What’s Going on With the Environment and Why We Should Give a Damn

Because we don’t think about future generations, they will never forget us.  Henrik Tikkanen

Can the earth withstand anything and everything we do it? Of course we know some level it can’t, and yet we generally act if this were a legitimate question that was up for debate. The fact that we’re destroying the earth at an incredibly fast rate should be front page news, all day, every day. But alas, for most of our society it seems like it’s something we can’t really be bothered to care about.

Rather than acknowledge that we have a serious situation going on, we’re preoccupied with things that either have little bearing on our lives, such as what the Kardashians are up, to or are mostly out of our control such as Trump’s latest incendiary tweet.

A lot of what’s happening to the ecology of the planet may seem like it has little bearing on our life. Most of us aren’t witnessing firsthand the one acre per second cut down in the Amazon rainforest to create room for cattle to graze or to grow animal feed, the hypoxic dead zones in the ocean created by agricultural runoff from factory farms, or the albatross birds dying from plastic consumption in this South Pacific. For most of us living in cities or suburbs, the desecration of our planet is out of sight, and therefore out of mind.

And while trees in the Amazon and ocean dead zones may seem remote and not relevant to our lives, they are inextricably connected to the health of our global environment which we are a part of.

As we continuously pollute, deplete, and otherwise exploit the environment, we blithely disregard that we are just one species among millions on this planet and that we, like all other life on this planet, are utterly dependent on the stability of the environment for our survival.

From my perspective, these are the reasons that talking about the colossal amount of harm we’re causing to the earth – our home – and the other species that inhabit is a taboo topic to broach:

  • Most of us aren’t seeing the damage that’s being done, so we don’t even really know what’s going on
  • It isn’t a feel good, sexy, or salacious topic
  • It asks us to more closely examine our habits as consumers, and most of us don’t want to
  • If we were to really think about and reflect on environmental degradation, we might experience feelings of guilt, grief, and helplessness
  • The media has a conflict of interest between sharing the truth with the public and keep their corporate advertisers happy. If they were to talk more about what’s going on, it would bring our consumer culture under scrutiny
  • The government has economic ties to corporations and both want to to encourage economic growth. For instance, at the 2015 Paris Climate talks, animal agriculture and consumption in general were off the table to discuss

 

But just because we’re not talking about the ecocide we’re committing, that doesn’t mean it’s not real. Thanks to documentaries like Cowspiracy, Home, Planet Ocean, and A Plastic Ocean, and experts like Dr. James Hansen and Dr. Helen Caldicott who are speaking up, there’s ample evidence that there is indeed a life-threatening catastrophe at hand.

In just the past 50 years we’ve managed to:

 

At the center of this chaos is our oceans. Oceans are the foundation of all life, with most of the planet’s oxygen being produced by phytoplankton, microscopic sea algae. If the oceans die, we die.

Aquatic life is being strained through overfishing, sea temperature rise, and the tons of toxic chemicals we dump into the ocean – including agricultural runoff, containing nitrous-rich fertilizers, antibiotics, pesticides and waste from animals) – plastic, microfibers from clothing, chemicals in our skin care and cleaning products, and more.

Not to mention the ongoing Fukushima disaster, which has been leaking radioactive waste into the waters off Japan – for which most of us have had the equivalent of an X –ray. To add insult to injury, the operators of the plant announced that they were going to dump additional tons of radioactive water, which it had been using to cool the nuclear reactors, into the ocean.

In the words of Michael Greger, MD, “Our oceans have become humanity’s sewers; everything eventually flows down into the sea.”

Like all ecosystems on the planet, the oceans must maintain a delicate balance in order to function properly. We have upset this balance to such a degree that some scientists believe we have already passed the point of no return in terms of being able to get our oceans back to a state of health. That’s assuming, of course, that we’d even care enough to want to, which apparently we don’t.

Given that our survival and that of future generations is very much tied up in the well being of our planet, it’s clear that our treatment of the environment is basically suicidal. Perhaps this is why some people are terming our rape and pillage of the earth “ecocide.”

We are the 6th Mass Extinction

In the history of the earth, there have been 5 major extinctions:

  • The Ordovician-Silurian mass extinction – Caused by fluctuations in sea levels due to glaciers accumulating, and later, melting
  • The Late Devonian mass extinction – Thought to have been caused by global cooling and glaciation
  • The Permian mass extinction – Also known as The Great Dying, in which 96% of species were wiped out. Proposed causes were climate change, methane release, volcanic eruptions, changing sea levels, or impact of an asteroid
  • The Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction – Likely caused by climate change, methane release, volcanic eruptions, lowering of sea levels, or impact of an asteroid
  • The Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction – Also known as the K/T extinction. Thought to be caused by an asteroid or a comet striking the earth. Dinosaurs ceased to exist after this point.

The 6th major mass extinction on earth, otherwise referred to as the Holocene or Anthropocene extinction, is happening as we speak. It’s cause? Our species, which we call homo sapiens. Etymologically, the word homo sapiens derives from the latin words “homo” (human being) and “sapere” (wise). But is this self-appointed moniker deserved if we’re not interested at all in learning how to live in harmony with the very planet we depend on for our survival?

Human activity has been causing degradation in what had previously been highly biodiverse areas of the planet. Scientists estimate that the rate of extinction on earth is that of up to 150-200 species every day. With every tree cut down, with every square inch of water polluted, and every gram of methane or nitrous oxide emitted into the air, humanity is hurtling towards the extinction of most life on the planet, including the endgame of our own species.

A state of unsustainability

Globally, would take between 1.5 and 2 full earths to sustain what we’re doing to our planet. If everyone had the same footprint as Americans, it would take 4 or more earths for us to continue our current lifestyle. The last time I checked, we only have 1. In the words of Richard Oppenlander, author of Comfortably Unaware, we’re in a state of unsustainability and can’t remain on this course for much longer.

Destroyer or caretaker?

Some environmentalist have been saying for the past few decades that humans are a cancer on the planet. Admittedly, I have fallen into this viewpoint a few times, thinking: How can we so aggressively pillage and pollute our planet without any remorse whatsoever? Don’t we know we need the planet to survive? If there is such a thing as God or a creator, how can we be so intent on destroying their creation? What’s wrong with us?!

Recently however, my attitude has gradually become less anti-human and cynical for a few reasons. First of all, I know that I wasn’t always an environmentalist myself and in looking back on my “can’t be bothered to care” days, I can see that I had potential but that I hadn’t been inspired to become environmentalist yet. Among other things, for me it took going vegan, practicing mindfulness, and watching numerous documentaries to reawaken my innate sense of appreciation for nature and my instinct to want to protect it.

I am more aware of environmental depletion and pollution now, and it’s heartening to see that millenials and Gen Z-ers care more about the environment than previous generations. To me this indicates that we may be in the process of learning from our mistakes, course-correcting, and ultimately redeeming ourselves.

Waking up

To stop sleepwalking towards catastrophe, we need to shift away from the self-involved anthropocentric view we’ve taken of the earth and embrace a biocentric perspective.

The view mankind currently has is that of anthropocentrism. Anthropocentrism maintains that humans are the center of the universe, and that the environment and other animals do not matter.

Image Source: Steemit

Biocentrism, on the other hand, acknowledges that we humans are just one species among many on this planet and that we are a part of the environment, and therefore dependent on it for our survival. From a scientific perspective, it is a more accurate appraisal of our relationship to the earth.

It can’t be denied that humans are the most powerful species of all. But our wisdom as a collective has not kept pace with our physical and technological capabilities.

We are not omnipotent. Like all other species, we must either learn to live in harmony with our environment or meet an untimely demise.

What can we do?

I do my best to reduce my impact as much as possible while acknowledging the fact that as an American living in the economic capital of the world, I will continually come up short. My footprint is far greater than that of my ancestors, as well as people living in developing countries. I have an iPhone, which was made with materials mined from various areas around the world, and will generate toxic e-waste when I replace it. Though I have a capsule wardrobe and buy most of my clothes from Goodwill, some of my clothes are products of fast fashion which impacts workers and the environment negatively. As someone who does my best to find biodegradable alternatives to plastic, I am nonetheless obligated to use it here and there throughout the day. And I am sure there are hundreds of other ways in which I am contributing negatively to the environment.

I know that there is much that I still don’t understand about my footprint, and that I could be doing more. But I keep trying because I want to preserve the earth for myself, future generations, and other living beings.

The fact that I care about the environment and am trying to protect it doesn’t make me better (or worse) than anyone else. It just means that I am making an effort to raise my level of consciousness around this subject. Here are some of the measures I’ve taken to simplify my life and reduce the impact I’m having on the earth and its resources:

Adopt a vegan diet

Aside from not having children or limiting the amount of children we have, going vegan is the single greatest thing any of us can do to reduce our ecological footprint. Animal agriculture the leading cause of environmental devastation, contributing to more natural resource depletion and pollution than any other industry.

This is the actual inconvenient truth that Al Gore failed to address in his documentaries, but which the UN exposed in its report Livestock’s Long Shadow, which in turn inspired Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn to investigate in their documentary Cowspiracy.

 

Animal agribusiness:

  • Emits more CO2 emissions than all transportation (cars, buses, trucks, trains, boats, planes, etc.) combined
  • Is the most water-intensive industry, accounting for 50% of the water used in the US
  • Creates agricultural runoff – including excrement, but hormones, antibiotics, fertilizers, pesticides, and other harmful chemicals – polluting waterways more than any of the other industrial sources combined
  • Is the culprit behind hypoxic “dead zones” in the ocean, in which algal blooms take up all the oxygen and prevent any further life – micro-organisms, fish, etc, – from existing
  • Is the leading cause of deforestation. Over 90% of the Amazon rainforest – aptly called the lungs of the earth because it recycles CO2 into oxygen – has been destroyed by cattle ranching. One acre of Amazonian rainforest is lost every second to grow soy and grains to feed animals and create room to graze for cattle

 

Compared to a vegan diet, the Standard American Diet (SAD) uses 11 times as much oil, 13 times as much water, and 18 times as much land.

In 2010 the UN came out with the bold statement that “A global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst impacts of climate change.”

 

Most people who make the transition over are amazed by the whole new world of different plant foods that open up to them. That said, if going adopting a vegan diet seems way too much out of our comfort zone, we can still set the intention to become vegan at some point in the future. When I first heard the word vegan about 13 years ago, I didn’t know what it meant but it sounded aspirational. I set the intention to eventually go vegan, and a few years later I did without much effort.

Use less plastic

Though it may seem benign, plastic is a toxic, non-biodegradable substance that is wreaking havoc on sea life. 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean per year – the equivalent of one garbage truck-full every minute. Wildlife routinely mistake plastic for food; as a result, plastic kills about 1 million sea birds and 100,000 marine animals each year. Thousands more, particularly sea lions and turtles, are at risk to become entangled by plastic debris.

Growing sea turtle trapped in plastic can holder, compressing internal her internal organs.

Albatross with plastic-filled stomach. Image Source: REUTERS / Chris Jordan

Elephant seal with plastic band cutting off skin and circulation.

Plastic doesn’t break down, but the sun, wind, and water cause it to break up into smaller pieces, releasing toxic chemicals in the process such as bisphenol-a (BPA), a known endocrine and hormone disruptor.

I personally believe that given the immense amount of damage caused by plastic, we should put as much resources as possible towards finding biodegradable alternatives so that it can eventually be banned.

But in order to resolve the plastic crisis, we can’t wait for the government to step in and pass laws restricting plastic use, invest in biodegradable alternatives, and provide subsidies to companies that use eco-friendly packaging. As consumers we are ultimately the ones with the most power, and if we collectively choose to limit our plastic use as much as possible, we can drive change as well.

A few ways we can reduce plastic are:

  • Stocking up on biodegradable bags so we don’t have to use plastic bags in our kitchens
  • Only use reusable water canteens when we’re out and about or exercising, as opposed to plastic water bottles
  • Always have a reusable canvas bag on hand for shopping
  • If we have our own businesses, shifting to biodegradable alternatives to plastic

 

There are some unavoidable ways in which we use plastic – because plastic is literally everywhere and it’s completely embedded into the structure of our economy. However, that doesn’t mean it’s necessary to give up all other efforts to minimize our plastic use.

Use less electricity

In an ideal situation, we would all be using solar panels in our homes, but because many of us live in city apartments, it may not be an option for us. However, by slightly altering our habits, we can still dramatically cut back ouy energy use. We can use less electricity by:

  • Unplugging utilities when we leave the house during the day
  • Using dim lighting
  • Having less heat on in the winter and using less AC in the summer

 

Most supermarkets use harsh fluorescent lights but Whole Foods Market uses dim lighting to save energy (it also looks better).

Curate a capsule wardrobe

Fashion is one of the most polluting industries on the planet, and is notorious for foisting its environmental cost onto the poor communities in which clothing factories are located. The clothing sector accounts for 18% of pesticide use in the world, and many clothes are made with toxic chemicals and dyes, which find their way into the streams and rivers of developing countries.


 

The average American woman buys each item she purchased only 7 times. We discard about 80 pounds of clothes per year – up from 40 pounds 20 years ago – most of which winds up in a landfill, where it may take decades to decompose.

We can try to keep a capsule wardrobe – consisting of simple pieces that go with lots of other items in our wardrobes, that are flattering and we can wear over and over (and over) again. We can also do what we can to support companies that use organic or recycled materials, and pay their workers a fair living wage.

I try to stick to a palette of more neutral colors so it’s easier to pair items together and people don’t notice when I wear the same item over and over again.

Additionally, we can go to thrift stores to see if they have what we need before looking elsewhere. Most of my clothes are from Goodwill or eBay and I get lots of compliments on them.

Use natural products

Most cosmetic and cleaning products are laced with chemicals such as phtalates, parabens, and synthetic fragrances, which can disrupt hormones and the endocrine system, in addition to causing cancer. They are also harmful to the planet, which is why they are called Hazardous Materials, or HazMat at waste facilities.

Aside from being inhaled or absorbed through our skin, all these chemicals ultimately go down the drain where they pollute groundwater and disrupt ecosystems.

Whole Body  at WFM

Natural cleaning and personal care products can be purchased at health food stores and online. In my experience, they can be just as effective as mainstream cosmetic and cleaning products, and they usually smell better because they’re infused with natural essential oils instead of synthetic fragrances.

Watch documentaries

One of the best ways to educate ourselves about what’s going is by watching documentaries. Here are some of the films I’d recommend starting out with.

Home – Directed by famous aerial photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand and narrated by Glenn Close, the documentary gives a brief geological history of the earth before cataloging the various ways in which humanity is destroying it. Striking imagery and an electrifying score draw you in. Available on YouTube.

 

Planet Ocean – Also directed by famous Yann Arthus-Bertrand, this film tells the history of ocean life, then catalogs the many ways in which we humans are polluting the ocean. Available on YouTube.

 

Racing Extinction – Follows simultaneously riveting and poignant journey of filmmaker Louie Psihoyos as he investigates why species are becoming extinct and how we can effectively advocate on their behalf. Available on Amazon.


 

Cowspiracy – Activist Kip Anderson sets out to answer this question: why do most environmental organizations refuse to acknowledge the fact that environmental degradation is driven primarily by animal agribusiness? Available on Netflix.


 

A Plastic Ocean – A journalist and a free diver travel the world to investigate the various ways in which plastic is impacting oceans, wildlife, and our health. Available on Amazon.


 

Minimalism – Featuring The Minimalists (bloggers) as they tour the country, this film highlights the chaos that can be created, both psychologically and environmentally, by a materialist mindset, juxtaposed against the mental clarity, peace, and fulfillment that can come with living a more simple life. Available on Amazon.


 

The True Cost – Examines the human rights issues and environmental costs associated with fast fashion. Available on Netflix.


 

The Corporation – Gives a history of the modern-day corporation, explaining that under the 14th amendment corporations are afforded the same legal protection and rights as persons, which allows them to pursue profit at any cost, while externalizing all health and environmental considerations onto taxpayers. Using the same psychological evaluations that are used to determine an individual’s sanity, the film demonstrates that if corporations were actually people, most of them would fall under the classification of a psychopath.


 

Spend time in nature

It’s easy to understand that someone who doesn’t spend a lot of time in nature wouldn’t have a deep sense of appreciation for how extraordinarily beautiful it can be, and how tragic it is to have it destroyed. We must do what we can to spend more time in nature, because only then will we be truly aware of what is at stake when we look at the environment purely in terms of its economic value.

Hiking in a nature preserve

Most cities have nature preserves nearby where we can go hiking. And instead of going on vacations to cities around the world, we can opt instead to go somewhere that we can commune with nature.

Start giving a damn

I will admit that at least in the short term, ignoring the plight of our planet is the more appealing option. If all of us were to truly start paying attention and caring about what was going on, life would become more complicated, and our lives are already challenging enough as they are.

A part of me is tempted at times to shrug the whole situation. I think to myself, “Maybe I should just let it go. I’m swimming upstream and my actions don’t make much of a difference. If I just pretend it’s not happening, I’ll fit in with everyone else, and life will just be easier.”

Except I can’t. I love nature; I appreciate the fact that we have only one home – that it is beautiful and we are quickly destroying it. A decade from now, I want to still have a habitable planet to live on. I want to be able to breathe fresh air and drink clean water; I want to go to a beach and not see it completely littered with plastic; I want to visit forests and still see them teeming with wildlife. I want future generations to have the promise of the same, and to know that I did everything that was in my power to protect the healthy environment that should be their birthright.

Even though our society isn’t set up in a way that allows us to live in harmony with nature, we can still try to do our best and commit to getting better over time.