Sustainability or Bust

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In the United States, we’ve come a long way environmentally. Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book “Silent Spring” practically sparked the environmental movement in the U.S. Now, American non-profits such as Greenpeace and the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have global prominence, influencing environmental politics in countries as far away as China. Thanks to increased awareness about humanity’s effects on the planet, recycling is commonplace in our communities, schools, and businesses and with the leadership of Al Gore and others, 83 percent of Americans now view climate change as a threat, according to a poll by WorldPublicOpinion.org.
However, anthropocentrism still pervades our society. We forget, or haven’t learned, that all life is mutually reinforcing. Each species in a stable ecosystem plays a vital role, including humans. The problem is that we’ve lost touch with our natural mandate: to operate in peaceful coexistence with all life. Sometimes our spirituality dissuades us from appreciating the value of all life.
As such, a number of questions remain. Why are ordinary citizens out of touch with nature? Why don’t we view all life as having intrinsic worth? Finally, why are people disconnected from the environmental repercussions of their lifestyles?
The answer is simple. We live in a throwaway society that has lost respect for the complex ecology that sustains us. Consumerism and shortsighted economic “growth-mania” have resulted in a disregard for the quality of life—both human and otherwise. The media, corporations and governments encourage us to consume, consume and consume some more, as if the planet magically renews its reserves of oil or revitalizes its soil. For example, water and plastic are so cheap that we perceive them as endless and disregard the price for overusing them. We’re left with a world that is rife with pollution. Corporations now exceed governments in power and wealth, harming our ability to mitigate environmental problems.
In fact, by prioritizing profit margins over all else (including the public good), corporations have catalyzed a planetary pillage on an unprecedented scale. Their influence on government is incontrovertible and far-reaching, which has resulted in poor environmental management, especially in America. The fuel for such destruction lies in a long-standing philosophy of laissez-faire, free-market capitalism. This philosophy is unsustainable in the long term.
We now reap the consequences of our capitalism. Plastic is now finding its way through the food chain, from microorganisms to large mammals. The plastics industry doesn’t make sense. Our rivers are so badly polluted with agricultural runoff that there are now many ecological “dead zones” in the world where no life can exist due to oxygen deprivation in the water. Industrial agriculture doesn’t make sense.
Through our exploitation of fossil fuels, we’ve taken incredible amounts of carbon from the ground and shot it upwards, causing unnatural climate change which, the world now knows, is having dramatic effects on everything from our water supply to global extinction rates (at 1,000 times the normal rate). Obviously, a societal operation based on exhaustible resources doesn’t make sense. Our incredible pollution undermines both humanity and the complex ecosystems that support it.
Nature doesn’t pollute. In fact, the concept of waste is entirely anthropogenic. Before humankind, nature reliably balanced itself—every bone, branch and nutrient was recycled naturally and gracefully. Nature still renews itself, but it’s becoming less efficient as we fundamentally alter the Earth’s physical and biological infrastructure. We’re loading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, a chemical that stays in the atmosphere for 200-450 years.
We’re also injecting the oceans with nitrogen, which causes microorganisms to overpopulate and destroy marine environments. We’re allowing massive income gaps, resulting in growing poverty; this exacerbates environmental destruction by forcing impoverished people to deforest their localities.
Most tangibly, we’re piling both land and water with trash, especially with plastic and wasted food. How can we as a species continue to use a capitalist economic model when it accelerates the destruction of the very systems that sustain us?
Is free-market capitalism compatible with environmental sustainability? Perhaps it is, but not without restraints. Indeed, there is hope. Problems of pollution and growth will only grow worse until we find a way to price goods by their holistic cost: production and environmental and social impacts. Let’s do away with contempocentrism, the philosophy of short-sightedness that disregards the welfare of current and future generations, to whom we have a fundamental obligation.
Also, our obsession with the “growth fetish” must die. Contrary to the opinions of transnational corporations and their major employees, the government’s growth does not equate to progress. We should create static economic operations in which the goal is not a standard of living, but the quality of human and ecological life.Systemic woes aside, what can each of us do to usher in sustainability? A lot. If you commute, ask yourself if you could take mass-transit instead, or carpool. Keep your electronics off at night, especially your computers and use natural lighting when possible.
Science demonstrates that organic food is often considerably more nutritious than industrial-made food, and isn’t grown with toxic pesticides and fertilizers. If you shop often, consider researching the businesses you patronize. Have they paid fines for environmental mismanagement? Do they condone sweatshop labor or underpay their workers? Reduce your consumption by using a stainless steel mug instead of a water bottle.
And of course, recycle as much as possible.This is only a small list of the lifestyle changes you can make to help save the planet. Remember, we’re all in this together. It is as a species united that we will overcome.

Colin Murphy is a third-year musical performance major. He can be reached at murphyc@uci.edu.

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