This article employs a holistic, interactive East Asian framework—the ancient yin-yang circle—for presenting both defensive and proactive carbon control strategies in urban and rural areas. Given the recent wave of deadly wildfires in the American West, attention is focused here on the future significance of oceans as a massive carbon sink for fighting global climate change. Life probably arose in the sea, and the sea may end up having to save the planet.

Carbon Control in Urban and Rural Areas: Defensive and Proactive

It seems abundantly clear that the rate of global warming is accelerating. Wildfires have spun out of control in California and elsewhere in the American West, burning millions of acres and exposing millions of people to hazardous smoke pollution. The Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico hurricane season is stormier. The rate of ice loss in Greenland is the fastest in 12,000 years. Melting permafrost in Siberia is destabilizing the ground and producing large sinkholes. Many regions across the planet are losing valuable biodiversity.

Carbon pollution includes black soot, methane and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) as well as carbon dioxide. When thinking about excess carbon release into the Earth’s atmosphere, pollution by cars and factories in urban areas is what usually comes to mind. The recent blitz of forest fires in California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado, however, demonstrates that carbon release can be a major rural phenomenon as well. In the Amazon jungle of South America, centuries of rainforest growth disappear overnight during illicit gold rushes.

A comprehensive geographic model for fighting climate change needs to encompass strategies for both urban and rural areas. Fighting greenhouse gases by controlling pollution in heavily populated cities might have been enough decades ago but is no longer adequate now; global warming is transiting towards a dangerous “runaway” phase. Two basic types of activities should be pursued across a broad front. First, in cities, where the burden on the environment is highest because of concentrated, waste-generating human economic activities—consumption, production and transportation—the primary focus must be defensive. This means eliminating, controlling and carbon-taxing air, water and ground (including groundwater) pollution. Second, within vast, mostly uninhabited rural regions, the chief sustainability strategy should be more proactive—growing trees and other plants to “help stop climate change by removing carbon dioxide from the air, storing carbon in the trees and soil, and releasing oxygen into the atmosphere” (Arbor Day Foundation,, 2020).

To complement and balance these environmental actions, cities and towns should also engage in proactive, carbon offset strategies, and rural areas need defensive carbon control programs. Urban regions can expand their greenery, especially tree-filled parks and nature trails. The latter can facilitate clean transportation such as bicycles. Cities can reduce the energy intensity of refrigeration and air conditioning by installing radiative cooling panels such as “SkyCool” (based on a physics principle applied by ice-making desert dwellers centuries ago). Cities may also be able to diminish the environmental burden of agriculture in farm districts by growing crops in high-rise buildings; a recent example of this is Linkoping, Sweden (see Becky Wilcox, “The Engineering Behind Modern Superstructures,”, March 10, 2017).

Regarding rural areas, farms damage the environment through pesticide and fertilizer runoff, and methane emissions from livestock. Mineral and energy extraction industries also pose a big threat. Bulldozing forests can lead to erosion and silting up of rivers. Oil spills can be catastrophic in many ways. They have been especially notorious in marine environments, such as the 2010 British Petroleum-Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Islands of plastic waste continue to accumulate in oceans worldwide.

Oceans, however, also offer significant opportunities for proactive carbon strategies. The definition of rural should be expanded to include marine as well as land environments. Sir David King and Rick Parnell state:

The fastest biological process, and the one nature uses to remove CO2 before ice ages, is ocean photosynthesis in algae or seaweed, such as kelp. Giant kelp forests are carbon sinks that grow up to two feet per day. Unlike terrestrial forests, kelp forests don’t burn and re-emit their carbon. When they die, most can be sunk to the bottom, keeping their carbon out of the atmosphere for centuries to millennia (Sir David King and Rick Parnell, “Saving the Planet Would be Cheaper than Battling COVID,” The Washington Post, September 20, 2020, p. B2).

Kelp forests can be grown by building irrigation grids called MPAs (marine permaculture arrays), with pumps and pipes powered by waves. The MPAs can start new kelp forests once they are pulled out to sea. Fisheries are thereby restored; otherwise, climate change will continue to turn oceans into “deserts” (King and Parnell, The Washington Post, p. B2). The recent wave of heat domes and wildfires in the American West suggests that the long-term future of proactive carbon control lies predominantly in the oceans.

A Yin-Yang Framework for Sustainability

The above discussion of sustainability across different geographic zones can be encapsulated within a holistic model derived from the ancient Asian philosophies of Zen and Daoism. A circle bisected by a wavy, reverse S-line is used to illustrate two opposing but complementary forces or domains, called yin and yang. This symbol is known as the taijitu. The two halves of the circle show a color contrast, generally white and black. Each half gives the swirly appearance of a “head” joined to a “tail” that curves inward. Each head half of the taijitu also contains a small circular “seed” of the opposing color. This circle and seed pattern portrays the balancing and interacting nature of yin-yang paired opposites.

For the environmental examples discussed above, one half of the taijitu circle represents the primarily defensive pollution control and containment orientation of urban regions. The other half of the circle represents the major need for proactive carbon strategies in rural areas, including oceans. The seed circles within each yin-yang geographic half illustrate the broad significance of complementary carbon policies—proactive action in cities/towns/suburbs and defensive control in rural/farm/mining districts. Some of these carbon control sectors face substantial economic and political constraints. Other sectors within this interconnective framework will have to step up their operations accordingly. Ideally, all sectors should expand their activities—i.e., form a bigger taijitu—over time. In Asian philosophical terms, the objective should be sustainable harmonization of global lifestyles with the Dao—the “way of nature.”

Conclusion: Oceans as the Future of Proactive Sustainability Policy

Rising sea levels are often cited as one of the most adverse consequences of global warming; coastal cities and islands around the world will eventually be flooded or submerged. Oceans, however, may also become the biggest carbon sinks and the international centerpiece of proactive carbon management policy. This sort of complementary opposition is a key feature of the holistic yin-yang model. The latter can thereby serve as an interactive framework for coming up with new ideas in sustainability strategy. Innovation on the largest geographic scale will be needed.

Note: Gary Davis has previously published two other articles in related to sustainability: “Cities and Innovation: A Zen Perspective,” March 27, 2018; and “Man and Nature: Perspectives on Sustainability from East Asian Philosophy,” August 29, 2018.

About the Author

Gary Davis is an economist working in Washington, D. C. He has published articles on Eastern philosophy for business innovation in several management journals, including Innovation Management. In 2009-2010, he published an article, “Contexts for Innovation,” in magazines in both the U. S. and Malaysia. The article recommends a synthesis of Eastern and Western strategies for business teams. He has studied innovation processes in connection with a position as research team leader. Gary Davis has presented economics papers at seminars and national conferences (e.g., of the Southern Economics Association and Society of Government Economists). He also gave a presentation on innovation to a U. S. Federal government seminar. He holds Master’s degrees in Economics and Public Administration and a Doctorate in Public Administration from George Mason University, Virginia.

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