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What Is an Environmental Issue?

I believe that understanding this question is central to our choice to exist. The majority of us understand an environmental issue as a weather event or natural disaster that creates uncomfortable conditions for us. On a small scale we analyze these impacts on a daily basis. “It snowed in Manhattan this morning – will my train be delayed?” “It hasn’t rained for a week, will I be able to water my crops?”

Less often do we consider how our behaviors might negatively affect the environment. This is a bit of an oversight on our part. The reality is that nature’s behavior will always have consequence for us—ultimately, our species is utterly dependent upon nature. The reverse is not true: the planet will go on, with or without us. What remains to be seen, is how long conditions here will remain hospitable to our existence.

I have harangued audiences in the past with my belief that the question “can we sustain ourselves?” is in fact a banal inquiry.  We have no choice but to be sustainable if we want to survive. No species can exceed its range, particularly one so committed to destroying its range.  There is no survival without sustainability; unsustainability leads, unavoidably, to extinction. The choice we do have is between whether we become more sustainable with a sense of grace and compassion or whether we induce rapid systems collapse through rapacious consumption and degradation of the global commons.

We, as a species, particularly in the industrialized world seem intent on shooting ourselves in the collective human foot by psychologically removing ourselves from nature. Nature has become “the other,” the “environmental issue,” rather than us. This simple fact makes it impossible for us to make reasoned decisions about how we live and how we consume resources. The warning lights are blinking in several countries where the struggle to survive and prosper is no longer an economic issue but rather an increasingly violent struggle for essential resources like land and water.

Back in my city planning days I used to talk about the battle over pronouns. All the thorny issues were set up as struggles between the pronouns “I,” “we” and “they.”  While almost every conflict was phrased as “I” versus “they,” solutions were possible only when the idea “we” gained currency. The relationship between society and the environment in industrialized cultures has become an “it” issue. You can see it in the language. Nature is not understood as a shared context for supporting life but rather has become another form of capital.  We’ve even cast natural phenomena in villainous roles like “killer, cruel, devastating, crushing,” as though our existential concerns were something for nature to care about.

In the brief space of a century or two we have applied our ingenious technologies to live more comfortably in uncomfortable places. We’ve drained wetlands to build houses by the beach, air conditioned whole cities so we can live comfortably in the desert, cleared forests to build coastal metropolises. We have consumed vast resources to do so, and we require vast resources to maintain status quo. Growth requires adding ever more energy. So we have created our own paradox. The cumulative effects of the interventions that allow us to live comfortably are exacerbating the very conditions we are attempting to overcome. In other words, it is becoming increasingly uncomfortable to live in the places where we’ve grown comfortable living.

For me an environmental issue is about the natural context in which we live. “We,” the humans on the planet, must reach back into our reptilian memories and remember nature as the support system that surrounds, envelops and sustains us. We must let go of the language that recreates “it” as some malevolent third party plotting against us—or something we can disregard.

Nobody knows what the future holds. We have evidence that the oceans are rising, they’ve risen a foot in the last 100 years. Paleontologists can show that they used to be about 50 feet higher. We recognize that temperatures are warmer, oceans are more acidic; there is also evidence to suggest that conditions may have been different in the past. What we can say with confidence is that never before were there in excess of seven billion people on the planet, most of them living in coastal zones in harm’s way.

In evolutionary terms our purpose is to survive and enhance our existence. Our current behaviors threaten that purpose. We’re creating conditions that will make it increasingly difficult for the population of our species to survive. Do we believe that somehow technology will save us? That earth and its resources are not finite? The only path to sustain ourselves is to recognize what sustains us, and live in balance with it. Our challenge is to be humble, to fix what we can, and adapt our behavior in full recognition that nature has a store cupboard full of surprises.

Humanity is not going to win a fight with nature. But humility may allow us to coexist.

Gary Lawrence is chief sustainability officer and vice president of AECOM Technology Corp. You can follow Gary on Twitter @CSO_AECOM.

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3 thoughts on “What Is an Environmental Issue?

  1. Gary, some good points. People seem to react to problems in time to correct them, and I suspect earth may be more resilient than the more extreme doomsdayer predictions, based on previous corrections (formerly flammable rivers). It’s an interesting time to be doing this as a career, especially with the sadly devisive politics.

  2. A very interesting article Gary, especially your stress on the importance of adopting a collective ‘we’ based perspective for necessary changes to be made.

    My only small concern is the concept of an ‘evolutionary purpose’. Arguably, one of the defining features of humankind is our capacity to choose our goals as well as our actions: evolution defines where we have come from but not necessarily where we are going. In this context, part of the debate around sustainability is – for example – whether the goal of continually enhancing our material conditions (e.g. through continual economic growth) is either a desirable or achieveable purpose to have.

  3. I find that I resonate strongly with your short few words here Gary. I recently came across a statement by Thomas Berry that we are in a non-viable mode of human operation and the Great Work, as he terms it, is to shift into a viable mode. It is encouraging to see so many engaged in the ‘how to’ for getting to this viable mode.

    Thanks for stating the situation plainly in this forum.

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