Green Creed

Day 28 Blog Post

It seems that environmental ethics has a facet in almost every corner of our lives. After all, the ethics of interacting in one’s environment are really the ethics of conduct in every situation known to us, since we cannot escape our environments – both natural and man-made. So, since an environmental ethic is so pervasive, one would ask if it can be related to theology? What does religion say about the environment?

The idea that something something’s life has an end in mind, or lives to serve a purpose, is called its “telos.” Taylor’s biocentric theory that extends moral standing to all living things sees plants as “teleological and perspectival centers of life,” though he didn’t see inanimate natural entities, like oceans and mountains, as having the same kind of telos. E. O. Wilson thought that if you infuse natural science, ecology, and environmental concern into religion, you can help the environmental movement, and thus the world, immensely. Then there’s spirituality, as in the sense of a less institutionalized form of cosmology. The sense of mysticism, beauty, and magic in nature is a sort of theme we’ve seen reoccurring in “Last Child in the Woods” and in E. O. Wilson’s “biophilia” concept; both of which illustrate the natural love we have for nature and the natural world, as well as our wonder in the presence of nature that is shared by all people. But in our modern society it is easy to point anywhere and say that this sense of reverence for the natural, this appreciation for nature’s beauty, is lost in our post-capitalist, resource-hungry world. In the west, we are dealing with the cultural runoff of Descartes’ dualistic notion that man and nature are two separate entities, rather than the concept of nature being all inclusive. Is there no institution that can back up this seemingly newfound love for nature?

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Aside from some nature-praising poetry and songs in the Old Testament, it can be argued that much of the world’s oldest religions originally revered what we call “nature.” The Christian idea of stewardship, that man is called to tend to earth and god’s creation as custodians of the divine, is perhaps the most direct relationship we can squeeze out of a religious mentality. The idea that we are a part of nature has historically been more favorable for the secular. In ancient times, secular Greeks like Protagoras said that “man is the measure of all things,” Aristotle created a hierarchy that placed plants and animals beneath man since they “served” him, and this was also the guiding theme of the human-centered thinking of the Renaissance. The following Scientific Revolution would try to promote the idea that only humans have minds, Descartes actually believed that animals were amoral mechanical automata, on top of inventing more math. I really don’t like Descartes.

Lynn White Jr. says that science and technology have fundamentally changed human ways of interacting with nonhuman nature, and that the unity of science (the brain) and technology (the hand) was what actually sewed the seeds that led to the development of democracy. White illuminates how man’s relation to the soil was profoundly changed when the development of the plow lead to the distribution of land being based no longer on the needs of a family but now on the capacity of a power machine to till the earth. “Formerly, man had been part of nature; now he was the exploiter of it.”  The 11th century reclamation of Greek texts that were saved by Islamic scholars led to Latin universities, science and technology, and inventions that allowed for higher standards of living. With the hand of the church becoming the guiding force behind pretty much all areas of life in the medieval times, Christianity would crush paganism and most of the pre-christian western religions and philosophies. The most notable surviving memories we have of those today are Christmas trees (in which we brought “nature” into the home for the holy time of Christ’s maesse), Halloween (where we celebrated the harvest season), and nature-based folklore like fairies and witches, as well as the rebirth of the Wiccan religious movement and various other European cultural traditions that have taken the backseat in our modern societies. Back then, science and religion worked together. But at some point in the 18th century the hypothesis of god became unnecessary to many scientists. Today, White says, “with the population explosion, the carcinoma of planless urbanism, the now geological deposits of sewage and garbage, surely no creature other than man has ever managed to foul its nest in such short order.” “The present disruption of the global environment is the product of a dynamic technology and science which were originating in the western world,” says White, and he opts that we mimic the teachings and styles of St. Francis of Assisi, who conversed with the animals and rebelled against this dichotomy so well. “Hence, we shall continue to have a worsening ecological crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man.” Those of us who study ecology and environmental science know this to be certain.

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Andrew Linzey is the founder of the Christian vegetarian movement and reminds us that “while god’s love is free, generous, and unlimited, we Christians have been all too good at placing limits on Divine Love.” His more religious discourse asks us to love the world as god does, and that “we must not hate even those who hate animals, those who hate the church, nor those who hate one another,” but rather, “we must love the world or we shall perish with it.” This is a good example of religion and environmentalism working together again.

Robert Gordis offers the promising view that Judaism has on the environment that the “true genius of Judaism has always lain in specifics.” He tackles that whole “dominion” problem in Genesis by saying that “the verb ‘subdue’ was interpreted to relate to the previous statement ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ meaning that the obligation to propagate the human race falls upon the male rather than the female.” He also gives two fundamental Jewish concepts that “shape and direct humankind’s action, thinking, and outlook on their fellow creatures, their environment, and their role on earth.” One is that we must be mindful of “the pain of living creatures,” in a way that is very reminiscent of the Aristotelian virtue ethics in an effort “to spare the feelings of living creatures and inculcate the spirit of mercy in human beings.” It means that one cannot slaughter an ox or sheep together with its offspring on the same day. It’s also where the Jewish people get their kosher practices to reduce the pain of slaughter as much as possible and to not allow the eating of blood because blood is the “seat of life.” The other concept is “do not destroy.” In ancient times one could not destroy a fruit-bearing tree in wartime, and “the recognition that every natural object is an embodiment of the creative power of god and is therefore sacred” meant that, by extension, “whatever has been fashioned by human beings and is the product of their gifts and energies is equally a manifestation of god’s creative power, one step removed, since we are the handiwork of god.” Apart from Buddhism and the Eastern traditions, this is arguably one of the more kind expressions of religious consideration of the natural world that I’ve come to know.

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While it is interesting to see how monotheistic religions once had somewhat of an environmental ethic, lost it during the human-centric self-obsession of the Scientific Revolution, and are now being used to psychically combat ecologically destructive forces at work now (alla the National Religious Partnership for the Environment), other world religions have been very green the whole time. In “The Emerging Alliance of Religion and Ecology” lecture by Mary Evelyn Tucker of Yale University, she comments on how we don’t know how to talk about religion as comfortably as we would sometimes like to because “that language has been co-opted by a media who is by-and-large rather uneducated about religion per se, and sees religion within a framework of monotheisms, dancing through their particular claims to truth and their particular fundamentalisms.” This reductio ad absurdam formulation of religion is what makes the American public so dualist and dissecting, that we cannot see the varieties and spectra of ideals and messages that not just the three main monotheisms but rather the entirety of the world’s spiritualities have to offer. As a matter of fact, she says, the preoccupation with absolute truths is not a main concern for most of the world’s religions. They just don’t get hung up over it. Rather, eastern religions and philosophies like Buddhism and Confucianism, Daoism and Hinduism, are more concerned with how we should live the life we’re currently living, more focused on the here and now rather than one what happens when you die, more peace-oriented. If you ask me, these philosophies are practically perfect. What I really like about her speech is that it confirms something that I’ve been thinking about for a while in this class, she says something that is all too true: we need an ecological culture.

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As someone who is not very religious but understands the power that religion can exert across time and space, I can’t agree more with this statement. My favorite lesson taken from another philosophy class is that it is the fruits, not roots, of a philosophy that are truly important. Because religion is a part of culture, it can serve as the spiritual engine that a culture would need to become motivated to actually do something about the current degradation of the environment. It would help people see the natural world as not just something that exists apart from us, but rather something that encompasses us, something we are inextricably linked to. It would give us the sense of duty we would need in every day life to make the small and large changes that are required to end the constant blasphemous toxification of the biota. An ecological culture fueled by a religious fire that burns green would reverse this dichotomy of man and nature and bring us back together to focus on what’s really important – helping the planet that’s helped us the whole time.

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The Real Tree-Hugger’s Manifesto

Day 27 Blog Post

Moving on from a look at interspecific justice and interactions between species, we now look at a more stringent approach to an environmental ethic: Paul Taylor’s biocentric ethic, in his The Ethics of Respect for Nature. In this he makes the “biocentric egalitarian” claim that all living things have equal inherent worth in that each living being is a goal-directed system pursuing its own good. He develops a sort of Kantian approach by giving two concepts, one being that “every organism, species population, and community of life has a good of its own which moral agents can intentionally further or damage by their actions,” and that we consider all living beings to have inherent worth. From this, Taylor develops the principles of moral consideration and intrinsic value. The principle of moral consideration holds that “wild living things are deserving of the concern and consideration of all moral agents simply in virtue of their being members of the Earth’s community of life.” The principle of intrinsic value states that, regardless of what kind of entity it is in other respects, if it is a member of the Earth’s community of life, the realization of its good is something intrinsically valuable. Basically, Taylor is expanding the moral community to all things that are alive; and as good as this sounds on paper, it might be one of the most drastic, or hard to actualize, theories that we’ve looked at.

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His biocentric outlook has four main components: 1) humans are thought of as members of the Earth’s community of life, holding that membership on the same terms as apply to all the nonhuman members; 2) the Earth’s natural ecosystems as a totality are seen as a complex web of interconnected elements, with the sound biological functioning of each being dependent on the sound biological functioning of the others; 3) each individual organism is conceived of as a teleological center of life, pursuing its own good in its own way; 4) whether we are concerned with standards of merit or with the concept of inherent worth the claim that humans by their very nature are superior to other species is a groundless claim and, in the light of elements 1 and 2 and 3 above, must be rejected as nothing more than an irrational bias in our own favor.

Callicott comes under fire for his “environmental fascism” that places the benefit of the ecological whole over the ecological individual – sacrificing a couple of deer for the benefit of the community that is avoiding overpopulation. But Taylor is almost the opposite. He differs form Callicott in that his more individualistic rather than holistic approaches total ecosystems as only mattering because individuals find their good within them, but since the entire ecosystem is not driven toward a goal-directed end, it’s consideration is beneath that of the individuals that make it up. This seems somewhat silly to me. I can appreciate what he means in saying that as our understanding of living things increases with the studies of biology and ecology, then so does our interactions with other organisms and empathy for their lives and ends in themselves. But the entire construct of life itself on the planet is based on the symbiotic relationships between living and non-living things. This means that some species use others in mutual ways to the benefit of both. Sometimes it’s more one-sided, as with any animal that eats another, but ecologically sustains the energy system of life.

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I do agree with his denial of human superiority. No where in the natural world are we given privilege over anything else. The privilege we think we have is completely self-constructed, so in theory it doesn’t really count in relation to the way we treat other living things. But I see what Taylor is ultimately saying here. Rather than lower ourselves or lower insects in a hierarchy of ecological importance, we must consider (sounds like Singer’s language) the lives of all living things as equally important. This obviously comes under attack when we think that the picking of a flower is as harmful as killing a person, and ecologically it might be a little too purist to follow through and put into any kind of law. I mean, it’s not like we can photosynthesize for food…

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I personally believe that people like Leopold, Callicott, and Taylor are all etching closer and closer a picture of an environmental ethic that ultimately needs to be a more ecologically-based. An approach that develops a proper ethic of human treatment toward nonhumans is necessary. After all, we are animals, we do not live apart from the planet’s ecosystems. Our own ecological niche must be examined to determine our role on the planet so that we can make ours as smooth a fit as the others.

Paws and Think

Day 25 Blog Post

Following the previous entry’s topic of the moral standing of animals, a breath of fresh air comes with the works of Peter Singer and Tom Regan. I’m in three classes that have all talked about Peter Singer for more than a week’s worth of their curriculum, so I’ve been living and breathing animal morality and consideration (unfortunately around the holidays, when extensive meat-eating for my family is as basic as wearing pants). Peter Singer is known for his work on making people consider our treatment of animals, and Tom Regan is responsible for the developments of the animal rights movement. The cruelties toward animals at the greedy hand of man is just another example of environmental injustice.

Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation implores us to come to terms with our treatment of fellow sentient beings as morally as wrong as racism or sexism. He claims under utilitarian grounds that our justification for such horrid treatment of animals is based in nothing but speciesism, the idea that we can treat a different type of species different merely based on the fact that they are a different species than our own, or just because they’re not homo sapiens. “If we have learned anything from the liberation movements, we should have learned how different it is to be aware of the ways in which we discriminate until they are forcefully pointed out to us,” and so animal liberation is a demand that we cease to regard the exploitation of other species as naturally inevitable, and that, instead, we see it as a continuing moral outrage. Peter Singer is a utilitarian, and urges us to realize that animals do in fact feel pleasure and pain, just like us. It doesn’t take much veterinary science to know that most animals, especially mammals, have very similar physiologies and anatomical structures. And it’s even more obvious to anyone who’s seen even one dog at least once in their life that animals do in fact feel pain and happiness as well. Based on this indisputable fact, the school of utilitarianism would tell us that we must eliminate that which causes suffering and choose that which maximizes pleasure. Again, it’s not rocket science to come to the conclusion that chickens do not like being held upside-down, having their heads plunged in electrified baths, and so this behavior should be eliminated because it is morally wrong. Even more unacceptable is the fact that experimenting on animals for academic and commercial ends is a huge industry. Estimates suggest that around 80 million animals suffer at the hand of testing, mostly for non-vital, trivial experiments. I think we know not to get shampoo in our eyes, the endless blinding of animals needn’t occur for our shockingly superficial tastes. Also, experiments are often supported by public funds and can even be found in most scientific journals. All of this is evidence of our speciesist disregard for the immense and totally preventable pain and slowly induced deaths of millions of animals. However, being that Singer is a utilitarian, he is not saying that it is necessarily wrong to eat animals – just that to cause them pain (mainly under industrial conditions) is immoral. Similar to this idea is the Humane Society’s three Rs: reduce the amount of meat you consume, refine where you purchase your meat from, and replace meat with substitutes wherever possible.  Even Bentham wished to extend the pleasure-pain principle to animals, since many are sentient and therefore fall into the category of beings whose pleasure should be maximized.

Since one must live under a rock to not realize that animals suffer intensely under the institutions we’ve set up, the real evil is in our permissibility to allow these things to go on. Singer says a proposal to revamp the farming conditions was sent through the British government stating “Any animal should at least have room to turn around freely” and was rejected on the grounds that it was too idealistic. This is insane. It is even more frustrating when people understand that these animals are sentient, capable of feeling pain, and acknowledge that factory farm conditions are the way they are, but try to brush it off because “they’re going to die anyway” or “it’s not wrong if it’s done humanely” (humanity doesn’t exist in the factory farming system). There’s no comfort in any way shape or form, it’s too costly to give the animals enough room to turn around. And as for the argument that “we need to eat meat,” this is just false. We’ve known that our bodies don’t need meat, and that we can get our protein from grown sources like beans that don’t come with all the unhealthy fats and chemicals in industry raised meat. As a matter of fact, factory farming reduces the amount of farm-grown protein plants because they give such large reserves to the animals who metabolically use up 90% of the protein. So, just like most of pillars of the American economy, the food industry creates it’s own downward-spiraling system that traps us into doing exactly what’s easy and cheap, but harmful, to ourselves (and the animals).

I actually recently saw Peter Singer at a panel at school where he and other speakers discussed the morality of animal treatment, although it was most focused on the religious angle of the issue. But Singer made an important point that’s worth taking home: “I don’t live in a world that makes my existence dependent on the suffering and death of others.” There really is no solid, large-scale reason for the mistreatment of animals… other than the money we give to support it. The right answer to most problems in our society is be a wise, public citizen over being a mindless, private citizen.

In Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights, the animal rights movement has three main goals: 1) total abolition of the use of animals in science, 2) total dissolution of commercial animal agriculture, and 3) total elimination of commercial and sport hunting and trapping. It argues that the whole system is wrong, and that we can’t change unjust institutions by “tidying them up.” Like Singer, he argues that the fundamental wrong is the system that allows us to view animals as resources, that they exist to serve us. The Kantian cruelty-kindness view states under deontological grounds that we have a direct duty to be kind and not to be cruel to animals, and this is where we get organizations like PETA. Under the similar utilitarian premises as Singer states, the fact that animals are sentient beings capable of pleasure and pain puts them on the same grounds for treatment as us. You would come off as scum of the earth if you denied someone fair treatment based on the color of his or her skin, so why not the same for another fellow sentient being, who happens to be of a different species? The rights view says that to treat another in ways that disrespect the other’s inherent value is to act immorally, to violate the individual’s rights. This is what the movement is calling for, an extension of the moral community (which we’ve only recently granted to women and minorities legally) to our friends with tails and feathers.

Something’s Gotta Give

Day 17 Blog Post

This post takes a look at the fault with the free-market approach in its idea of endless growth in GDP and consumption, as well as the problem with endless population growth upon the earth.

Today there are over 6 billion people on the planet, and estimates say that by 2020 there will be 8 billion; and by 2050, ten billion. This steady increase in global population means that the rate that people are being born is more than the rate that people are dying. In a perfect world, these rates would be equal (and obviously less in number than what they are operating at now). Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population explains that when left unchecked, population increases in a geometric (exponential) ratio, whereas subsistence (food) increases in only an arithmetic ratio. This means that the population growth rate would look like 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 516; and the subsistence growth rate can only increase by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. According to this disconnect in growth rate between us what we need for survival, he said that an increase in the rate of the human species population can be kept proportional to the increase in their food supply  “only by strong law of necessity acting as a check.” This means that if we are to continue this rate of population growth, we must be rational in distribution – if we want all people to have somewhat fair shares of the thinly stretched food supply. What’s even simpler? No food, no humans; which implies a limit to this growth. If we were able to keep increasing the rate of food production and human population, then eventually each and every human being would get less and less rations of food. But Malthus’ real bottom line is telling us that tragedy and pre-mature death await us in the form of famine; “the superior power of population cannot be checked without producing misery of vice.”

Technically this would be occurring today, but the current societal structures in place allow for a skewed distribution of food. In real life, this equates to the richer nations getting more food and poorer nations getting less. One needs only to look at history to see that populations increase only where there is a means of subsistence.We in the first world have been “oblivious to these oscillations” because the “histories of mankind are recorded by the higher classes;” and for a more correct view we need to take into account the experiences of those who live closer to fear of not having enough. We also don’t pay attention to the real cost of the labor that produces our goods for consumption, which is what perhaps contributes the most to conceal this truth from our view. Our society’s dependence on a “limitless” growth in GDP does not jive well with the sobering reality of the consequences of our constant consumption. As a matter of fact, “neo-Malthusians” are criticized from the political left because they’re claimed to support “genocidal programs” to deal with overpopulation, or for supporting the “infringement of a right to procreate;” as well as they are criticized from the political right because they’re claimed to be technological pessimists and to underestimate the capacity of the planet to support large population growth.” At the end of the day, however, Malthus’ calculations are right, which means that unless the problem of overpopulation is corrected by human means, like war, plague, or epidemic, then a famine of monstrous proportions is inevitable. Something’s gotta give.

Garrett Hardin, author of Tragedy of the Commons, gives a good metaphor for a way of thinking about the overpopulation problem in the his “lifeboat ethics.” Imagine you’re in a lifeboat with 50 people. The capacity is 60, and 100 people are out wading for survival in the water, begging to get in. How do you choose who comes into the boat? Would you chose the “best” people? The neediest? Would you make it first-come-first-serve? Now imagine a larger scale in which the population inside the boat doubles every 87 years and the population outside doubles every 35 years, and don’t forget the earth’s resources dwindle to support the said unending growth. Add on the way societies are set up, and you see a increasingly drastic difference in prosperity between rich and poor countries. An egalitarian approach would be to pool all our resources together with these other countries. The result would be that American would have to share resources with more than 8 other people. And thus the familiar tragedy of the commons plays out when everyone has access to use something shared by everyone, which in reality is what we’re doing, but it’s hidden behind the true cost of labor and externalities. Doesn’t this also mean that we have a responsibility to protect our commons? Should not one of the major tasks of education today be an awareness of the dangers of misuse of the commons? Such as illuminating not just the biological and ecological effects, but also the social and thus economic effects of, for example, overfishing?

It appears that only a replacement of the system of the commons with a responsible system of control will save the air, and, water, and oceanic fisheries. Recently there has been a push to create an “international depository of food reserves to which nations would contribute according to their abilities and from which they would draw according to their needs,” or a World Food Bank. It is thought that the developing world is the more environmentally taxing populous with its 2.5% population increase per year (versus the richer countries’ 0.8% population increase per year), however the first world makes up for its fewer numbers with qualitatively more environmentally destructive economic practices like pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The World Food Bank idea appeals powerfully to humanitarian impulses, but is this great food reserves concept nothing more than a human-made common? The creation and implementation of a system of growing more food (pushing more commodities through the economic machine, which ultimately means more business for agronomies) and storing it for the purpose of staving off famine, hunger, and death without repercussion only exasperate the initial problem? Human ecology tells us that this well-intended humanitarian effort is “like helping the spread of a cancer on the body of the earth.”

Garrett Hardin would say any form of voluntary restraint from plundering this new common would prove ineffective in a world run by imperfect humans, so another – proverbial – philosophy is proposed. The Chinese saying “give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for the rest of his life” is the approach taken by the Ford and Rockefellar foundations. In the “Green Revolution” these programs have led to the development of “miracle rice” and “miracle wheat,” new strains that offer bigger harvests and resistance to crop damage to help feed the 15 million new Indians born each year and foreign-aid could mean 1.2 billion Indians within 28 years, each of which puts an additional burden on the environment. But here we’re just giving the growing populations the tools to sustain their growth, tools that ironically mean economic furtherance to us and environmental exhaustion on the planet. It appears that there’s now no eloquent way to say it: there needs to be less people on the planet, not just a leveling off of what we have now.

It’s a distressing reality that we have no choice but to address if we have any intention of creating a more just earth for everyone. However, some like Julian Simon wish to undermine the necessary concern and claim that natural resources are not finite. Simon sees “scarcity” as just another way of saying “increase in cost,” and says that is something is replaceable, then it’s not finite. Unfortunately, it is anthropocentric, economic-based solutions like this that actually do more harm than good. Simon’s lack of any geological, or any scientific evidence does not do his argument any good. And he must be joking about going to the moon for resources. I think the one sentence where he speaks truth is when he says that solar energy is infinite (by human standards), however he quickly ruins his sole logical thought in saying that this then means that the energy within fossil fuels (derived from plants that harnessed the sun’s energy) is thereby infinite as well. It just doesn’t work like that.

So what do we do? I believe that an anthropocentric approach, like free-market environmentalism, cannot be the answer (let alone an acceptable school of environmental thought at that). It focuses too much on one species rather than looking at the big picture in the way that all of the life on earth functions in unison with each other. I agree with Malthus in that if something isn’t done soon, then the famine will come later. Without trying to be a fear-monger, it seems that without a proactive approach to solving the population crisis we’re just delaying whatever stabilizing force nature has in store anyway. It appears that overpopulation is more than half the problem of environmental crisis. Education, especially among women, brings population sizes down. Contraception is obviously necessary. Vertical farming needs to be pursued far more than just as a concept. It is a nasty and unfortunate “mixture of poverty, entrenched patriarchal attitudes, ignorance, passivity, prejudice, shame, and institutionalized barriers, sometimes expressive of cultural and religious ideologies, that is at the root of population excess in many poor nations,” so undoing that will mean a more “natural” form of depopulating.

The Seeds of Environmentalism

Day 14 Blog Post

As responsible as we are in the production and continuation of polluting the earth with greenhouse gases and industrial waste, the environmental movement actually got its roots here in the 1960’s. Senator Gaylord Nelson gained national recognition for his nation-wide “teach in,” in which teachers across the country used April 22, 1964 to educate and spread the word about the atrocities inflicted upon the planet by industrial societies. This day would go on to become Earth Day. By the 1970’s, environmentalism consisted of many concerns. It was a philosophy that identifies wild landscapes with wholeness and aesthetic beauty, and asserts that such landscapes, along with their plant and animal species, possess an inherent value beyond any economic value. It called for the legal protection of environments and species to prevent them from being absorbed into the industrial economy. It held the conviction that industrial societies, in their present form, are incompatible with natural systems and that human process lies in the increasing knowledge and understanding of how best to live as members of plant and animal communities. It was a critique of excessive consumption, overpopulation, pollution, and destructive technology, such as nuclear weapons and chemical pesticides. It wanted the extension of human rights to include the right to clean and healthful homes and neighborhoods.

This laundry list of demands emerged out of a country of people who were starting to see the settling consequences of industrial economic “progress” (more like fallout) after the post-war era of increased industrial manufacturing and growth. The Green Movement was starting to gain headway during this time. It was defining itself as a group of people with the desire for pure food (as opposed to food produced by industrial agriculture), for pedestrian spaces (as opposed to highways and cities built around automobiles), for renewable energy sources (as opposed to petroleum and nuclear power, both of which depend on large, centralized industrial systems), and for a decentralized society in general that would result in a larger sphere for personal expression. The movement would find supporters in a variety of demographics, including housewives who were becoming concerned about the dangers of the pesticides they were using in their gardens, or Theodore Seuss Geisel – Dr. Seuss – who made his contribution with the book “The Lorax;” spreading environmental awareness to children.

Environmentalism can find its roots in a number of romanticist writers, artists, and poets; the foremost being Aldo Leopold. In his essay “Thinking Like a Mountain” (1949) he describes the central epiphany of his career and a defining moment in environmental thought. He says that “only the mountain is old enough to listen objectively to the howl of the wolf,” meaning that rather than place ourselves on top of the food chain, superior to even the wolf with our guns and technology, it is foolish to try to pit ourselves against this thing called nature for any gain to ourselves.

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch the fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain…. I thought that fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing that green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

Aldo Leopold also invented the land ethic, which changes the idea of the role of homo sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it. This was a radical new way of thinking of the human race’s position on the earth in the contemporary western culture. But just why is it so radical? The answer is in our cultural perspective, born of our western religious roots…

As a nation that can’t seem to separate itself entirely from Christianity, we must peer into what Christian doctrine has to say about the environment. When speaking of Christianity it’s important to distinguish between the historical institution of the Christian church and the logical implications of its doctrine, especially those found in its sacred writings. Historian Lynn White blames Christianity for the part is has played in fostering an attitude of arrogance toward nature in his 1967 essay “The Historic Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” He claims we need to reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence other than to serve man – the most dogmatic sense of anthropocentrism. It’s true that in the way biblical texts have been interpreted in the growing democratic culture aided by the fruits of science and technology, we have landed ourselves in a downward spiraling ecological crisis by serving the ends of only ourselves without repercussion, but that’s obvious.

But not all religions took such a contemptuous stance against nature. The earliest civilizations were animistic, meaning that they saw divinity in nature and natural objects and entities. Eastern cultures like Japanese shintoism, Chinese daoisn, and Buddhism all believed that nature had spirits within its entities like the water and mountains. The Egyptians had one of the most complex societies and worshiped their gods in nature. The Greco-Roman cultures had multiple gods and each resided within nature, like Zeus in the lightning, Diana in the moon, etc. Everything changed when the idea of divinity was contained to one god. Judaism was the first major monotheistic religion, which held that god transcended nature. This idea puts god outside the physical realm and leaves us, our world, and all of nature subsequently beneath god; and Christianity and Islam would follow suit. It can be said that Christianity destroyed animism for the west, as well as many forests. In biblical thought, “man shares god’s transcendence of nature,” and spirit on earth was thought to belong to humans only. The whole story of creation, and how god gave man “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” This word dominion has been nature’s nightmare. It’s just too aggressive and people have been using it as a justification for the blank check we’ve been taking out at nature’s expense for too long. It’s also caused a deep cultural conception of nature as evil, as outside of god’s light, as a place where the devil resides. Just look back to any original fairy tale, or the northern European memories of telling tales of the (German) “dark forests,” and witches and goblins who make their home among the not-so-human-friendly beasts that dwell in the dark. However, a common charge against this claims that “man’s dominion” is not arbitrary rule over the earth but rather stewardship of our fellow creatures for which man is responsible. Lynn White says that the very problem is in the very openness of biblical scripture to interpretation that has allowed such atrocities of numerous other scales, and that unless people find a new religion they’re going to have to rethink the old ones.

The stewardship interpretation says that since the earth is god’s property, and in our rental of his home it’s our responsibility to take of it and, basically, not trash it. Judaism also maintains a certain amount of stewardship from religious law, such as to keep kosher in jiving with the principle of prohibiting pain to animals. However, the religious notion that humans are at the summit of creation implies a hierarchy of importance, not a biocentric egalitarianism. Then some say that stewardship is difficult to justify religiously because the earth doesn’t depend on humanity as much as we depend on it. Theologian Sallie McFague’s model of the world being “god’s body” urges us to value nature for its own sake, and blends religious thought comfortably with evolutionary theory. Another theologian Jay McDaniel claims that for a biocentric Christianity, god must be conceived as loving all creatures on their own terms and for their own sakes. In any search for “environmental wisdom” one must look at those who live closer to the earth, those who walk through the trees and live in nature and not just watch it on TV. One such Christian example was St. Francis of Assisi, who hailed from the Middle Age mysticism in which people believed the mystery of god was manifested in nature – nature is “god’s art.” He would hold conversations with wolves that threatened livestock and held court with the trees. Pope John Paul II held St. Francis as the patron saint of animals, and the Franciscan monks are mystic in practice. This was the same pre-Christian paganism that gives us Halloween and fanciful European tales of gods, nature spirits, and fairies. This kind of ancient mysticism was prevalent after the fall of Rome, before Christianity filled its place, when people lived in and learned from nature and worshiped a kind of maternal giver of life on earth. We know these people in our cultural memory as witches and wizards, but you could also call them the original ecofeminists.

Today, we call these people “primitive,” and that says something about us. We see ourselves as having this artificially elevated moral standing out of these other “primitive” people. Traditional Ecological Knowledge challenges this. This is the “cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, and it concerns the relationship of living beings with one another and with their environment.” It’s Pocahontas vs. John Smith, and it hasn’t been as embraced as it should be by western (anthropocentrically guided) science. Cosmologically, it contains the idea of a person-like Being who created and sustains the world for all life, and we could learn from this. Even though we’ve only been around for about 1% of geologic time, we have this western view of human beings as the end all, or masterpiece, of creation (as well as what we deserve on this throne we have given ourselves) might be wrong given the current scientific thoughts on evolution, and is a culturally rooted perspective that we need to get over.

In constructing an environmental ethic, Anthony Weston says we need to develop an appropriate attitude toward the earth. “We need to think of the earth as a complex system with its own dignity more intricate than we can understand.” And here come the evaluative frameworks of anthropocentric utility-value and non-anthropocentric intrinsic-value ascribed to nature. There are movements that develop an attitude toward our treatment of nature, conservation and preservation. The conservation movement has scientific roots and emphasized wise management of recourses over long periods of time under the principle that nature is here to be used by people, spawning from a society of worried industrialism. It is anthropocentric in belief and has had leaders like Gifford Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt. When Pinchot became head of the U.S. Forest Service under Roosevelt, he said “The object of our forest policy is not to preserve the forests because they are beautiful…or because they are refuges for the wild creatures of the wilderness…but…the making of prosperous homes,” and that “land is to be subdued and controlled for the service of the people, its rightful masters, owned by the many and not by the few.” The other movement was preservationism. This was heralded by John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, Aldo Leopold, and J. Baird Callicott. This idea is born from the New England romantics with help from the paintings and writings of Thoreau and Emmerson who saw newfound beauty in natural landscapes, and is all the reason why we should preserve nature. The aesthetic and spiritual component of nature was tied into the sublime, the complex idea that when seeing a natural beauty like a mountain range or gazing out at the sea, one is filled with such incomprehensible fear of the imminent power of nature that one’s fear is replaced by intense respect for it; thus sanctioning the holiness that Muir found in nature. Callicott even went so far as to advocate that trees and streams should be able to sue in court.

Casper David Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog”

In September 2008 Ecuador became the first country to give constitutional rights to nature, reflecting the beliefs and traditions of the indigenous peoples, and taking environmental protection to a whole new level. The constitution now declares that nature “has the right to exist, persist, maintain, and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions, and its processes in evolution.” Spanish parliament has already extended human rights to apes. Imagine that kind of initiation taken by our own country? I don’t see it happening for at least another ten years, possibly more. Instead, we’re more like leaders in ecological ignorance. It’s saddening to think that there are actually people out there like this who exist among us. I went to Barcelona recently and noticed that they, along with most of Europe, are on top of their environmental game. Their waste management system is blatantly simple and encouraged. They also charge people for plastic bags at stores, so bringing your own renewable bag is institutionalized in the economy. This very interesting youtube video documents humanity’s cognitive progression through time, and there’s definitely something to be said from it. Our human journey is really just beginning. We got it right when we were young, but we lost our way. Here’s to us finding the path toward peaceful coexistence with all life on earth.

It’s Not Just the Polar Bears Anymore

Day 6 and 7 Blog Post

Climate change is not a relatively new concept. You’d have to live under a rock or in a weird commune to have not heard that the earth is experiencing a period of global warming that is negatively affecting everyone and everything on it. You’d also have to be a special kind of bigot to not feel any sort of concern when learning about it.

One person who’s name goes in tandem with climate change is Al Gore. His film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” which probably couldn’t have a better title, explains climate change and its devastating effects. He also clears up the idea that’s been spreading that climate may not be man-made, and that this misconception was in fact completely constructed by right wing government officials during the Bush administration who in email correspondences blatantly said they wanted to “portray climate change as theory, not fact.” 2005 witnessed record breaking heat waves that led to higher water temperatures, which helped trigger the national disaster that was Hurricane Katrina. In fact, we can look forward to stronger, fiercer hurricanes to come due to the warming of the seas. The warmer moisture provides fertile environments for super storms. Textbooks actually had to be rewritten as of 2005 since it was thought that the Southern Hemisphere doesn’t experience hurricane-strength cyclones, until the first technical hurricane in the Southern Hemisphere occurred that year. These eye-opening reflections would have been hard to pass off as mere natural weather patterns to the educated observing citizen.

The collision between civilization and the earth is growing more tense. We’re starting to see the hidden consequences of our blind meddling. Infrastructures built on top of permafrost are crumbling (it’s called “permafrost” because the underground frost is supposed to be permanent, until now). Overpopulation puts incredible pressure on the earth to feed far more mouths than that of the earth’s own carrying capacity for us – which is technically unknown but certainly breached. The stable climatic cycles that have been distributing heat from the equator toward the poles are becoming irregular and out of whack – the consequence of this is yet to be fully discovered, but destabilized ecological cycles have played a part in disrupting the delicate ecological niches of species of pathogens and certain indigenous peoples, leading to the breeding grounds that allowed for global pandemics like West Nile virus, avian flu, and SARS to progress to the levels they’ve reached. A particular 28+ mile wide ice shelf in the Antarctic that that had been observed by scientists using satellite imaging was completely gone within 35 days of observing. Reports from nuclear submarines that conduct research at the poles say that ice thickness has decreased 40% over the past 40 years. And it has been concluded that if the entirety of Greenland or the South Pole melts (both of which are certainly plausible) then the sea level will rise 20 feet. It doesn’t take a scientist to realize that this kind of sea level increase would wipe out entire coastal cities and communities, leaving over 100 million refugees. The truth is inconvenient because we really don’t want to deal with the responsibility that comes with knowing the truth and the repercussions that we must face, whether that be economic, political, or in lifestyle.

(Computer generated image of what NYC would look like after a 1 meter sea level increase)

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was initiated to provide comprehensive scientific assessments of current scientific, technical, and socioeconomic information worldwide about the risk of climate change caused by human activity. It met on November of 2007 in Valencia, Spain and came up with its “Summary for Policymakers.” They established an synthesis report that can be roughly broken down into a list of assessments:

1. Observed changes in climate and their effects

  • Warming of the climate system is unequivocal
  • Natural systems are being affected by regional climate changes, particularly temperature changes
  • Anthropogenic temperature increases and subsequent rising sea levels would continue on an uninhibited for centuries to come due to the positive feedback cycle

2. Causes of change

  • Global greenhouse gas emissions due to human activities have grown since pre-industrial times, with an increase of 70% between 1970 and 2004
  • Global atmospheric concentrations CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750 and now far exceed pre-industrial pre-industrial values determined from ice cores spanning many thousands of years
  • The probability that sea level rise, changes in wind patterns and extra-tropical storms, increase in extreme temperatures, heat waves, regional drought and heavy precipitation are caused by natural processes alone is less than 5%

3. Projected climate change and its impacts

  • More intensified warming over land in the Northern Hemisphere, thawing of permafrost, disappearance of Arctic late-summer ice almost entirely by the end of the century, increase in frequency of hot extremes, likely increase in tropical cyclone number and intensity, less subtropical and more high altitude precipitation
  • Ocean acidification due to uptake of anthropogenic carbon since 1750, increasing in pH of 0.1 units in another positive feedback system; negatively affecting marine shell-forming organisms, among other forms of life
  • Altered frequencies and intensities of extreme weather coupled with seal level rise are expected to have mostly adverse effects on natural and human systems
  • Anthropogenic warming could lead to some impacts that are abrupt or irreversible, for example the loss of ice sheets equates to meters of sea level rise, major changes in coastlines, and inundation of low-lying areas

4. Adaptation and mitigation options

  • Adaptive capacity is intimately connected to social and economic development but is unevenly distributed across and within societies
  • There is high agreement on the substantial economic potential for the mitigation of global greenhouse gas emissions over the coming decades that could offset the projected growth of global emissions or reduce emissions below current levels, such as cap and trade, standards, taxes, tradable permits, and voluntary agreements

5. The long-term perspective

  • Determining what constitutes “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system involves value judgements, however science can support objective information for informed decisions
  • There is high confidence that neither adaptation nor mitigation alone can avoid all climate change impacts, however they can complement each other and together can significantly reduce the risks of climate change

It’s hard to separate climate change from policy, but this is because of all the ethics embedded in the issue. Climate change involves certain people in one part of the world harming people in other parts of the world, and usually it’s those who are at the mercy of the ecology and climate that are harmed at the whims of more industrialized, developed countries. Most of these marginalized people can’t ask their governments for help. For example, there are tens of millions of people in India and Asia who depend on rivers and water systems for drinking, but the glaciers that feed the rivers are threatened by the greenhouse gases produced by nations across the globe. Intensified drought in Africa cuts deeper into an already sore wound, and the small developing South Pacific islands’ entire existence is severely threatened by rising sea levels. In my Environmental Technology Society class, we learned that many of the world’s indigenous populations (composing of 370 million people) have a very similar relationship to earth called the 7 generation rule. This simply means that in every action they take they must be taken with the consideration of how it will affect things within 7 generations from now, and it uses the ancient, non-western, radical idea that we’re borrowing the planet from future people who haven’t been born yet. Ground-breaking, right?

The New York Times article “Climate Change Seen as Threat to U.S. Security” says the National Intelligence Council warned that storms, droughts, and food shortages would result from a warming planet in coming decades, creating numerous relief emergencies. A host of analysts, experts at the Pentagon, and intelligence agencies claim that “climate-induced crisis,” such as violent storms, drought, mass migration, and pandemics, “could topple governments, feed terrorist movements or destabilize entire regions.” Yet there seem to be entire groups of people bent on stifling the efforts of those trying to help, like the Disinformation Campaign. This is a counter-movement to the environmental movement made up of right-wing literature “think tanks” that claim that climate change is a hoax, not human-caused, and make themselves a  nuisance by cherry-picking every “uncertainty” in the current scientific research. There’s healthy, scientific skepticism, and then there’s the Disinformation Campaign.

Rachel Carson was a pioneer of her time when she wrote Silent Spring, an amazing work form 1962 that explains how many of the major ecological disasters of the past two decades occurred directly because of the manufacture, storage, use, and disposal of pesticides or deadly chemical compounds with biocidal components. The book is called Silent Spring because of an effect we’ve been causing to the environments that she’s noticed. The pesticides we spray poison the insects, the birds eat the poisoned insects and die, thus causing their songs during the springtime to fall silent. But Carson describes how it’s not just the birds that are in danger, but also us – at the top of the food chain – who really get the worst effects of biomagnificaiton from this “seemingly harmless” practice of spraying grasses and crops. What that means is that by ingesting produce and animals that eat the animals that eat the produce, we end up ingesting larger amounts of the poisonous compounds than the first animal did. She suggested that we turn to “biological solutions, based on understanding the living organisms (we) seek to control, and of the whole fabric of life to which these organisms belong.” In the middle of her great crusade to end our deluded practice of poisoning ourselves and the earth, Time magazine criticized her book, calling it “unfair, one-sided, and hysterically over-emphatic,” and argues that Carson’s “emotional and inaccurate outbursts may do harm by alarming the non-tehnological public.” I think Rachel Carson is one of the most under appreciated people ever, and having written an entire research paper on her, I’ve really come to love her and everything she’s contributed to our world – a world that seriously needed, but rejected, her help. Her actions are responsible for the creation of the EPA. You could say she single-handedly created the environmentalism movement, but she would never get to see any of it as she died two years after writing Silent Spring. I could go on forever about the blessing to humanity that was Rachel Carson.

It’s another misconception that environmentalism and a healthy economy are not compatible. After publishing an essay criticizing climate change about the minute uncertainties of certain studies, conservative scientist Patrick Michaels tried to downplay the urgency of the issues upon us. Although his cherry-picking of minuscule details isn’t as ridiculous as the Heartland Institute’s claims (that “climate change is a plot to steal American freedom” and a “trojan horse designed to abolish capitalism and replace it with some kind of ‘eosocialism'”), it’s nonetheless not warranted from a scientist unless some sort of political agenda was behind it. In response, environmental scientist Christopher Flavin criticizes Michaels’ critique of the ICPP, commenting “conservatives consider themselves the custodians of values and ethics, but is it ethical to disrupt the natural world without regard to the impact on our descendants or on Creation itself?” Not only is global climate change disrupting the stable patterns and timing of the seasons on which our agriculture and basic way of life depends, but it’s creating extremes in regional weather – tornadoes in New York? Falvin claims that a “real conservative would argue that we should act now to slow the dangerous rise in greenhouse gas emissions rather than having to reduce emissions drastically in the future, which would really disrupt the economy.” His appeal to economics as an incentive to promote green practices is smart, like fighting fire with fire in a battle where the opponent only hears numbers and monetary figures. Other countries already have similar economic practices in place, for example in Spain you have to to use plastic bags, thus encouraging everyone to reuse (not to mention their impeccable waste management system functions much better than ours). He suggests that the market mechanism might be the most efficient way to reduce CO2 emissions, while also moving away from traditional private and public energy monopolies like coal and gas. India and Germany are building numerous wind farms, what are we doing?

To get a good idea of how much emissions just the individual household puts out into the environment alone, you can take the EPA test here. My family’s results were a little over the average household emissions, but the test offers possible alternatives that, if taken into practice, could decrease your emissions.

In July 2001, 178 nations agreed to a weakened version of the Kyoto Protocol that required 38 industrialized nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2% below 1990 levels by 2010 or face tougher goals and penalties. Most all the nations’ leaders present had agreed, except for George Bush. He refused because he said the treaty was “fatally flawed,” apparently at the time preferring the “uncertain science” of a missile defense system. Forging an epic international consensus was certainly called for the collective sense of achievement, despite objections of one country that aspires to be a global leadership. There’s also the argument that David Suzuki makes. “The mother of all battles is environmental,” not military, says Suzuki, who sees a clear imbalance in the distribution of not only funding, but values. Though the U.S. may be a very wealthy country, 1/3 of the federal budget goes to the military. This restricts much needed environmental and social programs. It has been noted by many economic analysts that the demilitarization of post-WWII Japan was a critical factor in its economic recovery and progression to become one of the wealthier nations of the world. In times of peace, $1,750,000 is spent on maintaining the military around the world every minute. This is mind-blowing. The World Watch Institute estimates that it would cost 15% (150 billion) of the annual global military budget to save the planet from environmental collapse. The U.S. spends $300 on the military for every $1 it spends on the environment. That number is disastrously out of whack. The National Research Council of the National Academy of Science says that by the end of the 21st century the average global temperature will be 3°C higher, and that it only takes a 5°C increase to completely melt the north pole. If only a fraction of the global defense budget went toward protecting and reversing environmental practices, we could “reduce the national debt, forgive foreign loans, purchase wilderness, and start creating new kinds of employment.” The answer is simple, at least for me, that we’re putting our money – and our priorities – in the wrong place.

Upton Sinclair once said “It’s hard to get a man to understand something if his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Ignorance is bliss…but only for the ignorant.

It’s the Environment, Stupid

Day 5 Blog Post

First off, I would like to share a post I saw on the “Freshly Pressed” page and arbitrarily clicked on because it looked interesting and relevant. It has everything to do with this week’s lesson and probably sums up all the concerns more briefly than I’m about to attempt, so take a look.

There’s a test that calculates your own ecological footprint by answering questions about your lifestyle choices, and it’s interesting – possibly scary – to see what your own personal effect on the planet is. My result was that it would take 4.1 earths to support us if everyone lived the same lifestyle that I do (I’m convinced it’s all the food). This was a little disconcerting, as an environmental policy major I like to pride myself on my extra awareness and consequently my educated lifestyle choices. But while taking the test you’ll realize that a lot more goes into being green than just recycling cans and using refillable water bottles. It’s our entire infrastructure that needs revamping. The way we get from point A to point B, if we’re not using our own two feet, has an impact; our food selections from the grocery store to fast food have an impact; and pretty much anything we pay money to use or obtain has an impact. And this is where economics becomes an integral part of environmental thought. It’s our dollar votes that encourage poor practices from huge polluting corporations, but it’s the same dollar that – if spent wisely – can promote green practices as well. Fight fire with fire by giving business to environmentally conscious companies, and the laws of economics will cause the “bad” businesses to compete by becoming green themselves. This coupled with tighter regulation seems to be working, but it’s not enough. Awareness in the population is key.

Turning over to more environmentally conscious lifestyle choices may require an extra dollar, but only good can come of it. Conservation biologist O. E. Wilson coined the term “biophilia,” which is the hypothesis that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and all living systems that transcends all cultures, or as Willson describes, “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.” You’ve felt this any time you enjoyed a walk through a park, took a break from your desk work to look out your window, or felt your own special bond with your pet. It’s no coincidence that gardening is the #1 hobby in America, or that after the 9/11 attacks, NYC parks reported record breaking numbers of visitors. It’s been found that people with apartments overlooking some sort of greenery report feeling healthier and happier in their lives than those who’s apartment windows show concrete or brick (and with socioeconomic statuses factored in). Science has also found that exposure to natural environments for more than 20 minutes allows people to recover from fatigue, boosts white blood cell counts, and reduces the stress hormone cortisol. It’s also been found that immersing oneself in a natural environment is effective therapy for depression, helps keep the blood glucose levels of diabetics balanced, and that kids with ADD function better in green environments. It all goes back to the central theme that we as a species evolved with nature and are an integral part of it. More proof that our economy forces our indoor culture to be increasingly backward.

Since reading economics is basically the same as reading Chinese to me, I really enjoyed the youtube video “Story of Stuff.” The woman explains the entire materials economy and makes it really simple to understand. And, of course, whenever you watch a youtube video of something you really like or support, you can’t avoid reading the back-and-forth argumentative comments between the drek of society (thankfully there weren’t comments about religion or Hitler on this one). But the contentious comments only point to one thing: she speaks the truth and the truth scares people. And people should be scared. The way we’re living now is just not going to work forever. Like she says, “you cannot run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely.” It just doesn’t work. Remember the golden motto, “everything is connected”? The double whammy is that we live in a culture of creature comforts. We like to make quick fixes for every ailing thing that could happen to us: pills for every little pain, new technology to make chopping that onion take less than the two minutes it takes with a simple knife. It’s ridiculous. We’re so used to hearing people whine about having the luxury of unsustainable conveniences: “I just like knowing that I have the option of buying water bottles if I want to.” There’s no doubt that we’re enjoying the highest standard of living in human history, but it comes at a price. It’s these convenient comforts that have made us not only soft but self-destructive.

EDIT: I was recently outraged while reading for another class. There was a man named Victor Lebow who was a top government economist who after WWII pretty much invented the American consumer culture. Here are his own words from the Spring 1955 issue of Journal of Retailing:

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms. The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats- his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies.”

It’s chilling to imagine that the very tangled webs of culture, politics, and economics that we now find ourselves at a loss in mediating through for a better present and future were all set into motion with one huge and completely deliberate push by this one man.

In 2005 the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was conducted under the United Nations to determine the effects our actions have on the planet, and it had revealed some distressing information. There were four findings:

  1. Human tampering of ecosystems to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fiber, and fuel results in substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on earth. And we know that diversity is necessary for continuity of life.
  2. Changes to ecosystems contribute to net gains in human well-being and economic development, but at growing costs resulting in degradation of many ecosystem services, increased risk of non-linear changes, and exacerbation of poverty. And unless addressed, these problems will diminish the benefits for future generations.
  3. The degradation of ecosystem services could grow significantly worse during the first half of this century; and the direct drivers of ecosystem change are habit change, overexploitation of species and natural entities, introduction of invasive alien species, pollution, and climate change. All human-caused of course.
  4. Reversing the degradation of ecosystems while meeting increasing demands for the services can be partially met under some scenarios that would involve significant changes in policies. Also, options do exist to conserve and enhance ecosystem services in ways that do reduce negative trade off and produce positive synergies with other ecosystem services.

Basically what this all means is that we’ve been seriously toying with the environment for the purpose of maintaining a first world lifestyle, and that there are ways we can try to reverse the damage and live in a more harmonious, truly human relationship to the earth.

We’ve been living in this old dream of an ideal lifestyle that prioritizes our ability to acquire whatever thing we want without thinking twice about how it got into our hands. But the lie was hidden from us the whole time, and we lived in ignorant bliss until we started noticing a difference in our neck of the earth. There’s a new dream we should all embrace. This “new dream” should be one that emphasizes community, ecological sustainability, and celebration of non-material values.

Hopefully we can grow up and wizen up as a nation to take on our problems and tackle them with blatant sincerity and enthusiasm. We’d be a race of fools to choose anything else.