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Scared elephant smashes through town, teaches sustainability lesson

On Wednesday, an elephant wandered into the Indian town of West Bengal. She was searching for food, made a wrong turn and ended up in a noisy and crowded place filled with humans. In her panicked attempt to get back to the forest, she began smashing cars and homes and sent hundreds of people running. Eventually she was subdued with a tranquilizer and brought to an elephant park, from which she will be released back into the forest. 

The sudden appearance of the elephant was frightening for civilians, but her appearance raises important questions about the limits and consequences of human development.

Since 1960, India's population has nearly tripled. This explosive human growth has been accompanied by a similarly explosive growth of infrastructure and resource consumption.

But while India's cities and towns expanded, the country's land mass has stayed the same.

So land that had traditionally been available to animals was quickly being transformed and repurposed to serve humans. For the country's remaining elephants, this has meant a habitat range that has shrunk to 15% of its historic size. That elephant above probably never would have stomped through West Bengal if she had more land to roam on.

The elimination of land is made worse by industrial and agricultural pollution. But shrinking land is not the only threat facing these animals.

There are widespread attacks on elephants. Although elephants are revered in India, they are still poached. Throughout Asia, the elephant population has plummetted 60% over the past century, endangering the species' existence.

This kind of animal displacement may seem like an inevitable and even necessary phase of human development. Humans need places to live and resources to consume and shouldn't humans take precedent, after all? 

But this is a false line of reasoning. 

Human development does not have to be antagonistic to animals. Humans and animals can peacefully coexist. Further, preserving wild habitats is actually beneficial to humans. 

Let me explain: 

First, as the human population continues to rise, people will increasingly cluster in cities. By 2050, 70% of humans will be urban, according to one estimate

These cities of the future should not be the stressful, polluted places of the past. As cities modernize, they can be cleaner and more efficient. 

It will take a lot of work, but transporation, energy use, waste management and the general allocation of space can be optimized to make cities better places to live. 

And as humans pour into better organized cities, they may swallow up less land. For one thing, they can build "up" not outward. 

The second part of this involves the preservation of animal habitats. 

Forests, for instance, are an elephant's primary habitat and the world's best defense against climate change. Forests store carbon and purify the air. They also foster vibrant and delicate ecosystems that play major roles in sustaining food production around the world. 

If wilderness is preserved, climate change can be kept in check and humans will actually have more resources in the long-term as land everywhere will be more healthy. 

Of course, this will require some systemic changes in economies around the world. Most importantly, there will have to be a shift away from meat-intensive diets, because meat production is on pace to be the biggest driver of deforestation

But, again, these kinds of changes are possible and they are in total harmony with human development. 

As humanity faces the environmental challenges of tomorrow, separating development from habitat loss will be important.

Otherwise, there will be a lot more to worry about than an elephant stepping on your car.