The Role of Humans in the Balance of Earth’s Self-Sustaining System
Chapter one of the Living in the Environment textbook emphasizes Earth as a living, self-sustaining system. Our world has faced a plethora of catastrophic events, all of which the planet has managed to recover from 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 intelligence, creativity, and society-based thinking, human culture poses enormous positive and negative ramifications on the earth. On one hand, science and innovation have allowed many people to live safer, more fulfilling lives. As the textbook suggests, “life spans are increasing, infant mortality is decreasing, education is on the rise, some diseases are being conquered” because of our unique creative abilities (Miller 2018, 9). 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. Major consequences of our actions include climate change, air pollution, shrinking forests, degraded wildlife habitat, species extinction, 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, figure 1 below depicts the biocapacity of countries around the world, illustrating the dangerous amount of ecological deficit that exists on our planet.
Fig. 1. Global biocapacities
This harm is amplified by the fact that humans are generally living unsustainable lifestyles. Our ecological footprint is increasing, meaning our impact on Earth’s natural resources and capital is becoming more severe. Ecological footprints are especially high for individuals living in affluence, as increased consumption magnifies the unsustainability of people of relative wealth. 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 have tried to warn about the gravity of our unsustainable situation. 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 livable in the future. These admonitions include that we must “bring environmentally damaging activities under control to restore and protect the integrity of the earth’s systems we depend on,” “manage resources crucial to human welfare more effectively,” “stabilize [the] population,” “reduce and eventually eliminate poverty,” and “ensure sexual equality, and “guarantee women control over their own reproductive decisions” (1992 Warning, 2002). The advisory makes it clear that the future of the human race and the planet as we know it rests on the decisions we make over the next few years regarding these issues. However, the Warning Update of 2017 declares that these necessary actions were not carried out, and 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 livable for years to come, humans need to learn how to be sustainable. The textbook suggests that a key to a sustainable future is living “within limits imposed by the earth,” which entails using principles of nature as a guide to an environmentally friendly life (Miller 2018, 21). 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. Biomimicry teaches 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 waste materials or chemicals that cannot be broken down and recycled” (Miller 2018, 7). 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. 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: 1125
Question: What are some ways that other countries have approached sustainable living? What are countries with a lower ecological footprint doing right?
Miller, G. Tyler, and Scott Spoolman. Living in the Environment. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2018.
Ripple, William, Christopher Wolf, Thomas Newsome, Phoebe Barnard, and William Moomaw. “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency.” World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity, 2017. https://scientistswarning.forestry.oregonstate.edu/.
“1992 World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity.” Union of Concerned Scientists, October 29, 2002. https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/1992-world-scientists-warning-humanity.
The Interconnections of Earth’s Systems and Biodiversity
A primary focus of this week’s environmental studies material is the interdependence and balance of Earth’s natural ecology. The systems and cycles that are at work on this planet are continuous, self-propelling, and omnipresent. They are resilient and have been in progress since the inception of life on Earth. Because of natural systems such as the water, carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus cycles, it is possible for an immense diversity of life to exist together. However, anthropogenic activities are interfering and threatening these crucial systems. Because of this damage, biodiversity is in great danger, endangering the balance of nature and the ability for our world to support us.
First of all, it is important to highlight the crucial role biodiversity plays in the environment’s stability and survival. The textbook emphasizes that “when we celebrate, protect, and enhance the earth’s biodiversity, we are helping to preserve our own species and economic systems, which depend on the natural capital that biodiversity provides” (Miller 2018, 72). Biodiversity is so important because it brings stability to an ecosystem, maintains natural capital, and provides a plethora of ecosystem services that allow life to be sustained. Furthermore, over half of the species identified on the planet serve crucial roles in our Earth’s ecology. This becomes an even more impressive statistic when it is noted that there are an estimated 7 to 100 million species on the planet(Miller 2018, 70). The fact that so many species are vital components to the sustainability of the planet demonstrates the necessity to protect nonhuman organisms to the best of our ability.
For example, a keystone species which plays an enormous role in the balance of its environment is the wolf. As the video “How Wolves Change Rivers” illustrates, the reintroduction of an absent yet necessary species can impact not only the health and dynamics of an ecosystem, but the geography of the region as well. In Yellowstone National Park, wolves had been absent from the grounds for many years. In that time, deer populations skyrocketed and a large amount of natural capital became degraded. However, when wolves were reintroduced, a ripple effect occurred in which the new lack and reconditioning of deer led to healthier landscape and the reintroduction of a plethora of other plant and animal species. Trees and new vegetation were able to grow, which in turn brought new species of animals and insects. Additionally, since the environment around it was newly balanced, a river within Yellowstone also changed its behaviors, allowing for it to flow more uniformly and with decreased erosion. This demonstrates the extent to which each element of an ecosystem is connected to one another and aids in the balance of their ecological community. I believe cases like that of the Yellowstone wolves indicate the necessity for humans to take scrupulous caution when interacting with nature.
Fig. 1: How Wolves Changed Their Environment
This idea of interconnection of elements within an ecosystem is highlighted by ecology, the study of how organisms interact with their biosphere. The four laws of ecology are: “everything is connected to everything else,” “everything must go somewhere (there is no “away.)”, “everything costs something,” and “nature knows best” (Miller 2018, 64). Understanding and adhering by these laws is key to maintaining balance with the earth. The first step in this process is to observe nature and appreciate its complexities. Ecology teaches that life on Earth is supported and maintained via the flow of solar energy through the biosphere, the continuous cycle of nutrients through the biosphere, and gravity. As nutrients move through the water, soil, air, and rocks, and organisms within ecosystems, life is continually preserved with the same “ingredients” that have always been present in our Earth system. Because of the cyclical and ancient nature of the atoms and elements that make up our world, nutrient cycles bond all life which has ever existed and will exist in the future. An assertion from the text that I found rather beautiful was the fact that carbon atoms in my skin could once have been part of an “oak leaf, a dinosaur’s skin, or a layer of limestone rock,” and the Nitrogen I am breathing could be the same atoms that someone inhaled thousands of years ago (Miller 2018, 55).
The concept of life as part of an intricate and interdependent system can be seen in Earth’s soil. Soil consists of rock mineral nutrients, decaying organisms, water, air, and living organisms. These components all work together to sustain plants, which in turn allows animals to survive. In other words, death, decay, nutrient cycling, and interacting organisms all play roles in the enabling of life. Figure 2 below demonstrates the connection between biotic and abiotic factors of a biosphere, and shows how different areas of nature act together from their individual niches to facilitate and sustain life.
Fig. 2: Interconnections in a Biosphere
Of course, despite the complexity and interdependence of life, humans continue to degrade valuable ecosystems carelessly. An alarming fact highlighted by the text is that Earth’s tropical rainforests are disappearing. This is extremely dangerous for several reasons. First of all, a multitude of plant and animal species risk extinction with the destruction of their habitat, which “can have a ripple effect that leads to the extinction of other species they help support” (Miller 2018, 43). Additionally, the degradation of tropical rainforests would most likely magnify climate change, as tropical forests absorb a large percentage of atmospheric carbon dioxide. With the consequential changes in climate and weather patterns, recovery of the degraded land becomes less likely. Scientists even warn that if we don’t take immediate action, most of these tropical forests could be severely degraded or gone by the end of the century. This shows that humans are not taking necessary measures to salvage the intricate biospheres of Earth. It makes me wonder whether most people are simply uneducated about the ecological consequences of their actions, or whether the majority of humans simply don’t have enough care for the long-term outcomes of anthropogenic activities. Personally, I care a lot about the environment and its intricacies, but even I often find myself turning a blind eye to the reality of my ecological footprint.
In conclusion, the earth is home to an enormous amount of necessary biodiversity whose existence is made possible by the cycling of solar energy through natural energy and nutrient systems. Everything on Earth is connected to and depends on one-another, so the carelessness of humans, who have only been a part of the earth for a fraction of Earth’s history, has led to frightening damage. However, I believe that there is still hope, as ecologists and other scientists are working to educate people about the necessity to learn and grow from nature.
Word Count: 1106
Question: If humans hadn’t evolved to be the way we are today, and the Earth hadn’t been degraded as it has, how many species would there be on Earth? How much have humans really affected the development of biodiversity in our world?
Brooklyn Pinheiro. May 29, 2017.”How the reintroduction of wolves saved Yellowstone National Park.” Accessed September 8, 2020. https://theplaidzebra.com/how-the-reintroduction-of-wolves-saved-yellowstone-national-park/ .
Miller, G. Tyler, and Scott Spoolman. Living in the Environment. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2018.
Sustainable Human. “How Wolves Change Rivers.” Sustainable Human, February 13, 2014. YouTube video, 2:19. https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=ysa5OBhXz-Q.
The Anthropocene: a Product of Human Intelligence and Consumerism
This week focuses largely on the concept of the Anthropocene, and explores the human perspective and culture’s impact on Earth’s ecology. Humans, which have only existed for a small fraction of Earth’s existence, have made enormous impressions on the landscape and life systems of our planet. Through restructuring our understanding of Earth’s history and our place in the universe, and contemplating the root causes of anthropogenic exploitation of nature, we can begin to take on the task of creating a sustainable future for life on Earth.
First of all, the “Anthropocene,” the unofficial title for the current geological epoch, encapsulates the time period in which humans have had a large impact on Earth’s ecology. Vladamir Vernadsky’s assertion of “scientific thought as a geological force” epitomizes this era, as it demonstrates the degree to which the development of society can significantly uplift and degrade life. (Anthropocene 2020). The Anthropocene is widely thought to have began some time around the Atomic Age and the Great Acceleration, a point in the mid-twentieth century when “socioeconomic and Earth system trends started increasing dramatically” (Anthropocene 2020). Some harmful effects of this increase in human societal developments are the decline of biodiversity, the homogenization of ecosystems, climate change, and the general degradation of much of Earth’s natural capital.
Personally, I believe that the Anthropocene and the realms of capitalism, colonization, and social injustice go hand-in-hand. It is mentioned on the wikipedia page for the Anthropocene that some believe the term “Capitalocene” is more accurate in describing the phenomenon of the human era. Capitalism, which thrives on the mass consumption of goods reaped from natural capital, undoubtedly plays a major role in our growing ecological footprint. I also believe, however, that capitalism is a direct outcome of the developments of materialism and hierarchy, so inequality and racism also factor heavily into the degradation of the Anthropocene. The yearning for wealth which embodied colonialism feeds into the growing presence of materialism and consequential socioeconomic power structures. These hierarchical social standings in turn feed on the undermining of racial minorities, leading to a larger desire for material power and the intensification of industrial and capitalist activities. These entities evidently act in a cycle which grows as societies develop. Therefore, capitalism, which feeds on the entrails of colonization and human social issues, has led to the degradation and reshaping of the geography of Earth.
An example that demonstrates this connection between the Anthropocene and colonialism, capitalism, and social injustice is the overhunting of the American Bison. As explained in “Case Study: The Return of the American Bison,” “settlers moving west after the Civil War upset the sustainable balance that had existed between Native Americans and bison” (Cengage 2007). Native American communities lived a modest and sustainable lifestyle, which would only hunt and take from the land on a basis of necessity. However, when settlers from Europe began to colonize the western United States, they not only demonstrated a blatant disrespect towards the native people, but also obliterated the country’s bison populations. This occurred because the colonizers would hunt with the intent of large-scale consumption, for sport, for delicacies and exported goods, and for pest control. The animals were also killed off in the racist effort to eliminate Native populations by reducing a key element of their food and lifestyle. The carelessness of American colonials and the capitalization of bison products led to the near extinction of the species and threatened the survival of Native American culture. This demonstrates that the elimination of a species can cause extreme detriments to its ecosystem, and damage the well being of the species and humans to which it is connected. Clearly, colonialism, capitalism, and social injustice are linked to the Anthropocene and must be resolved if ecological justice is to be actualized.
Fig. 1, Killings of Bison in the 1800s
One way that humans can learn to reshape their anthropogenic perspective is through the concept of big history, which “explores human existence in the context of this bigger picture” (Big History 2020). Rather than starting history from the inception of human culture, big history teaches us to look much, much further, to the beginnings of the universe itself. It teaches how scientific principles like chemistry and physics bind aspects of the universe to one another, and how those things connect to earth’s history and human culture. Big history also embraces abstract concepts like that of Goldilocks Conditions, which I find particularly fascinating. The idea that “circumstances must be right for any type of complexity to form or continue to exist” demonstrates the rarity and, in my opinion, the inherent value of life (Wikipedia August 16, 2020). Understanding our existence as a product of precise cosmic alignment for me gives immense insight into our responsibility to do our part in maintaining the habitability of Earth.
Fig. 2, Goldilocks condition
Another presence which challenges the current anthropological perspective is environmentalism, which views nature as holding inherent, rather than just economic, value. In today’s society, the perceived value of an item is almost always dependent on its ability to be consumed or be admired in a matter of social standing. However, the environmentalist movement exalts nature as an entity for which we are interdependently a part of and inherently deserves to thrive. Environmentalism in the context of the Anthropocene is interesting because, hypothetically, the hyperintelligence and creativity of humans could allow for a system which surpasses the need for relentless consumerism. However, it would undoubtedly take a large-scale change of heart for humans to choose this path towards a sustainable an non-materialistic future. John Diamond even suggests that there are two vital choices the human race must make as a collective in order to salvage our existence on this earth: the commitment to developing long-term planning, and the “willingness to reconsider core values” (Wikipedia July 19, 2020). Humans have the ability to salvage the health of the earth and their mere existence on the planet, but it depends on their willingness to reconsider their perspective and commit themselves to the task.
In conclusion, the Anthropocene, a product of capitalism, colonialism, and social injustice, holds dangerous ramifications for Earth’s future. However, re-examining human activity and history on a large scale can help us understand why humans have changed the face of the Earth so drastically and why Earth inherently deserves to be preserved. The effects of the Anthropocene we have created are immense, so we must make the necessary choices at hand to use our human power for good. We should do our best to create a human era which doesn’t hinge on destruction and exploitation, as it would be a tremendous waste to continue in the idle destruction of the rare life-filled phenomenon that is Earth.
Word Count: 1109
Question: What sort of change in human activity would create a new geological epoch? Could humans exist in a non-anthropocene future?
“Anthropocene.” Wikipedia. Last modified September 11, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropocene#cite_note-Doughty10-28.
“Big History.” Wikipedia. Last modified August 16, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_History.
“The Buffalo.”Marmatt. http://www.marmatt.com/works-by-sg/books/smog-series/lost/disp.php?call=the-buffalo
Cengage. “Environmental History of the United States.” Cengage Learning Inc, 2007.
“Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” Wikipedia. Last modified July 19, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collapse:_How_Societies_Choose_to_Fail_or_Succeed.
Minilab Studios. “Happy Earth Day From Minilab Studios.” https://www.minilabstudios.com/happy-earth-day-from-minilab-studios/.
Environmental Worldviews and the Importance of Environmental Literacy
The material from this week emphasizes the fact that humans have differing perspectives of their roles and responsibilities on our planet. Because of this reality, people have a vast variety of approaches and degrees of motivation for protecting natural capital. Different humans may see themselves as a part of nature, separate to nature, or masters of nature. They may feel a moral obligation to save the planet, be motivated to conserve the earth for human gain, or even not feel the need to protect the planet at all. There are infinite variations of ecological perspective, so in lieu of impending climate crises, we must promote environmental literacy to ensure the safety and environmental care of future generations.
First of all, one branch of environmental perspective which shapes the way people perceive and interact with Earth consists of life-centered and Earth-centered worldviews. These perspectives believe that “all forms of life have value as participating members of the biosphere, regardless of their potential or actual use to humans,” meaning we are not separate and do not control the natural systems of Earth (Miller 2019, 640). This argues that we must do our best to limit harm towards the Earth, as we are completely interconnected and interdependent with the environment. An alternative perspective are human-centered worldviews. This window includes the planetary management and stewardship worldviews. Planetary management focuses on the needs and desires of people. This perspective sees humans as the dominant species on Earth, and believes that we can and should “manage” the earth to fit our society’s demands. The stewardship worldview focuses on the human ethical responsibility to care for and respect the environment. Human-centered worldviews in general are often criticized because they rely on the assumption that it is possible for humans to succeed in managing or even saving the world. I personally agree with this critique, as I don’t think people have the power or capacity to manufacture a sustainable world out of one which has been entirely depleted.
To demonstrate this criticism of human-centered perspectives, the core case study of chapter 25 of the textbook describes the “Biosphere 2” experiment, which attempted to mimic the natural systems of Earth as a man-made, self-sustaining ecosystem. The project, which was supposed to last two years, quickly experienced a series of unexpected mishaps like oxygen depletion, invasive ant species, and the extinction of many species. Because of these unfortunate events (which technically shouldn’t have happened according to the program’s calculations and efforts,) biosphere 2 was forced to end early. This illustrates the fact that though humans can learn from nature and incorporate biomimicry into their lives, the only sustainable way to live is to preserve and sustainably take advantage of Earth’s natural (and free) services. Humans cannot replicate a fully habitable Earth out of an environment which has been stripped of its natural capital. Nonetheless, people still hold perspectives that Earth is inexhaustible, or that we can “cure” a failing earth with technological advancement. Often these ideas come from a lack of education surrounding environmental issues, or a lack of appreciation for the inherent value of nature.
Fig. 1, Biosphere 2
Because of the infinite differences in environmental perspectives, environmental literacy and exposure to nature are crucial for the future of our planet and species. For example, the No Child Left Inside movement focuses on “enhancement of environmental literacy between kindergarten and 12th grade and fostering of understanding, analysis, and solutions to environmental challenges” (No Child Left Inside 2019). Because of the severity of today’s environmental issues, is important that the facts about the worsening climate reach as much of the population as possible. Supplying children with an environmental education is valuable because it will allow for younger people to have a grasp on environmental issues as they are still developing their worldviews. For the same reason, it is crucial to raise future generations in an environment which appreciates the inherent value of nature and the outdoors. As Last Child in the Woods describes, there is an increasing lack of connection between children and their environment as technology and indoor activities become more advanced. This is dangerous, because as environmental conditions worsen, there is a greater need for people who are passionate about the earth to alleviate the issues at hand. Environmental literacy is also important because it brings awareness to the concept of distributive justice, which acknowledges that environmental burdens statistically affect certain socioeconomic and populations (such as African Americans, Latinx Americans, the disabled, the poor, etc.) more than others. It demonstrates the unfair human struggles that arises from environmental harm, and teaches the importance of justice and respect of all communities. In this light, environmental education raises awareness and empathy for both environmental and social issues, and is crucial for the development of a sustainable future.
Fig. 2, Environmental education
Environmental education of children is relevant to the concept of intergenerational justice, which refers to the “set of obligations the members of one generation may owe to people of other (typically future) generations” (Callicott 2009, 518). Intergenerational justice fights for the right of future humans and organisms to live in a world which is able to sustain them. The environmental literacy of children is an important aspect of intergenerational justice because it allows children the information and motivation necessary to alleviate the harm done to the earth by past generations. This idea is discussed often in my generation (gen Z) because as climate change and the general state of the environment grow more and more bleak, we are forced to reflect on the fact that we must reverse the immense damage caused by the decisions of older adults and our ancestors. Therefore, though it may be tricky to convince people whose worldview doesn’t align with intergenerational justice, is important to the future of the human race for people to hold themselves responsible for the long term wellbeing of the environment. As The Land Ethic points out, “an ethic, ecologically, is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence” (Leopold 1933, 202). In other words, if someone hopes for humans to continue to live on Earth, I believe it should be within their ethical responsibility to make the sacrifices necessary to make that happen.
Evidently, there is a huge degree of difference between people’s intentions to care for the environment and campaign for environmental justice. However, with proper educational efforts towards younger generations, humans can learn to set their differences aside and work towards goals of environmental action, love for the environment, and the sustainability of our planet for generations to come.
Word Count: 1082
Question: How could we push to incorporate environmental literacy/education at a university level, as many majors don’t have an environmental emphasis?
Callicott, John Baird., and Michael Elliott. “Environmental Justice.” Essay. In Encyclopedia of Environmental Ethics and Philosophy, 341–47. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009.
Callicott, John Baird., and Brad Allenby. “Intergenerational Justice.” Essay. In Encyclopedia of Environmental Ethics and Philosophy, 518–25. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009.
Kobylecky, Jennifer. “Understanding the Land Ethic.” The Aldo Leopold Foundation, September 14, 2018. https://www.aldoleopold.org/post/understanding-land-ethic/.
Leopold, Aldo. Essay. In The Land Ethic, 201–26. 1933.
Louv, Richard. “Last Child in the Woods – Children and Nature Movement.” Richard Louv. Richard Louv, 2008. http://richardlouv.com/books/last-child/.
Louv, Richard. “Last Child in the Woods – Overview.” Richard Louv. Richard Louv, 2008. http://richardlouv.com/books/last-child/.
Miller, G. Tyler, and Scott Spoolman. Living in the Environment. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2018.
“No Child Left Inside (Movement).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Last Modified September 30, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_Child_Left_Inside_(movement).
The Environment’s Connections to the Economy, Consumerism, and Government
The bulk of this week’s environmental studies material revolves around the fact that economic systems, by principle, rely on the consumption of natural capital. Modern economic systems promote an unsustainable degree of consumption, and contain inherent issues which result in immense harm to the environment. If major shifts towards sustainability are to be successful, we must consider the overwhelming presence of capitalist economy, and work towards change through sustainable business and legislation.
First of all, the economy relies on an disproportionate exploitation of natural capital. Modern society functions on supply and demand, which in turn rely on natural capital, as materials and land for manufacturing are all reaped from nature. A major issue regarding the economic use of natural capital is that the goods and services produced often leave out important information and costs regarding the impact of production on the environment. This is problematic because the degradation and effects of nature and minority groups are not matched by prices, leading to an overproduction of goods and an disproportionate harm to the environment. Earth’s natural capital, apart from simply having subjective intrinsic value, should also technically hold economic value, as “the economies of the Earth would grind to a halt without the services of ecological life-support systems” (Costanza 1997). The intrinsic value of nature is not factored into the price of goods and services, so it is exploited and used disproportionately. This backfires, because as nature is destroyed for profit, we and the plethora of species on Earth also suffer because we rely on the natural systems which are harmed by environmental degradation.
Fig. 1: Human reliance on Earth for their consumption of goods and services
One way businesses and corporations can work to decrease their disproportionate damage to the environment is through sustainable business practices. According to Wikipedia, “a sustainable business, or a green business, is an enterprise that has minimal negative impact, or potentially a positive effect, on the global or local environment, community, society, or economy” (“Sustainable Business” 2020). The motivation of a majority of sustainable businesses is to decrease the ecological and carbon footprints of the production and consumption of goods and services. Sustainable business works with the current economic systems by developing desirable products which stimulate the economy in a way which does less immediate harm to the environment. Some examples of sustainable business practices are the use of green architecture, incorporating renewable energy as a source of electricity, relying on ethically made materials, and including environmental, health, and other hidden costs in the selling price of goods and services. I believe that sustainable development of our society could be possible through the rise of sustainable businesses, as they combine environmental, social, and economic spheres to shape a more sustainable economic model.
Fig. 1: Aspects of sustainable development.
Another way to decrease the environmental damage of consumerism transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Our world is heavily reliant on the use of coal, oil, and natural gas for our energy, and this has had dire consequences on our Earth. Greenhouse gases produced by fossil fuels contribute to climate change, which poses a huge threat to the human race and the health of the world as a whole. Therefore, discontinuing the reliance on fossil fuels would be a major success for the future of Earth. However, as this is a large-scale and intricate issue, governmental interference is most likely necessary to make this change happen fluidly.
An example of a government effectively making this transition is Germany, who is making a mass shift to renewable energy. According to the textbook, “the country aims to get 65% of its electricity from renewable energy resources by 2030 and 80% by 2050. It plans to phase out nuclear power as a source of its electricity by 2022 and ultimately to cease relying on coal to produce electricity” (Miller 2018, 589). By 2018, the country’s uses of wind energy surpassed its usage of coal and nuclear energy. The success of this development lies in the fact that it “has created a multibillion-dollar German industry that includes renewable energy production and sales of renewable energy technology around the world” (Miller 2018, 589). The German government has enacted a “feed-in tariff” system, which guarantees that people who produce renewable energy will not lose money, but make a profit. In addition, the switch to renewable energy has created a more healthy and environmentally sustainable economy for Germany, and demonstrates that a shift away from fossil fuels does not need to break the economy and can actually greatly benefit society. This is a great example of using current economic systems to the advantage of the environment.
As the case study demonstrates, a huge way governments can become involved in the journey to sustainability is through environmental law. The term “environmental law” “encompass[es] aspects of the law that provide protection to the environment,” and can be extremely impactful on a society, because the resulting environmental actions become not only individual (and subjective) moral responsibility, but a responsibility to the law (Environmental Law 2020). Environmental enactments like the Clean Air Act of 1970 have shown us that governmental action can have real power in the future of our world, as Earth would be in much worse shape if the acts hadn’t been put into action. In this light, environmental law is an extremely powerful force in bringing about meaningful change.
Of course, for environmental laws to be created and enacted, there must be largescale awareness and consensus about the issues at large. This is why education about the ramifications of capitalism is so important. If a large percentage of the population is questioning the economic systems in place, we can begin to incentivize the shift away from capitalist exploitation of the environment. In Consumer of Citizen?, Ernest Partridge asks whether the development of modern society brings freedom to a community, or simply aids in our becoming mindless machines of consumerism. In asking this question, I believe that we challenge the consumer’s norm of success and order. When this sort of thinking spreads and reaches the legal system, we can begin to dismantle the systems of degradations from the inside.
In conclusion, the current consumeristic systems of modern society are tightly connected with the degradation of the environment. Therefore, for the environment to recuperate and thrive, we must work towards change through the popularization of sustainable business, the shift towards renewable resources, the awareness of capitalism’s negative impacts, and the enactment of green legislation.
Word Count: 1061
Question: In the current socio political climate (in which people deny the existence of climate and environmental issues), how much can we hope for true change? Especially under the current administration… is the enactment of new (and crucial) environmental law even a possibility?
Costanza, Robert, Ralph d’Arge, Rudolf de Groot, Stephen Farberk, Monica Grasso, and Bruce Hannon. “The Value of the World’s Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital.” London, May 15, 1997.
“Environmental Law.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, September 21, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_law.
Partridge, Ernest. “Consumer or Citizen?” Template with sidebar, April 2002. http://gadfly.igc.org/politics/left/consumer.htm.
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Population Growth’s Effects on Earth and the Human Race
As the population skyrockets, the question arises of whether the Earth can support billions of more people. Though it is important to acknowledge that population growth isn’t the only cause of environmental harm, it is evident that the immense increase in people is placing a lot of stress on the environment, communities, and governments. In order to preserve the Earth and the human race, we must learn to embrace degrowth and move away from the consumerist desires of our species.
Firstly, it is important to note the exponential manner in which the population is increasing. In the small amount of time that humans have existed on Earth, their population rates have increased relatively slowly. However, in the past 200 years, human population growth has become exponential. Since 1965, population growth rates have generally declined, but the population growth itself still hurdles in an upwards direction. For example, though 2018’s growth rate increased by only 1.20%, that small increase still added a whopping 91 million humans to the Earth (Miller 2018, 110). Additionally, people are born at a rate that exceeds the amount of people who are dying. This can be demonstrated by looking at the world population clock and world death clock, because though people are dying at a continual and quick rate, the overall population is still steadily increasing.
Fig. 1. The Human Growth Curve
In lieu of this evident trend, many scientists and environmentalists believe that the world may be unable to sustain a significantly larger population. Earth has an exhaustible amount of natural capital, which cannot indefinitely support the consumerist lifestyles of our immense population. Humans exploit and ravage nature to fit the demands and desires of our growing species, and at some point we will reach a tipping point in which we take faster than the Earth is able to replenish itself. Some believe that we have already passed the Earth’s carrying capacity, and that there is little hope of maintaining the human race unless the population decreases heavily or we collectively minimize our lifestyles to a dramatic degree. As the “impossible hamster” video explains, there is a reason why, in nature, things only grow to a certain point. No matter how technologically advanced the human race becomes, we cannot expand the economy or consume at exponential rates forever.
The ramifications of population growth can be seen on many levels. First of all, the majority (over 90%) of people added the world are born into “less-developed countries where resources for dealing with rapidly growing populations are limited” (Miller 2018, 110). Additionally, The video “Visualizing a Plentiful Economy” does a great job of demonstrating the effects of how As we deplete natural capital, prices rise, and the economy suffers. Because of the damage done to the economy, many people lose jobs and are thrown into poverty while the top percent thrive. Production then increases to make up for lost jobs, hence degrading more capital and pushing the cycle of damage back into motion. Because of this cycle, population growth harms the poor and people of color at a disproportionate level, contributing to environmental racism and harmful social structures. Some programs have attempted to alleviate the ailments of population growth, such as PlaNYC and Transition town. Released in 2007 by New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, PlaNYC hoped to “prepare the city for one million more residents, strengthen the economy, combat climate change, and enhance the quality of life for all New Yorkers” (PlaNYC 2020). Transition Town was a project released in 2006 which hoped to “increase self-sufficiency to reduce the potential effects of peak oil, climate destruction, and economic instability” (Transition 2020). These programs attempted to tackle multiple spheres of damage, which is a great start towards dealing with the effects of population growth. However, I believe that real change is only possible if we attack the root of the problem.
It is crucial to mention that population growth is not the root cause of environmental problems on the planet. Overpopulation is an issue because of corrupt economic systems, consumerist lifestyles of affluent populations, and irresponsible government handling of environmental and social injustice. These underlying systemic issues become saturated and difficult to manage when populations rise at an unsustainable rate. The amount of people added to the world are less of a problem as the lifestyles and societal systems which are associated with them. It is dangerous to simply peg population growth as the core of environmental damage, because this can encourage racist, classist, and xenophobic attitudes/legislations surrounding population control. Instead, we must acknowledge that our population is unsustainable because of the systems that encompass human society.
Degrowth is a concept which emphasizes the “need to reduce global consumption and production and advocates a socially just and ecologically sustainable society with well-being replacing GDP as the indicator of prosperity” (Degrowth, 2020). Degrowth challenges the modern idealism of economic growth, and aims to tackle environmental degradation and social issues by dismantling the toxic system in which they arise. If this movement were to take charge on a large scale, I believe that the human race could salvage the damage done and work towards a more just and sustainable society which values nature and personal happiness over monetary gain. For this to happen, however, as a species we must embrace a less materialistic lifestyle. This would require a major shift in mentality, especially for more “developed” countries such as the United States.
Fig 2. Degrowth visualization
Of course, this change would need to happen on a foundational/societal level through the dismantling of capitalism and other consumerist systems. This is because in many situations, it is a privilege to live “the good life” (a self-sustained, humble, and relaxed life), as the separation of self from material needs is often not an option for those dealing with extreme poverty. It is extremely important for people to aim for a less consumerist lifestyle and strive for personal happiness rather than material success, however the glorification and expectation of a minimalist, laidback lifestyle is unhelpful in the current socio economic system. This is why we must work towards dismantling the oppressive systems in which we live, and in the meantime embrace sustainability to the best of our ability.
In conclusion, population growth poses a great threat to the sustainability of our planet due to the systematic consumerist lifestyles of the human race. This is why the most important and valuable thing we could do for the earth and for the well being of all people is to dismantle the oppressive systems of capitalism which exist because of the human desire to consume. Additionally, the environmental and social ramifications hurt poor and minority groups disproportionately, so for our species to carry on, people of privilege must learn to embrace a minimized lifestyle and help alter the socioeconomic systems to make sustainable living accessible to everyone.
Word Count: 1120
Question: If we have already reached our carrying capacity, how long do we have left before we have completely exhausted the Earth’s resources?
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