A visit to the grocery store is a weekly routine for most people in the developed world. Everything is neatly displayed for us to go through; fruits, vegetables, meats and an assortment of packaged foods. I sometimes think of how remarkable it is that practically every store I have ever shopped in contains basically the same foods. How many potatoes, oranges, tomatoes or whatever else, needs to be grown or produced in order to supply stores on a worldwide scale? How much land, manpower and machinery are required? And where do all these goods come from? I couldn’t even begin to guess; the question alone is enough to boggle the mind.
Unless one is involved in the farming industry, I question whether much thought goes into it. Life is busy these days, and filling the grocery cart is just one of many routine tasks to complete. I don’t think that most of us (me included) can fully appreciate how our basic survival needs are laid out for us. Conversely, before modernization people would have had a closer connection to their food supply. For most of human history people were gatherers, hunters or farmers. They would have been keenly aware of what it took to get food on the table, if they even had a table. They would have been reliant on the land. We are as much dependent on the land today, but we don’t feel the same way. The process of getting food on the table or to the grocery store is mostly out of sight, therefore out of mind.
Modernization has drastically changed our way of life. We live with comforts that could not have been imagined only a few hundred years ago. If you are an average person living in a developed country, you may not think of yourself as wealthy. With the steady stream of bills to pay and debts that many of us are carrying, it can feel as if we just don’t have enough. We probably give little thought to the conveniences that most of us enjoy in our homes: television sets, radios, telephones, computers, microwave ovens, etc. Then there are the basics in the developed world: running water, washing machines, refrigerators, conventional ovens and let’s not forget electricity, which allows for all of the above to work. In other words, the average person is living in a land of plenty. In terms of affluence, we are living an anomaly in the evolution of human civilizations.
But how long will we be able to sustain our standard of living? There are storm clouds on the horizon. The technologies we presently enjoy have come at a cost that goes much deeper that the pocketbook. As industrialization takes hold on a global scale, the natural balance of the planet is being threatened. In only a century, human activity has caused environmental changes that would have previously taken thousands or even millions of years.
How did it come to this? How did a way of life take hold with such vigor that is essentially detrimental to the planet? It appears to be the result of the unintended side effects of human creativity and ingenuity. One hundred years ago it would have been inconceivable that our planet could be significantly changed by human activity. Yet we may have become victims of our own success. For example, improved modes of transportation and manufacturing are adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Advancements in agriculture and medicine are contributing to overpopulation, which increases demand for modernization even further. As a result, even more greenhouse gases are produced.
And then there is the economy to consider. I believe that from a scientific and technical standpoint we are beginning to understand the environmental conditions at hand and that in principle solutions are not that far away. That being said, there are the practical aspects of implementing whatever solutions are proposed. But it seems that whenever solutions are proposed, political leaders are helpless to act due to economic reasons. “We can’t afford to do it,” they say. The way the global economy is presently constituted, they may have a point—to a degree. But for environmental reasons, the time will come sooner than later, that we won’t be able to afford not to do it.
The economic system seems to have taken a life of its own, somewhat like an entity that needs to survive. It rewards monetary profit, with little regard for the well-being of the environment. The global economy has become more powerful than any nation. When I follow the news on a daily basis, I get the impression that humans are serving the economy, as much as the economy is serving us. A point worth noting is that the economy is not an unchangeable part of nature—it is a man-made system. Although it is generally accepted in its present form, it could be changed and the sun would still rise tomorrow. And as drastic as this may sound, the economy may need to be significantly restructured to meet the environmental demands. I don’t pretend to know what that would look like, but I think it’s an issue that should be on the table.
There is an impending risk that the modern way of life is not economically and environmentally sustainable. The strength of the global economy is dependent on growth, which requires mass production, purchasing and consumption of material goods. It sounds good when economists talk about economic growth. After all, economic prosperity and technological progress are ideals that most people aspire to attain. However, how can the global economy grow indefinitely in a world with finite natural resources? As the economy continues to grow at present rates, nonrenewable energy and materials are being extracted from the earth. What we have is a world population that has become dependent on having more, living on a planet that has less to offer. At some point something has to give.
In developed countries we have enjoyed the benefits of technology and economic growth for several decades, and in the process, created most of the environmental problems. Now that previously underdeveloped nations with large populations (such as China and India) are beginning to modernize, is it not somewhat hypocritical for the western world to suggest they shouldn’t do it? For countries that are just starting to benefit from modernization, it’s a hard sell to contemplate scaling back. In this case, it appears that history is destined to repeat itself, which could significantly delay global environmental efforts. The challenges are immense. First there are the technical aspects to be ironed out; then there is the willingness to act. Can countries agree on what should be done? Can the economy be restructured to reflect beneficial behavior for the planet? Are we willing to give up some of our prized possessions? Will we be able to deliberately control population growth?
The population problem clearly shows how grave the situation could become. The total world population has now reached over 7 billion people; only 200 years ago the world population was around 1 billion. To get a feel for what an increase from 1 billion to 7 billion looks like, the Dec 2011 edition of National Geographic charted the cities with populations of 1 million or more. In the year 1800, there were 3 cites of 1 million or more. In 1900, there were 16 cities. And in 2010, 442 cities had populations of 1 million or more. That’s a staggering increase in such a short time of human history. It is not reasonable to think that a planet with finite natural resources can sustain indefinite population growth. There are limits on how much food we can grow, how much clean water we can access and how much land is available. Given social customs, religious beliefs, and poverty in many parts of the world, is it realistic to think that population growth can be deliberately controlled? What is especially troubling, is if population growth is not intentionally controlled, nature will decide—and it’s not going to be pretty. It is difficult to imagine the potential human suffering that could come about as a result of natural population control.
There is a paradox here that I want to point out. It would seem that what is good for people leads to population growth and what is bad for people results in population control. For instance, industrialized agriculture, advanced medicine, peace, and a benign climate all contribute to population growth. On the other hand, drought, famine, poor medicine, war, and natural disasters are all good for population control. So, do we want population growth or population control? This is quite a quandary.
The environmental issues cannot be solved by any one region or country, nor will one singular approach be successful; the effort will have to be global. Given the dynamics of our modern world, no practical or applicable solution has been proposed. It appears that ultimately the solutions are technological and political. But meaningful change will only occur when the collective will of the population demands change. It may be too late for the current generation—those who hold positions of power—to implement the necessary changes. Perhaps it will take an entirely new generation who grow up with environmental sensitivities at the forefront.
Nevertheless, the first step towards meaningful change may come from a shift in awareness. My hope is that a shift is already underway. For too long the earth has been viewed as an endless resource for human consumption. We are now realizing that there are limits and that we must change our mindset. I believe we need to incorporate the general well-being of other species as part of a new paradigm. We are simply too interconnected to all other life forms to view the earth strictly from a human perspective. Yes we need to preserve the air, water and soil, but we should be aware that living things are part of it too. All life on earth has to a degree become dependent on the human population, and humanity holds the balance of power in choosing the next path. Albert Einstein once advised, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”
Technology has greatly improved our way of life, but on the downside, the earth is poorer for it. Clearly technology is here to stay; we will not go back to the pre-modern era. But perhaps the time has come to reevaluate which technologies are fundamentally beneficial and which are detrimental. A more subtle consequence of technology, but just as noteworthy is the lack of connection we feel with nature. The modern way of life operates at a few levels of separation from the natural world. We don’t actually live separate from nature; we just don’t feel as connected as older civilizations would have felt. People from ancient civilizations would have extracted what was needed from the land in close proximity. They would have felt the immediate effects of what nature handed out. In contrast, today’s food supply primarily comes from far away. What’s more, very little of what we have in our homes do we build ourselves or fully appreciate how it gets to our door. So many things are accomplished with a flick of a switch, or the push of a button, that it’s easy to forget where it all comes from. It all comes from the earth, one way or another. And unless we preserve the source, what purpose will our gadgets serve?
Improving our way of life has long been a quest of mankind and today we benefit greatly from years of discovery and innovation. In principle there is nothing wrong in desiring a better quality of life than previous generations. However we are now immersed in an era of disconnect, dominated by people’s fascination with technology and material possessions. Will we again value nature for what it truly means to us—as our life support system? I believe that of the utmost importance at this time is a shift in awareness, which balances human needs with the needs of the natural world. In this mutually beneficial exchange a new path in human / earth relations can begin. This new state of consciousness is only the first step, but it is a necessary one towards the recovery of a life-sustaining planet.