Rich in oil and natural gas, the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) has developed into a prosperous federation gaining most of its wealth from foreign oil investments. With one of the greatest per capita ecological footprint, larger than that of the United States, the U.A.E. is also one of the most unsustainable places in the world. In addition to the petrodollars they are making, they are investing in a $22 billion government project known as the Masdar Initiative, which is helping to build the foundation for the Masdar City. This city is currently under construction in the capital of the U.A.E., Abu Dhabi. Its goal is to create “the world’s first carbon-neutral, zero-waste city,” as advertised by their site and sponsors. Abu Dhabi will then be transformed into a world-class research and development hub for new energy technologies. But along with this visionary idea comes its skeptics. Among issues such as ‘greenwashing’ and unclear motives, most of the uncertainty comes from the fact that the U.A.E. is making money off the very industry that has become the environment’s biggest enemy.
By definition, sustainability is the ability to conserve an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources. Then, isn’t it surprising that the U.A.E. is continuing to deplete its land of oil and natural gas, while simultaneously helping to further human expertise on sustainability? With these contradicting ideals it is not unexpected that the public will judge. While some believe the project is a step to genuine sustainable research and development, others find the U.A.E.’s plan doubtful, especially if it conflicts with their current unsustainable path.
The term ‘greenwashing’ is nothing new in the corporate realm. It describes a business practice where companies market themselves, in exaggeration, as environmentally friendly and responsible, but in reality put in little or no genuine effort to pursue such endeavors. For instance, a common example is food products that promote an environmentally friendly image while no attempts are made to reducing their environmental impact of production. In the case of Masdar, it is difficult to determine whether they are truly dedicated to the research and development of sustainable science and technology, or are they trying to build an image to offset their existing unsustainable path. Gil Friend, CEO of Natural Logic, a sustainability consulting company based in Berkeley, CA, shares, “I’m not able to ascribe motives to people I don’t know (or even people I do); the only worthy test is results. If Masdar stands alone as an isolated green jewel while the rest of the U.A.E. proceeds along its current bigfoot path, you could call it greenwashing. If it instead serves as an active laboratory that inspires the U.A.E. and other regions the follow the paths it blazes, then it could make a real contribution. (The reality may well be a mix, and the judgment in the eyes of the beholder. But wouldn’t we prefer that they use their massive wealth in the support of initiatives like this over business as usual?” from TreeHugger.
Another factor to consider is the influence of branding. In the same article, “Ecocities of Tomorrow: Can Foster + Partners’ Masdar City in U.A.E. be Truly Sustainable?”, Professor Peter Droege, Chair of the World Council for Renewable Energy and Asia Pacific and Senior Advisor to the Beijing Municipal Institute for City Planning and Design, expresses his doubt in Masdar’s ability to fulfill the goals of energy and water consumption, and states, “We must remember, though, that Foster and Partners have long been a world leader in post-fossil architectural innovation attempts.” Foster + Partners may be the most publicized collaborator in the project, but others like GE and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have become partners in this project as well. While I can understand how the identity or name of an institution may be a way for the public consumers to compare status and quality among other existing establishments, but it is still important to consider the possible outcomes and the extent of human abilities. With a project at such a large scale and such utopian vision, perfection seems like the only goal; an unrealistic one given that humans are prone to mistakes. This may explain why they have decided to build the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology as part of the first phase in the master plan. That way, if anything goes wrong, a solution can be worked on. Is this an insurance plan for any future difficulties, or is it a precautionary measure to ensure the best methods are practiced.
When imagining the kind of city Masdar will be, we can refer to the many renderings and videos that have come out into the press. In brief, “Masdar would appear to be an extremely commercialized city populated by imported foreigners and totally disconnected from its local surroundings (TreeHugger).” Therefore, it is not surprising that this city has been associated with a utopian vision. The master plan boasts of solutions for transportation, energy use, and water and waste management. As part of their description, the city can be largely seen as neighborhoods where the environment is highly controlled, monitored, and adjusted as needed. Massive solar energy could eventually lead to artificially contained environments for the inhabitants, agricultural food sources, and more. However, is this desirable? Author, theorist, philosopher, Richard Register says no. In the article he states, “But the kind of synthetic life there would seem unbearable to anyone who love natural animals or plants. Very weird.” He raises a good point. It doesn’t appear like the best suggestion to virtually isolate a human population from natural resources all together and create a miniature self-sustaining environment. It’s just not how nature works.
In addition, its ability to mesh and grow with existing cities may become a future obstacle. Dr. Sahar Attia, Professor of Planning and Urban Design at Cairo University, claims, “If Masdar is completely isolated, then wit will face severe growth problems. It will remain a physically utopian model, but not a real city (TreeHugger).”
Another critic who finds the Masdar City a bit unrealistic is Christopher Choa, architect and principal with EDAW. In the same article he argues two main weaknesses in the city’s scheme. That is, its expense personal rapid transit program and lack of flexibility in the city’s development. He claims that the city seems to rely a great deal on the transit system development and a highly engineered infrastructure network. Without one or the other, the city will fail as a scheme. The infrastructure will make “it very difficult to collaborate with sub-developers and deliver the scheme in a way that responds flexibly to phasing, market demand, and developer capabilities.”
With so many issues at hand, it is hard to predict what will happen with the Masdar Initiative and its city. But since construction has begun, we can take a look at the beginnings. In Ivan Watson’s “Dubai Economic Boom Comes at a Price for Worker,” he describes the city as a place for the wealthy foreigners at the cost of poorly paid workers. “They say the city’s economic miracle would not be possible without armies of poorly paid construction workers from the Indian subcontinent, most of whom are forced to give up their passports upon arrival in the U.A.E. Some workers say they haven’t been home in years and that their salary has been withheld to pay back loans.” While this does not create much of a concern for the U.A.E. since the project is still underway, it does bring up the question of who is the U.A.E. really trying to help? This disparity between the rich and the poor is not a new concept in societal systems, but it would help their good cause if they could somehow incorporate a humanitarian clause to their vision. Instead of a “triple bottom line” where the provisions are good for business (money), people (the social good), and the planet, they could reinforce it with a fourth line of helping those in their country that need help the most.
In the end, we still have a combination of issues that are hard to judge without results. Although they may have a convincing vision for the future of Abu Dhabi, its success and virtue are equally questionable. However, maybe it is better for such a powerful group, with sufficient funds, to work towards a progressive, green initiative, instead of neglecting the need for them altogether.