World Environment Day Isn’t About the Environment

Jun 9, 2015 10:05 AM ET
Campaign: Thought Leadership
In honor of World Environment Day, Gary Lawrence, vice president and chief sustainability officer at AECOM, discusses his thoughts on the potential for humans to improve their security and quality of life.

Originally published on AECOM Impact blog

In honor of World Environment Day, Gary Lawrence, vice president and chief sustainability officer at AECOM, discusses his thoughts on the potential for humans to improve their security and quality of life. 

I am really happy to see that this year’s World Environment Day theme — “Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care.” — puts the human element firmly back into the equation.

With its roots in the ecology movement of the 1970s, World Environment Day was originally a response to the awaking awareness that human behavior was negatively affecting the quality of nature. Today, we are beginning to grasp a more-pressing, more-galvanizing realization: natural capital is essential not only for the betterment of human life, but for its mere existence.

We have migrated from the ecological movement of the ’70s through the sustainability movement of the ’90s (leapfrogging the global party that was the ’80s) to a clearer understanding of today’s most urgent issue — resilience.

The language we use to describe the predicament has evolved to reflect our changing and growing understanding of the essential relationship between humans and nature. “Ecology,” where nature was the victim in need of protection, expanded into the idea of “sustainability” in an attempt to focus as much or more on the qualities that allow for human development and improve the quality of human life. As the consequences of resource scarcity and degradation have become more manifest, we now find ourselves in an age where we are beginning to appreciate that we cannot triumph by engaging in a struggle, but must learn the steps in a dance of give and take that requires us to flex and adapt to our partner’s moves.

We have deconstructed the ideas at the heart of the environment and sustainability movements and effectively repackaged them in the name of “resilience” — a concept and a word that are accessible and comprehensible to a far greater number of people.

Resilience acknowledges the cause-and-effect relationships between natural, economic and human systems. It recognizes that our ability to maintain civil societies, prioritize needs and implement the hard decisions ahead of us requires a much better understanding of the interplay among water, food, energy, prosperity and governance.

Under what circumstances will we be able to continue? The quality of our continued existence depends upon the ability of the human species to find a comfortable balance between our needs and desires, and those of the other species with whom we share the planet. The next step is for us to leave behind our outdated notion of nature as some malevolent third party plotting against us (with killer storms, invasive species and toxic shellfish) and re-embrace its potential to surround and protect us with life-giving ecosystem services and natural defense systems.

The advantage humans have is that we are the most creative, inventive, ingenious and collaborative species on the planet.

What I would like to celebrate today is the vast potential we have as a species to unite our ingenuity with that of the natural world and to improve the security and quality of life for every single person on the planet. We are all in this together.

Check out more blog posts on sustainability and resiliency on the AECOM Impact blog!


AECOM is a premier, fully integrated professional and technical services firm positioned to design, build, finance and operate infrastructure assets around the world for public- and private-sector clients. With nearly 100,000 employees — including architects, engineers, designers, planners, scientists and management and construction services professionals — serving clients in over 150 countries around the world, AECOM is ranked as the #1 engineering design firm by revenue in Engineering News-Record magazine’s annual industry rankings, and has been recognized by Fortune magazine as a World’s Most Admired Company. The firm is a leader in all of the key markets that it serves, including transportation, facilities, environmental, energy, oil and gas, water, high-rise buildings and government. AECOM provides a blend of global reach, local knowledge, innovation and technical excellence in delivering customized and creative solutions that meet the needs of clients’ projects. A Fortune 500 firm, AECOM companies, including URS Corporation and Hunt Construction Group, had revenue of approximately $19 billion during the 12 months ended March 31, 2015. More information on AECOM and its services can be found at

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