Here’s a conundrum: a city’s Achilles heel often also seems to inspire it to put its best foot forward. How does that happen?
Let’s start in Los Angeles. By the road through Santa Monica to LAX airport stands a tall McDonald’s sign announcing “over 99 Billion served”, a monument to the fast food that has greased the wheels of US commuter culture. Since the company’s creation in San Bernardino, California, in 1940, its infamous burgers have been made as unvarying factory-processed units, celebrating neither seasonality nor seasoning.
But California is also the American heartland of the slow food movement. With an ocean’s worth of fresh fish protected since 2010 by marine parks, it also offers the crafted wines of the Napa Valley, the “world artichoke capital” Castroville, and the Olive Center, a research and development facility at the University of California, Davis, whose mission is to improve the state’s oleaginous oligarchy. Farmers’ markets now stretch from the redwoods to San Diego.
The hugely influential shrine to this legacy of fresh, locally sourced and prepared food is Alice Waters’ Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, which I understand to be still some way short of even its first billionth customer.
Before we leave California (I’m always very reluctant), a glance through the rear-view mirror. Most people of my vintage remember the traffic smog that formed a hideous brown dome over LA in the 1980s. On my last visit a few weeks ago my nostrils quivered at an air sweet with blossom, chlorophyll and marine ozone. There has certainly been a global improvement in cleaner, more efficient engines but eight years ago California gave itself an executive order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to just 20 per cent of 1990 levels by 2050.
To be offender turned defender is a breath of fresh air but not a bed of roses: it’s a long lead-in time and, to achieve the target, Dr Jane Long, chair of California’s Energy Future study, said that “we’d have to tear down or retrofit every square foot of every building in the state [and] electrify all transportation”. But through setting such a high benchmark, more than half of all American green venture capital funds go to Californian companies making a difference.
A hop across the Pacific, China is now a world leader in smog. Millions of paper filtration masks can’t disguise the effects of Beijing’s consumption of industrial materials, which puts it in a league of its own as an air polluter. The country builds a new coal-fired power plant every week – a frightening statistic that will affect us all. But just a few weeks ago, China announced tough measures to curb its smog so that the plants must publish their emissions and reduce them by 30 per cent within four years. China also leads the world in recycling. Its ingrained culture of avoiding waste keeps the streets clean, and it takes care of the garbage the righteous west doesn’t want: 70 per cent of the world’s 12m tonnes of annual recyclable plastic is accepted by China, led by Hong Kong, the US, Japan, Germany and the UK.
Social offenders include the British, especially for the darker episodes in the moulding of London as the seat of the world’s largest empire. Despite official apologies, a strain of English culture remains steeped in the exercise of dominion. Every year, the Queen’s honours list creates more Officers, Members and Commanders of the order of a notional British empire; though they’d probably be ignored if not lynched should they try to exercise officiousness in Mumbai or Kolkata.
The for-and-against of empire is still debated but it’s a legacy that must be offset by London’s resulting cosmopolitanism. It is now a liberal city with hugely varied ethnic backgrounds and beliefs. Such riots as there have been in recent years seem to have actually united ethnic groups, even if for the pursuit of looting televisions and leisurewear.
The point is that critics and apologists are often both right about the same issue: offenders are often the chief agents of positive change because they live with the effects of their actions. To find a solution, go to the source of the problem. If that’s not a proverb, it should be.
Dr Jonathan Foyle is chief executive of World Monuments Fund Britain
Agony uncle Sir David Tang is on holiday