We are part of nature, not separate from it. We rely on nature to provide us with food, water and shelter; regulate our climate and disease; maintain nutrient cycles and oxygen production; and provide us with spiritual fulfilment and opportunities for recreation and recuperation, which can enhance our health and well-being. We also use the planet as a sink for our waste products, such as carbon dioxide, plastics and other forms of waste, including pollution.
Since 1900, the human population has more than quadrupled and per-capita income has increased at least fivefold. Global average life expectancy at birth has more than doubled in this time span, and the number of people living in extreme poverty has declined. At the same time, demand for food, water, energy, materials, and living space has increased manifold.
In this transformation nature has become an asset, just as produced capital (roads, buildings and factories) and human capital (health, knowledge and skills) are assets. Like education and health, however, nature is more than an economic good: many value its very existence and recognize its intrinsic worth too.
Biodiversity enables nature to be productive, resilient and adaptable. It provides the building blocks for organisms and ecosystems to adapt and evolve in a changing environment and maintains humanity’s ability to benefit from ecosystem services and biological resources in the face of an uncertain future. Current extinction rates, for example, are around 100 to 1,000 times higher than the baseline rate, and they are increasing. Such declines are undermining nature’s productivity, resilience and adaptability, and are in turn fueling extreme risk and uncertainty for our economies and well-being. Biodiversity is declining faster than at any time in history and nearly 1 million species are currently at risk of extinction. Investing in nature and biodiversity is therefore urgent and essential for long-term sustainable wellbeing, human health and a resilient circular bioeconomy. Reduce biodiversity, and Nature and humanity suffer.
Many ecosystems, from tropical forests to coral reefs, have already been degraded beyond repair, or are at imminent risk of ‘tipping points’. These biophysical tipping points could have catastrophic consequences for our economies and well-being; and it is costly and difficult, if not impossible, to coax an ecosystem back to health once it has tipped into a new state. Low-income countries, whose economies are more reliant than high income countries on nature’s goods and services from within their own borders, stand to lose the most.
Reversing these trends requires action to protect large, contiguous biodiverse systems across different ecoregions to prevent the deterioration of global ecosystem services, species extinction and the rapid erosion of biodiversity.
Humanity faces an urgent choice. Continuing down our current path – where our demands on nature far exceed its capacity to supply – presents extreme risks and uncertainty for our societies. Sustainable economic growth and development requires us to take a different path, where our engagements with nature are not only sustainable, but also enhance our collective wealth and well-being and that of our descendants.
Cities are centers of human activities and therefore can be a fantastic thing with the right balance of economic development, cultural stimulus, technology and intact -urban- biodiversity. Cities are the engine of the modern economy, providing the density, interaction and networks that make societies more creative, productive, prosperous and healthy. But they can also be a nightmare for hundreds of thousands of people where this balance is lost. The urban environmental footprint is far beyond their geographical scale and highly impact threatened and near-threatened species. This is reflected in high average levels of personal consumption and the efficient supply of a great variety of services at comparatively low per-capita costs. Apart from a near monopoly on the use of fossil fuels, food, water, metals and concrete, an urbanizing humanity now consumes nearly half of nature’s annual photosynthetic capacity as well, while also being the source of two-thirds of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Globalization has fundamentally changed the structure of the world system. Cities are not just localities in countries. They have become the nodal points of trans border networks. Throughout the increase of international collaboration, globalization and the world market have been increasingly regulated through international bodies, treaties and institutions. But the space of flows has led to yet another geography of networks between nodal points. That space structures the urban interconnectedness. The world system has become a triangle with the global, the system of nation states and the system of urban networks. They have each particular dynamics and cannot be contained in one hierarchical structure. That systemic feature has not yet been recognized in the distribution of competences and the organization of regulatory bodies.
It is easy to criticize the status quo, yet it’s time to challenge ourselves. The future is shaped by our decisions (or not making decisions) now and in the years to come. We must walk a delicate path this decade – maintaining social stability, cohesion and trust within biophysical boundaries- without dampening the creative forces that drive innovation and progress.
What we need is a role model for interconnected cities that combines the social, economic, technological and ecological dimensions of sustainability with the vision of a city for people which embeds a vivid cultural life and a culture of creativity in the way it operates.
Choosing a sustainable path will require transformative change, underpinned by levels of ambition, coordination, and political will. At their core, the problems we face today are no different from those our ancestors faced: how to find a balance between what humanity takes from nature and what we leave behind for our descendants. While our ancestors were incapable of affecting the Earth system as a whole, we are doing just that.
The transformative change needed in choosing the sustainable path requires the sustained commitment of actors at all levels. It also involves hard choices. Rethinking the governance and decision structures, processes and concepts that represent some of our most deeply held beliefs and underlie our current society? A new organizing / management system, a new urban governance system?
Can we imagine the outlines of a new urban governance system for defining ‘our most desired future’, and start a broader discussion to create some incredible perspectives for 2030 and beyond in the ‘roaring twenties’?