On Sustainability

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Modern society faces several environmental problems, including climate change, deforestation, and rising sea levels. These problems have manifested largely due to the growing needs of developing countries like the United States, China, and the nations of the European Union. Developing countries consume an incredible amount of resources in their aim to bolster their economies through manufacturing and production. The United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, released in 2005, estimates that developed countries, while possessing just fifteen percent of the world’s population, consumes eighty-five percent of the Earth’s resources. However, this consumption takes place more recklessly than it needs to due to these nations not possessing adequate, sustainable environmental policy. On an individual level, living a sustainable life through actions like composting, using reusable grocery bags and water bottles, and using low-energy appliances and light bulbs is growing more popular. Yet, the lifestyle hasn’t caught on and become “cool” in the way that many environmentalists might have hoped it would. Going green is expensive and carries a strange negative stigma with it, almost as if people don’t believe that living a sustainable lifestyle does anything to actually help the environment. In order to promote the well-being of the environment from here on out, developed countries must adopt more localized sustainability-focused environmental policies that emphasize working together in order to make sure that the Earth stays livable for years to come.

Climate change has had a massive worldwide impact. The ice caps are melting and the sea levels are rising. Droughts and flooding occur in seemingly equal measure. Tropical storms like hurricanes and typhoons have become more powerful and devastating, and it has become more costly to clean up the aftermath. The world’s poorest nations are affected by these problems more than richer nations, simply because underdeveloped nations tend to be located geographically in lower-latitude regions, where environmental issues are amplified even more. In countries located closer to the Equator, droughts and heat waves are prominent, and the storms hit deadlier, like this year’s devastating Typhoon Haiyan. Even wealthy nations like the United States have difficult times dealing with the rash of fierce storms that has been seen in the past decade, with hurricanes Katrina and Sandy causing billions of dollars’ worth of damages. These storms further hurt the economies of the affected regions due to a lack of tourist traffic and businesses shutting down for repairs, and also caused great personal stress to the citizens of cities in the storm’s path who may have been forced to evacuate. A friend of mine with family in New Orleans once told me the story of how, in the wake of Katrina, his relatives had to uproot and relocate, with some members of the family staying near New Orleans and others being sent to Texas to live with my friend until their homes in New Orleans were habitable again. He showed me a tape his mom made of the city after the floodwaters had subsided. The life that was once there is gone now, with the footage appearing gray and gloomy and the houses mere shells of what they once were, washed out and unrecognizable as homes where happy people once lived. While developed nations are better equipped to deal with the aftermath of environmental disasters, that doesn’t mean the response and cleanup will be any easier to deal with.

Consumption is a contributing factor in climate change. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment found that sixty percent of the world’s ecosystems are in decline specifically due to overuse of natural resources. Higher levels of consumption require higher levels of production, which in turn requires greater inputs of energy and material and generates larger quantities of waste byproducts. In the process of harvesting and consuming the various resources Earth has to offer, mankind has leveled forests, engaged in destructive practices such as strip mining and fracking, and released more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. However, while there are several developed nations that are making a concerted effort to address these changes in order to help protect the environment from drastic future damage, not all are so progressive in their policymaking. In America, it has become increasingly fashionable for lawmakers to decry climate change as a hoax, with climate change nonbelievers claiming that our resources are not depleting too quickly and that we are not living unsustainably, a term defined by Dr. Randall Curren as “living in such a way as to diminish opportunities to live well in the future.” Curren argues that those who think climate change is bogus spread their rhetoric “in the face of evidence that human activities are altering, damaging, and disrupting the natural systems on which we and other species fundamentally rely.” This “it doesn’t affect me, so why does it matter” mindset has permeated American culture and harmed the ability of proponents of sustainable living to advocate their lifestyle. This intentional misleading of people to believe that their actions and the products they use are causing a negligible environmental impact is unethical. The practice forces consumers to rely on resources that directly cause harm to their fundamental interests, hurting both individuals and society as a whole. Curren uses the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 and the Dust Bowl to explain why this practice is so detrimental. The U.S. government encouraged people to farm in a region that was unsuitable for farming, harming the already-present ecosystem of the American Midwest. Increased farming in the region directly led to the soil becoming dry and unanchored, helping cause the gigantic dust storms that helped the Dust Bowl gain its namesake. In the wake of this disaster, “a quarter of a million people, people who had been induced to settle and farm a region that had previously supported only a few hunting camps and Native-American villages, fled, leaving behind 100 million acres in ruin.” While it is unlikely that such a drastically catastrophic scenario would manifest itself again, we must learn from past policy mistakes in order to craft effective environmental policy for the future.

Although it’s been slow to get there, the world has begun to take actions that will help combat environmental problems. More and more countries are enacting sustainable policy after research done by those like the Netherlands’ Gert Spaargen has shown that approaching sustainability from a top-down perspective is more effective in getting individual consumers to think about their environmental impact. Spaargen’s 2003 study details, in part, the success that the Netherlands has had in promoting sustainable living amongst its citizenry through the usage of three pilot programs. The first, “domain explorations”, provided the government with information on various social needs – food, clothing, housing, and leisure, to name a few – and their environmental impacts. This information-gathering made it easier for environmental goals to be set on a national level. The second program, the “citizens and the environment experiments,” involved observation of consumers through field research and usage of focus groups that allowed participants to explain how, in their everyday lives, they are forced to contend with the conflicting desires to live their lives normally while also consuming less and being more environmentally friendly. This program helped expose that the nation’s environmental policies “were lacking a sensitivity to the problems of everyday life,” and also showed that citizens are largely unable to establish a link between environmental policy and the impact it has on their daily lives without a divergence of information on that link. The final program, the “Future Perspective” project, challenged a select number of households to reduce the environmental impact of their daily routines over a set amount of time. From this experiment, the government was able to discern that different amounts of daily consumption create different possibilities for sustainable consumption. All three of these pilot projects helped pave the way for the government of the Netherlands to develop an effective agenda for future consumer-oriented environmental policymaking.

From the experiments conducted by the Netherlands, it is increasingly obvious that the best way to promote a more sustainable future is to have lots of options for consumers to choose from. Greater choice means that routines will be less disrupted, leading to people being more likely to adopt sustainably sound methods of consumption. It is also important to recognize that, while the governments of developed nations do have an obligation to pass more sustainable environmental policies, the success of the lifestyle does not entirely rely on them. As Curren puts it, “changing the way we individually live, and doing so voluntarily before needed policy reforms are in place, is essential. Without this, it is very unlikely that our leaders will perceive a window of political opportunity to negotiate needed treaties and enact suitable laws.” We must find the strength to act independently of our leaders to prove to them that a sustainable life is not out of reach, for it is with the help of governmental regulation that a sustainable lifestyle for all becomes possible.

Mankind has had an undeniably negative environmental impact. While we cannot reverse the damage we have done to the Earth – damage that it pays back to us in the form of environmental disasters like storms, droughts, and heat waves – we can easily act to slow the harm we are doing through overconsumption of natural resources. By promoting a sustainable lifestyle on both individual and institutional levels, it becomes increasingly likely that we’ll be able to weather the storm of environmental turmoil and become better prepared to cut down consumption, live well, and ensure that the Earth will be around for generations to come.

Works Cited

Curren, Randall. "Toward An Ethic Of Sustainability." NPR. 1 Nov. 2011. http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2011/11/01/141903604/toward-an-ethic-of-sustainability.

Spaargen, Gert. "Sustainable Consumption: A Theoretical and Environmental Policy Perspective." Society and Natural Resources 16.8 (2003): 687-701.