The Environment: Let’s Get It Right
Today’s worldwide wave of urbanization is unprecedented in scale and scope. As our expanding “megacities” address the daunting challenge of renewing their infrastructure — their mobility, energy, and water systems — the impact on the quality of the natural environment (our forests, soil, air, and water) will be dramatic. This is not a new phenomenon. In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, naturalist Jared Diamond describes societies throughout history — including Roman, Anasazi, and Mayan civilizations, as well as those of Easter Island and Norse Greenland, and, more recently, communities in Rwanda, Haiti, and Montana — that have lost or are losing the ability to sustain their people. He concludes that human efforts to expand infrastructure can lead, often unintentionally, to ecological decline that in many cases catalyzes the whole society’s collapse. With the stakes so high, we must get it right this time.
We should begin by better understanding the complex and powerful relationships among infrastructure, human behavior, and the environment. The power, water, and transportation systems in place today were mostly created without much regard for their impact on nature. Investment in the 19th and 20th centuries was primarily supply-oriented: Planners would predict population growth, assume that consumption patterns would remain unchanged, and provide energy, water, and transit accordingly. Few people imagined that these decisions could affect the atmosphere, the ocean, and the forest so deeply.
Today, we know better. The quality of infrastructure and land-use planning “hard wires” the environmental impact of a given region. The more consciously we can build infrastructure that doesn’t harm, or that even helps restore, the natural environment, the more likely it is that those designs will endure. Cities, in particular, that design their infrastructure with a bias toward ecological awareness — for example, with minimal water leakage, energy-efficient buildings and appliances, well-designed mass transit, and expanded use of renewable energy and fuel-efficient vehicles — will be far more sustainable and resilient than most cities today. Conversely, cities that ignore environmental impact will find themselves facing another collapse of infrastructure 30 or 40 years from now, and our children and grandchildren will bear a much higher price tag.
What would it mean to take environmental sustainability into account? Projects would include collaborative planning, decentralized funding, and demand-side management — promoting human habits, like more efficient use of energy or shorter commutes, that minimize environmental impact. We already have sufficient proof that “pollution prevention pays,” that reducing waste and conserving energy are cost-effective in the long run. But decision makers still often do not see sustainability as central to the infrastructure challenge and therefore rarely reap the benefits, even when the bottom-line implications are clear. That’s why enlightened planning and decision making may need to go beyond traditional return on investment measures.
As the “$40 trillion challenge” concept suggests, many cities will make major infrastructure investments in the next 20 years. They will have no choice. Putting more time and thought into sustainability will ensure that their investment pays off in the short term, in attracting people and enterprises, and in the long term as well.
Molly Finn ([email protected]), a vice president with Booz Allen Hamilton based in McLean, Va., leads the firm’s environmental business.
Gary Rahl ([email protected]), a vice president with Booz Allen Hamilton based in McLean, Va., leads sustainability initiatives in the public and private sectors.
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Viren Doshi ([email protected]) is a vice president with Booz Allen Hamilton in London. An expert in leading strategy-based transformations, he works with companies in the energy sector across Europe and the Middle East.
Gary Schulman ([email protected]), a vice president with Booz Allen Hamilton in New York, is a leader in the firm’s global transportation business. He specializes in procurement strategy and mission integration for aviation infrastructure, highway, and mass transit clients.
Daniel Gabaldon ([email protected]) is a principal with Booz Allen Hamilton. Based in McLean, Va., he focuses on providing strategic advice to leading participants in the global energy and infrastructure sectors.
Also contributing to this article were Booz Allen Hamilton Principals Michael Delurey and Jack Opiola, Associate Max Kattan, and Senior Consultant Kierstin Case.