Monday, May 25, 2009

Buildings or Trees?

A very simple comparison of the coverage of earthscape and the respective properties of trees vs structures in response to natural forces can clarify the debate about what human settlements are doing in the local ecological footprint. On the face of it, a tree requires only the natural energy of its immediate environment versus the immense embodied energy required for a house. This doesn't include any arguments about traffic, energy production and consumption (of everything, including plastics) for the moment. (Click the image above to enlarge it)

This is analogous to spending large amounts of energy (heat) to create what are essentially environmental black holes - wherever human settlements exist. The fabric of nature is thus pockmarked with systems that drain the productive energies of place in order to supply a single species with energies subtracted from global water and earth resources - oil, gas, minerals - that destabilizes the environmental sand pile. The human "escape" from natural systems (i.e., technology) is, unfortunately, an illusion that will not last much longer. We can't geo-engineer our way out of this global situation.

It's clear from this simple comparison that structures are destructive to the environmental processes that trees and plants respond to. Therefore these structures have to be balanced with large areas of natural environment just to accommodate their existence. Buildings contribute nothing to the ecosystem no matter how "green" they are. Therefore, to balance the negative impacts of structures, more natural environment must be set aside, integrated or created, particularly in urban areas. The resulting waste products have to be broken down and made available to either the environment or reused in the urban cycle.

This has to be done somehow without adding energy or carbon to the atmosphere, the soil, or the rivers and oceans. Our human systems are too primitive right now to accomplish this. All power generating systems create additional heat, with renewable energy sources producing the least impact. But we're still a long way from achieving any kind of balance, lacking the will to address the fundamental problems.

Nature will inevitably produce solutions with their breakdown of the physical and social structures that have been created without comprehension of the consequences of development and its scale. It has become an obvious global trend of environmental destruction, and unless leadership is asserted in dealing with this, there won't be much left to show for it all.