The Natural Environment

The incredible explosion of population and wealth that has occurred over the last 30 years is increasingly impacting our natural environment and that impact, in turn affects how we live, work and relate with each other. Three major areas of environmental concern are air and water pollution, resource scarcity, and climate change.

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Air and water pollution are already critical issues for people in many parts of the world and especially in the mega cities of Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Despite regulations in most countries around the world that should limit these problems, the World Health Organization estimates that much of humanity lives in places with toxic air and suffer from water pollution.

Energy supply is a complex issue but it is generally agreed that at current production rates the world has approximately 50 years of oil and natural gas and plenty of coal. The problem is that in terms of carbon dioxide and climate change, it might be better to keep those resources in the ground than use them for energy. (see Box)

The good news is that wind and solar are now cheaper than fossil fuels in providing electricity and there is a broad-based movement of industry, cities and a number of countries around the world to move to a low carbon energy mix.

Potable water is probably the most pressing issue in terms of resources around the world although some analysts are concerned about specific minerals such as lithium and cobalt. 

The United Nations estimates that 2 billion people live in countries undergoing extreme water stress and that double that amount experience water shortages at least one month during the year. Draught affects millions of people every year and has caused humanitarian crisis over time in Syria, Ethiopia, and Yemen just to name a few of the countries affected.

Desalination is increasingly looked as the solution but even with the latest Israeli technology, it takes enormous of energy to produce fresh water from the sea. That energy, in turn, needs to be produced potentially adding to the overall problem. Unless there is a a remarkable energy breakthrough in the near future, water emergencies will become increasingly normal in many parts of the world.

Finally, the gradual warming of the planet itself is already having an impact on weather patterns and the climate in a number of places.

Environmental issues create both problems and opportunities for people as they think about what to do with their professional lives. Changes to the natural environment will, over time, limit the quality of life and prosperity of cities and regions and can have a negative impact on a number of industries and jobs at both the local and regional level

My conviction is that each one of us has the ability and even the responsibility to think about how this issue may impact us and our family personally. This will depend, of course on where we live and work and also how we feel about the issue. In terms of looking ahead to your professional future, the natural environment may have an impact on the place you live, space you work in and even the role you choose to play.

  • Impacts

Perhaps the primary impact of environmental change will play out in the choices you make about place. In a number of specific parts of the world the situation is already alarming and has to do with draught and desertification, flooding, increased storms, and air and water pollution.

The western part of the United States, for example, experienced a severe draught between 2011 and 2017 causing water rationing and deep changes to the mix of agricultural production.

In another example the city of Cape Town has been rationing water for years. The city is currently building desalination plants but has been close to running out of water throughout much of 2016 and 2017. The situation became so acute in 2018 that for many weeks the city was predicting that it would hit absolute zero.

Although there is still debate as to how much of these and other draughts are caused by climate change, naturally occurring weather patterns, or the political issues connected with land use and water management, the reality is that fresh water is a critical resource.

Another issue which has affected many people around the world is the increasingly destructive power of storms. In this case the science is fairly straight forward as slightly warmer temperatures in the sea and the atmosphere provide more energy for storms making them stronger.

What makes the situation more dramatic is that we have steadily built up our communities along the world’s coastlines. Natural resilience to storms is provided by wetlands which have been dried up to make way for development and much of the construction has not been sufficient to withstand the more powerful storms, storm surges, and in some cases tsunamis. 

This is part of the reason why storm damage, in terms of dollars, has increased in recent years but should be part of the calculation when looking at beach front property or communities that are highly vulnerable such as the greater Miami area.

Beyond air and water pollution, a gradually warming earth will also impact other places changing land use patterns, crops and other aspects of life.

In terms of space, there are clearly losers and winners in terms of the most likely impacts in the next few years. In the first place, whole classes of industries or spaces are being targeted by governments and civil society for the local and global harm they are thought to do to the environment and jobs in these sectors may be at risk. 

An industry which has been explicitly targeted is the coal business. Coal currently accounts for approximately 27% of the global energy mix but produces about 40% of carbon emissions. Substituting coal for natural gas in producing electrical power reduces emissions but between 50 and 60% and is one of the quickest ways to reduce emissions.

This was the logic behind the Obama administration’s Clean Power Initiative which mandated the switch across the United States. Even though that initiative has been reversed by the current American administration, coal companies stocks are still at an all-time low in the United States and it is difficult to see a long term future for the industry.

There are, on the other hand, tremendous opportunities connected to cleaning up the environment and making the transition to a low carbon economy. Christiana Figueres, who led the United Nations in its efforts to broker the Paris agreement on climate change back in 2015, see the transition as the biggest business opportunity of all time that will generate 65 million new jobs.

What Ms. Figueras and others such as former Vice President Al Gore believe, however is that the only real question about the transition is one of time. Either the world will act in the next 10 years to address its ecological problems or it will be forced to do so by mother nature herself some years later.

A number of spaces are clearly positioned to be the winners over long term. Renewable energy and energy management show enormous potential as do a host of well-established technologies in the area of energy efficiency that can be done by carpenters, plumbers and electricians.

Another space which is already being transformed as a result of environmental concerns is automotive or what is now called mobility. Concerns about air pollution have led cities around the world to ban diesel engines as of 2030 and most major car manufacturers are already engaged in the electrification of their fleets.

Other opportunities have to do with managing the likely effects of climate change. A former student of mine, for example, runs a company dedicated to increasing the resilience of port facilities around the world. He tells me that business is booming as his clients, which include the U.S. Navy, prepare for slightly higher water levels and significantly higher storm surge from hurricanes and typhoons.

Extreme weather events as well as the slow effects of climate change will also have a huge impact on a wide range of spaces from construction to food production and the critical idea, which is laid out in the workbook is to think through how those spaces you may be interested will potentially be affected.

In addition to having an impact on place and space, the environment is already directly affecting a number of roles both within and outside traditional companies.

In the first place, thousands of firms now publish their own sustainability reports which require a whole set of specialized people to track their environmental footprint and measure their progress on such things as the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals which will be discussed briefly in Chapter 11.

A whole new segment of the auditing industry has actually emerged and there are a number of new roles associated with this activity including managers, consultants, and communications specialists.

There are also new roles associated with new forms of energy such as the people who build, operate and service wind farms and solar power facilities. Other more traditional roles have expanded or changed as the result of these trends and you could include automotive engineers and service technicians in this category as well as the people in the building trades who are adapting to new technologies in housing and building.

The last aspect of the issue on how the environment affects each one of us is more about our own attitudes and concerns on the issue. Lauren Fisher, for example, is one of the role models in the zero waste movement. 

She and thousands of others are taking active steps to avoid or eliminate single use plastic from their daily lives, re-use clothing and other durable products and make their own food and toiletries from items they buy in bulk.

Living such a life requires significant amounts of time but many people take smaller steps to recycle what they can, buy locally grown produce, use public transportation, and lower their personal carbon footprint, to name a few examples.

The point about such behavior is that one may choose to pursue a different role or live in a different place depending on the degree to which these issues are important at a personal level.