The depth and breadth of science in the disciplines of natural systems and ecology form an impressive knowledge base. And there’s little dispute that natural systems and their resources provide fundamental human needs: air, water, food, shelter. Such clear understanding should allow for effective decisions and rapid response to threats to our environment. Yet, repeatedly, societies have enacted policies—and not only tolerated but encouraged actions and choices—that have directly and indirectly damaged ecosystems, the atmosphere, and, in turn, human health. Understanding why we act against our own best interests becomes more and more critical as the impacts of global climate change and unsustainable use of finite resources literally put the survival of millions of species at risk.
The mounting and interrelated calamities of a carbonladen atmosphere and fossil-fuel depletion—chaotic temperatures and weather, melting ice fields and permafrost, rising sea levels, square miles of forest leveled to access and squeeze oil out of tar sands and shale— are well documented. The profound effects on people, plants, and landscapes are no longer speculative theory but reality. Proposals for mitigation and adaptation solutions and innovations abound as small factions scramble to protect the very systems that sustain life. But largescale, definitive action and coordinated responses have yet to solidify. Even benign proposals are challenged and rebuffed. Our erstwhile leaders perfect their sound bites to play to their base—but do nothing of substance to avoid offense to their corporate sponsors.
Resolution of this impasse between science, knowledge, and action requires urgent attention. But little will change until we apprehend why humans, particularly in “advanced” societies, resist altering these practices that degrade our life-supporting natural systems. The disconnection between humans and their environment lies at the heart of the problem.
Evolution Away from Nature
It’s baffling why, in so short a time, the value of human dependence on and relationship with landscapes has been dismissed in the formation of public policy, implementation of management activities, and societal choices. Of course, science has disabused us of such beliefs as that human malfeasance directly causes tornadoes or solar eclipses. But it remains immutable that our water, air, food, and the basis for most of our shelter and medicine still come directly from nature. Terrifyingly, policy-makers excise sense of place and respect for the environment from their decisions and scorn the small voices speaking for such values.
It seems that the more a society sees itself as cerebral, with clever technological and material innovations, the more its bonds with, and recognition of, the significance of nature processes and ecosystems recede. The ability to create artificial environments (air conditioning, heating, lighting) and chemically alter natural materials (processed food, plastic) perhaps gives the illusion that humans are capable of meeting their needs with minimal imputs from nature. The flawed logic suggests that if humans are only tangentially dependent on the natural world, functioning ecosystems lose importance.
This chasm between humas and nature has widened to the point, especially in developed contries, where ubiquitous pollution and extirpation of species are commonplace-accepted by the masses as a nominal required consequence of economic growth.
About The Post Carbon Reader
How do population, water, energy, food, and climate issues impact one another? What can we do to address one problem without making the others worse? The Post Carbon Reader features essays by some of the world’s most provocative thinkers on the key issues shaping our new century, from renewable energy and urban agriculture to social justice and community resilience. This insightful collection takes a hard-nosed look at the interconnected threats of our global sustainability quandary and presents some of the most promising responses.
Contributors to The Post Carbon Reader are some of the world’s leading sustainability thinkers, including Bill McKibben, Richard Heinberg, Stephanie Mills, David Orr, Wes Jackson, Erika Allen, Gloria Flora, and dozens more.