Thursday, 3 April 2014

City Adaptation: The Key to Survival

Written by Jenny Ellwood
Energy & Sustainability Consultant

James Lovelock, the inventor, independent scientist and revered environmentalist is best known for his Gaia hypothesis. If unfamiliar, this theory suggests the earth is a single organism with self-regulating processes in which organic and inorganic components interact to sustain life. He developed this idea in the 1960s while working for NASA and despite facing early criticism it is still referenced by many today.

On Tuesday 1st April, Lovelock spoke at Conway Hall to promote the release of his new book ‘A Rough Ride to the Future’, which incidentally coincided with the UN’s sobering report into climate change. The book consolidates a lifetime of scientific research and outlines his views on the future for the human species.

A key foundation of Lovelock’s work is based on the idea that since the invention of the steam engine, in the early 18th century, humans have entered an era of “accelerated evolution”. Since this discovery our activity is having a rapid and extreme effect on the earth, which is a million times faster than Darwinian evolution by natural selection. Adverse changes to the environment including rising carbon dioxide levels, climate change and population growth are all consequences of this new evolutionary inflation, according to Lovelock. Interestingly, Lovelock focused on a view that we should adapt to climate change rather than fear it. Once accepted, the onus is on us all to make significant lifestyle changes in order to adapt, as no one can confidently predict the long term impacts of climate change.

One such change, or adaptation, is based on E.O Wilson’s (US biologist) study of social insects, inferring we would all benefit from “nest-like living”. Lovelock asked us to look at Singapore, a city which runs at 12oC higher than the global average. Surprisingly, Singapore has excelled as one of the most successful cities in the world despite being built on a swamp with soaring temperatures and high humidity. Lovelock suggests this example should be followed by others if the World Health Organisation’s prediction that 70% of humans will be living in cities by 2050 comes to fruition. These mega-cities could be an effective adaptation to deal with the diminishing resources brought on by climate change, and collaboration is needed to ensure such cities are as sustainable and comfortable as possible.

Alongside Lovelock’s obvious ‘green credentials’, he is a firm believer that the UK should be powered by nuclear and fracking as “a safe, cheap source of power”. This controversial view is borne from his dual position as a scientist and inventor with the view that such options will buy humans time to adapt to the changing climate.

Lovelock is still an optimist and believes global challenges including population growth, global warming, and economic instability are inextricably linked. He feels we need to think big and steer away from instant solutions, advocating the observation of other species’ adaptation methods as a key to our own survival.

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