Sustainability or Bust?

This I wrote for my University and some local papers.

Hey, its Mama Earth!

Hey, it's Mama Earth!

In the U.S., we’ve come a long way environmentally. Rachel Carson’s ground-breaking book Silent Spring practically sparked the environmental movement in the United States; now American non-profits such as GreenPeace and the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have global prominence, influencing environmental politics as far away as Beijing. Thanks to increased awareness about humanity’s effects on the planet, recycling is commonplace in our communities, schools, and businesses. Fortunately, with the leadership of Al Gore and others, 83% of Americans view climate change as a threat. But still, anthropocentrism pervades our society. We forget, or haven’t learned, that all life is mutually reinforcing. Each species in a stable ecosystem plays a vital role, including humans. Problem is, we’ve lost touch with our natural mandate: to operate in peaceful coexistance with all life and the planet. Sometimes our spirituality dissuades us from appreciating the value of all life. As such, a number of questions remain:

Why are ordinary citizens are out of touch with nature? Why don’t we appreciate all life as having intrinsic worth? And why are people disconnected from the environmental repercussions of their lifestyles?

The answer is simple. We live in a throw-away society that has lost respect for the complex ecology that sustains us. Consumerism and short-sighted economic “growth mania” has resulted in a disregard for the quality of life – both human and otherwise. Through media, corporations and governments encourage us to consume, consume, and consume some more, as if the planet magically renews its reserves of oil or revitalizes its soil. Water and plastic are so cheap, for example, that we perceive them as basically endless, and we don’t pay a price for wasting them. What we’re left with is a world rife with pollution – of the air, land, animals, and, most troublingly, ourselves. To our mild misfortune, corporations have exceeded governments in power and wealth, harming our ability to mitigate environmental problems.

In fact, by prioritizing profit margins over all else (including the public good), corporations have catalyzed a planetary pillage of unprecedented scale. Their influence on governments is incontrovertible and far-reaching, which has resulted in poor environmental management – especially in the United States. And yet the fuel for such destruction lies in a long-standing philosophy of laissez-faire free-market capitalism. This philosophy is unsustainable in the long-term. We now reap the consequences of our capitalism: plastic so widely pervades our environment it is now finding its way through the food chain – from micro-organisms to large mammals. The plastics industry doesn’t make sense. Our rivers are so badly polluted with agricultural runoff, there are now tens of ecological “dead zones” in the world where literally no life can exist due to oxygen deprivation in the water. Industrial agriculture doesn’t make sense. Through our exploitation of fossil fuels, we’ve taken incredible amounts of carbon from the ground and shot it upwards, causing unnatural climate change which, the world now knows, is having dramatic effects on everything from our water supply to global extinction rates (they’re at 1000 times the normal rate). Obviously, a societal operation based on exhaustible resources doesn’t make sense. Our incredible pollution undermines both humanity and the complex ecosystems that support it.

Nature doesn’t pollute. In fact, the concept of waste is entirely anthropogenic – we humans invented it. Before humankind, there was a reliable balance of nature by which every bone, branch, and nutrient was recycled naturally and gracefully. Nature still renews itself, but it’s becoming less efficient as we fundamentally alter the Earth’s physical and biological infrastructure. We’re loading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide (this chemical stays in the atmosphere for 200-450 years). We’re injecting the oceans with nitrogen, which causes micro-organisms to overpopulate and destroy marine environments. We’re allowing massive income gaps and resulting poverty; this exacerbates environmental destruction by forcing impoverished people to deforestation. Most tangibly, we’re piling both land and water with trash, especially plastic and wasted food. How can we as a species continue to use an economic model of capitalist growth when it accelerates the destruction of the very life-support systems that sustain us? Frankly, we cannot.

Is free-market capitalism compatible with environmental sustainability? Perhaps, but not without restraints. Indeed, there is hope (!). Problems of pollution and growth will only grow worse until we find a way to price goods by their holistic cost – environmental and social impacts included. Let’s do away with contempocentrism, the philosophy of short-sightedness that disregards the welfare of current and future generations, to whom we have a fundamental obligation. Also, our obsession with growth – the “growth fetish,” as it is known – must die. Contrary to the opinions of trans-national corporations and their employee governments, growth does not equate with progress. As such we should innovate static economic operations in which the goal is not standard of living so much as quality of human and other life.

Systemic woes aside, what can each of us do to usher in sustainability?

Lots! If you commute, first ask yourself if you could take mass-transit instead, or do what you can to carpool. You might turn your electronics off at night, especially your computers, and use natural lighting where possible. Science demonstrates that organic food is often considerably more nutritious than industrial-made, and hasn’t grown with toxic pesticides and fertilizers. Buy it? If you shop often, consider researching the businesses you patronize – have they paid fines for environmental mismanagement? Do they condone sweat shop labor or underpay their workers? Reduce your consumption by using a stainless steel mug and water bottle; you’ll reap health benefits as well, for conventional plastic water bottles (yeah, Nalgene™ included) leach toxic chemicals into the water, which can make you ill. And of course, recycle as much as possible!

These are only a small selection of the lifestyle changes you can make to help save the planet. Remember: we’re all in this together. And it is as a species united that we will overcome. Cheers, everyone.

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5 responses to “Sustainability or Bust?

  1. Hm…

    I admit whatever I have to say on the subject is ultracrepidarian. But where would the world be if there weren’t people willing to risk seeming stupid or being wrong? So…

    First of all, while your entry may be especially rallying for already subscribers of the free market failure cause of environmental decay, it’s somewhat isolating to those who believe otherwise, or even those who’ve yet to form an opinion. To the unfamiliar, a lot of the claims you make seem to beg the question. Several times I found myself asking, “Wait, is that true?” If your audience is intended to be the apathetic, then you might be isolating your audience. Maybe.

    Furthermore, on the issue of isolating the apathetic, I’m not sure if starting on a note of condescension toward them is for the best. As a result, it left me with a preachy impression. It might just be me.

    More subject oriented, I would consider somehow incorporating the free-market environmentalism position somehow, either to counter-argue or to offer as an alternative. It doesn’t hold the same presuppositions you do on the destructive nature of what it would consider economic freedom, but it’s an important perspective nonetheless. Possibly.

    Lastly, the proposed lifestyle changes are the analogous to symptom treatment. Symptom mitigation does not fix the problem. Therefore, I feel it somewhat disconnected to describe the systemic flaws for a good majority only to offer symptomatic fixes at the end. It’s understandable, but still disconnected. Leaves a reader feeling somewhat useless in the grand scheme.

    I think I’m done being stupid and/or wrong now.

  2. Whoa. You changed it. Good work! =]

  3. Excellent feedback, A.N.! I really appreciate it,!! :J

  4. Colin! Your writing is great! You know that you and I are on the same page on mostly all issues we’ve talked about. I have nothing to argue against in this post. I agree, I totally agree.

    Also, I wanted to ask you something. Do you want to be a writer for my blog? My blog got a good flow of people when I was updating it frequently back in June. I got a comment on virtually every page and post. Recently, however, I haven’t had enought time to write in it so flow has diminished. I’ll send you and invitation and you can either accept or reject.

    Anyway, keep up the great writing Colin. Can’t wait to see your writing in the New U.

    Best,
    Alex Rosales

  5. You may be aware that some corporations have goals other than max. profit and include stakeholders other than their shareholders/owners when developing their corporate mission and goals. They are still very much in the minority – one example is Ben & Jerry’s.

    Nevertheless, too many corporations are still stuck in the quarterly profit maximization mill and will have great difficulty moving out of that sticky vortex.

    I propose that “laissez-faire free-market capitalism” is a myth, promulgated by the press and corporate PR. This is expecially true in the U.S. due to the overwhelming corporate welfare system currently in place – e.g.: the Farm Bill – subsidizing the production of corn for ethanol, cotton etc.; subsidies toenergy companies to burn “clean” coal for electricity production; the bail out of the banks/insurance companies – the bailout should focus on the homeowners in trouble, who afterall, drive the economy; the possible bail out of the stagnant, insular, short sighted big-three auto companies – in a free market economy, they would be out of business; and the billions of tax breaks to the oil companies, who have been making mind-boggling record profits for the past years.

    On the bright side, this situation has the potential to produce a very positive outcome. Serious political-will could change some of the more ridiculous economic policies. However, the lobbyists in Washington (est’d to be approx 10,000 v’s 600 legislators) and in Sacramento must be stopped from writing so much of our legislation – so that sane(er) policies may prevail.

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