The other day I was attending an EPA retirees brunch. “Why do you focus so much on cities?” a colleague asked. “You’re an environmental scientist.”

“Because it is the human habitat,” I answered. Just as bees live in hives and prairie dogs live in colonies, humans live in cities. Over 50 percent of the global human population lives in an urban environment. By 2050, nearly 70 percent of the world’s human population will be urban. In the U.S. and Europe, it already exceeds 80 percent.

The Break Free LA crowd from the steps of city hall. (Photo Credit: Belinda Waymouth)

The Break Free LA crowd from the steps of city hall. (Photo Credit: Belinda Waymouth)

If we are to address sustainable development, climate change, a rapidly changing economy and population, we must study where most of humanity lives.

All habitats are made up of a synergism of systems and the flow of energy. Energy supplies the power to run those systems. Nutrients feed the organisms and power moves things through the habitat. Understanding those systems and the efficient use of energy can be transferred to the operation of human habitats.

Calculating Units of Humanity

Cathedral termite mound, Litchfield National Park, Northern Territory, Australia. (Photo Credit: J Brew / Flickr)

Cathedral termite mound, Litchfield National Park, Northern Territory, Australia. (Photo Credit: J Brew / Flickr)

Homes are habitats for one unit of humanity. Cities are another. Nation states, regions and international associations can comprise economic as well as cultural systems within our planetary habitat.

A single species may live in a wide variety of environments. For example, a termite in Africa may find that building a structure of mud and wattle will provide shelter, insulation, a nursery for their young and food storage. In the southern Rockies, a termite may live in the rotting subfloor of a cabin, but the systems that sustain these two populations will have similarities.

If we are to make the human habitat more sustainable and efficient, we should study the way other human populations have adapted to their cities. Where are there efficiencies and waste? What economic, social and environmental experiments have proven successful or not? Experimentation and bold ideas are necessary if we are to be able to adapt to the stresses of our growing numbers and the limits of the planet.

We Can’t Be Afraid of Change

One of the cultural problems that has become abundantly clear is cultural resistance to change. Perhaps the greatest problem with sustainable development isn’t a changing climate or limited resources. Resistance to change, especially rapid change, threatens our virtual and even literal security. Rapid, wholesale change is now necessary. We must utilize the science and technology we already possess to guide us through a massive paradigm change in the way we live. We will be faced with even greater stress and threats to our security if we don’t.

We must think outside the box of convention. It is difficult to get anywhere if we don’t know where we are going. What kind of future do we want? The clearer we can make that image, the more likely it will be that we can chart a path.

The Ivanpah Project is the world's largest operational solar thermal power plant - providing power to 140,000 homes and located in California's Mojave Desert. (Photo courtesy of California Energy Commission)

The Ivanpah Project is the world’s largest operational solar thermal power plant – providing power to 140,000 homes and located in California’s Mojave Desert. (Photo courtesy of California Energy Commission)

The best way to predict the future is to design it. Bold and imaginative dreams should be encouraged because incremental steps within the established systems won’t get us there in time. We should establish an internet of bold ideas and experiments from around the world. What works in Rotterdam may have applications in Miami. A photo-thermal plant in the Mojave may also work in Morocco or Tunisia. Vertical gardens in Malmo, Sweden might work in Seattle.

The Three Pillars of Sustainable Development

The human habitat is the city. The three pillars of sustainable development are the social, the environmental and the economy. These three pillars apply to termites as well as human habitats.

The good news is that urban environments already have human social, environmental and economic systems of governance in place. We don’t have to change the language of environmental adaptation to become more sustainable. A small but influential portion of the population balks at terms like “global warming” and “climate change.” We shouldn’t get locked in a debate about global warming. We don’t even have to use the term climate change. We can use the language of efficiency, human well-being, a stable and more aesthetic environment, and short- and long-term reductions in cost.

The Wind Tree (Image Credit: New Wind)

Turbine trees like this prototype could generate enough energy for local parks and shopping centers. (Image Credit: New Wind)

Step one is to encourage bold and creative ideas. The bolder the better. We can always back off, but failure because we didn’t dream boldly enough is inexcusable. We need a revolution. There simply isn’t time to be timid. Without doubt, this is a battle for our very survival. We need a Manhattan Project kind of zeal to succeed.

Step two is to engage the full spectrum of stakeholders in the imagineering process. This includes the private, academic, business and political sectors.

Step three is to improve public awareness through an accelerated outreach by media and education. The media must not focus on the conflict between ideas and personalities, but the merits of those ideas.

Step four is to imbed the reiterative process of experimentation and feedback into the process of planning and policy. This will allow constant adaptation and adjustments to change.

With a clear image of the future, we can back-cast to where we are. Then we can design the pathway connecting the present to the dream of a better and more sustainable future.

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