Despite a current increase in concerns about environmental issues, at least the most important one in the climate crisis, I believe most people still view nature as separate from them and as a resource valued for its utilitarian purposes. It’s ours to do with as we see fit to maintain our modern lifestyle. As I wrote on September 19, I would venture a guess that many individuals have an ecological identity of disconnection with the ecosystem in which they live even though they are biologically infused with the air, water, and soil of where they live. We’ll recycle, and reduce the use of plastic bags, straws, and the like, but we’re not going to change the behaviors that required those resources but instead will rely on alternative fixes to maintain the lifestyle. When asked by the conservationists/environmentalists, to make these sacrifices, they are often met with derision. “Come on, really, I can’t use a straw in my drink?” We haven’t even gotten to the impact of the single use cup or plastic lid yet!
Because of this, conservationists are categorized as overly emotional, unrealistic, and even hyperbolic by the developers or polluters (and then the general population). Sometimes the hyperbole is unwarranted and sometimes it is probably out of frustration. The more the conservationist’s arguments are dismissed as too emotional, I suspect the more hyperbolic they become, maybe not as a conscious tactic, but simply due to frustration and fear for future state of the natural world. And so, we get in this positive feedback loop of conservationists getting louder and the developers dismissing them out of hand. However, since conservation is viewed as an emotional plea while the argument for utilizing or developing the natural resource (and often destroying it and other aspects of nature in the process) is based on objective needs and reality, the objective argument wins in the end and we continue our destruction of the natural world. This puts us in our current reality where conserving is nice and feels good when we can do it, but progress cannot be stopped.
This dynamic has created an unequal playing field for the two “sides” of the debate. There really is only one side, but I’ll get to that in a bit. Because conservationists are viewed as coming from an emotional and even an ideological paradigm they are not allowed to compromise their ideals. Therefore, if they drive their hybrid car to the airport to take a flight across country, they are labeled as hypocrites for conserving fuel with their automobile choice but criticized for the large carbon footprint of flying in an airliner. I guess, if you are going to pollute, go all out. However, the developer who might have a record of being a polluter in their business practice, can drive his gas-guzzling truck anywhere (including to the airport) and receive no criticism since he is consistent in his ideals. When that same developer compromises his ideal of maximizing profit and development of a resource for conservation he is praised for this act (which really is an act of hypocrisy since counter to normal practiced ideals). This demonstrates that deep down we know it is correct to preserve and conserve, but we are no at the present willing to make the sacrifices necessary to do so and so we continue to lose the argument for conservation.
Conservationists have begun to shift strategies. While it is still an impassioned argument, it is now becoming one from a utilitarian paradigm. Our very existence and way of life (within a generation and no longer a distant fear) depends on the preservation of the natural world. The danger of this strategy is that if we rely only on the utilitarian argument, then we will only save what we need. This requires that we understand each component’s role in the health and sustainability of an ecosystem and that each component is therefore necessary for our survival as well. Each new discovery and new set of data clarifies that all aspects of an ecosystem are interconnected. There aren’t extra pieces we can remove and keep the ecosystem stable. It’s not an Ikea bookshelf with a few extra screws included. Therefore, we may end up not saving a crucial aspect necessary for the stability of an ecosystem and also then for our survival because we do not understand its utilitarian purpose for our survival. In the end, for our survival, there really is only one argument—we need to conserve it all.
Of course, I’m realistic that as individuals we are trapped in a modern society that is built on energy consumption and destruction of natural resources. We cannot return to a time when there were less than a billion humans all living in small communities based on local agricultural practices or nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles. There does have to be compromise. We can rely on technological fixes to greatly mitigate our ecological impact, but those technological fixes only work for a long, sustainable future for our species (and all others frankly) if we do make significant societal lifestyle changes and eliminate getting energy from non-renewables and consuming natural resources in the form of single-use items. It will not be easy, and my generation will most likely not see the results of our efforts, but our children might. If we don’t make the effort, then I fear one of the many dystopian futures predicted by our modern authors and filmmakers will become the norm—a continued decline and positive feedback loop of dwindling resources, increasing hardship, conflict leading towards extinction. Is this even a choice?
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1 – Earth From Space image from http://www.earthobservatory.nasa.gov
2 – The Road movie still from http://www.independent.co.uk