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The ecologists who think moving to cities will save the planet

The ecologists who think moving to cities will save the planet thumbnail
Getty Images / H. Armstrong Roberts / Stringer

As far as professions go, conservationists are not known for their optimism. And, with the future of the planet looking so bleak, who can blame them? By 2100, the world is on track for more than three degrees of warming, sliding past the targets set by the Paris climate accord in 2015. By the middle of this century, between 15 and 37 per cent of species sampled in one study could be completely gone. In 2016, it became clear that giraffe populations had declined by 40 per cent over the last 30 years, earning the animals a spot on the endangered species list.

But Eric Sanderson, a landscape ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, is cautiously optimistic about the future of our planet. He thinks that if we can hang in and refrain from completely destroying the environment over the next 80 years, the world might just have a chance at recovering from everything humans have inflicted on it.

“If we make the right moves now, in the 21st century, then the 22nd could be pretty great, and the 23rd would be really awesome,” he says. Sanderson set out his optimistic vision for the future of biodiversity in a paper recently published in the journal BioScience arguing that, if it can get through the current conservation crisis, Earth’s biodiversity is on the brink of a recovery.

The reason for Sanderson’s optimism has much to do with global demographic trends as it does conservation. His starting point is the well-established theory that, as population growth continues to decline after peaking in the 1960s, the number of humans on the planet will level out at around nine billion by the year 2100. At the same time, Sanderson predicts, economic growth will continue to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and that by 2100 up to 90 per cent of the world’s population will live in towns and cities.

For more traditional conservationists, this is a recipe for environmental disaster. “Generally, as we get wealthier we get greedier,” says Simon Stuart, conservation director at environmental charity Synchronicity Earth. As incomes rise, we eat more meat and processed foods, both of which are highly damaging to the environment. We start driving cars manufactured in far-flung places that pollute the atmosphere, and buy gadgets filled with materials hauled out of the Earth at great cost to the environment. In short, economic growth leads to more consumption, and consumption is bad news for the environment.

But Sanderson thinks there might be some ecological upsides to economic growth. When people get more wealthy, they tend to move to cities, and urban living are much efficient from a planning point of view. For a start, cities allow more people to can share infrastructure like sanitation, water supply, hospitals and schools. City living also makes travel distances shorter, and shared transportation more desirable, lowering the environmental impact of transportation per person.

Even the idea that as we get wealthier we consume more has its limits, Sanderson claims. It’s true that, for the very poor, every small increase in income is likely to result in more consumption, but this trend starts to flatten out when people get wealthier and proportionally spend more on financial services and housing and less on consumer goods. “As you get wealthier, maybe you still buy a car but you’re buying a fancier car,” says Sanderson. The financial costs of consumption go up, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the environmental cost increases at the same rate.

This all leads to the conclusion that – for people at the same income level – living in towns and cities is more environmentally-friendly than living in rural areas. One study of consumption in New York City found that the average New Yorker consumes 74 per cent less water, uses 35 per cent less electricity and produces 45 per cent less waste per person when compared with the average American. Over the next 35 years, the world’s cities and towns are expected to grow by 2.5 billion people, and by a happy coincidence this might just be a more ecological way to live.

This still leaves us with some huge environmental headaches, says Robert McDonald at The Nature Conservancy. McDonald researches the environmental impact of cities, and thinks about ways to build urban environments without reducing biodiversity. “We’ll probably build more homes in the next 20 year than exist in the whole of Europe now,” he says. “How you build those cities is going to be a huge deal.”

This will mean building cities in a way that doesn’t have a negative impact on the environment around them. Over the last century, as city populations exploded, they grew in an unpredictable and unplanned fashion, encroaching onto important environmental areas and squeezing out protected species. But some future cities are already being built with the environment in mind. The Xiong’an New Area is a vast spread of wetland 100 kilometres to the southwest of Beijing that has been earmarked as a new city to home millions of people who would otherwise be crammed into Beijing. As part of the development, the Chinese government is planting millions of trees and plans to leave 70 per cent of the city covered with water or greenery.

In many places where populations are skyrocketing, however, developing sustainable cities is nowhere near that easy. Sub-Saharan Africa has some of the fastest population growth rates in the world and those countries may struggle to build new cities in a sustainable way. “Every country has its own quirks in how its cities grow,” says McDonald, and there’s no guarantee that cities will continue to get denser anyway. Driverless cars might end up increasing urban sprawl as people begin to tolerate longer commutes now they can spend that time doing something other than being stuck behind the wheel. “We just don’t have any sense how that will change the shape of urban growth,” McDonald says.

The Xiong’an New Area will house millions of people who would otherwise have lived in Beijing

TPG / Contributor / Getty Images

For Kent Redford, former director of the World Conservation Society, Sanderson’s paper is also a call for a more optimistic approach to conservation. “It’s a plea for the conservation movement to stop preaching a doom and gloom message and then being surprised when people turn around and go shopping,” he says. “Somehow we thought that if we could get better facts, and more grotesque messages, and one more picture of a dead dehorned rhino, that would get society to listen.”

According to Redford, that approach simply hasn’t worked. Modern conservationists have traditionally been critical of economic growth, seeing it as a driver of consumption that inevitable ends up damaging the environment. Sanderson – and a growing number of like-minded conservationists – are now arguing that economic growth can be a good thing for the environment.

But that economic growth also drives consumption, which is where things come unstuck. At the moment, the vast majority of goods and food aren’t produced in a way that is environmentally unsustainable, and without that changing on a global scale, increased economic growth will lead to more environmental damage.

A handful of conservationists who call themselves ‘ecomodernists’ think they have the answer. The movement, which includes the prominent conservationists Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, as well as the popular science writer Steven Pinker, think that something they call ‘decoupling’ will cut the link between consumption and environmental damage. Technological advancements, they argue, will eventually allow us to produce goods and foods in a way that doesn’t damage the environment so much.

Agricultural is a key place where decoupling could make a huge impact on the world, says Linus Blomqvist, director of conservation at The Breakthrough Institute and one of the co-authors of An Ecomodernist Manifesto, a 2015 treaty that formalised some of the ideas of the movement. If technological breakthroughs such as genetically modified crops could help boost agricultural efficiency by even one per cent every year, Linus says, then eventually the environmental cost of growing food would be dramatically lowered.

More efficient agricultural could lower the environmental impact of consumption

NurPhoto / Contributor / Getty Images

If we can crack technological problems like clean energy and sustainable agriculture, ecomodernists argue, then there’s no reason why we can’t keep on ramping up consumption growth. This gives conservationists the added benefit of being able to run with the prevailing economic. “If you have an agenda that’s premised on stopping or slowing economic growth intentionally, especially in the developed world, you’re really not going anywhere,” says Blomqvist. “You really have to work within a framework in which economic growth is going to happen.”

Not every conservationist is convinced by this, however. Stuart has doubts whether we’ll actually ever be able to decouple environmental damage from consumption enough to reach the kind of environmental safehaven that Sanderson hints at in his paper. Although the ecomodernists’ argument is perfectly palatable to policymakers, Stuart reckons that we have to find ways to limit our consumption. “We cannot grow forever,” he says, “in reality there is a limit to that.”

One thing that most conservationists do agree on is that way more needs to be done to convince politicians to put in place policies that protect the environment in a meaningful way.

That’s where Sanderson’s optimism starts to falter. “At the moment I feel that we’re not moving in that direction in a whole bunch of ways,” he says. For him, Donald Trump, who withdrew America from the world’s climate change accord in June 2017, signals a rise in a kind of thinking that is hugely damaging to the conservation movement. “It’s a rise in authoritarianism, a rise in selfish and of just taking care of yourself,” he says. But he hasn’t quite given up all hope – there’s always the 2020 election. “Trump may just be a blip in history, right?”



37 Comments on "The ecologists who think moving to cities will save the planet"

  1. Davy on Sun, 6th May 2018 11:22 am 

    Mega cities and regions have no future. If you are in one get out. This world now, today is an ecological nightmare. It will not have a happy ending. Get that out of your head. Instead of thinking optimistically because of the abstract of demographics think realistic because of apparent, documentable, and visible converging problems and predicaments reinforcing and creating feedbacks new and existing. Demographics changes are far too slow to save us. What we need is sobering attitudes related to life boats to adapt and mitigate and preparations for more dying with hospices. We need a new localism of real green people. We need people to embrace less materially but with more wisdom. I could give you a rant today but I am too busy.

  2. deadly on Sun, 6th May 2018 12:59 pm 

    Yeah, that’s the ticket, move to the city.

    Shut up, you idiot. Good Lord.

    Help me, Jesus.

    Environmental, stress the mental, militarists are surreptitiously advocating genocide of the human race. They want to end the use of fossil fuels. It is psychological terrorism, diffused psyches do that. It is really a nightmare, tortuous, painful, you’d think they’d learn, but they don’t, whoever they are.

    People who don’t advance to a more modern state remain in a stone age environment, which means there will be pollutants anyway, you’ll be burning dung, for one, and wood, which is done indoors, so indoor pollution will kill millions simply because they are prevented from having electricity due to a war on coal, which is really a form of genocide.

    Environmental militarists are proving to have one goal in mind, to reduce the human population, and if that means obstruction and deception, they’re going to do it.

    Any means necessary to reduce the human population is not out of the realm of possibilities, they are amoral, have no respect for human life and are human haters, yet deny it, want to smug, smarmy, duplicitous hypocrites in the McIvory Towers.

    It’s a dirty rotten shame that humans are antrhophobic, a Catch 22 for them, Jacobins to the core.

    The French stopped using the guillotine in 1977, so it is possible to bring it back into use. Release those who won’t recant and those who won’t recant will be condemned.

    The ecoterrorists, those who adhere to environmental militarism nazi style deserve the consequences of a few hours on the Rack and a night in an Iron Maiden.

    The guillotine will be a relief for them.

    Don’t worry, it won’t be that bad and as painful as it looks, French sociologists studied severed heads and recorded whatever data they observed, I doubt they received any complaints from the victims, they were probably speechless. A full death experience.

    Of course there is always the old burning at the stake, go all St. Joan, which is less desirable than the guillotine.

    A humane way to end someone’s life, the guillotine. Marie Antoinette would agree.

    Since it is better to hold onto the prisoner for a while and get some production from the poor schmuck, starving and working him and her to death is more efficient but not as friendly to the sap being starved and worked to death.

    I have spoken with people who were dropped off at Auschwitz. It was a nice train ride, that is what they said, no kidding.

    Every garden had been scoured for something to eat, it was already too late.

    Arbeit Macht Frei…

    That’s what the ecologists say, cough, ecoterrorists, read environmental militarists.

    What a wonderful world.

    Yeah, right. lol

    Get rid of these econazis who think the world is better off if it does what they say.

    Get a freaking life and quit lying all of the time about climate change and observe the facts for once.

    No doubt that Glacier National Park’s glaciers are receding, the photographic evidence is there, there has been global warming and humans do contribute to global warming and CO2 increases.

    At one kilogram per day exhaled into the atmosphere by humans alone, the total is 7.5 million kilograms of CO2 into the atmosphere from humans alone, those dirty filthy swine and we all that they are, worthless, just plain stupid, everyone of them. Why Mother Nature bothers to keep them around is a wonder, a question no one dares answer.

    Another day of fubar and drinking.

    There ya go.

  3. deadly on Sun, 6th May 2018 1:06 pm 

    Read ‘and we all know that they are’.

  4. Anonymouse1 on Sun, 6th May 2018 1:16 pm 

    The expcetionalturd, too busy to rant? That’s like being too busy to breath for you. Busy doing what exactly? Going on hang a door on your outhouse? Are you planning on leaving your shack and seeking mental health care? (finally). Btw, most mental health care specialists and their clinics tend to be found in, well, cities. I got it, maybe you can ‘commit’ this article to memory so can rag on the doctors how they are contributing to planetary overshoot.

    I really hope the shrink they assign to your case is filipino, or better yet, Chinese.

    You’ll have to memorize the articles main points because I doubt you have a printer, or would know how operate one properly if you did.

  5. Davy on Sun, 6th May 2018 1:21 pm 

    weasel, apparently the boot in the ass I gave you last time you commented hit the spot. Quit your whining and say something. The question is can you be relevant, on topic and meaningful? I doubt it.

  6. Go Speed Racer on Sun, 6th May 2018 3:34 pm 

    People tend naturally to
    migrate to the big cities.
    They find its a better place
    to make a living, get wages.

    Out in the country, all you can
    do is stack up old tires and
    set them on fire. Doesnt pay much.

  7. Anonymouse1 on Sun, 6th May 2018 3:52 pm 

    Exceptionalturd, as I suspected you’re full of goat shit, as usual. you are NOT ‘too busy’. You are not ‘doing’ anything, other than what you normally do, namely, furiously mash that refresh button non-stop. Well, I suppose that does keep you busy, after a fashion.

  8. Davy on Sun, 6th May 2018 4:49 pm 

    weasel, why do you use the handle anonymous..e? Are you ashamed of who you are? Are you afraid to take a stand and own it with skin in the game? I think you are a big friggin pussy. You need your ass kicked. Many of you young millenials have not had a good ass kicken in life yet. I hope you, weasel, get a really handsome ass kicken because you need a huge attitude adjustment. I hope you lose a few teeth and end up with a bum eye or something. Maybe that will humble your sorry ass.

  9. MASTERMIND on Sun, 6th May 2018 5:03 pm 


    Shut the hell up..You are scared to open a link to a scholarly paper. You have zero guts. And all you do is spew 2500 word salads on this blog. That nobody ever reads or gives a shit about.

  10. Anonymouse1 on Sun, 6th May 2018 6:32 pm 

    See, even your own SOCK, thinks you’re a moron. How is that for messed up…..

  11. Boat on Sun, 6th May 2018 6:41 pm 

    I promote the zero radious turn mower. No more 3 passes around each tree. Best invention since sliced bread.

  12. MASTERMIND on Sun, 6th May 2018 6:44 pm 

    Only white people do things like this…Its like they can’t help but be stupid and trashy

  13. Boat on Sun, 6th May 2018 7:00 pm 


    You have way too much time on your hands.

  14. MASTERMIND on Sun, 6th May 2018 7:08 pm 


    I do. i took a year off from my job for family leave. Because I believe the collapse is coming in the next decade. And I wanted to take it easy before the widespread chaos ensues.

  15. Davy on Sun, 6th May 2018 7:33 pm 

    Sure, mm, you can’t get a job because nobody will hire you. You sit down for an interview and the interviewers go “whew”. Now you are sitting on a pile of moldering student debt. So for you the collapse came early and now you want so hard for it to visit others.

  16. Anonymouse1 on Sun, 6th May 2018 7:58 pm 

    These (new) conversations you keeping having with your sock, are kind of inventive on the hand, but also, fairly weird and creepy on the other.

  17. MASTERMIND on Sun, 6th May 2018 7:59 pm 


    You sound like clogg jut making up anything you want to believe. I don’t want the collapse to happen. Especially the collapse I have argued is coming. I just don’t blindly ignore the conclusion of six scholarly studies down by experts. Its as simple as that, the evidence is overwhelming. That is why you are to scared to even open a link.

  18. Davy on Sun, 6th May 2018 8:19 pm 

    weasel, I think mm resembles you. I mean both of you are loser kids that are perfect examples of why we have no future as a civilization. When the young turn out like you two it is game over. Use that sock to wipe your smelly ass.

  19. Davy on Sun, 6th May 2018 8:24 pm 


    mm, you have no clue what scholarly is. Anyone can reference multiple studies and say “here” and “this” but can you make heads are tails of it? Nope, you are just a stupid kid crying wolf daily, redundantly, and obnoxiously. Just another board loser like the many that have come and gone over the years. You won’t last long. You will burn out saying the same shit over and over.

  20. Anonymouse1 on Sun, 6th May 2018 8:48 pm 

    I see, so now the sock is a ‘kid’, from, where was he from again, australia was it? Or was it michigan? You seemed to have some trouble keeping his back story straight.

  21. MASTERMIND on Sun, 6th May 2018 8:54 pm 


    involving or relating to serious academic study.

    Peer Reviewed Study: Society Could Collapse In A Decade, Predicts Historian (Turchin, 2010)

    NASA Peer Reviewed Study: Industrial Civilization is Headed for Irreversible Collapse (Motesharrei, 2014)

    The Royal Society: Peer Reviewed Study, Now for the First Time A Global Collapse Appears Likely (Ehrlich, 2013)

    Peer Reviewed Study: Limits to Growth was Right. Research Shows We’re Nearing Global Collapse (Turner, 2014)

    Peer Reviewed Study: Financial System Supply-Chain Cross-Contagion: Global Systemic Collapse (Korowicz, 2012)

    Hey if you want to ignore multiple scholarly studies. Go right ahead.

    I rest my case..

  22. Davy on Sun, 6th May 2018 8:55 pm 

    wow, weasel, did I ever get your attention. thumbs up. It is painful to be a loser especially for stupid kids with no future. BTW, where is your support network? You are pretty alone lately. You don’t do very well on your own which is another kid trait.

  23. Davy on Sun, 6th May 2018 8:56 pm 

    master baiter, just ejaculated, whew hoo

  24. MASTERMIND on Sun, 6th May 2018 8:59 pm 

    renewables” aren’t renewable. They are derivatives.

  25. MASTERMIND on Sun, 6th May 2018 9:24 pm 

    Simple really….when the World Economy Collapses everything shuts down…the end… We’re talking about grids down all over the world and 7.5B people dropping like f*** flies in short order. The collapse will be absolutely horrible..There is no collapse or horror movie ever produced that has even come close to imagining what the collapse of BAU might look like. I’m talking about every corporation and every social program going bankrupt at once. I’m talking about people eating people. I’m talking about the Worst Catastrophe to ever happen in the history of mankind. Nothing has ever, or will ever come close…

  26. MASTERMIND on Sun, 6th May 2018 10:10 pm 

    From oilslick to tyranny

  27. Boat on Sun, 6th May 2018 11:54 pm 


    This guy who I read once a month or so is going to be writing peer reviewed articles. He pretty much is inline with a lot of what the MSM has to offer if you know how to filter the hype.

  28. Boat on Sun, 6th May 2018 11:55 pm 


    So why are you a hype guy.

  29. Cloggie on Mon, 7th May 2018 12:17 am 

    renewables” aren’t renewable. They are derivatives.

    Corn mill from 1440 or older:

    Build without coal, oil or gas. Made by hand.


    It is possible to build new wind turbines and solar panels from the electricity, generated by existing solar panels and wind turbines.

    But most Americans are unable to think outside the oil-box. Their country achieved global prominence on oil and can’t imagine anything else.

  30. DerHundistLos on Mon, 7th May 2018 2:07 am 

    @ deadly

    Are we supposed to be shocked, shocked to the core that the global human population must adjust to a sustainable number, and, yeah, whatever it takes to do this has my support (now you have a screen name as a starting point in identifying the environazis). National Socialist Germany was the first nation in human history to adopt meaningful and broad sweeping environmental laws. It’s also true that more than half of Europe’s mammalian species would today be extinct if not for the German Wehrmacht.

  31. Davy on Mon, 7th May 2018 5:20 am 

    “It is possible to build new wind turbines and solar panels from the electricity, generated by existing solar panels and wind turbines. But most Americans are unable to think outside the oil-box. Their country achieved global prominence on oil and can’t imagine anything else.”
    Renewables regeneration via renewables may be possible in theory but unlikely in our current arrangement. It does not make economic sense and the physics of it are poor. Sorry, neder a kwh=kwh but that is where it ends and the battle starts.

  32. Davy on Mon, 7th May 2018 5:24 am 

    “yeah, whatever it takes to do this has my support”
    Der hund, you are sick man. Yea, of course you could give a shit how many people die for the environment you are in your eighties ready to die.

    “National Socialist Germany was the first nation in human history to adopt meaningful and broad sweeping environmental laws.”
    You got references for that der hund? I think you are talking out your senile ass. One need only look at a continent the German Wehrmacht destroyed to know War was on their list before the environment. They could give a shit about the environment. Get out of here you loon.

  33. Sissyfuss on Mon, 7th May 2018 8:39 am 

    The article, (remember it?,) is another futile attempt to apply a rational narrative to overshoot. Knot gonna du. Cramming the ever burgeoning masses into cities does not alleviate the need fora constant increase of resources to maintain and sustain said megalopolises. Overshoot is never rational so that means we live in a time of irrationality that cannot altered. Isn’t that right President Buffoon?

  34. DerHundistLos on Tue, 8th May 2018 2:37 am 

    @ Exceptionalist Davy Fuck

    You bet I have sources, you lazy POS. Here is a link to start you off:

    Why do you constantly open your big trap with stupidity? Then I am forced to prove you to be a fraud and grandstander. I love how you enjoy portraying yourself as morally superior to all others, as is so typical with Republicons. How many Republicons claim to be morally upstanding born-again Christians when in fact it’s uncovered they are pedophiles or arrested soliciting sex in men’s restrooms.

    What a truly dumb fuck.

  35. Davy on Tue, 8th May 2018 5:03 am 

    der hund, then what do you call the rape and destruction of a continent in the 40’s? Have you ever seen the concrete artillery placements on the French coast? The Nazi’s had absolutely no concern for the environment when they moved across Europe. That is some concern for the environment. Europe was laid waste by a world war your Nazi started. You are a senile 80 year old man that needs his car keys taken away. Besides a wordpress is a personal emotional agenda creation. We see that daily with the nedernazi and his wordpress. It is how you extremist history revisionist try to recreate a reality in your own image.

  36. Dredd on Tue, 8th May 2018 12:18 pm 

    If we make the right moves now …”

    When “if” is the operative consideration the explanation must be that we are no longer a human civilization.

    No longer like:

    “In the Study Toynbee examined the rise and fall of 26 civilizations in the course of human history, and he concluded that they rose by responding successfully to challenges under the leadership of creative minorities composed of elite leaders. Civilizations declined when their leaders stopped responding creatively, and the civilizations then sank owing to the sins of nationalism, militarism, and the tyranny of a despotic minority. Unlike Spengler in his The Decline of the West, Toynbee did not regard the death of a civilization as inevitable, for it may or may not continue to respond to successive challenges. Unlike Karl Marx, he saw history as shaped by spiritual, not economic forces.”

    (Security: Familyland, Fatherland, or Homeland? – 6)

    The problem with the WIRED pabulum is that we are now worse than they were then.

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