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Our Grand Evolutionary Experiment: Generation Green

If you were to trace your DNA back a thousand years, you’d find you are made up of roughly equal genetic contributions of millions of ancestors. The odds against all of these genes surviving to eventually produce you were immense. But many of these genes helped your ancestors act “selfishly” to survive. And they live on in your instincts to protect yourself and your children. They help define the involuntary reactions to a hot stove or an oncoming car. They help activate the hormones that shape parenting behavior. And put blandly, they help spur the instinctive need for the act of reproduction.

In other words, every one of you is an evolutionary experiment that succeeded in the laboratory of Earth. Congratulations!

Yet when we examine these “selfish” genes at a larger scale, we begin to see worrying consequences.

Dr. Jared Diamond shows that the most successful early hominids exhibited two main patterns: highly efficient genocide (in this case, of Neanderthals) and natural resource destruction (exhibited by die-offs of large mammals). As human populations grew, so did the incidence of these patterns, to the point where they are now so common they don’t always make the news.

Rapid industrialization and mass consumption have driven natural resources destruction to the point where we are effectively conducting an uncontrolled experiment on the ecological services that helped us flourish as a species –  quietly unplugging our life support systems one-by-one. The end result of all of this is that we are the first generation to face the prospect of delivering to our heirs a planet no longer capable of supporting human life.

Fortunately, we are not simply the sum of our genetic parts. Famed Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson points out roughly 10,000 years ago, when agriculture allowed us to settle, culture took over as the driving force for humankind’s evolution. This led to three uniquely human developments: urbanization, intellectual property, and technology.

First, urbanization. Settled civilizations enhanced quality-of-life and decreased the need for manual laborers (otherwise known as children at the time). Now that the majority of us live in cities, birth rates are slowing to the point where, in our lifetimes, global human population is expected to plateau, making less elusive the goal of sustainable consumption.

Second, intellectual property. This rewards an individual (and by extension, his or her “selfish genes”) for developing something that improves the life of others. It is likely no coincidence that the steam engine, which helped launch the Industrial Revolution, was developed where intellectual property was protected by law.

Third, technology. Settled civilization took fuller advantage of our species’ unique capacity to learn from one another, leading eventually to clusters of innovators like Silicon Valley. It is from clusters like these that we gain technological tools that will help reverse ecological imbalance. For example:

Ever been frustrated with a client’s instinct to reduce first costs at all costs, rather than take a whole systems view? Understandable. Our brains struggle with complex problems and try to simplify them down into their component parts. But there’s now no need to rewire our brains. Software as a service – better known as ‘the cloud’ – is redefining knowledge from what one information an individual knows, to what one information an individual can access. Take, for example, the incredible amount of data and compute power that makes building performance analysis faster and more available.

Ever been frustrated with navigating the vast sea of information on, say, toxics in building products? Technology can make this not only more easily searchable, but also draw from disciplines you typically wouldn’t. Take, for example, the Biomimicry Institute’s online database, where architects and engineers can search the biological literature for nature’s tried-and-tested solutions to today’s design challenges, such as self-cleaning paint (full disclosure: Autodesk is a partner of the Biomimicry Institute).

Ever been frustrated by the fact that no single company can serve your needs every step of a workflow? By recognizing this fact and addressing it through partnership, companies in innovation clusters are more resilient in the marketplace, just like symbiotic species in an ecosystem. Take, for example, the way third-party developers large and small are localizing others’ software tools for building energy code compliance.

By harnessing these three uniquely human developments – urbanization, intellectual property, and technology, you will shape the next phase of human evolution. In essence, you have the long-term survival of the species in your hands.

Emma Stewart, Ph.D., is currently the Senior Manager for AEC Sustainability Solutions at Autodesk where she leads the design software company’s efforts to make sustainable design easy, cost-effective and routine across the building and infrastructure industries. Emma holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Science and Management from Stanford University and a B.A. Honors degree in Human Sciences from Oxford University.

Emma Stewart
Emma Stewart, Ph.D., is an environmental strategy consultant to Fortune 500 companies and leading non-profit organizations, combining expertise in environmental trends analysis, policy and metrics design, and management consulting. She can be reached via LinkedIn.
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