Monday, February 07, 2011

How do we preserve and protect an environment in flux?


In a way, it was relatively easy to be an environmentalist in the past. It was easy in the sense that you knew what to do: don’t pollute, don’t overdevelop; don’t feed the bears; don’t spread invasive species; certainly don’t eat endangered species; don’t drive a gas guzzler, and for goodness sakes don’t grab the most poisonous product on the shelf to kill a few insects. Do what you can to restore things to the way they were.

But a monumental change in the way we understand our environment and the gravity and immediacy of Climate Change must cause traditional environmentalists to rethink about how to address today’s environmental issues. Environmentalists have always thought that protecting our environment was critical, but we couldn’t have known in the precise and specific ways this was true. A hundred years ago, environmentalists like John Muir wouldn’t have known about biodiversity, how manmade chemicals poisoned our bodies, or that that humanity had the capacity to actually warm the planet—though he did suspect that our growing mechanized world that was indifferent to Nature was not good.

Today, because hard environmental choices were not made in the past and our lifestyle continues to treat our natural resources as inexhaustible, we are bumping up against many tipping points at once:

Earth in the Balance: 7 Crucial Tipping Points  "Humans must stay within certain boundaries if they hope to avoid environmental catastrophe, a leading group of environmental scientists says. Crossing those limits may not rock the Earth itself, but would lead to harsh consequences for human existence on the planet as we know it. There are two kinds of boundaries, the researchers proposed in October 2009. "One represents a tipping point -- you cross that and irreversible, catastrophic bad stuff happens," said Jonathan Foley, an ecologist at the University of Minnesota. " LiveScience | Science, Technology, Health & Environmental News

Not only do we have to address all these problems simultaneously, we have to do this recognizing that our concept of ‘environment’ can no longer be a static ideal, but a rapidly changing and warming environment. Every solution we consider will have to be tailored to the environment we need to survive—not the idealistic environment that we used to envision. We certainly want to preserve as much land as possible, because we’ll need working models of our environment for research. But many of our traditionally held assumptions about environmentalism will change out of necessity.

Environmentalism has grown swiftly in the past one hundred years, yielding experts in many professions: law, science, politics, sociology, psychology, and engineering. But to succeed in making the changes necessary to actually solve the critical environmental issues we face, environmentalists have to rethink how we operate, how we spend our time and money. Instead of slow, small changes in our environmental habits, only massive, wholesale changes in transportation, stopping pollution, and saving critical species, are now necessary while at the same time getting the concentration of greenhouse gases down. We’ve learned a lot over the years:

  • We know that reusing and recycling are good, but we don’t know how to produce a standard to make sure that at no point along the continuum in the waste stream does this result in harming our environment.
  • We know that walking and bicycling are better ways of getting around for short distances, but we don’t know how to transform an economy and culture obsessed with burning fossil-fuels.
  • We know that renewable energy is far better than all the other forms of producing electricity—oil, coal, nuclear, or gas—but we don’t know how to convince other environmentalists that they may have to give up their sense of aesthetics to accomplish this.

Environmentalism in the future might not look like environmentalism in past. It has changed since John Muir’s time, and it will change now that we know how and to what extent the planet’s environment is in danger—meaning in danger to humanity, who have become quite comfortable with the atmospheric temperatures being predictable and tolerable, food being plentiful, and fresh water being available.

Environmentalists may have to concede many previously held priorities and make horrible concessions because such monumental changes will have to be made so quickly. We may have to see our shorelines dotted with wind farms so our surrounding ecologies don’t collapse. We may have to sit down with many companies who’ve wreaked havoc on our environment because they are the only ones large and powerful enough to make the wholesale changes we need to make. We may have to change what we consider endangered species and invasive species because the new environment will focus on what we need, not what warms our hearts. What used to be might not work anymore in our new environment.

Environmentalist will have to become part of the solution, providing not only a vision of a sustainable environment, but real and perhaps uncomfortable methods to get us there.

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