Event Recap: Building Sustainable Cities and Living Sustainable Lifestyles

By Randy Mueller(GSB ‘20), FSIC Editorial Team.


On April 29th, I attended an extraordinary event hosted by Dr. Steve Cohen from the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Dr. Cohen’s presentation, called “Building Sustainable Cities and Living Sustainable Lifestyles,” powerfully shifted my perspective on where our society stands and where it might be headed.


Dr. Cohen’s talk covered a lot of ground in less than an hour. He provided an overview of sustainability practices in New York City, ranging from his efforts in the 1980’s as a member of the EPA to curb pollution, to today’s emergence of the “sharing economy” practiced by companies like Uber and Zipcar. As an environmentalist, his optimistic perspective on our country’s shift from an extractive, polluting economy to a sustainable and healthy one surprised me. Whenever I read the articles and research of scientists and policymakers involved in similar work, the predominant tone and message I most often encounter is one of “doom and gloom.” Environmental scientists and concerned public servants seem at times to prefer the message that our society has harmed the planet and its natural systems beyond rehabilitation.


Dr. Cohen, however, offered a message of hope. He believes a healthy combination of government regulation and free market enterprise will drive our economy away from fossil fuels and towards full dependence on renewable energy that will become increasingly cheap and accessible. He also believes jobs that may become obsolete, especially those in the fossil fuel industry, will be replaced by jobs in the growing green energy sector. Hearing such confidence and idealism from a seasoned environmentalist filled me with hope that I hadn’t felt ever since I took a “doom and gloom” environmental science class as a senior in high school.


Yet a few questions began to nag me: How do we address the matter of our exponentially growing population that consumes an immensely unsustainable amount of resources? And, if we were to make the dramatic shift to living and working in a more sustainable economy, how would we account for the inevitable economic downturn that would come with significantly reduced consumer demand? As I nervously anticipated asking Dr. Cohen these questions, he surprised me with the solution, one that had somehow flown under my radar: Experts project with a favorable level of certainty that the Earth’s population will plateau around 9 billion before the year 2100.


I felt my eyes widen, nostrils flair, and legs bounce up and down like pistons as the implications of such a projection hit me. No longer do we have to lose sleep over the thought of living on a planet with finite resources and an infinitely growing population. Nor will the movie Interstellar go down in history as a prophecy of what measures humans will have to take to be able to survive as a species. We don’t have to pack up and move to another planet! I felt like the weight of the world was off my shoulders.


Now, the projections must be taken with a grain of salt. We do not know for sure if our population will hover around 9 billion. It could end up being 12, 15, or even 20 billion. And there is a lifetime of work to be done, probably even two lifetimes, to propagate the enormous shift from consumerism to frugality, materialism to simplicity, and extraction to regeneration. We still have deepening wealth inequality, persistent poverty, and massive environmental and health crises. Yet there is hope, but only if we take the necessary steps to embrace the new paradigm. As Dr. Cohen wisely concluded, human beings aren’t suicidal. We are ingenious. We will survive, and hopefully even flourish.