We are not Powerless
Sustainable Society Issues Class Question: Do individual choices make a difference and what do we need to do to remedy the problems we created?
With the unprecedented environmental disaster looming, if not ongoing, it is convenient to dismiss personal responsibility as merely insignificant. It is tempting to relinquish control and become marginalized by outside forces: social paradigms, evolutionary ecology, and economic factors acting as unruly dictators coercing us into submission. It is up to us if we decide to allow societal trends, biological instincts, or money to determine the course of our lives and overpower our innate free will. Clearly the choices individuals make do make a difference. Whether it is to themselves, to their peer groups, or to the wider community; every action defines who they are by being a visual expression of their beliefs and values. Also, the decisions made by individuals literally creates the world we live in, for if they even slightly acted in a different manner than the world we live in would be substantially altered by the merit of that action. It is more a question of how much do individual choices affect others. The solutions to the problems we face are more a matter not doing as opposed to deliberately altering your consumption habits, integrating environmentally-friendly products. It is the over-consumption of unnecessary products, wasteful energy and food habits, and a distorted relationship to Planet Earth that have brought us to our current predicament. We are living in the only moment that exists in time and presently global climate change threatens our survival as a species and Earth’s brilliant biological diversity.
We can only be held accountable for what we do now and truly there is a way to live in equilibrium with Nature and in turn be sustained by her benevolent generosity without jeopardizing the needs of future generations. Immediately, we must stop global deforestation (as well as all massive land desecration practices) that are not only accelerating climate change but decimating biodiversity. If it is paper that loggers are seeking, sourcing products from locally produced sustainable resources such as hemp should be a priority. Combining local production with minimal processing, while also avoiding toxic chemicals that merely strive achieve the adored uniformity preferred in hollow business transactions, will enable consumers to reduce their environmental impact. Though to disregard the root of the problem, the unconscious demand for the currently brainwashed standard of living, is to fall far short of remediating environmental devastation. Why is it that our environmental impact has an assumed negative connotation? Is resource depletion a fact of life, or is it possible that we are in fact able (and surprisingly capable) of giving back more to this world then we take away? By eating exclusively locally grown, organic fruits and vegetables one can make the largest personal impact on the environment. The carbon footprint of our food habits is a deep indention that encapsulates many major sources of emissions. Animal agriculture is causing Amazonian deforestation, desertification, water shortages and contamination, methane excretions, and is inefficiently utilizing resources that if properly distributed would fulfill humanity’s basic needs. A shift in consciousness is what is required to remedy the problems we face. Wisdom, personal contentment, and inner peace should be highly valued in our society if we want to eradicate the ill-informed, overindulged, and over stimulated selfish mindset that is destroying our environment.
Walking amidst the campus forest on a cool autumn day, I am struck by the forms and figures of life that animate the world around me. Contorted trees twist and twitch as if their limbs were a product of the forces of gravity and sunlight vying for carbon and the elements. Trees speak the language of growth as they bend gracefully towards the light, synthesizing the energy into a usable form. They emerge out of the soil with incredible vigor, serving as mystical conduits connecting the heavens to the Earth. Converging with animals, bacteria, fungi, and the nonliving components of the environment, forests form the basis of vibrant ecosystems. Numerous species, Homo sapiens included, depend on the ecosystem services forests provide; whether it is shelter, food, or simply oxygen, the very survival of a population is linked to the overall health of the environment. Silhouetted against the dusky sky above, a bird of prey glides effortlessly, surveying the ground below with unmatched eyesight. The bird and I inhabit the same environment, breathe the same air, and find food from a shared source. Our needs vary only slightly, but the underlying processes that drive life are universal. Am I more valuable as an organism because I am simply a human being, with peculiar abilities suited for a particular lifestyle? Or is the bird a better being for possessing flight or feathers? It seems logical to conclude that since each species is an ecological masterpiece, beautifully awe-inspiring with unprecedented splendor, they cannot be compared objectively and their ascribed status on this planet, from humanity’s point of view, is simply relative to their purported usefulness to mankind. By placing ourselves at the top of the pyramid, we oppress and look down upon all other species because we regard our own species as superior. This outlook would not be as alarming if not for overpopulation, excessive consumption, and the economic obsession that are wrecking havoc on the Earth. How does an individual respond when violence and ignorance saturate the human populace, when the impact of industrial civilization on the Earth reach frightening tipping points, or when one reflects upon the rising species extinction rate, primarily caused by humanity’s self-interest? One may be tempted to dismiss the need for a radical shift in consciousness on the grounds that Earth is so vast and humanity’s impact so minuscule that whatever we do is superseded by natural processes and rendered ineffectual. On the grounds that the future of the Earth is preordained and unchangeable, whether destined by God or bound to cosmological cycles, the fate of Earth is bleak and despite any efforts will be engulfed by our Sun some 4 billion years from now anyways. In any case, it appears there is a growing acceptance that the Earth is merely a rotting planet, slowly deteriorating until new life mutates and discovers ways in which to benefit from the ensuing calamity. Activist and deep ecologist John Seed encapsulates this point poignantly, “Maybe the Earth is dead already, and we’re the decomposing bacteria or the maggots, and it’s our job to eat the corpse, to multiply until the corpse is totally consumed. What if that is the case? Then here I am, this reluctant maggot, not doing my job of consuming the resources of the Earth as fast as possible” I have faith in the belief that the time is ripe, not rancid, as we are existing in the only moment we can directly experience. We must become responsible global citizens who empathize with other sentient creatures and the Earth as a unified, biological community if we desire to survive individually or as a species.
The world is complex and uncertain, but modern ecological science offers us a humble perspective: each species fulfills a unique niche and role within their ecosystem, enabling other life to thrive. Our task then is to explore our niche and understand our role within this web of coexistence. Are we enabling life to thrive, or do we find ourselves destroying and decimating habitat and wildlife populations? As a species, we are forced to acknowledge the immediate and long term consequences of our collective actions or perish by the vice of our unquestioned ignorance. The ways we produce food, use energy, and construct shelter is altering the world significantly and require insistent intervention to mitigate the severe crisis occurring today and in the foreseeable future, most notably global ecological collapse, species extinction, and widespread pollution. Individually, we can assess our impact by looking at our resource use and comparing our own footprint to that of other people living different lifestyles in different countries. If we are disrupting ancient systems and cycles in the environment, causing irrefutable harm to other species, and creating global inequalities to our own, we must begin to dissect our cultural habits, locate where solutions can be implemented, and promptly administer the medicine.
Unfortunately, it seems the perverse patterns of human behavior causing this discord is not simply a modern societal trend or particular cultural expression; I believe the problem is deeply rooted in the fabric of our civilization, necessitating a shift in consciousness whereby human beings see the well being of the environment and of other species as central to our own survival. Many people fail to realize that the origin of human suffering lies in our relationship to the universe, to the Earth, and to other species. While it certainly is noble and important to take in consideration human interests and work on behalf of reducing the plights of humanity, we must soften our identification with the fraction of our DNA that distinguishes us from other species to truly see lasting peace and ecological harmony. Our limited human perception, with its tendencies toward disjointed reductionism and self-centeredness, must be critically ascertained, thoroughly investigated, and thoughtfully reconsidered. With a collective shift in ecological awareness we can transform the current deplorable predicament into an opportune chance to triumph despite impending catastrophe by protecting the life-support systems that sustain the biosphere on our planet. To put it simply, we must stop destroying the Earth to save ourselves. Regrettably, I cannot veer away from framing the environmental emergency in humanity’s terms, as the dominant paradigm nearly requires this approach if one’s message is to be heeded at all. Personally, I believe we must stop laying ruin to our only planet for the sake of all living creatures, with a deep recognition that we are only one species among millions living today.
The origin of the current global environmental disaster, including widespread species oppression, can be traced back nearly 10,000 years ago. This is the era when humanity shifted from primarily hunting and gathering to agrarian societies. When humanity began to find plants and animals suitable for domestication and started to grow our own food, our previous harmonious relationship with the Earth was broken. We cleared forest by the infamous ‘slash-and-burn’ farming technique, the same devastating method we continue to use today. We drove countless species to extinction, which were seen merely as obstacles to our own species’ progress. In his book, Envisioning a Sustainable Society, Lester Milbrath points out the continuing loss of topsoil through ignorance and greed is one of the greatest tragedies of human history. This correlates eerily to the degradation of humanity’s moral foundation and the subsequent dilemma. Milbrath goes on to say,
“This living membrane of the Earth’s crust is the source of all life; we should think of soil as a placenta or matrix through which the earth mother sustains all life, including humans. When humans learned to plow, they were on their way to creating our civilization but they also broke that placenta and they have been destroying topsoil ever since”
We started to view ourselves as separate, independent entities from the world around us, as we believed we were solely the one responsible for our own survival. This fatal flaw allowed human beings to dominate and exploit the Earth for our own immediate gain. With cultivation and domestication came land desecration; as soil erosion increased agricultural productivity decreased, encouraging human beings to expand outward to locate fertile land for growing more food. Domestication ushered in new issues, most notably the way in which we relate to other species on this planet. Through the subjugation of wildlife we became, in our minds, masters over the forces of nature and a belief in the superiority of our own species was sown. These infant prejudicial propensities ignited a preoccupation with our own individual existence; this outlook was reinforced by the cultural conditions present at the time, the emerging hierarchal systems of human organization.
Along with this ecological imbalance, societal disturbances also developed as humans altered their patterns of behavior. Nomadic groups, based on reciprocity and kinship, maintained viable populations by cooperating with each other and the environment. Manfred Steger, professor of global studies, explains the roots of our current culture,
“The decentralized, egalitarian nature of hunter and gatherer groups was replaced by centralized and highly stratified patriarchal social structures headed by chiefs and priests who were exempted from hard manual labor. […] for the first time in human history, these farming societies were able to support two additional social classes whose members did not participate in food production. […] craft specialist who directed their creative energies towards the invention of new technologies [and] professional bureaucrats and soldiers who would later play a key role in the acquisition of new territory, establishment of permanent trade routes, and the systematic exploration of distant regions”
Civilization emerged out of a desire to limit uncertainties, to feel safe and secure despite threats, and ensure a reliable source of basic necessities to fuel a burgeoning human population. The rise of civilization freed human beings from the toils of subsisting at a primal level, but also enabled our species to be sedentary for the first time in known history. As permanent settlement became the norm, our perspective regarding nature changed accordingly, further bifurcating humanity from all other life on Earth, we in effect severed our ancestral, symbiotic connection with the Earth. This coincided with the new-found notion of ‘private property’; people became disillusioned by their immobility and to compensate for the lost behavioral fluidity we previously possessed, humanity responded by inventing fresh concepts that fulfill the voids created by a new incarcerated lifestyle.
The age of industrialization succeeded the advent of agriculture. With more and more people able to devote their time and energy to technological advancement, the pace of change accelerated rapidly and continues to in our contemporary world. Mimicking the existential conundrum of the past, our current socioeconomic and political structures reinforce the emphasis on the individual ego. The dominate perspective, emanating from Europe, developed into a white, western, masculinist sense of self, deeming all deviants inferior. Civilization has accomplished unbelievable feats in its impetuous development, enabling human beings to live luxuriously and once-removed from the brutal forces of the world. Fast-food is not usually an option, but a necessity in today’s overly haste world and life without modern conveniences is unimaginable. The aim of the American Dream, in my opinion, is to gather enough resources and currency to be able to stop gathering enough resources and currency. It is seeking security, safety and more significantly, superiority in a world where cut-throat competition is the accepted standard of business practices. In a society governed by the laws of supply and demand, human beings operating within the framework of corporate bylaws and conventional reality are diverted into a life of meaningless work and material acquisition which conspire to destroy Planet Earth and her inhabitants. This cycle of desire, despair, and destruction is fueled by the prevailing global perspective, our current ecological paradigm where wealthy, predominantly white males of the species Homo sapiens anoint themselves heir to the fortune of raw natural materials. They seek to profit at the expense of others, to externalize their costs at all costs, and to climb the infinite socioeconomic latter. Once rich they sit perched atop their perverse delusion, a belief in the satisfying nature of capital and wealth, and look down upon people in poverty with disgust and contempt. Class discrimination is approaching the level of social stagnation that racism reached in the 60s and this growing gap between the elites and disenfranchised is propelling our generation into a frightening future. The wealthy minority, who hoard a majority of the world’s riches and resources, are allowing gross inequalities among human beings to exist because they want to perpetuate the status quo, as they are the primary beneficiaries in this trust fund mimicking a global death-trap. We have conquered the planet, but not by divine birth-right (as relentless this rationalization may be), but by unbridled reproduction, excessive exploitation of resources and by brutal domination of humans and non-humans alike. We have multiplied like an infectious disease, a parasite on the verge of killing its host and consequently dying out itself. We have quite possibly surpassed our naturally-imposed carrying capacity. Each day when we continue to misuse nonrenewable resources we decrease the number of people Earth can support at a desirable standard of living. Far from equilibrium, our lives reflect the imbalances inherent within a competitive economic system and violent governments who are constantly contending for land, resources, and markets to expand their reach.
On a deeper level, the inequality among human beings resembles the inequalities among species. Both the impoverished people of the planet and non-human life forms lack adequate representation in human society, resulting in oppression, injustice, and exploitation. They most certainly communicate, but not in a way our human languages accept; we must be the voice of the voiceless and allow our consciousness to become a conduit for justice and equality. Human beings oppress others, especially other species, because they have solely their own self-interest in mind, not the well being of the ecological community. This oppression mirrors the discrimination felt by women, lower classes and castes, minorities, and the poor. Our relationship with the Earth and wildlife is severely dysfunctional; it views other species as resources to be depleted and property to be hoarded. This vicious outlook degrades the quality of natural environments as well as humanity’s own moral foundation. The similarities among our fellow earthlings is apparent: our physical, chemical, and genetic composition, our basic needs and desires, and our shared ancestry is more than enough proof that we are all inherently equal. By recognizing this we are able to transcend the destructive anthropocentric mind set and begin to nourish the planet and reclaim a symbiotic relationship with the Earth. If this type of equality is reached, peace will trickle down to every level of life on Earth. Not only will human beings be free to do as they wish (with the only exception being violence and exploitation) but all species on this planet will have the rights and freedoms to flourish and develop to their highest potential. Aldo Leopold, a 20th century ecologists, espouses
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise”.
This thought is a basic tenement of a much needed ‘land ethic’; in his book, Sand County Almanac, he goes on to say that we must expand our human ethics to include the other species we share the land with and who support us. He thoroughly understood the principle of interdependence and advocated for a responsible human presence on this planet; our current culture needs to reawaken to this profound insight and align themselves with the values that bring about the greatest good to all.
Species Equality is the belief that each being has inherent, equal worth. Their value is not dependent on their relative utility to mankind. Each species has rights: to live free from unnecessary suffering, exploitation, abuse, and torment. Humans must protect these rights as the self-appointed caretakers and stewards of this planet. The belief in Species Equality stems from a solid understanding of deep ecology. Arne Naess, who coined the phrase ‘deep ecology’, proclaims
“The essence of deep ecology is to ask deeper questions… We ask which society, which education, which form of religion is beneficial for all life on the planet as a whole. […] the right of all forms of life to live is a universal right which cannot be quantified. No single species of living being has more of this particular right to live and unfold than any other species.”
Individuals who possess an ecocentric viewpoint, as opposed to an egocentric one, tend to work on behalf of the Earth and all Earthlings. We must find a delicate balance between human needs and ecological preservation. Modern civilization and natural ecosystems are pitted against each other currently, creating a sacrificial situation where for one to prosper the other must perish. We must learn how to develop a mutually beneficial relationship with the world around us, as of now we are merely a cancerous species on the verge of killing its planetary host. In the process, we are oppressing other species based on their form and name, though they share identical needs and are sentient with the ability to suffer. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in The Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, says
“Every animal has ideas, since it has senses; and in this regard man differs from an animal only in degree”.
With each species possessing a unique degree of self-awareness and free choice, it is arbitrary to think our expression of biological nuance is superior to any other.
It is our responsibility, as caretakers of this planet, to eliminate the inequality among species. This is not only in our own best interest, as we depend entirely on other life forms to survive, but because each species deserves to live free from human malevolence on their cosmic journey. Humans know very little of the meaning and purpose of life, therefore it is better to be spiritually safe and live life modestly and non-violently in our own journey towards liberation. We cannot revive extinct species from their tomb, we cannot recreate the vast diversity of life embodied within a tropical ecosystem, and we cannot rewrite history. Humanity quivers here in this fleeting moment, at the juncture of time and space, seemingly steeped in a societal stagnation. Our endless pursuit of economic progress is at the expense of the environment and other species. Though born out of crisis is innovation and inspiration. We can tap into our wisdom, discerning our rightful place in the biosphere and cultivate compassion for the suffering experienced by other species, leading us to readjust our lives to see species equality and ecological preservation come to fruition.