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Contrasting futures - the suburb vs. the city (Part III)


Those of you who read these posts [Part I Part II] know that my worldview of ecologically sustainable living, has, over the years veered towards cluster based human settlement – large metropolises or cities with shared infrastructure which reduces the ecological cost of living and that recent technological breakthroughs in Solar power, off-grid power storage, biodegradable materials etc have created a window for suburban sprawls also be become ecologically efficient lifestyles.

But as we concluded in the previous post of this series, the biggest stumbling block in making suburban life sustainable is the real estate overhead claimed by it. Suburban sprawls, however energy efficient, do consume much larger space per-capita leaving less land available for food and related needs to serve the ever-burgeoning population of the world. The matter is further complicated by the rapid upward economic mobility of large populations in Asia and Africa.

I wrote about two routes to manage these contrasting necessities - need to bring prosperous living to all human population and maintaining an ecological balance. I elaborate these two below.

Route A - Stick to cities until we can move back to suburbs!

It is predicted that human population will peak to 9bn around 2050; then come down to today’s levels by end of this century. If we can keep walking on the fine line of ecological sustenance by then, the human population will possibly live in a healthy harmony on earth after this period. An illustration of this ‘sustainable life’ is available in parts of Europe where prosperous nations with low-density population aided largely by mechanised solutions are living a far more ecologically balanced lifestyle than cities and suburbs in Asia or even North America.

It looks difficult however that almost 5bn Asian and African populations slowly maturing towards the lifestyle of the West, would wait for another century – these populations will want the comforts of a developed lifestyle faster and hence might put increasing pressure on our ecological systems. As is evident already with the environmental imbalances across the globe – this might spawn an ecological disaster far before world population peaks, plummeting human prosperity or even threatening human existence!

In a best-case scenario, if we do continue to walk on the thin line between ecological disaster and providing comfort to populations in developing nations; the future, until population abates, lies in clustered living – even denser cities and metros rising vertically leaving larger swathes of land for agriculture and forests.

Route B - Fly away!

The other alternative, like Solar, electric cars and off-grid charging; is again being heralded by Elon Musk. If we can’t reduce human population and we can’t prevent an ecological collapse with the rising population, the only option we have left is to create more real-estate. And what better than colonizing Mars to increase real estate. In fact, several innovations such as Solar Power, Electric Vehicles, even Tunnel based Hyper-Loop systems are a ready fit for a Martian colony.

Humans could harness the power of the Sun to create a cocooned Martian ‘space’ station which would grow its own food, manage its own micro-sewage, and people could commute within the station with electric vehicles and between two stations through hyperloop tunnels.

Are we there yet? Hell - no!

However, we are racing against the ecological clock with both these alternatives; will mankind be able to set up a Martian colony before earth implodes with human population? Or will we be able to create enough cities while keeping the ecological cost of living under check to prevent imminent ecological collapse?

Only time will tell – I just hope I can live long enough to see how the suspense ends!
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This essay is the last of a 3 part series - read Part I and Part II

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