World Environment Day hinges on humans

World Environment Day hinges on humans

by GARY LAWRENCE, Chief sustainability officer, AECOM | June 6, 2015

I am really happy to see that this year’s World Environment Day theme — Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care” — puts the human element firmly back into the equation.

With its roots in the ecology movement of the 1970s, World Environment Day was originally a response to the awakening awareness that human behavior was negatively affecting the quality of nature. Today, we are beginning to grasp a more-pressing, more-galvanizing realization: natural capital is essential not only for the betterment of human life, but for its mere existence.

We have migrated from the ecological movement of the '70s through the sustainability movement of the '90s (leapfrogging the global party that was the '80s) to a clearer understanding of today’s most urgent issue — resilience.


The language we use to describe the predicament has evolved to reflect our changing and growing understanding of the essential relationship between humans and nature. “Ecology,” where nature was the victim in need of protection, expanded into the idea of “sustainability” in an attempt to focus as much or more on the qualities that allow for human development and improve the quality of human life. As the consequences of resource scarcity and degradation have become more manifest, we now find ourselves in an age where we are beginning to appreciate that we cannot triumph by engaging in a struggle, but must learn the steps in a dance of give and take that requires us to flex and adapt to our partner’s moves.

We have deconstructed the ideas at the heart of the environment and sustainability movements and effectively repackaged them in the name of “resilience” — a concept and a word that are accessible and comprehensible to a far greater number of people.

The advantage humans have is that we are the most creative, inventive, ingenious and collaborative species on the planet.
— Gary Lawrence, CSO, AECOM

Resilience acknowledges the cause-and-effect relationships among natural, economic and human systems. It recognizes that our ability to maintain civil societies, prioritize needs and implement the hard decisions ahead of us requires a much better understanding of the interplay among water, food, energy, prosperity and governance.

Under what circumstances will we be able to continue? The quality of our continued existence depends upon the ability of the human species to find a comfortable balance between our needs and desires, and those of the other species with whom we share the planet. The next step is for us to leave behind our outdated notion of nature as some malevolent third party plotting against us (with killer storms, invasive species, and toxic shellfish) and re-embrace its potential to surround and protect us with life-giving ecosystem services and natural defense systems.

The advantage humans have is that we are the most creative, inventive, ingenious and collaborative species on the planet.

What I would like to celebrate today is the vast potential we have as a species to unite our ingenuity with that of the natural world and to improve the security and quality of life for every single person on the planet. We are all in this together.

Based in New York, the author is vice president and chief sustainability officer at AECOM. With more than three decades of experience in the public and private sectors, Lawrence has helped shape sustainability theory, policy and practice throughout the world and today is actively engaged in United Nations initiatives to research, mitigate and adapt to climate change and the related pressures of urban growth. He can be reached via Twitter @CSO_AECOM

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