Amid the growing concern over the state of our environment and the problems caused by climate change, most people today are aware of the need for sustainability. The concept isn’t hard to understand. If you exploit a resource at a faster rate than its renewal, it will eventually be depleted.
The standard objection is that humans have always put their survival first. Our ancestors hunted animals and cleared the forest, pulling down trees to build homes and grow crops. Can’t you plant more trees to offset those needs?
Diversity can’t be replaced
This approach might make sense on a mathematical level. For every tree cut down, plant one. Or even more, for good measure. But natural resources don’t exist in a vacuum. Living things develop complex interactions with each other. Even inorganic substances, such as oil and metals, must be pumped and mined out of the earth, to the detriment of the surroundings.
Consider something as simple as the human tooth. We get one set of permanent teeth, but these are designed to last a lifetime of wear and tear. They are so durable that they can persist as fossils for millions of years. Yet modern diets have compromised their design.
By overeating sugary food, we upset the mouth’s microbial imbalance. Harmful bacteria flourish and corrode the durable enamel. Lose a tooth, and the balanced structure of neighboring teeth becomes upset due to the daily pressure from grinding down the food we eat.
Dental implant surgery is the closest means of replacing a tooth. But the best option would be taking care of your teeth throughout your lifetime. You certainly wouldn’t volunteer to have a perfectly functioning tooth pulled out for a replacement, no matter how similar it might be.
Likewise, you can cut down the old-growth forest and plant new trees in its stead, but you’ll only replace its lumber content. You can’t replace the interactions and dependencies that had evolved among species in that ecosystem. Its most significant asset, diversity, is lost.
Doing more than react
Despite this, the world’s ecosystems are being depleted or irrevocably changed due to human activity. Studies have shown no places left on earth that can be considered untouched by our influence. And the extent of our activity has increased with a growing pace over the years.
While primitive men hunted to sustain their needs, modern man often takes from the environment more than what’s required. A business can’t profit simply by mining enough aluminum to make a few soda cans or felling one tree each year. Their operating models work on efficiency and scale. The more of a resource you can harvest in a single trip, the more you’ll offset the costs of transportation and labor involved.
There are also unforeseen consequences resulting from business processes. Long before the modern concept of a carbon footprint, emissions from industrial operations were creating toxic smog in London. This phenomenon led to the passing of the Clean Air Act and brought greater awareness of environmentalism.
Man’s relationship with the environment has always been one of give-and-take. But we tend to be too reactive when it comes to giving back and doing better as stewards of nature. It takes years of taking before we are aware of the harmful consequences of our actions.
Improving on all fronts
Being aware of our impact on the environment and the need to act sustainably is good. But if our attitude towards saving the environment requires justification or a demonstration of cause and effect before we make a change, we’ll end up fighting a losing battle.
We can’t treat sustainability as a problem with a simple solution, like planting more trees or recycling aluminum cans and plastic bottles. The truth is that we’re likely going to need all of these measures, as well as others, which we might not be implementing in our lives right now.
Supporting organizations such as UNESCO, the IUCN, and WWF is a start. But we can also do more to help local environmental NGOs in our communities. We can be more conscious of our behavior as consumers. Keep demand low by purchasing second-hand items as much as possible. Buy responsibly sourced products and support only brands that put sustainability first.
Educate the next generation about the need for sustainability. Bring your kids outdoors and teach them to leave no trace as they come to love and value nature. One day, they will inherit our environmental concerns. We need to make sure that they don’t approach them reactively and are willing to make change across multiple aspects of daily living.