By Roland Watson
In the last article, I said that we need to voluntarily control our population, to reduce our ecological impact. This in turn is dependent on education. We - as a species - will not do it until we - as individuals - are educated, that this is the correct course of action.
The problem is, like a dog that cannot extricate itself when its leash is wrapped around a pole, that is unable to learn that all it has to do is walk around the pole to free itself, many people appear unable to learn basic environmental lessons. No matter how many times you tell them, they simply do not grasp the fact that it is better to preserve nature; to postpone childbearing; to limit consumption; to conserve energy; and not to litter.
I said in another series that education is difficult. All education is difficult, even the things that many of us take for granted. Around the world, many people are developing ecological consciousness, but many, many others are not. This includes individuals in three distinct groups.
- The members of traditional communities that were in balance with nature when they had small populations, but which are not with large numbers, and which will not change their ways.
- Corporate executives and other developers, including their future employees - meaning - government officials.
- "Modern world" people, who consciously accept or otherwise incorporate the anti-environment messages of the companies.
For environmental education to succeed, these three groups will have to be approached separately. For example, one way to see this is through the case of litter in traditional communities. If you travel widely in rural and developing regions, you will likely be surprised, at least initially, by the enormous amount of litter that is thrown about, piece by piece, and in massive piles. For this to change, the people in these communities will have to learn what I term "right thinking." This is the most important step of all, and the predicate of the rest. It also applies to all three groups.
The individuals in these communities must learn - they must be taught - that nature is beautiful, and that when it is littered with garbage this detracts from its beauty. But, this point, which will seem simple to many people, is in fact not simple at all. It involves a profound repositioning of a major characteristic of your self-view, that of your relationship to the environment. The change involved here is a shifting from the position that the environment is of no concern, or that it is a competitor that must be defeated, to one where it is incorporated into your sense of self. Indeed, your mental balance depends on your having a harmonious relationship with your environment. This reflects, at the deepest level, the fact that you and it are inseparable.
This mode of thinking, as the University of Life has described, represents the latest stage of the entire process of human development. Learning not to throw garbage on the ground is not simply the discipline to control a specific action. It actually involves proceeding through the entire human development cycle, from its earliest beginnings to its truly most advanced state.
At this point, and presuming that such development can be accomplished worldwide - it is not going to happen overnight! - the rest of the educational process is simple, even mechanical. For example, for litter:
- Produce a supply of trash bins, in an as environmentally friendly way as possible.
- Hire people to put them in all locations with litter, especially in scenic locations, where the need for right thinking is clearest.
- Have the workers regularly empty the bins.
- Recycle everything possible.
- Dispose of the rest in such a way that there is as little pollution as possible, and also with its conversion to usable energy.
The issue of unseen consequences
There are other, more subtle aspects of environmental education as well. We have seen that sometimes the consequences of our actions are purposeful, but that at other times - many times - they are unintended. To this we must also add the idea of "unseen." Some consequences of our actions are not only unintended, they are unseen. We are not even aware of them.
For instance, this is regularly the case with extinction. It is rare that someone is aware of, and even rarer still that someone actually witnesses, the death of the last individual of a particular species. But here it is essential to realize that extinction is forever. Such a species will never exist again. This illustrates the fact that the last characteristic of the consequences of our actions is that they are eternal. Time never stops. Actions, and their consequences, can never really be reversed.
If you have ever made a terrible mistake, with tragic consequences, you already know this only too well.
The element of environmental education in this is that we must be aware of it - of our ignorance - and its implications. The only way to see unseen consequences is to imagine them, to try to predict them, but such efforts will always be imperfect. Therefore, we must recognize that we cannot plan or control the survival of other species. The ecology is so complex that the only way to ensure that it functions correctly, and that other life survives, is to leave large, interconnected pieces of it alone. This is the only way to guarantee that we do not affect it in some unintended and unknown way.
As an aside, scientists are now attempting to clone endangered animals, and such efforts with extinct species, as in Jurassic Park, are not inconceivable, either. But again, extinction is forever. Even if we clone a new individual of an extinct species, it will not have parents to teach it how to behave; there will be insufficient genetic diversity to maintain the species; and finally, the reason for the extinction, the destruction of its habitat, will still exist. There should be no cloning of extinct species for zoos!
Applying environmental education
The final aspect of environmental education is to apply everything that I have just said. We need to spread right thinking; to limit our consumption; and to preserve and if possible regenerate - increase the size of - green spaces, which will involve the relocation of some - hopefully many - human settlements and agricultural "developments." Our overall goal is to reduce the human footprint.
Instead, when we need land, and for any use, we should redevelop "brown spaces." This is land that is already so degraded from human use, whose reconversion to primary habitat would require such great resources, that it is better simply to reclaim it in a limited way.
Lastly, we want to use this education to Vote Green, to make environmental issues, including overpopulation and women's rights, and species' rights, a primary government priority.
The future of the earth
In conclusion, what is the future of the earth? Well, in the short-term it is decidedly uncertain, if not bleak. First, we have not yet broken the trend of increasing population. Also, even though the rate of increase for many countries has declined, there is still the residual problem of population "momentum." Many, many countries have populations with a very low average age, and these groups represent unexploded population bombs. Some unforeseen development could start them reproducing again at a greater rate.
Secondly, we cannot understand - we do not know the extent of - the destruction that is already programmed by our past behavior. The total view of what we have done so far is not available to us. For instance, I just said that one goal is to exclude large portions of the ecology from human activity and interference, but in a very real sense this is impossible.
We affect all of the water bodies on the planet, and all of the atmosphere, and all other habitats as well through atmospheric effects such as acid rain and global warming. We cannot limit our impact to selected parts of the ecology. That's what "ecology" means - an interrelated, interdependent whole.
Thirdly, the bulk of the global population, while still living low resource utilization lifestyles - other than land!, is rushing to get to modern society's level of consumption. Because of this, we are a long, long way from sustainability.
For example, in many developing nations the background for television financial news is the counting, by machine, of large stacks of money. If people see this enough times, the quest for money can easily become the central goal of their lives. Also, in all countries, people with money are given great respect, no matter how they got it. Because of this, the temptation of wealth is irresistible. The only problem is how to get it, without being caught. Unethical means are the only means available to most people. And, if you are caught, well, it was a gamble. Therefore, the seed for pervasive unethical behavior, including direct and indirect environmental destruction, is being planted every day.
Finally, even in our educated desire to reduce our impact, and to utilize the ecology sustainably, we lack the information that we need for these efforts. We do not have, and we will not have, again, for a long, long time, standardized indices of resource utilization, for all goods and services, with which to guide our consumption.
The long-term future
As to the long-term future, I hazard to predict. There will certainly be additional catastrophic environmental changes. More and more habitat will be destroyed, and more and more species will become extinct. We could even kill the planet: force it to begin a new evolutionary cycle, from the few species, largely insects, weeds and microbes, which would survive.
For humans, even without such an extreme conclusion, there will be great resource shortages, and not only of food and water. For example, imagine a world with no petroleum-based energy. What took the planetary ecology hundreds of millions of years to form, will have been used completely in a few hundred years. We will have used all of the viably extractable oil and gas that the planet contains, in about one-millionth - one ten-thousandth of a percent - of the time that it took to produce. Now that's sustainable! So, we will need new sources of energy, meaning more technology, or we will be forced to expand greatly the use of atomic energy, and coal - we will run out of that at some point, too, or perhaps we will learn, and simplify, and conserve.
Personally, I don't think we will make it to such a point; that human society will survive with its present behavioral patterns that long. As the resources are depleted, and through other ecological effects, this will lead to - it will require - massive changes to human social conditions.
But, the choice remains. We can use our will. Indeed, we have to use our will. We have to learn, as a species, if we want to avoid such a disastrous future. My own hope is that we will accomplish our forced adaptation, with the oversight of reason, and that much of nature, much of the life on the planet, the remaining life, will be saved.
What are you doing for the earth, and the animals, tonight?
In the next series, I will examine the future of human society in detail.
© Roland Watson 2015