I am in my eighth decade of existence and believe, rightly or wrongly, that I have gained some perspective on the arc of life on Planet Earth. I have been a part of our global society, and its development, through my years of local, state, national, and international experience in academia, engineering, construction, transportation, natural sciences, management, and leadership. I also enjoy building things of value, physically and metaphorically, in concert with the social, human-built, and natural environments. At my base, I consider myself a scientist, nature, and evidence-based from an early age, valuing the scientific method and, as more evidence comes forth, that conclusions may change. That is in stark contrast to the misinformation in our society today. I have lived a good life, enjoyed the natural world, and benefited from myriad developments. I am proud to have brought some built-natural environment perspective to mitigate, if not improve, our natural environment. These include recycling, asset management, environmental management, infrastructure development to reduce costs and environmental impacts, improvement of habitats and associated species outcomes, and the quality of people’s lives. Unfortunately, they don’t count for much in the greater scheme of life.
As our planet approaches a population of eight billion people (Davies, 2022) (there were about 2.5 billion in 1950 when I was born), I am reminded of the “carrying capacity” (Odom, 1971) which is familiar to ecologists, farmers, ranchers, and conservationists. That is, there is a limit to the number of individuals a habitat, including our global habitat, can sustain. Moreover, risks are growing (World Economic Forum, 2022; Wallace-Wells, 2017; Pulver and Rice, 2022). It is virtually impossible to deny the influence human beings have had on the world, even to the point of creating a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene (Brondizio et al., 2016).
I do not recall a time as now with as much attention to our natural environment since the days of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, the United Nations convening the first Earth Summit (the UN Conference on the Human Environment) in 1972, and the Limits to Growth in 1972. There are myriad efforts that have developed: Global Project Management (2023) and myriad series stemming from the 50th Anniversary of the Limits to Growth such as:
50th Anniversary of ‘The Limits to Growth’ Seminar Series (PDF)
We Don’t Have Time: “The 1.5°C Business Playbook: your company’s roadmap for exponential climate action”
National Academies: “Climate Conversations: Tipping Points”
I reviewed some of these growing built-natural environment issues in a series of previous blogs entitled “The Mobility Ecosystem: the changing landscape and need for fresh, new ideas” (www.leadershipintransportation.com).
I was shocked to learn that the “Lungs of the Earth” (aka the vast Amazon Rain Forest) has reversed behavior. For the first time in its existence, the Amazon now emits more CO2 than it absorbs due to large-scale human disturbances such as land clearing (Gatti et al., 2021; McCoy, 2022). This is in addition to continuing degradation and destruction of the Amazon (Watts, 2022). We are also living in the sixth mass extinction of life on earth, partially because of our encroachment into wildlife habitats, and 2020 brought us a pandemic that completely disrupted our global society (Tollefson, 2020).
The efforts this past year are truly remarkable. Initiated partly by a review of the original 1972 Limits to Growth computer model in the book Limits and Beyond: 50 years on from The Limits to Growth. What did we learn, and what’s next” (Bardi and Alvarez, 2022). These efforts include a host of books, articles, webinars, conferences, and other venues on the subject of saving our planet. The 1972 Limits to Growth is still prescient 50 years later, not in details but in major trends.
Some other eclectic and seemingly disparate books have also influenced my thinking this past year, including Five Insights for Avoiding Global Collapse (Herrington, 2022), Earth for All: a survival guide for humanity (Dixon-Decleve et al., 2022), How to be a Stoic (Pigliucci, 2017), The Emperors Handbook (by Marcus Aurelius a translation by Scott and Hicks, 2002), The Standard for Project Management (Project Management Institute, 2021), and The Standard for Program Management (Project Management Institute, 2017). These readings, and others, set the basis for this writing. I have tried to write this to expand program and project managers’ thinking and perspectives as they are in a somewhat unique position to mitigate, if not improve, our built-natural environments. Prieto (2022a) provides another, more detailed discussion of the role of program and project managers in the climate change arena.
While I perused the book The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al., 1972) as an undergraduate and graduate student, I did not fully recognize its relevance.
Now, I find myself increasingly reflecting on what has gone before and what the future will look like.
Simplicity is appropriate, even though the “devil is in the details,” in explaining inherently complex subjects, and I could find no better simple description, vice describing in words, than the figures depicting our natural-built environment challenges, existential and otherwise, as in Herrington’s book (2022). There is another good figure depicting this subject entitled “Integration of Natural Capital and Economic Capital” (Figure 1) found on the inside back cover of Odom and Barrett (2005).
Figure 2 reflects the hierarchy of needs for our planetary existence and the fragility of life on earth if nature is relegated to the lowest priority. This has some similarities to Maslow’s well-known hierarchy of needs and human motivation to have a stable and successful life (Maslow 1943).
Money is perhaps human history’s most successful shared fiction (Goldstein, 2020). We have all been raised in an economic framework, so it feels real, but the capitalist narrative underlying our economic system is purely a human invention, which becomes clear as we replace the issues surrounding this human invention with a purely physical one, such as a threat, disease, injury, or death. In other words, the natural system is what is real and it sometimes takes a traumatic event for us to reset, or see more clearly, our priorities toward life and its attendant features (family, friends, other living things, and generally enjoying what is otherwise a short human life).
In recent decades, there have been increasing efforts to address these built-natural environment challenges and dilemmas. These include environmental laws and regulations, recycling, sustainability, ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) programs and approaches in our society in general but also in the economic and investing arenas (e.g. Fink, 2022). These efforts are all worthwhile but it is difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain whether these largely unintentionally fragmented efforts have substantial impacts toward a more balanced built-natural environment, or if they are even measuring real impacts (Catanoso, 2022), sometimes referred to as “green-washing” (Robinson, 2022). These efforts are also not without pushback in our crazy political world (Toppe, 2022; Beals, 2023; Ramsey, 2023). ESG risks in engineering and construction must also be considered (Prieto, 2022b, 2023). Another aspect is whether our built environment will bend or break while sustaining our underlying natural environment (Woetzel et al., 2020).
I believe that our current challenges require systems thinking and a program management approach (Prieto, 2021; Project Management Institute, 2022a, 2022b). Program management is a collection of projects with a common interrelationship. What could have more interconnected relationships than our global built-natural environment?
This four-part series is not meant to be comprehensive, a prediction of the future, or a doomsday. Events are moving rapidly so this series may be lagging but the central themes remain the same. It is meant as a very broad review of our current planetary situation. What I know with certainty is that we will succeed or fail in caring for our planet—together. It is our common mother ship.
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