Will We Be Stranded in Our Megalopolises?

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My daughter Catherine said recently, “Dad, you’re in the luckiest generation. You’ve lived with all the animals and you’ve got all this new technology.”

Photo by Michael Nichols/NGS

I know what she means. My generation has seen the best of times, I sometimes think. The planet seemed to be bigger, richer, more resilient forty years ago. And our technology today is, as the great biologist E. O. Wilson says, godlike.

We all have particular concerns for the future. I’m less worried about the human species than I am about the enormous and irrevocable loss of other species.

With our technology we have a reasonable prospect of surviving, I suspect, albeit in a profoundly changed world. I think we can and will find new forms of energy and quite possibly a way to extract and trap the excess carbon we pumped into the atmosphere.


I can see a world of megalopolises such as BosWash that already straddles hundreds of miles of the U.S. east coast. Billions of people may be sustained by vertical farms, plantations stacked one on top of the other in the center of urban areas, such as the one illustrated on the right. Almost all our protein could come from farmed fish.

(Of course, we will still have to sort out how we live peacefully with one another–but that’s another story.)

A day seldom goes by without our news desk receiving a press release about some amazing new technology.

Today we learned that University of California San Diego scientists have developed “nanometer-sized cargo ships that can sail throughout the body via the bloodstream without immediate detection from the body’s immune radar system and ferry their cargo of anti-cancer drugs and markers into tumors that might otherwise go untreated or undetected.”

I believe a lot of this and much more that we cannot now imagine will happen, especially once we are tapping into inexpensive renewable energy such as sunlight or the molten core of the planet.

What I am a lot less optimistic about is the fate of much if not most of the rest of the species on the planet.

It was depressing to hear from scientists at National Geographic headquarters this week how bleak the prognosis is for Africa’s last wild elephants.

I was startled to learn how in what I thought were vast undeveloped forest regions of central Africa the tiny residual fragments of what was once a continent-size elephants’ range are increasingly entangled with overlapping tribal trusts, timber and mining concessions, cattle ranches, hunting preserves, and assorted other land uses.

Rendering of “Living Tower” by SOA Architects courtesy verticalfarm.com

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Photo by Michael Nichols/NGS

And if nibbling habitat away is not bad enough, the rising price of ivory may be building a new wave of poaching elephants for their tusks.

Some day, maybe sooner than we realize, we may live in a giant urban garden and visit the wild places of the Earth only through back issues of National Geographic magazine. An ancient and wise animal, the elephant, may have become extinct in the wild because we couldn’t figure out a way for it to coexist with us.

But like water in a well that runs dry, we won’t know the value of what we have lost until it is gone. Do we really want to find out?

My generation probably won’t see how this is all going to work out. But I sure hope for my children and their children that we can figure out how to save the elephants and their range, and all the species that go with that. There’s very little time left to pull it off.

If our species lets the wilderness go we will have burned our bridges to a world that developed over millions of years and from which we started to emerge a scant 10,000 years ago.

We will be marooned in our mega cities. Our technology better not let us down.

The elephant photos in this entry were made by National Geographic photographer Michael Nichols. You can see more of his work here.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn