Ed. Note: We are happy to share this reader response, which is part of a series developed by environmental science students at Loyola University Chicago from the course ENVS 390: Integrative Environmental Seminar.
Over the past century alone humanity has accomplished unprecedented advances in science, industry, and technology. These advances have allowed our species to experience revolutionary levels of comfort, contentment, and economic opportunities in our everyday lives. However, these exciting and new discoveries have also distorted the way we view our relationship to the world around us. Many humans now see themselves as being “above” Mother Nature and impervious to her natural biological processes. Such detachment has led to serious widespread environmental degradation, and our planet is now suffering the consequences. Scientists, politicians, business owners, and even average citizens are frantically scrambling to undo the years of harm we have inflicted upon the biospheres around us.
When humans view themselves as separate from nature, they become detached from the responsibility they have to it, and therefore to planet Earth as a whole. In contrast, when humans view themselves as a part of nature, they make the decision to actively protect planet Earth because they realize that there is an intimate connection between the well-being of humanity and the well-being of nature as a whole.
A primary example of environmental degradation as a result of human disengagement from nature is global warming. During the Industrial Revolution humans learned to utilize technology in ways that allowed for huge economic boom and increase in everyday comforts. In the United States alone, beginning in the late 1800s, thousands of enormous factories were built, allowing for the production of everyday goods such as cars, electronic gadgets, and kitchen appliances. We now take these goods for granted. The United States quickly became a global economic power, enjoying the vast privileges that came along with this title. Unfortunately, we did not realize that this new lifestyle was coming at a deadly price. The creation of modern-day factories led to uncontrolled emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Earth depends on greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide acting in combination with our sun’s rays to keep the planet’s temperature at consistent levels. Too much carbon dioxide, however, traps sunlight in our atmosphere, raising Earth’s naturally occurring temperatures to unnatural heights.
Mother Nature is fragile. She engages in a complicated and sensitive balancing act with herself to keep our planet healthy. Even slight climate change wreaks havoc on various ecosystems around the world. We are beginning to see the adverse effects of climate change today.
For example, the coffee plant in Brazil is failing, due to droughts related to climate change. Agriculturists who depend on the coffee crop are harvesting increasingly smaller yields each year, incurring massive amounts of debt. Thus, millions of Brazilian farmers are plunging into poverty. In addition, global warming is melting Earth’s polar ice caps. Melting ice caps causes the water levels in various coastal regions around the world to rise. Tampa Bay, Florida, experiences periodic flooding so severe sewage pipes in the area cannot accommodate the excess liquid. Consequently, in recent months, political officials from the area have come under fire for making the extremely difficult decision to dump millions of gallons of raw sewage into the bay where people swim and live in order to dispose of the excess waste. Uncontrollable flooding of coastal areas shows that global warming has begun a snowball effect of environmental degradation in so many previously unforeseen ways.
Since humans are so detached from nature we fail to see what our actions are doing to our planet. Only recently has serious attention been given to the problem of global warming. Even so, many people believe it is a myth that perpetuates overreactions to various environmental problems. Others, including politicians and equally important world leaders, do not believe it is an issue important enough for the attention of national law. Unless action is taken we will face a serious ecosystem crisis due to climate change within the century. But humanity is emotionally disconnected from our planet. It is unclear if the masses will ever truly understand the negative impact we have on our home. If they do not, disaster is imminent. The environmental problems we face today will intensify until Earth is no longer habitable.
Another horrible result of the mentality that humans are distinctly separate from nature is coral bleaching. Coral bleaching occurs when corals expel algae from their tissues because the surrounding water temperature becomes too warm. The expelling of the coral’s algae is a defense mechanism that eventually turns the organism white. Humans contribute to coral bleaching through overfishing, pollution, and coral mining. This process is related to climate change because the constant rise in temperature of the planet as a whole drastically warms ocean temperatures. Many marine organisms depend on coral for food and shelter. Therefore, degradation of coral reefs has potentially irreversible effects on fish species and communities. Human activities have a huge impact in the well-being of marine ecosystems, but because some individuals believe that these issues do not directly affect them, environmental damage is augmented over time. If corals are permanently damaged, we will lose a significant amount of ocean biodiversity. The negative implications that could result from such a loss are endless.
The mentality that human beings are separate from nature became more widespread with the rise of the “throw-away” culture of today’s linear economic system. The societal framework of throw-away culture became popular in the 1950s—after World War II—when goods and resources were no longer rationed and building up the economy became a great national effort. The United States was not yet concerned with environmental issues because humans of this era largely did not consider themselves to be a part of nature. This critical shift in behavior from conserving and reusing goods to quickly buying and replacing goods continued to set today’s economic standards of a linear economic system. Manufacturers began to make goods with planned obsolescence so that customers would need to keep buying more. The concept of replacing broken parts started to fade and throw-away culture was born. If a product was flawed, getting a new one was cheaper and/or easier than fixing it. However, this linear system of constantly buying and disposing of goods causes resource shortages and creates massive amounts of unnecessary waste. Such waste is toxic and often ends up in Third World countries. The linear economy is yet another example of how human detachment from nature leads to disastrous effects on the environment. If humans began to perceive themselves as being a part of nature instead of a separate entity, the environment would benefit greatly.
In contrast, when humans view themselves as part of nature, they innovate society to accommodate ecology so that both technology and nature may coexist harmoniously. For example, various groups in the economic sector have begun discussing the benefits of implementing the circular economy as a solution to some of the environmental problems associated with the linear economy. The circular economy is a system that aims to reduce waste and conserve resources by repurposing, repairing, and recycling goods. This system works by protecting natural capital from being exploited to make disposable goods, responsibly managing and actively replenishing finite resources, and, ultimately, promoting a society of users rather than a society of consumers and disposers. In a circular economy the user shares products rather than personally owning everything. When one user is done with the product, it is repurposed or redistributed to another user. When the product is no longer functional, it is repaired or recycled into a new product.
The circular economy eliminates waste and minimizes the demand for excessive consumerism. By encouraging the exchange, regeneration, optimization, and sharing of products in a loop, humans are able to maximize the use-value of various consumer goods. This model also places an emphasis on feeding waste back into the earth so it can continue to support the system of manufacturing. It helps to restore the balance of Mother Nature’s natural operations. Since the days of the Industrial Revolution. humans have adopted patterns of negatively interrupting these processes. But examples such as the circular economy show that humans can work in sync with nature if the proper efforts are made. These efforts are necessary if planet Earth is going to be able to sustain humanity in the long-term.
We live in an era where we are constantly bombarded with apocalyptic warnings of humanity’s environmental degradation and destruction. While these warnings are not unwarranted, they can be extremely discouraging and depressing to hear. In order to solve these problems, we must understand their source. Humans began negatively impacting the environment when they forgot about their connection with nature. At the end of the day, no matter how technologically advanced our society becomes, this planet is our home. If we destroy Earth, we will ultimately result in destroying ourselves. In order to save our planet, we must take proper steps to act in symmetry with nature. We are not above the natural world; we are immersed in it. We must implement societal practices that reflect this, and treat Earth with the respect it deserves, so that human beings can continue to exist for generations to come.
Garcia -Navarro, L. (October 12, 2016). Coffee And Climate Change: In Brazil, A Disaster Is Brewing. Retrieved October 27, 2016 from http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/10/12/497578413/coffee-and-climate-change-in-brazil-a-disaster-is-brewing
Neuhaus, L. (September 16, 2016). Sewage Overflow Again Fouls Tampa Bay After Storm. Retrieved November 3, 2016 from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/17/us/sewage-overflow-again-fouls-tampa-bay-after-storm.html?rref=collection/timestopic/Water&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=10&pgtype=collection&_r=0
What is coral bleaching? (n.d.). Retrieved November 03, 2016 from http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/coral_bleach.html
The Circular Economy. (n.d.). Retrieved November 3, 2016 from https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy