Mark Williams, Professor of Palaeontology, explores the evolution of life on Earth, going back hundreds of millions of years ago. He is interested in why some species and ecologies are survivors, whereas others go extinct. Latterly he has used his knowledge of the fossil record to help quantify the scale of human impacts on life in the 21st century, and to try and discern patterns of co-habitation between humans and other species that might be more beneficial.
So, what inspired Mark to become a scientist? Very unsurprisingly, it was Sir David Attenborough – back in the 1970s Mark was inspired by Sir David’s ‘Life on Earth’ programme.
“I think there’s a whole generation of geologists that were inspired by this fascinating programme. When you look at what we have done to the Earth since the 1970s the damage is considerable. It’s not natural disasters that are the biggest threat to life – it’s human consumption, particularly by those of us living wealthy lifestyles.”
Much of that consumption is focussed in urban areas, and these are increasingly using up the Earth’s resources of energy, water, life, materials and clean air. How might we design cities that develop a more mutually beneficial relationship with the Earth? At the moment it’s a very one-sided relationship with the Earth’s resources being taken, but not much being given back. That's not sustainable and it might well lead to a catastrophe for life. And the fossil record shows that when that happens, it takes millions of years for biodiversity to recover.
What is a mutualistic city?
One of the areas that Mark is researching, and one influenced by his knowledge of life’s struggle for survival, is the idea of ‘mutualistic cities’ – what does this mean, and what is the difference between a smart city and a mutualistic city?
Mark explains “This is about designing urban environments that are much more like natural ecologies, where energy consumption is based on renewable materials, where water is captured locally and recycled, and where materials are utilised in a sustainable way, and not discarded or bulldozed after their life. And, perhaps most importantly, it is a place where people interact beneficially with each other to build strong and resilient societies, and where people interact with other species in a deliberately beneficial way. That is how we can build relationships that will endure.”
“One very simple example would be for people to let part of their gardens grow wild, to attract nature in. We need to move away from the mindset of neatly manicured lawns, towards one where making space for beetles, birds and earthworms is much more important. Gardens where we leave holes in the fence so hedgehogs can travel through, and where that dilapidated patch of ground behind your dustbins becomes a point of envy with your neighbours – for its biodiversity –and not a point of disdain. That's just for a start though, and each and every one of us needs to think about how we can interact well with nature, and how our consumption of materials – everything from oil to palm oil – is affecting the planet we live on.”
The good news is that there are many cities around the world trying to obtain their energy from sustainable sources or trying to live in a better relationship with nature. The bad news is that no city is truly mutualistic.
This is a real issue, because humans have become a predominantly urban species for the first time in 300,000 years – more than 50% of us live in towns and cities – and it is in cities that most consumption takes place.