How do you sell an 'ecological civilization'?

There were lessons for Seattle greens in the PR strategies of Big Oil and automakers at Shanghai 2010. The climax of an expo selling sustainability was a global summit on urban development.

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"Oil Baby"

There were lessons for Seattle greens in the PR strategies of Big Oil and automakers at Shanghai 2010. The climax of an expo selling sustainability was a global summit on urban development.

On the final day of the record-breaking Shanghai Expo 2010 (Oct. 31), the urban-themed world's fair featured a summit on sustainability. That, in fact, was the whole conceptual point of the exposition. Its purpose was to model "Better City, Better Life," which meant trying to find ways of making metropolises more planet- and human-friendly while accommodating massive growth. 

Already, more than half of humanity lives in cities. The issue is global, but China, as the largest "developing nation," is seen as a laboratory for sustainability because in many respects its development is leaping from the 19th century to the 21st, without having gotten too bogged down in the mistakes of the 20th. It is also traveling at light-speed and has adopted a plan to move much of its population from the countryside into the city, a great leap forward marked in a film shown in China's national pavilion called "The Road to Our Beautiful Life." It might be a road, but the pace is strictly maglev (magnetic levitation). Last month, China also launched the world's fastest train.

It's a strange contrast to come from the Shanghai summit meeting, a gathering of world leaders, Nobel laureates, and the U.N. Secretary General, who discuss global warming as an unquestioned reality, and return to a country where much of the political leadership thinks man-made global warming is a hoax, and where the new Congress looks like it will derail meaningful climate legislation. What was in the Tea Party's cups? Oil.

The end-of-the-expo summit was marked by the release of the "Shanghai Declaration," a commitment on the part of the Expo's participants (some 190 countries) to make a path to a low-carbon future. The day after I returned to the U.S., a Republican tide, helped along by economic frustration and Tea Party rage, moved America further out of the global warming mainstream.

Fifty per cent of the newly elected GOP members of Congress deny that climate change has anything to do with human behavior. Most of the rest of the world accepts the opposite not just as a fact but also as something on which to base action.  In China, low-carbon goals are cemented into the newest five-year plan, according to Premier Wen Jinbao, who spoke to the Shanghai assemblage. Even conservative, Western governments in Britain, France, and Germany accept that tackling global warming is imperative.

This is not to say that China, like most of the developed and much of the undeveloped world, is not a living contradiction. While a post-carbon future was imagined at many of the pavilions, including the SAIC-General Motors showcase featuring a 4-D film highlighting zero-carbon transportation in the Shanghai of 2030, there was some dissonance between the sustainability theme and the messages of some exhibitors. 

Auto companies have long used fairs to sell their vision of the world, including sprawl and freeways. GM and Ford have both featured actual auto assembly lines in pavilions to dazzle visitors. At Seattle's Century 21 fair in 1962, we were promised nuclear-powered cars that looked like Batmobiles. In Shanghai, automakers pushed new technologies even while their vision of 2030 seemed like a faster, bigger version of Shanghai in 2010, crisscrossed with wide (though not congested) freeways. The push was still for single-occupancy vehicles, albeit they were supposed to be non-polluting. The SAIC-GM film ended with a display of smart electric cars surrounded by what looked like dancing Power Rangers. 

Nearby were representatives of the unrepentant oil industry, a popular player at the Shanghai Expo. Oil producers created some of the most well-attended pavilions (Saudi Arabia, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Russia), and the Chinese oil companies sponsored the China Oil Pavilion, an unapologetic temple to fossil fuels. It was a throwback to U.S. fair pavilions of the 1930s or 1960s when oil companies like Sinclair featured giant mechanical dinosaurs to delight the kids.

A fabulous, spare-no-expenses 4-D film reminded us that oil is really cool because it's made of dead dinosaurs, and that petroleum products are so much a part of life, that if you took away oil, we'd have no modern conveniences, and very few clothes. The film actually showed people reduced to working in their underwear or standing baffled in their denuded homes as the computer erased everything they owned that was made from oil products. At the end of the exhibit, kids could have their pictures taken with a mascot that looked like a cross between a honey drop and a yellow smiley face: this was "Oil Baby," the cute, cuddly way oil will be remembered by many who passed through the pavilion.

The exhibit was well done and highly entertaining, and the message in Europe or the U.S. (outside of Texas and Alaska, anyway) would have been ridiculed. It was high-tech, but very old school, and I'm sure Uncle Dick Cheney would have thought it the right message for the kids. No mention of oil leaks, the Gulf Coast disaster, pollution, drowning polar bears, or other unpleasantness. Its main point was: You're addicted to oil, and you need us. But it also highlighted some of the conflicts between envisioning a zero-carbon utopia and the reality of today when selling cars, electric or not, and building roads are still a huge part of the economy and the global equation.

Still, while the Chinese are bridging multiple centuries, they are making progress where we are not. No debate about the value of high-speed rail in China, but in the U.S. conservative governors are canceling projects. The Chinese have moved aggressively to build lower-carbon goals into their plans, and they suffer not from Seattle-style gridlock on public projects. They are preaching the gospel of urbanization, and as a country where most of the population lives along the coast or rivers, populous neighbors (like India) crowd the nation's borders, and the Himalayas supply its water, the Chinese have to plan smartly.

Urban growth isn't simply a matter of watching more Portlands and Copenhagens bloom. The United Nations estimates that by 2050, 70 percent of the world's population will be crammed into dense urban corridors marked by crowding and pollution. A major form of urbanization, from the Middle East to Africa to South America, is the shantytown. While Seattle looks for a semi-permanent "tent city" to house 100 to 150 people, tens of millions worldwide live in so-called "self-built" communities. In some cities, a quarter to half of the urban population lives in shantytowns. In other words, simply urbanizing isn't enough. The task is to help everyone leap over the 20th century's mistakes and avoid the pitfalls of intense, rapid urbanization by employing strategies that lead to a brighter, smarter, greener future, even if the result is a smarter, green shantytown.

The Shanghai Declaration focuses on a program to develop what it calls "Cities of Harmony." The path is to create an "ecological civilization" based on renewable resources and low-carbon cities, social equity, scientific innovation, high-tech information systems, cultural diversity, heritage, openness, "rational" planning and public participation, and urban engagement with rural needs.

There's little here to disagree with in the broad brush, but lots in the details. I did not get to the Tibet Pavilion in the Chinese Provinces Joint Pavilion, for example. But the guidebook promised it would celebrate "New Tibet, Better Life" by highlighting improvements like rail and housing, while honoring the Tibetan culture's "unique charms." While the Chinese might consider, say, independent nomadic lifestyles to be examples of quaint "folk" culture, to Tibetans they are a way of life threatened by Chinese ideas of "progress." Many ethnic groups, including Native Americans, know their culture's in big trouble when it's considered under the heading of heritage and folk traditions. That's the stuff of museums and archaeologists.

While the Shanghai Declaration sounds like something Seattle would readily sign on to, we have our own conflicts here over progress and pragmatism. The division over the downtown deep-bore tunnel, opposed by Mayor Mike McGinn and supported by Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Seattle City Council, is a case in point.

McGinn wants a stronger commitment to a low-carbon future, meaning no more big, expensive road projects that make the environment worse and steal money from greener solutions like mass transit. McGinn is also bristling over the Puget Sound Regional Council's membership in the Transportation Partnership because the PSRC has, in his eyes, failed to appropriately address climate change and the reduction of greenhouse gases. Seattle and Olympia talk big on things like Kyoto and climate change, but our actions and attitudes are pretty selective. Even now, the legislature is scheming to revive numerous highway expansion plans, including some already rejected, in part due to McGinn's efforts at the local Sierra Club.

For his idealism McGinn is frequently tagged as an obstructionist, but what he wants to do is shift the bar to take a more comprehensive, less situational approach to transportation and city-shaping. His agenda is already much like the Shanghai Declaration's goals: McGinn has pushed carbon reductions, citywide wi-fi, and social justice as part of his green agenda. 

His relationship with rural areas, or even with the larger metro region, is another thing. By standing for principle in Seattle, he risks losing his ability as mayor to build bridges with everyone else. The Shanghai Declaration makes explicit that the onus is on cities and their leaders to "initiate urban-rural dialogue to achieve harmony in their interactions." In other words, "Harmonious Cities" are not isolated but part of a whole. Sustainability requires good relations throughout the region and state. Part of the difficulty is that Seattle and its mayors are often seen as needing to get over their superiority complex.

That means that greens need to do a better job of selling their agenda as the pragmatic one. It's not oil or the road lobby that's pragmatic, if you believe that climate change is a man-made or human-worsened crisis. In this case, what some call utopianism is morphing into a practical imperative. Regional diplomacy is part of the answer for addressing the need for collective action and coordination in allocating resources.

But I found myself wishing that greens would or could commit the kinds of resources to public relations that the oil and auto companies do. At the expo, many pavilions catered to children and used them effectively as spokespeople for their futuristic visions. Among major exhibitors, the USA, Korea, Russia, Spain, and Japan all put on shows in which children, from infants to tweens, were used to convey central messages about sustainability, harmony, and the future. Kids are universal messengers, which is why having tots hugging Oil Baby plush toys is evilly brilliant.

Another takeaway is that greens have to find ways to convey a sense of fun and optimism, something more appealing than righteous Cassandraisms, to move not just public opinion but the political center of gravity toward a readier acceptance of climate reality. In Shanghai, many multimedia presentations adopted Avatar-style graphics to do the job, and the future of expos themselves for the next decade at least will be inextricably bound with global environmental, energy, and sustainability themes.

Maybe a new use for Seattle Center could be a pavilion that showcases IMAX-style multimedia experiences that let us experience what a low-carbon Seattle might be like in 2030 or 2050, or see the consequences of climate change and rising sea levels. It could be a greener Fun Forest, an alternate futures pavilion for Pugetopolis. All a visiting climate skeptic would need to do is put on the 3-D glasses and see reality, Shanghai-style.

Note: The National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., is currently hosting an exhibit on the U.S. world's fairs of the 1930s. In difficult economic times, even because of them, fairs flourished. The U.S. hosted six major expositions from 1933-1940 in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Cleveland, Dallas, and San Diego. Arguably, these were the birthing grounds for modernism in this country. A major focus of the current exhibit is design, and how corporate and industrial designers used this intense period to learn how to reach, teach, and inspire the public with corporate messages. These techniques are still being employed in today's expositions such as the one in Shanghai, but the lessons can be applied to non-corporate goals and in other venues.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.