As an architecture student, I learned that good design is usually derived from shapes found in nature. Pure geometry is interesting enough, but it is cold. There is logic and proportion in living organisms that has the capacity to fill us with joy. My favorite shape was always the coil of the chambered nautilus. Not only is it the essence of streamlined functionality—even from the point of view of physics—but it also exists in harmony with light, depth, temperature and other environmental factors that are essential for its survival.
Human societies too are only as good as their design. They also must be geared to survival. But in order to survive, they must exist in tune with their natural environment.
Life has been around for billions of years; humankind, just a few million – a fraction of that time; and we could disappear in another fraction. We need to rediscover our connection to nature and the fact that our lives completely depend upon it. Thanks to our minds, hands and tools, our technological advances have led us into modern times of prosperity. But in the process, we’ve become disconnected from the environment that supports us, and we have jeopardized the fundamental elements of our survival: air and water.
From the Sumerians to the Mayans to the people of Easter Island, the lesson of history is that a society out of balance with its environment cannot survive sustainably. Environmental pressures, whether through overexploitation of resources, overpopulation, or a combination of the two, inevitably lead to social tension, injustice, insecurity and war.
So much for the past. How are we doing in the present? Not as well as we should be, considering what we know from the lessons of the past. We are still not living in balance with nature.
Instead of enjoying an equitable balance of resources, the human family has become polarized into the haves and have-nots. Ethnicity, religion, gender and political belief are often used as justification for benefit at the expense of others.
What does the future hold? Will we continue to fight over resources or ascend to a more enlightened distribution of nature’s bounty? If we continue to treat nature as a treasure chest to be plundered, we will always be at odds with one another.
Already the seeds of future conflict have been sown. In the future, we will not only fight over oil, gold and land, but also over water. Water, the lifeblood of the planet, is scarce to begin with, and we continue to make it scarcer by polluting what little we have. As a result, one-third of the human population lives without access to clean drinking water. Such inequality cannot stand. It will be addressed either peacefully or militarily, but it will be addressed.
Is it too late to prevent us from self-destructing? No, for we have the capacity to design our future, to take lessons from living things around us and bring our values and actions in line with ecological necessity. But we must first realize that ecological, social, and economic issues are all deeply intertwined. There can be no solution to one without a solution to the others.
Like cold geometric shapes, political and economic systems are abstractions that look good on paper, but they cannot nourish our need for living beauty or provide a model for survival of our species.
Only Nature can do that
And to finish with the good news in ocean conservation: there are also many stories of hope, demonstrating that indeed we are on the right track of working in better balance with nature. I am happy to share that at the recent International Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) conference last October great progress was made for MPAs around the world. MPAs now cover 2.8 percent of the world’s oceans, an area larger than Europe. This is significant progress from 2010, when just 1.2 percent of our world ocean was protected. Our world’s ocean conservation leaders have agreed on a goal of increasing this to 10 percent of the world’s oceans by 2020. This is in line with the goal set by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.
Like an architect, we have to design a future that takes into consideration our scientific understanding of the value of these protected areas; knowing we are giving nature a chance to replenish its valuable stocks of wildlife and increase abundance and diversity. In the end, human societies designed with the principles of sustainability are the winners.
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