By Alan Hecht and Aaron Ferster
The world faces serious challenges due to a growing number of what scientists and other have defined as megatrends, long-term changes that affect governments, societies and economies over long periods of time. Many of these large-scale changes are driven by the environment. A 2015 report from the National Science Foundation, America’s Future: Environmental Research and Education for a Thriving Century: A 10-year Outlook, notes that “we’re experiencing a time in which human society and technology are increasing the pace and rate of environmental change in ways for which no precedent exists, and which have significant potential consequences.”
The biggest impacts from these changes are felt most in cities, where the majority of people live. Cities today are struggling with the very real economic and quality of life impacts of extreme weather events such as hurricanes and other super storms, extended droughts, extreme heat days, and flooding.
And the extended forecast is not promising. Scientists project that in the decades ahead, droughts in the U.S. Southwest and Central Plains could be drier and longer than dry conditions seen in those regions during the last 1,000 years. Maps of potential rising sea levels show that nearly two million U.S. homes could be inundated by 2100, displacing many more millions of people and resulting in staggering property losses totaling hundreds of billions of dollars.
EPA is poised to respond to these predictions through science, innovation, and extensive collaboration throughout the government and business communities.
EPA researcher Alan Hecht and co-authors identify several key actions for working toward a more resilient and sustainable society in their recently published paper, Responding to Megatrends for a Resilient and Sustainable Society.
These actions include:
- Anticipating future changes and adopting foresight management;
- Applying systems thinking in problem solving;
- Developing and using decision support tools;
- Advancing green design and infrastructure;
- Advancing environmental education and the understanding of future threats and the links between the environment, the economy, and human well-being; and
- Expanding stakeholder engagement and cooperation, especially between businesses and government.
Taking action to anticipate and meet even the most daunting environmental challenges is at the core of EPA’s mission. Over the past forty-plus years, our role has evolved to a science-based leader in innovation and collaboration. A new challenge for EPA now is to act with the foresight needed to deal with present and future megatrends in ways that increase resiliency and advance sustainability.
For society as a whole, the challenge ahead is to respond to emerging trends, build a resilient and sustainable society, and recognize the need for widespread cooperation to ensure the security and prosperity of present and future generations. A new era of environmental management and education is needed. We must plan for future challenges and disprove Benjamin Franklin’s classic adage “It is not until the well runs dry that we know the worth of water.”
About the Authors: Alan Hecht is a Senior Sustainability Advisor in EPA’s Sustainable and Healthy Community national research program. Aaron Ferster is the communications lead for that program, and an EPA science writer.