Want to Save the Environment? Build Skyscrapers!

GELFAND’S WORLD--Stewardship is not a word we hear very often nowadays. The term is generally used to describe humanity's responsibility to preserve the natural world, most importantly all those life forms that are not human. As the species with predominant power, we have encroached on most natural habitats to some extent and to near totality for some. I'm going to go out on a limb here and make an argument that may seem paradoxical about how our stewardship of the southern California ecology can be maximized. 

First though, I think it's important to make the case that stewardship of the ecology is a human responsibility. That includes making exhaustive efforts to preserve the California Condor and desert tortoises along with all manner of other species both plant, animal, and microbial. Our stewardship extends even beyond the living things, to geological features, bodies of water, and something as evidently obvious as the concentrations of gases naturally found in the atmosphere. 

Making the argument that stewardship of all these things is our human responsibility is not as easy as one might think. The right wing position seems to be that our responsibility does not extend to preserving minor species, particularly when the existence of those species gets in the way of human industries. The protection of a complex habitat which includes the spotted owl might be the best known example of this political divide. 

I think that the argument ultimately comes down to morality. I find it astounding that some of my fellow humans think it's acceptable to abolish an entire species. As a naturalist once explained, a species is not only the currently surviving members, it is the entire history of that species, spread out over time, including its evolutionary development. You might think of the brook trout as the ultimate in a line of development that began with earlier fishes and before that, with ancestors that were only proto-fish. If you wipe out the entire population of brook trout, you have reduced the earth by that whole history and all of the living members. You have also made it impossible for future brook trout to exist. 

Most people, if put to the test, would agree that we ought to save a desirable species such as the brook trout. That is to put a human-centric view on the question. But what about other species that are not as likely to end up in our frying pans? 

The moral argument is that we as the predominant species don't have the right to abolish any other species. To take a different view is, to my thinking, arrogant. It is to assert a right of destructiveness that should be opposed.

There is of course a utilitarian argument that goes along with the moral argument. We survive as a species in a complex ecology that supplies us with oxygen, water, foods, and even the bacteria that grow inside of us and which help us to survive. Remove any one of those pillars, and our top end of the ecosystem crumbles. 

I don't think that the utilitarian argument is as strong as the moral argument, because you can always find a technical replacement for any one other part of the wider ecology. Humanity continues to survive just fine in the absence of the mammoth or the giant sloth. We might not do so well in the absence of bees, as so many people want to remind us, but I think it is obvious that some fraction of humanity would survive the calamity of bees disappearing in North America. But it would be immoral for us to allow honey bee extinction if we had any means to prevent it. 

The whole question of maintaining species survival gets even more complicated when you try to factor in the geographic requirements. Here in southern California, we have become aware that some of our four legged inhabitants need to migrate from place to place. These requirements stem from a number of factors ranging from seasonal hunting to the need to find a mate. For this reason, the various governmental entities have made an effort to preserve wildlife corridors in a region that has become a giant extended suburban expanse. It's important to preserve those wildlife corridors in order to preserve some species. 

Let's summarize the logic: We have a moral obligation to do our best to preserve the entirety of the complex ecology that surrounds us, and this sometimes requires the preservation of extended geographical areas, corridors, mountain sides, wetlands, deserts, and forests. 

The paradoxical point is that we don't necessarily have to preserve all such places, as long as we protect enough of each, and that the ones we protect connect up to each other sufficiently well. 

What is the biggest risk to this kind of preservation? It's obvious that it is us. All of us millions of humans have to live somewhere. 

Putting humans in a smaller area so as to preserve other areas for nature would seem to make sense. The question is whether we humans would like this kind of arrangement. I would argue that we do like the arrangement, and the evidence is that so many of us voluntarily choose such an arrangement. 

We call it the city. 

Our chosen behavior of living in close proximity to each other serves to concentrate our numbers in the fewest number of square miles. In so doing, we can potentially leave other areas as the equivalent of nature preserves. 

Whether the areas external to the city limits are actually protected is a separate question, but the sine qua non is that the largest number of people be concentrated in the smallest area. 

And thus we come to the paradox that encouraging the densest growth in our city is potentially the best approach to human stewardship of the surrounding ecologies. Our 400 square miles are covered with asphalt and construction to the point that hardly an acre of natural habitat is to be found, except in specifically designated preserves and ponds. But suppose we were to have the same number of people spread out over 800 or 1600 square miles. It's hard to imagine how spreading people out over more square miles would make the urban area a better way to steward the nonhuman species. We would just have twice or four times the area damaged to the point of ecological destruction. 

The corollary I'm making here is that adding high rise residential buildings to areas that are already part of the city doesn't do any additional ecological damage. By contrast, moving the boundaries of the city outwards and constructing new subdivisions from previously open land does damage to the wider ecology. It does so by erasing nature and replacing it with lower density urban development. 

It may very well be that as city dwellers, many of us would prefer to live in low-rise areas and to avoid the traffic problems and higher rents that accrue when high rise development ensues. But at least let's recognize that our human obligation to the rest of nature is best served by containing our mechanical civilization within boundaries so as to allow the remainder to flourish. 

Or to put it bluntly, the fact that I happen to live in an area of mostly one and two story abodes may be to my benefit, but it doesn't do much for the wildlife population. They don't live here anyway, and if some developer were to tear down my whole block and replace our humble lodgings with forty story towers, it wouldn't reduce the number of indigenous life forms, because they were removed long ago. But building upwards could potentially provide for more humans without plowing over more square miles of natural lands. 

Some readers may recognize that our civilization doesn't consist only of cities and nature. Much of the land mass is used for agriculture. It's actually a related argument, because tilled fields can coexist with adjacent wildlife corridors, and some kinds of agricultural activities can accept a good deal of wildlife. But that's another argument for another day.

Likewise, the fact that a dense city is a way to protect the lands beyond it  from excessive development is not an excuse for having chemically dangerous cities. The recent fiasco in which the city of Flint, Michigan allowed its water to become contaminated with lead is not an argument against cities. It is an argument against badly run cities. 

The argument that allowing density in cities is potentially environmentally protective is not an argument that all such growth is good. It is just one subset of a wider argument that humanity should adopt a policy to protect as much of the natural environment as we can. But if it is possible to contain most of our human population in constrained regions and in so doing, provide for a healthy, robust civic life, then we ought to be thinking about such things.


(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for City Watch. He can be reached at [email protected])  






Vol 14 Issue 4

Pub: Jan 12, 2016