their team would get all the cookies, because the benefited the most from the status quo. The game went off brilliantly. Each team got really into their roles. The Indian government tried to bribe the UN, with money. The Adivasi staged a protest and linked up with the scientists. Tata tried to recruit allies to vote against any agreement. The UN team was bumbling and well meaning. It was an amazing microcosm of the COP15 process I saw in Copenhagen. In the end the UN team crafted a gobledegook definition that used every word that the groups had wanted to include, but that still failed to receive the required 2/3 vote. The Tata team got all the cookies… and then magnanimously shared them with all. We spent a few minutes reflecting on what went wrong and let them loose for tea. It just reaffirms for me the value of simulations and games for bringing out the life of ideas like the challenge of semantics, multilateral agreements, science vs. development interests, and so forth. Fantastic

Up next class, a history of city planning efforts through the ages to the responses to the industrial city, the city beautiful (probably with a detour though Hausman), then on to the rise and fall of modernist planning, followed by a discussion about how to plan for urban transformation, the need for big plans, and planning for India’s next 300 million urban inhabitants. Whew!


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