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Folks, It’s Sustainability or Bust

By   |  August 22, 2008

When I ask people why they don’t care to recycle or why they nonchalantly chuck coffee cups out their car windows, the most common response is one of apathy. “I don’t care. Why should I?” Sometimes they do it to spite me and my “kind.” There’s something tragically wrong with this picture: we Americans are vastly aloof from reality, in fact far less down-to-Earth than many of us would argue. The scourge here involves a lack of understanding about the way life-forms interact with one another and the planet. Most of us are unaware that without the sun the vast majority of life would be extinguished, or that forests filter water, hold soil together, and act as storage for carbon. More generally, because we do not face the ecologically unsound repercussions of our lifestyles it becomes more difficult to understand how our way of life is most certainly biting us in the ass.

So, how can our society have made much progress when ordinary citizens are so out of touch with the very planet that bore them? Where went appreciation for all forms of life, without which we would die? Why are people so disconnected from the repercussions of their lifestyles? The answer is simple. We live in an industrial throw-away society that has lost respect for the complex ecology that sustains us. Consumerism on the citizens’ part and short-sighted “growth mania” on the part of corporations and governments has resulted in a disregard for the quality of life – both human and otherwise. Through media, corporations and governments encourage us to consume, consume, consume until we’re dead, as if the planet magically renews its exploited reserves of oil or revitalizes nutrient-sapped 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 frighteningly, ourselves.

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. I write to tell you firmly that this philosophy is unsustainable in the long-term. We now reap the consequences of our capitalist mode of societal operation: 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. Problems of pollution and growth will only grow worse unless we find a way to price goods by their holistic cost – environmental and social impacts included. We’ve got to do away with contempocentrism, the philosophy of short-sightedness that disregards the welfare of current and future generations. Also, our obsession with growth – the “growth fetish,” as it is known – must die. Indeed, growth does not equate with progress, as many trans-national corporations would have us believe. This means we must innovate an optimal static-state economic operation.

But these modifications are the business of bureaucracies both national & international; what can we do to expedite change towards a sustainable society?

You have many options. If you commute, first ask yourself if you could take mass-transit instead, or do what you can to carpool. Turn your electronics off at night, especially your computers, and use natural lighting where possible. Purchase organic food, which is often considerably more nutritious than industrial-made, and hasn’t grown with toxic pesticides and fertilizers. 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. 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. Unless we unite as one species against certainly daunting global environmental problems, our fate most certainly will be a dark one.

For more information on how to green your lifestyle,  visit some of the following sites:

TreeHugger

WorldWatch Institute

National Geographic

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One Comment on “Folks, It’s Sustainability or Bust”  (RSS)

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