Not until the spread of the Industrial Revolution in the late nineteenth century, has man possessed the ability to adversely alter, on a global scale, the geologic and climatic cycles that have existed for millennia. Planet earth, which man calls home, is approximately 5 billion years old. The science of paleontology tells us that man is a relative new comer to the planet. Modern man did not arrive on the scene until approximately 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. Developments in hunting, agriculture, literacy, and the sciences, have allowed man to thrive and inhabit nearly every corner of the planet. However, this success has not been good for the earth. The world's population has recently surpassed 6 billion and the developed countries community models and lifestyles are not sustainable.
Due to rapid, unrestrained growth, housing, shopping, and entertainment construction has spread across the surface of the planet like an oil slick. We are depleting resources and altering ecosystems at an alarming rate. Only now are we beginning to comprehend the long-term effects of more than a century of environmental ignorance, neglect, and apathy. Historically, city and community planners lacked the vision and understanding that would lead to environmentally friendly and sustainable conditions, allowing us to live in harmony with nature. This, coupled with irresponsible consumerism and poor individual choices, has led us to a crossroad. It is now clear we cannot continue to build communities that are unsustainable and we must change our lifestyles. We have arrived at the threshold of the 21st century where nothing less than a global call to action is necessary. We can continue on our current path, which will ultimately lead to severe health problems, loss of valuable resources, extinctions, and a wholesale denial of contaminated areas, or we can take positive, radical steps to break with the past.
Regarding unsustainable communities and lifestyles, the blame lies mainly with two specific phenomena, American's love affair with the automobile, and the "American Dream" of owning a home and land outside of the city. A car-dependent lifestyle introduces numerous problems and exacerbates the dilemma of exurb migration. With so many cars on the road, they become congested, leading to the need for new, longer, and wider roads that encroach on existing ecosystems and animal habitats. With roads and highways stretching farther and farther from the city, suburbanites can now live at greater distances from the cities requiring a need for increased fossil fuel production. This increased consumption and burning of fossil fuels increases air and water pollution and contributes to the greenhouse effect. It is estimated that out of the millions of underground storage tanks of gasoline and diesel fuel across the U.S., over 300,000 have failed, contaminating the surrounding ground water tables (Nebel, Wright 490). In the case of the fuel additive, Methyl Tertiary-Butyl Ether (MTBE), contaminated wells have to be shut down entirely.
Many cities fail to meet air-quality standards even with improved pollution controls. Vehicles are responsible for an estimated 80% of the air pollution in metropolitan regions (Nebel, Wright 581). Vehicle traffic congestion increases year after year, accounting for billions of dollars worth of lost time and productivity. From 1945 to 1980, U.S. oil consumption nearly quadrupled while the population grew by just 60 percent (Nebel, Wright 581). According to the Washington Post, the world's oil reserves will be exhausted in approximately 40 to 50 years.
The "American Dream" of owning a home and land is something almost all Americans aspire to. However, this lifestyle is also responsible for a unique set of associated problems that contribute to a wasteful and unwise depletion of energy sources. Single family homes or detached dwellings, cost much more to heat than apartments. The paved area around all homes reduces rainfall percolation back to ground water tables. The increased run off due to the paving over of existing soil, causes erosion, and carries away surface pollutants such as lawn and garden chemicals. The unplanned communities that extend out from the cities eat up existing rich farmland, requiring food to be transported in from greater distances.
The only way we are going to be able to move away from unsustainable practices and behavior is through education, inclusion, planning, and regulation. By educating Americans about the effects of the car-dependent lifestyle and suburban sprawl, they will be able to make informed choices. This subject is something that should be taught to schoolchildren at the earliest opportunity. Including a diverse group of citizens and actively soliciting their ideas and opinions will lead to consensus and a unified population. While long term programs and vision were clearly not a priority in community and city planning in the past, sustainable communities require the insight and cooperation of experts and professionals from many specialized occupations.
Finally, pressuring and lobbying elected bodies at all levels, local, state, and government will force them to act decisively. Laws will have to be implemented that will certainly be viewed unpopular by some. For example, a moratorium on construction projects that contribute to urban sprawl could effect a more efficient use of land and lead to more compact growth. A renaissance of city planning and integrated design that offers something for everyone is needed. Instead of spending millions of dollars upgrading and building roads, funds could be diverted to fast, efficient, and environmentally friendly ways of moving people such as, electric buses and trolleys, high-speed trains, and monorail. To curtail automobile use, tax penalties could be levied that would make owning and driving internal combustion vehicles less desirable.
In the U.S., we enjoy the freedom to vote for like minded officials and leaders. Our constitution gives us the right to speak freely and organize but these freedoms are only half the answer. We must take advantage of and exercise that freedom to make a difference.
Individuals can effect change by identifying problems in their own communities and making their voices heard. Getting involved, organizing individuals at the grassroots level, and participating in local and national elections to effect the kind of change necessary for sustainable communities to flourish is what is needed.
Slowly, the population is becoming aware of their unsustainable lifestyles and the effects. A recent Gallup poll acknowledges the increased awareness of individual citizens around the world. Pessimism about the future is pervasive in many nations, evidenced by the survey conducted in 17 countries. More than three-quarters of Venezuelans felt their children would be worse off in the future than they are now, where the earth's ecology is concerned. The Taiwanese were the most optimistic and the United States ranked 11th out of the 17 countries polled.
What is going to be the catalyst for change? Is it the fact that we don't want to leave a legacy of dead ecosystems and unlivable areas due to contamination and pollution for our children and future generations? Arguably, the most important weapon against those that would pollute our air, water, and food sources is an educated citizenry. What if we are the polluters? Again, education and action is the key to resolving the problems associated with unsustainability. Once people understand the negative impact their decisions have on their environment and the importance of changing their lifestyles, their wiliness to change to more eco friendly behavior, allowing sustainable communities and lifestyles will follow. It has only been within the last thirty years that we have come to understand just how devastating our actions are to the environment and the delicate fabric of the earth's ecosystems. Through advances in technology, man is able to search the heavens, listening and looking out thousands of light years to investigate the universe and its origins. The knowledge gained has allowed us to understand just how unique and fragile our biosphere is to man's existence. To date, there is no other place in the universe that can support human life, as we know it here on earth. Even if we were able to find a solar system similar to our own, we do not currently possess the technology to travel to such a place. What does this mean for humankind? Earth is our home, everything in, on, and around it is a priceless, finite resource that life depends on and we should treat it as such. It should guide and encompass all aspects of our lives. We need to understand this tenet; our lifestyles and communities should embrace and reflect it.