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“When the Bank has no houses to sell, players wishing to build must wait for some player to return or sell his/her houses to the Bank before building. If there are a limited number of houses and hotels available and two or more players wish to buy more than the Bank has, the houses or hotels must be sold at auction to the highest bidder.” – Rules for Monopoly®

Monopoly® was one of my favorite games as a child, but after hours of play I was frustrated at the limited resources the game provided. There would often come a point in the game when we would run out of houses, hotels and/or money, bringing the game to a deadlock where no one wanted to trade. To solve this problem I cannibalized other Monopoly® games, stealing pieces until my own game was bulging at the seams. This childhood memory came back as I read the “Urban Ecological Footprints: Why Cities Cannot be Sustainable—And Why They Are A Key To Sustainability”, by William Rees & Mathias Wackernagel because it describes in greater complexity the same actions I had taken as a child. By stealing pieces from other Monopoly® games, I had rendered them useless and undermined the goal of the game: to succeed with the resources available.

Although the article was written in 1996, the points are even more relevant today. Global consumption and the human population have exploded in the 20 years since it was published. It is easier to grasp that we have well exceeded our limitations by simplifying the complex math of sustainability to how many acres per person are required to generate the resources necessary to support city life. We are producing increasing amounts of waste and exploiting the remaining “natural capital”. We have already reached or surpassed a tipping point after which the imbalance may cause system collapse.

A historic example of system collapse occurred on Easter Island, one of the most remote populated islands in the South Pacific. A community thrived there for centuries, but increasingly depleted their finite resources until their home could no longer support life. At the moment, Earth is Easter Island, there are no other inhabitable planets near enough for us to colonize or exploit for resources; the article noted that if “everyone on Earth lived like the average North American… we would need three such planets to support just the present human family.” We must learn to accept what we have.

Although it is frustrating to read this article that made such a clear case for sustainable development 20 years ago, it should not come as a surprise. In November 2015, information was released that Exxon’s own team of scientist has raised the climate change alarm in the late 1970’s. Although the company began preparing itself for the anticipated effects of climate change, they simultaneously started a lobbying campaign to keep doing business as usual and question the science behind climate change. George W. Bush’s administration did the same, forcing their scientific team to revise papers to neutralize the effects that carbon emissions was having on the environment. The Rees & Wackernagel piece underscored this cross-purposed agenda as they conclude the article,  “…as a result of political inertia, the world may well simply stay its present development course in the blind hope that things will work out. If so, and the analysis presented in this article is correct, humans may well become the first species to document in exquisite detail the factors leading to its own demise (without acting to prevent it).”

An upside to the article is that cities might be “entropic black holes” absorbing all natural resources locally and abroad, they do reduce the amount of materials and energy required by increasing density. As we have learned, there are many ways in which cities can provide for themselves and reduce their waste, including: urban farming, recycling, public transit and renewable energy to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Although we may have passed a tipping point in resource consumption, we can make remediating efforts to avoid becoming a global Easter Island.

Image Credit: Didrik Johnck, published in The Huffington Post

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