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We will succeed or fail—together (III/IV): the future

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By John L. Craig

· 17 min read

This is part three of a four-part series on caring for our built natural environment. You can find part one here, part two here, and part four here.

The world is overwhelmingly short-term focused, and no one really knows what the future holds as the global built-natural environment evolves. It likely will be more or less recognizable compared to today. Many of us, but not all, have enjoyed living in a high-quality built environment/standard of living while our natural environment has degraded, largely unnoticed by many. Changes to our built-natural environment will likely not happen quickly but over decades, centuries, and millennia (if this isn’t considered quickly, which is a relative term).

During this time, our built-natural environment is poised for significant change, some for the worse and hopefully some for the better (World Economic Forum, 2023). There is also the Doomsday Clock, originally established with the involvement of Albert Einstein to approximate humanity’s end from nuclear weapons. It has since been expanded to include other threats, and that clock keeps moving forward toward midnight (Weise, 2023a).

There are also dire predictions from credible sources and acknowledgment that it is too late to fully prevent the resulting impacts (Jazeera, 2023, Ripple et al., 2023; Sumata, 2023). These predictions include ones from a Nobel Peace Prize-winning collection of scientists and perhaps the greatest group of scientists ever assembled—the International Governmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC (2023). The press has highlighted this report (e.g., 9News, 2023; Borenstein and Jordans, 2023; Rice and Pulver, 2023). Others forecast variations in this future, but they are not substantially different (Barrage and Nordhaus, 2023; Watts, 2023; van der Wijst et al., 2023). 

These are in addition to the prescient 1972 Limits to Growth projections (Meadows et al., 1972), updates and various off-shoot initiatives (Bardi and Pereira, 2022; Herrington 2022), and myriad associated efforts (We Don’t Have Time, nd) that have precipitated this four-part series. There are also more optimistic outlooks based on currently available technologies (Weise, 2023b). Although somewhat dated, one study found that not one of 150 countries meets the basic needs of its citizens at a globally sustainable level of resource use (O’Neill et al., 2018). An interesting link is also provided with this citation (O’Neill et al., 2018) that provides a comparison of various resource usage for these 150 countries. Ultimately, no one precisely knows what the future holds, although the facts and trend lines of the risks to our global society, economy, and built and natural environments appear indisputable. Thus, it may be best to view these various scenarios within a “cone of possibilities” while planning and preparing for the worst.

Some projections are that sea levels will rise 12 inches by 2050 (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2022a). That’s less than 27 years from now. Ten percent of the world’s population live in coastal areas less than 32 feet above sea level (Bressan, 2021), 267 million are less than six feet above sea level, 44 percent live within about 90 miles of the coast, and eight of the ten largest cities in the world are near a coast (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2022b). This does not consider more intense storms (marine and terrestrial) from increased heat in the oceans and the atmosphere. Biodiversity extinction continues at alarming rates (70 percent of wildlife is already lost). That diversity is the basis of a healthy planetary ecosystem for all living things, including humans.

Biodiversity encompasses the living nature in all its variety. It provides many services, including climate regulation, pollination and soil formation, decomposing wastes, provision of raw materials, and contributions to our mental and physical well-being. There are three dimensions to biodiversity: ecosystems, species, and genetics. More than 90% of biodiversity loss is caused by five drivers: land degradation and habitat destruction, resource (over) exploitation, climate change, pollution, and invasive species.”

Avice-Hyet and Petit, 2023

It’s hard to estimate other high risks, including continuing wars such as in Ukraine. The coming decade will largely determine whether we will succeed or fail in maintaining a quality, built-natural environment for all within a healthy global ecosystem.

Politics may seem real (and it has a definite impact on our lives, positive and negative), but it’s not reality even though it feels like it since we’ve all been raised within economic and societal systems.  The natural environment is the base reality of a livable built-natural environment including the natural resources we need to have quality lives (clean air, clean water, clean food, etc.).

Ultimately, “Mother Nature” holds the “trump card,” while the built environment and the natural resources we need will pay the price financially and economically, quality of life, and extinction of species, potentially including ourselves. Even the rich are subject to Mother Nature’s laws and behaviors. While they may be able to protect themselves from her ravages for a while, eventually, she will impact them as she is the most vulnerable. (Jazeera, 2022).

Our world is approaching a mass extinction of nature, similar to those caused by the asteroid that slammed into the Gulf of Mexico 66 million years ago, ending the Cretaceous period and the age of dinosaurs. The asteroid wiped out 75% of all life on Earth. The difference this time is that slow-motion destruction is still progressing right before our human eyes (Ramanujan, 2021). The net consequences for nature, including humans, could be catastrophic given time and events unless we take them seriously.  (Cowie et al., 2022; Dryden and Duncan, 2022; Greenfield, 2023; Greshko, 2021; McGuigan, 2022). Understanding both the physical and social tipping points is critical to mitigate and avoid the worst impacts (National Academies, 2023b). One intriguing book recently released explores the contribution of social sciences in conservation and conserving biodiversity (Miller et al, 2023). A better understanding is essential considering the central role humans are playing in the Anthropocene Epoch and the degradation of our global ecosystem (McCoy, 2023). Moreover, nature will help us save the planet if we let it (Carew, 2023).

The central challenge for us as humans is to see ourselves as part of the natural world, not separate or superior to it (Figure 4). There is hope and movement in a recent initiative called the Well-Being Economy Governments Partnership (Meredith, 2023). This effort seems to be growing and is one to watch. It was stunning that the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, recently condemned the obsession with economic growth and urged the country to rebalance the economy, ecology, and ethics (Leahy, 2023). Valuing various aspects of nature, such as infrastructure, continues (The Editors, 2023). There are also many other ideas and efforts underway. Some of these are Reuters (2023), Rotterdam School of Management (2020), Savini (2022), Stanway (2023), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Program Engineering with Nature (U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, n.d.), National Academies (2022), and United Nations (2023b). This does not exclude the vast number of other efforts underway (e.g., Puko, 2023). The European Union has recently established sustainability rules that will require more rigorous reporting by companies around the world (Holger, 2023). Recently, the small Pacific Island country of Vanuatu is poised to gain UN approval to seek an unprecedented legal opinion from The Hague on what obligation countries have to combat climate change (Freedman, 2023). This is another aspect to watch for how it develops. With my background in transportation, it is appropriate to give a nod to the myriad efforts in that venue (Khatib, 2023). Technology advances are also in the mix (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2023c). It is also encouraging to see other system integration efforts, in this case, the integration of ecosystem health and public health (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2023a). After all, we are all dependent on a healthy ecosystem.

Figure 4. Humans superior to or separate from versus a part of the natural world. (Source: Hans Lak LinkedIn post 11-21-2022)

Humans superior to or separate from versus a part of the natural world

While the science behind how and how quickly our global ecosystem will change is not precise, the risks could not be higher in dismissing the timing or severity of these changes. While world-class scientists have overwhelming evidence of the impacts and how to mitigate them (United Nations Thailand, 2023, World Economic Forum, 2022, 2023), we cannot become seduced into ignoring or reducing the urgency of arguments on the precision (Bailey, 2023) of what can be done to mitigate the greatest impacts, or outright misinformation and denials (Banerjee et al., 2021). Others, including banks (Kusnetz, 2023), have not sufficiently moved toward a more sustainable built-natural environment. Inadequate action will only increase the risks. There are confounding features of our global environment, such as the net growth of Antarctic Sea ice, that have yet to be explained and appear to be acting differently than the Arctic relative to global warming (Blanchard-Wrigglesworth et al., 2022; Antarctica Journal, 2023; NASA Earth Observatory n.d.; Parkinson, 2019). This does not mean that global warming is not real, but it does point out we have a lot to understand.

Planet Earth has one global ecosystem that contains a subordinate human global society and economy. In protecting our planet Earth, re-ordering our human systems to be compatible with nature, and changing hearts and minds, we will succeed or fail—together. (Gergis, 2022; Watts, 2022).

In one final thought, I have recently realized that there is an inextricable link between the existential threats of balancing truly sustainable built-natural environments and of castes in the United States and around the world (Bakewell-Stone, 2021; Wilkerson, 2020)—a planetary crisis. Over the next 20 years, we are going to encounter a “karmic moment of truth” as to how we collectively determine the quality and direction of our world society, built, and natural environments (Isabel Wilkerson interview of 2-13-2023 on The Last Word news broadcast with Lawrence O’Donnell; World Economic Forum, 2023; Vespa, 2020). We must become a real pluralistic society in the United States and globally. Diversity in nature and humanity is the default, not a monoculture. Diversity provides deeper, more flexible, more resilient, and ultimately stronger systems.

In a world without caste, being male or female, light or dark, immigrant or native-born, would have no bearing on what anyone was perceived as being capable of. In a world without caste, we would all be invested in the well-being of others in our species if only for our own survival, and recognize that we are in need of one another more than we have been led to believe. We would join forces with indigenous people around the world raising the alarm as fires rage and glaciers melt. We would see that, when others suffer, the collective human body is set back from the progression of our species. A world without caste would set everyone free.”

Wilkerson, 2020

It is the human species that has fashioned the world in which we live, and the trends we have created. Likewise, our responsibility is to solve our built-natural environment challenges while resolving our caste issues. The United Nations (2023a, 2023b, 2023c), and many others have stoked, advocated, and advanced needed change. Still, “The 2020s will be remembered as the decade that determined the fate of humanity. We can each choose to be part of the critical mass that will change the world. And when we do, it will bring profound meaning and purpose to our lives.” (Lohan, 2023; Gergis, 2023).

Wisdom is knowing that you know nothing.”

—Socrates 399 B.C., from ‘Plato’s Apology’ (my simple interpretation: to have the humility for continuous learning and changing your thinking)

Let’s face it, the universe is messy. It is nonlinear, turbulent, and chaotic. It is dynamic. It spends its time in transient behavior on its way to somewhere else, not in mathematically neat equilibria. It self-organizes and evolves. It creates diversity, not uniformity. That’s what makes the world interesting, that’s what makes it beautiful, and that’s what makes it work.” 

—Donella Meadows

If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.” 

—Edward O. Wilson

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About the author

John L. Craig is a senior leader in engineering, construction, transportation, and the natural environment to improve people's lives, the economy, and the environment. He has led multibillion-dollar megaprograms in the public and private sectors, including joint ventures, public-private-partnerships, international consortiums, and joint and multinational operations.

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