Above photo: Bicycle and pedestrian only highway in Frankfurt, Germany.
Threading the Needle Part II.
Saving nature without sacrificing modern life is the preeminent challenge of our time. Here’s how we do it.
Saving nature without sacrificing modern life is the preeminent challenge of our time. It is a complicated problem that must be attacked simultaneously from multiple angles. Failure to act on one angle will invalidate efforts on other angles.
This problem must be addressed in two distinct phases. First, we must stop living in a manner that actively harms both ourselves and the natural world. Then, we must learn how to create a world where both nature and humanity thrive. This two-part article will explore how we can reorganize our civilization to be compatible with such a vision.
Part I can be found here.
Part II: Integration and Prosperity
In Part I, we discussed how to stop harming the natural world, but what would it look like for humanity and nature to thrive together? This is a question whose answer requires a radical restructuring of how, where, and “when” we live.
Reintegrating humanity into natural systems and landscapes will require different approaches based on population density and locality. Reintegration of rural regions would center on rewilding and conservation. Reintegration of degraded lands or sparse-to-moderately populated regions could focus on careful and intentional land management and resource extraction practices for human benefit. Reintegration of densely populated regions would require intentional city planning and novel approaches to urban design.
Rewilding is a large-scale conservation strategy that restores and protects core wilderness areas, provides connectivity between these areas, and protects or reintroduces apex predators and other keystone species. The ultimate goal of rewilding efforts is to restore ecosystems to a point where they are passively managed with near pre-human levels of biodiversity.
An example of this is the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, where after 70 years of their extirpation, they were reintroduced to the park. The reintroduction of wolves helped to stabilize the ecosystem by ending the boom and bust cycles that had plagued the elk population for decades. The wolves also contributed to the elk herds becoming more resilient to variable climate patterns, due to the wolves’ specific pattern of predation.
As another example of rewilding contributing to ecosystem resilience, rewilding can result in feedback loops that reinforce ecosystem integrity. An example of this could be restoration of oyster reefs. Increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide has led to lower oceanic pH, known as ocean acidification. This has corrosive effects on calcareous organisms, such as oysters.
However, if oysters are raised in sufficient quantities, they can serve as a local pH buffer, stabilizing local pH and diminishing the effects of ocean acidification. This then leads to the encouragement of more oyster growth, which then further stabilizes local pH. As a positive side effect, large amounts of carbon could be sequestered in the shells of restored oyster reefs.
Rewilding has enormous potential to sequester vast amounts of carbon in soils and living systems, potentially offsetting the worst impacts of climate change. Despite the increasing need for us to sequester atmospheric carbon and its inclusion in climate projections, the only way we know how to sequester carbon at scale is in living systems.
Additionally, as global biodiversity losses compound, it has become increasingly apparent that our protected lands and waters are by no means enough to halt catastrophic levels of species extinctions. Rather, now is the time for bold and decisive action that will put to rest fears of mass extinction.
Reducing the footprint of agriculture, eliminating ranching, and shifting the remaining footprint of agriculture to be within urban regions would free an enormous amount of land. It must first be considered though that much of this land has been heavily degraded by decades of intensive agriculture and livestock grazing.
To maximize the effectiveness of available resources, an inventory should be taken to determine the best candidate regions for rehabilitation. This inventory could look at potential for carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation, and restoration.
Restoring these degraded lands would be challenging but could also be the most rewarding project humanity undertakes in the 21st century. Amid concerns of automation displacing workers, restoring hundreds of millions of acres of wildlands globally would require a workforce like no other.
And unlike many jobs today, the work to restore nature on an unprecedented scale could very well imbue a strong and deep sense of purpose. Restoration of the world’s wildlands would also require collaboration between nations on a scale never seen before, bringing the global community together in a new and profound way.
Perhaps the most important collaboration in this undertaking would occur between scientists and indigenous peoples. Many indigenous peoples possess a deep knowledge of sustainable land management practices localized to the regions they occupied. These land management practices were disrupted when European colonists stole their land.
Coupled with modern science, we could reinstate some of these land management practices, and come to better understandings of how to maximize ecosystem services for carbon sequestration, conservation of biodiversity, and climate resilience.
Taking this collaboration a step further, the US could honor past treaties with First Nations peoples to the extent that it is possible. First Nations peoples have generally proven themselves as far better stewards of land than their European counterparts. From a cultural perspective, it is just as important to heal and restore our human landscape as the natural landscape. In an increasingly volatile world, it is our collective resolve that will give us the best chance of navigating the turbulent times ahead.
Degraded and Moderately Populated Regions:
Humans will always require a steady flow of resources for civilization to function. This will not change, even under a circular economy in which all waste streams have been eliminated and all possible materials are recycled back into production chains. Rather, to minimize harm, we must practice careful and intentional land management and resource extraction. Degraded and sparsely-to-moderately populated lands would be best suited for such purposes.
Degraded lands that would be difficult to restore could be considered prime candidates for resource extraction sites, concentrating the environmental impact of heavy industry such as mining. Modern mining practices can further reduce environmental impact through such practices as reprocessing tailings to extract additional minerals, dewatering tailings and reusing the water, and dry-stacking tailings to improve long-term stability of storage.
Rare-earth elements are essential for many sources of renewable energy and electronics. Mining them is generally regarded as harmful because their tailings contain high concentrations of radioactive elements such as thorium and uranium. We can mitigate this hazard by processing their tailings into nuclear fuel for modern reactors. Such reactors produce minimal waste and have much lower associated risks. This would provide a new source of low-carbon energy while reducing the hazardous waste associated with manufacturing electronics and renewables.
While bulk caloric food production would be moved into urban centers, the surrounding areas could host food forests and edible permaculture landscapes. This could provide complementing locally and seasonally appropriate foods to what can be grown within urban vertical farms. Permaculture, food forests, and edible landscaping would be best suited for areas of moderate population density, turning surrounding population centers into lush harvestable gardens and parks.
Silviculture and forestry are other examples of intentional land management requisite for modern life. Modern forestry practices can balance a variety of needs, including conservation and wildlife habitat, timber, and recreation. Silviculture could be practiced on human-caused secondary forests and similarly degraded landscapes. Remaining stands of old-growth forest have high conservation value, and thus should not be viewed as a potential resource for forestry.
Reintegrating cities into the natural world would at first seem contradictory. When most people think of nature, they think of it as a foil to civilization of which cities are the hallmark example. This is a grave mistake, as the two are inseparable and always will be. A better framing would view cities as a human extension of the landscape they occupy.
The issue we have now is that cities are not seen as an extension of the landscape, but rather exist at odds with it. We use materials that have no natural analogues. We impose structures on the land rather than allow the land to dictate what forms we build. We pretend that the natural world on which we build our cities does not exist or, worse, is an obstacle to be overcome.
We do not have to live in opposition to nature. We can draw inspiration from it instead.
If humanity is to reintegrate its urban landscape with natural cycles, it is not enough to simply close nutrient cycles and source raw material from waste rather than extraction. It must restore ecosystem functions and integrate greenspace into all structures. Structures must be built as though they are geologically fixed to the landscape and function as an extension of it.
Adding or integrating greenspace into all extant and planned structures has utility beyond aesthetic purposes. It is well documented that green space has a cooling effect that can counteract the urban heat bubble. Greenspace also plays a valuable role in managing stormwater and improving air quality. Green roofs can act as strong insulators, keeping warmer air in during the winter and out during the summer. And of course, they can be quite visually appealing.
As cities are most often vertical extensions of the landscape, they can look to cliffs and bluffs for inspiration on integrating greenspace. To mitigate engineering challenges and hazards, flora could be tiered as one ascends in elevation. Large canopy trees would remain on the ground, smaller trees could provide canopy on low to moderately tall buildings, and shrubs and forbs could be used on the tallest buildings. As cliffs often possess ledges with vegetation, we could model our buildings to similarly possess ledges with vegetation.
If integrating vegetation into the built environment is intended to be more than just aesthetically pleasing, stormwater management would be a necessity. To handle this, building designs could mimic natural topography with intermittent, cascading streams designed into buildings. This would be an excellent way to direct water within the built environment, while also retaining the functionality of natural systems of water catchment. Alongside this, waterways throughout the urban environment could be restored, and serve as receivers for stormwater runoff.
Incorporating ecosystem functionality into buildings is only one way that we could make our cities greener. Building for density makes services such as wastewater treatment, recycling, and composting easier. A high-rise is far more efficient per unit than a rural house.
Additionally, buildings that incorporate passive design elements use less energy than buildings that strictly use active design for heating and cooling. New buildings could implement these strategies, while older buildings could be retrofitted to improve insulation and energy efficiency.
At the city scale, making cities more walkable and providing public transit options can reduce emissions from vehicular traffic. To deeply cut emissions, it would seem necessary to eliminate vehicular traffic entirely from urban centers. This would come with the exception of a handful of emergency service vehicles alongside buses and streetcars. A network of electrified light rail, streetcars, and buses could be used to solve the transportation problems that remain.
The space that would be freed up from the expulsion of vehicles from urban-centers could turn streets into walkable gardens and forests full of native and edible plants. Streams that were once paved over could be “daylighted” and allow for at least partial restoration of their ecosystem services. Cities would become quieter and healthier due to improved air quality. Streets would become safer, and businesses would attract greater foot traffic.
Ultimately, far from an austere life devoid of modern comforts, a “green” future can be as rich as one is willing to imagine, just not necessarily in a strictly material sense.
Over long enough timescales, cities will have to adapt to higher and lower sea levels. Glaciers will advance and recede. Landscapes change across centuries to millennia and as landscapes change, cities must adapt with them.
Each city could have a special council that reflects on questions of sustainability over centuries. Our myths and our stories ought to reflect such long-term thinking as well.
It seems inevitable that humanity will go to colonize the planets, moons, and stars. The question I ask you now is, “what would you like for us to take with us?”
For me? I would love to see humanity take baskets of earth with us, wherever we go. And for us to realize that civilization does not have to end for nature to go on, or nature to end for civilization to go on.
We are a young species, and the great project of human civilization has only just begun. We now have the tools to write our own story, so let’s have some fun.
This brings to a conclusion the series I have worked on over the past year. I have greatly enjoyed sharing my thoughts with you, and hope that you got as much from it as I have. Perhaps, together, we can steer this careening ship called civilization into a softer landing and preserve all that is important, without letting go of our humanity.