Significant engineering, scientific, and technical achievements shaped the course of civilization. In their day and at their time, these achievements were breakthroughs, and advanced progress. But now older energy grids are inadequate to current needs; water systems leak; bridges and roads need repair. With climate change, increasingly devastating storms demand rebuilding. Sea level rise will further force rebuilding. Because our old infrastructure is giving out, and because climate change is damaging the world, it is certainly time to rebuild.
But we must do more than just rebuild. We must renew.
Early attempts to harness and share essentials like water and energy were based on an assumption that these natural elements were infinite. We pumped water with no fear of scarcity. Now rivers that like the Colorado that provide water to 1 in 10 Americans are suffering depletion and the consequences of drought.
We struck oil, and it gushed in such abundance that we built a whole world powered by an energy source that seemed infinite. Now, we are draining more water for agriculture, drinking, industry, and sanitation than we can replenish. We are squeezing out remaining coal gas, and oil with a clock ticking. A time bomb is also ticking. The changes we must make demand building with a new vision, one of renewal.
Humans, by nature, tend to delay acting until a crisis. This has been true throughout history, as you’ll see in this blog and in Building the World. For example, China did not develop the Grand Canal until grain and fresh water were needed in the arid north, and it became clear that an internal waterway from the south could satisfy both needs. Another example: ancient Rome did not seek an alternative to the increasingly polluted Tiber River until that water source was threatened by poison during a time of war. The Roman aqueducts, bringing fresh water to the growing city and empire, were the result. The Manhattan Project developed a new energy source during a time of impending war. Crisis is a time for action. Now is such a time.
The study of success may be quickly summarized: success causes go-ahead action; failure causes a stop and then a change. We may experience success and failure as opposites, but they are poles of a shared system. Failure tells us what we didn’t know, didn’t see, and now can change: if well examined, failure is the secret to success. Failure is a window; success is a door.
Renewal is better than rebuilding because it takes into account what was learned. Rebuilding by merely replacing is over. When hurricanes like 2022’s Ian devastated coastal areas of Florida, USA, merely building back in the former order can no longer be considered. We must rethink coasts, and rebuild them with renewing systems such as mangroves and wetlands. Some communities may need to move. When Pakistan suffered floods in August of 2022, over half a million homes collapsed and 3,000 kilometers of roads washed out in Sindh, Balochistan, southern Punjab, and southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Inundations displaced 4 million people; 30 million were affected. Telecommunications were suspended in Quetta, Balochistan’s capital, isolating 2 million people. In November 2022, Spain suffered record flooding when so much rain fell in one hour that airport runways were flooded and power outages left many without electricity. In the Netherlands, the Twente canals from Deiden to Almelo and Deiden to Enschede are undergoing widening to let more water in, as 254 measuring wells along the routes monitor increasing groundwater. Some believe climate change, while tragic, will offer a rare opportunity to rethink and redesign better, resilient, renewable systems that are based on today’s reality and tomorrow’s inevitability.
Climate change is just getting started, showing us the unintended and unsuspected failures of our former order. We built the world knowing what we then knew – using forms of energy that brought impressive results, improved many lives, advanced industry. But what we did not know has now become all too apparent. Before fossil fuel emissions heat the planet into unlivable conditions, we must switch our energy systems into renewable form. We built great civilizations along coasts: most of the ancient capitals were ports. Now, sea rise and flooding demand redesigning coastal cities. Indonesia is the first nation to move its capital, Jakarta, to another location for new capital, Nusantara. As the climate changes, so will the world.
There is no understating the challenge ahead. But the very urgency of climate change may also open the greatest opportunity humanity has ever seen for truly sustainable renewal. It’s not just an opportunity for one country or even one region. It is, and must be, a globally shared opportunity. Together, and perhaps only together, we can renew the world.