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.
We live in a generation where most people in our country are aware of terms such as environmental science, global warming, and sustainability. However, this has not always been the case. For generations, humans have been degrading the environment in pursuit of personal and financial gains. In some cases, they do not know the effects of their actions. But often times, they simply do not want the consequences of their actions on the environment known to the public. Humans justify these actions of dominance and superiority over the environment when they view themselves as separate from nature. That being said, only four decades ago the Environmental Movement, which pushed for legislation surrounding environmental issues and the protection of the environment, took place. This movement was an indication that humans want to restore the damage they have caused to the land. Since then, environmentalism has grown in popularity. There is a lot of catching up to do in terms of mediating environmental degradation, and it is only possible by human efforts. When humans perceive themselves as separate from nature, it leads to two events: destruction and mediation.
Humans have declared themselves superior to the natural world for quite some time now. This is evident in daily life when most people only come in contact with the man-made environment and other human beings. Initially, humans knew very little about the negative impact their lifestyles would have on the natural environment. Today the problem is no longer about lack of knowledge. Science and technology have demonstrated just how grave the damage of anthropogenic activity is. The basis of the problem today is the lack of obligation people feel toward the health of the environment. Some humans are perfectly content with degrading the environment in pursuit of their own personal gain.
For example, humans today continue to exploit natural resources like fossil fuels, which take immense amounts of energy to extract and make readily available. They are sold at a price that considers economic and political factors, but not at a price that reflects the cost of the negative externalities burning fossil fuels has on the environment. Since fossil fuel products are so easily accessible, humans use them excessively in a wasteful manner. All the while, there are clean renewable energy sources waiting to be utilized. Fearful of the potential impacts on the economy and job market, societies have been slow to implement the use of these clean and plentiful energy sources.
Humans also exploit natural resources through their never-ending greed. As Gandhi said, “Earth has enough to satisfy every man’s needs but not every man’s greed.” If humans continue this consumer lifestyle of using up resources with no regards to the consequences, they will inevitably overshoot the Earth’s carrying capacity. Fortunately, not all humans choose to carry out their lives with these unsustainable behaviors. Exploitation and destruction is only one of the two outcomes that occur when humans separate themselves from nature.
Although setting humans apart from nature does cause immense damage, human beings have a unique quality that makes them capable of turning this separation into a positive outcome. Human beings are conscious animals. Although other animals show signs of consciousness and emotions, no other animals have the intelligence and understanding that humans do.
Think about an invasive species like Asian carp. When they are in an environment with the appropriate conditions for life, they will reproduce as much as possible and invade the environment. Even non-invasive, highly intelligent animals like dolphins will continue to reproduce and act to flourish their own species without considering the consequences of their actions in the way humans do. It is instinctive of animals to live in such a way that their species prospers, and human beings have shown this to be true.
However, the popularity of the environmental movement is evidence that humans are using their consciousness to reflect on the impacts they have had on Earth. Although not all humans are on board quite yet, many are. International conferences are held to address and create solutions for the damage human beings as a whole have caused. National governments set regulations and standards to abide by in order to protect the natural environment. There are even grassroots movements where environmental extremists tie themselves to trees to protest deforestation and habitat destruction. Human beings are slowly but surely using their consciousness to determine what is right and wrong in regards to utilizing natural resources. They are observing the damage past generations have caused and feeling remorseful. In spite of the destructive human behaviors of the past and present, there is reason to believe the future of mankind’s relationship to nature will be different. While humans may still see themselves as separate from nature, that separation will make them feel obligated and desire to restore and conserve the natural environment.
There are two outcomes to humans seeing themselves as separate from nature: destruction and mediation. The only way to overcome this issue is to no longer have two polarized perspectives regarding human obligations to the Earth. Those who believe in continuing destructive lifestyles must reach a medium with those who believe in environmental conservation. Human impact cannot entirely be erased from the lands, but with the proper scientific and technological advancements, a lot can be restored. With the right perspective, humans can live in such a way that their separation from nature can result in a healthy, mindful relationship with the Earth.