This Dutch town will grow its own food, live off-grid, and handle its own waste

It’s no secret that today’s aggressive agricultural techniques can take a heavy toll on the environment, both on the land used for crops and livestock, and in the surrounding atmosphere. But a new vision of a more sustainable ‘integrated neighbourhood’ community is being implemented in the Netherlands, with the first of a series of high-tech farm villages set to be completed next year. The project, being built just outside of Amsterdam, is the brainchild of California-based developer ReGen Villages, and after its pilot community is finished in 2017, the company plans to bring the concept to Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Germany. Of course, communal farms aren’t exactly a new idea, with communities like the Amish people and more recent kinds of farming collectives having long lived off the grid. But we’re not talking about another attempt to recreate simple, pastoral living here. ReGen Villages wants to harness the power of today’s technology to create “off-grid capable neighbourhoods” that provide the comforts of a regular modern lifestyle, but which are entirely self-reliant and sustainable: growing their own food, generating their own energy, managing waste locally, and recycling water. “We’re really looking at starting off as the Tesla of eco-villages,” ReGen Villages CEO James Ehrlich told Adele Peters at Fast Company. “We are redefining residential real-estate development by creating these regenerative neighbourhoods, looking at first these greenfield pieces of farmland where we can produce more organic food, more clean water, more clean energy, and mitigate more waste than if we just left that land to grow organic food or do permaculture there.” The idea is that by combining sustainable farming and...

Commentary: Building on Rio+20 To Spur Action for Sustainable Development

For 40 years the world has been struggling to come to terms with the growing need to protect the our environment and the natural systems that support all life. During that time, the focus has gradually shifted from specific and local environmental problems and challenges to a holistic appreciation of the need to attend to the operation of planetary processes and geosystems on a global basis and the way in which the totality of human activities affects them. This requires attention to the whole global economy and the way in which it could operate more sustainably. Several United Nations Conferences have been milestones on this journey of transition toward a more sustainable global economy, and there will no doubt need to be more before the journey is complete. The Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (“Rio+20”), was the latest step in this long march and has launched a number of important new initiatives that need to be brought to fruition in the years ahead. Basic Earth Systems and the Growing Urgency of Global-Level Action To Protect Them Scientific understanding of the way in which the whole earth and its biosphere operate as a single integrated system has increased by leaps and bounds over the past 50 years. We have learned how the physical, chemical, geological, and biological systems and cycles interact together, and how they have held the earth and its biosphere in fairly stable equilibrium over many thousands of years. As this geo-scientific knowledge has increased, it has also become clearer that this long-standing equilibrium is under threat. Biodiversity and natural resources...

Wall Street Wakes Up: Sustainable Investment and Finance Going Mainstream

The pens slipped easily across the paper, about every eight minutes. At regular intervals, Heads of State entered the innermost sanctum and solemnly signed their names, committing their nations to the Framework Convention on Climate Change. The year, 1992. The place, the landmark United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, known as the “Earth Summit” at Rio de Janeiro. The outcome, a legally binding commitment from the industrialized nations to begin to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with climate change below 1990 levels by 2000, with a moral commitment from developing countries to join the effort at a later date according to their capacity. The success rate 25 years later—nearly zero. I was in the room when those signatures hit the page, observing the procession of Heads of State with Jacques Cousteau, with whom I worked at the time as Vice-President for International Affairs and writer, and a film crew. In the weeks before the Rio Conference, we had made two visits to then President Bush at the Oval Office in the White House to urge him to attend the Rio conference and sign the climate change Convention, even though at the time he faced outright stiff opposition from his own vice-president, not to mention many Congressional and business leaders, to doing so. But, in the end, Bush went to Rio and signed the leather-bound Convention book, thus reaffirming U.S. leadership in the battle against climate change and other trends in environmental degradation. He was bold and it took political courage. Rio was a heady time—nations had labored hard to come to some coherent conclusions and commitments to act....

Students Speak: urbanisation is one of the greatest challenges to health

Developing countries are grappling with the dual burden of infectious diseases, such as malaria and tuberculosis, and a growing epidemic of “lifestyle” diseases including type 2 diabetes. As the range of illnesses facing people in low- and middle-income countries grows, how should the world prioritise its response? To mark World Health Day, we asked students which health crisis deserved the greatest attention. We had a fascinating range of responses – many thanks to all who submitted one. Below is a selection of our favourites. If we’re clever, we can tackle many health problems at once Where there are few stones available, we need to be hitting two birds with one. A better focus would be on strengthening health systems and building health-promoting environments that can tackle communicable and non-communicable diseases alike, rather than creating fragmented single-disease programmes. Yes, we should no longer think of type 2 diabetes as a disease of the wealthy and, yes, non-communicable diseases (NCD) in low-income settings have certainly not been given the attention they deserve. But this new attention need not be in the form of fragmented interventions aimed at addressing one specific disease or another. Many NCD interventions can be smoothly integrated into practices and procedures already in place for prevention and treatment of infectious diseases. For example, mobilising and educating community health workers can have lasting effects on the control of diseases of both categories. With mounting global challenges such as climate change, environmental degradation and increasingly powerful corporate influences, it seems ever more critical to address the determinants of health through comprehensive policies and through exploring models of integration both within...

Behind the bright lights of Vegas: how the 24-hour party city is greening up its act

Taking shade under a Mesquite tree shouldn’t seem exotic in the Mojave Desert. Nor should catching the aroma of sage flowers, or brushing past spiky yucca and tongue-limbed agave plants. But on the fabled Las Vegas Strip, the very notion of a park is novel. Vegas still prides itself on selling unfettered indulgence. Round-the-clock gambling, high-end nightclubs and decadent restaurants are not going away. Yet the opening of the Strip’s first green space last month is further evidence that, regarding its relationship to the environment, Sin City is turning a new leaf. Featuring native Southwestern plants, recycled metal furniture and fountains built with locally sourced quartz, The Park, as it’s called, is designed to create a sustainable microcosm of the surrounding desert landscape and provide a leafy path away from the Strip’s tourist-choked sidewalks. It’s a bold move away from fabulist themes that ignore the local ecosystem. Ambitious plans by MGM Resorts, Wynn, and Las Vegas Sands are overshadowed by an ongoing battle with regulators and the state’s biggest utility. “We think guests are increasingly valuing the sustainability of destinations they pick,” said Cindy Ortega, chief sustainability officer at MGM Resorts, who is behind The Park. “This seems like a little place with some plants and a sculpture in it, but this is a paradigm shift for Las Vegas.” To avoid using the city’s dwindling water supply at Lake Mead, MGM tapped into an on-site well. Designers from landscape architecture firm Melk installed plants that are accustomed to arid conditions. Trees and shrubs are irrigated with a drip system, which conserves 72% more water than sprinklers. Rather than install...

Smart infrastructure is the key to sustainable development

Will 2015 be a watershed in the human effort to solve global problems, or just another chapter in the history of collective inaction? The answer will soon become apparent on construction sites around the world. The two most ambitious international agreements of 2015 – the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs) and the Paris climate accord – amount to a historic decision to build a world that reconciles improving human welfare with the reality of climate change. The SDGs chart a path for eliminating poverty and securing a better life for all by 2030. The Paris accord seeks to stabilise global carbon emissions by the second half of the century, through a rapid move away from high-carbon energy, transport, housing and land use towards efficient, low carbon, climate-resilient alternatives. But as nations set out to reflect these commitments in planning and budget processes, they face difficult choices: coal or renewables? Highways or public transport? Suburban sprawl or compact cities? And the window for making such choices is narrow. Existing and projected carbon emissions show the urgency of implementing the Paris commitments. But infrastructure projects are time-consuming and long-lasting. Power plants, for example, take from five to 15 years to plan and build and can then last for half a century. And 70% of the forecast increase in emissions from developing countries is expected to come from infrastructure that has yet to be built. This means that infrastructure decisions we make in the next few years could cement our ability to meet the Paris goals – or condemn us to a future in which global temperatures rise well above 2C. In...