Submitted for the United Nations World Environment Day blogging competition sponsored by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Please "Like" it on Facebook or Tweet using the hashtag #WED2012.
Citizens intrigued with the idea of creating a green economy, but unsure about how they can participate in this transformation, can look at two cities that offer stark contrasts. Detroit and Doha lie in what appear to be different worlds – Detroit in the American state of Michigan and Doha in the sovereign Arab country of Qatar. These cities have long had a connection, however. Doha’s economy is reliant on petroleum, some of which ends up as gasoline that fuels Detroit’s cars. Detroit, of course, has long suffered from the automobile industry’s boom and bust cycles, and Doha confronts a future that may include depleted oil reserves.
My recent stay in Detroit and current trip to Doha have opened my eyes to how citizens are taking matters into their own hands and building more sustainable economies. Whether they till soil in Detroit or harvest the abundant sun in Doha, residents in these cities are now harnessing local resources that have been abundant all along. And in doing so, they are tackling persistent poverty and unemployment in Detroit and building an economy in Doha that can sustain itself should the country’s oil and gas reserves ever be depleted. The end result is that citizens from all walks of life, not just politicians or those with the right connections, are involved.
Detroit’s citizens are demonstrating resilience while factories shutter and the local government struggles with scandal and deficits. Large swaths of abandoned neighborhoods provide economic opportunities in urban farming. The work of enterprises such as Hantz Farms and non-profit organizations, including The Greening of Detroit and Earthworks Urban Farm, provide residents skills training and help stabilize neighborhoods.
But Detroit’s reemergence is not solely based on agriculture: the city center’s Tech Town includes clean energy and environmental companies among its 200 tenants. Locals inspired to join the green economy can absorb new skills thanks to Tech Town’s full calendar of training programs and seminars. For these reasons, it should be no surprise that Detroit is tilting towards a cleaner economy: Michigan is rich in biodiversity, has ample fresh water, and is laden with forests and organic farms.
Eight time zones away, Doha’s only plentiful resources are oil and natural gas. The notion that the country with the world’s highest per capita rate of carbon emissions could become a sustainability laboratory is at first jarring. But with its hosting of global events such as this year’s COP 18 Summit and, of course, the 2022 World Cup, Qatar has emerged as a model for green building and clean energy. A new source of energy has its foundation in sunshine, which is plentiful in Qatar. While some of Qatar’s focus on solar energy is in the form of billion-dollar investments, schools and inspirational leaders also spark change by working with the young.
Hashim Al Sada is a 26-year-old engineer who leads a science summer camp in Doha that includes green energy on its curriculum. Qataris’ affinity for camping comes with a huge carbon footprint, as those excursions typically include televisions, refrigerators and air conditioning. To that end, Al Sada invented a solar energy generator that links with a battery system to power all of those gadgets. He hopes that what is now an experimental cost-effective system will scale and keep Qatar’s lights and air conditioners running in the event the country’s oil stocks are depleted.
Detroit and Doha show that, within the hubs of the automobile and petroleum industries, both individuals and civil societies can stand out, inspire others, and create greener and more inclusive economies.
Leon Kaye, based in California and now spending a month in the Middle East, is the editor of GreenGoPost.com and contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and Earth911.com. You can follow him on Twitter.
Photo of Earthworks Urban Farm courtesy Leon Kaye; photo of Doha's skyline courtesy Wiki Commons.