Finding the Balance between ‘Green’ and ‘Gray’

Finding the Balance between ‘Green’ and ‘Gray’

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AECOM’s Gary Lawrence, chief sustainability officer and vice president, discusses lessons learned from Superstorm Sandy and provides additional insight needed to build urban resiliency in coastal cities everywhere.

Thursday, October 31, 2013 - 2:00pm

CAMPAIGN: Thought Leadership

CONTENT: Article

In October 2012, Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc across North America — and caused nearly 300 deaths and more than US$50 billion in damage. Thousands were left homeless and millions suffered without heat, electricity and water. Marking the storm’s one-year anniversary, AECOM’s Gary Lawrence, chief sustainability officer and vice president, recently recounted lessons learned from the destruction — providing additional insight needed to build urban resiliency in coastal cities everywhere.

In the article below, Lawrence details the ongoing ideological struggle involving the development of resilience methods in coastal zones such as the area affected by Superstorm Sandy. Is it best to build concrete infrastructure or let nature take its course?

Finding the Balance between ‘Green’ and ‘Gray’

“We live in a world of polarity — day and night, man and woman, positive and negative. Light and darkness need each other. They are a balance.”

–Carlos Barrios, Mayan Elder and Ajq’ij of the Eagle Clan I had the pleasure of speaking at several conferences last month on the topic of climate resilience and adaptation. Brilliant and compelling as the arguments of my fellow panelists were, some of their opinions triggered a bit of an anxiety attack.  I started wondering if the discussion of resilience methods in coastal zones was going to become an ideological struggle, like the one sustainability is caught up in.  Was the discussion going to be about requiring a choice between “either green or grey infrastructure?”  Some seem to favor all green and some all grey, yet only “both green and grey” responses can work.

Choosing one or the other suggests we know the answers, despite a future filled with random and uncertain probabilities.  No mortal has the perspective necessary to be able to say with confidence that they know exactly what to do.

This musing on mortal flaws brought to mind the Ancient Mayan creation myth. According to the story, the gods had three attempts at creation. Their first attempt created the Mud People who were to resemble and praise the gods. The Mud People, unfortunately could neither move nor speak, and quickly crumbled apart. The second attempt produced the Stick People. Disturbingly, the Stick People turned out to be really mean and godless. So mean in fact, that even their household pots and pans turned against them and they had to be disposed of by a giant flood. On the third attempt the gods created men out of maize (the primary food source for the Maya) and here we are today. The Corn People. The Corn People have hearts and souls and the capacity to honor and celebrate their origins.

Doing only small violence to this metaphor, I realized I was caught between two key constituencies: the Green People and the Grey People.

The Green People believe that constructing infrastructure from concrete and other aggregate materials creates a hardscape that essentially exacerbates climate problems because it diverts and waylays the problem rather than letting the properties of the natural environment deal with it where it arises.

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy the Green People stepped forward to argue that we should not attempt do anything with dykes and draining but rather leave the beaches alone to replenish themselves over the generations to come.

The Grey People believe that hardscape construction is the only viable answer and that human intellectual and engineering capacity is stronger and more predictable than letting nature take its course.

The Grey People believe that the only viable response to potential future storms is to design and construct storm surge barriers.

I have often talked about the struggle between faith and science where the essence of faith is belief and the essence of science is doubt. Both the Green and the Grey People fall into the faith-based category. There is no room for doubt.

So last month, while I was listening to the Green People and the Grey People striving to make their case for one versus the other, I was thinking that our only possibility of success lies in a third evolution. In bringing the Green People and the Grey people together in agreement that we are all Earth People. People who are dependent on Earth for everything essential to life. What are man-made materials if not the result of a conversion of natural resources? What industry exists without an abundant source of clean water and an equally abundant source of energy? How can human ingenuity thrive without the clean air, water, food and energy essential to human survival? No species can exceed its range. Surely we can all agree on that?

I ended the month at The Nature Conservancy’s Learning Exchange in New Orleans. The topic was “Mainstreaming Climate Resilience: How do we get there?” And here, I was greatly encouraged to see that the Earth People are indeed among us. The Nature Conservancy participants urged an inclusive, integrated approach that remained open to all possible remedies. They acknowledged the reality that there is no clarity about right answers. Combining and leveraging the strengths and benefits of both allows problems solvers to collaborate on integrated approaches that afford the possibility of greater flexibility and adaptation to change.

There is always a balance that can be found. It is never perfect, but it acknowledges that everyone’s perspective is valid and rational from his or her point of view. If we can begin with what we all agree upon – clean air, water, food and energy – we will recognize that we are all indeed the same people. People with hearts and souls and the capacity to honor and celebrate the resources necessary for life.

Gary Lawrence is chief sustainability officer and vice president of AECOM Technology Corp. You can follow Gary on Twitter @CSO_AECOM.


This article originally appeared in Environmental Leader.

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