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 Environmental Sustainability.
For thousands of years, humans have entertained the notion that we are, in some intangible way, fundamentally different from all other life on our planet. For thousands of years, we have enjoyed the thought that either through divine order or through empirical evidence of our species’ intelligence we can prove we are naturally superior to animals and nature. From the story of Genesis to philosophers like John Locke, human’ superiority over nature is something that has been taken for granted. This thought has rarely been challenged throughout human history, to disastrous effect.
We act in our own self-interest, molding the landscape to our need with no regard for the ecological ripples that will forever occur from that action. This process started innocent enough with a minor clearing of natural habitats for homes and agriculture. These were tools for survival and never intended to have a negative effect on the earth. If it had no impact then, why would our current usage have any effect? However, this action led to our current disregard for all habitats. Now we completely transform landscapes around our needs, bulldozing mountains, transforming deserts into lush oases, creating agriculture where there once was forest or marsh. There seems to be no limit to the human ability to create what it is we desire. Our notion of superiority combined with our ability to bend an entire planet to our will has had disastrous effects for humans and nature.
This thought process continues to take a toll on our planet through government legislation. National parks were originally meant to preserve the natural habitat for the wildlife and for future generations to enjoy. For decades they served as a preserved respite for wildlife, yet now they’re future is up in the air. Government protections of these lands are in the process of becoming weakened in order to allow oil companies to drill in the parks. This drilling would bring short term economic gain but would also bring pollution and industry to the pristine sites of the parks and no doubt end up in habitat loss and loss of life for other species. Our idea that we are separate from nature allows us to continue to have this large negative impact on the earth.
Our ideological inability to see ourselves as deeply interconnected to nature also keeps us trapped in a cycle of poisoning wildlife and other people for financial gain. It keeps us entrenched in dehumanizing those who suffer from environmental pollution. The Dakota Access Pipeline, for example, was built through marginalized communities including Sioux tribal nations. This pipeline was routed through their lands due to the lack of political voice they are allowed in the United States and thus they were unable to successfully advocate for themselves in this matter. They worried that the oil would contaminate the water in the area and make it unsafe for them to drink and make their reservation unsafe for them to live. By seeing the environmental impact of human ‘development’ of land as secondary to the financial gain we continue to endanger the lives and wellbeing of fellow humans. As a consequence of this perceived separation, human dependence upon nature is not truly seen or appreciated. Our inability to see our connection with nature and how we rely upon the world for everything in our lives sets us up to be the designers of our own dire fate.
People also face health issues from the pollution we are pumping into our air. China, one of the most industrialized countries in the world is notorious for pumping pollution into the air and poisoning the citizens. Throughout China, the death rate from lung cancer increased by about 464% since the 1970s. ( Chen et al. ). Lung cancer rates increased with the rapid expansion of industry and rampant pollution. It has been proven by countless studies that the chemicals we are pumping into the atmosphere will only negatively harm us, and yet we continue to do this. We stay on this path only because of our inability to see our own future and intrinsically linked to that of the planet. By not seeing humans as deeply intertwined with nature, we are refusing to look at the world as it really is. The natural order is an incredibly delicate balance of systems. Without looking at ourselves as having a place in it and having a stake in maintaining it we are simply dooming ourselves. We are so stuck in this rut of thought that we are turning toward the stars. Some are planning escape missions to other planets and talking about the practicality of shipping the human race to another planet or a spaceship in orbit because it has been seen as a foregone conclusion that humans will ruin this one. We need to turn our focus back to earth. We need to see ourselves and connected to our roots and give back to Mother Earth.
Chen, Zhu, et al. “China Tackles the Health Effects of Air Pollution.” The Lancet, vol. 382, no. 9909, 2013, pp. 1959–1960., doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(13)62064-4.