Printer Friendly

Human systems and ecosystems: we need a new way of thinking.

I have not spent my career as an environmentalist. I have worked as a professor, a businessman, a real estate entrepreneur, a consultant. For the last 20 years, I have consulted around the country and the world, advising urban regions on how they might best develop and thrive. Leaders hire my firm to make their economies more efficient and robust. Yet the resulting prosperity has an unintended consequence: the ever more rapid deterioration of nature.

I am convinced, however, that the environment is not the problem. We are the problem. How we create a framework for development, or don't, is the problem. We must develop new strategies to more fully integrate human activities with nature. Unless we create a new framework that includes the environment and guides the growth of our cities and our economy, we will destroy the environment. If we cripple nature, then we also will lose our prosperity and all that goes with it.


My firm advises regions such as Melbourne, Australia, New York's Hudson Valley, Memphis, and Cincinnati as well as states such as New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Rhode Island and Connecticut. In each place, we try to help leaders and citizens create a long-term approach that will help their particular area prosper in the context of local, national and global networks of trade, transportation, information and so on. Although my company addresses many aspects of development--economic development, healthcare, culture--I began to notice that local leaders seldom asked what to do about the environment. They were always interested in other things, usually building a piece of their community: the roads, or the economy or the education system.


The frameworks my firm creates for regions emphasize that successful development in the future will be conceived and executed on a regional level. We work at very large scales: In Cincinnati and Memphis, we created strategies for regions that sprawled across three states. In the Orlando area, we helped devise a allows 150 communities across seven counties to work together on a variety of issues.

Urban regions have various systems to meet their needs and grow. They are like biological organisms. In a living organism like a human body, following a low-fat diet won't help reduce high blood pressure if a person keeps smoking, or remains under constant stress. Each system affects the other.

A regional urban "body" is interconnected like this: Economic development won't be effective unless transportation, education and many other systems are also considered. One sector of a region or an economy cannot thrive in isolation, I tell local policy makers. We have to look at everything: all the systems both human and natural. Then we need to consider how all these systems work together. Each thing affects everything else. Our firm's model says that there are at least 10 basic systems that every region must take into account. One of these is the environment.


In place after place, as we try to help leaders think and plan in these big picture frameworks, I find that officials usually think of the environment as context, a backdrop, just raw land. Or they think of the environment as a problem: something that might limit road funding, for instance, if federal air quality standards are violated. When I bring up environmental issues, leaders are quick to say, "OK, let's look at this." But it's not their focus, and they are a little afraid of the whole topic.

Gradually, I have come to understand this: For local leaders, dealing with the "environment" with a capital E seems like opening a giant Pandora's box. In my experience, everybody recognizes that something should be done about keeping air and water clean, about preserving open space and wildlife. But they worry that addressing those issues will simply create barriers to their other goals. I find that the resistance to dealing with the environment is a product of the regulatory way government deals with nature. The underlying fear of local leaders is, "Don't bring up the environment! We'll just end up with more regulators and regulations!"

Or if they do want to address environmental issues, leaders focus on the tangle of state and federal regulations and then ask what rule should be their focus. They usually don't ask about a way to strengthen their region's environmental system or about a plan for reducing greenhouse gases. They usually don't understand why those environmental strategies are crucial, nor do they understand how their region fits into the global ecosystem.


When my firm suggests that leaders simply look at the environment as a system--just like any other system--things begin to change. They start to see how their home fits into the global environment. They begin to appreciate how local climate, topography and biodiversity make their region unique, and how they fit into global patterns of trade and commerce. When nature is demystified, leaders stop avoiding environmental considerations. They start seeing opportunities, solutions, allies.

At the base of every environmental issue, at the base of every local leader's quandary--whether it's tree canopy, water pollution, biodiversity, or invasive species--lies a fundamental competition and collision between two systems, between two "networks:" the natural network and the human network. When forests and other resources seemed limitless, we didn't need to think or work within a framework that balanced and integrated the needs of both systems. We just planned and constructed our cities, our industries and our transportation networks as we pleased. Human networks--cities, roads and businesses--could occupy separate territory. We could delude ourselves that nature was "out there," somewhere else, in a park or in a remote wilderness.


Within the next few years, more of humanity will live in cities than in the countryside; we will become an urban species. The United Nations projects the world population will be nearly 9 billion by 2050. As humans take up ever more space, manmade and natural networks are intertwining.

The conflict between man and nature is becoming impossible to ignore, as the world economy grows at an astounding rate. According to World Bank figures, the economy reached $30 trillion in annual value by the year 2000. Just four years later, in 2004, that figure had soared to $41.6 trillion. Economic growth is beginning to outstrip population growth, creating a conflict between humanity's desire for the good life and nature's ability to support it. Mega-cities like Delhi, Sao Paolo and New York, expand on every continent, strengthening their connections to each other and to the resources they need.



Urban regions demand more food, more cars, more housing, more furniture, more concrete and asphalt. Satisfying these demands requires that vast amounts of raw materials and manufactured goods be pulled through a giant global network that reaches into ever more remote parts of the globe. As trees are felled for farms and lumber in Sumatra, orangutans are pushed into ever-smaller scraps of habitat. The looming extinction of these apes is, at some level, the result of millions craving lattes in Manhattan.

With less and less wild and undeveloped space for natural processes to continue, the environment is losing its resilience. The weight of scientific evidence indicates that the human development is warming the earth's climate, though opinions differ on the level of this impact. And this is only one of the many ways that people are affecting the environment. As millions begin to crave fish for low-fat dinners and omega-3 anti-oxidants, aquatic populations crash. Growing suburbs and ex-urbs increasingly fragment wild habitat. That pushes the "macro" species like grizzly bears and caribou to move further north, or to become isolated in islands of wilderness, thus becoming threatened by extinction. Our booming cities consume more energy. They foul the air to such an extent that cases of pediatric asthma in the United States have skyrocketed, causing more missed school days each year than any other condition.


Obviously, things can't go on like this. We need a new way of thinking. For 99 percent of human history, "development" meant making order out of chaos, taming the wilderness. Nature equaled chaos. Cities, industries, roads equaled order, conquest. For all the recent talk of "green building" and sustainability and hybrid cars, this order-chaos, conquest-wilderness idea underlies most human endeavors, in my experience. This has to change.

We must begin to plan human activities and communities in a way that reconciles human and natural systems. Leaders must no longer be allowed to think that nature is "out there." If we're going to build a new conceptual framework, we need to see the environment in a new way: as a system just like any other system. We need to stop thinking in terms of saving pieces of unspoiled nature. We need to begin asking ourselves, instead, "What are we going to do with the nature that surrounds us daily? How will we rebuild some of what we've lost?"


If we are to more fully integrate the environment into our pursuit of regional growth and prosperity, I'd like to point out four aspects of the natural system that seem particularly important to understand at this crossroads:

* The environment is continuous. The wind doesn't just blow over the United States, it's part of a global pattern of moving air currents. Water starts out as snow falling on Mt. Everest, melts, flows to the ocean, and after hundreds or thousands of years it may end up in your local stream.

* The environment is interactive. Water flows down a hill, picking up dirt that silts up a river and builds soil. The soil gives rise to plants that attract creatures. Everything is food for something else, in a web of action and reaction so complex that we still don't really understand it. Nature is not just a scenic landscape, it's a process.

* The environment is everywhere. Nature is not just outside. It's in your town, in your house.

* The environment is living. Nature grows on its own, sustains itself, renews itself.


Now contrast these qualities of the natural system with the system humanity has created, what I have come to call "the Global Network." This Network is wholly manmade, created by evolving technologies. It must consume resources to survive. Wood must be logged and fields planted; the Amazon and the Siberian forests degraded so that subdivisions can march across the high plains outside Denver, so that more mega-skyscrapers can rise in Kuala Lumpur. The Global Network must eat the planet to continue.

What is the Network? It is the summation of all the things that move people, goods and information around the world. It is the foundation of civilization. We talk about the physical parts of the Network all the time: the Internet, the phone system, the transportation system. But we seldom think of the Network as a totality, as the physical and technological means by which globalization occurs. It is not the physical infrastructure of roads, shipping lanes, and airlines that is the most important to consider in this context. What most impacts the environment is the vast stream of resources and products that travel through these avenues of commerce: plates and silverware and animal carcasses and oil. At night, if you look out from a high-rise building in a major city, you can see the flow of traffic lights that never stops. If you trace these corridors on a globe they look like arteries in a circulatory system, part of a vast system of economic veins and capillaries.

When the world was divided between the Communist and Free World blocs, human networks were also divided. Now, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the integrated Network is becoming truly global. It is wrapping the entire planet like a giant spider web. It is forming ever tighter webs in urban areas. It reaches out into more remote areas, fracturing the environment in the pursuit of raw materials. This results in further erosion, deforestation, desertification, pollution and depletion at an ever-accelerating rate. As the Network grows and becomes more sophisticated, it can do things it couldn't do before. The network now has increased its ability to do remote sensing, data storage, memory and analysis.


It is precisely because this Network appears so mundane, so ordinary that it remains largely invisible and entirely misunderstood. Most people don't think of the world in these terms. Environmentalists don't know how to approach the Network, and tend to see everything associated with it as a problem. Business and political leaders see only the part of the Network that affects whatever their interest happens to be. We must integrate the Network into our thinking about people and nature.


Each region and state that seeks out help from my firm suffers from the usual affects that human activity wreaks upon the environment. In each place, the Network affects the environment in one or more of five predictable, major ways:

* The Network fractures Nature.

In every region and state, new transportation plans were being formulated that increased the size of the metropolitan grid. In Memphis, a vast ring road was constructed far beyond the edge of the metro area. The planners believed, misguidedly, that the highway would provide for future growth. In fact, it will lead to more low-density, urban sprawl, and further environmental fragmentation.

* The Network depletes Nature.

Across the world the demand for non-renewable resources is decimating natural areas. Nationwide, only 6 percent of the once vast, old growth forests are left. Timber companies are clear-cutting huge swathes of the Canadian Rockies.


* The Network pollutes Nature.

In every region where my firm has consulted, air and water pollution, as well soil pollution--"brown-fields" left over from abandoned factories--remain serious issues. Memphis draws its water from underground rivers that flow 500 to 3,500 feet below the Mississippi riverbed. Protecting the aquifers has become a critical regional issue.

* The Network erodes Nature.

In Chicago, Los Angeles, Orlando, Memphis, Atlanta and other regions, the expanding network is leading to greater urban sprawl. As regions grow, they erode the natural landscape. East of the Mississippi, urban areas have lost 30 percent of their tree cover, according to AMERICAN FORESTS' Urban Ecosystem analysis.

* The Network is making Nature extinct.

In Orlando, the turtles in Indian River Lagoon are covered with huge cancers, a result of water pollution. As the suburbs push ever outward, they encroach on wild areas. The Chicago suburbs provide habitat for more threatened species than any other area in the state of Illinois.


What I have seen in the regions where my firm has-worked is what planners and leaders face everywhere: a general degradation of nature, leading to a loss of resilience and to an inability to regenerate. Local and regional leaders are often baffled and troubled by this. They have difficulty grasping that their daily decisions contribute to these natural losses. No businessperson or local leader or entrepreneur says, "I want to destroy the environment." But they soldier on without an overarching strategy and end up destroying the environment anyway.

Environmentalists remain equally unaware of the demands of the Global Network. Many persist in seeing any development as bad. That blinds them from seeing possible alliances and removes them from any role in global development. In many places we have consulted, business leaders and environmentalists just end up staring at each other from opposite sides of a conference table, frozen in their positions.

The standoff continues as long as leaders continue to view the natural network as something separate and apart from the human network. We work to change that perspective.


Each region that my firm has advised forms part of the Global Network, as does each small town in Iowa, each village in Kenya. We work to make regions see these connections. We help them to realize that their state is linked globally, and that they compete globally. They are part of the global environment.

The Orlando, Florida area, for instance, competed for Disney World. Now Orlando's theme parks are part of a global network of amusement parks and tourist attractions. But Orlando is not just about family entertainment.


Gradually, we helped local leaders understand that Orlando's environment is also part of a natural network, a global ecology. While Central Florida is flat and not as scenic as, say, Boulder, Colorado or San Francisco. Yet the Orlando area is unique and has tremendous ecological importance: It is the only place in North America where tropical ecologies overlap with temperate ones. Hidden in all that flatness and in the murky swamps and estuaries, incredible biodiversity thrives: more than 400 species in the Indian River Estuary alone. We showed leaders there that preserving this natural richness was inextricably linked to creating value in real estate, to creating eco-tourism businesses, to building the rest of the economy.

Leaders slowly learned to stop thinking of the environment simply as a new park or nature area, and see it as a continuous system woven into their region. As a result, they began to link the region's growth to the environment, to form a more integrated strategy that takes into account all the swamps and rivers, that pushed the region as a birding destination. Indian River Estuary birding ads now appear in magazines like Sierra and Audubon.

For at least a generation, people in Memphis turned their backs on their waterfront. No one looked to the Mississippi River as a destination, or an amenity. The river was just for transportation, a part of the sewer system. Yet after leaders there worked with our firm, they started to become aware that their city lies along the trunk line of the Mississippi flyway, a global corridor for birds so vast that avian migrations along this route can be seen from outer space. Now Memphis leaders are learning to embrace their river, creating a 120-mile green corridor that combines parks, communities and businesses with natural preserves and bird sanctuaries.


In these places, and in others where my firm has worked, leaders have begun to stop seeing their cities and counties as points on a globe. Instead, they are trying to see their regions as manmade networks that form part of giant currents of goods, products and information that traverse the globe.

They are beginning to see the environment as a system interwoven with the human Global Network. They are trying to see nature as something tangible that courses through their cities, towns and regions, just like the roads. They are making progress by treating nature like any other system. When we talk about "environmental systems," it gives officials and business leaders a new context, a new vocabulary, a new set of ideas. They begin to address natural areas as if they had the same standing as interstate highways. Nature begins to count.

In Cincinnati, the idea of linking human systems and natural systems inspired leaders to create a vision much larger than a downtown riverfront park. They embraced the concept of a 160-mile-long environmental corridor along the Ohio River. In Rhode Island, the Economic Policy director, Kip Bergstrom is leading an initiative to preserve the "Gap," the last large track of natural landscape in the northeast. Bergstrom and other leaders believe in the Gap's value for the state and for the region.



People often argue that human society and the environment are too big, too mutable, too complex to be planned as systems. True, our firm and the local planners and leaders we work with don't know, and can't do, everything. But together, we have made a start in each region. Once the environment was seen as a system big things begin to happen. Leaders and citizens start to see that they can make a difference.

In all these places, we have made progress by beginning to adapt the human network to the natural network. We began to build a framework through which the natural network and the human network could become more integrated. We moved beyond just protecting and started thinking about how to rebuild and reconnect. We began to fit these two systems--human and natural--together. Imagine what could happen if we adopted such an approach on a national, or global, scale.

Michael Gallis, the newest member of the AMERICAN FORESTS Board of Directors, is an urban strategist and a principal of Michael Gallis & Associates, a Charlotte, North Carolina strategic planning and design firm. Gallis' company has clients around the country and the world. He and his firm have received many honors, including two National Economic Development awards and a National Design Award from the U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Gallis was formerly a professor at University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He founded his firm in 1988.

Brooklyn-based writer and editor Heather Millar has written for many magazines, including The Atlantic Monthly, Smithsonian, Sierra and National Wildlife. She is the author or co-author of four books.
COPYRIGHT 2006 American Forests
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Millar, Heather
Publication:American Forests
Date:Sep 22, 2006
Previous Article:The initiative in a nutshell: why we call for a new framework.
Next Article:People and nature: where we've been, where we need to go; A collection of essays.

Related Articles
Tough choices in old forests.
Ecosystem management: a leap ahead.
Ecologists go to town; investigations in Baltimore and Phoenix forge a new ecology of cities.
Are humans part of ecosystems?
Mary Pearl: looking for hot spots.
Using human disease outbreaks as a guide to multilevel ecosystem interventions.
America's oceans: a blueprint for the future.
Wanted: a new framework; Polices to rebuild and restore the environment must take the big view: they must take both human and natural systems into...

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters