Dark Days?

4 earth 2In casting up this dread balance sheet and contemplating our dangers with a disillusioned eye, I see great reason for intense vigilance and exertion, but none whatsoever for despair.”

~Winston Churchill, June 1940

Every day I am bombarded with bad news about politics, society and the environment. Crazy people in charge want to go to war with North Korea, Syria, Russia and Iran, and possibly even the “shithole” countries. We’re cutting services to the middle class and poor, and rewarding the top 1% with massive tax breaks. We seem to have condoned beating up or shooting non-white people, and decided it’s okay to arm everybody with weapons of war to make the killings more efficient.

Human and animal behavior writer Richard Conniff decries “The dark forces of human overpopulation, mass extinction of species, climate change and pollution.” He notes, “In my own lifetime, we have gone from 30 percent of the world’s population living in urban areas to 54 percent today, with the likelihood that the number will rise as high as 90 percent later in this century.”

Eillie Anzilotti quotes urban designer Peter Calthorpe, “Let me add to the complexity of the situation we find ourselves in: At the same time we’re solving for climate change, we’re going to be building cities for 3 billion people.” By 2050, we will see the urban population double, and if we don’t manage to sustainably and practically build to accommodate that growth, “I’m not sure that all the climate solutions in the world will help save mankind,” Calthorpe said.

Calthorpe sees the real enemy to progress as sprawl, but “sprawl can happen anywhere, at any density: Its key attribute is that it isolates people … Separating people into economic enclaves and land-use enclaves, dividing them from nature, and prioritizing vehicle transportation (all key features of sprawl) doesn’t allow for the kind of close-knit, communicative growth that allows cities to develop in a way that hinders, not hastens, climate change.”

Joe Walston, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, tells Conniff that he sees hope in “the four pillars of conservation in the modern era — a stabilized human population, increasingly concentrated in urban areas, able to escape extreme poverty, and with a shared understanding of nature and the environment.” He singles out the trend toward urbanization as the biggest driver of environmental progress, bigger perhaps than all the conservation efforts taken by governments and environmental groups alike.

New arrivals from the countryside get better access to medical care, decreased child mortality (fewer children), better schooling and more rewarding work lives.

Calthorpe believes that only by promoting what works for humans and fostering social wellbeing, economic equality, and a sense of connectedness, will we stand a chance, as a global society, to fight climate change. He proposes eight “Planning Cities for People” Principles:

  1. Develop neighborhoods that promote walking
  2. Prioritize bicycle networks
  3. Create dense networks of streets and paths
  4. Support high-quality transit
  5. Zone for mixed-use neighborhoods
  6. Match density to transit capacity
  7. Create compact regions with short commutes
  8. Increase mobility by regulating parking and road use

Conniff explains that such actions include short-term costs, such as an increase in overall consumption, but reduce per capita energy consumption and birth rates; and reopen old habitats in abandoned rural areas to wildlife. He sees a need to improve cities and their ability to provide the basic ingredients of public health including sewage disposal, garbage removal, clean water delivery, and a continuing connection to the natural world.

Calthorpe expressed his optimism about our future, “The way we shape cities is a manifestation of the kind of humanity we bring to bear.”

I believe that our humanity, in spite of all our flaws and idiosyncrasies, gives us “great reason for intense vigilance and exertion, but none whatsoever for despair.”

Additional information:

Eillie Anzilotti, Fighting Climate Change Means Building Dense, Diverse, Walkable Cities, 04.26.17, Fast Company

Richard Conniff, Earth Day Despair? Read This, April 22, 2018, The New York Times

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