Can Humans & Nature Mutually Thrive?

In a world of limited space and natural resources, perpetual growth is impossible. Despite this, our society urges the economy to constantly grow and the individuals to fuel this growth through ceaseless consumption of goods and services. The way we are living in the West, particularly in the United States, promotes maximum amount of fossil fuel depletion, ecological ruin, social disconnectedness, and ultimately, a lifeless, culture-less existence divorced from the planet and devoid of any true connection to the spirit of life. We have been raised and have become a product of a society that has taught us that our value as human beings is limited to our purchasing power, that less consumption equals more poverty and that appearance is more important than substance.

We are a domesticated version of the Homo Sapiens species that has succumbed to the fanciful notions of “high life” and has developed a lust for comfort, which has further desensitized us and incessantly forces the natural environment to adapt to our ever-increasing desires. So long as we live in such a world, struggles such as famine, inadequate water resources, sexual harassment, corruption, human & ecological exploitation, cultural genocide, and social inequality, will always exist. These factors are simply reflections of the larger system to which they belong.

We are creatures of habit as well as adaptation and we have survived for millions of years because of our ability to adapt to different situations and become habituated to them. Ironically, this same powerful gift that has allowed us to survive for so long is also leading to our self-induced annihilation. We are so masterful in the art of adaptation and conditioning that, in most cases, we fail to see things in a new light. Serious self-reflection and living in different cultures are among the few things we can do to identify and differentiate between life-enhancing and life-destroying attributes in order to reassess our lifestyle and continue onward in a manner that is conducive to the sustainable development of the human and ecological ecosystems.

The majority of our working force drives human-polluting and environment-polluting, gas-guzzling vehicles to an office everyday where they spend most of their waking life involved in work that is solely rooted in the abstract objective of economic profit, solves superficial problems and perpetuates the current socioeconomic system that is destined to collapse.

These deep-rooted problems – which go beyond the mundane tip-of-the-iceberg issues – are multi-faceted dilemmas that have seeped into every crevice of society. The ubiquity of unsustainability is so prominent that it has become dangerously routine and largely unrecognizable, further hindering chances of progressive change towards a viable future of human co-existence with this planet.

In India, for example, it is normal to take a stroll down a litter-ridden street and add on to the garbage by throwing your own piece of plastic into the pile. Public defecation, disregard for communal well-being and overall destruction of land and water are commonplace.

An all-too-common visual in India.
An all-too-common visual in India.

Meanwhile, in the US, we more indirectly contribute to the devastation of the social and ecological spheres with our excessively large and wasteful vehicles, roads, buildings and infrastructure in general. Buildings constitute only one sector of our society that not only takes a massive toll on our wallet and time, but also accounts for 72% of America’s energy consumption, 38% of carbon dioxide emissions, 40% of raw materials use and up to 50% of energy use (USGBC, 2014).

I interned at the US Dept. of Energy in 2013 in this ironically large and energy-inefficient building.
I interned at the US Dept. of Energy in 2013 in this ironically large and energy-inefficient building.

In whatever society we are born and raised in, these things become part of the everyday experience of life. It is witnessed and experienced by our senses on such a regular basis that we subconsciously desensitize ourselves and treat it as background noise.

The mountain of garbage and feces next to you, just like the excessively large, artificially ventilated cement block you call home, both become as ordinary as a walk in the park…or a walk in the mall.

It is evident that current buildings, including their design, construction, operations, and maintenance have an exorbitantly high environmental and socioeconomic cost – making it the antithesis of sustainable design. The built environment is one of the most pressing issues in today’s society and a fundamental shift in this industry is desperately needed if we are to make any tangible progress towards reversing our harmful actions on the environment and the life that inhabits it.

Although the building sector is an exceptionally unsustainable industry, tackling this issue requires a holistic view of the larger societal arrangement in order to make foundational changes at the systemic level. For this reason, the Urban Village project delves into the definition of a sustainable community and studies our ancestors and contemporaries for answers on how to design and build the ideal physical and social infrastructure necessary for humans to live in a progressively healthy manner that can endure into the indefinite future.

It is not only the materials used in constructing the built environment, it is also its arrangement and relationship with the natural landscape. How can we design and build communities that preserve and enhance nature, promote social cohesion and ensure economic prosperity for its citizens? How can we create a place that is worth caring for, alongside a real community, made up of real people with meaningful relationships? How can we transition people from identity-less, forlorn and polluted urban consumption zones to walkable, integrated and socially cohesive communities that preserve the natural world and inspire the innovative human spirit?

Although there is no one-size-fits-all solution to these questions, I propose to address the chief perpetrator of unsustainability on Earth: the urban city. Designing and building sustainable communities from the ground up is one matter. The considerably more challenging task is to retrofit the wasteful and debilitating scheme of contemporary cities in order to transform them into true sustainable hubs that can support the healthy coexistence and development of human and ecological realms.

Sources:

US Green Building Council, LEED Core Concepts Guide 2014.

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5 thoughts on “Can Humans & Nature Mutually Thrive?

  1. Very powerful post. Enjoyed it a lot. Interestingly, last night we were watching a Latin American TV program about a project in Colombia (I think they copied the technique from Peru) where they are constructing homes by embedding used tires, glass bottles and plastic material into the construction. I had mixed feelings about the approach. On the one hand, I love that they are recycling what otherwise would be more than likely thrown in a garbage dump, but on the other hand, I don’t know how I would feel being surrounded by tires and plastic even if I can’t see it. What do you think? http://www.eltiempo.com/estilo-de-vida/ciencia/viviendas-construidas-con-llantas-usadas/15474057

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    1. Yes, those are commonly known as “Earthships” and I LOVE the concept. I know people who have used this building technique and, in general, the materials are free, it is structurally sound and – after coating it with earthen plaster – the results can be beautiful. With that said, I also have my reservations about living in a structure comprised of man-made waste and, in theory, would rather live in something made of natural materials. The best way to find out, however, would be to try it out for ourselves and see how we feel inside!

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  2. Love this post and couldn’t agree more on your views. Here in Portland there are pockets of people trying to incorporate the sustainable building idea into communities by creating small scale neighborhood projects, but there isn’t really much push by the larger city for that sort of thing as far as large scale projects go, at least not that I’ve seen. I have seen a few construction companies that are building super efficient apartment communities with collective gardens, water catchment and lots of other great aspects, but the problem is that many people can’t afford the cost to purchase or rent one of those places. It seems like in the cities, the least destructive buildings are the most expensive to live in. I wish there were more government support for lower income people to have the opportunity to build with natural materials, or to have the option to purchase a home that was built sustainably.

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    1. Thanks for your perspective! I’d love to go to Portland and check out the sustainability initiatives. Unfortunately, you are right, many of the new “green” buildings have higher upfront costs and may not be economically intelligent in the short-term.

      Construction company adoption of natural buildings would involve a pretty big shift in how they do business, different processes and a different repertoire of expertise. No doubt, it will be a lot of work and they may not see the immediate benefits of such a shift if they’re already making lots of ‘Benjamins’ doing business-as-usual. After all, necessity is the mother of invention and they may be unwilling to face the urgent necessity of a paradigm shift in the building sector.

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      1. Its true! I think there wont be any major shift in the public consciousness/big changes regarding the need for a new building construction model until things become REALLY bad and people are forced to face these issues… It seems like this is already happening in certain areas; California comes to mind with the drought and the amount of people moving north towards the “water refuge”. I think when consensus does shift though, it will be huge… I’m trying to keep hope! The teachers of natural building and minimal impact lifestyles will be essential in the world of the future.

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