The Role of Humans in the Balance of Earth’s Self-Sustaining System

Chapter one of the Living in the Environment textbook places an emphasis on Earth as a living, self-sustaining system. Our world has faced a plethora of catastrophic and hugely destructive events, all of which the planet has managed to recover from and return to equilibrium via natural cycles. The Earth has always found ways to adapt to changing environments and replenish its ecosystems, but this process can take hundreds to millions of years depending on the degree of damage. In addition, the survival of Earth as a planet does not guarantee the survival of all its species, humans included. The stability of the earth rests upon a healthy balance between all of its living parts, so when pivotal aspects of its system are harmed or exploited, the Earth organism as a whole is damaged. The abrasive and saturated exploitation of Earth’s resources by humans threatens the sustainability of Earth’s current interdependent ecosystems. Therefore, unless we learn to live more sustainably, Earth may become uninhabitable to our and millions of other species. 

Humans hold a unique position of power on our planet. Because of our immense technological endeavors, brought to existence by our intelligence, creativity, and society-based thinking, human culture poses enormous positive and negative ramifications on the earth. On one hand, scientific research and innovation has allowed many people to live safer, more fulfilling lives. In some cases, innovative technology has even served to lower our ecological footprints. For example, the textbook highlights the LED light bulb, solar energy, and recycling systems as ways innovation has contributed significantly to sustainability. On the other hand, however, anthropogenic activities have also led to the degradation of Earth’s natural systems and capital. Population growth, unsustainable resource use, increasing isolation from nature, and competing environmental worldviews are all ways the human race has contributed to environmental degradation. The most significant consequences of our actions are climate change, air pollution, shrinking forests, degraded wildlife habitat, species extinction, aquifer depletion, declining ocean fisheries, and water pollution. These are all very serious realities, as we are putting crucial pieces of the earth system in danger. To demonstrate these consequences, the biocapacity of a region measures the ability of its ecosystems to regenerate renewable resources and to absorb the consequential pollution and wastes. Figure 1below depicts the biocapacity of countries around the world, illustrating the dangerous amount of ecological deficit that exists on our planet.

Fig. 1. Ecological debtors and creditors. G. Tyler Miller, Living in the Environment.

This harm is amplified by the fact that many humans on an individual level are living unsustainable lifestyles. Our ecological footprint is increasing, meaning our impact on Earth’s natural resources and capital is becoming more severe. This is true in a general sense, but ecological footprints are especially high for individuals living in affluence. Increased consumption per person has amplified the degree of unsustainability by people living a contemporary lifestyle of affluence. For example, according to the Country Ecological Footprint Analysis, the United States has one of the highest per capita ecological footprints in the world. This is not surprising, as US culture heavily revolves around materialism. However, as an American, I did not expect to see just how harmful our lifestyle really is. I am a middle class individual who is vegetarian and makes a conscious effort to recycle and reduce waste. However, after calculating my personal environmental footprint, I was shocked to hear that we would need 2.9 earths to sustain the human race if everyone on the planet lived like me. This demonstrates that even someone like me who comparatively lives in an environmentally conscious way still maintains a radically unsustainable lifestyle.

Many scientists and other professionals have tried to warn governments and the public about the gravity of our unsustainable situation. For example, advisories given to the human race by the UN in 1992 and 2017 describe the effect of anthropological disruption on the balance of the natural word, and also demonstrate the continual failure for humans to meet the needs of their planet in crisis. The 1992 warning details various anthropogenic activities and their harmful ecological effects, warns what may occur if the Earth’s balance is not restored, and lists several actions that must take place if the world is to be liveable in the future. The advisory makes it clear that given the immense damage to Earth by human activities, the future of the human race and the planet as we know it rests on the decisions we make over the next few years. However, the Warning Update of 2017 asserts that all of the problems listed in 1992 are still relevant and growing in severity. This shows that many people don’t feel the immediacy of climate change and the other environmental threats at hand, and the human race has not been effective in adopting a sustainable lifestyle.

So, in order for the earth to be liveable for years to come, humans need to learn how to be sustainable. Some ways people can live more sustainably are: learning from nature, environmental protection, reducing waste, recycling and reusing nonrenewable resources, using renewable resources at a sustainable pace, monitoring and resolving ecological damage, and spreading awareness about our ethical responsibility to our earth. A way we can actively learn from nature and progress society ethically is through biomimicry: the adaptation of technology to reflect observations from the natural world. Through biomimicry, we can facilitate less harmful products, and learn to work alongside natural processes, rather than combat them. The textbook illustrates this concept through the example of non-toxic gecko tape, a product created by studying the way lizards cling to surfaces. Through studying this natural phenomenon, scientists were able to manufacture an environmentally sustainable product to replace harmful substances. Biomimicry can also teach us valuable principles to adhere by when designing products. For example, as Janine Benyus suggests, we should refrain from facilitating non-biodegradable products, as nature does not produce any waste that cannot be naturally broken down. If humans adopted practices such as biomimicry on a larger scale, we could potentially salvage the ecosystems we depend on for survival.

Evidently, anthropogenic activities have enormous influence on the well being of our world, so for Earth to remain a life-sustaining planet, humans must learn to live more sustainable lives. Due to the power and extent of human culture, the balance of Earth’s life-supporting systems depends on how we choose to carry on. We are all tightly connected with the earth and though our position has led to a significant amount of destruction, it also gives us the ability and responsibility to aid in Earth’s return to balance.Through monitoring our ecological footprints, raising awareness of the seriousness of environmental issues, and adapting our technology through methods like biomimicry, we can learn to live more sustainably and regain harmony with the planet we call home. 

Word Count: 1126

Question: What are some ways that other countries have approached sustainable living? What are countries with a lower ecological footprint doing right?


G. Tyler Miller and Scott Spoolman. Living in the Environment. Cengage.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: